When Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins jumped over a pair of Kansas City Chiefs defenders on a back shoulder throw for a 27-yard touchdown in the third quarter of Sunday’s AFC championship game, it probably set off a lot of wishful thinking in Baltimore.
What if the Ravens had just one receiver as tall, fast or talented as the 6-foot-4 Higgins?
That play showed the biggest difference between the elite teams and the Ravens: They have impact players, and the Ravens don’t have enough.
Three of the final four teams have top quarterbacks in Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts. If you need pass rushers, there is Kansas City’s Chris Jones, San Francisco’s Joey Bosa and Philadelphia’s Haason Reddick. Cincinnati has receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Higgins, the Chiefs have tight end Travis Kelce and the Eagles have wide receiver A.J. Brown.
The 49ers have the best defense in the game with Bosa and inside linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, while the Ravens have only one impact player in middle linebacker Roquan Smith.
That’s it, folks.
Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey, defensive tackle Calais Campbell and quarterback Lamar Jackson make significant contributions, but injuries have forced Campbell and Jackson to miss substantial playing time the past two seasons.
There are some who believe the Ravens are close to being top contenders and that’s probably the case with most fan bases heading into next season. But until proven otherwise, the Ravens are simply the best of the average teams in a league dominated by mediocrity.
There is a chance they can make up ground on teams like Buffalo, Cincinnati and Kansas City in the AFC through free agency, trades and the draft, but it takes time for those plans to come together, even with a 17-game regular season.
With the Ravens, it’s the same offseason story every year. Since moving to Baltimore from Cleveland for the start of the 1996 season, there has been speculation the team might select a receiver with its top pick in the draft. But there are two major problems: the Ravens have yet to hire an offensive coordinator to replace Greg Roman, and they haven’t traded Jackson or signed him to a long-term contract.
Finding a good offensive coordinator won’t be easy. Coach John Harbaugh has already said the Ravens will stick with their run-first identity, which makes sense because of the talent invested in building around Jackson and the running game.
But if you’re a seasoned veteran with a dominant personality like former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, would you come to Baltimore and allow Harbaugh to dictate terms? Maybe the Ravens have to turn to a young coordinator coming out of the college ranks who knows a lot about spread offense and run-pass option plays or hire a “yes man” already on the coaching staff.
What happens with Jackson?
There are questions about his work ethic and durability after he missed the team’s final six games with a sprained knee, including the wild-card playoff loss against Cincinnati. The Ravens are expected to use the exclusive franchise tag on Jackson if the sides can’t come to a long-term agreement before the March 7 deadline, but they will also pursue trade options. The Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers make sense as trade partners, and the Ravens will probably want two first- and two second-round draft picks in exchange for Jackson.
Once the Ravens get an offensive coordinator and reach some type of agreement with Jackson, then it’s on to the next step, the draft. They need a receiver like TCU’s Quentin Johnston or a cornerback like Miami’s Tyrique Stevenson or Maryland’s Jakorian Bennett. They likely need an offensive lineman to replace left guard Ben Powers, who is expected to move on when he receives a lucrative contract offer in free agency.
But remember, few rookies come in and dominate right away. Even Hall of Famers like linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed had learning curves that lasted a year or two.
There has been a lot of speculation that the Ravens could acquire Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but how do the Ravens pay him, Smith and possibly Jackson? The Ravens probably can’t deal with Hopkins’ high-maintenance personality, either.
There aren’t as many openings on defense. The Ravens have their coordinator in place in Mike Macdonald and the centerpiece to build around in Smith, who signed a five-year, $100 million contract extension Jan. 10. But the Ravens are fooling themselves if they remain status quo.
If they want to become a truly great defense, they need to get consistent pressure from their front four instead of relying on blitzes. They don’t have a big, physical, fast cornerback who specializes in press coverage. Humphrey can handle it to a certain degree, but he is better near the line of scrimmage than in space.
This all sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Ravens need to develop a passing game. They need to find a big-play receiver. They need dominant pass rusher.
Despite all of that, the Ravens have been able to win 10, 11 or 12 games a year, which is a tribute to their scouting department and front office for being able to find depth. Now, this team is in need of some home run hitters.
Even if that happens, it’s going to require a lot of patience and timing to move into the top tier of NFL teams. Like they say, nothing happens overnight.
There are no guarantees, only wishful thinking.