Joe Flacco led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in 2012 and the Ravens have been paying for it ever since. Flacco had arguably the best 4-game stretch of his career during that playoff run, completing 57.9% of his passes for an average of 9.05 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions, which led to the Ravens re-signing him to a 6-year, 120.6 million dollar deal as a free agent after the season, but he was never nearly that good before and he hasn’t come close to being that good again since.
In the 5 seasons prior to the Super Bowl, he completed 60.5% of his passes for an average of 7.08 YPA, 102 touchdowns, and 56 interceptions. In the 5 seasons since, he’s arguably been worse, completing 62.8% of his passes for an average of 6.48 YPA, 98 touchdowns, and 73 interceptions. For salary cap purposes, he’s restructured his contract several times, including a 3-year extension he signed in 2016, but he’s made a total of 112 million since the Super Bowl and is owed another 75 million over the next 4 seasons.
At the same time, he’s coming off of arguably the worst statistical season of his career, completing 64.1% of his passes for a career low 5.72 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. A lot of that is because of issues in the receiving corps and he was also playing through a back injury for most of the season, but he’s earned negative grades on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons and is now going into his age 33 season.
He could be better in 2018, with a revamped receiving corps and hopefully better health, but the Ravens traded up into the end of the first round to draft Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson 32nd overall, so the writing is on the wall either way. Even if Flacco has a bounce back season in 2018, they’ll likely move on from him next off-season and build their team around the much less expensive Jackson (9.47 million over 4 years). None of Flacco’s remaining salary is guaranteed, so they can cut him at any time, although they’ll probably be able to get something for him in a trade next off-season.
Jackson is a tough quarterback to project to the next level and needs at least a year on the bench improving his technique and accuracy, but he has rare athleticism for a quarterback and made some big throws in colleges. Unless Flacco really struggles, I wouldn’t expect to see much of him as a rookie aside from some gadget plays, but it’s clear he’s the future in Baltimore. The Ravens would not have moved up into the first round to get him if they did not see him as their future signal caller.
As mentioned, the receiving corps was a big part of the reason why Flacco’s numbers were down last season. Just 146 of their 363 completions went to wide receivers in 2017 (40.2%), with the rest going to tight ends and running backs who all averaged less than 10 yards per catch. They also did not have a single wide receiver or tight end earn a positive pass catching grade from Pro Football Focus. As a result, the Ravens completely revamped their receiving corps this off-season.
Mike Wallace, Benjamin Watson, and Jeremy Maclin led this team in receiving with slash lines of 52/748/4, 61/522/4, and 40/440/3 respectively, but all three are no longer with the team. The Ravens replaced them by adding wide receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead in free agency and drafting tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews in the 1st and 3rd round respectively and wide receivers Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley in the 4th and 5th round respectively. It’s still far from the best receiving corps and it may take them a little while to gel, but it would be hard for this receiving corps to be worse than it was last season.
Crabtree should have the biggest immediate impact of any of their additions. Crabtree is coming off of a down season with the Raiders, playing just 599 snaps in 14 games and posting a 58/618/8 slash line. Now going into his age 30 season, the Raiders cut Crabtree rather than pay him 7.5 million non-guaranteed, but the Ravens clearly think he can bounce back, giving him a 3-year deal worth 21 million that guarantees him 8 million in 2018.
Crabtree seems to be slowing down, but could still prove to be a smart signing for a team desperate for wide receivers. Aside from injury plagued seasons in 2013 and 2014, Crabtree finished with a positive grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons prior to last season (topping 850 yards in all 4 seasons) and should still have a couple seasons left in the tank. The Ravens also don’t risk losing compensation picks in 2019 by signing him, because he was released by his previous team.
