Lamar Jackson’s future is the main focus for the Baltimore Ravens this offseason, but it’s not the only decision the team must make at quarterback. Jackson will hit free agency if he doesn’t sign a new long-term contract or agree to play on the franchise tag, but his backup, Tyler Huntley, is also a free agent.
Huntley’s a restricted free agent, but the Ravens can replace him with Jackson’s fellow Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. The latter’s future is operating as a backup, according to Sports Illustrated’s Conor Orr, who wrote “A team where the QB moves a lot—Arizona, Baltimore, Chicago, Buffalo, Denver or Cleveland—should want Mariota.”
The Ravens are the best fit of the many potential interested parties because “Mariota is going to be sought-after for any team that depends on the utilization of zone-read concepts to move the football with regularity. Quarterbacks who run get hurt more, which makes the need for solid backups all the greater.”
Mariota would be an ideal QB2 behind Jackson, who has run zone-read plays since becoming the starter during his rookie year in 2018. Jackson’s also failed to complete a full season since entering the pros, with his injury issues derailing back-to-back seasons.
Veteran Backup Perfect Lamar Jackson Insurance
The Ravens need a contingency plan for whatever happens next with Jackson. Mariota represents a perfect backup strategy because of his stylistic similarities to No. 8.
Both he and Jackson are dual-threat signal-callers who can beat defenses through the air and on the ground. Mariota was doing those things early in the season as the starter for the Atlanta Falcons.
He scored the second of his four rushing touchdowns on the season against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3:
His best throw of the season was probably this 75-yard scoring strike to Damiere Byrd against the Cincinnati Bengals four weeks later:
Plays like these are reminders of the natural physical talent that helped make Mariota the second player drafted in 2015. He’d won the Heisman Trophy as a read-option demon at Oregon, two years before Jackson would do the same thing as a member of the Louisville Cardinals.
Mariota had his moments in the Music City, like when he led the Titans to a playoff win over the Kansas City Chiefs during the 2017 season. Yet, he ultimately lost the starting job to Ryan Tannehill because of turnovers and inconsistent play.
History repeated itself this season when the Falcons eventually turned to rookie Desmond Ridder. Mariota had impressed in glimpses, notably inspiring a 28-14 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6 and equalling a mark held by Hall of Famer Walter Payton, per NFL Research:
Games like this one aside, Mariota didn’t make enough accurate throws in clutch moments. It’s the story of his career. When Mariota’s good, he’s awfully good. When he’s off, he’s way off the mark.
The Falcons thought they could coax consistency after handing Mariota a two-year deal last offseason. Things turned ugly when the former Las Vegas Raiders QB2 walked away from the team following his demotion, making a permanent split inevitable this offseason.
What Mariota can still be is somebody capable of replicating the best parts of Jackson’s game if the latter succumbed to injury again. That’s quite likely after Jackson missed the final five games of the 2021 campaign with an ankle problem, and the Ravens went 0-5 and missed the postseason. Then a PCL injury kept Jackson on the shelf for six games this season, including the 24-17 playoff defeat to the Bengals.
Huntley did his best to fill in for Jackson, but he simply couldn’t match the starter’s flair for big plays in key moments. He threw just two touchdown passes, averaged a mere 5.9 yards per attempt and took seven sacks.
The Ravens’ next man up isn’t as effective as a runner, nor does he have the arm strength to punish defenses deep. Huntley’s limitations are an issue whether Jackson stays or goes.
Unfortunately, there are still no clear answers about either outcome.
Ravens Still Lack Clarity at Quarterback
Everybody concerned is making the right noises about Jackson returning to the Ravens. Head coach John Harbaugh told reporters on January 19 there’s a “one hundred percent, 200 percent” chance Jackson is still the Ravens’ starting quarterback next season.
Harbaugh’s sentiment echoes thoughts expressed by general manager Eric DeCosta during the same end-of-season press conference: “I truly believe Lamar wants to finish his career in Baltimore.”
Jackson set tongues wagging with this Instagram post relayed by Jonas Shaffer of The Baltimore Banner:
It all sounds good, but the Ravens still need to decide whether to offer Jackson the full guaranteed terms he wants or try using the tag. The latter option will cost as much as $32,416,000.
Having some insurance in place would strengthen the Ravens’ position if negotiations drag on for months. Mariota could be picked up cheap, with Alex Lord of SportsTalkAtl detailing why the Falcons are likely to cut the 29-year-old: “The team can save a whopping $12 million by releasing him while only incurring a $2.5 million dead cap figure.”
A deal for Mariota would give the Ravens a proven stop-gap if they can’t resolve things with Jackson. Ideally, Mariota will be a better stand-in than Huntley if Jackson sticks around but falls victim to injury again.