The Ravens had a very strange 2021 season, in many ways. First, they were ravaged by injury, starting even before the season began and continuing throughout the regular season, losing their top-3 running backs Gus Edwards, JD Dobbins, and Justice Hill and top cornerback Marcus Peters to season ending injuries during the pre-season and going on to have the most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the league, by a significant margin.
Despite that, the Ravens began the season 8-3, the best record in the AFC at that point in the season, and they did so despite a -7 turnover margin, which is usually a good sign, as turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and not predictive of future turnover margins. However, the Ravens needed a 6-1 record in one score games to get to that 8-3 record and then their injury situation went from bad to worse when they lost Lamar Jackson for the season with an ankle injury early in their week 14 game.
The Ravens’ turnover margin did stabilize somewhat going forward, as they were just -4 in their final 6 games, despite starting a backup quarterback for most of that stretch, and backup Tyler Huntley actually did a pretty decent job, completing 64.9% of his passes for an average of 5.75 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, adding 6.26 YPC and 2 touchdowns on 47 carries, and finishing the season as PFF’s 25th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible, not great, but certainly not bad for a backup.
However, the Ravens’ luck in close games completely flipped down the stretch, leading to them dropping each of their final 6 games of the regular season to fall from the #1 seed to out of the post-season entirely, with their only loss by more than one score during that stretch coming against the Bengals in a game started by third string quarterback Josh Johnson. With Huntley playing decently, the Ravens still finished last season 11th in offensive efficiency, but their defense was a problem for most of the season, ranking 28th in defensive efficiency, in large part due to injuries.
The Ravens once again excelled on special teams, leading the league in special teams DVOA, but they still finished just 14th in overall efficiency on the season suggesting, all things considered, the Ravens weren’t much better than their 8-9 final record in 2021. However, the Ravens were 14-2 in 2019 while ranking 1st in overall efficiency and 11-5 in 2020 while ranking 9th in overall efficiency, both much healthier seasons, so it’s not hard to see how they could bounce back in a big way in 2022 if they can stay even remotely healthier, after being arguably the most injury effected team in the league last season and still coming out of it with a slightly above average efficiency rating.
Jackson had a down year by his standards even before getting hurt, falling from 3rd among quarterbacks on PFF in 2019 to 15th in 2020 to 24th in 2021 prior to his injury, while seeing his QB rating drop from 113.3 to 99.3 to 87.0, but that probably is because of how much pass-heavier this offense got last year with their running backs hurt and their defense struggling. In 11 games he started and finished before his injury, Jackson averaged 34.4 pass attempts per game, up significantly from 26.7 in 2019 to 25.1 in 2020, to the point where Jackson actually had more pass attempts in those 11 games in 2021 (378) than he did in 15 starts in 2020 (376).
Jackson also continued to be just as involved as a runner, averaging 11.9 carries per game in those 11 games, actually up from 11.7 carries per game in 2019 and 10.6 carries per game in 2020, giving Jackson a ridiculous usage total between pass attempts, sacks, and carries that extrapolates to 844 over a full 17 games (compared to 600 in 2019 and 564 in 2020), which would have led the league by a mile and could have, in part, led to Jackson suffering that injury, handling a monumental workload for a team that had significant issues around him. Jackson wasn’t quite as effective as a runner as he had been in the previous two seasons, but he still averaged a ridiculous 5.77 YPC, down from an even more ridiculous 6.60 YPC across 2019-2020 combined.
Expecting to be healthier at running back and on defense, the Ravens are likely to transition back to their run heavy 2019-2020 offensive scheme and they made some changes to the roster to that end this off-season, which I will get into in a little bit. Jackson may never be as incredible as he was in his MVP season in 2019 again, even if he goes on to have a great NFL career, but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see Jackson and this Ravens team bounce back to their 2020 level of play.
