The 2023 NFL regular season is about a quarter of the way in the books. Through the first month of it, the Baltimore Ravens sit alone atop the AFC North division standings with a 3-1 record and could’ve been a perfect 4-0 had it not been for a shocking officiating-aided upset loss in Week 3.
There have been several players on both sides of the ball that have stepped up in major ways for the team as a result of injury or just maturation. The Ravens front office has historically been proactive when it comes to locking up key pieces, elite performers, and franchise cornerstone pillars sooner rather than later and preferably before they can hit the open market.
Just last year, they saw enough from All-Pro inside linebacker Roquan Smith after trading for him at the 2022 deadline to make him the highest-paid player at his position before the season was even over. He has been well worth every penny of his average annual salary of $20 million with his elite level of play and how he raises the level of play of all his teammates on defense.
In December of of 2021, they signed do-it-all utility offensive lineman Patrick Mekari to a three-year extension even though they had one year left of team control since he was an undrafted free agent in 2019, and they could’ve just tendered him for even less in the offseason. Since joining the team, he has been an integral piece of the Ravens’ offensive line filling in wherever his services are needed. Mekari has started 32 of a possible 58 games between right tackle, left tackle, and center during his five-year career thus far and is capable of playing either guard spot as well.
Here are a handful of players currently on the team who through the first four weeks have already shown they are deserving of extensions to keep them on the team for the foreseeable future:
ILB Patrick Queen
The fourth-year pro is on pace to shatter the career highs he set across the board in almost every major statistical category with 36 total tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, and three quarterback hits through four games. More important than the gaudy stats themselves have been the type of game-changing and drive-killing plays that they are resulting in for the Ravens dominant defense.
Patrick Queen ran right through Jerome Ford on his way to his second sack of the season. pic.twitter.com/i9MdShdnEf— Ryan Mink (@ryanmink) October 2, 2023
Queen was already beginning to emerge before the arrival of All-Pro Roquan Smith midway through last season. After an offseason of further strengthening their chemistry on the field, they have established themselves as the unquestioned best duo in the league. In a modern NFL where the inside linebacker position isn’t valued nearly as much elsewhere around the league, Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has weaponized the elite pairing that is leading the charge for the entire unit.
The 2020 first-rounder was the subject of numerous trade rumors, speculations and projections during the offseason despite coming off the best season of his career to date. After the Ravens selected Clemson linebacker Trenton Simpson—another athletic off-ball linebacker—in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft and declined Queen’s fifth-year option on his rookie contract, many saw it as writing on the wall that his days in Baltimore were numbered.
However, instead of demanding a trade or holding out, Queen put his head down and went to work. Now he is poised to receive significant pay day whether it’s by the Ravens or another team if he reaches the open market. While paying a pair of off-ball linebackers is as anti-modern NFL canon as a team can get, keeping Smith and Queen together is worth an exception if there ever was one.
CB Brandon Stephens
The third-year pro has done a tremendous job filling the shoes of three-time Pro Bowler Marlon Humphrey through the first four games of the season. After flipping between corner and free safety in his first two years in the league, he appears to have found a home where he performs best out on the perimeter.
Stephens has played 100 percent of the Ravens total defensive snaps and has been lights out in coverage, making clutch plays to prevent touchdowns and key conversions multiple times a game, as well as being a great open field tackler.
During his strong start to the season, he has helped lead the charge to shut down a pair of Pro Bowl wide receivers. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2, Ja’Marr Chases only managed five catches on eight targets for 31 receiving yards. This past Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, veteran Amari Cooper was held to just one reception for 16 yards on six targets, and it didn’t even come until the second half when the Ravens were already up by three scores.
Stephens is allowing a career-low 8.8 yards per completion, 6.2 yards per target, an opposing passer rating of 71.1, and recorded his first career interception in Week 4 that he nearly returned for a touchdown.
According to Pro Football Focus, his 189 coverage snaps without allowing a touchdown this year are the most among all cornerbacks in the entire league. While the Ravens value his versatility to be able to play multiple positions, they plan to keep Stephens at cornerback because “he’s doing such a great job there” per Head Coach John Harbaugh.
“He’s played at a high level,” Harbaugh said Monday. “He’s established himself that way, [and he’s] doing great. He’s gotten better every week. I think he’s getting even better and better every week at the top of the route. [Pass game coordinator/secondary coach] Chris Hewitt’s done a great job at working with him on that and playing the ball to the top of the route and getting balls off receivers – to see him get the pick was big.”
Since Stephens was drafted in 2021, he won’t be eligible to be extended until after the season. If he continues preforming at his current high level, extending him will likely be among general manager Eric DeCosta’s top priorities in the offseason because it would give the Ravens a pair of lockdown corners with him and Humphrey.
