The Ravens took a big risk at the end of the first round of the draft two years ago. With veteran Joe Flacco coming off multiple consecutive disappointing seasons and not getting any younger or cheaper, the Ravens decided to package together a pair of second round picks to move back into the first round to select quarterback Lamar Jackson at #32 overall. Jackson drew mixed reviews coming out of college because he had unparalleled athletic ability, but was very raw as a passer. Even the Ravens didn’t seem to be totally sold on him, opting to take tight end Hayden Hurst with their original first round pick before trading back up to get Jackson with the last pick in the first round when he continued slipping.
As a rookie, Jackson mostly sat on the bench for the first 9 games of his career behind Flacco as the backup quarterback, though he did see some limited action in ways that made use of his unique abilities (12 pass attempts, 28 carries, 2 pass targets in those 9 games). When Flacco injured his hip, Jackson then took over as the starter the rest of the way. The Ravens made the post-season, but Jackson very much seemed to fit his pre-draft scouting report, rushing for 695 yards and 5 touchdowns on 147 carries (4.73 YPC), but completing just 58.2% of his passes for an average of 7.06 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, despite defenses selling out to stop the run.
Overall, the Ravens ‘offense was actually slightly more effective with Flacco (36.46% first down rate) than it was with Jackson (34.48% first down rate), even though Jackson faced bottom-10 defenses in 5 of his 7 regular season starts. In the post-season against a much tougher Chargers defense, Jackson seemed especially overmatched, as the Ravens were held to 5 first downs through the first three and a half quarters of the game before garbage time. The Ravens moved on from the expensive Flacco last off-season and made Jackson the full-time starter, but there were still a lot of questions about Jackson’s ability to consistently lead a team if he did not improve as a passer.
Jackson answered those questions by improving as a passer arguably as much as any quarterback ever from one year to the next and the results were obvious. Jackson led the Ravens to the best record in the AFC at 14-2 and the NFL’s best first down rate differential at 41.73% and he won the MVP by completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 36 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, while still adding an NFL quarterback record 1,206 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns on 176 carries (6.85 YPC). He also seemed to get better as the season went on, leading the Ravens to a 39.11% first down rate in his first 7 starts of the season and a 46.00% first down rate in his final 8 starts of the season.
Jackson isn’t an exceptional passer by any means, but he is able to produce big numbers in the passing game anyway because he is able to create easier passing lanes with his mobility inside and outside the pocket. Many will say that Jackson proved the pre-draft scouting reports wrong, but in reality the scouting reports were right at the time. Even Jackson admitted he didn’t really know how to throw a football properly as a rookie. Jackson simply has gotten significantly better in two seasons in the league and that’s a credit to him and his work ethic. It’s also a testament to how difficult drafting and pre-draft scouting can be that almost the whole league, including the Ravens, passed on Jackson at least once on draft day.
Credit should also be given to the Ravens for being willing to build their offense around Jackson’s unique skill set and it’s a big boost to this team’s chances of continuing to dominate on offense going forward that they were able to keep offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who understandably attracted head coaching interest this off-season. Roman has a history of working with dual threat quarterbacks in the past, getting the best years of their career out of both Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor, and he’s an excellent fit as this team’s offensive coordinator.
After winning an MVP in his age 22 season, the question for Jackson becomes what comes next. Many expect he’ll continue to get better as he gets more experience, but that’s not always the case. In fact, Jackson could have a Hall-of-Fame caliber career and still only match his 2019 season a couple times. He should remain among the top quarterbacks in the league, but he’s technically still a one-year wonder and I wouldn’t consider him the MVP favorite over guys like Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson or even Drew Brees, who have proven it over multiple high level seasons.
Jackson also has a higher chance than usual for a quarterback of getting hurt, as his playing style leads him to taking significantly more hits. Obviously, the Ravens’ would take a big hit if Jackson were to go down. Backup quarterback Robert Griffin has at least somewhat similar of a skillset to Jackson, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked quarterback out of 39 qualifiers in his most recent season as a starter in 2016 and he’s thrown just 44 passes since, with 21 of those coming in an underwhelming start during a meaningless week 17 game last season, with the Ravens locked into the #1 seed. Griffin is probably in the best offense for his skill set, but would likely struggle if he had to start for an extended period of time. The Ravens are obviously hoping that doesn’t happen.