Jackson’s playing style will always make him more susceptible to suffering an injury than an average quarterback, but he had missed just one game due to injury prior to last season and he’s still only in his age 25 season, so I don’t expect him to suddenly become an injury prone quarterback. If he does happen to miss a little bit of time, the Ravens probably wouldn’t be in huge trouble, with Huntley having proven he can step in and be a B- version of Jackson in the same offensive scheme if needed. Huntley went undrafted in 2020 and might not have a huge ceiling long-term, but he’s also only in his age 24 season and fits what the Ravens want to do on offense. With one of the better quarterbacks in the league and a solid backup, the Ravens are in a pretty enviable quarterback situation.
As I mentioned, the Ravens made moves this off-season with the goal of making this offense more like their 2019-2020 versions. One of those moves was trading away #1 wide receiver Marquise Brown, which wasn’t really their choice because Brown wanted a big contract extension and to play in a pass heavier offense, both of which conflicted with the Ravens’ team building strategy, leading to him demanding a trade, and the Ravens still got a first round pick out of it, which they used to fortify the interior of their offensive line.
That leaves the Ravens with a very thin depth chart at wide receiver, but the Ravens’ #2 and #3 wide receivers on their dominant 2019 team were Willie Snead and Seth Roberts, who finished with slash lines of 31/339/5 and 46/584/7 respectively, while their 2020 offense had significant snap counts played by Snead (33/432/3), Miles Boykin (19/266/4), and Devin Duvernay (20/201/0), behind Brown as the #1 receiver. Both years, the tight end position was more important to their passing game than wide receivers, which figures to be the case again in 2022, especially after the Ravens used a pair of 4th round picks on tight ends Isaiah Likely and Charlie Koler.
The Ravens are hoping Brown’s #1 wide receiver role can be replaced by second year wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who was underwhelming with a 1.26 yards per route run average in 12 games in a generally injury plagued first year in the league, but who also was a first round pick a year ago and still has the upside to be a high level wide receiver long-term. Brown only averaged 1.69 yards per route run across his three seasons with the Ravens, so, while Brown did lead Ravens wide receivers in yardage in all three seasons, it wouldn’t be that hard or that surprising for Bateman to be similarly effective in 2022 and beyond, assuming he can be healthier than he was as a rookie.
That leaves holdover wide receivers Devin Duvernay (602 snaps) and James Proche (211 snaps) to be their #2 and #3 receiver behind Bateman, with 2021 4th round pick Tylan Wallace (85 snaps) likely to see a bigger role in year two. Duvernay has averaged just 0.83 yards per route run since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2020, while Proche is a 2020 6th round pick with a career 1.20 yards per route run average in very limited action, so this is a very inexperienced and underwhelming group behind Bateman, but there is at least some upside.
With this offense being pass heavier than recent memory in 2021, top tight end Mark Andrews exploded for a 107/1361/9 slash line, 6th most receiving yards in the NFL and most among tight ends, with a target total of 153, 9th most in the NFL. That’s up significantly from having target totals of 50, 98, and 88 that led to slash lines of 34/552/3, 64/852/10, and 58/701/7 in his first three seasons in the league from 2018-2020 respectively, but, even with this offense being run heavier this season, I could still see Andrews having another big receiving yardage year, with the focus back on the tight end position in this offense and Andrews, now in his age 27 season and very much in his prime, being by far their best receiving option at the position.
Even if his raw total isn’t as big again this year, he’s been a highly efficient player throughout his career, averaging a dominant 2.25 yards per route run which, along with his solid run blocking, has led to him finishing 6th, 2nd, 5th, and 1st among tight ends on PFF in his four seasons in the league respectively, since being drafted by the Ravens in the 3rd round in the 2018 NFL Draft. Extended on a 4-year, 56 million dollar deal last off-season, making him the 4th highest paid tight end in the league in average annual salary, Andrews is likely to be well worth that going forward, especially as other tight ends get paid and push him down the average salary ranking.
The addition of Likely and Koler in the 4th round of the draft signals a shift back to a more tight end focused offense, but the return of veteran Nick Boyle from an injury plagued 2021 campaign is probably more important in the short-term than either draft pick and Boyle is likely to be the #2 tight end over the rookies as long as he’s healthy. Boyle’s health may still be a question mark though, with his injury going back to the middle of the 2020 season, costing him the final half of that campaign and limiting him to just 94 underwhelming snaps in 5 games in 2021.