Brown and Snead are also coming off of down years, but are not as proven as Crabtree. Brown seemingly had a breakout 2nd season in the league in 2015, finishing with a 65/1003/7 slash line, but injuries limited him to 1,085 snaps in 25 games in the 2 seasons since and he has a combined 60/816/5 slash line in those 2 seasons, including just 21 catches in 10 games last season. The Ravens are taking a flyer on him with a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal, but he has a sickle cell trait that could make him an injury risk for the rest of his career and he was an older rookie, so he’s already going into his age 29 season. I wouldn’t expect him to come close to his 2015 production.
Snead has a better chance of bouncing back. Originally undrafted in 2014, Snead had solid seasons in 2015 and 2016 with the Saints, posting slash lines of 69/984/3 and 72/895/4 respectively and earning positive grades in both seasons. In 2017, he was supposed to be a bigger part of the offense with Brandin Cooks out, but he was suspended for the first 3 games of the season for an off-season DUI and was limited to just 325 snaps in 11 games upon his return, partially for disciplinary reasons, partially because he was never healthy. When on the field, he earned a negative grade from PFF and only managed 8 catches. Still only in his age 26 season, Snead gets a fresh start with the Ravens, who signed him to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal as a restricted free agent that the Saints did not match. He could easily return to form. He’ll compete with Brown for playing time in 2-wide receiver sets.
The rookies, Scott and Lasley, will likely begin the year in depth roles. Their main competition will be holdovers Chris Moore and Breshad Perriman, but the Ravens clearly don’t think much of either, given that they added 5 wide receivers between free agency and the draft this off-season. Perriman was a first round selection in 2015, but he’s been about as big of a bust as you can be. After missing his entire rookie year with injury, Perriman has caught just 43.0% of his targets for an average of 5.76 yards per attempt in his career and was a healthy scratch down the stretch in 2017, despite little talent ahead of him on the depth chart. Owed a 650K roster bonus on the 3rd day of training camp, he could be cut loose fairly soon. Moore, meanwhile, is a 2016 4th round pick who has underwhelming on 537 career snaps.
At tight end, Hurst and Andrews will compete for roles with incumbents Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams. Hurst should be the primary pass catcher. He showed great pass catching ability and athleticism in 2 years as the starter at South Carolina, although he’s a risky first round pick because he’s already going into his age 25 season and he’s very raw as a run blocker. At 6-5 250, he has the size to be a better blocker, but he could take a couple years to develop. As a receiver, he’ll likely have a big role immediately. Andrews is also a better receiver than blocker and should see an immediate role in the passing game.
Boyle is their best blocking tight end, but the 6-4 270 pounder moves like an offensive lineman and has a 7.69 yards per catch average on 52 catches in 3 seasons in the league. He played close to every down snaps last season (695, 20th in the NFL by a tight end), but he should be more of a blocking specialist in 2018. Williams, meanwhile, is a former 2nd round pick, but he’s on the roster bubble, with Boyle, Hurst, and Andrews all likely locked into spots. Injuries have limited him to 47 catches in just 25 games in 3 seasons in the league and he’s not as good of a blocker as Boyle. If he stays healthy all off-season, he might have some trade value, but I would not expect him to be a big part of the Ravens’ season, even in an unsettled receiving corps.
The Ravens also had issues on the offensive line in 2017. Injuries were a big part of it, as left guard Alex Lewis missed the entire season with a shoulder injury, while right guard Marshal Yanda missed the final 14 games of the season with a broken ankle. Replacements James Hurst and Matt Skura finished 66th and 73rd respectively out of 80 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus, so they had arguably the worst starting guards in the league last season.
Yanda will be the biggest re-addition, as he finished in the top-8 among guards in 6 straight seasons from 2011 to 2016, including 5 seasons in the top-2, but he’s going into his age 34 season, so it’s very possible his best years are behind him. He should still be a good starter for another couple seasons and he missed just 5 games in 8 seasons prior to last season, but I wouldn’t expect him to be as good as he was before the injury.
Lewis is younger, as the 2016 4th round pick is only going into his age 26 season, but he’s not nearly as good as Yanda and he has more of an injury history, as he also missed 8 games with injury as a rookie. Lewis started the other 8 games, 3 at left tackle, 5 at left guard, but he struggled at both spots. He’s not a lock to ever develop into a capable starter. There has been talk that he’ll move to right tackle to replace Austin Howard, a league average starter who signed with the Colts as a free agent this off-season.
