OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Lamar Jackson lost his closest friend on the team as well as his leading wide receiver during the NFL draft, when the Baltimore Ravens traded Marquise "Hollywood" Brown to the Arizona Cardinals. The Ravens, though, believe Jackson is going to love what they gained from that deal.
Baltimore used the first-round pick acquired in that trade on Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum, the consensus top center in this year’s draft. Linderbaum won’t catch deep throws like Brown, but he does help Jackson do what he does best as a playmaker.
“When [Jackson] can extend the play, it’s just electric; that’s kind of his brilliance, and that’s when the field opens up for him in a lot of different ways,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Lamar is going to appreciate [Linderbaum’s] ability to sustain a block and extend the play.”
Jackson’s ability to move is a major challenge for defenses. In Jackson's three full seasons as a starting quarterback, his average time before throwing a pass is 2.95 seconds. That ranks behind only the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts among quarterbacks with at least 20 games.
One of Linderbaum’s strengths is maintaining blocks because of his grip strength, which allows him to latch onto the biggest of defenders. His sound pass protection also comes from understanding leverage from his wrestling background -- he finished third in state as a senior in high school. Linderbaum allowed two sacks in 1,201 pass-blocking snaps in college, according to Pro Football Focus.
“My job is to protect him [Jackson]; I’m excited to get that opportunity,” Linderbaum said. "Every snap, every down, I’m going to have to bring it, because obviously it’s a tough league. Every guy across from me is going to be tough.
“But just the mentality I’m going to bring, just that gritty toughness, physical, I’m going to bring it just to protect him and keep him safe.”
While it was a surprise to see Baltimore trade Brown, it was equally shocking to see the team take a center with the No. 25 overall pick. This is the only position on offense or defense that the Ravens had never addressed with the first 29 first-round picks in team history.
The fact Linderbaum was the first did not happen by chance.
The Ravens have maintained a strong relationship with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who was the Ravens offensive line coach from 1996 to 1998. Ferentz used to jog with now-Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta. The last Iowa offensive lineman drafted by Baltimore was perennial Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, who vouched for Linderbaum to Ravens officials.
Of course, the Ravens also were impressed by how Linderbaum, who is 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, played. DeCosta said he was “one of the most enjoyable football players to watch this year."
"You’re talking about one of the best technicians -- strong, physical, tough, quick-footed,” DeCosta said. "Somebody said it on TV: If he was an inch taller and his arms were a half-inch longer, he would’ve been a top 5 pick, and I believe that. He’s probably one of the better centers we’ve seen come out in a long time.”
There have been only seven centers selected in the first round in the previous 12 drafts. Three of them -- Travis Frederick (Cowboys), Ryan Kelly (Colts) and Frank Ragnow (Lions) -- have reached the Pro Bowl.
The Ravens are hoping Linderbaum provides long-term stability to the middle of the Ravens' offensive line. Since Matt Birk retired after the 2012 Super Bowl season, Baltimore has had eight players start at center: Gino Gradkowski, Jeremy Zuttah, John Urschel, Ryan Jensen, Matt Skura, Patrick Mekari, Trystan Colon and Bradley Bozeman.
"[He] knows how to play the position,” Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz said. "[He] knows how to get his body in the right spot, and then he just consistently works at maintaining his blocks. You’ll see it when they show highlights -- he’ll block three guys in one play. He’s kind of a consensus guy with all the scouts and coaches. Everyone saw him the same way.”