That was a huge loss because Boyle is one of the top run blocking tight ends in the league when healthy, finishing in the top-12 among tight ends in run blocking grade on PFF in every season from 2018-2020 prior to getting hurt, and he can contribute a little bit as a receiver as well, with a decent 1.17 yards per route run average for his career. Even if he’s not at his best, Boyle has a good chance to remain an above average run blocking tight end, which would make him a useful part of the Ravens’ run heavy offense.
One of Likely and Koler could still be involved though, as #3 tight end Hayden Hurst was in 2019 when this offense was at its best, playing 457 snaps, mostly as a blocker, but also averaging an impressive 1.69 yards per route run and making this offense very difficult to defend, with most teams around the league unequipped to deal with a team with a dominant running game, a dual threat quarterback, a strong offensive line, and the ability to effective pass out of multiple tight end sets. The Ravens are banking on that continuing being the case in 2022, given that they have one of the thinnest wide receiver groups in the league.
With essentially their entire running back depth chart wiped out by injury before the season even began, the Ravens were forced to turn to signing a pair of veterans looking for work late in the off-season in Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray and giving them 133 carries and 119 carries respectively. Both backs were pretty effective, averaging 4.33 YPC and 4.21 YPC respectively, while having carry success rates of 59% and 58% respectively, 3rd and 9th among eligible running backs respectively, but they benefited from Lamar Jackson’s dual threat ability keeping defenses honest against the run and the Ravens are expecting more out of this group in 2022 now they’re healthier.
How the carries will be broken out remains to be seen, but JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards had a 128/105 carry split in the final 11 games of the 2020 season and they were likely to see a similar split as their two primary backs before getting hurt last season, so something around there is what I would expect to see in 2022. Dobbins was a 2nd round pick in 2020 and averaged an impressive 6.01 YPC average on 134 carries as a rookie, so he has a lot of upside long-term, even if his torn ACL dampens his outlook somewhat and could limit him in his first year back.
Edwards, meanwhile, went undrafted in 2018, but was effective as part of a tandem in 2018-2020 prior to getting hurt, averaging 5.20 YPC with 10 touchdowns on 414 carries and being a perfect fit for this offense because of his ability to run between the tackles at 6-1 238, with defenses frequently bringing in smaller, more athletic linebackers to try to defend Lamar Jackson sideline to sideline. Edwards probably won’t see a significant uptick on the 138 carries per season he had in the three years prior to his injury and he might not be 100% right away in his return from a torn ACL, but he has a good chance to remain an effective between the tackles runner. Both he and Dobbins will continue to benefit significantly from defenses having to worry about Jackson’s dual threat ability.
Also returning from a serious injury, Justice Hill probably won’t see a significant role in 2022 and could even be on the roster bubble. He might have been on the bubble last year even before getting hurt, with the 2019 4th round pick showing very little on just 83 touches in his first two seasons in the league, and now he has a torn achilles on his resume, and the Ravens have added further depth to this position, with veteran Mike Davis being signed in free agency and a 6th round pick being used on Tyler Badie, who has some long-term potential.
Davis will probably have a role in the passing game even if he doesn’t see a significant amount of carries, as neither Edwards (0.69 career yards per route run) nor Dobbins (0.55 career yards per route run) do much in the passing game, while Davis has experience as a passing down back and has at least a decent 1.05 yards per route run average in his career. The Ravens don’t utilize their running backs much in the passing game anyway, with just 49, 47, and 62 catches by Ravens running backs over the past three seasons respectively, but Davis could have a 30-40 catch season and will provide insurance as a runner, likely to be better than the mediocre 3.70 YPC he has averaged on 550 career carries, in an offense that is very conducive to impressive running back production. As long as they stay remotely healthy, this should be a better position group than a year ago.
