The Baltimore Ravens took another step toward in 2021. Quarterback Lamar Jackson and company ended the season at 11-5 and qualified for the playoffs for the third straight season. Baltimore went through a number of rough stretches during the ‘year like no other’ but was still able to compete with the best in the NFL and get Jackson his first career playoff win.
2020 may not have been a perfect year for the Ravens but it was another year in which their big off-season moves directly affected the success they had during the regular season and playoffs.
Six of the Ravens 10 draft picks from 2020 played 260+ snaps on offensive or defense and every single one saw the field at one point or another during the regular season. Linebacker Patrick Queen will be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year while J.K. Dobbins helped form a vicious one-two punch in the Ravens backfield with Gus Edwards by season’s end. Free agent Derek Wolfe and trade-acquisition Calais Campbell were both key cogs for Ravens on their way to finishing as the second-ranked scoring defense in the NFL.
Baltimore may not be known for their flashy off-season moves but their ability to acquire key players through free agency and the draft are what has allowed them to stay so competitive for so long. General manager Eric DeCosta and head coach John Harbaugh have already assembled a very good team but there is still more to be done if the Ravens want to reach their first Super Bowl since 2012 next season. The Ravens are good but are still a few pieces away from being great.
Baltimore Ravens 2021 Off-season Needs by Position
For the last two and a half seasons, the Ravens have been the anti-modern NFL offense. The NFL has transitioned to a far more pass-happy league over the past decade but the Ravens simply do not care. They set the single-season record for team rushing yards in 2019 and followed it up in 2020 by leading the NFL again in rushing yards per game. Jackson also recorded the most rushing attempts by a quarterback in NFL history in 2019 with 176.
While Harbaugh has gone all-in on creating a healthy environment for his quarterback to succeed at running the ball, he still plays a position that spends the majority of its time passing the ball. The Ravens have drafted four wide receivers in the last two drafts but the returns on those players have rarely been shown. Marquise Brown has caught the second-most passes on the Ravens over the past two seasons but seems best suited to be a permanent deep threat as opposed to a large-volume possession receiver. There is still time for one of the other three draftees to prove their value in the Ravens passing game but have yet to show potential number-one receiver capability.
Off-season priority number one for the Ravens will be finding a receiver that can continue to elevate Jackson’s game. The quarterback has already been a unanimous MVP but needs another weapon to help him become a more complete player. Jackson’s career passer rating of 102.6 shows his ability to be an incredibly efficient passer and now it’s just a matter of finding the player that will take him to new heights.
Best method of resolution: Free Agency
Baltimore could spend another two draft picks on receivers again in 2021 but their best option for finding Jackson a number-one receiver is via free agency. There are a number of high-caliber top-end wide receivers on the open market this year and DeCosta will likely be in pursuit of one of the biggest names. Finding wide receivers in the draft is more cost-effective but Jackson needs a player that has already proven they are amongst the NFL’s elite. Looking at the increased impact Stefon Diggs has had on Josh Allen in 2020 is only further evidence of the effectiveness a veteran receiver has on a younger quarterback.
Center/Interior Offensive Line
The Ravens looking for interior offensive line help is not a new topic of conversation. Following Baltimore’s 23-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in 2018, center and left guard both looked like weak points on the roster. Jackson was terrorized through the middle in the game by Melvin Ingram among others and was sacked seven times. Matt Skura was the team’s starting center all season and though he had a rough game against the Chargers, Harbaugh stuck with him for another season.
2019 saw Skura play the best football of his career before a leg injury forced him to miss the Ravens final six games of the season. In his place, Patrick Mekari played very well — finishing the season without allowing a sack and a 70.5 overall grade per Pro Football Focus.
Coming off of knee surgery Skura did not play well in 2020. He was inevitably benched for Mekari after three errant snaps in the Ravens Week 10 loss to the New England Patriots. Mekari played solid in relief of Skura but like him, had snapping problems. They were mostly on display against the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Divisional round when he was charged with two fumbles and was noticeably out of sync with his quarterback. Skura’s current deal expires this off-season but Mekari still has one year remaining on his contract.
DeCosta could also potentially look for an upgrade at right guard. The Ravens were never going to replace Marshal Yanda but they have yet to find a consistent starter at his old position. Tyre Phillips and Ben Powers both saw starts at the position. Powers was the only one of the two who had even made an NFL start prior to 2020. Both are still just 24 years old.
Best method of resolution: Draft
The interior of the Ravens offensive line struggled most in pass protection. Baltimore finished 23rd in adjusted sack rate and as PFF’s 16th ranked offensive line. While the interior of the offensive line struggled in 2020, both Ravens tackles, Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. are all-pro caliber players. Brown is also in line for a contract extension this off-season. Both he and Stanley could be making $14 million per season before the beginning of next year if Brown and the Ravens are able to come to terms. Therefore, spending big on a center or guard seems highly unlikely. DeCosta could target a center or guard with an early draft pick if they feel the value lines up with where they are picking. Finding a veteran at a discounted price to add to the very young interior is possible as well.
The Ravens led the NFL in blitz percentage once again in 2020. Their 44.1 blitz percentage was 3.5 percent higher than any other team. They also finished the season fourth in pressure percentage and second in quarterback knockdowns. Blitzing is in defensive coordinator Don Martindale’s DNA but he needs more elite level players to have a fully complete pass rush. Baltimore was middle of the pack in both sacks (14th) and hurries (18th) last season.
Baltimore’s ability to pressure the quarterback is largely reliant on the large number of players they bring on the blitz. 16 different Ravens had a sack in 2020 and 11 of the 16 managed two or more. However, only one player, Matt Judon, had more than five. He will be a free agent this summer as well. Players that can win one-on-one of the edge is a noticeable weakness on the Ravens so much so that DeCosta traded two picks to acquire Yannick Ngakoue Week 7. It’s hard to evaluate a mid-season acquisition like Ngakoue but he only managed 3.0 sacks and 13 pressures in his nine games with the Ravens. Like Judon, he is set to be a free agent in March.
Jaylon Ferguson is currently the only outside linebacker that dressed against the Bills that have a contract with the Ravens for the upcoming 2021 season.
After having such a deep and successful pass rush for so many years, the Ravens have kind of hit a wall. Terrell Suggs is still the most recent Raven to record double-digit sacks in a season. The Ravens team defense finished seventh in the NFL last season but gave up their most yards per game since 2015. Outside linebacker is clearly the position on defense that needs the most work before next season.
Best method of resolution: Free Agency/Draft
With four of the Ravens five outside linebackers set to be free agents, DeCosta is going to have to get very creative at filling out their depth chart. There is a chance that one of the four free agents are brought back to Baltimore but that would still leave the team with potentially three more spots to fill on the depth chart. This means that DeCosta will likely have to find both a complimentary option through free agency as well as one or more pass rushers in the draft.
EDGE looks like the most likely position to be filled with the Ravens 27th-overall pick. The 2021 draft class is void of elite-level pass rushers at the top but offers a lot of depth towards the end of the first round. Finding a top-end pass rusher that shows the athletic traits needed to be a good NFL-level outside linebacker can be very tough outside of the top-50.
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