There’s a simple and unfamiliar truth about the Ravens as they embark on their 28th season: Never before have they invested in their offense the way they have in 2023.
Specifically, $52 million per year for Lamar Jackson, who is now the second-highest paid quarterback per year in the NFL after Baltimore signed him to a five-year extension worth $260 million. There was the $15 million they shelled out for three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver and transcendent star Odell Beckham Jr., even though he hasn’t played in a game since Super Bowl 56 in February 2022 when he suffered the second torn ACL of his career. There was the spending of the 22nd overall pick in this year’s draft on receiver Zay Flowers.
Those were the splashiest moves in the offseason, but the willingness to fork over big bucks to the offense hardly stops there.
Other big-ticket incumbents include Mark Andrews, the third-highest paid tight end in the league at $14 million per year, and Ronnie Stanley, whose $19.75 million average annual salary is fifth-most among left tackles. Kevin Zeitler’s $7.5 million per year, meanwhile, ranks him 10th among right guards, and Patrick Mekari’s $5.15 million is 11th-most among left guards.
In all, the Ravens’ total cash layout of $303,215,795 this season is third-most in the NFL, according to Over The Cap, behind only the New York Jets, who signed Aaron Rodgers to a three-year deal worth $112.5 million after acquiring the future Hall of Famer in a trade, and the Cleveland Browns, who signed quarterback Deshaun Watson to a five-year, $230 million contract last year. When it comes to offensive spending, Baltimore’s $184,661,778 is tops in the league for what is believed to be the first time in the organization’s history.
“Lamar joked a few years ago that ‘EDC’ stands for ‘every dollar counts,’ and that is how I think about it because every dollar does count this year, and we need every dollar we can because we’ve spent,” general manager Eric DeCosta said in May. “We spent a lot of money, and we do it every year because we want to win.”
Of course, spending the most doesn’t always equal a title. Last season’s Super Bowl participants, the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, ranked 22nd and 17th, respectively, in overall spending. Neither cracked the top 10 in money spent on the offense, yet they finished first and third in both yards and points per game.
But given the Ravens’ spending and just two playoff wins since their last Super Bowl title in the 2012 season, the expectation is a championship. To get there, Baltimore, already with one of the best defenses in the NFL, is betting big on the addition of a few new offensive players, an overhauled scheme under new coordinator Todd Monken and, of course, Jackson, who will be asked to run less, throw more and be the leader of a more dynamic spread attack.
Can he, and the Ravens, live up to the hype?
“I feel like there’s another stepping stone, that I’m stepping into my prime right now,” Jackson, 26, told The Baltimore Sun. “I got a great group of guys around me and right now I feel like is the time [for us] to elevate.
“It feels great to spread the defense out and just get the ball out of my hands faster because we have a lot of explosive guys who can catch the ball and get yards after the catch. It makes my job a lot easier.”
It helps to have difference-makers.
During Jackson’s tenure in Baltimore, he has had just one 1,000-yard receiver, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, and he was traded last year. First-round pick Rashod Bateman has played just 18 games over two seasons because of injuries, while a batch of receivers on the tail end of their careers — Sammy Watkins, Willie Snead, Dez Bryant and DeSean Jackson, to name a few — have been mostly unproductive. Last season, Ravens receivers ranked last in the NFL in yards by a wide margin.
Beckham, meanwhile, has topped the 1,000-yard mark five times in eight seasons, the most recent of which came in 2019 with the Cleveland Browns when Monken was his coordinator. The 30-year-old also boasts some of the best hands in football.
Flowers’ arrival has been much ballyhooed as well. Last year at Boston College, he had 1,077 yards on 78 catches and a school single-season record 12 receiving touchdowns. With the Ravens, the 5-foot-9, 182-pound speedster has already been given the nickname “Joystick” by Jackson for flashing quick and shifty moves during training camp.
Even veteran wideout Nelson Agholor, the 20th overall pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015 who’s on his third team in four years after the Ravens signed him in March, has impressed, developing chemistry with Jackson while showing good hands and precise route running. “He’s a pro,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Nelson knows how to play.”
