Looking Ahead to the 2020 Baltimore Ravens
Submitted by Rob Palma
The major waves of free agency are over and the NFL draft has come and gone. Now, with all of the uncertainty in the world due to COVID-19, Ravens Nation along with the rest of the NFL fan base anxiously await the start of the 2020 season, whenever that day may be. Without much NFL news going around, I decided to take a deep dive into what the Ravens roster is going to look like and what to expect from what I believe is going to be a powerful team next year.
First, let’s take a look at the offense. In short, the offense is going to be a force to be reckoned with, but I also expect somewhat of a regression toward the mean. Winning 14 games is extremely hard to do in the modern NFL and I expect a few more losses regardless of the talent level on this team. In Week 17 against the bumble bees of the ‘Burgh, the Ravens set the single season rushing record for a team with 3,296 yards, and that’s in the modern pass-happy NFL. The Ravens also went nine games straight (during their 12 game winning streak) rushing for at least 200 yards in a game. When it was all said and done, the Ravens were 14-2, Lamar Jackson made history for being the only QB with at least 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing, Jackson tossed a franchise record 36 touchdown passes without playing the final game of the season, and the Ravens were poised to rest their starters and make a playoff run.
Jackson finished the regular season with 3,127 total passing yards, and that was in only 15 games, several of which he did not even play in the 4th quarter. Then, of course, the team came out flat and left Ravens Nation with a sick feeling in their stomachs as they dropped their primetime home playoff game to the Tennessee Titoons. Woof.
Clearly the Ravens were beatable despite their dominance. Dean Pees in particular, although I don’t miss him as a defensive coordinator at all, has had Greg Roman’s number, especially when it comes to stifling his complex run game. Lamar Jackson still produced 508 yards of offense, 365 of which were through the air. But the receivers dropped passes, the non-LJ run game was underwhelming and underutilized, and the offense as a whole was out of sync after three weeks of not playing football (we’ll get to the defense later).
Looking to next season, the Ravens offensive roster will look slightly different. Most notably, there will be no Marshal Yanda at RG. Also gone are WR Seth Roberts and TE Hayden Hurst. The former presents a much greater challenge in terms of replacing productivity than the latter two. Another big question mark lies at center as Matt Skura recovers from torn ACL, MCL, and PCL. As a recent graduate from a Doctoral of Physical Therapy Program, I have a little more insight than the casual fan when it comes to injuries such as this. And in my almost professional opinion, as a player who already lacked the size, strength, and power that the Ravens are trying to build along their offensive line combined with the severity of his injury, I do not see Skura as the starting center next year, or at the very least not initially.
So how do the Ravens intend on plugging these holes? Let’s go from least important to most important. Seth Roberts was by no means a bad receiver, but he is a void that should be easily replaced. The Ravens lack of free agent wide receiver signing signifies confidence in Myles Boykin as a developing player who showed flashes last season. The Ravens also picked up rookies Devin Duvernay in the third round and James Proche in the sixth round. Both receivers had some of the surest hands in college football and Duvernay in particular is an upgrade in speed and YAC ability compared to Roberts. Not to mention, when the Ravens offense is operating properly, their dominant run game draws most of the attention, which gives receivers plenty of one on one opportunities, where speed kills.
Next is Hayden Hurst.
Hurst was certainly a talented player with some fantastic hands, and he will be missed at times, but he isn’t the explosive passing threat that Mark Andrews is, nor does he provide the smash-mouth run blocking that Nick Boyle brings to the table. With Pat Ricard as a power full-back and interesting rookie UDFA prospects like TE Jacob Breeland and FB Bronson Steiner, Hurst’s TE-3 spot could be a replacement by committee situation. Unless of course a veteran makes their way onto the roster in the upcoming months, such as Delanie Walker, who could be reunited with Greg Roman from their days on the 49ers.
As for the offensive line, the Ravens took a two-pronged approach, which I think was a fantastic decision. First, they addressed the offensive line itself by drafting Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredeson in the third and fourth rounds, respectively. Phillips played tackle at Mississippi State and can develop as a swing tackle for the Ravens, but he also would fit in nicely as a power RG at 331 lbs. Bredeson is a natural guard from Michigan and a more polished player than Phillips who should immediately compete for a starting guard position.
And then on the Monday after draft weekend, the Ravens signed the massive 6’5” 342 lb. D.J. Fluker, a former first round pick out of Alabama, who most recently played RG for the Seattle Seahawks. Whether or not Fluker wins a starting job is uncertain, but having an established veteran who fits the Ravens power run scheme is an ideal complement to the two rookies.
