The Ravens returned to the playoffs in 2018, ending a three-season drought. They also began transitions in their front office and on their roster that will leave the franchise with a different set of public faces in 2019 and beyond.
That change might have been more turbulent had the team fallen short on the field, but it’s coming nonetheless.
Joe Flacco, the Ravens’ starting quarterback for 10½ seasons, will almost certainly depart via cut or trade. Two other pillars of the franchise, linebacker Terrell Suggs and guard Marshal Yanda, could follow him this offseason or next. Ozzie Newsome, the man who drafted them all, has handed control of football operations to his longtime protégé, Eric DeCosta.
With these giants stepping aside, it’s fascinating to consider who might replace them. Here are the 10 most pivotal people in the franchise as the Ravens look ahead to 2019:
The team’s future has not depended so heavily on the development of a single player since Flacco took over as starting quarterback in 2008. Jackson exceeded expectations in 2018, beginning the season as a long-term project and finishing it as the clear quarterback of the future. He led the Ravens to six crucial victories down the stretch, won the respect of a veteran locker room and reset our conceptions of what a running quarterback can do in the NFL, all before his 22nd birthday.
That won’t be enough going forward.
In the postseason, the Los Angeles Chargers used seven defensive backs to stifle Jackson at the line of scrimmage, and he could not throw accurately or confidently enough to punish them for it. His performance revived all the doubters who question whether Jackson will ever throw consistently enough to thrive as a long-term NFL starter.
He’ll need to spend the offseason cleaning up his ball handling and his throwing mechanics, even as the Ravens build a nonstandard offense around him.
If the skeptics are right, the Ravens could spend the next four years discovering Jackson isn’t the right focal point for their offense. Or he could continue the trajectory he began in college and become the most exciting playmaker in team history.
Now that Harbaugh and owner Steve Bisciotti have worked out a long-term extension, Harbaugh has a rare opportunity to leave a lasting imprint on the franchise.
He has already beaten the odds by holding his job for 11 seasons, and in 2018, he reminded us of his impressive adaptability, keeping the Ravens pointed toward the playoffs as they changed quarterbacks (and offenses) midstream.
Harbaugh’s tenure has already encompassed two distinct eras, the first with a star-laden roster led by independent-minded veterans such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and the second built around Flacco and his franchise-quarterback contract. Now he’s leading the Ravens into a new age with Jackson at the forefront.
Can he continue to adjust and become the Chuck Noll or Tom Landry of the Ravens? Such figures were always rare and have become rarer still in the modern NFL. Harbaugh at least has a chance to become a true institution.
DeCosta has spent his entire professional life apprenticing under Newsome, so the transition of power in the Ravens’ front office (which became official Jan. 11) stirred little drama. But it’s fair to wonder if the chemistry in the building will change with DeCosta in the top job.
Both Harbaugh and Bisciotti have described how Newsome’s natural calm and patience mitigated their tendencies to overreact in some situations. Will DeCosta, who has well-established working relationships with the owner and the coach, play a similar role?
Beyond such abstract considerations, he has much work to do on the roster. Between the draft and free agency, DeCosta will have to fortify the team’s offensive line, pass rush and receiving corps. He’ll need to decide how aggressively to go young on defense.
Newsome will be around to help, but it’s DeCosta’s canvas going forward.
After making his fourth Pro Bowl in five seasons, Mosley is a free agent. Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale have both said they hope he stays around to serve as the heart of the Ravens defense. Mosley has said that’s his wish as well. But he and the Ravens seemed to make little progress on a new deal heading into last season, and with so many teams sitting on so much money, someone will likely make him the highest-paid middle linebacker in the sport by the time free agency begins March 13.
There’s a strong case for re-signing Mosley. He calls the defensive signals, plays hurt, serves as a role model for younger teammates and delivered his best games of 2018 when the Ravens needed him most. No, he’ll never be Ray Lewis. But the team’s defensive plans will be thrown into flux if Mosley is no longer the fulcrum.
Fans generally seemed thrilled with the news that Roman will replace Marty Mornhinweg as the team’s offensive coordinator. He’s regarded as a master at designing run-first offenses, and he helped the Ravens develop the league’s most productive ground attack once Jackson took over at quarterback in November. His work with another versatile young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, helped the San Francisco 49ers reach Super Bowl XLVII (where they lost to the Ravens).
So Roman seems well-qualified to build an offense around Jackson’s rare running ability. It’s less clear how he’ll expand the second-year quarterback’s confidence and efficiency as a passer. His offenses in San Francisco and Buffalo ranked in the bottom half of the league through the air. Does that mean the Ravens will continue to swim against the NFL’s high-flying tide under their new coordinator?
The Ravens leaned hard on their deep, talented secondary in 2018, and no one played better than Humphrey, who graded as one of the top 10 cover cornerbacks in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
The 2017 first-round draft pick has developed in an ideal scenario, sharing time with veterans Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr. But the Ravens could cut Smith (and save $9.5 million on their salary cap), which would put the onus on Humphrey to play almost every snap and step forward as a central figure in the franchise. He has the size, speed, confidence and intelligence to become a perennial Pro Bowl candidate.
The 2016 first-round pick took a step forward in his third season, grading as one of the top five pass blockers among all tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Beyond that, Stanley grew into a more commanding figure in the locker room and rallied teammates with his fire on the field.
Yanda has been the team’s best and most respected offensive lineman for almost a decade. Stanley seems the obvious candidate to succeed him. But the Ravens will likely have to pay a hefty sum to keep him as a long-term centerpiece. Even average left tackles command significant money on the open market, and Stanley has proven to be better than average, with more room to improve.
The team has an option to retain him through 2020 but could move to sign him to a long-term deal after next season.
The Ravens face significant uncertainty at outside linebacker. Their best pass rusher in 2018, Za’Darius Smith, is a free agent. Suggs is also a free agent, and though he might return for one more season, he’s no longer an every-game force. Neither Tyus Bowser nor Tim Williams looked like a future starter last season. So Judon stands as the great remaining hope.
We’ve seen him take over games each of the past two seasons, and his forceful personality makes him a potential locker-room and community leader. But the Ravens need Judon to play more consistently from the start in 2019; his worst games have tended to come early in the schedule. He’ll be a free agent after the season and could earn a lucrative deal in Baltimore or somewhere else.
The Ravens have spent much of their history trying and failing to develop homegrown big-play threats. They’re facing another potential reset at wide receiver after passing on DJ Moore and Calvin Ridley in the 2018 draft. Andrews was their one pass catcher who showed real star potential in 2018, averaging 16.2 yards per reception and grading as the best rookie tight end in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
It’s probably foolish to compare any young player to Travis Kelce, the Kansas City Chiefs’ All-Pro tight end. But he was the one who came to mind when Andrews used a nasty stiff arm to break a 68-yard touchdown in the Ravens’ Dec. 22 win over the Chargers.
If Jackson is to grow into an all-around quarterback, he’ll need help. Andrews could be his greatest ally.
Tucker missed a few important kicks in 2018, but remains the gold standard at a position that seems to vex one-third of the league every year. He’ll be a free agent after next season.
It’s hard to imagine the Ravens failing to re-sign a player who’s been so important to them on the field and so popular for them off it, but Tucker will likely command an unusually lucrative deal for a kicker.
He acknowledged feeling unburdened psychologically after he signed his last contract, a four-year, $16.8 million deal with a $6 million signing bonus, in the summer of 2016. It will be interesting to see if the Ravens move more aggressively to lock him up this time around.