The Ravens are entering a new era at quarterback. Drafted 18th overall in 2008, Joe Flacco was a week 1 starter for the Ravens as a rookie and went on to start 163 games over the next 11 seasons in Baltimore, winning a Super Bowl in 2012, but he never matched his Super Bowl run in subsequent seasons and his contract became harder and harder to justify every year. The writing was on the wall for Flacco last off-season when the Ravens traded up into the first round to select Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson 32nd overall. Flacco started the first 9 games of the 2018 season, but then suffered a hip injury and never got his job back, ultimately being sent to the Broncos for a mid round pick this off-season.
The reason Jackson remained as the starter last season even after Flacco recovered is that they were winning, going 6-1 with Jackson, as opposed to 4-5 with Flacco. It’s unfair to attribute that to a change in quarterback though and, in fact, their offense was more productive in Flacco’s 9 starts (36.46% first down rate) than it was in Jackson’s 7 starts (34.48% first down rate), even though Jackson got to face bottom-10 defenses in 5 of 7 games. The Ravens also had a +53 point differential in Flacco’s 9 starts, as opposed to +49 in Jackson’s 7 starts, despite the fact that all 4 of the Ravens’ return touchdowns came in Jackson’s 7 starts. The only games Jackson won by more than a touchdown all involved return touchdowns pushing the margin of victory beyond a single score.
All in all, Jackson actually led fewer touchdown drives in his 7 starts (13) than the Ravens’ defense allowed during that stretch (14), even though the Ravens had a dominant defense all season, finishing the year 2nd in first down rate allowed on the season at 32.65%, including a 33.17% first down rate allowed in Jackson’s 7 starts. When the Ravens made it to the post-season, things got even worse, as the Ravens’ offense managed just 5 first downs in the first 3 and a half quarters of the game and trailed the Chargers 23-3 before finally being able to move the ball against a prevent defense late in the 4th quarter. Even with that late stretch against a prevent defense included, the Ravens managed a pathetic 22.03% first down rate in that game.
The Ravens are revamping their offense this off-season, but it’s hard to imagine an offense that fits Jackson’s skill set better than the one that allowed him to carry the ball 17 times per game in his starts. The problem with that and the reason they are revamping their offense is that Jackson likely won’t be able to hold up long-term averaging that many carries per game (272 carries over a 16 game season). It’s hard enough for running backs to withstand that kind of punishment year in and year out and Jackson is much more slender than most running backs.
Jackson also won’t be able to always count on having the kind of defense supporting him that he had last season, which allowed the Ravens to run an ultra run heavy offense and not have to play from behind often. The Ravens lost 5 defensive starters this off-season, so they are very unlikely to be as effective defensively this season as they were last season. It’s also concerning that the Chargers’ defense was able to have so much success against this offense the 2nd time they faced them. They may have written the blueprint for stopping this run heavy offense, which is to stack the box with hybrid safety/linebackers who have the athleticism to get to the outside against outside runs.
Jackson’s running and athletic abilities obviously are valuable, but whether or not he is successful as quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens is going to be dependant on how he develops as a passer. Throwing against defenses that were stacking the box to play the run, Jackson completed just 58.2% of his passes last season for an average of 7.06 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while also fumbling 12 times total. He will definitely need to improve his accuracy and ball security going forward, but his mechanical issues may prevent him from ever doing so.
Despite that, the Ravens are committed to Jackson long-term. With Flacco gone, the Ravens have doubled and tripled down on dual threat quarterbacks, re-signing veteran Robert Griffin as the backup quarterback and using a 6th round pick on Penn State’s Tracy McSorley, an option quarterback who ran the fastest 40 by a quarterback at the combine this year (4.57). Jackson has a higher than average chance of injury because of his playing style, so it’s very possible one or both of their backup quarterbacks has to start at some point this season.