The Ravens are also getting a key player back from injury on the offensive line, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley set to return after missing essentially a season and a half, including all but 68 snaps in 2021, with an ankle injury. Stanley is only in his age 28 season was a huge part of their offensive success in his last full season in 2019, finishing 3rd among offensive tackles on PFF, after finishing 29th, 21st, and 15th in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively, and before being PFF’s 19th ranked offensive tackle in 2020 at the time of his injury. He might not be quite at his best in his first year back, but he should still be a welcome re-addition for a team that replaced him with veteran Alejandro Villanueva last year, a was a middling starter who opted to hang them up this off-season ahead of what would have been his age 34 season in 2022.
The offensive lineman that the Ravens selected with the first round pick they got out of the Marquise Brown trade was Tyler Linderbaum, who will replace free agent departure Bradley Bozeman at center. Bozeman was PFF’s 11th ranked center in 2021, so he won’t be a small loss, but Linderbaum is one of the better center prospects of the past decade and could easily be an above average starter as a rookie and for years to come. The Ravens also added veteran Morgan Moses on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal and he figures to take over as the starting right tackle.
With Villanueva playing at left tackle for most of the year, that pushed Patrick Mekari into action at right tackle and he was solid, earning an average grade from PFF across 762 snaps, but Moses could be a little bit of an upgrade, having finished average or better on PFF in 7 straight seasons, while making 112 of a possible 113 starts at right tackle over that stretch and finishing in the top-20 among offensive tackles on PFF three times, including a 15th ranked finish as recently as 2020. Moses is now in his age 31 season and could decline a little bit, but he hasn’t shown any signs of decline yet and has a good chance to remain at least a solid starter even if he declines a little.
Moses being added will likely send Mekari to the bench, where he gives them a versatile reserve who can play anywhere on the offense line, who is only in his age 25 season, and who has generally held up well in 25 career starts in three seasons in the league (3 at guard, 10 at center, 12 at tackle). It’s possible Mekari could be a candidate to start at left guard, but that’s the only position up for grabs on this offensive line and Mekari seems like a long shot, with other good candidates in the mix as well.
Ben Powers earned a middling grade from PFF across 12 starts at left guard last season, after earning a middling grade from PFF at right guard in the first 7 starts of his career 2020, so he is likely to remain the starter, but he could face competition from 2021 3rd round pick Ben Cleveland, who played 367 nondescript snaps as a rookie, and Tyre Phillips, a hybrid guard/tackle who has struggled on 807 career snaps since being drafted in the 3rd round by the Ravens in 2020. Powers is likely the favorite for the job, which would leave Cleveland and Phillips as useful reserves with upside, along with Mekari and 4th round rookie tackle Daniel Faalele.
The only offensive lineman locked into the same position where he saw significant action in 2021 is right guard Kevin Zeitler, who was PFF’s 12th ranked guard in his first season in Baltimore last season. Zeitler is now going into his age 32 season and will start to decline soon, but he’s never finished worse than 32nd among guards on PFF in 10 seasons in the league, while starting 151 total games and finishing in the top-15 among guards on PFF seven times, so, even if he does decline, he has a good chance to still be a solid starter, barring a significant dropoff, which isn’t likely. This should be an above average offensive line in 2022 and one with good depth.
As I mentioned, injuries were a problem for the Ravens on defense last season as well, a big part of the reason why their defense regressed significantly from the previous two seasons, finishing 28th in defensive efficiency, after finishing 7th in both 2019 and 2020. One key injury was to veteran Calais Campbell, by far their top interior defender. Campbell technically only missed two games with injury, but there were three other games where he was active, only to play just 42 snaps combined across the three games.
Campbell still fared well when on the field, earning above average grades against the run and as a pass rusher and finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked interior defender overall across 615 snaps, but he was also limited to just 410 snaps in 12 games by injury in 2020 and now heads into his age 36 season, so it’s very likely his best days are behind him and a significant dropoff is definitely a possibility at this point. Campbell has finished in the top-10 at his position 7 times in the past 8 seasons, so, even if he isn’t anywhere near his best, he could still be an above average starter, but I wouldn’t expect him to be as effective as he was a year ago and he could easily miss more time with injury.
