We have little idea what professional football will look like in 2020. Will stadiums be empty because of the coronavirus pandemic? Will pregame protests be reinvigorated by the anguish players feel over the death of George Floyd? Will the NFL schedule start on time or in the event of a second wave of virus, be suspended entirely?
What we do know is that if football is played, the Ravens will be one of the most intriguing teams on the NFL stage. Reigning league Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson guarantees that all by himself. When you add a deep, veteran roster that flamed out in the playoffs last year after running roughshod over opponents in the regular season, there’s more than enough plot to go around.
So as we look ahead to the long, uncertain ramp-up to the 2020 season, here are the 10 most interesting people on one of the league’s most interesting teams:
Boykin was the most exciting rookie on the field in the early days of training camp last year. It’s not hard to spot a 6-foot-4, 220-pound wide receiver who ran the 40-yard-dash in 4.42 seconds at the NFL scouting combine. But Boykin also snatched contested passes and spoke with the poise and confidence of an older player. That performer was less evident once the regular season began. Boykin disappeared from the offense for long stretches, distinguishing himself more as a blocker than a pass catcher. Jackson did not target him at all in four games and targeted him just once in five others. On a recent conference call, Boykin acknowledged that he was paralyzed by overthinking at times. He’s striving to play faster in 2020. Ravens coaches and executives have lauded his work ethic and predicted he’ll take a major step forward. If that happens, Boykin could bring an important dimension to a wide receiver corps dominated by smaller players who thrive out of the slot. The Ravens did not sign or draft another large, outside threat, so Boykin’s development will be a key subplot to the overall development of the team’s offense.
His first year as offensive coordinator could not have gone better. The Ravens’ record-setting ground attack was not shocking considering their backfield talent and Roman’s track record. But few expected Jackson to become one of the league’s most efficient passers in his second season. And who would have predicted 33 points per game? John Harbaugh promised an offensive revolution. Roman, Jackson and Co. delivered it. Everything went so well that Roman’s name came up in head-coaching searches after the regular season. Ravens fans were thrilled when he did not go elsewhere. Now, Roman faces the pressure to repeat a magical season, even as opponents take a full offseason to plot against his innovations. Players routinely refer to him as a genius, but will the man they call G-Ro continue to find new wrinkles to keep defenses off balance? Will he scheme up more downfield shots to make the Ravens a greater threat when playing from behind? With great success comes great scrutiny.
Is there a position more identified with the Ravens than middle linebacker? Ray Lewis held it down for 17 years and was succeeded by another perennial Pro Bowl selection in C.J. Mosley. Mosley left a significant void, one the Ravens scrambled to fill, when he departed after the 2018 season. As well as Josh Bynes played in coming to the rescue last season, no one viewed the veteran as a long-term solution. Enter Queen, the team’s first-round pick out of LSU. On a recent conference call, Harbaugh laid out his vision for the Ravens’ newest linebacker, who will operate from the middle and use his speed to make plays all over the field, both horizontally and vertically. The 6-foot, 232-pound Queen might not fit old-school visions of an NFL middle linebacker. But he could be the perfect fit for a new age with his equal facilities for chasing a ball carrier to the sideline, blitzing or dropping into coverage. The Ravens want Queen on the field full time and they want it to happen quickly. That’s plenty of pressure for a 20-year-old who started just one season in college.
Earl Thomas III
Fans greeted Thomas as a savior after the Ravens got off to a sluggish start in free agency last year. Add a six-time Pro Bowl selection to one of the league’s deepest defensive backfields and what could go wrong? Well, Thomas acknowledged that he did not acclimate immediately to a new role and an unfamiliar locker room. He performed well, earning excellent coverage grades from Pro Football Focus and making another Pro Bowl. But he was not the roving, big-play threat some fans envisioned. The 31-year-old safety’s narrative became more complicated last month when an incident with his wife (in which she was criminally charged but he was not) generated sensational headlines on TMZ. The Ravens were caught off guard when the story broke, and it remains to be seen if the matter will follow Thomas into the season. He could put all questions to rest if he plays close to his peak level in 2020. Otherwise, skeptics will say the Ravens overreached by committing $55 million ($32 million guaranteed) to a faded star.
