Given just how much the Baltimore Ravens invested in the 2020 season, pressing the limits of the salary cap, it wasn't a surprise they would lose players in free agency, but they did a remarkable job adding talent in the 2021 NFL Draft. They may take a step back in 2021, but they could end up being a better team for in 2022 and 2023 than they have been the previous two seasons.
Pass rushers Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon signed with other teams and the Ravens traded Orlando Brown Jr. to the Kansas City Chiefs. They lost a handful of other players as well.
The Ravens did sign a handful of free agents, but that proved to be a mixed bag. They were able to reinforce the offensive line with Alejandro Villanueva and Kevin Zeitler, but it's really difficult to make a case for Sammy Watkins as a productive move. It looked desperate after being unable to land other free agent receivers like T.Y. Hilton and Juju Smith-Schuster.
Tinged by the lackluster addition of Watkins, it looked like the Ravens might limp into the 2021 season compared to 2020. The 2021 NFL Draft proved to be a reminder of just how good this organization can be and positions them well for the future.
The Ravens understand who they are and they added a significant amount of promising talent that fits exactly what they want to be. Depending on how well the rookies can acclimate, the Ravens could be on the upswing by the end of the season and be a frisky matchup in the playoffs.
After the bewildering move of adding Watkins in free agency, the Ravens were able to add promising receiving threats in Rashod Bateman in the first round of the draft and then double down in round four with Tylan Wallace.
Both are remarkably polished receiving threats and Wallace was acquired at a great value. So long as there are no lingering concerns about his health with his knee, he was as good as anyone in this class at playing the ball down the field. From how he creates separation to how well he tracks it to his hands, he's uncanny in how effective he is, despite having what appear to be rather ordinary physical traits.
Bateman can win at all levels of the field, has great size and speed and he understands how to get open. Being added to an offense where Mark Andrews is the primary receiving threat and Marquise Brown was coming into his own at the end of the year with a run of nice performances, Bateman might be able to step in and find a role immediately.
So much of where the Ravens can go revolves around how good Lamar Jackson can be as a passer. If he takes a big step forward in his ability to be a consistent passer, the Ravens are a contender every single year. The Ravens have given him more receiving talent to try to help him as much as they can in that effort.
As a prospect, Odafe Oweh had some real concerns. An athletic marvel, boasting prototypical size and speed, he didn't have a single sack in the 2020 season. All the advanced stats in the world can't erase that fact. So for a lot of teams, Oweh represents a significant amount of risk.
When your team's defense is designed around the idea that they have excellent defensive backs who can cover with the idea that you're just going to beat the opponent with numbers, then it mitigates many of the concerns you might have with Odefe.
If the Ravens send seven, Oweh's size and freakish speed become a huge problem and however much refining he still needs as a pass rusher fades into the background. If the sheer number of rushers they send leaves Oweh against a tight end, running back or unblocked, he is now terrifying for opposing passers. And if they can help him develop his skill set to be a more complete rusher, he only becomes that much more dangerous.
Ben Cleveland stood out in the draft process as the prototypical Ravens guard. With what the Ravens do offensively, running the ball with reads and misdirection within the ground game, physical dominance at the line of scrimmage is critical. When defenses can get movement up front, they are able to corral the mesh and stop the play before it gets started. Losing Marshal Yanda to retirement after the 2019 season the Ravens were unable to rebound from in 2020.
The Ravens need linemen that can create space off of the line of scrimmage and that's what the 6'6'" 343 pound Cleveland does. Along with Zeitler, the Ravens could end up getting back to the road grading front that enabled them to set the record for rushing yards in a season by a team in 2019.
It's interesting how much criticism the Ravens have received for the selection of Brandon Stephens, a former running back at UCLA that became a corner at SMU. It's every bit of the type of swing the Cleveland Browns took when they selected Anthony Schwartz, the wide receiver out of Auburn, but there's far more understanding with Schwartz than there is with Stephens.
Stephens, at 6' 213 pounds, ran a 4.43 40 and had excellent agility in his pro day testing. He offers good explosion as well. In his two seasons, he posted outstanding production, including this past season where he registered 7.7 percent of the team's solo tackles and 28.5 percent of their pass deflections, which is elite production.
From a pure data standpoint, Stephens has the potential to be an All-Pro in the NFL. The only real knock against him is the fact he's 23 years old.
The Ravens love defensive backs with his size and they could end up utilizing him at corner or safety. Basically, Stephens disappears for a year or two and if he can become a polished player, he can be a massive find. In the same way that Anthony Schwartz is a flawed prospect in terms of drops and polish, but his speed combined with the fact he has good size could be game breaking for the Browns.
Both the Browns and Ravens took a homerun hack in the third round. They could both end up missing, but they bet on outstanding traits and potential rather than character issues or a concerning injury history. As far as gambles go, these seem like pretty ideal ones for teams to take.
Stephens could end up taking over for Jimmy Smith or perhaps give them a long term free safety. Nothing prevents them from continuing to invest at either of those positions in the mean time.
In round five, the Ravens had three picks, but the one that stands out is Shaun Wade, the corner from Ohio State. Tavon Young has had had terrible luck with injuries and basically gets hurt every year. It's not just that he gets hurt, but he ends up out for the season.
Between Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith, the Ravens are set with their top three corners. Wade could compete for to be the team's dime right off the bat with a longer term goal of becoming the team's primary slot option, where he excelled as member of the Buckeyes.
Even for a team like the Ravens coming off a playoff season, this draft could yield several starters that could find their way into the starting lineup pretty early. Along with the losses the team suffered, that could provide reason for why the team may take a step back in 2021, even while still competing for a playoff spot.
It's also reason to believe they could be an even better team for 2022 and 2023. The Ravens are a team that historically ends up raking in compensatory picks, so they are often free to trade for players while still having a significant amount of draft picks.
The Ravens could end up with the best draft class in the division, which is impressive given the amount of adoration the Browns class has received. Nevertheless, it's not difficult to see how the Ravens could've gotten a massive haul by simply finding players that fit exactly what they want to do.