Add Andrews, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who led the Ravens in catches the past two years, Bateman, a rising Devin Duvernay and running backs J.K. Dobbins (5.9 yards per carry in his career) and Gus Edwards (5.2 yards per carry) and it’s easily the best collection of talent Jackson has had around him since the Ravens drafted him in 2018.
It’s no wonder that he joked about being able to throw for an NFL-record 6,000 yards this season. Given the playmakers around him and a scheme that features a plethora of three- and four-receiver sets, the prospects are tantalizing.
“That’s what it’s about,” Jackson said. “Just letting them get the ball and letting them do them. We should see magic happen.”
Beckham added: “I think that this will be a very explosive offense. It’s an explosive team, as well. But specifically with the offense, I think that’s the goal — is to be explosive.”
But it’s also a group with question marks, most notably about health. Among the aforementioned players, all but Agholor and Andrews have missed significant time because of injuries.
Jackson also shares some of the blame for the passing attack’s foibles, ranking 22nd in yards outside the numbers and 25th in completions to wide receivers over 20 yards since the start of his career. He, too, has had his share of injuries, missing 11 games over the past two seasons.
But the hope is that “less running and more throwing,” as the quarterback put it, and a departure from previous offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s predictable and antiquated run-heavy play calling will help. The truth is, Jackson says, he doesn’t particularly enjoy running, unless he has to.
“I feel like it has been a necessity,” he told The Sun. “I enjoy it … sometimes. If everyone’s covered, if a hole is open and I get a window to do my thing, then I have fun with it.”
It has been effective. In addition to Jackson’s 4,437 career rushing yards, easily the most by a quarterback in his first five seasons, the Ravens are 16-1 when he rushes for 90 or more yards in a game.
But that comes with a price beyond the increased risk of getting hurt.
In four seasons under Roman, Baltimore attempted the second-fewest passes in the NFL. Consequently, Jackson has never finished higher than 22nd in passing yards, including in his 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player season when he threw for 3,127 yards while rushing for 1,206. Last season, the Ravens were 19th in points per game, 16th in total yards and 12th in offensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.
“The more talented you are around your quarterback, the less he has to take on that burden [to run] because you’re excited about getting others the football where they can utilize their skill set,” Monken said. “As you get further into your career, as Lamar gets older – as everybody does – you want to take some of that off of the player as best you can.
“But he has a unique trait, a unique skill set. You can’t take that completely out of his toolbox because that’s a huge weapon for him and for us, is using his feet.”
The same could be said of the Ravens’ rushing attack. Last year, Baltimore was second in the NFL with 2,720 yards on the ground.
Despite a shift in philosophy this season, the Ravens aren’t going to abandon the running game, especially given those gaudy numbers. Success on the ground, after all, helps set up the passing attack. And the ability to wear out opponents and the clock late in the game eases the burden both on Jackson and the Ravens’ defense.
But relying on more talented pass catchers, Jackson’s arm and a new scheme aren’t the only changes on offense.
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The Ravens have also empowered Jackson to have more say in playcalling and more control at the line of scrimmage. It’s a level of authority the quarterback says he’s desired and one that’s been evident throughout camp.
“Coach Todd Monken is just giving us the keys to the offense, letting us do our thing,” Jackson said. “Yeah, I was definitely eager. There’s certain things we see in the film room that we might not get when we’re playing. And sometimes, I want to make adjustments. Coach Monken is giving us that free will to make things happen.”
How effective the changes are will play out over the next four months. With three division road games in the first five weeks of the season, the Ravens will be tested early.
The road to Las Vegas, site of this season’s Super Bowl, only gets tougher in what is a deeply competitive AFC. The Chiefs are the defending champions and the early favorites to win it all again. The Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals and Jets aren’t far behind. The Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Chargers were all playoff teams last season, made improvements and play the Ravens this year.
Will all the changes the Ravens made to their offense pay off?
“I think we have a chance to be a really, really good football team,” Harbaugh said.
Time will tell.