It certainly doesn’t help matters that Lamar Jackson has one of the thinnest receiving corps in the league to throw to. Two of the Ravens’ top three receivers from 2018 are gone, replaced with rookie 1st and 3rd round picks Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin, who have clear paths to playing time, despite their inexperience. Receivers weren’t that important in the Ravens’ offense down the stretch last season, but with Jackson set to throw more pass attempts per game this season, receivers become much more important. The combination of an inaccurate quarterback and a thin receiving corps is not a good one.
Willie Snead is the Ravens’ top returning wide receiver. He had 45 catches in 9 games with Flacco last season, but that plummeted to 17 catches in 7 games with Jackson. Snead is a bit of a weird fit for this offense because he’s an underneath slot receiver, while Jackson likes to throw deep off play action on the occasions he does throw the ball. Snead is a capable receiver who had a 69/984/3 slash line and a 72/895/4 slash line in 2015 and 2016 respectively with the Saints, but he’s unlikely to come close to those numbers in this offense.
Even though they are rookies, Brown and Boykin are better bets for production than Snead because they are both deep threats. Their biggest competition for the starting outside receiver jobs is Chris Moore, a 2016 4th round pick, who played 469 snaps as the 4th receiver in 2018, but caught just 19 passes, including just 7 from Jackson in 7 games. Those 19 catches are also a career high, so he would be an underwhelming starting option. The Ravens also used 4th and 5th round picks on receivers in the 2018 draft, taking Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley, but Scott missed his entire rookie year with injury, while Lasley was a healthy scratch all season. These uninspiring position battles will play out in training camp and ultimately it’s likely that a rookie leads this group in yardage.
The Ravens are deeper at tight end. In fact, tight end Mark Andrews was the only pass catcher to still produce with Lamar Jackson in the lineup, catching 13 passes for 318 yards and a touchdown in Jackson’s 7 starts. The 3rd round rookie averaged 2.01 yards per route run on the season (5th among qualifying tight ends) and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked tight end in receiving grade. The Ravens also used a 1st round pick in the 2018 draft on tight end Hayden Hurst, but injuries limited him to 275 snaps as a rookie. Still not healthy this off-season, the clock is ticking for a player who will already be 26 in his 2nd season in the league. He’s likely behind Mark Andrews in the pecking order for playing time in passing situations.
Both Andrews and Hurst are adequate blockers, which is important in an offense that figures to still be run heavy, but Nick Boyle is the primary run blocking tight end, re-signing this off-season on a 3-year, 18 million dollar contract after playing 652 snaps last season, most by a Ravens tight end. Boyle has earned an above average run blocking grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league and he’s not terrible as a receiver. He’s never topped 28 catches in a season and averages just 8.2 yards per catch, but he’s caught 72.8% of the targets thrown to him in his career and is a reliable target, with just 3 career drops. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Ravens run a lot of two and three tight end sets to compensate for their lack of proven options at wide receiver. The Ravens figure to have one of the worst passing games in the league in 2019.
Even though the Ravens are going to have to open up their passing game more in 2019, this offense will still revolve around the run and should still be among the league leaders in run attempts. The Ravens made moves this off-season to improve their running game, signing ex-Saint Mark Ingram in free agency to a 3-year, 15 million dollar contract, and using a 4th round pick on Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill. Ingram’s salary obviously suggests he’ll be the lead back, but there will definitely be opportunity for multiple backs to see carries.
Gus Edwards was their lead back down the stretch last season and he ran well, so he should remain involved in a timeshare role. Edwards’ promotion to the starting lineup coincided with Jackson’s promotion and he finished the season with 718 yards and 2 touchdowns on 137 carries. His 5.24 yards per carry ranked 5th in the NFL among running backs with at least 100 carries and he did that without a bunch of long runs, leading the league with a 63% carry success rate. He doesn’t do anything in the passing game (2 catches) and he went undrafted a year ago, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he regressed as a runner in his 2nd season in the league, but he should continue being involved in this offense even after the addition of Mark Ingram.
