The Baltimore Ravens were arguably the unluckiest team in the sport last season, losing multiple key starters to injury before the season started and even more throughout the year on their way to missing the playoffs. it is imperative that they stop that streak of bad luck by signing franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson to a contract extension as soon as possible.
It is super unusual in today’s NFL to see a quarterback of Jackson’s caliber go this long without a new deal. The former MVP is choosing to bet on himself and play a game of chicken with the Ravens’ organization and see who blinks first.
A part of the reason the two sides may not be able to come to an agreement is that Jackson had an up-and-down season last year. Both injuries and underwhelming performance played into that but there is still hope that Jackson can return to form as one of the most dangerous players in the game.
The pieces around Jackson are going to have to improve for him to play his best football again and they will have to take even more of a step up given the departure of wide receiver Marquise Brown.
Tight end Mark Andrews is the only player that Jackson can truly count on to produce. He has been a top tight end in the league ever since his second season in 2019 and has two Pro-Bowl appearances and a first-team All-Pro selection to show for it.
Andrews will be in a similar position this season to his breakout year in 2019 because he will be the obvious number one target for Jackson. Brown helped to spread the field and open spaces for Andrews and now without him, there is going to be a lot more pressure on Andrews.
The Ravens are hoping that one of their young receivers will be able to step up and replace at least a large part of Brown’s production. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman is likely that guy. The team must have confidence in him after selecting him in the first round last year and then trading away their top receiver in this year’s draft.
Batemon was a productive receiver in college and has all the necessary tools to be a leading wide receiver in the league. His rookie year clearly didn’t go as planned with all the inconsistency surrounding him and the team in general. But having a full offseason and hopefully, 17 games to develop chemistry will go a long way in his maturation in year two.
The receiver room is definitely a little barren behind Batemon but there is no shortage of young players looking to make their mark. None of the receivers on the roster are older than 25, meaning there is a ton of untapped and unproven potential.
Wide receiver Devin Duvernay is the most familiar with the offense, having played in Baltimore for two years. He has chipped in a little on offense while mainly acting as an elite return man. After Duvernay there are options such as James Proche, Tylan Wallace, Binjimen Victor, Jaylon Moore, and a ton of rookies. Chances are one of those guys is going to take a huge leap and become a productive member of the offense, at least in a small role.
The biggest question mark on offense (after Jackson’s contract, of course) is the running back position. J.K. Dobbins is supposed to be the guy but his season was over before it even started last year courtesy of a training camp injury.
Now Dobbins is going to have to not only return from a torn ACL but then potentially operate as a lead ball carrier. If health permits, Dobbins will be the most productive runner in the backfield. That situation makes Dobbins perhaps the most interesting member of the Ravens from an on-the-field perspective because a lot of the team’s potential success is riding on him being effective.
If Dobbins does struggle, whether it is due to injury or performance, Baltimore at least has a decent contingency plan. They possess one of the deepest running back groups in the league, with at least four players that can adequately carry the load if needed.
Obviously, Gus Edwards is the next man up as he was in position to take over for Dobbins last year until he suffered a torn ACL as well. Edwards has been with Baltimore since 2018 and has been a productive backup for plenty of starters in that time.
Other options behind Edwards include veteran journeyman Mike Davis who was signed in free agency, fourth-year player Justice Hill who has been a reliable special teamer, and rookie Tyler Badie who was a productive rusher in college at Missouri.
The same uncertainty that surrounds the running back position is not present with the offensive line. If there is one thing the Ravens have been able to do consistently with Jackson under center it is provide him with capable blockers up front.
The leader of that unit is left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who has been one of the better blindside protectors for the last couple of seasons. The rest of the line is made up of a mix of veterans (guard Kevin Zeitler, tackle Morgan Moses, and tackle Ja’Wuan James) and young guys (rookie center Tyler Linderbaum, rookie tackle Daniel Faalele, guard Ben Cleveland, and guard Tyre Phillips).
