Near the end of mandatory minicamp last week, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked whether his team, as presently constructed, might undergo further renovations ahead of training camp.
It was possible, Harbaugh acknowledged. With general manager Eric DeCosta on the lookout, “the wheels are always going.” But, Harbaugh added, “I’m not too worried about any spot on our team.”
That was to be expected. Most coaches and team officials volunteer good vibes during offseason news conferences. Few commit publicly to spending what little salary cap space their front office has left in free agency.
But Harbaugh’s roster assessment rings mostly true. The Ravens don’t have many holes across their team, offense or defense. Still, some positions are more worrisome than others. Here’s a look at where the groups rank — special teams not included — from weakest to strongest.
10. Outside linebacker
The Ravens might still add to the position this offseason — Justin Houston? Melvin Ingram? — and for good reason. After losing Pro Bowl edge rushers Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue in free agency, the team’s top two returning outside linebackers are Tyus Bowser, known more for his coverage skills than his pass-rush prowess (two sacks in 2020), and Pernell McPhee, a 32-year-old, hard-nosed run stopper.
DeCosta wisely invested in the group’s future through the draft this spring, taking the raw but gifted Odafe Oweh in the first round and the technically sound Daelin Hayes in the fifth round. They’ll push Jaylon Ferguson for snaps; Ravens defensive coaches have said the former third-round pick has turned a corner, but he’ll have to prove it in training camp. Together, the young trio represents more potential than production.
The Ravens finished 14th in the NFL in sacks and third in pressure percentage last season, according to Pro-Football-Reference. With their offseason losses, this could be defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s greatest test yet.
9. Inside linebacker
Patrick Queen had a mature perspective on his up-and-down rookie season, one that ended with Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration and one of Pro Football Focus’ lowest year-end grades: “I’m proud of myself,” he said earlier this month, “and I’m still hard on myself.”
As Queen goes, so, too, will the position. The 2020 first-round pick played more than twice as many defensive snaps as any other Ravens inside linebacker last season. With the rise of three-receiver formations and more pass-centric sets, L.J. Fort, Malik Harrison and Chris Board will have to contribute however they can — on early downs, on special teams and elsewhere.
Queen’s potential is obvious. So are his areas for improvement. Though he finished with a team-high 106 combined tackles, Queen’s missed-tackle rate was among the Ravens’ worst. He also struggled in coverage, a focus of his offseason work. Having a normal preseason and new position coach, Rob Ryan, could help unlock more of the ability he showed at LSU and in flashes last year.
8. Wide receiver
There’s a lot to like about what the Ravens’ wide receivers could be. They’re young, fast, versatile, and eager to learn from position coach Tee Martin and pass game specialist Keith Williams.
They also have a lot to prove before they can even be considered a league-average receiving corps. That Ravens receivers finished last in the NFL last season in receiving yards doesn’t mean they were the league’s worst group; the offense’s run-heavy output put them at a statistical disadvantage. But there were only so many reliable targets, and one of them, slot receiver Willie Snead IV, is no longer in Baltimore.
The position’s offseason workouts were promising. Sammy Watkins was healthy and productive. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown built on his encouraging postseason run. Rashod Bateman was a smooth operator. The Ravens shouldn’t have a bottom-half receiving room for long. But progress sometimes comes slowly.
After all the talk about the safety upgrades the Ravens could seek in the draft, DeCosta ended up not taking one. The team’s lone additions were Brandon Stephens, a college cornerback who saw some time at safety for the Ravens this spring, and Ar’Darius Washington, an undrafted safety who’ll enter training camp on the roster bubble.
Barring injury, the Ravens will run it back with Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott in the back end. Their partnership’s first year was solid, if unspectacular: Both graded out reasonably well on PFF, but they combined for just one interception and eight passes defended. There’s no Earl Thomas III in this group, for better and for worse. Behind Clark and Elliott are special teams contributors like Anthony Levine Sr. and Jordan Richards. Stephens’ emergence would give the position crucial depth.
6. Offensive line
Offensive lines rarely improve after a Pro Bowl offensive tackle is dealt for draft picks, but the Ravens are counting on being an exception. Cushioning the blow of Orlando Brown Jr.’s departure is the expected return of All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley and the arrival of longtime Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. The two might not look like their old self, at least early; Stanley’s working his way back from ankle surgery, and Villanueva’s rarely played on the right side.
