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7 Reasons For Optimism in 2021

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The Talking Heads’ most famous song, Once in a Lifetime features that infamous chorus line, “same as it ever was.”

You could argue the Baltimore Ravens’ loss in the divisional round to the Buffalo Bills was the same as it ever was.

Another lackluster offensive showing. Another game filled with mistakes. Another playoff dud from the offensive line. Another series of “what could have been” plays, including the now missed 3rd-and-goal touchdown pass right before the Bills’ pick-six in the third quarter.

In four postseason games, the offense has averaged 13 points per game. Five touchdowns total. The red zone offense has been mind-numbingly bad. And in this postseason, even all-world kicker Justin Tucker missed three field goals. They couldn’t even get those sure points. An embarrassment for a unit that finished among the top scoring offenses in the league two seasons in a row between 2019 and 2020. Even more so when you consider they weren’t facing the top defenses in the league either.

In three seasons with Lamar Jackson at quarterback, the Ravens are 1-3. It’s hardly what the franchise would have wanted. However, here is the bright side…

The organization finally got over the hump and notched their first playoff win against the Tennessee Titans. That wasn’t a small moment. Keep in mind, this group of players who hadn’t won a playoff game goes beyond Jackson. Guys like Marlon Humphrey hadn’t won a playoff game either to this point. And Humphrey articulated the importance of that win after the season ended. This team still features a lot of younger players, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They now have that blemish out of the way.

The defense left their imprint in the postseason, too. A defense that has been characterized at times as “not clutch” (by me too), they were incredible against two of the best offenses in the league, holding the Titans to 13 points and the Bills to 17 points respectively. The performance they put together against both teams in virtually every category — yards, red zone, points — was championship level football.

There are more reasons to remain hopeful that the team is on the right track for another push in 2021:

1. Eric DeCosta

DeCosta has already proven he is among the shrewdest general managers in the league in just his second full season at the helm. In his time, he’s adeptly traded for players like Marcus Peters, Calais Campbell, and Yannick Ngakoue for mid-round picks. He’s also worked the draft to accumulate picks for backup players and kickers.

His allegiance to analytics and being more aggressive to acquire players is in stark contrast with his mentor and predecessor, Ozzie Newsome. However, like Newsome, he’s also shown an uncanny ability to find veteran players off the scrap heap who fit the system like L.J. Fort and Jihad Ward.

It’s funny because I’ve read quite a few fan concerns that the front office will remain stagnant in their ways to build a more explosive offense — as if the front office doesn’t see the glaring holes this team has.

DeCosta is the ultimate competitor and has shown that he will go after players who can help the Ravens get over the top. He’s progressive and has a burning desire to win another championship. I can’t see him standing pat with this offense.

Eric DeCosta
Photo Credit: Baltimore Ravens

2. Lamar Jackson is only 24 years old

I covered a lot of ground about my overall analysis of Lamar Jackson in this Twitter thread (LINK)

We have to all remember that he’s only been a starting quarterback in this league for two and a half seasons. He’s accomplished quite a bit in this time by any measure. The fact that he’s been subpar in the postseason isn’t any different than many other elite quarterbacks in NFL history.

Frankly, it’s not even any worse than what the team had with Joe Flacco in his first four games: 1 touchdown and 4 interceptions versus 3 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. That doesn’t absolve Jackson but it’s just some added context that he can definitely turn it around, just as Flacco ultimately did.

If the front office and coaches take a hard look at how to build a better infrastructure around him in the offseason, you would have to think he’ll continue to make strides to take the next step. For the Ravens’ sake, if they are serious about spending big money on an extension to keep Jackson in the fold, they would be doing a disservice to not surround him with the right resources to succeed.

3. The Return of Ronnie Stanley

Many former NFL players, coaches, and contributors will tell you that when teams have clear holes on their roster, they can mask those holes in the regular season. But the playoffs are a different animal. The holes get ripped open.

The loss of Stanley didn’t really reveal itself until the divisional round of the playoffs against Buffalo. The Ravens faced some of the same perils they’ve faced in their losses in dealing with more obvious passing downs. The offensive line, in particular on the right side, was exposed by the Bills’ edge rushers.

While Orlando Brown Jr. (OBJ) earned a Pro Bowl berth with his turn at left tackle to fill in for Stanley, the right side remained a band-aid with D.J. Fluker and Tyre Phillips.

Getting Stanley back will restore balance to the Baltimore line and boost the pass protection. OBJ can swing back to the right side, which gives the Ravens arguably the best bookends in the league. Pass pro has to be solved if the team is going to make any noise in the playoffs in the future — this is certainly a big step towards that.

