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Despite a disappointing finish, the Ravens’ future is more bright than dim

Divisional Round - Tennessee Titans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

It’s fair to say we all need some time to heal and regroup after the events that transpired this Saturday night. To many, including myself, it still doesn’t feel real - even after more than 24 hours have passed. However, it’s time to swallow the fact that the Ravens season is over.

Done. Finished. Ceased. Gonzo.

16+ weeks full of joy, excitement and happiness were halted by 48 minutes of shock, sadness and anger. What makes this loss so crushing is that it’s a unfitting ending to such a successful regular season.

Here’s a brief list of some notable items the Ravens accomplished:

  • First team in NFL history to average 200+ rushing and 200+ passing yards per game
  • Set a new record for team rushing yards in a single season
  • Franchise-best 14 wins
  • First time clinching the No. 1 seed in the AFC in franchise history
  • Tied for most Pro Bowl selections in NFL history (12)

And it amounted to . . . a playoff exit at the hands of the Titans. Tennessee deserves credit for putting together a strong game plan and executing it to near perfection. They came into Baltimore as the underdog and did everything necessary to pull off an upset.

Still, this loss is going to sting for awhile. However, in order to move forward, it’s important to look at the big picture here, which is exactly what I’m about to do.

Here’s every reason why you should be confident that better days are ahead for the Ravens:

This offensive core is way ahead of schedule

After watching the Ravens win 12 straight games to end the season, it’s easy to forget that nobody, and rightfully so, envisioned Baltimore doing as good as they did this year. There were several contributors on the roster this year in their first or second years, especially on the offensive side of the ball:

Lamar Jackson, Marquise Brown, Mark Andrews, Orlando Brown Jr., Miles Boykin, Patrick Mekari, Pat Ricard Bradley Bozeman, Gus Edwards, and Hayden Hurst. Right there, you’re looking at eight starters and two key reserves with less than two years of experience, all of which are near-locks to be wearing purple once again next season.

In addition, All-Pro LT Ronnie Stanley turns just 26 years old in March is beginning to enter the prime of his career. This Ravens offense was the best in the NFL this season and most of its biggest contributors have yet to reach their ceiling. How’s that for scary?

Defensive promise

On the defensive side of the ball, Baltimore’s group is more veteran-based. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for optimism, too.

Through the first four weeks of the season, the Ravens defense was one of the worst in the league in most statistical categories. They were gashed through the air and on the ground by the Chiefs and Browns in consecutive weeks. Following their Week 4 loss to Cleveland, though, Don Martindale’s group flipped a switch.

The mid-season acquisitions of players like Marcus Peters, Josh Bynes, L.J. Fort, Jihad Ward and Domata Peko Sr. pay dividends. All of these players assimilated themselves quickly and stepped into fairly significant roles on Baltimore’s defense, with Peters headlining the group.

Peters proved to be an excellent fit in Martindale’s aggressive, man-coverage scheme and allowed other players to roam more freely. Peters recorded three interceptions after being traded to Baltimore, two of which he returned for pick-sixes, and finished the season with a 83.2 PFF grade.

The best part? Peters is probably not even the best defensive back on this roster. That honor goes to Marlon Humphrey, who - like Peters - was named first-team All-Pro and earned a Pro Bowl selection for the first time in his career. Humphrey gave up a long touchdown pass in the playoff loss to Tennessee but it was a lone blemish on an otherwise stellar third-year campaign.

Humphrey is due for a contract extension soon and you can be assured that the Ravens aren’t letting him go anywhere else. Having two top-end cornerbacks locked up for the foreseeable future is a unique luxury. Fortunately, the Ravens have just that.

OLB Matthew Judon was thrust into a larger role this season and took a big step forward in a contract year. As the team’s only established edge-rusher, Judon posted career-highs in sacks (9.5), forced fumbles (4), TFL (14) and QB hits (33). Judon finished in the Top-20 half of the league in all of these categories.

He may not have made a major impact in the postseason and is approaching 30 years old in a couple of years, but the Ravens are likely to reward his performance this season with a new contract in free agency. Judon is too important to the team’s defensive success to lose him and if is he retained, that’s one more cornerstone piece in place.

At the same position, the Ravens have two young pass-rushers who showed flashes throughout the year. Tyus Bowser finally cemented himself a rotational player and posted a career-high five sacks and 10 QB hits, while also adding in 20 total tackles. These numbers may not jump off the screen, but Bowser was more consistent this season than he ever has been and may be the best pure athlete on this defense. He’s still just 24 years old, too.

