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Mike Preston: Ravens still in catch-up mode after modest improvements | COMMENTARY

Despite the lack of success in trying to secure a legitimate top receiver in the opening weeks of free agency, the Ravens did make modest improvements and became a better football team.

But was it enough to close the gap between the conference front-runners, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills? Did the Ravens do enough to maintain some distance between a hard-charging Cleveland Browns franchise?

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Basically, the AFC remained status quo with months remaining before training camp opens in late July or early August. The Ravens improved in two areas of concern by signing free-agent guard Kevin Zeitler and receiver Sammy Watkins, but those aren’t two players that force you to go on a victory tour.

The additions are true to the pattern former Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome established long ago and current GM Eric DeCosta continues to maintain. The Ravens don’t make a big splash in the opening weeks of free agency and want to build through the draft, which is why they have won two Super Bowls in the team’s first 25 years in Baltimore.

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But they are still in catch-up mode.

Kansas City failed to win a second straight Super Bowl because its offensive line couldn’t protect star quarterback Patrick Mahomes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so the Chiefs signed Joe Thuney, one of the top guards in free agency, and lured three time Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long out of retirement.

The Chiefs still have to replace departed tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, but they’ll find another bodyguard for Mahomes in the draft.

Now that’s progress.

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Buffalo added receiver Emmanuel Sanders to replace former Raven John Brown and brought in tight end Jacob Hollister, who was desperately needed, as well as Efe Obada to strengthen the run defense, even though Obada doesn’t appear to be the answer. But overall, no major gains for Buffalo, either.

The two playoffs teams from a year ago that appear to have made significant progress are the Browns and Tennessee Titans. Cleveland was horrendous in pass defense a season ago but signed a top safety in John Johnson III, who previously played for the Los Angeles Rams, and added cornerback Troy Hill and defensive end Takkarist McKinley, who will probably line up on the opposite side of star pass rusher Myles Garrett.

The Titans aren’t bringing back cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Adoree’ Jackson, and the Ravens have to be saddened to see Jackson leave because he played poorly in their divisional-round playoff game last season. Tennessee brought in cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Kevin Johnson while also signing former Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree to a lucrative contract. In an effort to overhaul the defense, Tennessee also added lineman Denico Autry.

After evaluating the early offseason additions, all these teams still have weaknesses. Kansas City can’t stop the run, and neither can Buffalo. Cleveland is pretty balanced, but the Browns need improved linebacker play to strengthen a front seven with a good defensive line.

The Steelers, Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts? All teams with quarterback problems. Yes, that includes the ancient one, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.

So the Ravens are right there in the chunk of contenders, but stuck in the mud. They still have holes to fill, like finding an edge rusher, but the Ravens have done that in the first round with outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Peter Boulware. There are enough quality edge rushers in the draft if the Ravens choose to go that direction again in late April.

But the 2021 season will be decided like the last three, and that means the Ravens have to find an efficient passing offense to complement a dominant running game. Zeitler will improve the pass protection and Watkins should be productive, but the Ravens need better concepts and quarterback Lamar Jackson needs to improve his fundamentals.

Only then will the Ravens make up ground on the front-runners. It’s not just a personnel issue, but a strategic one as well.

That’s when the distance will really decrease.

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