If Lewis stays at left guard, it’ll be James Hurst moving to right tackle. Despite the 2014 undrafted free agent struggling mightily in 31 career starts, the Ravens kept him on a 4-year, 17.5 million dollar deal this off-season, suggesting he’ll start somewhere. His versatility is his biggest asset, as he’s made 14 starts at left tackle, 2 starts at right tackle, and 15 starts at left guard, but he’s finished below average on PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, with 3 seasons in the bottom-15 at his position. Third round rookie Orlando Brown could also be in the mix at right tackle.
In addition to losing Howard this off-season, the Buccaneers also lost center Ryan Jensen, who finished 13th at his position in 2017. They did very little to replace him, only adding Bradley Bozeman in the 6th round of the draft, so they basically have an open competition at the position. Matt Skura could shift inside to center, but he struggled mightily in his first career action last season, so he’s not a promising option. Last year’s 4th and 5th round picks Nico Siragusa and Jermaine Eluemunor could also kick inside to guard, but Siragusa missed his entire rookie year with injury, while Eluemunor struggled mightily in 198 rookie year starts at right guard. If Orlando Brown can lock down the right tackle job, the Ravens could shift either Lewis or Hurst inside to center as well, but neither player has experience at the position.
Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is their only offensive lineman who was healthy last season and is still on the team. He could arguably be their best offensive lineman in 2018. The 6th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Stanley has made 27 starts on the blindside in 2 seasons in the league and has earned positive grades from PFF in both seasons. He was their 32nd ranked offensive tackle last season. Only in his age 24 season, Stanley has a huge upside and could have a breakout 3rd year in the league. This offensive line should be better if they can stay healthier, but, outside of Stanley and Yanda, this is a very unsettled line.
Despite offensive line issues and a passing game that couldn’t take the top off the defense, the Ravens weren’t a bad running team. They ranked just 19th in YPC at 4.03, but they were a lot better down the stretch, after turning to Alex Collins as the lead back. On the season, Collins averaged 4.59 YPC on 212 carries, ranked 8th in carry success rate, 10th in elusive rating, and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked running back. That’s even more impressive when you consider that he began the season on the practice squad and did not play more than 30% of the snaps in a game until week 8.
From week 8 on, he was their featured runner, with 150 carries in 9 games, and their offense was a lot better down the stretch as a result. Through 7 games, they moved the chains at a mere 29.40% rate, dead last in the NFL at that time, but they moved the chains at a 35.21% rate in their remaining 9 games, which would have been 12th best in the NFL over the course of the season. After starting 3-4, they finished 6-3 in those 9 games. Collins is still unproven, as he was a 2016 5th round pick who had just 31 carries as a rookie in Seattle and then didn’t make their final roster in 2017, but he should be their featured runner in 2018 and could easily continue running well.
Collins’ one weakness is in the passing game, as he managed just 23 catches for 187 yards on 36 targets last season, so Buck Allen figures to handle most of the passing down snaps. Allen actually led the team in running back snaps last season with 464. He split carries with Collins early in the season, totaling 153 carries on the year (though just 54 in the final 8 games), and also saw passing down work with Danny Woodhead injured. He didn’t play as much down the stretch with Collins running well and Woodhead back in the lineup, but Woodhead is no longer with the team, so Allen has little competition for passing down work. He caught 45 passes as a rookie in 2015 and 46 last season, but he averaged just 5.43 yards per catch last season. An unexplosive athlete, he also has averaged just 3.81 yards per carry in his career.