Then, there’s Jaylon Ferguson, who the Ravens drafted 85th overall in last year’s draft. Ferguson was a healthy scratch in the first two games of the season but took on a larger role once Pernell McPhee (triceps) suffered a season-ending injury. Ferguson still needs to work on his technique and pass-rushing moves but showed the ability to get push and set the edge at times.

Ferguson was thought of as more of a rotational player entering his rookie season but took on a starting role and did well enough to maintain a high snap count on the year. He only figures to improve moving forward. Perhaps the biggest surprise on the defensive side of the ball this year was the emergence of third-year SS Chuck Clark, who stepped up in a major way following Tony Jefferson’s season-ending knee injury in Week 4.

Clark not only took over the starting strong safety position but also assumed play-calling duties with the “red dot” in his helmet, a tall task for a player with little experience. He thrived as the lead communicator on defense, though, and was key to the team’s defensive turnaround as the season progressed.

Clark led the team with 73 combined tackles while also pitching in two forced fumbles, a sack and 3.5 TFL. The Virginia Tech product’s play likely makes Jefferson expendable given his high cap hit. However, if Jefferson is back in Baltimore next season, the Ravens will have a formidable, versatile duo at the strong safety spot. Clark turns 25 years old in April.

To wrap it up, Earl Thomas III should only become more comfortable in his second season with the Ravens. Although Thomas on the receiving end of some highlight plays from opposing players, the veteran safety was borderline elite in coverage and found the sack column for the first time in his career.

The Ravens will have some decisions to make with players like Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Michael Pierce, Patrick Onwuasor and Brandon Williams, among others. However, based on all the factors mentioned above, it’s clear that the foundation is in-place for this defense to once again be successful next season and beyond.

Oh, and I failed to mention to wild card in the room: Tavon Young. If Young can return to form after missing the entire 2019-20 season with a neck injury, that gives the Ravens another talented defensive back to fit into the lineup.

Top-notch coaching staff

In the weeks leading up to the Divisional Round, speculation floated everywhere about the impending departures of Greg Roman and “Wink” Martindale. Roman and Martindale were linked to multiple head coaching openings around the league and each attended interviews: Roman with the Browns, Martindale with the Giants.

However, the Giants hired Joe Judge and the Browns hired Kevin Stefani, meaning the last two apparent head coaching opportunities are now closed. Therefore, it’s almost a given that both Roman and Martindale are back next season, so the Ravens will avoid losing either their offensive coordinator nor defensive coordinator.

Were Roman and Martindale out-coached against the Titans in the playoffs? Sure, you could certainly put it that way. However, that doesn’t take away from what they were able to do on the season overall.

Roman was the orchestrator for the league’s No. 1 scoring offense and the greatest rushing attack of all-time. There were a few instances where he tried to get “too cute” with his play-calling or struggled to adjust the game plan, but more often than not he put together a terrific scheme. Roman certainly played a big role in the development and success of Lamar Jackson, too.

As for Martindale, the veteran DC once again showed his chops this season. Martindale had a less talented group than the one he coached in 2018 and still guided this defense to finish as one of the league’s top units. Martindale squeezed the most out of players picked up off the street (Bynes, Fort, Ward, Peko Sr.) and pushed all the right buttons. From Week 6 on, the Ravens allowed 20 or more points just two times.

Then, of course, there’s John Harbaugh. Harbaugh is undisputedly one of the better coaches in the NFL and has been for some time. He deserves a large portion of credit for the team’s success this season, as he put everyone within the organization in a position to succeed. Losing in the playoffs for the second straight season is certainly a blemish but his resume speaks for itself.

Between Harbaugh, Roman, Martindale and other assistant coaches like David Culley and James Urban, the Ravens have maybe the most complete staff in the NFL. That’s not going to change anytime soon.

In DeCosta we trust

There’s no bright future without a bright mind running the show, and that’s exactly what the Ravens have. In his first year as the GM of this organization, Eric DeCosta pushed all the right buttons.

Let’s start with the draft class. Flashy? Maybe not, but DeCosta appears to have found several long-term contributors. He made the decision to draft WR Marquise Brown with his first ever first-round selection and “Hollywood” showed flashes of star potential. He finished second on the team in receiving yards, targets and touchdowns but with a full offseason to get 100% healthy, he could truly break out next season.

