Ravens Time to Mine the Gold!
The 2021 Ravens. A season born with excitement and visions of a Festivus Maximus that quickly and inexorably descended into an Injurious Maximus comedy. While all teams have injuries, the breadth, scope, and timing of ours were truly astonishing, far beyond anything that good planning and good roster building could realistically foresee or endure.
Looking ahead, in many areas the Ravens present more questions than answers. So many important players and position groups had lost seasons in 2021, creating uncertainty what to reliably expect in 2022. Even if 'healthy', will there be a return to their best, now or ever?
Lamar's contract. The Ravens track record is one of retaining essential players. We can only speculate about Lamar's goals or the Ravens negotiating approach. Still, it be shocking if the contract doesn't eventually get done or that Jackson is not our long-term quarterback. The incessant social media chit chat to the contrary is so much click-bait folderol.
Through the fog of several seasons of injury & Covid, the contours of the Ravens vision of a Lamar Jackson offense is seen. Use Jackson's unique dual threat abilities to lead an offense that can confidently and capably run or throw, countering and beating defense tactics. Run and pass balance, not for balance sake, but so that we can dictate to the defense and not the other way around.
The 'boring-to-breathless' Jackson-led Ravens offensive renaissance was built on his unique running talents. Those running talents threatened and scared defenses, it's what they had to account for. Conventional wisdom says to reduce the hits and the wear-and-tear on Lamar, especially once he's on a cap-devouring contract. This is a Sirens song. Lamar's not the classic, drop back, pocket passer, and we shouldn't try to make him one. Doing so robs him of his special QB brand and removes an arrow from our offensive quiver.
The Ravens have recognized the need to improve their passing game. In the three years since Lamar became the starter, we've drafted six receivers, including two first rounders and two thirds, with several additional tight end selections. Before last season we added receiver and pass game Coaches Williams and Martin to fine-tune the pass game.
We quickly saw palpable progress. Lamar was noticeably more relaxed in the pocket and threw outside more effectively. Receivers were getting open and making plays. The Colts game showed just how good our passing attack can be. Maybe that defense defeating, run or pass sweet spot, was attainable.
The Dolphins crushed those hopes and illuminated for all to see our pass protection inadequacies. Lamar's final book on 2021 included both the tremendous high of the Colts game, but also the way-to-frequent bad interceptions and periods of street ball play, unsustainable in the NFL.
Lamar's big play aggressiveness exacerbates our pass pro woes. Always the best athlete on the field and blessed with an easy ability to extend and make a play, we've learned Lamar's not one for a quick read & deliver pass game approach. Looking for knockout plays, he doesn't do hot reads or check downs. We need an OL unit in front of him that will give him the time to do what he does. This means linemen with better pass blocking abilities than the run-block first types we've traditionally used.
Other than Kevin Zeitler at RG, and now hopefully also at RT with Morgan Moses, looking at our OL it feels like the Apollo 13 flight director when he asked his staff, "what on the spacecraft works?"
The hard reality facing us is that no amount of medical or training staff reports will answer if or when Ronnie Stanley will be ready to play and at what level. If he does return, for how long can he do so? What if in spite of his best efforts his ankle will not stand up to the rigors of NFL play? We saw last year the unacceptable result of pass pro chaos. Keeping our fingers crossed for Stanley is not problem solving. Stanley's certain uncertainty compels the rostering of another who can acceptably play LT for us.
We've drafted three Bens and a Tyre the past three years and still have no answer at LG. While Ben Powers has two years now played a role in providing a semblance of order to an injury-plagued unit, it tells you something that last year the team brought in a free agent and drafted another at his guard positions. As a starter, the team sees him as part of the problem and not the solution.
Tyre Phillips was a college tackle we drafted to play guard. Injuries quickly pushed him to tackle two years in a row after both years winning a starting guard job to begin the season. We've seen enough of Phillips to know he doesn't work at tackle but not enough to know what he can do at guard. Ben Cleveland was drafted last year seemingly as the player we wanted to turn the position over to. Early and mid-season injuries held him back, before playing like the rookie he was when he got on the field late in the season. The Ravens need to have Phillips focus on playing LG and let he and Cleveland compete for the job.
Patrick Mekari looks to be the starting center, a position for which he has the necessary size, smarts, tenacity, and trench experience. While he's well-filled the important backup/swing OL position, proving he can get us to the end of a game or bunch of games, he's yet to seize a starting job. Hopefully he'll take that step if allowed to focus on the pivot, or at least provide an acceptable bridge until a drafted developmental center prospect shows starting ability.
OL Draft Objective: Starter or near-starter prospects at LT and C, OL versatility preferred.
