The Ravens’ 2021 season opens Monday night, and maybe the only guarantee about their year ahead is that quarterback Lamar Jackson, inevitably, once again, will be dynamite sports talk fodder.
Trying to predict the rest of this team’s future? Good luck. With the specter of the coronavirus still hanging over the season, injuries sidelining major contributors, and players rising and falling by the week, there are few certainties about what lies ahead in the Ravens’ next 17 games (and maybe beyond).
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth predicting. Here are 10 guesses — some bold, others not so much — at how 2021 will unfold.
Lamar Jackson will throw for at least 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns
This isn’t such a wild prediction when you consider that Jackson threw for 62 touchdowns over the past two seasons and will have an extra game to work with.
He’ll be better protected this year with Ronnie Stanley back at left tackle and veteran Kevin Zeitler in at right guard, and he’ll be throwing to more dynamic targets, especially if the Ravens can integrate first-round pick Rashod Bateman quickly once he returns from groin surgery.
Then there’s Jackson himself. He spent the offseason refining his footwork, and we saw the payoff during training camp. His tight spirals bore little resemblance to the fluttering ducks he used to unleash as a rookie. All signs point to Jackson throwing more and better in 2021, so a modest statistical jump seems in order. Remember, he’s still just 24.
Patrick Queen will lead the team in sacks
The best thing Queen did during an erratic rookie season was rush the passer. On 86 blitzes, he had three sacks, seven quarterback knock-downs and three hurries, according to Pro Football Reference. That built on the form Queen showed late in his breakout 2019 season at LSU, where he had three sacks over the Tigers’ final seven games.
Athletically, Queen is often compared to Buccaneers star linebacker Devin White, a close friend and former LSU teammate. White’s Year 2 jump as a pass rusher could mirror Queen’s: After posting 2 ½ sacks in 13 games during his rookie season in Tampa Bay, he had nine sacks in 15 games last year. On a team with Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukung Suh, that was still enough to finish second overall.
The Ravens don’t have nearly that amount of star power up front. Tyus Bowser’s ability in coverage could limit his pass-rushing opportunities. Justin Houston probably won’t get the playing time he did with the Indianapolis Colts. Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes face steep learning curves as rookies. And while Calais Campbell and Justin Madubuike could push for the team’s sack title, they’re just as likely to make life easier for Queen, who buzzed through the line in training camp.
Ty’Son Williams will gain at least 1,000 rushing yards
We know the Ravens will run often, and we know they’ll spread carries around. We know backs of all styles and experience levels have thrived when playing off Jackson.
Few projected Williams to make the Ravens’ 53-man roster after he spent most of last season on the practice squad, but he put himself ahead of Justice Hill with his hard running and durability before Hill tore his Achilles tendon. Then No. 1 running back J.K. Dobbins went down with a knee injury, creating a vacuum in the league’s most productive ground offense. That vacuum expanded when the next in line, Gus Edwards, reportedly tore his ACL.
The Ravens quickly added stars of the past in Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray, but the 6-foot, 220-pound Williams stands to benefit the most from this run of misfortune. His punishing style will fit coordinator Greg Roman’s schemes perfectly, and he’ll reward fantasy owners who stashed him deep on their rosters.
Ben Cleveland will finish the season as the starting left guard
After a concussion derailed his camp, Cleveland’s not expected to start at left guard in Week 1. Ben Powers, who started at right guard last season, ended the preseason as the favorite to take over for Bradley Bozeman, now at center. Tyre Phillips, the team’s best option at swing tackle, could also make a late charge for the job.
Cleveland, though, has the road-grading skill set that the line has lacked inside since Marshal Yanda’s retirement. Roman called Cleveland “the best run blocker in the draft” this summer and said the Georgia product would help the Ravens play “big-boy ball up front.” And Roman wants the Ravens to play big-boy ball.
Coach John Harbaugh noted early in camp that the third-round pick’s pass protection was a work in progress, and if the Ravens rely less on their ground game this season, that could be an issue. But if Cleveland emerges as a punishing blocker, the Ravens probably won’t mind taking their lumps with him as a starter, sooner rather than later.
Rashod Bateman will lead the team’s rookies in starts
Yes, Bateman will miss at least the Ravens’ first three games while on injured reserve. He could miss even more as he recovers from a groin injury that required surgery. But before he went down early in training camp, he was a projected starter in the Ravens’ three-wide receiver sets, alongside Sammy Watkins and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. If Bateman starts even 10 games this season, that could be enough.