Ravens offseason
Photo Credit: John David Mercer, USA Today Sports

4. The Return of Tavon Young

Just as the lingering impact of the Stanley injury was felt all season, so too was the loss of Young. The Ravens never found a true slot cornerback to take his place.

They made due, and even in a matchup against the best slot receiver in the league this past weekend (Cole Beasley), Humphrey played shutdown football. However, having Humphrey play inside and rotating a bunch of other question marks simply wasn’t ideal all season. That glaring weakness was magnified in games against elite slot receivers and tight ends.

Young’s durability remains a clear sticking point. This is two seasons in a row that he’s missed significant time and the defense has had to shuffle the deck on the fly. But if he’s healthy, the secondary will be fortified across the board and they can match up against the top passing offenses in the league.

The defensive coaching staff can also get back to using veteran corner Jimmy Smith as more of a rotational piece who can also specialize in matchups against tight ends, which is what defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale envisioned before the 2020 season.

5. Wink and the Defense (mostly) Intact

Speaking of Wink, the likelihood is that he’ll remain in place as DC in Baltimore for at least one more season. There’s always the off chance he could emerge late in the process for the openings left with Houston and Philadelphia but his name hasn’t been brought up to this point at least.

If the Ravens can get another year out of Wink, that’s clearly a win. He’s on the heels of his best coaching job in the playoffs. Not only did he limit the Titans and Bills to under 300 yards of total offense and only two offensive touchdown scores, he did it using a different style and went against his tendency to blitz heavy with numbers.

Instead, the agile coordinator used more simulated rushes (bluffing the blitz) and relied on his front to get pressure. He also played more coverage-based schemes and incorporated zone coverage looks.

From a defensive personnel standpoint, most of the key players should also be back, aside from at the outside linebacker position — there’s a possibility that Matt Judon and/or Ngakoue won’t be back, as both players are pending unrestricted free agents. However, the unit will be deep and talented enough with an offseason of additions to likely remain a top 10 group under Wink’s watch.

6. A Deep WR Free Agent and Draft Class

It’s not a secret that wide receiver is the black hole on this team. DeCosta and formerly Newsome chasing after receivers has been akin to Ahab chasing after Moby Dick. The struggle is real. However, the deep ocean of pass catchers between free agency and the draft should provide ample opportunity in the offseason to finally harpoon the massive whale.

I’m mostly an in-season X’s and O’s guy and a pro player personnel evaluator. I do not know a ton about the college prospects coming out, at least not this close to the season’s conclusion. However, by all accounts, the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft class is going to feature a ton of talent, similar to the hyped 2020 class.

The unique aspect of this offseason though is the free agents. There is a breadth of legit wide receivers set to hit the market: Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Will Fuller head up the A class. The B class consists of guys like Corey Davis, Marvin Jones, and Curtis Samuel. The C class consists of veterans like T.Y. Hilton and A.J. Green. Then you have some up and coming players like Rashard Higgins from the Browns.

Pro Football Focus breaks down the group further:

“The cherry on top [of this free agent class] is that the free agent wide receiver group is extremely diverse in terms of playing styles, with a handful of true X receivers, great slot weapons, deep threats, after-the-catch specialists and so on. Whatever type of playmaker a team is looking for, they’re out there.”

The Ravens will have plenty of options to attack the position. Even though they aren’t exactly plush with cap space, they will have some money to play with. And in a cap market that will be depressed due to the financial impacts of COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine all of these receivers garnering large paydays. There will be some one-year, prove it deals out there.

Photo Credit: Baltimore Ravens

7. Marquise Brown’s Ascent

While it’s quite obvious that the team needs to add more playmakers, especially at receiver, Brown’s finish to the 2020 season offered everything you’d have hoped for from him at the beginning of the season. Brown’s performance in the playoffs is unquestioned — he’s the second player in NFL history along with future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald to start his career with three games topping over 85 yards and a 15+ YPC.

As the season progressed, Brown displayed a wider range in his route tree and overall deployment in Greg Roman’s offense, operating out of the backfield, outside the numbers as an underneath target, and working the middle more often from the slot. He’s not just a “9” route target. We all knew that he offered more than that, and Roman finally unleashed him.

While Brown and Jackson still need to work on their chemistry, the seeds have been planted for tremendous growth. Brown has the chance to be even better though playing alongside another receiver who can complement his skills in the passing game.

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