Jaylon Ferguson could also take a step forward after gaining some valuable starting experience under his belt. WR Miles Boykin and RB Justice Hill didn’t put up gaudy numbers but gave the offense some juice at times.

After that, there was little to no production from this rookie class but it’s important to note that DT Daylon Mack, G Ben Powers and CB Iman Marshall were all injured for extended periods of time. Also, they were originally drafted as long-term projects anyways rather than short-term contributors. Same goes for QB Trace McSorley.

Where DeCosta made his money, though, was on the trade market. Just look at some of these deals he managed to pull off:

  • Fourth-round pick for OL Jermaine Eluemunor and a sixth-round pick
  • 2020 fifth-round pick for K/P Kaare Vedvik
  • CB Marcus Peters for LB Kenny Young and a fifth-round pick
  • 2019 fourth-round pick for QB Joe Flacco

Highway robbery.

In addition, DeCosta managed to find several diamonds in the rough on the free agent market in the middle of the season. Pulling the trigger on bringing in the aforementioned Bynes, Fort, Ward and Peko Sr. changed the trajectory of the team’s season.

DeCosta instilled a modernized, analytics-based approach and it trickled down throughout the organization, specifically when it came to the Ravens’ offense. Baltimore opted to attempt conversions on 4th-&-short situations all season long and were extremely successful at it, going 8/8 in such circumstances (in the regular season).

Dominance in the division

To be frank, the stars aligned for the Ravens to have their way with the AFC North this season. The Steelers were without Ben Roethlisberger for essentially the entire year, the Browns once again struggled to find organizational stability and the Bengals were, well . . . exactly what everyone thought they’d be - not very good.

The question begs: can the Ravens win the division again for the third straight year?

It’s obviously way too early to begin speculating about next year’s standings but looking further ahead in the big picture, the Ravens appear far more positioned for long-term success than their AFC North counterparts.

Pittsburgh has a glaring question mark at the quarterback position. Even if Ben Roethlisberger does return for the start of next season, which he likely will, which version of “Big Ben” will the Steelers be getting? The veteran signal-caller will be 38 years old and coming off yet another injury. While talented for sure, Roethlisberger has also been amongst the league leaders in interceptions in each of the past four seasons.

Given his age and history timeline, the Steelers’ window to compete with him at the helm is limited. For the Browns, they have the talent in place to be a successful team but as we saw this past season, that’s merely part of the equation.

With Freddie Kitchens and John Dorsey out of the picture, the Browns are essentially starting over from scratch for the millionth time. They recently hired Vikings OC Kevin Stefani to replace Kitchens as the team’s next head coach, which was a bit of a questionable decision given the other candidates they interviewed and Stefani’s lack of a resume.

Nevertheless, there are evidently more than a few question marks surrounding the Browns.

The Bengals are all but certain to draft LSU’s Joe Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, who will immediately replace Andy Dalton as the team’s starting quarterback and face of the franchise. Burrow has all the tools to be a successful pro, but he’ll have to overcome a lack of supporting talent in order to do so.

With Burrow at the forefront of their rebuild, the Bengals at least have a foundation to build upon. However, there timeline is likely to be a lengthy one and they’ll be playing catch-up to Baltimore until further notice.

Add it all together and you have this: the Ravens have the best quarterback and head coach in the division, as well as the most structurally-sound organization. There are far less question marks surrounding Baltimore than that of the Steelers, Browns and Bengals.

Some quarterback named Lamar Jackson

Last but not least, maybe the biggest reason for optimism is because of an individual named Lamar Demeatrice Jackson.

What else can be said about the soon-to-be MVP?

  • Led the league in touchdowns with 43 (36 passing, 7 rushing)
  • Led the league in QBR with (81.8)
  • Third in the NFL in passer rating (106.9)
  • Broke Michael Vick’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback (1,201)
  • Led the league in yards per carry (6.9)
  • First player in NFL history with 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season
  • Two games with a perfect passer rating (tied NFL record)
  • Led the NFL in Pro Bowl votes
  • First team All-Pro representative

The list goes on and on.

Oh yeah, and he just turned 23 years old earlier this month. Jackson is still searching for his first playoff win and while he was far from perfect against the Titans, it’s impossible to pin that loss squarely on his shoulders.

Jackson put together a historic campaign and is going to be the MVP of the league, quite possibly in unanimous fashion. It’s hard to fathom that this was only his first full season as a starting quarterback but that’s the reality of the situation.

Jackson is only going to get better, which is a scary thought for the rest of the NFL but certainly a reason for excitement for Ravens fans.