Fellow interior defender Brandon Williams also missed four games with injury in 2021, but he struggled when on the field, finishing 109th out of 146 eligible interior defender across 447 snaps, and was not retained this off-season, as was the case for fellow struggling veteran Justin Ellis, who finished the 2021 season as ranked 108th among interior defenders across 381 snaps. The biggest veteran replacement for Williams and Ellis will be Michael Pierce, a familiar face who spent his first four seasons in the league with the Ravens (2016-2019) and who figures to be a significant upgrade on Williams and Ellis, but who also has a concerning history of injuries and durability problems.
In Pierce’s four seasons in Baltimore, he was an effective run stopper at 6-0 340 who finished 14th, 11th, 4th, and 44th among interior defenders on PFF in run defense grade in the four seasons respectively, while also adding a 6.9% pressure rate as a pass rusher. Pierce never played more than 594 snaps in a season though, averaging 460 per season across his four years in Baltimore. He only missed four games total, but his size/conditioning make it tough for him to play a bigger every down role, leaving him at a snap count of 30.6 per game with the Ravens, even though has the ability to be effective both as a pass rusher and a run stopper.
Despite his conditioning issues, Pierce still signed a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal with the Vikings following his tenure in Baltimore, but he opted out of the 2020 season and was limited to 251 snaps in 8 games by injury in 2021, before being released this off-season and coming back to Baltimore on a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar deal. Pierce was effective in his limited action in Minnesota, ranking as PFF’s 11th ranked interior defender in 2021 when he was on the field, but he is now heading into his age 30 season and is unlikely to be able to play a bigger role than he did in his last stint in Baltimore. Barring a significant drop off or significant time missed with injury, he should still be a highly effective rotational player for them, but he comes with some risk given his history of injury and durability issues.
Aside from the aging Campbell and Pierce, the Ravens are otherwise going with a youth movement at the position. They used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on Travis Jones, who could have a rookie year role, and they also have third year players Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington who could both take on larger roles in 2022, now that Williams and Ellis are both gone. Madubuike already had a snap count of 482 last season and was decent, if unspectacular in that role, after flashing potential on 259 snaps as a rookie. A 3rd round pick in 2020, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he had a little bit of a breakout year in 2022, and, even if that’s not a guarantee, he’s likely to be able to remain a solid player even in a larger role.
Washington, on the other hand, struggled on 161 snaps as a rookie, but was better on 293 snaps in 2021 and could be a useful rotational player in a bigger role, even if that’s not a guarantee. The Ravens also brought back another familiar face in veteran Brent Urban, who has been a useful rotational player throughout most of his career, including his first five seasons in the league with the Ravens from 2014-2018, but he’s missed 57 games in 8 seasons in the league with injury, he’s coming off of the worst PFF grade of his career, and he now heads into his age 31 season, so it’s unclear how much, if any, he has left in the tank. He won’t be guaranteed a roster spot in what looks like overall a better position group, with dead weight veterans Brandon Williams and Justin Ellis being cleared for promising young players, as well as the re-addition of Michael Pierce in free agency.
The Ravens are also going with a youth movement at the edge defender position as well, opting not to bring back veterans Justin Houston (577 snaps) and Pernell McPhee (234 snaps), who were effective in their roles last season, but who are now heading into their age 33 season and age 34 season respectively. Starters Odafe Oweh (615 snaps) and Tyus Bowser (832 snaps) are both younger players and both remain starters in 2022, while David Ojabo was added in the 2nd round of the draft, but Bowser is coming off of a torn achilles suffered in week 18 of 2021, which could easily limit him in the beginning of the year, while Ojabo is also coming off of a torn achilles that he suffered in the pre-draft process, which will likely cost him most of his rookie year, so depth is going to be needed at the position.
The young player with the biggest opportunity to step up and be the depth they need at the position is 2021 5th round pick Daelin Hayes, who played just 4 snaps in a disappointing and injury plagued rookie season, but who still has the upside to develop into a useful player long-term and who has the opportunity to earn a significant role, especially early in the year, with Bowser and Ojabo on the mend. The Ravens also added cheap veteran reinforcements in Vince Biegel and Steven Means, but both would be underwhelming options, even in a limited role.
