OFFSEASON REVIEW: BALTIMORE RAVENS
By Rory Jones
As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.
In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the Baltimore Ravens:
In many ways, the 2020 season was an encouraging campaign for the Baltimore Ravens, with another playoff berth, and a Wildcard Round win over the Tennessee Titans – the team who had eliminated them from the playoffs the year previously.
Everything was on the line when the Ravens trailed 10-3 to the Titans in the second quarter of their AFC Wildcard playoff game. It was an early similar situation to one year ago, where the Titans pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent playoff history, slaying the 14-2 juggernaut that many had tipped to win the Super Bowl.
On 3rd and 9, Lamar Jackson drops back into the pocket, surveying the field in front of him. He decides to run, dancing through defenders, driving through the centre of the field and darting towards the end-zone. He catches fire as he blazes through the Titans defence, running away from his critics, and his demons from the year previous. With a remarkable 49 yard touchdown run he shattered the narratives that he could not win in the playoffs.
A sobering 17-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Round, however, reminded the Ravens that they weren’t quite where they wanted to be.
Baltimore will look to go a step further next season, and trailblaze their way to Super Bowl LVI.
There were times when a playoff appearance looked near impossible. In November, the Ravens seemed to be in free-fall, with mid-season losses to the New England Patriots, Tennessee Titans, and AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers. A COVID outbreak in November, in which over 20 players tested positive for the virus, including quarterback Lamar Jackson, led to the Steelers matchup to be rescheduled multiple times. The Ravens eventually fielded a team largely composed of back-ups on Wednesday December 2nd, and were comfortably beaten in Pittsburgh.
The largest outbreak of any NFL team last season seemed to deliver a knock-out punch to a battle-wounded Ravens team. But despite this setback – the team were able to regroup, winning their final five games to close out the season with an 11-5 record.
Quite literally, the Ravens ran their way back to the playoffs in 2020, boasting the NFL’s number one ranked rushing offense for the second consecutive season. With 3,071 yards on the ground, the most of any team by around 400 yards, the Ravens also posted a league high 191.9 yards per game. These are eye watering statistics, as offensive coordinator Greg Roman continues to stick to the ground game to dominate time of possession, and exhaust defences to grind out wins.
In stark contrast, the Ravens also had the league’s 32nd ranked passing attack, averaging a mere 171.2 yards per game. Lamar Jackson’s number one target, tight end Mark Andrews, who missed two games after testing positive for COVID-19, accounted for 701 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Second year wideout Marquise Brown continued his development, leading the team in both receiving yards (769), and touchdowns (8). The lack of an elite level receiver has been widely discussed, with many fans clamouring for a new number one wide receiver. Despite criticism, “Hollywood” Brown perhaps lived up to his name during the playoff victory over the Titans, catching 7 passes for 109 yards.
Conceding the second fewest amount of points per game, the defense put together a solid campaign. The Ravens forced 22 turnovers, including 12 fumble recoveries, which was second in the league. Getting to opposing quarterbacks, however, proved difficult, with the team’s comparably low number of 39 sacks, which placed them in the middle of the pile. It’s clear that, if the Ravens upgrade their pass rush, we could be looking at the NFL’s finest defense next season.
Baltimore’s 2020 draft class made valuable contributions to the team, most notably rookie running back J.K. Dobbins, and linebacker Patrick Queen. Drafted in the second and first rounds respectively, both proved to be strong selections, with Dobbins rushing for with 805 yards and 9 touchdowns – the most ever by a Ravens rookie – and Queen leading the team with 106 tackles.
After another promising season ends in disappointment, the annual task of reconstructing the team’s roster lies ahead.
Heading into this offseason, there are a number of key areas to address.
On the surface, the Ravens seem to be bringing back the same staff from last season – with Head Coach John Harbaugh, Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman, and Defensive Coordinator Don Martindale all returning for next season. A closer look, will tell you otherwise.
Nine coaches have left ahead of next year, with former assistant coach David Culley the biggest name on that list. Culley left in January to become the new Head Coach of the Houston Texans. The Ravens also lose long-serving defensive line coach Joe Cullen, who will join the Jacksonville Jaguars along with Zach Orr and Sterling Lucas, who were both also on the Ravens’ staff last year. Six new coaches will arrive in Baltimore, including longtime NFL defensive coach and former Sky analyst Rob Ryan, and defensive line coach Anthony Weaver.
Jackson's Contract Extension
The priority for the ravens this offseason will most likely be to re-sign star quarterback and 2019 league MVP, Lamar Jackson.
Jackson is heading into the final year of his rookie contract, and extending Baltimore’s franchise quarterback will surely be top of general manager Eric DeCosta’s to-do list. Though he didn’t quite reach the same lofty heights as his breakout season in 2019, where he broke the NFL rushing yards for a quarterback with 1206, and led the league with a combined 43 touchdowns. Nevertheless, he still put together a solid season in 2020, again rushing for 1000 yards, and accounting for 33 touchdowns. Perhaps most importantly, though, he had his first playoff win, after disappointing performances in the two seasons previous.
