Lamar Jackson burst on the scene in 2018 as a rookie, elevating a 4-5 squad to a 10-6 AFC North champion. Then in 2019, despite significant offseason departures, a record setting offense coupled with a defense built to protect leads propelled the Ravens to one of the best regular seasons in the history of the league. Yet in each of the last two postseasons, Baltimore was unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs without a winning a single game because they were unable to overcome early deficits.
Entering the 2020 season, the Ravens, along with the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs are considered the favorites to win the Super Bowl. General manager Eric DeCosta added more to the roster than he lost, particularly remaking the defensive line with former All-Pro Calais Campbell to fortify a vulnerable run defense. John Harbaugh also managed to retain his entire innovative coaching staff.
Baltimore’s elite secondary possesses the depth to ensure that the pass defense remains among the league’s best. The rushing offense might take a step back following Marshal Yanda’s retirement, but the combination of Lamar and Greg Roman’s scheme should still produce gaudy totals on the ground. Nonetheless, the Ravens formerly 27th ranked passing offense is the phase that may not be equipped to step up if called upon.
Jackson’s 113.3 quarterback rating during his MVP season was extremely efficient. Still, he has engineered just one 4th quarter comeback in five tries over his young career. And the front office did not do much to improve his receiving weapons. In fact, the losses of Hayden Hurst and Seth Roberts may prove more impactful than the additions of rookies Devin Duvernay and James Proche. Baltimore’s pass catchers are generally viewed as a bottom-third group across the league.
Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews have both emerged as bonafide playmakers. But each carry injury concerns. Brown has a slight frame by NFL standards and dealt with foot injuries last season. Andrews suffers from the dings and nicks that affect most tight ends, and could be limited during the pandemic because of his diabetes medical condition. If one or especially both main pass catchers were to miss time, 2020 could certainly become another missed opportunity for the Ravens.
Miles Boykin has the raw tools to develop into a top-tier second wideout. Willie Snead is a capable role player and Duvernay has promise. None have shown an ability to serve as a number one or number two receiving option for a contender. Lamar has proven he can carry the offense, but it would be a challenge even for him to defeat top competition without multiple viable receivers.
Baltimore will obviously remain a run-first offense. Odds are, however, a random series of events will force them into a pass-heavy game script at least a couple times next season. Perhaps in the postseason when the stakes are the highest. And as strong as the Ravens defense is expected to be, great offense holds the edge over great defense in the modern NFL.
The best teams are prepared for all circumstances and can earn victories in a variety of ways.
The Ravens roster is strong were it matters most. An MVP quarterback, Pro Bowl bookend offensive tackles, a Pro Bowl edge rusher and a pair of All-Pro corners. DeCosta has also assembled a quartet of effective running backs, enough bodies to field a solid interior blocking trio, an outstanding blocking tight end and fullback, exciting rookie inside ‘backers, a deep cast of disruptive defensive lineman and situational edge defenders, and one of the better safety pairings around. Better still, many of the Ravens best players are still playing under cost controlled rookie contracts.
Fresh off their best regular season in franchise history, the time to chase the Lombardi trophy is now. By 2021, the veterans will be another year past their primes, some may be released for salary cap savings next offseason. Relatively cheap All-Pros Ronnie Stanley and Marlon Humphrey will become much more costly. Matthew Judon could depart after playing out the franchise tag. Squeezing in veteran signings such as Jimmy Smith and Derek Wolfe will be difficult next year. Lamar will have another year of wear-and-tear on his body. Overall, the roster overall will not be as loaded in 2021.
Could the front office extend the window for championship contention by remaining conservative? Possibly. But the NFL is designed for parity, with a hard salary cap, reverse order draft slotting and competitive scheduling. Since the Ravens were founded in 1996, only the New England Patriots have established a dynasty. With the best coach in the history of the sport, one of the best quarterbacks playing at a below market rate and a historically weak division, those Patriots should be considered an anomaly.
Moreover, being aggressive to pursue Super Bowl glory should not prevent the Ravens from being long term contenders. They have finally overcome the cycle of overpaying declining veterans, backloading deals and restructuring contracts. Baltimore is projected to have the eighth most salary cap space next offseason. Even if the decision makers make the bold decision to pay all of their young, premium position talent top dollar, utilizing some creative but worthwhile contract structures, at the expense of mid-level veteran depth, their proven ability to find valuable undrafted free agents and accumulate late round contributors should keep the bottom half of the roster robust.
DeCosta should explore every avenue to fill the single remaining roster weakness at boundary wideout. Perhaps the team can take advantage of their strong locker room culture and ink one of the controversial veteran free agents to a team friendly deal. A trade might be a better option, the tremendous volume of receivers drafted over the past few cycles should make some appealing options available in exchange for mid-round picks. Maximizing future salary cap flexibility and prioritizing draft capital should not be the main objective when the team is on the verge of an elusive championship.
Super Bowl windows close quick in the NFL. Roster attrition, injury or coaching changes could conceivably shut the door on a future run during Lamar’s prime seasons. It would be a sincere shame if the Ravens missed this golden opportunity to win their third trophy because they lacked the weaponry to win a postseason shootout.
Maybe the Ravens can impose their will and dictate game flow throughout the 2020 regular season and playoffs, as they did during their 12-game winning streak. Regardless, the front office should eliminate as many vulnerabilities as possible. DeCosta has spent the offseason acquiring impressive depth at essentially every position group except the one potentially mortal weakness - wide receiver.
If any team is structured to push all-in for a ring, the 2020 Baltimore Ravens are the paragon.