The longer Jackson stays away, the more questions persist for Ravens

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Organized team activities are voluntary, meaning Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has every right not to be in Owings Mills this week or even until the start of mandatory minicamp in mid-June. 

He certainly wasn’t the only veteran absent from Wednesday’s workout with defensive end Calais Campbell, nose tackle Michael Pierce, and safety Marcus Williams — the latter two being standout free-agent acquisitions — among those who weren’t there. But we also know quarterback is a different breed from every other position on the field in terms of importance and leadership, the reason why Jackson has the highest salary cap number and base salary on the 2022 roster despite still being substantially underpaid compared to his market value. With few exceptions — the much older Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers being two — that aren’t related to an injury or contract dispute, even the most accomplished quarterbacks take part in OTAs.

That’s why Jackson’s absence is a story, especially with head coach John Harbaugh not exactly going out of his way to share why his star quarterback wasn’t in attendance or when he’ll be showing up.

“We’ve been down this road many times through the years, so I’ll just let Lamar speak for himself on that,” said Harbaugh, alluding to any number of notable veterans skipping OTAs in the past. “That’s for him to talk about. You can ask him.”

But that’s been the problem.

While general manager Eric DeCosta has repeatedly expressed a desire to work on an extension and acknowledged Jackson’s reluctance to engage in contract talks since last year, the 2019 NFL MVP — who does not have a certified agent — has offered little more than a stray tweet or two regarding his long-term intentions and whether his contract status would impact his attendance for the offseason workout program or OTAs. Jackson hasn’t spoken to local reporters since the day after the conclusion of the 2021 season, stating at the time that he was more focused on getting healthy than his contract situation and pointing to the importance of improving “team bonding” after the last two seasons were disrupted by the pandemic.

Owner Steve Bisciotti opined in late March that Jackson is “so obsessed with winning a Super Bowl” before signing an extension, and team officials have repeatedly gone out of their way to praise the 25-year-old’s leadership qualities and offseason preparation. Social media has documented Jackson’s work with private quarterback coach Adam Dedeaux in California and get-togethers to throw with wide receivers Rashod Bateman and James Proche on a couple occasions. But that’s why his current absence raises some eyebrows with every wide receiver on the roster and rookie first-round center Tyler Linderbaum having taken part in Wednesday’s practice.

Given the usual expectation of the starting quarterback attending OTAs and knowing how Greg Roman’s offense revolves around Jackson’s right arm and legs, is it a concern not having him in Owings Mills even at this early stage of preparation?

“It’s not for me to speak for somebody else on that,” Harbaugh said. “It’s up to him to speak for himself on that.”

There could be any number of explanations — from his contract status to personal reasons — for not attending voluntary spring workouts, but Harbaugh deferring to the quarterback answering for himself didn’t ease any concerns over whether Jackson and the organization are on the same page, especially in the wake of his public reaction to top wide receiver and close friend Marquise Brown being traded last month. And though Jackson posted how he “can’t wait to get back” in response to a tweet about the start of OTAs on Tuesday, the question remains why he isn’t there right now.

As has been the case throughout the offseason, this shouldn’t warrant panic or great concern that Jackson will hold out when he’s contractually obligated to show up. His silence on his contract shouldn’t automatically be interpreted as negative, and he’s done nothing along the lines of unfollowing the team on social media in the way Brown and other disgruntled players around the league have been apt to do. In a way similar to how many obsessed over Joe Flacco not getting together to throw with his receivers in the offseason years ago, Jackson skipping voluntary workouts isn’t going to be the deciding factor for the 2022 campaign — even if it’s an unsettling look amidst the persistent questions regarding his long-term future. 

It’s tough to keep the focus on the field when your biggest star and the face of the franchise isn’t out there.

“I know Lamar has been training a lot, but we’ve had a big attendance [at OTAs],” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “I know Lamar will be here soon. If it was training camp, it would be really bad, but I think as long as guys are working — no matter where they are — that’s the biggest key. I spoke with Lamar early in the offseason. He said he’ll be coming in, so we’ll [be] really excited to get him out here.”

Still, every new development makes it feel a little more naive to assume all is fine and there’s nothing to see here. And such uneasiness is going to persist until Jackson finally arrives at the team facility and answers these questions himself.