The most noticeable feature of the offense the Ravens have built around Jackson is that they run the ball a lot, they run the ball in all situations, and they run the ball in a variety of different ways. That doesn’t just include Jackson’s 176 carries, as the Ravens’ 596 team carries were most in the NFL by a whopping 98 carries and they also ranked first in rushing yards (3,296), and YPC (5.53) by a wide margin, meaning that running backs were a big part of this offensive attack as well.
Lead back Mark Ingram rushed for 1,018 yards and 10 scores on 202 carries (5.04 YPC). Top backup Gus Edwards was very much involved as well with 133 carries for 711 yards and 2 touchdowns (5.35 YPC). Even #3 running back Justice Hill got into some action, with 58 carries for 225 yards and 2 scores (3.88 YPC), though it’s worth noting that 10 of those carries came in the meaningless season finale and that he was by far the least effective of the three backs. Jackson’s rushing ability develops makes life easier for the running backs because defenses are preoccupied with Jackson faking the handoff and running with it himself, but the running backs deserve plenty of credit as well.
The Ravens added further to their running back depth this off-season by using a 2nd round pick on Ohio State’s JK Dobbins. That may seem like a strange addition given that they were already pretty deep at the position, but Dobbins was a good value at #55 overall and, even as a rookie, he could be the Ravens’ 2nd most talented back overall behind Ingram, who is no spring chicken, now heading into his age 31 season. His addition is also likely a sign of how they feel about Hill long-term, as they don’t seem to be willing to make him the #2 back in this run heavy offense if there was ever an injury ahead of him on the depth chart.
Ingram figures to remain the lead back, even though running backs do tend to drop off pretty quickly in their early 30s. A first round pick by the Saints in 2011, Ingram dealt with injury problems early in his career, missing 18 games in his first 5 seasons in the league combined, but he’s missed just 1 game due to injury over the past 4 seasons and in his career he’s averaged 929 yards and 8 touchdowns on 201 carries (4.61 YPC) per 16 games, including a 4.94 YPC average and 34 touchdowns on 775 carries over the past 4 seasons. He’s had the benefit of playing on some of the best offenses in the league over the past 4 seasons with the Saints and Ravens, but he’s played well in his own right, finishing in the top-22 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including an 8th ranked finish in 2019. Even if he isn’t quite as good this season due to age related regression, he should still be a useful back.
With Ingram likely locked in as the lead back, that leaves JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards competing for #2 back work and it’s possible both backs see carries on an offense that gave 181 carries to backup running backs last season, even with Ingram only sidelined for one game. 133 of those carries went to Edwards, who has been a bit of a revelation as a runner in two seasons since the Ravens signed him as an undrafted rookie, rushing for 5.30 YPC on 270 carries in the two seasons combined. That’s the best in the NFL over that span among running backs with at least 200 carries, as is his 60% carry success rate.
Edwards has benefitted from playing almost all of his career with Jackson under center, but 62.4% of his rushing yards (3.30 YPC) have come after contact and he has finished in the top-14 among running backs on PFF in rushing grade in both seasons. He doesn’t do anything in the passing game (9 career catches), which is likely why the Ravens added Dobbins as a long-term every down back, but Edwards is a perfect fit as a powerful north to south runner (6-1 238) on an offense that spreads defenses out with probably the fastest sideline to sideline quarterback in NFL history. Ingram also is a great fit for this offense because he’s a power back as well at 5-9 215.
Given how well Edwards fits this offense as a runner and how well he’s run over the past two seasons, it could be difficult for Dobbins to unseat him as 2nd to line to carries as a rookie, even if Dobbins does play more snaps than Edwards because he plays in passing situations. Realistically, it could be something close to a three man rotation at running back for carries, with Ingram and Dobbins splitting passing down work. Justice Hill, meanwhile, will need to show value on special teams to keep his job in arguably the deepest running back group in the NFL.