With good health, this is the strongest group of skill players we've had in years. Hollywood Brown has improved every year. Rashod Bateman lost early season time with injury and played well when he returned. There's no reason he won't continue to improve and fulfill his tremendous promise. Devin Duvernay, James Proche, and Tylan Wallace have shown talent, but need playing time to fully develop and produce.
Mark Andrews is an All-Pro at TE. Nick Boyle, much like Stanley, looks far from returning to past form following a significant injury. Josh Oliver showed just enough to warrant a training camp return. Saturday depth could help, although we shouldn't sleep on last year's UDFA and practice-squader Tony Poljan who has size & skills.
We have to assume that JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards return fully recovered. Fresh backfield legs are always welcome, but wouldn't a FA vet better serve while JK & the Bus ease back in? We don't usually give rookie RBs much early work and we've got Tyson Williams and Nate McCrary also on the depth chart.
Skill Draft Objective: Saturday afternoon depth snacks, if we're full on needed entrees.
The Ravens need to give Mike Macdonald front-line and depth additions all across the defense for him to be a hotshot, young coach and not just a young coach. He needs to find the lost defensive swagger and regain our physical & feisty 'Play Like A Raven' defensive profile.
Our defensive line was traditionally built to stop run-heavy AFC North teams, and more recently, to stop Derrick Henry in the playoffs. Many frequently complained about the Brandon Williams contract because "he just stops the run," yet we saw how the run D suffered in his absence, validating the ‘run D is only important when you can't do it' rubric. Still, it's a passing league, and we play in a division with a team of an emerging – no, they're already here! – elite passing attack. And now also with Deshaun Watson.
The return of Calais Campbell's veteran smarts and leadership, and hoped for increased productivity with reduced snaps, are welcomed. Michael Pierce beefs up the middle and adds some pass rush juice over Williams. Derek Wolfe had an uncharacteristically healthy season in 2020 before not playing at all last year. Who knows what's next.
We need to continue the DL retool and address our long-term inability to generate a pass rush from the down linemen. Justin Madubuike was a start. He needs to build on the flashes he's shown. Broderick Washington progressed in his second year and showed the makings of a productive, rotational piece. The back-of-the-depth chart DLmen (Isaiah Mack, Xavier Kelley, Aaron Crawford, Kahlil McKenzie) are possible depth contributors.
DL Draft Objective: An inside disruptor to pair with Madubuike and improve the pass rush.
Not content with torpedoing 2021, the Football Gods took a parting shot at us with the 'last quarter of the last game' Achilles injury to our most reliable defender, Tyus Bowser, one that will extend into 2022.
Odafe Oweh quickly ended the boringly repeated 'no sacks' pre-draft mantra. He had a productive 'all-rookie team' first season and is primed for more. Daelin Hayes brought with him not only his impressive character and play traits but his durability challenges as well.
Edge Draft Objective: A top prospect from a talented edge draft class to play opposite Oweh and give us a young and productive edge tandem.
The anticipation that the dual 2020 draft selections of Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison had solved our post-CJ Mosley ILB needs and provided a dominant 'thunder & lightning' pair has given way to a more subdued, disappointing, reality.
After an up & down rookie season, we heard all the right things from Patrick Queen coming into 2021. Then the games started and his play vacillated between ineffective and seeming disinterest. To his credit, he improved with the mid-season shift to Will. It's easy to forget his youth and positional inexperience, but the splash plays won't advance him past NFL mediocrity until he becomes a consistent, reliable tackler.
Whatever Queen's improvement, his size and play-style demand he be teamed with a bigger-bodied backer. Harrison showed some promise of this through a typical rookie growing pains season in 2020, then did not much in the early part of 2021. He played little after returning from a mid-season leg wound in a bar shooting.
ILB Draft Objective: A physical & feisty inside thumper and someone who can cover, a long-missing piece.
The stats confirmed what our eyes told us about the defensive backfield. Expected to be a team strength, we were dead last in the league in giving up chunk plays, total pass yardage, and other unwanted categories. We repeatedly saw uncovered receivers running free.
Marcus Peters is another who we'll have to wait and see on the field before we know if there's any lingering injury concern. Perhaps he tried to do too much without Peters, but Marlon Humphrey had an unambiguously down year after three ascending ones. With health they're a top duo . . .
Marcus Williams was a significant pick-up, providing a center-fielder with outstanding range & ball skills, substantially improving our back-end. It allows Chuck Clark to play closer to the LOS and gives our young DBs the time and space to productively develop and contribute. Tony Jefferson returned late last season and showed renewed vigor and a return to NFL-caliber play.
Brandon Stephens played more than expected and held up. He's a smooth mover who stayed healthy (worthy of mention for a Ravens DB!). He showed positional flexibility in spite of his positional inexperience. Is he another who'd benefit from being allowed to master one position or limited assignments?
