The NFL draft is over, the league’s top free agents are (mostly) signed, and the Ravens’ team activities — well, they don’t start in Owings Mills until next week.
At last, there’s something of a break, a chance to review the Ravens’ offseason transactions. Even with their front office still in the market for help at certain weak points, the players on the team’s 90-man roster are most likely those who will fight for a spot on the 53-man roster and then a second straight AFC North title.
After a volatile few months, have the Ravens improved since last year? To get a sense for the big picture, start on a smaller scale. In the first of a two-part series examining whether the Ravens upgraded or downgraded their roster — or whether it’s a push, just too close or too early to call — this is where the team stands on offense.
Lamar Jackson should be an improved passer next season. Rookie quarterbacks tend to get better when they’re no longer rookies. Jackson is aware of his shortcomings, and the Ravens’ coaching staff has spent the offseason tearing down their Joe Flacco Offense and carefully constructing a Lamar Jackson Offense.
They have promised that it will be more balanced: more passes and fewer carries, not just for their running backs but likely for Jackson, too. High-volume passing teams are generally more efficient than high-volume running teams, but Jackson was most valuable as a rushing threat last season. Where other offenses succeeded with quick-strike drives, the Ravens preferred to wear teams down with punishing, double-digit-play drives.
Jackson is now the franchise’s most important player, and a central piece in the offseason’s most pressing question: How effective can the offense be if (and when) teams succeed in limiting Jackson’s dynamism as an open-field runner? The Ravens’ playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers could have been a strategic misfire. It could also prove to be a warning shot in Baltimore.
If Jackson can improve his accuracy on gotta-have-it NFL throws and continue to unlock the Ravens’ running game, the offense will be in good hands. If he struggles with either, the margin for error only gets smaller. And this time, the team doesn’t have a first-round pick waiting in the wings.
Running back: Upgrade
The Ravens entered last season with what they thought was a star. Instead, Alex Collins was more like a meteor, burning out after shining bright in 2017, when he rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and was rated as Pro Football Focus’ best running back. His ineffective half-season in Baltimore last fall created an opening for undrafted rookie Gus Edwards, whose partnership with Jackson highlighted the Ravens’ revamped offense.
Edwards won’t be asked to do what Collins could not. Even after averaging 93 yards per game over last season’s final seven regular-season games, he might not be the de facto starter. Mark Ingram, a two-time Pro Bowl selection with the New Orleans Saints, was the Ravens’ top free-agent acquisition on offense this offseason, signing a three-year, $15 million deal. A polished receiver with little wear and tear, even at age 29, he should give the team versatility in its backfield and leadership in the locker room.
Behind Edwards and Collins are Kenneth Dixon, who averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season but whose availability is always a question mark, and rookie Justice Hill, a fourth-round pick with breakaway speed. The Ravens struggled to get their ground game on track for the first two months last season. If they struggle again this year, it won’t be for a lack of talented options.
Wide receiver: Push
The Ravens entered the draft with a group of wide receivers rated among the NFL’s worst, if not the worst overall. They exited with a promising potential core: Every NFL team would rather build an offense around Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Miles Boykin instead of the departed John Brown and Michael Crabtree.
Nowhere to go but up, right?
Eventually, perhaps. But it’s unclear how quickly the rookies will be able to help, or how much. In an offense that de-emphasized receivers midway through the season, Brown still finished with 715 yards last season, and Crabtree 605.
Here’s what rookie receivers drafted among the top 93 picks — a range set by where Boykin was taken — have averaged over the past three years: 511.2 receiving yards per game in 2018, 320.5 in 2018, 408.9 in 2017. In that group are injury busts, victims of bad quarterback play, and receivers who just weren’t or aren’t very good. But that’s the risk teams take in the draft.
Elsewhere, the Ravens lack established veterans. Willie Snead IV should again be the Ravens’ most reliable receiver, and the free-agent-to-be could set himself up nicely for a rich contract with another strong season in the slot. Free-agent signing Seth Roberts is also most effective in the slot; his usefulness as an outside receiver is still to be determined.
Chris Moore, who’s entering the final year of his rookie deal, didn’t have a game with more than 30 receiving yards last season. Jordan Lasley and Jaleel Scott must show improvement after quiet rookie years.
Tight end: Upgrade
The Ravens were among the most tight end-reliant teams in the NFL last season, employing two-tight end formations on about a third of all offensive plays, according to Sharp Football Stats. There’s little sense in going away from something that should work even better in 2019.
At a position featuring a first-round pick (Hayden Hurst), a former second-round pick (Maxx Williams) and a third-round pick (Mark Andrews), it was the often overlooked Nick Boyle who led the Ravens in offensive snaps. Even if he’s more useful to the Ravens as a sixth offensive lineman or quasi-fullback than as a downfield receiving threat, his blocking makes him close to indispensable in the team’s run-heavy offense. And he should score a touchdown one of these days.
Andrews finished with 552 receiving yards and a catch in all but one game last season, impressive marks given his underwhelming preseason and the challenge of meshing with two very different Ravens quarterbacks. He still needs to improve his run blocking, and with the offseason departure of Williams, he should get those opportunities.
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Hurst is the wild card here, but the Ravens took him in the first round last year for a reason. He flashed his potential as a downfield safety blanket in training camp last season before a broken foot derailed his season; he’s said this offseason that the injury held him back all year, even after he returned. With his natural athletic ability and soft hands, he probably won’t take long to surpass the 163 receiving yards he amassed as a rookie.
Offensive line: Upgrade
There was a lot to like at three positions up front last year. At the other two spots, there’s a hope, and perhaps a base, for substantial improvement.
Right guard Marshal Yanda was the Ravens’ best lineman last season, even after injuries forced a belated start to training camp and no-shows in all five preseason games, even after turning 34 years old. This offseason, fully healthy, the All-Pro selection hasn’t had much to worry about, except for maybe finding time to fish back home in Iowa. Injuries are always a concern, but he more than managed in 2018.
At left and right tackle, Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr., respectively, could establish themselves as two of the NFL’s top bookends. Stanley battled through a lingering ankle injury to be named a Pro Bowl alternate in his third NFL season and allow the lowest pressure rate of any tackle, according to Pro Football Focus. Brown, meanwhile, seized the starting job midway through the year and had more highlights than lowlights. A full offseason in an NFL conditioning program should only help.
There’s similar room to grow for Matt Skura, who hadn’t started at center until last season. He doesn’t have great power, which limits his ceiling, but this will be his fourth season in the NFL; his greatest leap at Duke came between his third and fourth years as a contributor. The Ravens’ other weakness, left guard, could be helped with a healthy offseason for James Hurst, who struggled after returning from a midseason nerve root issue in his back that limited his strength and conditioning work.
If neither steps up, the Ravens have young options. Fourth-round pick Ben Powers was a three-year starter for Oklahoma, starring for one of college football’s best lines, and second-year player Bradley Bozeman has good size for an interior lineman. Guard-tackle Jermaine Eluemunor held up well in reserve duty, and Greg Senat is an intriguing developmental piece as a swing tackle.