Our 2022 NFL Preview heads north to the Chesapeake Bay, where the Ravens look to bounce back from their first losing season in six years. Few teams were as ravaged by injuries as Baltimore was, with significant losses in the Backfield, Offensive Line, Secondary, and (above all) Quarterback wrecking their campaign. (Head Coach) John Harbaugh hopes that a cleaner bill of health will in turn parlay into a better run of form on the gridiron, as his troops enter a crucial period before the Regular Season formerly kicks off. First and foremost, the blackbirds must break in new playmakers in a young Receiving Corps and Offensive Line, all the while negotiating what is sure to be the richest contract in franchise history with (former MVP Quarterback) Lamar Jackson. As the rest of the AFC continues to reload, will the Ravens rebound?
By now we all know the story in Baltimore, where virtually everything starts and ends with Lamar Jackson. Since earning the starting gig midway through the 2018 campaign, the 25-year-old has amassed a stellar 37-12 record (.755), leading the Ravens to the playoffs on three occasions, and making a wealth of history along the way; in addition to being named unanimous NFL MVP back in 2019, the two-time Pro-Bowler has rushed for more yards than any Quarterback in his first four years in the league, while becoming the only player at his position to ever log 3,000+ yards passing and 1,000+ yards rushing in the same season. However, now it’s come time to pay the man as he enters the final year of his initial rookie deal, which has put the franchise in difficult position. With his contemporaries resetting the Quarterback market with each passing offseason, Jackson is in line for a MAMMOTH extension, which is something that he is all-too aware of, as he has decided to shed his representatives and negotiate with the team himself. From Baltimore’s point of view, keeping him in Charm City is a no-brainer, but there are concerns to be had. Obviously, allotting so much of their salary cap to one player will make it all the more difficult to get him the pass-catching reinforcements that he’s longed for (more on that shortly), but his playing style doesn’t necessarily walk hand in hand with longevity; Jackson missed five games due to injury, including each of the last four outings of the regular season, which all ended in defeat for the Ravens. Furthermore, after tossing a league high THIRTY-SIX touchdowns during his MVP campaign two years ago, he tossed a meager sixteen in 2022 along with a career-high thirteen interceptions. With that said, he also served as the barometer for their success, with a quartet of game-winning drives/fourth quarter comebacks. Basically, when he’s healthy and plays well, this is a team that can beat anyone, but when he struggles, they can be hard to watch.
A Pass-Catching Platoon
Apart from Jackson’s ongoing contract saga, the biggest story coming out of the offseason in Baltimore has been whom he will be throwing the football to, which needless to say hasn’t inspired much confidence. (General Manager) Eric DeCosta surprised many by packaging Marquise “Hollywood” Brown in a deal with the Cardinals shortly before the draft, parting ways with the team’s only true vertical threat at Receiver. His exit led to plenty of criticism and comments in the media (and among former players) as to whether or not playing with Jackson was attractive to pass-catchers, particularly when you consider how run-heavy the Ravens’ Offense has been since his debut four years ago. Either way, DeCosta has yet to add a reliable veteran to the position group, which means that it will be up to an unexperienced corps to stretch the field and keep opposing Defensive Backs from creeping into the box. Between the likes of Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay, James Proche, and Tylan Wallace, there isn’t a Receiver on the roster with more than two years of experience with none of the lot catching more than thirty-eight passes from Jackson, meaning that somebody needs to step up. Harbaugh and DeCosta are hoping that somebody will be Bateman, who they drafted twenty-seventh overall in the 2021 NFL Draft; though injuries slowed him down throughout the first half of his rookie campaign, the sophomore ended the campaign with forty-six receptions for 515 yards and a touchdown over twelve games. He may not be the burner that Brown was, but he has excellent hands and runs solid routes, which makes him the leading candidate to break out this Fall and provide his Quarterback with the consistent target on the perimeter that he’s been missing.
In spiraling to an 8-9 finish and their first under .500 since 2015, the biggest culprit in Baltimore was undoubtedly a harrowing rash of injuries. Indeed, in hindsight it is remarkable that the Ravens managed to win eight games considering how many key players were sidelined throughout the campaign, as Harbaugh was routinely without those whom he needed to succeed. It started early on in Training Camp, where as many as THIRTEEN different players were held out of action for at least a week due to injury or COVID-19, followed by a stretch in which five suffered season-ending maladies. That included all three of their top Tailbacks, namely (Sophomore) J.K Dobbins and (veteran) Gus Edwards. Moreover, (All-Pro Left Tackle) Ronnie Stanley made just one start (only his fifth since signing a lucrative 5-year, $98.75 million contract back in 2020), while (Pro-Bowl Cornerbacks) Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters combined for just twelve appearances, with the latter missing the entirety of the season with a torn ACL suffered shortly before the opener. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, the aforementioned Jackson suffered a high ankle sprain in a Mid-December clash with the Browns and went on to miss the rest of the campaign with Baltimore losing each of their final four games without him. Word out of Charm City is that Harbaugh has focused on more stretching during warmups and less reps during drills in an attempt prevent a repeat of said injury crisis, but at the end of the end day, it appears that this team was simply the victim of misfortune. With that said, as they’ve proven in the past, if they can stay healthy then you can count them among the contenders in the loaded AFC.
Projected Finish: 11-6
Decimated by injuries last season, the Ravens have proven in the past that they have the requisite physicality, versatility, and cohesiveness to contend in what has been habitually one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. With the AFC North looking less imposing at the moment, Baltimore should climb right back into the conversation of contenders within the AFC, provided they can avoid any significant maladies to Jackson.