Ingram comes over from New Orleans, where he spent the first 8 seasons of his career after being drafted in the first round in 2011. Ingram dealt with injury issues early in his career, but he hasn’t missed a game with injury since 2015 and has averaged 4.91 yards per carry on 573 carries over the past 3 seasons. Ingram has also improved as a pass catcher as his career has gone on, with 175 catches in the past 4 seasons, after just 53 catches in his first 4 seasons in the league, although it’s hard to see him getting a lot of targets in the Ravens’ offense. Ingram is going into his age 30 season and has never had more than 230 carries in a season, always being more effective in a timeshare, but he won’t be carrying the load by himself in Baltimore and could easily remain an effective runner for another couple seasons.
Justice Hill is an interesting pick in the 4th round and has the blazing speed to play a role as a change of pace back, but he’ll likely be no better than the 3rd running back to start his career. He’ll have to compete for that role with Kenneth Dixon. A 4th round pick himself back in 2016, Dixon has shown a lot of promise in his career, with 4.83 yards per carry and 45 broken tackles on 148 carries in his career, but a combination of injury and suspension have limited him to just 18 games in 3 seasons in the league. Dixon still has upside in an unsettled running back group on a run heavy team, but he’s also not a lock for the final roster after the addition of Hill because he doesn’t play special teams.
If Ingram can avoid slowing down as he gets older and Edwards can come close to repeating what he did to close out last season, this running game could be very tough for defenses to stop, especially with Lamar Jackson obviously being a threat to take off and run himself on every play. Jackson being a threat to keep the ball and run himself on misdirections definitely makes life easier for running backs, although if he can’t consistently threaten defenses with his arm they will stack the box and make life more difficult for running backs. This is a deep group even if Dixon doesn’t end up making the final 53, but the NFL is as much of a passing league now as it ever has been.
The Ravens’ running game would also obviously be helped by strong blocking upfront. Center and left guard were positions of weakness upfront for the Ravens in 2018 though and, with other more pressing needs, they weren’t able to address those needs this off-season, only using a 4th round pick on Oklahoma guard Ben Powers, who probably won’t be able to contribute immediately in year one. Center Matt Skura started all 16 games in 2018, but finished 26th out of 39 eligible at his position on Pro Football Focus. The 2016 undrafted free agent also struggled in 12 starts at right guard in his first career action in 2017 and would be best as a versatile reserve. Skura’s only competition for the starting center job is 2018 6th round pick Bradley Bozeman though, so he could easily remain the starter.
Bozeman made 31 starts at center in college at the University of Alabama, but his 223 rookie year snaps actually came at left guard and he’s likely an option for the starting job at that position as well, even though he didn’t show much as a rookie. Week 1 starting left guard Alex Lewis started all 10 games he played in 2018, but dealt with injuries, finished 75th among 88 qualifying guards on PFF, and ended up getting benched for James Hurst, who started the final 4 games of the season at left guard. A 4th round pick in 2016, Lewis showed promise as a rookie in 8 starts, but hasn’t been able to stay healthy the past two seasons and is already in his age 27 season. Hurst, meanwhile, has 42 career starts, playing both tackle and guard, but he’s struggled at both spots, earning a below average grade from PFF in 4 of 5 seasons in the league. The Ravens lack good options at both left guard and center.
Hurst was the week 1 starter at right tackle in 2018, but he got hurt and ended up losing his job to 3rd round rookie Orlando Brown, before kicking inside for the final 4 games of the season. Brown wasn’t great, but he was better than Hurst and showed a lot of promise in his 11 starts. Brown is a massive blocker at 6-8 345 with 35 inch arms, but struggled with weight issues throughout college and isn’t fleet of foot, which is why he fell in the draft. If he stays in shape and keeps his weight in check, he could develop into a Trent Brown type player who makes up for his lack of foot speed with a huge frame and long arms.
Right guard Marshal Yanda and left tackle Ronnie Stanley are their best offensive linemen. Yanda is going into his age 35 season, which is an obvious concern, and the Ravens are obviously hoping he continues playing at the level he has. He has finished in the top-9 among guards on PFF in his last 7 healthy seasons, missing all but 2 games with injury in 2018, but bouncing back and finishing 4th at his position in 2018. Quietly a Hall of Fame caliber player, Yanda would still be one of the better guards in the league even if he did begin declining, but it definitely wouldn’t be a surprise to see his play drop off over the next couple seasons.