Biegel at least has some upside, as the 2017 4th round pick earned a slightly above average grade from PFF across 627 snaps in his third season in the league in 2019, faring well as run defender and pass rusher (10.7% pressure rate), before tearing his achilles, missing all of 2020, and struggling to work back into the rotation in 2021, playing just 7 snaps total. Biegel is still only going into his age 29 season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he bounced back to 2019 form, now another year removed from his injury, but 2019 is also the only season of his career in which he’s played more than 121 snaps, so he’s a complete one-year wonder in terms of even being a solid player in a significant role. He’s not a bad depth option, but he definitely comes with some downside.
Means, on the other hand, comes with almost no upside, spending most of his first seven seasons in the league as a special teamer (48 defensive snaps played per season from 2013-2019), being forced into snap counts of 645 and 693 respectively over the past two seasons respectively on a terrible Falcons defense, and struggling mightily in those significant roles, finishing 91st out of 124 eligible edge defenders and 127th out of 129 eligible edge defenders respectively, with a horrendous 5.0% pressure rate combined between the two seasons. Even in a relatively thin position group, Means shouldn’t be guaranteed a roster spot.
With Bowser and Ojabo working back from injury, Oweh is likely to lead this position group in snaps played and, given that he was a first round selection in 2021, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him take a step forward in year two, after earning a slightly above average grade from PFF as a rookie. Bowser doesn’t quite have the same upside as Oweh, but he was a 2nd round pick in 2017, he’s still in his prime in his age 27 season, and he’s coming off of a career best year in 2021, prior to getting hurt, finishing as PFF’s 26th ranked edge defender, playing the run well, leading the team with 7 sacks, while adding 8 hits and a 11.8% pressure rate, and even showing the ability to drop into coverage well, something he did on 39.2% of his pass defense snaps last season, playing kind of a unique role on this defense.
Bowser had never played more than 540 snaps in a season prior to 2021, so he’s a one-year wonder at that level and, of course, his injury situation adds more concern, but he earned an above average grade from PFF in 2020 across that snap count, as he did in 2019 across 389 snaps, so he had shown plenty of potential prior to his mini-breakout year in 2021. He probably won’t be 100% in the first half of the season, but he could be back to normal by the second half of the season and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he continued being an above average starter going forward. Ojabo, meanwhile, is unlikely to see much action as a rookie, but he could have been a top-10 pick prior to the injury, so he obviously has a lot of upside long-term as well. Depth is a concern behind the top-3 of Oweh, Bowser, and Ojabo, especially concerning given that Bowser and Ojabo are both coming off torn achilles tendons, but their top-3 does have a significant upside.
Off ball linebacker was also a position of weakness last season, but injuries weren’t really the culprit. The Ravens used a first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on linebacker Patrick Queen, who has played 858 snaps and 826 snaps respectively for the Ravens over his first two seasons in the league, but he has mostly struggled, finishing 98th out of 99 eligible and 78th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF over the past two seasons.
Queen is an above average blitzer and got better against the run in year two, earning a middling run defense grade from PFF, but the 42 tackles he’s missed over the past two seasons are the most in the NFL regardless of position over that stretch and he has consistently struggled in coverage as well. Only in his age 23 season, Queen still has a high upside and time to improve on the aspects of his game that need improvement, but even if he takes another step forward in year three, he could still remain a below average every down option.
At the other off ball linebacker spot, the Ravens had a trio of players see at least somewhat regular action in Josh Bynes (537 snaps), Chris Board (337 snaps), and Malik Harrison (171 snaps). Bynes mostly played an early down role, but he excelled in that role, finishing in the top-14 among off ball linebackers on PFF in overall grade for the third time in the past four seasons, finishing in the top-14 among off ball linebackers on PFF in run defense grade in each of those three seasons as well. Bynes is heading into his age 33 season, so some regression is definitely possible in 2022, even if he could still remain a useful base package player.