For as much as Jackson, Andrews, and the rest of the offense have tried to change the perception of the Ravens franchise, they will always be known as a defense-first team. Images of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs will always be the first that comes to mind when thinking of the purple and black.
Unfortunately, that perception has been a bit misleading recently as the Baltimore defense has been lackluster. In 2021, the Ravens finished 19th in points allowed and gave up the most passing yards in the league. It wasn’t all bad, though, as they did finish eighth in yards allowed and give up the fewest rushing yards in the NFL.
The Baltimore front office must have been well aware of the defensive shortcomings because they went out and signed free agent safety Marcus Williams to a massive deal. Williams, who is probably most known for being on the wrong side of Stefon Diggs’s Minneapolis Miracle play in the 2017 playoffs, has actually been one of the best safeties in the league since then.
He will join forces with fellow safeties Chuck Clark, Tony Jefferson, and first-round pick Kyle Hamilton to form one of the most talented safety groups in the league. Add in cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters (who didn’t play last year due to injury), and free agent signing Kyle Fuller and that has all the makings of the best secondary in the NFL.
The depth that the Ravens have at defensive back may allow them to use Hamilton elsewhere on the field to take full advantage of his ridiculous skillset. He is built like a linebacker at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds but is fast enough to play over the top.
If Hamilton is able to move all over the defense (like a buff version of Tyrann Mathieu) then he could end up having the best season of all the rookie defenders. He could bump down into the box next to linebacker Patrick Queen and play the middle of the field. Or he could line up in the slot and wreak havoc off the edge or in the flat like Jamal Adams. The sky is the limit for a young player as talented as Hamilton and luckily for him, he might have ended up in the perfect situation to make the best use of all of his skills.
The Ravens’ front seven is an interesting story because they were so elite at one aspect of the job while struggling so much at the other.
First, the good news. Baltimore was exceptional at stuffing the run, allowing just 3.8 yards per carry. Big bodies up front such as defensive tackles Calais Campbell (6-8, 300), Michael Pierce (6-0, 345), and Justin Madubuike (6-3, 300) make it hard for opponents to run the ball efficiently.
Now, the other way to look at it is that opponents had so much success passing the ball that there was no need to run the ball. Opponents totaled just 378 rushing attempts against Baltimore last year, which was the third least.
Not all of that responsibility falls on the secondary, as the pass rush plays a huge role in limiting the passing offense. The pass rush is also an area where the Ravens were ineffective last year.
Baltimore recorded just 34 sacks last year, which was tied for the ninth-least. They were also the ninth-worst in pressure percentage, meaning the bottom-ten pass rush category was where they truly belonged.
The upside in the pass-rushing department is that the top producers were young players. Outside linebackers Tyus Bowser (27 years old) and Odafe Oweh (23 years old) combined for 12 of the 34 sacks. Those two should only get better this season, especially Oweh who will be coming into his second season in the league.
The pass-rushing duo, along with seasoned veteran outside linebacker Justin Houston, may not be enough the sack production into the top ten but they still may be able to do enough. If the Ravens can field a middle-of-the-pack pass rush it should give the elite secondary enough help to greatly improve the pass defense.
I am a big believer of the Ravens this year. I was also a big believer in them last year (I may or may have had them as my pick to win the AFC) but I am going to blame last year on bad luck and call it a fluke.
I am not nearly as bullish on them as I was last year because I have some concerns about their defense but they are still my pick to win the AFC North. That division may actually be more competitive than people may think, with the Bengals giving the Ravens a real stiff competition for the division title while the Steelers and Browns won’t be easy games at all.
I think Baltimore can get to 12 wins and that should be enough to finish atop the group. It helps that the Ravens have games against the Jets, Giants, Saints, Panthers, Jaguars, and Falcons. Those games should result in at least five wins, which will put them in good shape to get to 12 victories.
Jackson is set up to have a huge year, although it probably won’t be on par with his MVP-winning season. He will want to prove to the Ravens and the rest of the league that he is up there among the best quarterbacks in the game and deserves to be paid accordingly. I think an out-to-prove-himself Jackson will be the key to the Ravens returning to championship form.