With the NFL season just a few weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the Baltimore Ravens, who finished 9–7 in 2017.
1. Since 2011, 17 of 20 first-round rookie quarterbacks have assumed the starting job at some point in Year 1—could we see Lamar Jackson joining that group? With a mediocre receiving corps and unathletic offensive line, the Ravens will likely be a run-first offense in 2018. Jackson’s mobility presents significantly more dimension to a rushing attack, and this offensive staff is led by men who have reaped those benefits before: run game architect Greg Roman was in San Francisco when Colin Kaepernick helped lead the 2012 49ers to an NFC title, and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and new QB coach James Urban were with the Eagles in 2010 when Michael Vick nearly won league MVP.
Joe Flacco has been inconsistent with his footwork, assertiveness and decision-making since injuring his knee in 2015, and you can see the lingering impact in his yards per pass attempt, which declined a third-straight year in 2017. Flacco did improve once the Ravens started throwing the ball more on first down, but that’s how a run-based offense must play, as those throws come against predictable defensive looks.
2. Baltimore played with two tight ends more than any team last season. Expect that to continue with first-round pick Hayden Hurst and third-rounder Mark Andrews now aboard, and with this receiving corps having been modestly upgraded but not sufficiently reconstructed. (Michael Crabtree is the new Jeremy Maclin; John Brown is the new Mike Wallace; Willie Snead is the new Michael Campanaro; Breshad Perriman is presumably the same invisible Breshad Perriman.)
3. A run-based approach can help an unathletic offensive line, since run-blocking is proactive movement, not reactive like in pass-blocking. Still, Baltimore’s front-line limitations will be a concern. Center Ryan Jensen’s free agency defection to Tampa Bay and six-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda coming off ankle and shoulder injuries leave this line weak on the interior. And if rookie Orlando Brown, who fell to the third round after a disastrous combine, can’t acclimate, the Ravens will be left with perhaps the NFL’s worst right tackle situation.
4. With so many offensive-line questions, Mornhinweg and Roman must be creative structuring double-team blocks and employ tight ends and H-backs as blockers. Tailback Alex Collins can cover some blemishes—he fights for yardage and, somewhat surprisingly, has light enough feet to create his own space.
5. Mornhinweg must correct some formational tendencies. Too often last year a spread formation meant pass and a condensed formation meant run.
6. As long as Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson remain Baltimore’s starting safeties, new defensive coordinator Don Martindale will disguise blitzes and coverages as regularly as predecessor Dean Pees did. Weddle, maybe the NFL’s savviest defensive back, consistently capitalizes on quarterbacks’ mistakes (see his six interceptions in 2017). Jefferson can match up to tight ends and patrol back in space in two-deep coverage. And as an unblocked box defender he is more dangerous than any safety save for maybe the Giants’ Landon Collins.
7. Linebacker C.J. Mosley is another reason Martindale can disguise. Even when he’s aligned as a possible A-gap rusher (which is often in this scheme), Mosley is shrewd in zone coverage. He has a great feel for routes unfolding behind him, and he’s fast enough to make up ground after getting extra depth in his drops. That’s how you frustrate QBs with blurred coverages. The only gripe about Mosley is he must bounce back from what was, by his high standards, an up-and-down season in run defense.
8. Expect 2017 first-round corner Marlon Humphrey to become a fulltime starter in 2018. Right corner Jimmy Smith is coming off an early December Achilles injury. More importantly, left corner Brandon Carr’s 32 years of age shows when a fast route runner gets about 12-15 yards downfield. Aside from getting beat by a slew of deep balls in Week 13’s game against Detroit last season, Humphrey had an encouraging rookie season.
9. Terrell Suggs, who displays no sign of decline at 35, deserves to be first-ballot candidate for the Hall of Fame. His 125.5 career sacks (including 11 last year) and 32 forced fumbles might put him on history’s second echelon of edge rushers, but you also must consider his domineering run defense and uncanny football IQ, which he exhibits even in short coverage drops. The more a person understands the details of defensive line play, the more smitten they are with Suggs.
10. Three Ravens defensive linemen appear on track for breakouts in Year 3: run-plugger Michael Pierce, who you could argue already broke out as a rookie; defensive tackle Willie Henry, who has played more athletically by the week; and edge ’backer Matt Judon, whose eight sacks last year occurred over Baltimore’s final 11 games. If Judon doesn’t keep progressing, the Ravens could be devoid of a much-needed pass rushing presence opposite Suggs. Last year’s rookies, second-rounder Tyus Bowser and third-round Tim Williams, are raw and likely need another year to substantially develop.
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