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Mike Preston: The Ravens have stars. Now they need their young supporting cast to grow up. | COMMENTARY

The big plays made by quarterback Lamar Jackson will define the Ravens’ 2021 season, but a lot of the young players need to step up for the team to make a deep postseason run.

The Ravens have won two Super Bowl titles in their brief history in Baltimore, and the veterans always provided stability. In 2000, proven players such as tackle Harry Swayne, quarterback Trent Dilfer, tight end Shannon Sharpe, receiver Qadry Ismail and fullback Sam Gash were the stabilizing forces on offense.

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Defensively, veteran linemen Rob Burnett, Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa and Michael McCrary and safety Rod Woodson were the foundation, while young players such as linebackers Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper and defensive backs Kim Herring, Chris McAlister and Duane Starks were just entering their prime. Running back Jamal Lewis was only a rookie.

In 2012, the Ravens had proven stars in Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed, linebacker Terrell Suggs and guard Marshal Yanda and hard-nose veterans such as safety Bernard Pollard, receiver Anquan Boldin and fullback Vonta Leach. But they were complemented by young players, such as linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Jameel McClain, cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham and offensive lineman Michael Oher. Quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice were in their prime.

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The Ravens are generally regarded as one of the best drafting teams in the league. It’s time to find out if they are living off history or still near the top.

Going into this season, barring injuries, Jackson is going to break a couple of runs that cause everyone to shake their heads in amazement. Running backs J.K Dobbins and Gus Edwards will be relentless in the ground game, tight end Mark Andrews will make some unbelievable circus catches in the middle of the field and receiver Marquise Brown will catch a couple of passes in stride where he looks like one of the fastest players in the history of the game.

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson talks about his preparation for the upcoming season and off-season workouts with teammates.

Few teams will be able to run the ball against the Ravens’ front three of ends Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe and tackle Brandon Williams, while cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey will continue to press and stalk receivers. But that’s not enough, and Ravens history says so.

A lot of the young players don’t have to perform at a Pro Bowl level, but they need to be consistent enough to make an impact and not become a weakness. Maybe the most crucial is rookie receiver Rashod Bateman, and not just because he was the team’s top draft pick in April. In offseason minicamps, he added explosiveness to the offense.

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Bateman can line up on the outside, which gives the Ravens some versatility with either Brown or veteran Sammy Watkins in the slot or outside. Combined with Andrews, that’s a pretty impressive group. Some fans have complained about the Ravens spending too many resources on receiver to help Jackson and the passing game, but support is always provided for the star player. The Ravens did the same for Ray Lewis by drafting tackle Haloti Ngata after Siragusa and Adams left.

The Ravens, however, need more than just Bateman to strengthen their passing game. Third-year receiver Miles Boykin has to become more than just a blocker, and the coaching staff needs to get better production out of Devin Duvernay, the second-year player out of Texas. If Eli Wolf performs as well in training camp and the preseason as he did in minicamp, that would ease some concern about the two tight end packages after injuries to Nick Boyle (knee) and Patrick Ricard (hip).

"I feel like this year, it'll be a really tough decision to figure out who's going to make it," said Humphrey about the Ravens wide receiver group.

Elsewhere on the offense, rookie Ben Cleveland has already made a strong impression at left guard, but that could change in training camp when the full gear goes on. The Ravens like Cleveland, a third-round pick, as a run blocker, but he’ll probably struggle initially in pass protection. Even if he practices well, that will make both third-year player Ben Powers and second-year performer Tyre Phillips better. Currently, Powers has the inside edge.

The Ravens were consistently strong on defense a year ago, but they need more players to step up on that side of the ball. The Ravens have to find a pass rusher, and time is running out for third-year outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson. On March 16, the team re-signed fifth year outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, 26, to a four-year contract worth $22 million, but he has been more successful in coverage than pressuring the quarterback.

Then there is second-year weakside linebacker Malik Harrison. The Ravens need the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Harrison to firmly establish himself as the starter despite competition from veteran L.J. Fort. Harrison, 23, as well as Ferguson, 25, were both third-round picks, but chosen a year apart.

Mike Preston writes the Ravens have to find a pass rusher, and time is running out for third-year outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson, pictured working on his pass rushing technique at the team's training facility May 26, 2021.
Mike Preston writes the Ravens have to find a pass rusher, and time is running out for third-year outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson, pictured working on his pass rushing technique at the team's training facility May 26, 2021. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

The Ravens are set on the defensive line, but it’s unlikely all three veteran starters will make it through the season without an injury. Williams is 32, Wolfe is 31 and Campbell is 34. That’s why second-year tackles Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington Jr. have to play well, either in the regular rotation or as starters if necessary. On the back end, nickel back Tavon Young is in his sixth season out of Temple but has only played two games the past two seasons because of neck and knee injuries.

It’s easy to root for Young, and if he becomes the starter, that would create even more play-calling options for defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale.

But it’s the if, if, if syndrome again.

For the Ravens to have any chance of winning the Super Bowl, they can’t just count on Jackson. Compared with several years ago, they seem to have a lot more impact players in place.

Now, it’s time for some of these young guys to grow up and become more relevant.

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