Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Today is an exciting time to be a fan of the Baltimore Ravens. You've got the team. You've got the coach. You've got the quarterback. Everything needed for a Super Bowl run is right there, waiting to be maximized. The only thing left to do is shatter that glass ceiling to get to the next level. Like when The Miz finally broke through on the Main Event stage. And yes, I chose The Miz for this analogy because, like this franchise, he used to live in Cleveland. I have layers, people.
How the Ravens got here
Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.
- Heading into the bye week with a sparkling 5-1 record. The only blemish being a home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. (Side note: That's the kind of matchup that would be considered a non-divisional rivalry if, you know, the Ravens won it once in a while.)
- Lamar Jackson to the rescue. The quarterback disappeared for a bit during a Monday night game against the Browns in Week 14, but returned in time to help rally the Ravens in a prime-time thriller. That 47-42 victory was part of a five-game winning streak that drove the Ravens to the playoffs.
- Beating the Titans in Nashville on Super Wild Card Weekend. Now, this matchup is one of the best non-divisional rivalries in recent years. Tennessee knocked off Baltimore in the 2019 playoffs and then won an overtime thriller in Week 10 of the 2020 campaign. The Ravens got the last laugh on last season, though.
- Midseason skid. The Ravens returned from a Week 6 bye and lost to the hated Steelers. And ended up losing four of five games, bookended by another loss to Pittsburgh.
- Playoff loss to Buffalo. Ah man, this one hurt. The Ravens and Bills were scuffling throughout this AFC Divisional Round Game in classic playoff weather in Buffalo. And it looked like Lamar Jackson was going to direct a potential tying touchdown drive. But Taron Johnson cut in front of Lamar's pass and raced 101 yards for a put-away touchdown. This was another disappointing playoff defeat for the Ravens.
Head coach: John Harbaugh. Hey, we like John Harbaugh, right? I say the 58-year-old -- who boasts a 129-79 regular-season record and an 11-8 playoff mark -- is safely inside the top five of NFL head coaches right now. Here's what I love about Harbaugh: He isn't afraid to adjust with the times. He's the son a coach, raised on football. And he could have been that guy who forces his quarterback to adapt to him instead of the other way around. But he embraced change and has allowed Lamar to do his thing. Kind of like when Eddie Van Halen started working synthesizers into his music back in the 1980s. Eddie bucked the tradition of hard rock and did something new. That is what made him a Baltimore legend.
Fine, Eddie wasn't from Baltimore. Would have been perfect if he had been, though. The late, great guitar god was born in Amsterdam and grew up in Pasadena. But the point still stands. Harbaugh is a guy who won a Super Bowl with Joe Flacco -- an accomplishment that seems more amazing the further we get away from it -- and he's now contending with a quarterback who is basically the opposite of Flacco. Mostly because his current QB is good. Let's talk about him for a moment ...
Quarterback: Lamar Jackson. Lamar won the MVP award two seasons ago, but he still retained a lot of his detractors. And a lot of those people tried to paint Jackson's 2020 campaign in a negative light. His passer rating dropped 14 points from 2019 to 2020. The second-largest decrease by a quarterback with at least six starts; only Carson Wentz's figured cratered more severely. HE'S A BUM! Well, we should remember his passer rating went from 113.3 in his MVP campaign to last year's 99.3 mark, which is still pretty damn good. Oh, and dude also rushed for 1,005 yards and seven touchdowns. He's awesome. Maybe you're going to need to curb the criticism for a bit.
And I am delighted to point out that Lamar won his last five regular-season starts in 2020 (and a playoff game!), posting passing efficiency numbers in those games that looked a lot like his MVP season. During that 5-0 stretch that punched Baltimore's playoff ticket, Jackson had 11 touchdown passes and just three picks. And his passer rating? It was 115.8 -- higher than his MVP-season figure. Take that, haters! And ... AND ... he's got some new receivers for this coming season. We'll get into that shortly.
