2018 was an interesting year for the Baltimore Ravens. Housing the league’s best yardage defense on route to a division title and their first playoff appearance in four seasons, 2018 was a bumpier ride than one would expect from a 10-6 team. Last year’s Ravens were a team going through a lot of change. That process is going to continue in 2019 but is perhaps more solidified at this point.
The offense was transformed midseason with the promotion of Lamar Jackson to full time starting quarterback but without a playbook tailored to his strengths. Baltimore’s play-calling was fairly one dimensional with a scheme tailored to Joe Flacco and it showed in the Ravens playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Now Jackson has had a full offseason to learn a proper offense and general manager Eric DeCosta has complimented him with a number of players that play to his strengths. The Ravens offense is still a far cry away from traditional but it no longer looks like talented but mismatched pieces.
Going into 2019, the North is wide open with the multiple teams going through identity changes over the past calendar year. However, coming off a division title in 2018, the North is still the current kings’ division to lose. With a young and explosive quarterback, a ton of new offensive weapons, and a secondary that rivals any position group in the NFL, the 2019 Baltimore Ravens are once again looking to contend for a division title.
The 2019 Baltimore Ravens Will Repeat As AFC North Champs
The Anti-NFL Offense
DeCosta was on a mission this offseason to give Jackson a group of playmakers that will allow him to maximize his effectiveness in the NFL. It started at the running back position, a new offensive coordinator and ended with another revamped receiving corps.
The AFC North is deep at running back but the Ravens probably have the most versatile group in division. The addition of Mark Ingram to Gus Edwards‘ power, and his underrated catching ability to pair with the explosive and elusive Justice Hill gives the Ravens a backfield that can make impactful plays on every down. Any of the backs have the ability to take the ball to the house on any play.
What’s so interesting about the running backs as well, is that their best runner could be their quarterback. Jackson was electric as a rookie going 6-2 in eight starts, averaging 79.4 rushing yards per game in his seven regular-season games. Baltimore’s starter is one of the fastest runners in his position. Pair that with the significant upgrade at running back and the Ravens possess an offense with the potential to run by anyone if they blink at the wrong time.
The quality running back depth will also help the Ravens improve their red zone game. Under Flacco, the Ravens began the year a perfect 12 for 12 on red zone possessions and scored touchdowns on each one. However, they finished the season 20th in red zone percentage; with a disappointing 44.7% conversion rate after week three. Ingram’s ability to push past defenders on the goal line should at least slightly better their efficiency.
There Will be Growing Pains
The Ravens may be in a good spot going into 2019 but they are still a very young team. Though their roster has a number of quality veteran leaders, they still remain inexperienced at multiple starting positions. In DeCosta’s first draft as Ravens GM, he selected two young receivers in the first three rounds while looking to fortify the ambiguous left guard position with two more youngsters.
Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin were drafted with the Ravens 25th and 93rd picks respectively, and are looking to bring stability to a position group that has been torn down and remade three times over the last three seasons. This time, DeCosta is finally looking for longevity. The two come in to complement Willie Snead and give the Ravens a blazing deep threat, high point expert and safe handed slot guy. The young receivers will face a learning curve playing against top-flight competition but their potential is through the roof. Brown was a favorite target of the past two Heisman winners and key contributor to their success. Boykin was just a one-year starter but showed flashes as one of the most athletic receivers in college football.
At left guard, the Ravens are hoping for someone to step up between Bradley Bozeman and 4th round draft choice Ben Powers. Bozeman has the upper hand after playing 213 snaps in 2018. Moving from center, where he has spent his past three seasons playing, to guard, could be a challenge. Enter Powers, who was a consensus All-American last season in college playing both left and right guard. Both have question marks but the Ravens have recently had a knack for finding good starting offensive lineman in the later/middle rounds. Examples include Keleche Osemeli (2nd), Rick Wagner (5th), and last years rookie right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. (3rd).