Stanley, meanwhile, is still young, going into his age 25 season, and the 2016 6th overall pick could easily continue getting better going forward. Stanley has started 42 of 48 games at left tackle in 3 seasons in the league and has improved in every season, going from 29th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2016 to 21st in 2017 and 16th and 2018. He needs to be tougher in the run game, but he’s allowed just 8 sacks and 6 hits total in his career, with a modest 20 penalties. He has the potential to be one of the best pass protecting left tackles in the league for a long time. This isn’t a bad offensive line, but it has its weaknesses.
As mentioned, the Ravens lost 5 starters from last year’s defense that ranked 2nd in the league in first down rate allowed. Those 5 starters are defensive end Brent Urban, outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, middle linebacker CJ Mosley, and safety Eric Weddle. They did sign safety Earl Thomas to not just replace but upgrade on Weddle (more on that later), but they didn’t do much to replace the others, with other more pressing needs on offense. If the defense regresses, that could have a ripple effect on an offense that wants to be able to run the ball consistently.
The position group that took the biggest hit was the edge defenders, with Smith and Suggs signing with the Packers and Cardinals respectively. They ranked 34th and 40th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in 2018 on 691 snaps and 743 snaps respectively. Smith leaving was not a surprise, as the Ravens didn’t have the financial flexibility to match the 4-year, 66 million dollar deal he got from Green Bay, in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, but Suggs has been with the Ravens his entire 16-year career. It’s a surprise he’d want to leave the Ravens to take a one-year deal with a last place Cardinals team, but he’s originally from Arizona and seems to want to finish his career there. Both he and Smith will be big losses.
The Ravens did add some options this off-season, taking bargain flyers on Shane Ray and Pernell McPhee in free agency and using a 3rd round pick on Louisiana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson. They also have a pair of 3rd year players who could take on larger roles, 2017 2nd round pick Tyus Bowser and 2017 3rd round pick Tim Williams, and they return Matt Judon, who played 674 snaps in 2018. They may not all make the final roster, but they could all compete for roles this off-season.
Judon is probably the best of the bunch and the most likely to lock down a starting job. The 2016 5th round pick has played 45.7 snaps per game over the past 2 seasons and has earned above average grades from PFF in both seasons. He doesn’t excel any one area, but he’s a capable run stuffer and has added 15 sacks, 23 hits, with a 11.3% pressure rate over the past 2 seasons. He may not be quite as effective if a pass rush threat doesn’t emerge opposite him, but he’s a solid starter nonetheless.
The rest of the group is a bunch of question marks. Ferguson is a 3rd round rookie. Bowser and Williams haven’t shown much on just 326 snaps and 245 snaps respectively in their career. Pernell McPhee played for the Ravens from 2011-2014 and was once one of the most efficient edge rushers in the league, with 13.5 sacks, 34 hits, and a 18.9% pressure rate in a 2-year stretch from 2014-2015. His pressure rate has only dropped to 11.4% in the 3 seasons since, which is still solid, but injuries have limited him to 861 snaps in 35 games in those 3 seasons and now he heads into his age 31 season. He had 8 hits and 7 hurries on 117 pass rush snaps in 2018, showing he can still get to the quarterback in the limited role even though he didn’t have a sack last season, but his best days are likely behind him.
Shane Ray has also had problems with injury in recent years, missing 13 of 32 games due to injury over the past 2 seasons, but he’s a former first round pick who is only going into his age 26 season and comes with a lot of upside if he can stay healthy. He had 12 sacks, 19 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate in his first 2 seasons in the league, but has just 2 sacks, 3 hits, and a 8.1% pressure rate in 2 seasons since, dealing with several injuries and falling down the depth chart in a deep position group in Denver. He could prove to be a smart flyer, but that’s far from a guarantee. The Ravens have a lot of uncertainty at this position.