Consider his competition. Fellow first-round pick Oweh could finish the season with more snaps at outside linebacker than Pernell McPhee, but defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale tends to open games with his trusted veterans on the field. McPhee started 13 games last season, and despite his release during roster cut-downs, he can still set the edge and pressure the pocket.
Elsewhere in the class, Cleveland will have to bide his time in practice, especially after returning from his concussion. Defensive back Brandon Stephens will play a lot, but cornerback Tavon Young is the team’s top option in the slot. And wide receiver Tylan Wallace and Hayes are long shots to start.
Marquise Brown will again lead Ravens receivers in catches, yards and touchdowns
We tend to view Brown as a fragile player, an impression that an injury early in training camp didn’t help. But he played in all 16 games last season and led the team in targets, catches, receiving yards and touchdown catches despite a four-game stretch in which he caught just six passes for 55 yards. He was again Jackson’s most productive target in the postseason, with 11 catches for 196 yards in two low-scoring games.
It will be easy to focus on new additions Watkins and Bateman, once he shows up. But we don’t have to speculate about Brown’s connection with his quarterback; we know it’s there. The surrounding talent will also allow him to work different parts of the field without the pressure of being the Ravens’ only home run threat. He’ll finally challenge the 1,000-yard barrier in Year 3.
The Ravens won’t be among the league leaders in missed tackles
The Ravens were one of the NFL’s best defenses last year in spite of their tackling, not because of it. According to PFR, they finished 2020 with 134 missed tackles, behind only the Raiders (143). Only one other team, the Washington Football Team, that finished among the top 10 in missed tackles also finished in the top 10 of Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency rankings.
It’s too early to say the Ravens will go from second-worst to first, but they’re at least on the right track. Martindale said the defense had only one missed tackle in the team’s 20-3 preseason win over the Carolina Panthers last month. “Anytime you can come out of a preseason game saying that,” Martindale said, “you’re going the right direction.”
The Ravens’ worst offenders last year, according to PFR, were Queen (21 missed tackles), cornerback Marcus Peters (14), outside linebacker Tyus Bowser (11), safety DeShon Elliott (11) and cornerback Marlon Humphrey (11). The defense’s aggressive, turnover-seeking approach lends itself to the occasional whiff, but a normal offseason program and preseason seem to have helped the unit’s tackling fundamentals, especially for young contributors like Queen.
DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark will combine to cause double-digit turnovers this year
The Ravens’ starting safeties have put pressure on themselves to take a leap forward in 2021. They played well enough in coverage and as run defenders after the Ravens released Earl Thomas III in training camp last year. But they combined for just one interception and four forced fumbles, unremarkable totals by the standard Ed Reed set at the position.
There’s no reason they can’t do better. Elliott is still just 24 and had hardly played for the Ravens before he started all 16 games last season. With his confident style and jarring hits, he has the tools to knock more balls loose for a defense that emphasizes that skill. Clark feels like a veteran, but he’s just 26, with two seasons as a starter under his belt. His nine passes defended in 2019 suggest he’s capable of boosting his interception total with a little more luck.
Justin Tucker will lead the NFL in field-goal accuracy
Strange but true: Only once in Tucker’s brilliant Ravens career has he led the NFL in field-goal percentage. That was in 2016, when he made 38 of 39 attempts (97.4%), along with all 29 extra-point tries.
Tucker enters this year with a new long snapper, Nick Moore, but the same holder, Sam Koch, and the same right leg. When he was asked last month whether he ever thinks about how long he wants to kick in the NFL, he joked: “I feel like that question has come up more and more since I turned 30 years old and now that I’m entering my 10th season in the NFL, but I haven’t even hit my prime yet. We’re just getting started.”
Tucker’s ninth season ended with the sting of two missed field-goal attempts amid the swirling winds of Orchard Park, New York. That playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills hasn’t seemed to rattle him. He made both of his attempts this preseason, including a 56-yarder, and was his usual consistent self in camp.
The Ravens will finish ahead of the Cleveland Browns
The Browns have a ton of advocates going into this season and with good reason. Their roster is loaded with high-end players, and their coaching staff is stable for the first time in recent memory.
Here are a few counterpoints before they float completely out of the atmosphere: The Browns weren’t actually elite on either offense or defense last season. They finished 18th in total DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, and were outscored by 11 points in the regular season. Maybe they are the next rulers of the AFC North, but if so, they still need to show it.
Meanwhile, the Ravens, in a season most viewed as mildly disappointing, easily outpaced Cleveland in point differential and DVOA. Not to mention they beat the Browns twice. The Ravens have lost whatever cushion they had to injuries, but if we peel back the offseason hype, they’re still a solid choice to stay ahead of Cleveland.
Monday, 8:15 p.m.
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