PFF draft darling Geno Stone physically strengthened. He and the surprisingly undrafted Ar'darious Washington both made positive impressions, displaying expected smarts and instincts, if their physical and size limitations as well. We can reasonably expect more to come.
DB Draft Objective: Front-line and depth CB additions (with an anticipated pre or post-draft FA CB).
I doubt sailors heading for shore leave are more excited than EDC going into a draft with 10 picks in his pocket. So many possibilities! Here's one need-based scenario using our current picks of what this draft could look like, although, especially in a flavor draft, I expect moves up & down the board for coveted targets . . .
14 – Jermaine Johnson, Edge (it's with good reason that Johnson is such a popular pick with Ravens fans. He's multi-talented, dynamic, physical, and plays with an infectious intensity and determination; a perfect complement opposite to Oweh)
45 – Perrion Winfrey, DL (a lengthy, explosive penetrator, needs to improve his run D and better focus his unique athleticism; Plays Unlike A Raven . . . in the backfield!) (Travis Jones for a more traditional, stop the run first, Ravens-type DT)
I love the pass rush charge that a Johnson / Winfrey opening duo would give, but is it better for us then a Jordan Davis / Edge opening twosome? Given draft board vagary and being too good to pass up, Davis could just be the pick, and a sensible one at that.
14 – Jordan Davis, DL (an impressive, rare football player with obvious physical traits, can beat with power or quicks; a defensive foundation piece, capable of single-handily transforming our defense; a player the offense must account for on every play, demands doubles, creates openings for others; we've immediately reestablished our run D capabilities)
45 – Boye Mafe, Edge (a multi-tooled, athletic, explosive, and physical edge, an ascending player; can you say "Oweh, O-Boye, Ole!")
and the rest . . .
76 – Dylan Parham or Jamaree Salyer, OL (both are experienced and versatile OL prospects; Parham's more athletic and a smooth mover, solidly projects to C but needs time to develop; Sayler's bigger, more physical and powerful, projects starter or near starter ability at G and reliable back-up tackle, has played every position on the line)
100 – Rasheed Walker, OT (nagging injuries seemed to prevent Walker from stacking a dominating senior season but he has all the physical tools to be a solid starting LT, size, physicality, power, and toughness, shows impressive flashes in both the run & pass games, needs better consistency; reasonably projects as a year-one backup LT to be ready behind Stanley)
110 – Darrian Beavers, ILB (an instinctive, good-sized, physical baller; a LB who tackles and tackles with power, what a novel idea!)
119 & 128 – two CBs – (from among) Jalyn Armour-Davis (long-limbed, speedy & athletic press corner); Cam Taylor-Britt (physical, tough-as-nails competitor); Akayleb Evans (lengthy & lean, smooth moving outside corner); Damarri Mathis (a feisty & physical, smart, sticky corner); Zyon McCollum (athletic, lengthy small school playmaker with ball skills)
139 – Zamir White, RB (decisive one-cut & go runner, has good vision, burst & and long speed)
141 – Jesse Luketa, LB (versatile inside & outside backer, high effort tone setter, well takes on & sheds blockers, good tackler, team leader)
197 – Daniel Bellinger, TE (an all business competitive team captain, well-framed, good blocker, hands catcher; think a better receiving, but not as good blocking, Nick Boyle)
This approach provides ammo for the defense, with edge and DL prospects who should quickly boost our pass rush capabilities, year-one and depth contributors at LB and DB, and delivers offensive needs with two OL additions giving versatility and LT protection, and RB and TE depth pieces. Come September these are not NFL vets, but we've restocked and reloaded the roster with talented, young players.
I'm not happy with not getting a front-line LT or CB. Cross, Neal, or Ekwonu are the dream first-round picks. They'd solve and get the Stanley/LT problem behind us, letting us focus on defense after. The risk of overstocking at LT is admittedly there if we're blessed with a best-case Stanley return, but that's a better problem to have than the alternative. It's also an unnecessary debate as they'll all be gone. The much-discussed Trevor Penning, while appealing due to his nasty, aggressive play style, in the end only confidently projects to RT, not suitable for a pick at 14.
Similarly, Gardner and Stingley are Top 10 players who you expect to be taken there, and other needs were filled until Saturday. An earlier CB selection is certainly possible. A difference-making receiver would need to be taken in the 1st or 2d round, requiring passing on a worthy & much-needed stud defender, not happening here. Sign a vet if you think we need more.
When we look back on the arc of Eric DeCosta's GM career, this draft may be his defining moment. It's all right there in front of him to hit it out of the park and be his 'high water mark'. Whether through good planning or good luck, this draft presents the Ravens with a marvelous alignment of team needs, draft capital, and draft talent.
Time to Mine that Gold!