The 2021 Ravens staged TV’s best soap opera last year, sacrificing conventions and normalcy for insanity and drama almost every week. Only Hollywood scriptwriters could have dreamed up a regular-season opener and regular-season finale both ending with overtime losses.
Or an offense losing its top three running backs in a 12-day preseason span.
Or quarterback Lamar Jackson going from NFL Most Valuable Player front-runner to blitzed into submission in a matter of weeks.
Or a team with an historic injury toll and end-of-season free fall nearly making the playoffs.
Those Ravens were nothing if not unpredictable. These Ravens, with their injury uncertainty and Jackson’s unresolved contract situation, could be just as hard to pin down. But we’ll try anyway. Here are 10 guesses — some bold, others not so much — at how 2022 will unfold.
Rashod Bateman will eclipse 1,000 receiving yards
This isn’t the sure thing it might look like. In 2019, Jackson’s first season as a full-time starter, then-rookie Marquise “Hollywood” Brown led all Ravens wide receivers with 584 receiving yards. In 2020, Brown had a team-high 769 yards. Last season, with an expanded 17-game schedule, Brown became the first Ravens wide receiver since 2016 to top 1,000 receiving yards — but just barely (1,008).
With Brown shipped off to the Arizona Cardinals this offseason, Bateman’s production should jump dramatically. Despite rookie-year struggles, including preseason surgery that limited him to 12 games, the 2021 first-round pick had 46 catches for 515 yards. His biggest barriers to production this year might be structural: Jackson’s reliance on tight ends Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely, and more run calls from offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Still, Bateman’s too talented and too versatile to not feature prominently in the Ravens’ passing attack.
No running back will exceed 150 carries
J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards both tore their ACL before the first snap of the 2021 regular season. From there, the Ravens never settled on a featured runner. In some games, it was Latavius Murray. In others, it was Devonta Freeman. But the pair of veteran fill-ins combined for just 252 carries. For a little perspective, Jamal Lewis toted the ball 387 times in his signature 2003 season.
The Ravens hoped to have Dobbins and Edwards at or near full strength for Week 1 of this season. We already know that will not happen. Edwards is on the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform list and will miss at least four games. Dobbins looks quicker by the day in practice, but it remains to be seen how quickly coaches will subject his knee to a full workload. With this prediction, we’re saying the Ravens will spend the first part of the season scrambling at running back, much as they did last year.
Even in healthier times, they spread the wealth. Mark Ingram was their last running back to surpass the 150-carry mark, with 202 in 2019. It’s difficult to imagine them riding Mike Davis or Kenyan Drake or the recovering Dobbins to that degree. Instead, Jackson will again serve as the fulcrum of Roman’s ground attack, and they will ride the hottest back each week until they’re convinced Dobbins has regained the explosiveness that made him a breakout candidate coming off his rookie season. The running game will be more productive than it was in 2021, but not in a way that satisfies fantasy owners searching for a workhorse back.
Lamar Jackson won’t rush for 100 yards in a game
With his 11th career 100-yard game, Jackson would pull away from his childhood idol, Michael Vick, and set an NFL rushing record for quarterbacks. But defenses aren’t making it easy for Jackson nowadays. In 2019, he hit the century mark five times. In 2020, he reached it twice. In an injury-shortened 2021, another two.
Jackson arrived at offseason workouts with about 15 pounds of muscle added to his 6-foot-2 frame. Coaches and teammates have said he hasn’t lost his blazing speed. But it’s fair to wonder how much we’ll see of it. If the Ravens have to rely on the just-arrived Drake early in the season, concerns over the mesh point exchange could limit the viability of Jackson’s zone-read options. If Davis is heavily involved, defenses can focus on Jackson as the primary outside running threat. If the Ravens play from under center, as they did at times in the preseason, Jackson would be limited to scrambles and bootlegs.
Then there’s the whole last-year-of-his-contract variable. What volume of carries would the Ravens be comfortable with? And what about Jackson? His input will have to be considered.
Isaiah Likely will finish third on the team in receptions and receiving yards
Sometimes, we have to believe our eyes. Andrews is Jackson’s top target. Bateman is a clear No. 1 among the wide receivers. No other pass catcher came close to matching the productivity or “wow” factor we saw from Likely, a fourth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina, in training camp and the preseason. The rookie has every tool you’d want from a catch-first tight end: reliable hands in traffic, an inherent feel for sliding into open spaces, strength and balance to run through tackles. Ravens coaches had seen enough after he torched the Arizona Cardinals for 100 yards in one half; he didn’t play again over their next six quarters of preseason action.
Not many teams rely on tight ends to be two of their top three receivers, but no one has accused the Ravens of orthodoxy on offense. Roman loves designing sets for multiple tight ends. Jackson loves throwing to big targets over the middle. If Likely is half the player he was over the last six weeks, he will receive plenty of chances. On a roster without a clear No. 2 wide receiver, he will be a featured playmaker.
At least three Ravens will start at left tackle
Three Ravens — Alejandro Villanueva, Patrick Mekari and Tyre Phillips — started at right tackle last season. Lineup juggling could inflict similar turnover on the blind side this year. Ja’Wuan James is expected to start the season opener. Ronnie Stanley, still finding his comfort level as he finishes his ankle rehabilitation, might be ready for action soon after.
But how long can they hold up for? James, who tore his Achilles tendon in the 2021 offseason, hasn’t started since 2019. Stanley has appeared in just seven games over the past two seasons. Even before his ankle nightmares, he’d miss a game or two most years with a minor injury. The Ravens gave Patrick Mekari a three-year, $15.5 million extension last season because he’s the ultimate safety net for a team that needs its franchise quarterback protected at all costs.