The Ravens also lost Brent Urban in free agency and he led this team in snaps by an interior defender, playing 523 snaps in 16 games in 2018. The Ravens didn’t do anything to replace him, but they do get Willie Henry back after he was limited to 81 snaps in 3 games by multiple injuries last season. A 2016 4th round pick, Henry played 596 snaps in 2017 and could see a similar role in 2019 if he can stay healthy. That’s a big if though because he’s missed most of his rookie season with injury as well. When healthy, Henry will be a situational pass rush specialist like he was in 2017, when he had 3.5 sacks and 10 hits, but also an underwhelming 6.3% pressure rate.
Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce, and Chris Wormley all return after playing 518 snaps, 388 snaps, and 401 snaps respectively in 2018 and will likely be the starters on the Ravens’ 3-man base defensive line. Williams and Pierce both have great size at 6-1 336 and 6-0 340 respectively and have the ability to play both base defensive end and nose tackle. Both Williams and Pierce are unsurprisingly at their best against the run, finishing above average on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons and all 3 seasons respectively in their careers.
Williams has been doing it longer, but Pierce has outplayed him against the run in recent years, finishing 14th, 11th, and 4th against the run on PFF in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively, while Williams has finished 27th, 16th, and 26th. Pierce has also been the better pass rusher as well, with 3 sacks, 9 hits, and a 7.5% pressure rate in 46 career games, while Williams has 5.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 5.2% pressure rate in 83 career games.
Wormley, meanwhile, is strictly a defensive end in base packages at 6-5 300. The 2017 3rd round pick played just 120 snaps as a rookie, but earned about an average grade from PFF in a larger role in 2018. In addition to being a capable run stuffer, he wasn’t a bad pass rusher either. Even though he had just 1 sack and 1 hit, he had a 8.6% pressure rate on 232 pass rush snaps, which is solid for an interior rusher.
Wormley, Williams, Pierce, and Henry will play the vast majority of the snaps for the Ravens on the interior in 2019. They used a 5th round pick on Texas A&M’s Daylon Mack, but it’s unclear what kind of impact he can have as a rookie and he would likely need an injury ahead of him to see any real playing time. They don’t have a dominant interior rusher, but they should be a strong group against the run.
Middle linebacker CJ Mosley might have been the Ravens’ biggest loss this off-season. It’s a surprise to see the Ravens lose a signature defensive player in the prime of his career like that, but the Ravens couldn’t match when the Jets decided to completely reset the off ball linebacker market and give Mosley a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal with an average annual salary 26% higher than any other off ball linebacker in the NFL. Mosley isn’t great in coverage, but he’s an elite run stuffer who finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked off ball linebacker overall and the Ravens did nothing to replace him.
Patrick Onwuasor (435 snaps, 12 starts) and Kenny Young (371 snaps, 3 starts) both saw action opposite Mosley last season and are now their top-2 linebackers. Both players were pretty underwhelming in their limited action last season though. They’re adequate run stuffers, but struggle in coverage and occasionally came off the field in obvious passing situations for Anthony Levine, 5-11 207 pound hybrid safety linebacker who played a career high 280 snaps last season. He flashed as a coverage linebacker, but saw very limited action and is already going into his age 32 season.
Young was a 4th round pick in 2018 and has the upside to be better in his 2nd season in the league, but Onwausor was undrafted in 2016 and seems to have maxed out as a capable run stuffer and occasional blitzer after 3 seasons in the league. Both could easily be overstretched in larger roles in 2018. Levine will likely still be in the mix as a coverage linebacker and could set a new career high in snaps in a thin group.
The Ravens’ big free agent addition was safety Earl Thomas, who replaces Eric Weddle on a 4-year, 55 million dollar deal. Weddle was Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked safety in 2018, but Thomas will likely be even better. The concern with Thomas is his age, going into his age 30 season, and his injury history, ending two of the past three seasons on injured reserve with a broken leg, including a 2018 season in which he played just 237 snaps in 4 games. His age and injury history are the reasons why the Seahawks didn’t want to pay top dollar to keep him after 9 seasons with the organization, but he still played at a very high level when on the field in 2018 and has finished in the top-13 among safeties on PFF in 6 straight seasons. PFF’s #2 ranked safety in 2018 when he went down, he could easily remain a high level player for another couple seasons at the least.