Projected 2021 MVP: Jackson. Sorry, I'm taking the easy choice here. I try not to default to quarterbacks in this space, but as I mentioned above, the Ravens' five-game winning streak mirrored Lamar's increased efficiency. And really, when you break down the numbers, Jackson's 24-6 record is third among quarterbacks since 2019. Also, among QBs in that span, he's first in rushing yards, as you'd expect. He's fifth when it comes to TD-to-INT ratio (62:15), fifth in passer rating (106.6) and tied for second in offensive touchdowns (76). And he's one of six quarterbacks since 1950 with 30-plus wins and three playoff berths in his first three seasons. Not too shabby, especially considering he didn't make his first start until Week 11 of his rookie campaign.
2021 breakout star: Patrick Queen, linebacker. I know some of you might think I'm crazy to have Queen listed here, because he was pretty darn good as a rookie. And I understand that. Dude was a 16-game starter. Piled up more than 100 tackles. Logged three sacks. Forced a couple of fumbles. But he's going to be even better in Year 2, as he gets more comfortable in pass coverage. Guy has the tools, as a spectacular athlete, but playing linebacker in today's pass-happy NFL ain't easy. He'll get there. Especially now that he's getting a real offseason to prepare.
New face to know: Kevin Zeitler, offensive guard. Zeitler was a surprise cut -- at least to me -- by the New York Giants. Yes, 2020 was probably the worst season of his career. But from his rookie season of 2012 through 2019, he graded quite well in Pro Football Focus' system. (Annually in the green, for you PFF junkies.) And he didn't have much support alongside him on Big Blue's O-line last season. The situation he's joining in Baltimore, where he'll block for one of the best quarterbacks in the game, is much better.
The 2021 roadmap
The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. The Ravens have been a playoff team ever since Lamar has become the quarterback. And the roster is loaded up again.
Three key dates:
- Week 2 vs. Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday night). I backhandedly mentioned this previously, but the Ravens sorely need to get a W against Kansas City. You have to beat the Chiefs at some point -- I mean, if you ever want to get to the Super Bowl.
- Week 13 at Pittsburgh Steelers. This is basically a cut-and-paste from the Steelers edition of this series, but you have to look forward to this blood feud. The two rivals will also play in the final week of the season. And Pittsburgh swept Baltimore last year.
- Week 17 vs. Los Angeles Rams. I love this game. The Rams are one of the favorites in the NFC. With just one team getting a playoff bye in each conference nowadays, these games carry huge meaning. And I'll just say it: potential Super Bowl preview here.
Will the Ravens be able to ...
Take to the air more effectively with Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman in the fold? The Ravens invested in some receiving help for Lamar this offseason. And it starts with Watkins, the free-agent signee who needs to be more consistent over the course of the season. As a fantasy nerd, I don't want to draft him, have him score two touchdowns in Week 1 ... and then immediately feel like I need to trade him before he disappears. Bateman, who was Baltimore's first pick at No. 27 overall, is a real interesting prospect for the Ravens. Per NFL Research, he led the Big Ten with 1,691 receiving yards from 2019 through 2020 and was one of four FBS players to average more than 20 yards per reception and record more than 1,000 receiving yards in 2019. He's been compared to the Cowboys' Michael Gallup, and he should be an excellent addition to Lamar's arsenal.
Get to the quarterback despite losing Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue? The Ravens allowed 18.9 points per game in 2020 -- second only to the Los Angeles Rams (18.5) -- and have yielded 20 points per game or fewer in four consecutive seasons. That's the longest current streak in the NFL. The Ravens already blitzed at the league's highest rate last year, according to Next Gen Stats, but will they have to manufacture pressure even more in 2021? They're still the Ravens, and they do a spectacular job of developing edge rushers, but overcoming the losses of Judon and Ngakoue won't be easy. Baltimore was kind of forced into letting Judon go to New England, considering he got $54.5 million from the Pats. And you can't be mad at the former fifth-rounder for cashing in on the open market. It's like being mad at a friend for bailing on you, but then, when he says he's got Diamond Club tickets at The Big A for an Ohtani start, you kind of understand. Ngakoue signed with Las Vegas and ... well ... it's Vegas. Can't be mad at that. But now the Ravens will be relying on some lesser-known commodities to provide pressure off the edge, including rookie first-rounder Odafe Oweh, an athletic freak who could be the next Bud Dupree -- except he's playing on the right team, for you Ravens fans.