Along with being the run heaviest team in the league, another key feature of the Ravens’ offense last season was featuring tight ends in the passing game rather than wide receivers. The Ravens had a pair of tight ends in Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst who were mismatches in the passing game and could hold their own as blockers as well and they had Nick Boyle, a dominant blocking tight end who was also a reliable possession receiver in the passing game. These three tight ends allowed them to regularly use two and three tight end sets and to both run out of these sets and to fake play action off of them and try to hit a mismatched tight end or a speedy wide receiver that sneaks behind the defense.
The Ravens traded Hurst to the Falcons this off-season for a 2nd round pick (eventually used to select JK Dobbins), a good return for a former first round pick who had fallen to 3rd on the depth chart and played just 457 snaps last season, but it’s surprising the Ravens didn’t do anything to replace him, given how important the tight end position is to this offense. Without him, the Ravens won’t be able to run three tight end sets effectively like they did last season and, if either Andrews or Boyle was to get hurt, the Ravens wouldn’t be able to effectively run two tight end sets either.
As long as they are healthy, however, Andrews and Boyle are arguably the top tight end duo in the league, especially given how their skill sets complement each other. Andrews led the team with a 64/852/10 slash line and was even better than that suggested, as he did that on a run heavy team, despite not playing every down. He ranked 2nd among tight ends in both yards per route run (2.89) and in overall grade on Pro Football Focus, behind only George Kittle in both categories. That comes after averaging 2.01 yards per route run (4th among tight ends) and ranking 6th among tight ends on PFF as a 3rd round rookie in 2018. Only going into his age 25 season, Andrews looks likely to be one of the best tight ends in the league for years to come and he could easily exceed last year’s receiving totals with Hurst now gone.
Boyle, meanwhile, is basically a 6th offensive lineman as a blocker, as he’s consistently been of the best blocking tight ends in the league throughout his 5-year career, but, despite his speed limitations (5.00 40), he’s not a bad pass catcher either, catching 73.1% of his career targets, though for just 8.81 yards per catch. Still, his ability to be an underneath target off play action is very valuable for this team and it’s no surprise he’s coming off the best receiving year of his career (31/321/2) and a career best 12th ranked finish among tight ends on PFF in an offense that fits his skill set so well. He’ll still primarily be a blocker, so I wouldn’t expect him to drastically exceed last year’s receiving totals even without Hurst, but he should still be a very valuable part of this offense.
The Ravens need their two tight ends to stay healthy, otherwise their lack of depth at wide receiver would be exposed, as it was in their surprising post-season home loss to the Tennessee Titans. In that game, the Ravens uncharacteristically got down big early because of turnovers, forcing Lamar Jackson into a career high 59 pass attempts, and, with such an underwhelming receiving corps, Jackson was unable to get the Ravens back into it in an eventual 16 point loss.
The Ravens were better in first down rate differential in their post-season loss than the final score suggested at -3.24%, losing big primarily because of a -3 turnover margin, which is almost an entirely unpredictable stat from week-to-week, but the point remains that their wide receivers were a problem last season, with just one wide receiver topping 339 receiving yards in the regular season. Not much changed this off-season, however, with the Ravens only replacing veteran Seth Roberts with 3rd round rookie Devin Duvarney. The Ravens will be counting on young players taking a step forward at the position in 2020, including Duvarney, who should compete for playing time in this group, despite being a raw rookie.
Last year’s first round pick Marquise Brown and last year’s 3rd round pick Myles Boykin will also be in the mix for playing time, with Brown obviously having more upside, after averaging 1.81 yards per route run as a rookie (compared to 1.10 for Boykin), despite being in and out of the lineup with injuries. Brown might not be that durable at 5-9 179, but he has the upside to breakout as a legitimate #1 receiver in his 2nd season in the league and he’ll likely remain their top option regardless, after leading Ravens wideouts with a 46/584/7 slash line. Boykin, meanwhile, could take a step forward as well, but doesn’t have the same upside.