For the second part of their strategy, the Ravens decided that if they cannot completely replace future hall of famer Marshal Yanda, then why not boost the rushing attack with more talent at the running back position? Enter J.K. Dobbins, the explosive playmaker from Ohio State that the Ravens selected in the second round. Even if the offensive line takes a small step back in 2020, adding a future superstar like Dobbins provides the Ravens backfield with enough pop to compensate for a slight drop off in the trenches.
I have my own prediction as to how the starting offensive line is going to shake out for the beginning of the season. For starters, I believe that Bradley Bozeman will move inside to play center. Bozeman played well at LG last season, and some may say that he would have already been the starting C last season if he was good enough. However, let’s not forget a) Skura started almost all of 2017 at RG before he moved inside to C in 2018 b) Bozeman usurped James Hurst for the LG spot going into the 2019 season and c) Bozeman is only going into his third season. Bozeman played C at Alabama and he has the potential, in my opinion, to become a bigger and stronger force in the center of the offensive line than Skura. We’ll see whether Skura, Bozeman, or Patrick Mekari ends up as the week one starter (Mekari started at C when Skura was injured last season). While Bredeson and Phillips will still be getting ample playing time at guard and as extra offensive linemen in heavy sets, I believe the Week 1 starters will be as follows:
Ultimately, when looking at the Ravens offense, they should be just as talented, if not better than the 2019 unit. They do, however, have one weakness that I believe remains unchanged from last year. As I mentioned earlier, when the Ravens offense is firing on all cylinders, the dominant rushing attack leaves the Ravens speedy receivers with one-on-one matchups downfield. However, at some point, the Ravens will find themselves down multiple scores or in a game where the run game is being shut down and the Ravens simply do not have an X wide receiver who is physical and route-savvy enough to warrant double coverage from opposing defenses.
Hollywood Brown is electrifying and commands respect from opposing defenses primarily due to his speed, but he is a Z wide receiver. Snead is a reliable but mediocre slot player and hopefully Boykin and Duvernay can emerge as consistent threats in the passing game. It should go without saying that Lamar Jackson needs to continue to improve, specifically throwing deep outside the numbers, otherwise the Ravens are looking at another year of stacked boxes and probably a few repeats of what transpired in the Titans game. Even the most dominant rushing attacks are stopped in their tracks once in a while. I still think they make it work and I would not be the slightest bit surprised if Eric DeCosta pounces on a veteran roster casualty. And then, of course, there is Antonio Brown, but that’s another story…
● Lamar Jackson: 3,650 yards passing, 750 yards rushing, 29 TD passes, 9 TD rushing
● Ingram, Dobbins, and Edwards all surpass 600 yards rushing but none individually breaks 850 yards
● Hollywood Brown: 1150 receiving yards, 9 touchdowns
The Ravens defense is an interesting one to analyze as we move into the 2020 season. Flashback to 2018 when Wink Martindale first took over the squad after the departure of Prevent Pees. That unit ranked number two overall according to Pro-Football Reference, behind only the Chicago Bears and Khalil Sack. Then, this past season, despite losing starting OLB’s Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, starting MLB CJ Mosley, starting FS Eric Weddle, and starting 5-technique DE Brent Urban, starting nickel Tavon Young to injury during OTA’s, and despite making no upgrades to the interior defensive line that provided no pass rush whatsoever in 2018, the Ravens defense managed to rank third overall in 2019 by pro-football reference standards.
According to NFL.com, the 2019 Ravens defense finished second overall as well, but despite maintaining that number two ranking, the number of yards per rushing attempt that the defense was allowing was up from 3.6 in 2018 to 4.4 in 2019. In fact, a closer look at the Ravens 2019 defense reveals that they were not actually very good in terms of overall talent. Martindale’s defensive strategy and an offense that made most teams one dimensional, masked a great deal of talent deficiencies on the defense. Looking at each aspect of the 2019 roster:
FS: Improved as the season went on as Earl Thomas became more familiar with the first defensive scheme change of his career.
ILB: Much improved when Bynes and Fort took over for Onwuasor and Young, but still one of the least desirable ILB tandems in the league.