Thomas’ addition makes an already strong secondary even better. The Ravens had four cornerbacks play at least 600 snaps in 2018 and all four of them finished above average and return to the team in 2019. Jimmy Smith used to be their #1 cornerback, but injuries and age seem to be catching up to him, as he has missed 21 games with injury over the past 5 seasons and is now going into his age 31 season. He’s not a bad cornerback, but he earned a middling grade from PFF in 2018 last season and his best days are likely behind him. He was rumored to be a cap casualty candidate this off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 9.5 million dollar salary, but with so many other defensive losses they decided to keep him. Despite his salary, he’ll likely have to compete for playing time with Tavon Young and Brandon Carr.
Tavon Young covered the slot in 2018, but he was better as an outside cornerback as a 4th round rookie in 2016, when he finished as PFF’s 17th ranked cornerback on 833 snaps. Young missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL and may not have been at 100% in his first season back in 2018, but he is still only going into his age 25 season and the Ravens don’t seem too concerned about his long-term health and abilities, giving him a 3-year, 25.8 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal this off-season. Nickel cornerbacks are getting paid more and more, but that salary suggests he has a chance to start outside as well, which is probably his best spot anyway. He has bounce back potential another year removed from his injury.
Carr is also pretty highly paid, on a 4-year, 23.5 million dollar extension that he signed two off-seasons ago. He actually led this group with 876 snaps played in 2018 and has the ability to play both inside and outside. Even if he’s the 4th cornerback in 2019, his versatility as an outside cornerback and slot cornerback make him valuable depth and he could have a rotational role even if everyone is healthy. Carr has earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of the past 3 seasons, though his age is becoming a concern in his age 33 season.
Marlon Humphrey is the Ravens’ new #1 cornerback and should play closer to every down in 2019, after playing 718 snaps in 14 games in 2018. Despite battling some injuries, Humphries still ranked 16th among cornerbacks on PFF and had a 52.5% completion percentage allowed. He also had a 46.4% completion percentage allowed as a rookie in 2017 and the former 16th overall pick has huge upside. He could easily put it all together in his 3rd season in the league in 2019, only his age 23 season. He has obvious breakout potential and the Ravens have great depth behind him at cornerback if everyone is healthy.
Tony Jefferson will start at safety opposite Earl Thomas and he’s also an above average starter. He’s earned an above average grade from PFF in each of the past 3 seasons, making 44 of 48 starts and maxing out at 30th among safeties on PFF in 2016. Still in the prime of his career only in his age 27 season, he should have another strong season in 2018. This secondary is the saving grace of a defense that will have a very tough time being as good as they were last season.
The Ravens won the AFC North and made the playoffs in 2018 on the strength of a 6-1 run to end the season with Lamar Jackson under center, but great defensive and special teams play masked the fact that this offense became less efficient with Jackson under center, even as the schedule got easier. Jackson will also have to become more of a passer in 2019, for three main reasons. For one, he needs to protect himself long-term and is not built to take hits on 250+ carries and hold up year after year. Two, the Ravens’ defense figures to take a step back in 2019 after losing a lot of talent in free agency. Three, opposing defenses will be more prepared to stop their offense if they don’t open up the passing game, as the Chargers’ wrote the blueprint in the post-season last year.
Unless he takes a big step forward, Jackson passing more is not a receipt for success. The Ravens will be a good run team and they have a solid offensive line, but they have an inaccurate quarterback throwing to an inexperienced receiving corps and a defense that could be closer to middle of the pack in 2019. They also had the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in 2018 and would be in a lot of trouble if they started losing several starters to injury. On paper, this looks like the worst team in the AFC North.
Prediction: 6-10, 4th in AFC North