Board is no longer with the team, after posting a middling grade on PFF in his limited action last season, a departure which, combined with Josh Bynes’ age, should open up a bigger role for Malik Harrison, who was selected in the 3rd round in the same draft as Queen. Harrison struggled to get on the field thus far in his career though, despite an underwhelming depth chart, playing just 436 snaps in two seasons in the league, while showing very little promise even in that limited role.
Harrison still has upside and is only in his age 24 season, but he may be running out of time to develop into a useful role player and could easily struggle in 2022 if forced into a significant role. He’ll be their top reserve by default, with none of their other off ball linebackers locked into a roster spot. With Queen struggling thus far in his career, Bynes being an aging role player, and questionable depth, this is a position group with some significant concerns.
The secondary was definitely the Ravens’ most injury plagued defensive unit last season. With Marcus Peters already out for the year with a torn ACL before the season began, the Ravens were hoping to have a top cornerback trio of Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young, and Jimmy Smith, but Humphrey and Smith were limited to 746 snaps in 12 games and 293 snaps in 10 games respectively by injury and, while Young played all 17 games, he struggled, finishing the year as PFF’s 84th ranked cornerback out of 134 eligible across 550 snaps.
Anthony Averett, expected to be the 4th or 5th cornerback back before all of the injuries, led all Ravens cornerbacks in snaps played with 807 and finished as PFF’s 107th ranked cornerback out of 134 eligible. On top of that, starting safety DeShon Elliott was lost for the year after six games, leaving Brandon Stephens to start and struggle in his absence, finishing the season as PFF’s 87th ranked safety out of 98 eligible across 742 snaps.
Humphrey and Peters should return as the top-2 cornerbacks in 2022, with the Ravens signing free agent Kyle Fuller to a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal to replace the aging Jimmy Smith as the #3 cornerback and then using 4th round picks on Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion Williams for depth purposes, with Tavon Young and Anthony Averett also not being retained this off-season. DeShon Elliott is another player who wasn’t retained this off-season, but the Ravens aimed higher at the safety position to replace him, making ex-Saint Marcus Williams the 8th highest paid safety in the league in average annual value on a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal in free agency and then using the 14th overall pick on Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton.
The Ravens also still have safety Chuck Clark, who has started 44 games over the past three seasons, including 32 of a possible 33 over the past two seasons, and who has played pretty well in those three seasons, finishing above average or better on PFF in all three seasons, including top-30 finishes in 2019 and 2020. Only in his age 27 season, Clark is still very much a starting caliber safety, giving the Ravens a trio of starting caliber safeties.
How exactly the Ravens plan to use their safeties remains to be seen, but it’s very likely they use three and even four safety sets with regularity in sub packages to mask their lack of depth at linebacker and cornerback, with Brandon Stephens being an option as the 4th safety. Stephens struggled in 2021, but he was only a 3rd round rookie and still has the upside to be a useful player long-term, with the versatility to play safety, linebacker, and slot cornerback.
Clark and Hamilton also have slot and linebacker versatility as well, while Marcus Williams is a pure prototypical deep safety. The Ravens paid Williams handsomely, but he’s been one of the best in the league in that role over his five seasons in the league, finishing above average on PFF in all five seasons, including four finishes in the top-8 among safeties, while starting 76 out of a possible 81 games over that stretch. He’s also still very much in his prime in his age 26 season, coming off an 8th ranked finish among safeties on PFF on the franchise tag in 2021, so he has a very good chance to live up to his contract or to even prove to be a bargain, as other safeties get paid over the next few years and push him even further down the average annual value rankings.
Assuming they’re healthy, Humphrey and Peters should both be big re-additions, particularly Peters, who they didn’t have at all last season. Peters will be more than a full year removed from the injury by week 1, so he has a better chance than most players coming off of a torn ACL of being 100% in their first year back, but he also has been very inconsistent in his career even when healthy, finishing in the top-16 among cornerbacks on PFF in three of his six healthy seasons in the league, but finishing outside of the top-50 in the other three seasons, so it’s unclear exactly what the Ravens will get from Peters in 2021. He’s still relatively in his prime though, in his age 29 season, and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over the players who struggled in his absence last season.