Willie Snead is the veteran of the group, going into his 7th season in the league, and he should be in the mix for a role as well, even if only by default. Primarily an underneath slot receiver, Snead is a bit of an odd fit with Jackson. Snead put up 69/984/3 and 72/895/4 slash lines in 2015 and 2016 and was on his way to a 80/796/2 slash line in 2018 before Flacco got hurt (with an injury plagued 2017 season in between), but Snead has caught just 48 passes for 542 yards and 5 touchdowns in 25 career games with Jackson. The Ravens extended him with a one-year, 6 million dollar extension during last season, so they seem to still value him despite his recent underwhelming production, but I wouldn’t expect him to produce significantly better in 2020. The Ravens will need #1 receiver Marquise Brown and talented tight end duo Mark Andrews/Nick Boyle to stay healthy to mask their lack of depth in the receiving corps.
If there’s any one thing that could derail the Ravens’ chances of being a dominant offense again, it’s the retirement of right guard Marshal Yanda, who still finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked guard, despite being in his age 35 season. The Ravens used a 3rd round pick (Tyre Phillips) and a 4th round pick (Ben Bredeson) on guards and they have last year’s 4th round pick Ben Powers, who saw 30 snaps meaningless in the meaningless finale, but their most likely option is DJ Fluker, who has 88 career starts, but has never been more than a middling starter.
Center is also a position of uncertainty. Matt Skura started 11 games there last season and finished 16th out of 35 qualifying centers on PFF, but the 2016 undrafted free agent struggled in the first two seasons of his career in 2017 and 2018 and his 2019 season ended with a torn ACL that makes him questionable for the start of the 2020 season. Even if he’s ready for the start of the season, Skura is no guarantee to repeat his solid 2019 season. It’s also possible Skura could lose his starting job entirely to 2019 undrafted free agent Patrick Mekari, who flashed on 431 snaps as an injury replacement for Skura last season. Mekari could also potentially be in the mix to start at right guard, where he has a little bit of experience.
Along with Yanda, left tackle Ronnie Stanley had a dominant year on an offensive line that was a big part of the Ravens’ offensive success last season. Unlike Yanda, Stanley is fortunately still around and, only going into his age 26 season, he’s very much in the prime of his career and could even keep getting better. The 6th overall pick in 2016, Stanley has improved in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, finishing 29th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2016, 21st in 2017, 15th in 2018, and 3rd last season. He could easily remain one of the top few left tackles in the league for years to come and is immensely valuable protecting Lamar Jackson’s blindside.
Orlando Brown remains as the starter on the opposite side at right tackle. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Brown took over as the starter in week 7 of his rookie year and has provided them with above average play since then (26 starts), including a 28th ranked finish among offensive tackles on PFF in 2019. Still only going into his age 24 season, Brown could easily keep getting better over the next few seasons.
Finishing off this offensive line is left guard, where 2018 6th round pick Bradley Bozeman is going into his 2nd full season as the starter. Despite his relative inexperience (17 career starts), Bozeman doesn’t have a high ceiling, as he was an old rookie who is already going into his age 26 season and he’s athletically limited. He could remain a solid starter in 2020 and beyond, but it’s worth noting he’s a former late round pick who has made just 17 career starts at this point. This is still a talented offensive line, but the loss of Yanda will be very significant and they might not get the same level of play at center or left guard either.
In 2018, the Ravens made the playoffs with a raw Lamar Jackson at quarterback on the strength of a defense that finished the season with the 2nd lowest first down rate allowed in the league at 32.65%, but they suffered significant losses from 2018 to 2019. They lost 5 of their top-12 in snaps played on defense in free agency, including key players like Za’Darius Smith, CJ Mosley, and Terrell Suggs, and they then lost another two of those top-12 (Tavon Young and Tony Jefferson) to season ending injuries. All of their losses seemed to take their toll on this defense, as they ranked just 24th in first down rate allowed through the first 6 weeks of the season at 37.95%, despite facing a relatively easy schedule that included games against the Dolphins, Chiefs, Steelers, Browns, and Bengals, and Cardinals.
However, seemingly overnight, the Ravens became one of the best defenses in the league again. Despite the schedule getting tougher, the Ravens ranked 2nd in the NFL after week 6 in first down rate allowed after at 30.00%. Even after their slow start, they still managed to finish 5th in the NFL on the season in first down rate allowed at 32.86%. Along with their top ranked offense, the Ravens finished in the top-5 on both sides of the ball, the only team in the league to do so and just one of two teams (49ers) to finish in the top-10.