The Ravens get Kenneth Dixon back from injury, though it’s unclear what his role will be. The 2016 4th round pick averaged 4.34 yards per carry on 88 carries as a rookie, but he’s not going to take many carries away from Collins unless Collins struggles and he’s not good enough on in the passing game to have a big passing down role. It’s also unclear if he can stay on the field. He’s already missed time with two separate knee injuries thus far, including a torn meniscus that cost him his entire 2017 season, and he’s also been suspended twice, once for performance enhancing drugs, once for substance abuse. If Collins continues running well, this is a strong backfield, but that’s far from a guarantee and backups Allen and Dixon are both question marks.
Despite their offensive struggles, the Ravens still won 9 games in 2017 and had the best point differential of any team that missed the post-season at +92. Their defense led the way, finishing 5th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 31.20%. They were not as good as that suggests though, as they faced arguably the easiest schedule in the league, including 6 backup quarterbacks (Jacoby Brissett, Brett Hundley, Matt Moore, Tom Savage, EJ Manuel, Case Keenum). They also faced the Bengals and Browns twice and the Bears. They played just 4 games against above average offenses: Pittsburgh twice, Minnesota, and Detroit.
All in all, the Ravens faced the easiest schedule in the NFL last season in terms of opponents’ winning percentage. They also benefited from a league leading +17 turnover margin, which is tough to sustain on a year-to-year basis. Teams that finish with a turnover margin of +15 or better, on average, follow that up with a turnover margin of +4.3 and win an average of 2.6 fewer games. It’s not hard to see how they could have a worse turnover margin in 2018. Not only do they face a significantly tougher schedule, but they’re also unlikely to do as well recovering fumbles as they did last season, when they led the league with a 65.85% fumble recovery rate.
That being said, this is still a solid defense. In base packages, they are anchored by defensive linemen Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, who ranked 10th and 15th respectively among interior defensive linemen in run stuffing grade in 2017. Williams is a 2013 3rd round pick who has finished in the top-19 among interior defensive linemen in run stuffing grade on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons as a starter, while Pierce is a 2016 undrafted free agent who has finished in the top-16 among interior defensive linemen in run stuffing grade in each of his first 2 seasons in the league.
Neither is much of a pass rusher though, and, at 330+ pounds each, they don’t play every down. Pierce played just 54.3% of the snaps last season, while Williams played just 53.9% of the snaps in 12 games (4 missed with injury). Pierce has just 3 sacks and 6 hits in 2 seasons in the league, while Williams has totaled just 4.5 sacks and 8 hits in 4 seasons as a starter. Williams has earned negative grades for his pass rush ability in all 5 seasons in the league, while Pierce has been about league average in limited pass rush opportunities in 2 seasons in the league. Despite that, both players are very valuable to this team because of what they do on early downs, with Williams even getting a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar extension as a free agent last off-season, the kind of big contract usually reserved for interior pass rushers.
Fortunately, this team has plenty of depth on the defensive line, so Pierce and Williams can focus on their roles. Willie Henry actually led this defensive line in snaps with 594 and was their primary interior pass rusher, playing 387 pass snaps. Despite not playing a single snap as a rookie, the 2016 4th round pick was not bad last season, holding up against the run and generating pass rush. He totaled 3.5 sacks, 9 hits, and 10 hurries on 384 pass rush snaps. Now going into his 3rd season in the league, he could continue improving, though it’s worth mentioning he’s still pretty unproven, especially against tougher competition.
Brent Urban also had a big role on this defense, playing 78.8% of the snaps in the first 2 weeks of the year, but he broke his foot week 3 and missed the rest of the season. A 4th round selection in 2014, Urban has flashed in limited action in his career, but has never been able to stay on the field. He’s played just 25 of a possible 64 career games and has already had an ACL tear, a biceps tear, and a broken foot. A better run stuffer than pass rusher, he’ll likely be the 3rd starter in base packages with Williams and Pierce, for as long as he stays healthy. His primary competition for that base package role is Carl Davis, a 2015 3rd round pick that has played just 539 career snaps, but flashed as a run stuffer on 300 snaps in Urban’s absence last season.