Odafe Oweh will become the first Raven with double-digit sacks since 2017
Oweh arrived in Baltimore sick to death of hearing about the zero sacks he recorded in his final season at Penn State. Critics used this handy data point as a cudgel to suggest he was all workout sizzle, no game-day steak. He put this behind him with a productive rookie season, but he came out of it believing he still had much room to grow. We saw the wrath of Oweh 2.0 throughout training camp and in brief glimpses of preseason action. He was more violent with his hands, harder to hit cleanly as he came around the edge. In other words, he was unblockable.
Even as a rookie, relying on frenetic effort and athleticism more than patient analysis and technique, Oweh recorded five sacks and 15 quarterback hits in 15 games. He will play far more snaps this year under a new defensive coordinator, Macdonald, who squeezed incredible production from a pair of talented edge rushers at Michigan last year. Everything points to him becoming the team’s most productive sack artist since Terrell Suggs, who hit double digits for the last time (with 11) five years ago.
The Ravens will finish in the top five in defensive DVOA
Defensive efficiency is inherently less stable than offensive efficiency from year to year, which is what made Don “Wink” Martindale’s tenure in Baltimore so remarkable. In his first three seasons as defensive coordinator, the Ravens ranked fourth, fifth and ninth in the NFL in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, Football Outsiders’ metric for relative efficiency. 2021 was supposed to be more of the same. Then the Ravens’ secondary struggled, and the pass rush never arrived, and injuries doomed the whole enterprise — and perhaps Martindale’s job security, too.
A year after setting a bunch of unwanted records on its way to a 28th-place finish in DVOA, the unit should bounce back nicely. The Ravens already have one of the NFL’s stingiest defensive lines. Their group of edge rushers could have four real threats by season’s end. And the secondary, with its collection of chess pieces and ballhawks, should have a more unpredictable array of coverages under new coordinator Mike Macdonald. There could be early struggles, especially against high-octane offenses like the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals’. But the potential is immense.
The Ravens’ defense will produce at least 50% more turnovers than it did in 2021
The Ravens finished last season with just 15 takeaways, tied for third fewest in the NFL an unacceptable total for a team that spends so much of its salary cap on defensive backs. To their credit, they treated this as a top priority in the offseason, even though they knew they would get back their top ballhawk, cornerback Marcus Peters. Peters’ absence due to a torn ACL was not their only problem in 2021. Marlon Humphrey finished with one forced fumble after he knocked eight balls loose the previous year. The team’s safeties, after a relatively hot start, finished with four interceptions and no forced fumbles.
So they went shopping for a top center fielder in Marcus Williams; used their first draft pick on a long, instinctive safety in Kyle Hamilton; and rounded out their secondary with veteran cornerback Kyle Fuller, who has 19 career interceptions. Add those pieces to former All-Pros Peters and Humphrey, and they’re a good bet to reach 25 takeaways, a figure that would put them in the top third of the league instead of the bottom third, where they resided last year with the likes of the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers.
The Ravens will sweep the Pittsburgh Steelers
One of football’s fiercest rivalries has produced weirdly memorable games and one-sided series in recent years. In 2019, the Ravens swept the Steelers — first beating a Pittsburgh team without Ben Roethlisberger, then winning the rematch without Jackson. The Steelers’ series-clinching win in 2020 came against a coronavirus-ravaged Ravens team in a thrice-delayed game. In 2021, Pittsburgh won two games by a combined four points, the margins decided by a failed 2-point conversion and an overtime field goal.
Injuries, illness and the Ravens’ 2019 dominance have conspired to limit Jackson to just five starts against the Steelers over his three-plus years as a starter, one more than he’s made against the Kansas City Chiefs. If Jackson can stay healthy, he should start both games against Pittsburgh for the first time in his career.
That would give the Ravens a clear advantage at the game’s most important position. With the Steelers’ oodles of wide receiver talent, quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett have unusually large safety nets. But Jackson is due for a breakout game against Pittsburgh, which has rattled him over the years. An improved offensive line and talented secondary should also be enough to negate the Steelers’ strongest positions. If the Ravens’ pass rush is up to full strength by December, they could win in Week 14 and Week 17 handily.
The Ravens will win the AFC North
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Average injury luck would put the Ravens well ahead of the dismal health picture they faced last season as they crashed from the top of the conference to out of the playoffs in six weeks. They’re more likely to finish first in pass defense than last as they face an unremarkable slate of quarterbacks. Jackson has always won, even last year, when he grew skittish behind an unreliable offensive line that could be significantly better if Stanley gives the Ravens anything. It would be an upset if this team does not turn around to some degree.
So what about the competition? The Steelers will rely on a rookie or an also-ran at quarterback, playing behind a suspect offensive line. The Cleveland Browns won’t have their franchise quarterback, Deshaun Watson, until the last six games. That leaves the defending champion Bengals, a formidable foe with Joe Burrow at cornerback, a brilliant young receiver in Ja’Marr Chase and an improved offensive line to help keep Burrow on the field. The Bengals thumped the Ravens twice and made a stunning run to the Super Bowl, so if you favor them, it’s hard to argue. But they were inconsistent last year — 17th in overall DVOA and just two games ahead of the Ravens despite vastly better injury luck. They could be a better team this year and still lose the division because of a tougher schedule and a few key injuries.
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