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Sorting the Ravens 2021 positional needs

Divisional Round - Baltimore Ravens v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

Despite reaching the divisional round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season, the Ravens would be wise to reconfigure their roster construction this offseason. Judging by the conference finalists and Baltimore’s recent playoff results, prioritizing the run game on both sides of the ball is not the optimal strategy in an increasingly pass focused league. Specifically, improving the pass offense in both volume and efficiency is a worthwhile pursuit.

It would be silly to completely reinvent a formula that has produced regular season success, but the contrarian experiment has failed to produce the desired results in the postseason. A shift away from the extremely unbalanced offensive approach is necessary.

Armed with the ninth most salary cap space in the NFL, Baltimore’s front office has the flexibility to build a complete team capable of excelling in all five phases of the game. Using free agency to construct a well balanced roster will require manipulation of the salary cap through creative contract structuring, a risk this franchise should be willing to take at this juncture.

The Ravens 2021 positional needs:

Primary Need

OLB: Jaylon Ferguson, the only edge defender currently under contract, was a healthy scratch in both of the Ravens playoff games. Pro Bowler Matthew Judon has developed into a cornerstone player for the franchise by taking a leadership role on defense and shouldering a heavy workload at this demanding position. Judon also outproduced midseason acquisition Yannick Ngakoue in the pass rush department.

Ngakoue and Tyus Bowser each boast their own unique strengths, as a speed rusher and coverage linebacker respectively, yet both are essentially situational players while veteran Pernell McPhee, like Judon, is a three-down stalwart. Jihad Ward also made contributions with limited opportunities. The decisions at outside linebacker will shape the Ravens offseason.

IOL: Lamar Jackson’s talent has masked the deficiencies of an interior blocking unit that was comprised exclusively of Day 3 draft picks and undrafted free agents in the playoffs. Adding a veteran center or rookie mauler could bring stability to a group that has been pushed around during big games in recent seasons. For dominant rushing and passing offenses alike, success starts up front.

WR: Regardless of whether blockers or playmakers are the top need on offense, improvement at both spots is imperative. Adding a respected third option to the foundation of Hollywood Brown and Mark Andrews would help prevent defenses from loading the box to stop the run, while also creating space for the other pass catchers.

Perhaps most importantly, a top shelf wideout can propel the offense when the game script calls for engineering a comeback, a situation the Ravens have consistently struggled to overcome. The major question is if the front office will continue bargain shopping for over-the-hill receivers or be aggressive in acquiring a coveted free agent at this premium position.

S: Coordinator Martindale navigated the 2020 season with only two viable safeties, perhaps explaining their regression in pass defense efficiency. The dime package logged more snaps than the base alignment in 2019, producing outstanding results in sacks and takeaways. Drafting a rangy safety to complement starters Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott would allow use of the dime defense and help the defense to match-up better against the NFL’s prolific passing offenses.

TE: Coordinator Roman’s 12-personnel package was one of the main drivers behind the record-setting 2019 offense. After trading away Hayden Hurst, Baltimore sorely missed their former first round pick. Surrounding Jackson with ample playmakers, including another receiving tight end, would be beneficial for his development as a passer.

Depth Need

DL: With Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams anchoring the line, and the ascending Justin Madubuike ready to assume a larger role, adding young defensive lineman is more of a long-term goal than immediate hole. Unrestricted free agent Derek Wolfe could also be retained. This calculation changes if the Ravens decide to part ways with Campbell or Williams for salary cap reasons, yet a move to subtract from the defensive line following a previous offseason dedicated to improving run defense seems highly unlikely. A best-player-available could certainly be drafted, but reaching for a down lineman is not necessary yet.

OT: Right tackle was probably the weakest position on the team following Ronnie Stanley’s injury. Drafting a swing tackle could potentially provide a succession play if Orlando Brown Jr.’s contract demands make his long term retention improbable. However, acquiring a capable third tackle is quite difficult in a league where several teams are still searching for their second starting-caliber offensive tackle.

Luxury Need

CB: A string of injuries tested the depth of the NFL’s deepest cornerback room in 2020. Nonetheless, with Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, Marcus Peters, Tavon Young and Anthony Averett all set to return in 2021, Baltimore is well stocked for the short term.

QB: Both Tyler Huntley and Trace McSorely flashed their skills in 2020, providing confidence that they can serve as solid backups to Jackson.

ILB: Despite Patrick Queen’s mixed rookie campaign, the linebacker corps has the quality and depth to thrive in 2021. L.J. Fort supplies veteran savvy, Malik Harrison brings untapped potential as a run plugger with coverage ability, and restricted free agent Chris Board is a rotational defender and special teams ace. Inside linebacker should be near the bottom of the positional priority list.

RB: Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins formed the league’s most efficient running back tandem in 2020. Edwards, a restricted free agent, will likely return, along with Justice Hill, a speedy back who could shine if given a chance. Dobbins did not make much impact as a pass catcher but devoting more capital to an already impressive unit would be a poor use of resources.