The Best Secondary In Football
There are a lot of good units in football but the 2019 Baltimore Ravens may have the best one. With the addition of Earl Thomas, the secondary in Baltimore is one of the scariest and deepest position groups in the NFL. They were already good this previous season and have managed to improve going into 2019.
Led by lockdown corner Marlon Humphrey, the secondary simply has no weak spots. The biggest blow was the neck injury nickel corner Tavon Young suffered in the preseason that likely ended his season. Even without Young, the Ravens still have three quality starting corners. Two of whom could serve as top corners on a number of NFL teams. They also have two good young corners that will likely see starting time due to absence.
2018 fourth-round pick Anthony Averett being the one that stands out the most. Among rookie corners, Averett forced the second-lowest passer rating when targeted (45.8). While Averett might not see starting time, he’s clearly benefitting from playing and learning from truly great NFL corners.
This secondary’s ability to force turnovers will likely improve as well. Last season, Baltimore was only able to bring in 12 interceptions (T-18th). This is mainly due to the limited success of the team’s pass rushers. Despite a similar unit returning, the player with the third most picks since 2010 is Thomas.
As good as the competition in the AFC North should be, the Ravens still have the upper hand. Three of the division’s four teams are aspiring playoff contenders. The 2019 Baltimore Ravens have as good a chance at grabbing a division title as the other two.
The Cleveland Browns exist amidst a plethora of flashy offseason moves, highlighted by the acquisition of star receiver Odell Beckham Jr., have been touted as dark horse Super Bowl contenders despite having not a playoff appearance in 16 years.
The Browns strongest position group in 2018 will also be without one of the players largely responsible for its success. Kevin Zeitler was dealt to the New York Giants as the biggest chip in Cleveland’s swaps with New York this offseason. To fill his shoes is Eric Kush. Kush has only started 12 games over his previous five seasons. The offensive line was a huge reason why Baker Mayfield was able to have so much success as a rookie and a lacking unit could keep him from taking the big step in 2019 many expect. This also affects the runners in Cleveland’s backfield. The majority of backs that played in 2018 were only successful thanks to a competent offensive line. Now with Nick Chubb the only real good runner (predicated on Kareem Hunt‘s return), the running game could also take a hit.
Going into 2019, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a true wildcard. Though they were (presumably) able to rid themselves of the drama that surrounded the team in 2018, they took notable hits from a talent perspective. Antonio Brown may be a headcase at the moment but has still played like a top-five NFL receiver over the past six seasons. Those are huge shoes to fill. The Steelers would be asking a lot of one of their depth receivers to replace him.
The Steelers best work is done in the trenches. The team’s offensive and defensive lines are two of the best in the league. Matchups between these two teams are some of the closest of any rivalry in the NFL. Six of the last eight contests have been decided by one score or less.
However, the Steelers are at a weakness to almost every other team in the NFL. The secondary is easily Pittsburgh’s weakest position group and was once again neglected this past offseason. They forced just eight interceptions last season. And while the defense as a whole didn’t allow many yards in 2018, they still finished 16th in points allowed. Pittsburgh’s defense is going to have problems this season if they can’t replicate last year’s success.
End of Season Prediction: 10-6
10-6 may not seem like a strong enough record to win a division. You have to remember that the AFC North will face a lot of good out-of-division teams. Each team matches up with the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Texans, and Seattle Seahawks. Keep in mind that this record also relies on the Ravens going 3-3 in the NFC North division. This could easily change with the Cincinnati Bengals looking as unimproved as they do.
Coming off of a hard-fought division title last season, the Ravens young team already clutch experience. Though last year’s playoff matchup was a tough loss, it was still a one-score game. That loss should haunt the team all year long. If nothing else, it should give them the motivation to get back to the playoffs and change their fate.
What’s crazy is that the Ravens have been quietly rebuilding for a year now and were still able to win a division title. The 2019 Baltimore Ravens may not be a powerhouse this year, but they’re trending upward. Growth is essentially guaranteed with the way DeCosta is building his team.