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NFL - US Sports: Can Lamar Jackson rediscover his best form?

Despite winning 37 games as a starter plus the regular season MVP award in 2019, it feels like Lamar Jackson still has something to prove in the NFL.

The lack of movement over any long-term contract for him in Baltimore suggests some Ravens executives think so, but Jackson himself - 22/1 to be Offensive Player of the Year - may not agree.

However, having failed to lead his franchise to the playoffs for the first time in his four-year pro career in 2021, does he need to change his ways this season to restore his former lustre?

Trouble brewing in Baltimore

Jackson's contract situation in Baltimore seems to be driving the news agenda and creating headlines that he, and the team, could do without. He wants to remain a Raven for the rest of his career, but talks have dragged on and he's now about to enter the final year of his $32.5m rookie deal.

The 25-year-old stopped short of saying for certain if he will attend the Ravens' training camp later this month or suit up against the New York Jets in Week 1 without the security of a lucrative long-term agreement.

These negotiating tactics aren't anything new, but it's strange to see the Ravens let things get to this stage after what Jackson has accomplished in his first four years in Maryland.

Aside from the regular season MVP award from his 2019 campaign, the 25-year-old is the only quarterback in NFL history with two 1,000-yard rushing seasons to his name - although to some that's part of the reason why he's not viewed among the league's elite triggermen.

In a recent poll of NFL executives, coaches and players by Jeremy Fowler of ESPN, Jackson's name was given only an honorable mention after he fell outside their estimation of the current top-10 QBs.

Why last year fell short

Despite putting in some memorable displays last season — including a 442-yard passing masterclass against the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football in October — Jackson finished the year with a career-low quarterback rating of 50.7.

His worst struggles came down the stretch when he coughed up six interceptions and took 13 sacks in his final three games of the regular season as opponents blitzed from all angles.

He also failed to make the pass to tight end Mark Andrews that would have sealed a crucial win over division rivals Pittsburgh in November on a brave, but unnecessarily risky two-point conversion call by head coach John Harbaugh.

Then came the ankle injury that forced him to miss the last month of the season, fuelling concerns about for how long he can continue to scramble successfully.

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Postseason problems

Although he clearly wasn't able to recapture his previous best last season, any reticence from the Ravens to commit hundreds of millions to their franchise star hasn't stemmed from recency bias.

Jackson has led Baltimore to victory in just one of four postseason games - not good enough for a team built to contend for championships.

Whether he has the leadership qualities needed for such occasions remains a doubt and could be a major reason why Baltimore's front office are stalling on a new deal.

Ravens staff still have his back

The Ravens coaching staff remains supportive of Jackson and outwardly doesn't appear to be pressuring him to change his style. They design plays to best make use of his elusive running ability and dial-up enough quick reads to ensure he can get the ball out of his hands in the face of blitzers.

But he was accused of holding onto the ball for too long last year, taking 38 sacks in the 12 games that he played in. Only two other regular starters in the league took more sacks on a per-game basis than he did.

Jackson's comments in December, when he explained why he accepts being sacked in certain situations when a more-harmful strip sack could result from trying to make a play, suggest he is haunted by two such costly moments in prior postseason games.

This is something that Jackson has to solve himself - albeit with the help of his coaches - and quickly if he and the Ravens are to avoid being buried under an avalanche of blitzes.

Futures still bright

While some NFL phenoms can have rookie growing pains or sophomore struggles, it has taken four years for Jackson to get to a point in his career when everything hasn't just clicked into place and harder work is needed. Getting the ball out quicker and avoiding sacks must be his priority going forward.

Leadership doesn't come naturally to him and that can be overcome with strong figures around him, but his maturity has also been called into question.

Scrubbing his social media of Ravens references, getting into a twitter spat with an ex-player and the cryptic but pointed posting of "I need $" amid a contract impasse all speak of a player who needs guidance off the field too.

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