Humphrey, on the other hand, did play the majority of the season last year before a shoulder injury ended his year, but he actually had a career worst year, even if he still did finish 49th among cornerbacks on PFF, slightly above average. Humphrey finished a career best 13th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2020 and is a former first round pick who is still only in his age 26 season, so has obvious bounce back potential in 2022. He and Peters have a good chance to be an above average cornerback duo, even with Peters’ history of inconsistency, which would be a huge boost for the Ravens at a position of significant weakness a year ago.
Fuller’s outlook isn’t as optimistic though, which explains why he was available so inexpensively this off-season. Fuller was one of the better cornerbacks in the league in his prime, finishing 29th and 8th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2017 and 2018 respectively, but he only earned middling grades from PFF in 2019 and 2020 in his final two seasons with the Bears and then struggled mightily in his lone season in Denver in 2021, finishing 127th out of 134 eligible cornerbacks across 719 snaps.
Now heading into his age 30 season, Fuller is highly unlikely to ever bounce back to his prime form and could easily continue struggling, even in a #3 cornerback role, which is a concern, because the Ravens only have inexperienced young players behind him on the depth chart. The Ravens have three good safeties and two good cornerbacks, but several of those players are coming off significant injuries and depth is still a concern behind them, which hurts their overall grade for this position group. Still, it’s hard not to see how they’ll be significantly better in this group compared to last year’s injury plagued group, and that improvement will have a big effect on this defense as a whole.
Special teams was the Ravens’ biggest strength in 2021, leading the league in special teams DVOA and doing it by a wide margin. That’s not all that surprising, as the Ravens have a head coach in Jim Harbaugh with a special teams background and have consistently invested in their special teams throughout his tenure with the team, leading to consistently good special teams results, including 10 straight above average seasons in special teams DVOA.
Uncoincidentally, that 10-season stretch dates back to the addition of kicker Justin Tucker as an undrafted free agent in 2012, with Tucker having one of the best kicking careers in NFL history over the past decade. In total, Tucker has made 326/358 field goals in his career, giving him the highest field goal percentage of all-time, and 382/386 extra points, despite playing most of his career after they changed the extra point distance, while finishing in the top-3 among kickers on PFF seven times, with five finishes as the #1 overall kicker, including during the 2021 season, a big part of their overall special teams success last season.. Tucker is unlikely to decline significantly in 2022 and the same is true of the rest of this special teams unit.
The Ravens did lose long-time talented punter Sam Koch to retirement this off-season, and he still finished as PFF’s 8th ranked punter in his final season in the league in 2021, but the Ravens used a 4th round pick to replace him with Jordan Stout, who should be at least a solid option as a rookie. Devin Duvernay returns as the primary return man, a role he played pretty well last season, so only key player the Ravens lost and didn’t replace on this defense was Chris Board, who, along with Tylan Wallace, were the Ravens’ two top core special teamers in 2021, with both finishing in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF. Board will be missed, but Wallace still remains and overall this still looks like one of the best special teams units in the league.
In 2021, the Ravens fell to 8-9 and 14th in overall efficiency, after a 2019 season in which they were 14-2 and ranked 1st in efficiency and a 2020 season in which they were 11-5 and ranked 9th in efficiency, but it’s not hard to see how injuries were the primary culprit, affecting their defense, their running backs, their offensive line, and, most importantly, costing quarterback Lamar Jackson almost six games. Likely to be much healthier in 2022, the Ravens have a good chance to get back into the post-season, even in a deeper AFC. Their dominant 2019 campaign is probably out of reach for this team, but they could easily have a performance similar to 2020. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Final Prediction: Injuries are a concern for a team with several key players returning from injury, but they have the upside to be among the best teams in the league if they’re healthy and are one of my favorite Super Bowl sleepers.
Prediction: 11-6, 1st in AFC North