Edge: Judon was a beast, Ferguson improved as the season went on, and Bowser had some nice flashes, but ultimately they were inconsistent setting the edge against the run with the exception of Judon, and they were not strong enough pass rushers to make up for the next group…
DL: Reinforcements in the form of Jihad Ward, Justin Ellis, and Domata Peko helped, but ultimately the defensive line was not consistent enough of a force against the run with the exception of Brandon Williams and this group brought nothing to the table in regard to pass rush.
In summation, the 2019 defense could not provide a pass rush without constant blitzing nor could they stop the run all season, though their run games woes were often masked by the fact that the offense provided them with major leads. The inability to stop the run ultimately was their Achilles heel in the playoffs, as Derrick Henry embarrassed the Ravens defense rushing for 195 yards on 30 carries. I still have nightmares about it.
With the influx of new talent via free agency and the draft and with the unit losing almost no key starters from 2019, I truly believe that the 2020 Ravens defense has a chance to be absolutely smothering. A closer look at next season’s roster reveals the following:
DT/DL: Pierce is gone, but Brandon Williams remains as the team’s top nose tackle with veteran Justin Ellis, second year player Daylon Mack, and rookie fifth rounder Broderick Washington providing plenty of run stuffing beef behind him. Chris Wormley is gone, but he was merely adequate against the run and ineffective rushing the passer. Enter Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, two dominant veterans who provide an immediate upgrade against both the run and the pass. Jihad Ward and rookie third rounder Justin Madubuike provide versatile depth as well. Unlike the last several years in Baltimore, Campbell, Wolfe, and Madubuike are interior players who can win one on one matchups and make life easier for the players on the edge.
Edge: Judon is a dog. Plain and simple. He is a do it all 3-4 SAM linebacker who can drop into coverage better than most likely realize, seal the edge against the run, and be a force as a pass rusher, whether it’s registering sacks, QB hits, or pressures. With the defensive makeover on the interior, life should be easier for Judon than it has been his entire career, and I expect it to show. On the other side of the line, Jaylon Ferguson should be able to make a solid leap in his second year in the NFL. He improved every week last season after he was thrusted into the starting lineup after the injury to Pernell McPhee, but he did struggle to set the edge at times. With a half season of starting experience under his belt and again, with the new veteran additions to the defensive line beside him, I expect Ferguson to be a more than adequate RUSH OLB. Even Tyus Bowser should find more success as a pass rusher off the edge on third down situations with the new arsenal of defensive lineman.
ILB: This group might take some time to adjust and build chemistry, but the additions of Patrick Queen, the Ravens first round selection in the 2020 draft, and rookie third rounder Malik Harrison should improve every single week as they grow into the next Ray Lewis/Bart Scott tandem. Queen is an immediate upgrade in speed, instinct, and coverage, while Harrison brings a wrecking ball presence as a downhill thumper against the run. LJ Fort was re-signed as he possesses a good combination of Onwuasor’s athleticism and Bynes’ football acumen (both Onwuasor and Bynes signed elsewhere in FA), and he will most likely hold one starting role alongside Queen, at least initially. But if Harrison can show decent zone coverage skills and the ability to rush the passer, he should see plenty of playing time. Lastly, the Jake Ryan signing provides more veteran depth at the linebacker position.
Secondary: Absolutely LOADED. Earl Thomas is an incredibly intelligent player and will now have two full off seasons of learning the Ravens defensive scheme. Furthermore, with the Ravens new ability to generate four and five man pass rush, I anticipate ET III to spend more time in a traditional ball hawk center fielder role. Chuck Clark proved to be an upgrade at strong safety after Jefferson went down with an injury and his ability to wear the green dot allows him to act as a hybrid player who can seamlessly drop down a level and play dime linebacker in certain situations. Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters are studs on the outside, Tavon Young returns as the top slot corner where he thrived in 2016 and 2018, and Jimmy Smith replaces Brandon Carr as the rotational corner/safety. Jimmy may not have Carr’s durability, but he is arguably the best backup cornerback in the NFL. We’ll see how the depth shakes out at safety and nickel, but the Ravens have six elite defensive backs roaming behind a fully upgraded front seven.
Combine all of this with a ball control offense that can pound the rock down the opponents’ throats and score points and you have one dominant defense in the making. One that is reminiscent of the Ravens defenses of old.
● Ravens defense finishes top five in total sacks
● Derrick Henry is held under 40 yards and loses a fumble when the Ravens play the Titans next season in a game where Calais Campbell embarrasses Taylor Lewan
● W-L Prediction: 11-5 with losses @ PHI, @ HOU, @ PIT, @ CLE, KC