DB Geno Stone
The fourth-year pro has been another member of the secondary that has stepped up in place of a high-priced veteran. Stone has started the last three games in the place of injured free safety Marcus Williams and has provided every bit of the same playmaking ball hawk element to the backend of the defense with a pair of pass deflections and interceptions during that span.
Stone has followed the route to earning extensive playing time and making the most of his stints as a starter as his late-round safeties predecessors Chuck Clark and Deshon Elliott. He began as mainly a core special teams contributor and eventually gained the trust of the coaching staff to the degree that they felt comfortable letting him start in place of Williams for 10 games over the past two seasons.
Even when Williams returns to the lineup there will still be a prominent role for Stone in the Ravens defense. Macdonald loves deploying three safety sets to disguise pressures and coverages. Stone and Williams can keep a lid on the backend to make sure nothing can go over the top of their coverage, freeing Kyle Hamilton up to play more of the hybrid slot defender role.
The Ravens signed Clark to a three-year team-friendly extension with a year left in his rookie deal and even though Stone could definitely be a starter on many other teams around the league, he might be open to agreeing to a similar structure. Given that he will have a clear-cut role in their defense no matter who is listed as the starter and that he is consistently put in a position to make plays, DeCosta might just be able to get him locked up before New Year’s Eve.
EDGE Jadeveon Clowney
The three-time Pro Bowler has far exceeded expectations with how relentlessly disruptive he has been to start the season. While he doesn’t lead the team in sacks with just 1.5, Clowney has harassing opposing quarterbacks nonstop nonetheless and is a big reason why the Ravens’ pass rush is thriving despite not having projected starters and break-out candidates Odafe Oweh and David Ojabo in the lineup for most of the past two games.
According to Pro Football Focus’ Gordon McGuinness, he is on pace to become the first defender in franchise history to record 80 or more pressures in a single season since they started tracking such data in 2006.
As cringe-worthy as his numerous “almost” sacks have been through the first four games, the fact that he is constantly impacting passing plays in a negative way for the opposing offense is impressive all the same. For stretches he is either getting a hand on, breathing down the neck of, and flushing out quarterbacks every chance he gets to rush the passer, so that that will eventually lead to more sacks.
The sacks are going to come for Jadeveon Clowney this season. pic.twitter.com/C5kpUDCmdh— Ryan Mink (@ryanmink) October 3, 2023
On the flip side, most teams want to pay top for players who rack up sacks but often aren’t nearly as constantly destructive as Clowney. The Ravens value both sacks and pressures. If his price isn’t as high because he wasn’t able to come close to double digit sacks, running it back for at least a second year in a row would make sense for both parties.
OG John Simpson
The fourth-year pro went from being a late-season depth pick-up to a dark horse contender in the starting left guard competition to winning it outright with his performance in both training camp and the preseason. Simpson’s consistently high level of play hasn’t dropped off since the regular season began, He has been another pleasant surprise who plays with an attitude and is a road grader in the run game.
John Simpson with a nice little How do ya do to Za’Darius pic.twitter.com/m80o9bEFgz— Chris (@ChrisJustJoking) October 2, 2023
Many will argue against bringing back Simpson unless he finishes as anything less than a Pro Bowler because of the inexpensive alternative options that will still be playing on rookie contracts next year.
Ben Cleveland was a third-rounder in 2021 who has made sporadic starts but has yet to seize a starting spot. Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu is a 2023 six-rounder who was Simpson’s top competition for the starting spot this year and 2023 seventh-rounder Andrew Vorhees will miss his entire rookie season as he recovers from a torn ACL.
Bringing stability at a position that has had a different starter in each of the last three years might be worth forgoing a potential mid to late-round compensatory pick in 2025 especially since non-upper-echelon interior linemen don’t typically command hefty salaries.
Pricing himself out of town:
DT Justin Madubuike
The fourth-year pro is on a breakout pace to start the final season of his rookie contract with a pair of sacks and a trio of both quarterback hits and tackles for loss through the first four games.
With the rapid growth of contracts being handed out to interior defensive linemen that can generate consistent pressure and collapse the pocket from up the middle, Madubuike might already be as good as gone come next March. Trying to franchise tag him for one more year will likely be more than they’re willing to pay or could even afford given some of their other costly salaries already on their payroll.
This eventuality is likely one of the reasons that the team opted to extend his fellow 2020 draftmate and defensive lineman Broderick Washington prior to the start of the season to ensure that their trenches on defense aren’t depleted of experienced homegrown talent this time next year.