Analysis

Will the Ravens Be the NFL’s Latest ‘Worst to First’ Team?

Will the Ravens Be the NFL's Latest 'Worst to First' Team?

The Baltimore Ravens finished the 2021 season with an 8-9 record in what many deemed to be an underwhelming year. The team missed the postseason for the first time since 2017 and worse, Baltimore placed last in the AFC North, the only time under head coach John Harbaugh. Since he took the helm for the Ravens in 2008, the franchise had a losing record last season for just the second time. However, this rocky campaign wasn’t far from being significantly more successful.

Following an overtime Week 1 loss in Las Vegas, Baltimore rattled off five consecutive victories. A home win in Week 12 against the Browns gave the Ravens a record of 8-3, primed for the playoffs. However, the team dropped the remainder of its contests, resulting in the aforementioned 8-9 finish.

These final six games were competitive on the whole, as five of these six losses came by a combined eight points. Except for falling well short of the eventual AFC Champion Bengals in Week 16, each loss was by just three or fewer points, and three of these defeats came by a single point.

Plot created using TruMedia

The plot above illustrates how many single-possession games the Ravens played in 2021. With 12 of these contests, the second-most in the league, and six victories, Baltimore had a 50% win percentage in these games. In NFL games that come down to the wire, each minute facet of the team is emphasized. This includes play-calls, clock management, and most importantly available personnel. A common idiom in sports that applies here is “the best ability is availability,” and the Ravens struggled with this.

Injury Struggles

Before the 2021 season began, starting running back J.K. Dobbins suffered a torn ACL, leaving the lead spot vacant and thinning out the position group’s depth. Gus Edwards looked to be the new feature back when Justice Hill was ruled out for the season just days after Dobbins’ injury. With the unthinkable ensuing, Edwards too would miss the full year with a torn ACL, seeing injuries completely ravage Baltimore’s backfield.

The injury bug didn’t just bite the running backs, as the cornerback room saw many key contributors miss time. Starting corner Marcus Peters didn’t play in a game due to an injury suffered before the year began. Even worse, he and Gus Edwards each tore their ACL on consecutive plays, a devastating blow for the team.

Marlon Humphrey, another starting cornerback, suffered a late-season injury, hurting the top-end talent and depth of the position group. Jimmy Smith was the third cornerback to miss a handful of games, not playing in seven total contests. The two remaining outside cornerbacks on the Ravens’ depth chart as of September 1 were Anthony Averett and Chris Westry, each of whom fell victim to the Baltimore injury plague.

Despite all of the previous injuries, the most disastrous may have been Lamar Jackson. Of the final six games in which Baltimore lost all, Jackson played a full contest just once. Backups Tyler Huntley and Josh Johnson were the other quarterbacks to appear for the team in 2021, both with more than adequate mobility like Jackson, but neither was as productive as the primary signal-caller.

Suffering all of these injuries to the running back, cornerback, and quarterback positions, among other players, notably hindered the team’s potential. Since the Ravens participated in the second-most one-possession games, each piece the team was without made a marginal difference. The sum of these missing parts very well may have been the difference between winning and losing these games, especially those decided by just one point.

Lamar Jackson’s injury mostly coincided with the six-game slump Baltimore ended the season with, and most of the injuries Baltimore dealt with overlapped with these final contests.

It appears Eric DeCosta has taken last season’s woes into account this offseason, providing depth at the positions the team needed. Mike Giddings, the President of Proscout Inc and 33rd Team member, has an injury grading system that he explained to our team. He remarked upon the Ravens’ cornerback position, saying that “going into training camp, except for Humphrey, every veteran corner for Baltimore was either [graded] D, D-, or F.” These subpar grades represent how the eventual thinness at cornerback was a concern Giddings had entering the season.

Instead of hoping the position group will not fall victim to injury in 2022, DeCosta attacked the matter by signing Kyle Fuller and drafting Jalyn Armour-Davis. The Baltimore general manager improved the entire secondary, adding Marcus Williams and rookie Kyle Hamilton. The drafting of Hamilton was the first pick in a strong draft class, according to The 33rd Team among others.

The Ravens followed up the selection of the Notre Dame safety by picking Tyler Linderbaum towards the end of the First Round, a player we had ranked nine spots higher than his draft position. Baltimore selected two tight ends, Charlie Kolar and Isaiah Likely, who totaled over 1,600 yards and 18 touchdowns combined in their final college football seasons. The team also drafted depth at defensive line, offensive tackle, and running back, moves that may pay off if the starters ahead of these rookies suffer an injury.

We’ve seen teams go from last in their divisions to first in a relatively short time, recently with the AFC North’s Cincinnati Bengals. In this competitive group of teams, separated last season by just two games, there is often lots of movement between the standings. The Ravens look too talented from a roster and coaching standpoint to be held back for an extended period, and the team could bounce back from last season’s disappointment.

Between all of the injuries in 2021 and the improvement the team made to its roster during the offseason, Baltimore is primed for a successful 2022 campaign. The number of close games the Ravens played last season may be reduced given the team’s improvements, and Baltimore has given itself a strong chance to win these one-score games. The Ravens will strive to exceed their over/under prediction of 9.5 wins, hopefully qualifying for the playoffs in a resurgent 2022 season.