Unsurprisingly, their +8.87% first down rate differential on the season was the best in the NFL by a wide margin, with the 49ers 2nd at +5.29%. The Ravens were especially dominant from week 9 to week 16, with a ridiculous +15.28% first down rate differential over that stretch. Of course, that didn’t matter when they lost at home in their first playoff game to the Titans in a game in which they didn’t give themselves a real chance because of a -3 turnover margin, but the fact remains that the Ravens were for most of the second half of last season close to a historically good team on both sides of the ball.
The primary reasons for significant defensive improvement are in the secondary and linebacking corps, so I’ll get into those later, but it’s worth mentioning upfront that the Ravens, much like they do on offense, run defensive schemes that are different than most of what the league runs. They run both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts in base packages, they frequently use 6 defensive backs on the field at the same time in sub packages, and, the most notable feature, they blitz more than any team in the league, sending a 5th rusher 45% of the time last season.
Despite that and despite playing with frequent leads, the Ravens actually didn’t sack the quarterback that often. They ranked just 21st in the NFL with 37 sacks and had just one player with more than 5 sacks on the season. They especially struggled from the interior, as they didn’t have a single interior defender who played more than 150 snaps who earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus for rushing the passer. The Ravens clearly viewed improving this area as a priority this off-season, allowing Michael Pierce, a big 6-0 340 pounder with a 5.2% pressure rate last season, to leave in free agency and trading rotational reserve Chris Wormley (6.4% pressure rate last season) to the Steelers, while adding a pair of more pass rush oriented types in Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe.
Campbell is the big prize, even though he was acquired for just a 6th round pick in a trade from the Jaguars. Campbell is going into his age 34 season and was owed 15 million for 2020, so he was acquired by the Ravens largely as a salary dump. It’s understandable the Jaguars would want to move on from Campbell given that they are rebuilding and shedding salary, but it’s a surprise that they couldn’t get more than a 6th round pick for him. Despite Campbell’s age, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, finishing 3rd among interior defenders on PFF last season, his 8th straight season in the top-19 at his position on PFF, including 4 straight seasons in the top-3.
Over those past four seasons, he has totaled 39.5 sacks, 62 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate, while dominating against the run as well. He’s also a perfect fit for the Ravens’ defense because of his versatility. Not only does he have experience as a base end in both a 4-3 and a 3-4 defense, but he can also rush the passer effectively from the edge and from the interior. Even if he declines over the next couple seasons, he was well worth the 6th round pick and 2-year, 25 million dollar extension (20 million guaranteed) that the Ravens gave up to get him, given that the Ravens are in win now mode and can afford to add expensive talent, with their franchise quarterback still on an inexpensive rookie deal. He should remain an effective player, at the very least.
Wolfe, meanwhile, is kind of a lesser version of Campbell. He’s played defensive end in a base scheme 3-4 in Denver for the past five seasons, but he also spent some time earlier in his career in a 4-3 defense, playing both inside at defensive tackle and outside at defensive end. In 8 seasons total with the Broncos, Wolfe averaged 48.1 snaps per game and earned average or better grades from PFF in each of his final 6 seasons with the team. He was better against the run than as a pass rusher, but added a 7.4% pressure rate as well and mostly played every down.
Wolfe is going into his age 30 season, but should have at least another couple solid seasons left in the tank, so he was a worthwhile addition on a 1-year, 6 million dollar deal. He and Campbell give the Broncos a pair of versatile defensive linemen who can play every down and play both inside and outside, giving them more versatility and pass rush than they had last season. Campbell may play more outside than Wolfe and is obviously the better player overall, but both should have significant roles.
With Campbell and Wolfe coming in as interior rush options in sub packages, that should allow holdover Brandon Williams to play more of a base package role, taking over for Michael Pierce at nose tackle, after playing out of position somewhat last season. Williams has earned an above average grade as a run stuffer in all 7 seasons he’s been in the league, but he’s finished average or worse as a pass rusher in all 7 seasons and has just a 5.0% pressure rate for his career. That’s unsurprising, considering Williams is a big 6-1 335 pounder.
