The Ravens are a better team now than they were at the end of last season, but what they accomplish in the next couple of months will determine whether they’ll get back into the NFL playoffs in 2022.
They’ve upgraded with recent free agent signings of safety Marcus Williams, offensive tackle Morgan Moses and defensive tackle Michael Pierce, even though Pierce left the Ravens two years ago for Minnesota with questions about him being overweight.
Besides Williams, possibly the biggest move made in the offseason has been the front office examinations of the team’s training and rehabilitation procedures, and the addition of Adrian Dixon as the athletic trainer.
But the Ravens still don’t have a top pass rusher and haven’t named a starting center. The status of a starting middle linebacker is questionable, and the Ravens need depth on the defensive line and at outside linebacker.
In case you haven’t noticed, there are still a lot of holes, especially in finding that elusive pass rusher.
In need of a pass rusher
The Ravens have had pass rushers who didn’t develop, like outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson, and big names who contributed little, such as end Yannick Ngakoue and outside linebacker Justin Houston.
And they’ve had some who went to other places and played the best ball of their lives, like linebacker Matthew Judon, or simply declined to come here because there wasn’t enough money (see Za’Darius Smith).
With the Ravens, it’s always something. At least with former defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, he’d devise enough blitzes and pressures to beat most teams in the NFL.
But Martindale left recently for the New York Giants and gone are those creative blitzes, which still produced only 34 sacks last season.
Martindale’s absence puts the Ravens in an even worse position because the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and the AFC has the best signal callers in Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert and now Denver’s Russell Wilson and Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson.
Quarterbacks take over the postseason and the Ravens don’t have anyone who can harass or sack them. So, they have to look to the annual draft and select an edge rusher like Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux, Georgia’s Travon Walker or Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson II.
The draft has an abundance of pass rushers, but rookies seldom step in and have a significant impact immediately. There aren’t a lot good candidates left in free agency, so Martindale’s replacement, Mike Macdonald, might have to dial up the blitzes and play a lot of zero coverage as Martindale did.
Center still not settled
Bradley Bozeman appeared to have the potential and likability to remain a Raven, which is why it was surprising to see him sign with the Carolina Panthers.
The Ravens have to move on, but in which direction? Coach John Harbaugh said Monday that fourth-year player Patrick Mekari would “step right in, probably.”
Mekari is athletic and versatile enough to play any position on the offensive line. He was solid starting at right tackle last season and is one of the most technically sound linemen on the team.
Harbaugh also praised third-year player Trystan Colon, but the Ravens seem to value him only as a backup. Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum is generally considered the best player at his position in the draft, but is he worth the No. 14 overall pick?
It depends upon your team’s philosophy and weaknesses.
Moving pieces at linebacker
Macdonald was probably being polite when he said third-year performer Patrick Queen might be the starting middle linebacker in 2022.
Queen didn’t play like one to start last season and the Ravens eventually moved him to the weak side. He looked more comfortable in that position, the one he played at LSU.
Regardless, the Ravens need to find someone. Former Seattle great Bobby Wagner is an unsigned free agent, but he might not have much remaining after a 10-year NFL career.
But it would be interesting to team Wagner with Queen and Tyus Bowser on the outside along with Malik Harrison. One way or another, the Ravens will have some new faces at this position when training camp starts in July.
Will Stanley be ready at left tackle?
According to plan, Ronnie Stanley is expected to be healthy and ready to play when training camp opens.
We’ve heard similar stories in the past, but the Ravens need to provide themselves with some insurance and find a left tackle in case Stanley, coming back from an ankle injury, isn’t 100%.
The player doesn’t need to be the caliber of Stanley, one of the youngest and best at his position in the game, but the Ravens should be prepared, unlike last season when Stanley wasn’t able to play and the team was forced to move Alejandro Villanueva to the left side.
Well, how did they work out for them?
Bulking up the defensive line
The Ravens signed Pierce, and that was more of a second-chance decision that both sides hope will work out. The Ravens should have put weight clauses in Pierce’s contract, which would improve the chances he’ll be in shape for training camp.
But with end Calais Campbell still unsigned, the Ravens need to get some bulk on the inside, even with Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington ready to challenge for starting job as either ends or tackles.
As former Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome used to point out, you can never have enough defensive linemen.
Tight end depth needed
Stanley and Nick Boyle, the team’s blocking tight end, both attempted comebacks last season and both failed.
Boyle had multiple knee and lower leg injuries, and wasn’t much of a factor in the running game, which had been his forte.
The Ravens need another tight end, one who can at least complement starter Mark Andrews in the passing game, but also be a blocking force at the line of scrimmage. Going to a two-tight end formation forces defenses to balance up and cuts down on some of the unpredictability.
If the Ravens acquire some of the players above and if players like running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, and even quarterback Lamar Jackson return to health, the team should be back in the playoffs again.
They’ve had some good things fall into place. Now they have to take it to another level.