Still only 23, with a unique playing style, which makes him one of the league’s most electrifying players, number 8 has captivated fans with his dynamic playmaking ability. It’s imperative that the Raves manage to secure his services for the coming seasons, if the team is to compete in the AFC for years to come.
Both Jackson and the Ravens have remained tight lipped over any talks of an extension, but neither party seems to be worried about a deal eventually being struck. Jackson has an impressive 34-12 record as a starter, has led the Ravens to three playoff appearances, and was voted a unanimous league MVP just a year ago.
While the Ravens front office has come under intense scrutiny for the team’s lack of options at the wide receiver position, there are a few other puzzles on the team that need to be solved beforehand.
There are question marks over all five of the Ravens’ starters on the offensive line. Ronnie Stanley, who signed a $98.75 million extension in October, is injury prone, and has yet to play an entire 16 games in a season. Center was a troublesome position in 2020, with Matt Skura making costly errors in big games against the Patriots and Bills. He becomes a free agent this offseason, and is unlikely to re-sign with Baltimore.
Starting right tackle Orlando Brown JR is allegedly prepared to ask for a trade, if the Ravens continue to play him on the right. For a team so heavily reliant on its run-first offense, it is essential that the offensive line be addressed this offseason. Perhaps the draft will be where the team looks for suitable upgrades, as an effective run-blocking offensive line is crucial for the Ravens’ running attack led by Jackson and Dobbins.
The Ravens will also look for new pass rushers ahead of next season, with Matt Judon, who led the team in sacks for the last two seasons, set to become a free agent. Even Judon only managed 6 sacks last season, leaving much to be desired, if the Ravens are looking to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks next season.
An alarming number of defensive starters last season – Yannick Ngakoue, Tyus Bowser, Derek Wolfe, and Pernell McPhee – are all set to become free agents. The Ravens can look to free agency this offseaon, with a wealth of veteran pass rushers due to hit the open market, including Von Miller (Broncos), Lavonte David and Shaq Barrett (Bucs), and Jadeveon Clowney (Titans). Ryan Kerrigan (Washington), Olivier Vernon (Browns), and Leonard Williams (Giants) would also be viable options for a defensive front in dire need of pass rushers.
Of those listed above, perhaps Von Miller or Jadeveon Clowney would bring experience, and leadership to the position. Both are premium players, and would be a good fit for a franchise steeped in history on the defensive side of the ball. Although the Ravens could also look to the NFL Draft, free agency offers their best chance of acquiring an elite pass rusher this offseason.
By far the most commonly talked about position this offseason, the Ravens will need to strengthen at wide receiver. Despite Hollywood Brown’s stellar performance against the Titans in the playoffs, the Ravens lack a true number one receiver, especially in the slot, with Brown utilised mainly as a deep-threat.
Luckily, there are a number of high profile receivers the Ravens could target in free agency: Allen Robinson (Bears) & Chris Godwin (Bucs), will likely be the top of general managers’ lists across the NFL, however both have could be placed under the franchise tag for the next teams by their respective teams.
The Ravens might look for a veteran option such as AJ Green (Bengals), or perhaps Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals), or even TY Hilton (Colts), who could bring experience and leadership to the receiving core. Baltimore has historically been a common landing spot for veteran receivers such as Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith SR, and Mike Williams. Other targets might include Kenny Golliday (Lions), or even Juju Smith-Schuster (Steelers), although it seems unlikely that the latter would favour a move to Pittsburgh’s bitter rivals.
This year’s draft has a number of strong prospects at the position, most notably Alabama’s DeVonta Smith, who won the Heisman last season. But with the Ravens picking at 27th, it is highly unlikely that we’ll see him holding up the purple jersey, unless DeCosta were to make a blockbuster trade for one of this draft’s most prized assets. There are a number of alternatives which they could target in the draft, such as Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, a big-bodied, more physical receiver who could compliment Brown.
Traditionally, the Ravens have used free agency as a tool to acquire veteran receivers and usually favour defensive signings, to uphold the franchise’s lasting reputation on defense. And this season, with a depleted defensive front, don’t be surprised to see the Ravens make a push for some big names in free agency.
General manager Eric DeCosta has stated that he will prioritise the team’s passing attack this offseason, adding new weapons for Lamar Jackson for the 2021 season. Receiver has long been a problematic position in Baltimore, but with a number of options both in the draft and in free agency, there are a number of possibilities to give the receiving core a much-needed makeover.
With Jackson’s new contract hopefully on the horizon, DeCosta will look to surround Baltimore’s superstar quarterback with a championship roster.
The Ravens are in win-now mode, and could well make another run at the Lombardi trophy if they make the right moves this offseason.
RORY JONES IS A SPORTS JOURNALIST ORIGINALLY FROM WEST YORKSHIRE. HE HAS BEEN COVERING THE NFL AND NCAA FOR THE LAST FOUR SEASONS FOR BOTH BRITISH AND AMERICAN PUBLICATIONS. RORY IS ALSO THE FOUNDER AND CO-HOST OF THE SPORTS BUBBLE PODCAST, WHICH AIMS TO RAISE THE PROFILE OF THE NFL IN THE UK. FIND HIM ON TWITTER @RORYSJONES11