Now going into his age 31 season, Williams is who he is at this point and could easily be on the decline, posting the lowest PFF of his career last year and finishing as PFF’s 54th ranked interior defender overall. He’ll be a better fit as primarily a base package player though and should see fewer than the 37.5 snaps per game he played last season in a better position group. He may still see some sub package snaps, especially when Campbell lines up outside, but he’s not someone you want playing significant sub package snaps and I wouldn’t expect him to do so.
Jihad Ward played 398 snaps as a reserve last season, but he struggled, as he has throughout his 4-year career, so he’s not guaranteed a significant role again. He has the ability to play both inside and outside in sub packages, but Campbell and Wolfe can both do so as well, and the Ravens used a 3rd round pick on Texas A&M defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, who will likely compete to be the primary reserve on the interior, which could leave Ward without much of a role. This is a more talented, more versatile, and deeper group than last season.
Edge defender Matt Judon was the only Ravens defender to have a significant sack total last season, leading the team with 9.5. Not only that, but he added 25 hits and a 14.1% pressure rate as well. His pressure rate is inflated because of how often the Ravens blitzed and because he was frequently the blitzer, frequently lining up inside at off ball linebacker in sub packages and blitzing up the middle, but he also had to drop back into coverage on 19.9% of the pass snaps he played because of the different blitz schemes the Ravens ran, which limited his pass rush opportunities. Judon earned Pro Football Focus’ 18th highest grade among edge defenders in pass rush grade and was clearly much better as a pass rusher than in coverage, where he struggled mightily.
With the Ravens adding interior rushers that will help them get to the quarterback with four more easily and with the Ravens adding better coverage off ball linebackers (more on that later), it’s very possible the Ravens blitz less often this season and that Judon will play more of a traditional edge defender role and not move around the formation and drop into coverage as often, which should be a better role, even if fewer blitzes reduces his overall pressure rate.
Judon is a one-year wonder in terms of getting to the quarterback at the rate he did last season, but he’s been at least a solid starter for 3 seasons in a row and he has a career 12.2% pressure rate in 4 years in the league. Going into his age 28 season, Judon should be in his prime for at least another couple seasons, though he’s yet to agree to a long-term extension after being franchise tagged as a free agent this off-season.
Tyus Bowser was essentially Judon’s backup last season, playing 389 snaps total and dropping into coverage on 26.5% of his pass snaps. Second on the team with 5 sacks, Bowser also had a 11.3% pressure rate and he wasn’t bad in coverage either, as the 6-3 242 pounder is a much more natural coverage athlete than the 6-4 264 Judon. Bowser hasn’t played much in 3 seasons in the league (715 snaps total) and snaps will be harder to come by in a deeper position group, but he’s a former 2nd round pick who is going into his age 25 season and his versatility should earn him at least a rotational role.
At the edge defender spot opposite Judon, veteran Pernell McPhee was the starter for the first 7 games of the season, but he tore his triceps and missed the rest of the season, leaving 3rd round rookie Jaylon Ferguson to start the rest of the way, after he played just 82 snaps in the first 6 weeks of the season. Ferguson didn’t fare all that well, but he was just a 3rd round rookie, so he could still develop into a capable starter long-term. His role is uncertain going into this season, however, as not only can Campbell and Wolfe play on the edge, but McPhee is also returning from injury.
McPhee is only going into his age 32 season and was once one of the most efficient pass rushers in the league, posting a 18.0% pressure rate in 2014 and 2015 combined, but his career has been completely derailed by injury, as he hasn’t played more than 385 snaps in a season since 2015 and has missed 22 games total over the past 4 seasons combined. Last season, he played 41.3 snaps per game in the 6 games he finished without getting hurt, but then he got injured in week 7 and missed the rest of the season.
McPhee wasn’t particularly effective last season before the injury either (8.0% pressure rate and a middling grade from PFF) and now, another year older, it would be a surprise if he was able to bounce back to anything close to his prime form, even if he were to stay healthy. His versatility to play inside and outside is valuable, but he’s unlikely to have a significant impact. With Campbell and Wolfe able to play on the edge in addition to on the interior, the Ravens have improved their depth at this position this off-season and they have a pair of young players in Bowser and Ferguson who could take a step forward as well.