The Ravens also have a pair of recent 3rd round picks, but they may be competing for just one roster spot on this deep defensive line. Last year’s 3rd rounder Chris Wormley struggled on 120 snaps as a rookie, while 2016 3rd round pick Bronson Kaufusi played just 32 snaps in his 2nd season in the league, after missing his entire rookie season with a broken ankle. Wormley is the most likely of the two to make the final roster, but it could be tough for him to earn a bigger role on an already deep defensive line that gets Brent Urban back from injury.
The Ravens also have a deep group of edge rushers, which is good because, as talented as their defensive line is, they are not great at getting to the quarterback. The Ravens had 3 base outside linebackers total at least 500 snaps last season, Terrell Suggs, Matthew Judon, and Za’Darius Smith, the latter of whom lined up on the interior on 131 of 349 pass rush snaps. That doesn’t even include their 2nd and 3rd round picks in 2017, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, who spent their rookie seasons buried on the depth chart, playing 161 and 125 snaps respectively.
Terrell Suggs led all Baltimore outside linebackers with 845 snaps (77.3%) and was also their best player at the position, finishing 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season and totaling 11 sacks, 8 hits, and 57 hurries on 525 pass rush snaps. Suggs is going into his age 36 season though, so it wouldn’t be a shock if the Ravens reduced his snaps in 2018 with young depth behind him on the depth chart. He has 125.5 career sacks (17th all-time), 7 Pro-Bowl appearances, and a Defensive Player of the Year award (2011) and could easily end up in the Hall of Fame when all is said and done, but he’s at the stage of his career where it’s unclear if he can continue playing at such a high level.
Matt Judon also played a big role opposite Suggs, playing 787 snaps. He had 8 sacks, but he was not as good of a pass rusher as that suggests. He benefited from having Suggs opposite him and only added 8 hits and 18 hurries on 333 pass rush snaps. He also struggled against the run and finished as PFF’s 42nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 46 eligible overall. The 2016 5th round pick could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but he’s not a lock to remain the starter in 2018 in a deep edge rusher group.
Za’Darius Smith only had 3.5 sacks last season, but he has a better chance of earning a major role in 2018. Not only does the 6-4 275 pounder have the size to line up both inside and outside on the defensive line in passing situations, but he was also better than his sack total suggested, as he added 12 hits and 23 hurries on 349 pass rush snaps. He’s not much of a run stuffer, despite his size, but he should still have a big sub package role in 2018. Bowser and Williams could also earn roles. Bowser was the higher pick and should have the brighter future, but Williams could have gone in the first round if not for off-the-field concerns and he’s the better natural pass rusher of the two.
The Ravens are not as deep at inside linebacker though. CJ Mosley is a capable every down player, but their other starter, Patrick Onwuasor, is only a two-down run stuffer. The 2016 undrafted free agent earned a positive run stopping grade in the first significant action of his career last season (646 snaps), but struggled mightily in coverage. Reserve safety Anthony Levine played 141 of his 201 coverage snaps as a linebacker and held his own, but the 5-11 209 pounder is very undersized against the run. The Ravens added Kenny Young in the 4th round of the 2018 NFL Draft and he has the athletic tools to develop into a good coverage linebacker, but he enters the league very raw. The Ravens will likely have a rotation at the other middle linebacker spot next to Mosley.
Given that, the Ravens will need a strong year out of Mosley. The 17th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Mosley has made 62 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has been an every down player from the first week of his rookie season, but he’s coming off of a down year, finishing below average on PFF for the first time in his career. Prior to last season, he finished 11th, 15th, and 11th respectively in his first 3 seasons in the league. Still only in his age 26 season, there’s no reason why he can’t bounce back.
The Ravens are fully expected to re-sign him to an extension this off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal. He’ll likely get upwards of 11+ million on his next deal and could push Luke Kuechly (12.35 million annually) as the highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL. Led by Mosley and Suggs, this is a solid linebacking corps with a lot of depth, but they need young players to step up, especially with Suggs getting up there in age.