Make J.K. Dobbins their next great running back? The Ravens must have confidence, since they cut bait on veteran stalwart Mark Ingram. I mean, I would have kept Ingram around for the hype videos alone. That said, it is indeed probably time to jump on the Dobbins hype train. In a crowded backfield, he rushed for 805 yards (at 6.0 a pop) as a rookie. From Week 11 through Super Wild Card Weekend, he scored at least one touchdown every game. Dobbins also had six consecutive games with at least 50 rushing yards and a touchdown, tying Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson and Franco Harris for the longest such streak by a rookie since the merger, per NFL Research. I think that's pretty good. I mean, if I'm Dobbins, I'm name-dropping those guys all offseason. And the Ravens, who signed bruising back Gus Edwards to a two-year extension in June, really love running the football. Baltimore led the NFL with 191.9 rushing yards per game in 2020. And that was actually a decline from 2019, when they averaged 206 yards per game, breaking the NFL record with a total of 3,296 yards on the ground. So when you're doing your fantasy drafts this year and you see Dobbins in the queue, pull the trigger.
One storyline ...
... people are overlooking: Lamar has been refining that deep ball. Jackson told reporters at minicamp in June that the Ravens have been working to improve his deep passing. "We had some chances last year, we hit some of 'em, but we're just trying to be more consistent this year." Per NGS, Jackson has a 34.4 completion percentage on deep passes over the last two years, ranking 21st. Which isn't, you know, spectacular or anything. But when you combine that with the total package that Lamar gives you, then you really don't need him to be perfect in this area. Get to above-average and this offense will be cooking with gas.
... people are also overlooking: "Hollywood" Brown wasn't bad last year. Marquise Brown gets a lot of grief. Maybe it's because people just want to knock Lamar. But Brown led the Ravens in receptions (58, tied with Mark Andrews), receiving yards (769) and receiving touchdowns (8) in 2020. He's been a solid contributor for Baltimore in each of his first two seasons. And I'm not worried about Rashod Bateman taking targets, either. The more options, the merrier.
... people are ALSO overlooking: Mark Andrews is great. According to NFL Research, he's one of six tight ends in NFL history with at least 2,000 receiving yards and 20 receiving touchdowns in his first three seasons. He's also had as many red-zone receiving touchdowns as Travis Kelce (11) since 2019.
... people are overthinking: The Lamar Jackson extension. I know it's one of those storylines that people are going to pay extra attention to because it's the quarterback, but as our own Mike Garafolo recently reported, Lamar's extension is priority No. 1 for Baltimore, with the Ravens hoping to get it done before training camp. So don't worry about this. It's going to happen.
For the 2021 season to be a success, the Ravens MUST:
- Is hitting the Super Bowl asking too much? You had that whole "Lamar can't win a playoff game" thing hanging over him, and now that's gone. The next logical step would be a trip to the conference championship game, but I think we're too far down the road. It's like having a child with your significant other, but not thinking that you're enough of a couple for a joint Christmas Card photo. I mean, you're past that point already.
I'm bullish on Baltimore this year, despite the fact that the Ravens have one of the league's toughest schedules. But as long as the defense can stay in the top 10 -- and it's the Ravens, so of course that's going to happen -- I look for the offense to improve on last year's No. 19 ranking in total yardage, which could make Baltimore the most dangerous AFC team outside of Kansas City.