As I mentioned, the Ravens did a good job of getting better coverage off ball linebackers this season, which, along with their improved pass rush, will likely lead to them blitzing not quite as much and should lead to them playing players out of position less frequently. The Ravens’ off ball linebackers were not bad last season and in fact the mid-season additions of LJ Fort and Josh Bynes actually coincided directly with their defensive turnaround, though there were other factors.
The big problem was that, while Fort and Bynes both earned above average grades against the run from Pro Football Focus, they played just 391 snaps and 254 snaps respectively and struggled in coverage and that no Ravens off ball linebacker played more than 473 snaps (Patrick Onwausor). The Ravens compensated for this by playing edge defenders like Judon and Bowser out of position in sub packages or using 3 safeties and dropping strong safety Chuck Clark near the line of scrimmage as a coverage linebacker, but their moves this off-season suggest they want to be a little more traditional in 2020.
LJ Fort still remains, but Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwausor are gone and, while Bynes was PFF’s 12th ranked off ball linebacker against the run last season, Onwausor ranked 82nd in overall grade out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers and the Ravens did a good job adding potential three down off ball linebackers through the draft. At 28 overall they got a steal with arguably the top off ball linebacker in the draft in Patrick Queen, who could play almost every snap every as a rookie and compete for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and then they got another potential three down talent in the 3rd round in Malik Harrison.
Harrison is rawer and not as much of a sure thing, but he still figures to compete for playing time immediately next to Queen. LJ Fort could remain an option in base packages and he’s earned an above average grade from PFF for his run stopping ability in back-to-back seasons, although he’s going into his age 30 season and has never played more than 305 snaps in a season. The Ravens also have enough depth in the secondary that they could still frequently play with 3 safeties in sub packages, but, unlike last season, they have enough depth at linebacker that it won’t be totally necessary to play a 3rd safety in sub packages.
The single biggest reason for the Ravens defensive improvement last season was the secondary. At cornerback, the Ravens lost slot cornerback Tavon Young for the season with injury before the year began and then lost cornerback Jimmy Smith indefinitely week 1, but then they traded for Marcus Peters from the Rams before week 7 and got Smith back healthy for week 9. Peters and Smith playing outside allowed them to move Marlon Humphrey to the slot in sub packages, giving the Ravens a talented trio of cornerbacks, and it allowed 4th cornerback Brandon Carr to play more safety down the stretch, which allowed them to drop safety Chuck Clark down to linebacker in sub packages, to compensate for their lack of depth at the position.
Carr was let go this off-season, owed 6 million non-guaranteed in his age 34 season in 2020, while Tavon Young returns from injury, so the Ravens will have to re-shuffle their cornerbacks a little bit, but it’s still a very strong group. Young’s best position is on the slot, so he figures to play there primarily, moving Humphrey outside every down outside Peters. That would leave the aging Jimmy Smith (age 32 season) as the 4th cornerback and a potential part-time safety.
Humphrey wasn’t bad on the slot and made not just his first career Pro Bowl, but also the All-Pro team last season, but he actually earned the lowest grade of his 3-year career from Pro Football Focus. He still ranked 33rd among cornerbacks overall, but he ranked 16th in 2018 and he is probably a more natural fit outside, even if he can play inside if needed in a pinch. The former first round pick still has a huge upside, only going into his age 24 season, and, now going into his 4th season in the league, back in a more natural spot outside, he could easily have the highest ranked season of his career.
Marcus Peters was the single biggest reason for their defensive turnaround, as he was PFF’s 5th ranked cornerback from his arrival in week 7 and beyond and finished as their 4th ranked cornerback overall. It’s hard to believe the Ravens acquired Peters for a mere fifth round pick, but he was going into the final year of his deal with the Rams, who needed to clear cap space for the recently acquired Jalen Ramsey, and Peters has been inconsistent enough in the past that it’s understandable why the Rams would want to go with Ramsey instead. Peters also finished 16th among cornerbacks in 2016 and 14th in 2017, but on the flip side of that he finished 81st in 2015 and 98th in 2018. His history of inconsistency didn’t scare the Ravens off from giving him a 3-year, 42 million dollar extension and that’s not a bad value for him, but it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be the quite same player this season, especially with 21 million guaranteed in his pocket.
Tavon Young should be locked in on the slot, but his injury history is pretty concerning, as he’s now missed 2 of 4 full seasons. A 4th round pick in 2016, Young burst onto the season as a rookie, finishing as PFF’s 17th ranked cornerback on 833 snaps, but then he missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL and didn’t seem to be quite the same in 2018, earning a middling grade from PFF. That didn’t stop the Ravens from giving him a 3-year, 25.8 million dollar extension that made him one of the highest paid slot cornerbacks in the league last off-season and it was reasonable to assume he’d bounce back in 2019, another year removed from the torn ACL, but then he missed all of 2019 with a neck injury. Still only going into his age 26 season, Young has some bounce back potential, but it’s worth noting his last high level season was 4 years ago.
Jimmy Smith is the odd man out at cornerback for now, but he’s expected to see some action at safety. Smith has rarely played safety in his 9-year career (83 starts, all at cornerback), but he has good size at 6-2 210 and would hardly be the first cornerback to make a successful late career switch to safety. Smith has had a lot of injuries over the years (20 games missed over the past 4 seasons) and hasn’t been the same player in recent years, but he was still a capable starter in 9 games last season and he’s probably overqualified as a 6th defensive back, which is what he’ll essentially be. Smith might not have a significant role to start the season, but he figures see significant playing time at one point or another, even if it’s only as an injury replacement.
Along with the positive changes at cornerback mid-season, the Ravens also got a positive change at safety when starting safety Tony Jefferson tore his ACL week 5. Jefferson was a solid starter in 2018, so may seem weird that his absence would be a benefit, but Jefferson was off to a terrible start in 2019, ranking 76th out of 89 qualifying safeties on PFF at the time of his injury, and his replacement Chuck Clark wound up being better than Jefferson was even in 2018, as Clark finished 28th among safeties on PFF in 2019.
Clark’s impressive play led to the Ravens cutting Jefferson ahead of a non-guaranteed 7 million dollar salary this off-season and locking up Clark long-term on a 3-year, 15.3 million dollar extension. A 6th round pick in 2017, Clark is a one-year wonder who played just 315 mediocre snaps in his first 2 seasons combined in 2017 and 2018, but he’s still only going into his age 25 season and has plenty of upside going forward. He’s also particularly valuable because of his ability to play both safety and linebacker and to both stop the run in the box and to cover backs and tight ends one-on-one. He could prove to be a real value signing if he continues to develop.
With Clark working as a box safety, Earl Thomas is the primary deep safety, a role he spent 9 seasons in with the Seahawks (125 starts), prior to signing with the Ravens last off-season. In his first season in Baltimore, Thomas had his lowest rated season on PFF since 2012, which is slightly concerning as he now heads into his age 31 season, but he still finished 14th after a stretch of 4 out of 5 seasons in the top-5, so even a declining Earl Thomas is still one of the better safeties in the league. This is a deep and talented secondary once again, arguably even deeper, with Tavon Young returning from injury.
The Ravens were one of the best teams in the league on both sides of the ball last season and entered the post-season as the most complete team in the league. It all fell apart in a divisional round home loss to the Titans by 16, but that game was much closer than the final score suggested, as the game entirely swung on a -3 turnover margin by the Ravens and a highly uncharacteristic 0 for 4 on 4th down. The Ravens have made some changes into 2020, but still look like one of the top few teams in the league going into the season. No one should be surprised if they claim the AFC’s top seed again and finish it off with a Super Bowl this time around, though I’m not sure I’d consider them the outright favorite. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.
Final Update: The Ravens were dealt a big blow when they had to release safety Earl Thomas following an altercation with a teammate. He will be replaced by unproven 2018 6th round pick DeShon Elliott. The Ravens should still be one of the top contenders in the AFC, but safety is now an obvious hole for them and they can’t afford to lose more depth in the secondary.
Projection: 12-4 (1st in AFC North)