Now that the residue of the Ravens’ most inexplicable postseason loss is slowly dissipating, it’s time to move forward. For fans still in a hazy state of grief, there is a lot to look forward to. Based on the projection from Russell Street Report’s capologist, Brian McFarland, the Ravens stand to have around $21 million in cap space entering free agency (the best cap position they’ve found themselves in years).
Moreover, with the extensions of several key players like Marcus Peters, Marshal Yanda, Justin Tucker, and L.J. Fort before the 2020 offseason, the team is ahead of schedule and brings back most of their 14-2 core.
Part of becoming a better football team is seeing depth players emerge from the sidelines, and part-time contributors turn into impact players. In that respect, it’s almost as if you’re adding free agents and draft picks when these players come of age.
Last year, I projected Kenny Young, Willie Henry and Tim Williams as players to watch out for in the 2019 campaign. Of course, none of these three even ended up on the final 53-man roster at the end of the season.
On the flip side, Chuck Clark evolved as a starting strong safety and the signal-caller of the defense. Chris Wormley made strides as a rock-solid five-technique. Bradley Bozeman also stepped up as the starting left guard and looks like a potential long-term fit on the offensive line.
Here are five players I’m looking at already heading into the 2020 season.
1. Justice Hill
It took some time for Justice Hill’s highly touted skills to show up, but towards the end of the season, he became more of a fixture in the offense. Specifically, over the final four games of the season, the rookie averaged five carries a game, and saw more action in the pass game on swing and dump-off passes in the open field.
His best single game performance came against the Browns in December, when he totaled 61 all-purpose yards, scored a touchdown, and averaged over six yards per carry. His best moment came on a touchdown run in the rain against the Steelers. Everything about that run displayed his elite ability as a rusher – elusiveness, contact balance, improvisation, and deceptive power.
The rookie Justice Hill breaking tackles on his way to the end zone! #RavensFlock
— NFL (@NFL) December 29, 2019
Hill possesses similar physical traits to Alvin Kamara. Both players are scintillating in the open field and have that burst to explode through the hole. They also have the sneaky ability to run in-between the tackles and gain yards after contact. Like Kamara, Hill also has the ability to be a dynamic weapon in the passing game who can motion and flex out wide.
I fully expect offensive coordinator Greg Roman to devise more packages and plays specifically designed to get Hill the ball and exploit linebackers in mismatch opportunities. His end-of-the-season run was just a taste of more explosive plays to come.
2. Daylon Mack
Other than a one-game appearance against the Cleveland Browns in a forgettable loss, Daylon Mack was completely off the grid for the team this season. The 2019 fifth-round pick ended the season on injured reserve.
However, with Michael Pierce slated to become an unrestricted free agent, it could be the Return of the Mack (I had to do it). Mack seems like a natural replacement for Pierce, even though Pierce’s loss would leave a sizeable void in the middle of the line.
At 6-foot-1 and 336 pounds, Mack is a true nose guard and is ideally a plug-and-play fit for Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense. He dominated at the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine game last offseason to boost his draft stock.
One concern revolving around Mack’s game is that he was a bit inconsistent throughout his college career. If he can continue to improve his technique, and makes the most of his reps early on, it could be his job to lose (assuming Pierce isn’t back).
3. Tavon Young
Okay, so I’m cheating a bit with my focus on Tavon Young. He’s already an established, quality player in the league. However, adding him back to the defense is only going to make things easier for Wink from a play-calling and matchup standpoint, and that’s worth noting.
Obviously, the biggest knock on Young is his health. But when he’s right, he’s terrific as the team’s slot cornerback. When Young went down in the preseason with a neck injury, there weren’t any clear replacement options on the roster. Eventually Wink figured something out by playing Marlon Humphrey more in the slot and sliding Brandon Carr into a different role.
However, it shouldn’t be taken for granted just how much of a personnel juggling act Wink had to pull off to account for Young’s loss. With the slot corner back in the fold, Wink can keep his All-Pro corners Humphrey and Marcus Peters on the perimeter and match up comfortably against some of the best slot receivers in the game – Jarvis Landry, Julian Edelman, Sterling Shepard, and Tyler Boyd are on the schedule.
Young not only has the change-of-direction and lateral movement you need from the position, he’s also an instinctive blitzer and overall playmaker. As long as he can stay healthy, he’ll be a major addition to a secondary that’s already among the best groups in the league.
4. Chris Board
Much like Mack, Chris Board has a real chance to get instant playing team as a starter due to the potential offseason losses of free agents Josh Bynes and Patrick “Peanut” Onwuasor. But it wasn’t that long ago when Board was in line to earn the starting spot simply because he was the team’s best inside linebacker (ILB).
Board was ahead of Kenny Young on the preseason depth chart and looked like the answer to the weakside backer hole before battling concussion issues at the beginning of the season that set him back on the depth chart.
The concussion issues derailed Board’s chance to make a real impact at ILB, especially as the team added L.J. Fort and Bynes to handle more of the starting reps along with Peanut Onwuasor. Once those two players were in the fold, it was tough for Board to catch up, and frankly, he didn’t deserve to play ahead of the two veterans. However, Board remained a key cog on special teams for the remainder of the 2019 season.
With only Fort under contract as one of the likely starters at ILB, there’s a real shot the coaching staff will give Board another chance to earn more playing time at the weakside backer spot, regardless of who they might add through free agency and the draft.
Board has the instincts and lateral quickness to be a starter in this league – the issue is whether he can stay healthy.
5. Ben Powers
Ben Powers is another member of the 2019 draft class who has a distinct chance to not only earn more playing time in 2020, but to even start, depending on how some of the dominoes fall in front of him on the depth chart.
His best chance to play is if All-World and Future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda decides to retire.
My early prediction is Yanda will be back. I can’t see him walking away from the game after such a crushing loss in the Divisional round against the Titans. I would imagine he would want one more crack at a ring, and he had a blast playing with Lamar Jackson this season. However, at age 35, Yanda will clearly look at how much more his body can absorb at this point.
Powers was one of my favorite players from the 2019 draft class. He of course had the quote of the year, saying he loves “taking a grown man’s dreams and crushing them” on the field. The former Sooner has a mean streak and loves to mix it up in the trenches, which reminds me some of former Raven center Ryan Jensen. He is a drive-blocking throwback who could really thrive in Roman’s power schemes.
The other plus is that Powers has played with right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. The two are close friends and would instantly have a strong bond on the right side of the line.
Even if Yanda decides to come back, Powers may be in a position to start at left guard if center Matt Skura isn’t fully recovered from a serious knee injury, and the team decides to slide Bradley Bozeman over to man the C spot.
Although rookie center Patrick Mekari played well in relief of Skura, he did struggle at the end of the season, so there are some considerations that staff needs to make.
It seems unlikely that they would move Bozeman after he had such a strong year at left guard, but they do have some flexibility, especially if Powers is in their long-term picture.
So there you have it: my five Ravens to watch in 2020. Give me yours, or tell me why I’m wrong (or right) below.