The Ravens got good play from their front 7 last season, but their secondary was arguably their best unit. They were led by #1 cornerback Jimmy Smith for the first 12 games of the season until he tore his achilles week 13 and missed the rest of the season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback when he went down and allowed 57.5% completion, 7.30 yards per attempt, and no touchdowns to 3 interceptions, but he wasn’t really missed because his replacement, Marlon Humphrey, played almost as well. A rookie first round pick who played just 264 snaps in the first 11 games of the season as the 4th cornerback, Humphrey was an every down player after Smith went down. On the season, he finished 37th among cornerbacks on 596 snaps, allowing 46.4% completion, 5.96 yards per attempt, and no touchdowns to 2 interceptions.
Smith is expected to be ready for week 1, but that’s not a guarantee and he could easily be less than 100%. He also has a pretty extensive injury history and is going into his age 30 season. He’s missed 26 games in 7 seasons in the league, only topping 12 games in 2 of 7 seasons, and struggled mightily in his last season returning from a lower leg injury, finishing 89th out of 118 eligible cornerbacks in 2015 after missing 8 games in 2014 with a broken foot. He’s finished above average on PFF in 5 of 7 seasons and was on his way to arguably his best season before getting hurt, but there’s no guarantee he returns to form in 2018.
Even with Smith returning, Humphrey is too talented to return to a reserve role and should be the other starter in his 2nd season in the league. Only turning 22 this summer, Humphrey has a sky high ceiling and could breakout in his first full season as a starter. The Ravens also get Tavon Young back from injury, after he missed the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL. Despite being a mere 4th round rookie, Young flashed on 833 snaps in 2016, leading the team in cornerback snaps and finishing 24th among cornerbacks on PFF. Because he suffered this injury last June, he’ll be 15 months removed from it by week 1, which helps his chances of being 100% in 2018.
Young is still unproven and coming off of a major injury, but, if he can return to form, he could easily win the #3 cornerback job. That would leave veteran Brandon Carr without a clear role. Carr has incredibly made 160 of 160 starts in 10 seasons in the league and has been about a league average starter in the last 2 seasons, but he hasn’t earned a positive grade from PFF in a full season since 2011 and now is going into his age 32 season.
Owed 4.5 million non-guaranteed in 2018, the Ravens might not be able to justify keeping him on the roster if he can’t lock down a role in 3-cornerback sets, but they already paid him a 1.5 million dollar roster bonus earlier this off-season, so they might value his experience highly with both Smith and Young coming off injuries. The Ravens also have Maurice Canady, a 2016 6th round pick who wasn’t bad on 320 snaps (217 of which came in coverage on the slot) last season in the first significant action of his career, and Anthony Averett, a 4th round rookie, in the mix for cornerback snaps in sub packages.
At safety, the Ravens return Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, who both made all 16 starts last season and finished 26th and 29th respectively among safeties on PFF. After signing a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal with the Ravens as a free agent last off-season, Jefferson struggled early in the season, but was much better down the stretch. He’s earned positive grades in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, with his best season coming in 2016, when he finished 7th among safeties. Still in the prime of his career in his age 26 season, Jefferson could easily be better in 2018.
Weddle has also had better seasons in the past, but his age is a concern, in his age 33 season. He’s finished in the top-7 among safeties on PFF in 7 of the past 9 seasons and finished #1 as recently as 2016, but it’s very possible his best days are behind him. Even still, he should be at least a solid starter again in 2018. The Ravens got a bargain, signing him for just 26 million over 4 years two off-seasons ago. This is a very talented secondary.
The Ravens had the best point differential of any team to miss the post-season in 2017, but that was in large part due to their turnover margin. They still ranked 10th in first down rate differential at 1.54%, but that was against the easiest schedule in the league. They might actually be more talented overall in 2018 than 2017, but I don’t see that showing up in the standings. They won’t face 6 backup quarterbacks like they did last season and both the Browns and Bengals are better in the division. They could still compete for a playoff spot in the weaker AFC, but they also could easily finish last in an improved division. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.
Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC North