In 2019, the Baltimore Ravens were one of the most dominant regular season teams in recent memory. They finished the season ranked 1st in the NFL in first down rate at 35.38%, 5th in first down rate allowed at 28.75%, and 1st in first down rate differential at +6.63%, a wide margin over the 2nd ranked Saints at +3.81% and the 4th highest mark by a team since the 2004 season. That was true regardless of what down it was.
Their offense picked up a first down on 31.93% of 1st and 2nd downs, which led the league, and on 49.76% of 3rd and 4th downs, which also led the league, while their defense allowed a first down on 26.47% of 1st and 2nd downs, 4th lowest in the league, and on 36.79% of 3rd and 4th downs, 9th lowest in the league. The Ravens fell short in a post-season loss to the Titans, but the Titans were playing great football at the time and still that game largely came down to the Ravens having a -3 turnover margin and going 0 for 4 on 4th down, a complete fluke for that team based on how they played during the regular season.
In 2020, the Ravens largely brought back the same core, aside from retired guard Marshal Yanda and safety Earl Thomas, and continued to play well on 3rd and 4th downs on both sides of the ball. The offense converted on 50.00% of 3rd and 4th downs, 3rd in the NFL and actually improved from the year prior, while their defense allowed conversions on just 35.84% of 3rd and 4th downs, 2nd in the NFL and also improved from a year ago. This time around, they beat the Titans in the post-season.
However, that was a much weaker Titans team that they only beat by one score and, in the regular season, despite the Ravens’ continued success on 3rd and 4th down, they dropped off strikingly on 1st and 2nd downs on both sides of the ball. They ranked just 27th on offense by converting on 27.23% of 1st and 2nd downs and ranked 28th on defense by allowing conversions on 34.02% of 1st and 2nd downs, in a season that ultimately ended the week after defeating the Titans in a multi-score loss in Buffalo.
Simply put, this is unprecedented. Every once in a while, a team will have a drastic disparity like that on one side of the ball. For example, while the Ravens’ offense led the league in with a 22.77% higher conversion rate on 3rd and 4th down in 2020, the Ravens’ defense, which allowed just a 1.82% higher conversion rate on 3rd and 4th down, actually ranked 2nd behind a Dolphins team that somehow allowed a 1.05% lower conversion rate on 3rd and 4th as they did on 1st and 2nd (more on this absurd stat in the Dolphins’ preview). The 2019 Patriots defense did the same thing, allowing a lower conversion rate on 3rd and 4th down than 1st and 2nd down. For a team to significantly outperform their expected 3rd and 4th down performance on both sides of the ball like that is unprecedented though.
There is no evidence that something like that can be repeated. Not only is it unprecedented to do it once, but there is almost no year-to-year correlation of outperforming expectations on third and fourth downs, compared to what you would expect from a team based on their 1st and 2nd down performance. On offense, the correlation is about 10% and, on defense, the correlation doesn’t exist at all. So it’s reasonable to assume that the Ravens won’t come close to repeating that and that they will roughly be the team on 3rd and 4th down that you would expect based on their 1st and 2nd down performance on both sides of the ball.
The bad news for the Ravens is they ranked just 21st last season across all downs with a 32.31% first down rate. They ranked 9th in points per drive, but that was largely the result of their unsustainable overperformance on 3rd and 4th downs, which last season made up for their underwhelming conversion rate on 1st and 2nd downs. However, the Ravens’ first ranked finish in first down rate just a season prior in 2019 with largely the same group shows they have the upside to bounce back and be a lot better than that. Whether or not they do so is the big question for a team that could be a Super Bowl contender if they can, but would likely struggle to make the post-season if they couldn’t.
There were several ways in which this offense was worse in 2020 from 2019, but part of it was just quarterback Lamar Jackson not repeating his MVP performance from the year prior. Jackson was certainly not bad, but he fell from PFF’s 3rd ranked quarterback in 2019 to 15th, while completing 64.4% of his passes for an average of 7.33 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, with 6.32 YPC and 7 touchdowns on 159 carries, impressive numbers, but all down from 2019. Part of it was he didn’t have quite as good of a supporting cast and a big part of it was the Ravens’ play calling simply did not catch teams off guard the way it had the year prior when this offense was new, but Jackson also failed to live up to his level of play from the year prior.
That, of course, is nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s a reminder that Jackson’s 2019 season could end up being one of the best couple seasons of his career, even if he goes on to have a long, productive, successful career as an NFL starting quarterback. And if he can’t repeat that 2019 form again in 2021, it’s very unlikely this offense will reach the heights they reached in 2019, even if they are noticeably improved in first down rate from 2020.
The Ravens are also less prepared for an injury to their quarterback than most teams in the league, not only because of how important Jackson is to what this offense does, but also because they have one of the league’s shakiest backup situations. Barring another off-season addition, the only quarterbacks aside from Jackson on this roster with any NFL experience are 2019 6th round pick Trace McSorley, who has 10 career pass attempts, and 2020 undrafted free agent Tyler Huntley, who has 5 career pass attempts. Needless to say this team would be in big trouble if Jackson suffered an injury that caused him an extended absence, something that will always be an elevated risk with him because of the extra contact inherent to his playing style.
One thing that Lamar Jackson hasn’t really benefited from in his career is a good receiving corps. While I think his 2019 receiving corps was an underrated group, led by a talented trio of tight ends that caused nightmares for defenses that lined up expecting a run and a dangerous deep threat in Marquise Brown, Jackson’s 2020 group definitely had serious issues. Their tight end trio was no more after Hayden Hurst was traded in the off-season and Nick Boyle got hurt, which exposed their lack of wide receiver talent behind Brown.
Boyle is expected back this season and I will get into their tight ends later, but the Ravens clearly put an emphasis on getting Jackson better wide receivers to throw to this off-season, signing veteran Sammy Watkins in free agency, only after striking out on every major free agent wide receiver, and then supplementing him with first round pick Rashod Bateman and fourth round pick Tylan Wallace. Along with Marquise Brown, a recent first round pick in his own right (2019), and a pair of other young receivers in Miles Boykin (2019 3rd round pick) and Devin Duvarney (2020 3rd round pick), this is a group that the Ravens are hoping will give them a dimension they have lacked over the past two seasons, making this offense more versatile and less reliant on Lamar Jackson taking a lot of hits.
Marquise Brown has the highest upside of the bunch for the 2021 season. Selected 25th overall by the Ravens in 2019, Brown’s production has been limited by the run heavy nature of this offense, posting slash lines of 46/584/7 and 58/769/8 respectively across his first two seasons in the league, but his 1.76 yards per route run average for his career is above average and he’s also earned above average overall grades from PFF in both seasons as well. Brown is undersized at 5-9 180 and a bit of a one-dimensional deep threat, but he’s a perfect fit for this offense because defenses have to stack the box to defend against this team’s running attack, leaving Brown with more space to work deep. It definitely wouldn’t surprise me to see him have the best year of his career in his third season in the league in 2021.
Sammy Watkins is also a former first round pick, going 4th overall in 2014. At one point, it looked like Watkins would make good on his high draft slot, posting a 60/1047/9 slash line in 13 games in his second season in the league in 2015 at the age of just 22, averaging 2.68 yards per route run (5th in the NFL) despite suspect quarterback play, but Watkins missed another 8 games with injury the following season and was never the same. Since that highly promising 2015 campaign, Watkins has never played all 16 games in a season, has missed 23 games in 5 seasons, has never topped 673 yards receiving in a season, and has averaged just a 55/740/5 slash line per 16 games with a below average 1.49 yards per route run.
The Bills dealt him after his injury plagued 2016 season to the Rams, where he spent 2017, before signing in Kansas City as a free agent and playing there the past three seasons, largely being a bust on a 3-year deal that still paid him almost 43 million in total even after he was forced to take a pay cut in the third year. Watkins is going only his age 28 season, but if he couldn’t produce at a high level with three seasons of playing with Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, I don’t see it happening in Baltimore or anywhere for that matter.
Watkins could be a capable #2, but it’s worth noting the Ravens tried to sign pretty much every other wide receiver this off-season before settling for Watkins, who, only on a one-year deal on a team with a bunch of young wide receivers, could easily be one and done in Baltimore. Brown, Watkins, and Rashod Bateman figure to play together in three wide receiver sets, although the Ravens’ frequent use of two tight ends means they won’t play together as often as most top-3 wide receivers.
The other rookie Tylan Wallace figures to compete with fellow youngsters Miles Boykin and Devin Duvarney for depth roles. Boykin and Duvarney were both third round selections, but neither has done much yet, with 32 catches in 32 career games and 20 catches in 16 career games respectively. Both have enough upside that it wouldn’t be surprising to see one of them develop into a capable player, but this is a high variance group of wide receivers, without a proven player in the bunch.
Even with an improved wide receiver group, tight end Mark Andrews is still the favorite to lead this group in receiving, with the tight end position remaining a focus in the passing game, particularly in the play action game. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Andrews flashed as a rookie with a 2.01 yards per route run average and he has translated that into a larger role over the past two seasons, averaging 2.89 yards per route run (2nd among tight ends) while leading the team with a 64/852/10 slash line in 2019 and averaging 2.00 yards per route run (6th among tight ends) while leading the team with a 58/701/7 slash line in 2020. Also a capable blocker, Andrews has ranked 2nd and 5th among tight ends in overall grade on PFF in 2019 and 2020 respectively and, only in his age 25 season, there is no reason to expect anything different from him in 2021.
Boyle, meanwhile, is basically a 6th offensive lineman who can also catch the ball if needed. One of the league’s best run blockers at a mammoth 6-4 270, Boyle also has reliable hands, catching 73.6% of his career 163 targets and dropping just 6. His 1.20 yards per route run and 8.73 yards per catch average leave something to be desired, but he is still valuable to this passing game as a reliable underneath option off play action.
When Boyle went down last season in week 10, he was replaced by veteran journeyman Eric Tomlinson, who played 123 snaps in 6 games and was a noticeable downgrade both as a receiver and a blocker. With Boyle expected back in 2021 though, the Ravens will once again be able to effectively run two tight end sets, not just to run out of, but to also catch the defense off guard with a pass to either one of their two underneath tight ends or one of their deep wide receivers. They’re still inexperienced and unproven at wide receiver, but there is a lot more talent and upside there than they have had in recent years and they have one of the better tight end duos in the league.
Probably the biggest difference between the 2019 Ravens offense and the 2020 Ravens offense was their offensive line play. The Ravens knew going into the season they wouldn’t have right guard Marshal Yanda, who retired after being one of the best players at his position throughout his career, including a 2019 season in which he ranked 4th among guards on PFF and was an underrated part of the Ravens’ offensive success. With him being replaced by players who had never seen any significant action in their career before, it was understandable this line would drop off in 2020, but things got significantly worse when the Ravens also lost left tackle Ronnie Stanley for the season in week 8.
Stanley was PFF’s 3rd ranked offensive tackle in 2019, so his loss after just 312 snaps in 6 games was arguably an even bigger loss than Yanda. The Ravens were able to move right tackle Orlando Brown to the left side, where he continued his above average play, but he was still an obvious downgrade from one of the best left tackles in the league, while Brown’s replacement on the right side was underwhelming career journeyman DJ Fluker, who the Ravens were lucky to get middling play out of in 8 starts.
Stanley will return this season and, only in his age 27 season, I would expect the former 6th overall pick to bounce back mostly to form, finishing in the top-16 among offensive tackles on PFF in three straight seasons, including last season’s injury shortened campaign. However, he is expected to be the only starter from that 2019 group that lines up in their original spot. Some of that was planned, like the Ravens letting center Matt Skura, who has been injury plagued and middling at past over the past two seasons, leave as a free agent this off-season and replacing him by using a 3rd round pick on guard Ben Cleveland and moving left guard Bradley Bozeman inside to center.
Both Cleveland and Bozeman will be new starters at their position, but Bozeman was only a middling starter at left guard in 2019 and 2020, the only two seasons of his career in which he’s been a starter, and the 2018 6th round pick may benefit from a move inside to center for his fourth season in the league, while it wouldn’t take much for Cleveland to be an upgrade on Skura, even as a third round rookie, so the fact that the Ravens have changed starters from their 2019 group at these two spots is not a huge deal.
Likewise, while not having a player of Yanda’s caliber at right guard is obviously a downgrade, the Ravens at least did a better job of replacing Yanda this off-season, signing veteran Kevin Zeitler to a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal in free agency to replace the combination of Ben Powers and Tyre Phillips, who finished 56th and 79th among 86 eligible guards on PFF across 513 snaps and 418 snaps respectively in 2020.
Zeitler is getting up in age as well, going into his age 31 season, and he fell to 32nd among guards on PFF last season, a career worst for the 2012 first round pick, who started his career with 8 straight seasons in the top-26 at his position and also entered the 2020 season with 6 straight seasons in the top-15, but the Ravens will take Zeitler’s 2020 form over what they had last season and, even if he continues to decline, he should at least be able to give them a dependable starter that they didn’t have last season. At the same time, he isn’t totally over the hill yet, so another couple seasons of above average play from him isn’t out of the question either.
Zeitler’s addition will likely send Powers and Phillips to the bench, although it’s conceivable one of them could push for the left guard job if the rookie Cleveland proves he isn’t ready to start right away. Both players are also still young, selected in the 4th round in 2019 and the 3rd round in 2020 respectively, so they still have the upside to potentially get better, though that’s obviously not a guarantee. In addition to being a reserve at guard, the Ravens could also give Phillips some reps at right tackle, where he could also provide depth.
The Ravens also have Patrick Mekari, a 2019 undrafted free agent who has proven himself as a spot starter across 13 starts over the past two seasons (10 at center, 3 at right guard), who could also push to start at left guard, but he’s still a projection to a season long role and, if the Ravens wanted him to be a starter, they likely would have plugged him at center in place of Skura rather than moving Bozeman. I would consider the rookie Cleveland to be the favorite to start barring a terrible off-season, though it doesn’t hurt that the Ravens have at least somewhat experienced and talented backups in case Cleveland struggles more than expected or if there is an injury somewhere.
The move the Ravens didn’t plan on making upfront this off-season was trading away Orlando Brown, who was set to go back to his old position at right tackle, where the 25-year-old had already proven himself as one of the better right tackles in the league. However, Brown decided after just a half season on the blindside that he wanted to stay there and be paid like a high level left tackle on an extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2021, even though the Ravens already had Stanley and were paying him at the top of the market, leaving the Ravens with no choice but to trade the promising youngster for a package of draft picks from the Kansas City Chiefs that included a first round pick.
The Ravens then turned around and signed ex-Steeler Alejandro Villanueva to a deal worth 2-year, 14 million to be a lower upside replacement for Brown. Villanueva is an experienced player who has made 90 starts over the past 6 seasons, including 4 straight seasons in the top-22 among offensive tackles on PFF prior to last season, but his age is a big concern, now heading into his age 33 season. He didn’t really show many signs of slowing down last season, still finishing 30th on PFF at his position, but drop offs can happen pretty suddenly for players at his age and he doesn’t have much upside anymore either, so he’s definitely a downgrade from Brown.
Depth is also a concern at the offensive tackle position because, aside from Tyre Phillips potentially moving to right tackle, their best reserve tackle option is veteran journeyman Andre Smith, who last played 254 nondescript snaps for the Bengals in 2019 and now is going into his age 34 season after missing all of 2020 with an opt out. Still, this a solid offensive line overall, even if they’re unlikely to match their 2019 heights without Brown and Yanda.
One constant between the 2019 Ravens and the 2020 Ravens offense was their running game, which led the league with 5.54 YPC in 2019 and an almost identical 5.53 YPC in 2020. A lot of that was Lamar Jackson’s rushes and, even when Jackson wasn’t keeping the ball himself, just his presence on the field as an option to pull it out and run with it himself makes life much easier for the Ravens’ running backs, but the Ravens’ running backs are also talented in their own right.
The breakdown of carries by their running backs did change drastically though. In 2019, veteran Mark Ingram dominated this backfield with 202 carries and, while backup Gus Edwards still saw 133 carries as a reserve, 21 of those came in a meaningless week 17 game in which Ingram was being rested for the post-season. In 2020, however, the Ravens added second round rookie JK Dobbins, who took 134 carries, while Edwards continued to have a role with 144 carries, leaving just 72 carries for Ingram, who was a frequent healthy scratch down the stretch and was predictably released this off-season, ahead of his age 32 season.
No additions were necessary to this group to replace Ingram and the Ravens didn’t make any, leaving the duo of Dobbins and Edwards to dominate this backfield together, with 2019 4th round pick Justice Hill (83 career touches) as a deep reserve and special teamer who would only see significant carries in case of an injury to one of the top-two backs. Edwards is a perfect fit as a north-to-south power runner at 6-1 238 in this offense, rushing for 5.20 YPC on 414 carries in 3 seasons in the league signed the Ravens signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2018, but he’s a one dimensional power back who doesn’t run as well outside the tackles and who doesn’t add anything as a receiver (18 catches in 43 career games), so Dobbins seems likely to get the bulk of the touches in this backfield.
In fact, in the final 11 games of last season in which both backs played, including the playoffs, the rookie Dobbins outcarried Edwards 128 to 105, a split that could continue into 2021. On top of that, even though this offense doesn’t target running backs as pass catchers often (49 catches by running backs in 2019 and 47 in 2020), Dobbins figures to get the lion’s share of the passing down work and lead this backfield in catches by a comfortable margin. That would still leave a good amount of touches for Edwards in this run heavy backfield, but Dobbins is the higher upside and more well-rounded option.
Either way, they are a talented duo on an offense that looks a lot more talented than their 21st ranked finish in first down rate in 2020 and that should exceed that mark in 2021, even if that doesn’t translate to more points per drive because of their inevitable regression on third and fourth downs. They probably won’t be the dominant offense they were in 2019, for a variety of reasons, including that this offense doesn’t catch teams off guard anymore, but they have the talent to still be a top level offensive team.
While there are reasons to be optimistic that the Ravens can significantly improve their 21st ranked first down rate from a year ago, I am less optimistic about a defense that finished 14th overall in first down rate allowed at 32.89%. They did rank 4th in points per drive allowed, but that was primarily because of how disproportionately better this defense was on the more important downs on 3rd and 4th down, allowing a 2nd ranked 35.84% conversion rate, as opposed to a 28th ranked 34.02% ranked conversion rate on 1st and 2nd down.
While there may be a little evidence that teams can somewhat consistently outperform their 1st and 2nd down performance on 3rd and 4th down on the offensive side of the ball, there is no year-to-year correlation of teams doing that on defense. If there were a team that could consistently do so, that team would likely be one with a consistently dominant pass rush, but the Ravens’ pass rush will probably take a hit this season, which could lead to them falling even further from 14th ranked in first down rate allowed.
I know the Ravens played at a high level defensively just two seasons ago in 2019, but defense is a much less consistent side of the ball year-to-year than offense, that 2019 defense had several players who had career years, and they’ve also lost seven of their top-13 in terms of snaps played from that group, so I would expect them to continue being a middling group, possibly even worse depending on how effectively they are able to replace lost pass rushers.
More specifically, the Ravens have to replace their top-two edge defenders in terms of snaps per game last season in Matt Judon (40.2 snaps per game) and Yannick Ngakoue (38.6 snaps per game), who both played at above average levels last season and signed lucrative deals elsewhere this off-season. Overall, they combined for 9 sacks, 17 hits, and a 11.7% pressure rate in 23 games, so it’s definitely not a small amount of production the Ravens need to replace, even if they were relatively deep at the group last season with five players all seeing regular seasons.
Three of those players, Jaylon Ferguson, Tyus Bowser, and Pernell McPhee, still remain and figure to see expanded roles with Judon and Ngakoue gone and the Ravens also added edge defenders in the first and fifth round, taking Penn State’s Jayson Oweh and Notre Dame’s Daelin Hayes, the latter of whom was selected with the 31st overall pick the Ravens acquired from Kansas City Chiefs in the Orlando Brown trade.
Oweh has a great chance to earn significant playing time in year one in a retooled group, as he probably has the highest upside of the group, even as a rookie. Ferguson and Bowser were relatively high picks, Ferguson going in the 3rd round in 2019 and Bowser in the 2nd round in 2017, but neither have shown much thus far. Ferguson hasn’t been bad when he plays, but he’s averaged just 28.6 snaps per game in 28 career games and has been an underwhelming pass rusher, totaling 4.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 9.6% pressure rate.
Bowser, meanwhile, has seen his playing time increase in recent years, but he’s still never played more than 540 snaps in a season and, while his career pass rush numbers are respectable, with 10.5 sacks, 17 hits, and a 11.6% pressure rate in limited action, he’s still a projection to a larger role. For what it’s worth, the Ravens seem to somewhat believe in him, locking him up on a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal ahead of free agency this off-season. Both he and Ferguson figure to play more than they ever have before in a thinner position group.
Pernell McPhee is the veteran of the bunch, going into his age 33 season and his 11th season in the league since being selected in the 5th round in 2011. The Ravens actually were the ones to select him initially and he played four years with the Ravens before pursuing more money elsewhere, playing in Chicago and Washington, and eventually being brought back for a second stint beginning back in 2019.
In his prime, McPhee was quietly one of the most efficient pass rushers in the league on a per snap basis, but he was never more than a rotational player in his first stint with the Ravens and suffered a rash of injuries after leaving town, so he has never topped 594 snaps in a season and posted an impressive sack total, with his career high sitting at 7.5 sacks, back in 2014. On top of that, he hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since that 2014 season, the final season in his first stint with the Ravens, and he’s averaged just 316 snaps per season over the past 5 seasons.
McPhee has still totaled a 10.9% pressure rate over that stretch and may still have something left in the tank as a rotational reserve, but the Ravens won’t be able to count on him for a larger role in 2021 with Ngakoue and Judon gone because the 458 snaps he played last season were already the most he’s had in a season since 2015. Expect the young guys Oweh, Bowser, and Ferguson to get the vast majority of the snaps, with the veteran McPhee rotating in for 20-25 snaps per game. They obviously have upside, but it comes with significant downside for a high variance group that is missing it’s top two players from a year ago.
The Ravens’ interior defender group on their base 3-man defensive line is the position group that will have the least change from last season, as they retain their top-5 players in terms of snaps played from a season ago. This group also should be healthier next season, after none of the five played more than 14 games last season, although, as I will get into, this is mostly an aging group. Derek Wolfe and Calais Campbell led this group in snaps played with 621 snaps in 14 games and 410 snaps in 12 games respectively last season and both figure to remain as starting defensive ends and play similar snap counts per game in 2021.
Both are veterans who have been around for a long-time, but Campbell has had the significantly more impressive career. A dominant pass rusher and run stopper who has played both outside and inside in his career, Campbell has arguably had a Hall of Fame caliber career, highlighted by a 6-year stretch where he finished in the top-10 at his position on PFF in every season, including 4 seasons in the top-3. That stretch came to an end in 2020 however and, while he still finished an above average 35th among interior defenders on PFF, that is a steep drop off and a big concern for a player who now heads into his age 35 season and could drop off even further. Even if he doesn’t, his best days are almost definitely behind him.
Wolfe, meanwhile, has been at his best against the run in his career, although he hasn’t been a bad pass rusher either, totaling 34 sacks, 56 hits, and a 6.9% pressure rate in 122 career games. He’s not as old as Campbell, but his age is becoming a concern as well, now going into his age 31 season and, while he remained a strong run stuffer in 2020, finishing 3rd among interior defenders in run stopping grade, he barely contributed as a pass rusher with 1 sack, 3 hits, and a 2.8% pressure rate, a problem because the Ravens have counted on him and will likely continue to count on him for significant sub package snaps as more or less an every down player. He and Campbell will both play in that role and there is significant downside with both aging veterans.
Nose tackle Brandon Williams is also getting up in age, going into his age 32 season, and he too struggles as a pass rusher, to the point where he was limited to just 354 snaps in 13 games last season as almost exclusively a base package nose tackle. Williams actually hasn’t topped 525 snaps in a season in any of the past four seasons, but, despite that, the Ravens have kept him on the roster for the duration of a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar deal that he will play out this season after the Ravens once again restructured his deal to free up immediate cap space.
I would expect him to play a similar snap count and, after the lowest rated season of his career from PFF both in overall grade and in run stopping grade in 2020, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him decline further. Even if he doesn’t, he’s only a two down player, as he has just 6.5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 4.9% pressure rate in 110 career games and he saw that pressure rate drop to just 3.2% in 2020. He’s also seen his play against the run decline in recent years. The Ravens are going to be counting on a trio of aging players who figure to start upfront for the Ravens in base packages.
The one young player of this group is 2020 3rd round pick Justin Madubuike. He only played 259 snaps as a rookie, primarily as a run stuffer, but he showed enough promise that he’ll likely get more playing time as part of this otherwise aging group in 2021. Given that their starters are getting to the end of their lines and the Ravens did not draft any interior defenders in this year’s draft, Madubuike is obviously viewed as a future every down starter and giving him more playing time in year two will be important to that goal. Broderick Washington was also selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, but the 5th round pick struggled mightily as a rookie on 161 snaps, so his outlook isn’t nearly as promising as Madubuike.
Justin Ellis is also a reserve option, but he’s also getting up in age in his age 31 season and he isn’t coming down from the level the Ravens’ starters played in their primes. Ellis hasn’t played more than 627 snaps in a season since 2014 and, prior to seeing 358 snaps last season as primarily an injury replacement, he played just 193 snaps total in the prior two seasons. I wouldn’t even expect Ellis to be a roster lock. This is an overall aging and declining group and, unless Campbell can turn back the clock, they don’t have any high level every down players, but they have solid depth overall and they have at least one promising young player.
Nothing significant has changed at linebacker either, with the Ravens bringing back their top-4 off ball linebackers in terms of snaps played. First round rookie Patrick Queen led this group with 858 snaps played and was one of four defensive rookies to get at least one Defensive Rookie of the Year Award vote, finishing third with 4% of the vote. It’s understandable why Queen would get a couple votes, as his traditional counting stats were impressive, including a team leading 106 tackles, but Queen also led the league with 22 missed tackles and struggled in coverage as well, allowing a 85.0% completion, 10.0 yards per catch, and 4 touchdowns on 60 targets, with just 1 interception and 1 deflection.
The only aspect in which Queen did not struggle was as a blitzer, but he only blitzed on 11.8% of his snaps. On those snaps, he did have 3 sacks, 7 hits, and a 19.8% pressure rate, but off ball linebackers don’t often blitz more than Queen did last season, so he will need to improve significantly both against the run and in coverage next season, after ranking among the worst off ball linebackers in the league on PFF in those aspects of the game in 2021. Fortunately, he possesses a sky high ceiling and is only in his age 22 season, so he could easily take a big step forward in his second season in the league, although that isn’t a guarantee.
Queen played more or less every down last season, but at the other off ball linebacker spot the Ravens had three players see action, fellow rookie Malik Harrison, a 3rd round pick who played 265 nondescript rookie year snaps, 2018 undrafted free agent Chris Board, who was also nondescript across 263 snaps in the first significant action of his career, and veteran backup/special teamer LJ Fort, who is at least a solid run stopper, but who also has never played more than the 381 snaps he played last season and he is going into his age 31 season, so he can’t be relied on for a significant role. The Ravens will most likely be hoping Harrison can take a step forward in his second season, but it’s likely all three players will see action again. This is a young group with a high ceiling, but a low floor and very suspect depth.
Not much changes in the secondary either, though the Ravens will get slot cornerback Tavon Young after a torn ACL ended his season in week 2. The Ravens didn’t have an unreasonable amount of injuries last season though, having the 8th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league, so they won’t be able to count on better health overall next season. They also won’t be able to count on Young himself, who has been one of the most injury plagued players in the league in recent years.
Prior to last season, Young missed all of 2019 with injury and he also had a completely lost season due to injury in 2017 as well. In between all the missed time, Young has been a solid starter when on the field and even earned a 3-year, 25.8 million dollar extension after staying healthy in 2018, but his best season by far is still his rookie season in 2016 prior to all of the injuries, when he ranked 17th among cornerbacks on PFF, and Young has missed 30 of 32 games since inking that extension. Young is still only in his age 27 season, but it’s hard to be confident that he can stay healthy or return to his old form.
The Ravens had a talented trio of cornerbacks even without Young last season, in Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Jimmy Smith, so the Ravens won’t force him back into the lineup if he can’t show his old form in training camp and, in fact, they have already made him take a pay cut down to 2.65 million to keep his roster spot for this season, much more in line with a 4th cornerback than a top-3 cornerback. If there is one cornerback he could potentially displace in the top-3, it would be Jimmy Smith, whose age is becoming a concern, now heading into his age 33 season.
Smith still played pretty well last season, ranking 16th among cornerbacks on PFF, but that came on just 454 snaps in 11 games. Missed time with injury is becoming a recurring theme with Smith as well, as he’s missed at least 4 games in 5 straight seasons and in 8 of his 10 seasons in the league. Last season was also Smith’s highest ranked season on PFF since 2017, so it would be a surprise if he could repeat that again in 2021, given his age.
Smith has always at least been a capable starter in his career, but at his age it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him drop off significantly. The Ravens are likely envisioning a competition between Young and Smith for the #3 cornerback job, but in reality, given how injury prone both players are, it’s more like they are insurance for each other and I would expect both to see action at different points of the season.
Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, meanwhile, are locked in as starters, signed to contracts worth 97.5 million over 5 years and 42 million over 3 years respectively. Humphrey was the Ravens first round selection in 2017, 16th overall, and he’s been an above average player since entering the league, earning an above average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons, including two seasons in the top-20 among cornerbacks and a career best 13th ranked season in 2020. After being more of a rotational player in his first two seasons in the league, Humphrey has started all 30 games he’s played over the past two seasons, and, still only going into his age 25, it’s possible he has a higher level that he has yet to show. Even if he doesn’t, he figures to remain an above average cornerback at the very least.
Peters has been a lot more inconsistent throughout his career. Peters was also a first round pick, but he was selected originally by the Chiefs. After an up and down rookie year in 2015, Peters seemed to developing into one of the better cornerbacks in the league, finishing 16th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2016 and 14th in 2017, but issues between him and the coaching staff and his impending contract situation caused the Chiefs to cut ties with Peters and send him to the Rams for a second round pick.
With the Rams, Peters regressed mightily, earning middling grades at best from PFF over about a season and a half, leading to the Rams trading him to the Ravens for a 5th round pick in what amounted to a salary dump in the middle of the 2019 season, which allowed the Rams to then trade for Jalen Ramsey. However, Peters seemed to come back alive as soon as he left the Rams, finishing the 2019 season as PFF’s 4th ranked cornerback and earning himself the aforementioned extension contract in the process.
Given Peters’ high end ability when he is at his best and his relative youth, that was an understandable extension, but Peters fell to 54th among cornerbacks on PFF in the first season of that deal, continuing to show the inconsistency that has plagued him throughout his career. Peters is still only in his age 28 season and has obvious bounce back potential, but it’s fair to wonder if he’s giving the same effort now that he has gotten paid. At the very least, Peters should remain a capable starter, but the Ravens are paying him to be a lot more.
At safety, Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott both remain as starters. Both are relatively new starters, Clark stepping in for the injured Tony Jefferson after week 5 of the 2019 season and Elliott taking over for Earl Thomas when he was released last off-season, but both have held their own, despite entering the league as late round picks. Clark was just a 6th round pick back in 2017 and played just 315 snaps in his first two seasons in the league, but he finished 29th among safeties on PFF in 12 starts as an injury replacement in 2019 and the following off-season the injured Jefferson was released and replaced full-time by Clark, who also signed a 3-year, 15.3 million dollar extension in the process.
Clark wasn’t quite as good as a season long starter in 2020, but he still earned a slightly above average grade from PFF and he proved his 2019 campaign was no fluke. Still only in his age 26 season, he should remain a solid starter for years to come and could possibly even have further untapped upside. Elliott, meanwhile, was a 6th round choice in 2018 and only had played 40 career snaps before Thomas was released and he became his replacement, but he responded pretty well, also earning a slightly above average grade from PFF as a 16-game starter in 2020. He’s not as proven as Clark is yet, but it would be a surprise to see them be a capable starting safety duo again. Cornerback is the strength of this secondary which is the strength of a defense that looks like it could be more middling than most expect this season overall.
The Ravens finished last season with the 2nd best special teams DVOA in the league and were one of just four teams to earn above average DVOA scores in every aspect of special teams. Not only did they play at a high level last season, but there is also good reason to believe they will continue their strong play in 2021, as they had minimal off-season turnover, not only in terms of players, but also coaches. Special teams coordinator Chris Horton enters his 3rd season in that league, but more importantly, the Ravens’ coaching staff is still led by a former special teams coordinator in Jim Harbaugh.
As a former special teams coordinator, Harbaugh is a rarity as a head coach, and, unsurprisingly the Ravens have put more emphasis on special teams during Harbaugh’s tenure than any team in the league outside of the New England Patriots, who also have a former special teams coordinator as head coach. The result has been among the consistently best special teams in the league, including nine straight seasons finishing above average in special teams DVOA.
Not coincidentally, the Ravens’ streak of above average special teams started in kicker Justin Tucker’s first season with the team in 2012. Undrafted in 2012, Tucker has become one of the best kickers in NFL history. Tucker has made 261/288 field goals, giving him the highest field goal percentage of all-time, and 307/311 extra points, not missing his first one until the 2018 season, while finishing in the top-3 among kickers on PFF in six of the past eight seasons, including four finishes at #1 overall and a #2 ranked finish in 2021. He’s not as prolific on kickoffs, but he’s still finished above average on PFF in kickoffs in 5 of the past 8 seasons. In his age 32 season, Tucker is very much still in his prime for a kicker, so I see no reason for dropoff in 2021.
Punter Sam Koch has been with the team even longer, dating back to being selected in the 6th round in 2006, and while he hasn’t been the dominant player at his position that Tucker has at his, he’s been a consistently above average punter, earning above average grades from PFF in 8 straight seasons, including an 11th ranked finish among punters in 2020. His age is a little more of a concern in his age 39 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of dropping off yet and could easily continue being an above average punter in 2021.
Kickoff returner Devin Duvernay averaged 27.5 yards per return on 21 returns and punt returner James Proche averaged 8.6 yards per return on 23 returns, which are both above average marks. Both players were only in their first season in the role, so they don’t have a proven track record, and they benefited from strong play around them, but they earned slightly above average grades from PFF and both have at least a decent chance of remaining in their roles in 2021.
The biggest competition would probably come from running back Justice Hill, but he struggled with a 18.9 yards per kickoff return average on 12 returns as a rookie in 2019 and has never returned a punt. It’s also possible that Duvernay could see more action as a punt returner after seeing 4 as a rookie in 2020, but he doesn’t have a background as a punt returner as a collegiate player, so he would be a projection to that role. This is an unspectacular group, but they should continue benefiting from strong play around them.
The Ravens also have great continuity on the rest of their special teams. The Ravens had 13 players see at least 100 special teams snaps and all of them return for 2021, which should allow them to remain one of the top special teams units in the league. Jordan Richards (330 snaps), LJ Fort (259 snaps), Chris Board (327 snaps), and Kristian Welch (172 snaps) were the stars of the group, earning above average grades from PFF, with Fort leading the way as PFF’s 18th ranked special teamer overall, but all 8 of their top special teamers earned at least average or better grades from PFF.
Among their stars, Welch is just a one year special teamer, but the rest all have multiple seasons of 200+ special teams snaps and an above average grade from PFF under their belt and have a very good chance of repeating their performance in 2021. The Ravens did not make any significant additions to this unit this off-season, but given that they are bringing back all of their key players from one of the best units in the league, additions were not needed.
At first glance, there might not seem like much difference between the 2019 Ravens and the 2020 Ravens statistically, but the 2020 Ravens’ overperformed their 1st and 2nd down performance by a significant amount on 3rd and 4th downs on both sides of the ball, which masked a team that actually finished 22nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, despite finishing 9th points per drive and 4th in points per drive allowed, a steep drop off from their 1st ranked finish in 2019.
There are some reasons to believe the Ravens can repeat that points per drive mark on offense, but they will have to play much closer to the level they did on early downs in 2019, as I don’t expect them to significantly outperform expectations on 3rd and 4th downs again. Significant early down improvement seems at least doable on offense though, compared to their defense, which looks likely to be a middling group, as it seems highly unlikely they will either be drastically improved on 1st and 2nd down or that they will sustain their 3rd and 4th down overperformance on that side of the ball, especially without their top-2 pass rushers from a year ago.
All in all, this is still a playoff caliber team, but I am less bullish on them as a top level Super Bowl contender. With the Browns taking a big step forward defensively this off-season and looking like one of the better teams in the league, the Ravens look likely to be competing for a wild card spot in the AFC, barring another MVP caliber season from Lamar Jackson. I will have a final prediction for the Ravens at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.
8/8/21 Update: The Ravens’ defense should be better than I originally thought, as they ranked 6th in yards per play allowed last season, which is more predictive than first down rate allowed, and they added a much needed edge defender in Justin Houston. Their offense also made a smart signing, adding veteran guard Michael Schofield to potentially start for them. Special teams is also significantly more predictive than I originally thought, so, all in all the Ravens seem to be in much better shape than I originally thought.
9/4/21 Update: The Ravens have some injury concerns going into the season, with running back JK Dobbins out for the year and wide receivers Marquise Brown and Rashod Bateman both banged up to begin the year, but the Ravens still look like one of the better teams in the AFC.
Prediction: 12-5 1st in AFC North