Inside, the Ravens should be more secure than they were last season. Free-agent signing Kevin Zeitler will help fill the void never properly filled after right guard Marshal Yanda’s retirement. Bradley Bozeman has transitioned smoothly from left guard to center, where snapping woes undercut the offense last year. If the Ravens can find a solid left guard, their line could have the makings of one of the NFL’s best.
5. Defensive line
As run stoppers, this is a high-floor group. Calais Campbell, even at age 34, is tough to uproot. Brandon Williams, a reliable nose tackle over his eight seasons with the Ravens, will be playing for a new contract. Justin Madubuike is a menace on outside-zone runs. Derek Wolfe was a stalwart in his first year in Martindale’s system. Justin Ellis, Broderick Washington and Aaron Crawford round out a solid depth chart.
As pass rushers, there’s more variance. And with the Ravens’ losses at outside linebacker, there’s a greater need for production. Campbell had four sacks in 12 games last season, his third straight season of diminishing sack totals, but he remains a weapon on stunts and twists. Madubuike was impressive for stretches late last year and is primed for a breakout 2021. Wolfe, who had seven sacks in 2019, could be due for a bounce-back season after notching just one last year.
4. Tight end/fullback
Mark Andrews gets better every offseason, and his performance this spring has him pointed toward a career year — just in time for the pending free agent to break the bank, too. Andrews is Jackson’s most trusted target over the middle, and his improvements as a blocker have given offensive coordinator Greg Roman the license to line him up wherever he’s most dangerous.
If Patrick Ricard (hip) and Nick Boyle (knee) are fully healthy by Week 1, the Ravens will enter the season with the kind of smashmouth talent Roman craves at the position. Ricard, a two-time Pro Bowl selection at fullback, expanded his receiving ability last season, and Boyle’s run-blocking talents could be amplified with the wrinkles the Ravens introduced after he was hurt last season. His recovery will be scrutinized this summer. So will the search for a third tight end.
3. Running back
Every NFL running back must wonder what it’s like to play in an offense like the Ravens’ and alongside a quarterback like Jackson. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards are among the few lucky enough to actually do so. Last season, they seemed to make the most of it. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Dobbins and Edwards finished behind only the Cleveland Browns’ Nick Chubb in average rush yards over expected, a testament to their efficiency.
Stylistically, Dobbins’ speed and Edwards’ power are perfect complements in the Ravens’ record-breaking ground game. As receivers, though, they must do more. Dobbins, Edwards and Justice Hill, who’s carved out a role on special teams, combined for just 269 receiving yards last season. Dobbins looked more comfortable as a target for Jackson this offseason, a sign he could challenge for elite recognition this year.
Whatever deficiencies Jackson might have as a passer, the Ravens can enter every season confident in the fact that they have likely the sport’s best-ever running quarterback. Even after a relatively slow start, Jackson ended last year with a team-high 1,005 rushing yards, 6.3 yards per carry and seven touchdowns. His mere presence on the field dictates the kind of coverages that opposing defensive coordinators feel comfortable deploying.
If the Ravens embrace a more progressive, pass-happy approach this season, Jackson should be as prepared as he’s ever been to handle the workload. He appeared more comfortable throwing outside the numbers during minicamp, a weakness over his NFL career, and he will have had a more typical offseason to fine-tune his mechanics.
With Robert Griffin III’s release, the depth at backup quarterback is shaky. But Jackson’s managed to avoid serious injuries throughout his career. Even after he was knocked out of a playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills, dropping his postseason record to 1-3, he said last week that he was “pretty good” not long after his concussion was diagnosed.
In a division where every opponent seems to add a game-breaking receiver every year or two, it helps to have perhaps the NFL’s top group of cornerbacks. Injuries hampered the Ravens last season, a persistent worry in Baltimore, but they still finished No. 10 overall in pass defense efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, and sixth in passing yards allowed.
Improvements this season should come from within. Marlon Humphrey emerged as one of the league’s top slot cornerbacks and forced-fumble artists over the past two seasons — and now he can return to the outside, his natural position. Marcus Peters, when healthy, was his usual ball-hawking self, finishing with a team-high four interceptions. Until a midseason injury, Jimmy Smith was one of the NFL’s highest-rated corners.
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The position’s biggest question mark remains nickelback Tavon Young (knee), but he was cleared to participate in individual drills in minicamp. If he can’t stay healthy, the Ravens have enviable depth behind him, notably Khalil Dorsey and Anthony Averett.