You return every player from a backfield that rolled up 3,296 rushing yards, so you do what with your second-round draft pick? We all know the Ravens’ answer by now: They drafted yet another running back, one who gained 2,003 yards in his junior season at Ohio State. General manager Eric DeCosta felt Dobbins was simply too good, too productive, too versatile to pass up, even if the team had more obvious needs at other positions. Harbaugh has said he’s happy to face the “problem” of finding enough touches for four dynamic runners (five if you include the most dynamic of all, Jackson). But any way you slice it, Dobbins’ presence will create drama around what seemed like one of the team’s most stable position groups. Will second-year back Justice Hill become a forgotten bit player? Will leading man Mark Ingram II bristle at ceding some of his carries to yet another young runner? Will Dobbins establish himself as Ingram’s successor?
A team’s most prominent offseason addition is always going to draw outsize attention. As one of the league’s most reliable front-seven forces and most respected people, Campbell seems unusually fit to handle it. After two straight years of being smashed at the point of attack in the playoffs, the Ravens need Campbell (who will turn 34 before the start of the season) to be great. Though he had just 6½ sacks last season, he was still an outstanding pass rusher, according to Pro Football Focus. And he’s just as effective against the run, which might be more important for a Baltimore defense that struggled against outside carries in 2019. The Ravens have not had a player like Campbell in recent seasons. His stature off the field could also be key as players and league officials navigate their response to Floyd’s death.
The most debated Raven of the offseason is under contract for next season after he signed a compromise tender that will pay him $16.8 million (if he doesn’t reach a long-term extension by July 15). But the debate is not over. Judon produced his best season in 2019, easily leading the team with 9½ sacks and 33 quarterback hits. He still did not convince everyone that he’s an elite pass rusher who should be paid like a franchise cornerstone. Plenty of fans implored the Ravens to dump Judon and chase Jadeveon Clowney (still unsigned). That wasn’t fair to a homegrown player who built himself from fifth-round pick to a Pro Bowl linebacker. But Judon, who’s never lacked self-confidence, will have another chance to make his case in 2020.
Brown scored on his first two catches as a NFL player. He was easily the Ravens’ most effective receiver in their playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans. Between those spectacular poles, he lived through a promising but frustrating rookie season. Brown was never fully healthy as he recovered from Lisfranc surgery on his foot and coped with nagging ankle injuries. He established himself as a major talent, with sticky hands and excellent body control to go with his elite speed. But given his injury history and slight frame, questions linger about his durability. Brown seems on target to be healthy at the start of the season. His bond with Jackson is one of the tightest in the locker room. He’s a popular breakout pick in fantasy leagues. Will all that lead to more consistent brilliance for a team that badly needs a No. 1 receiver?
He made the difficult leap from very good to elite in 2020, grading as the best player at the league’s premium offensive line position, according to Pro Football Focus. Stanley doesn’t get enough credit for his toughness, and his attention to detail has helped him master the subtle dance of NFL pass blocking. With free agency looming after this season, he’s in position to become one of the league’s highest paid non-quarterbacks. His extension negotiations will remain a major story until they’re resolved. Stanley will be fascinating to watch off the field. He’s spoken out in the wake of Floyd’s death and has said he’ll devote himself to changing Baltimore for the better. Could he establish himself as an essential figure in the story of the franchise? Between his play and his social-justice ambitions, it’s on the table.
For the casual fan, Jackson is probably more fascinating than the other nine guys on this list combined. He vaporized critics who doubted a slender running genius could ever throw well enough to thrive as an NFL quarterback. With an MVP award on his shelf and admirers around the world, Jackson ranks as one of the league’s true superstars. Now, he faces a hurdle that has tested many a great athlete: Can he translate his brilliance to championship success? Jackson can’t do much better in the regular season than he did in 2019. Sure, fans and analysts will debate his throwing form and cringe on the rare occasions when he spins and jukes into ferocious hits. But his next big chance to take on the skeptics he loves to silence won’t come until January. If the Ravens make it back to the postseason, as most expect, all eyes will focus on No. 8.