Arguably no team experienced more unfortunate circumstances in the 2021 season than the Baltimore Ravens. A perennial playoff team and AFC contender, Baltimore finished last in the AFC North. Even worse, they had a losing 8-9 record. Then again, the reasons are plain as day. Looking back, it’s hard to believe how wildly injured they were last year. The below graphic does a nice job proving that point:
NFL end of 2021 regular season injury plot. Games missed to injuries versus team wins. Bubble size represents cumulative quality of players lost (Lost-av metric) https://t.co/ILv7Y4ZcaH pic.twitter.com/z0oPcldiW2
— Man Games Lost NFL (@ManGamesLostNFL) January 13, 2022
Only the New York Giants surpassed Baltimore in the amount of games missed, but no team had a larger quantity of quality players missing. Key role-players like J.K. Dobbins, Rashod Bateman, Gus Edwards, Marcus Peters (all season), Ronnie Stanley, and, oh yeah – Lamar Jackson – all missed significant time in 2021.
This year feels completely different. Healthy and reloaded with new talent, the Baltimore Ravens are poised to reach new heights in 2022. That’s saying a lot, considering where they’ve been in the recent past. Let’s break down why I think the Baltimore Ravens should be seen as a top-5 team heading into the NFL season. Don’t look now, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they were one of two teams competing in Super Bowl LVII.
Current Projected Win Total: 9.5
Schedule Difficulty: Medium
Power Rating: 83.3
Let’s start with the defense, and if we’re starting with defense, we need to talk about Marcus Williams. A five-year pro you may not know, Williams is a free safety and was an integral part of the Saints exceptional passing defense the last few seasons. At 6-foot-1 and only 25 years old, Williams is in his prime and positioned to thrive in an already stacked Ravens’ secondary.
According to Sports Insights, last season the Ravens were dead last in the NFL in opponent passing yards per game and nearly last in opponent pass yards per catch. That will change this season. Williams joins physical strong safety Chuck Clark, Marcus Peters – who looks to return to his All-Pro form – and award-winning cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who also missed five games last season. I also love their first-round draft pick, Kyle Hamilton. A two-year starter at Notre Dame and as pro-ready as any safety in the draft, Hamilton is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and adds even more physicality to Baltimore’s secondary. This is a big, aggressive, confident unit with a lot of depth, and we think they could be among the best in the league by the end of the season.
Their linebackers and defensive line, which stood strong as a top-5 front unit against the run last season, shouldn’t let their team down, either. Together with the best kicker in football and a head coach that places a special focus on special teams, it’s hard to imagine that Baltimore’s offense will face the same amount of pressure it did in 2021.
Even if their defense does struggle (they won’t), this should be Lamar Jackson’s year. It’s debatable whether Jackson’s decision to manage his own contract was a wise one, but the team and quarterback have yet to barter a deal. That creates the motivational narrative of a “prove-it year”: not exactly a positive thing for defenses rivaling Lamar. Jackson was banged up and forced into a tough situation last season– without his starting running back, without his backup running back, with underwhelming receiver talent, and with a banged-up offensive line.
It’s a different environment this year, and it starts with J.K. Dobbins. Dobbins burst onto the scene in 2020 as Baltimore’s auxiliary back, rushing for 805 yards on 6.0 yards per carry. He added 13 touchdowns and elite elusiveness, to boot. The Ravens sound confident that J.K. is back after returning from an ACL injury last August. If he is, his playmaking nature and breakaway speed add even more dynamism to an already dangerous offense.
The one area where I’m not so convinced is their receiving corps. Baltimore has yet to find a big-bodied, physical target not named Mark Andrews. At 6-foot-1, DeMarcus Robinson is the closest option, but his six-year career with the Chiefs was largely underwhelming. When a team only has barely 6-foot targets who run sharp patterns but can’t create completion opportunities with their physicality, it forces a quarterback to pass with razor sharp precision. And as I noted in my QB Phenotypes article, we know that’s not exactly Lamar’s forte. Rashod Bateman has incredible potential and Devin Duvernay is fine, but they’ll need to grow in maturity and tenacity to support Jackson when it matters most. The success of this team will come down to their passing game, as it does for most clubs. The jury is still out if they can deliver.
Tyler Linderbaum and Morgan Moses, two acquisitions Baltimore made this offseason, bring significant value, too. Their offensive line needed some new blood, and they got it. Moses is an exceptional right tackle with nearly a decade of pro experience. Linderbaum has impressed at center this preseason – he’s Baltimore’s first round draft pick from Iowa. Ronnie Stanley, whose elite play at left tackle was a significant catalyst for Jackson’s success in the past, finally looks healthy after missing a slew of games the last few seasons. Overall, this is an above-average unit with elite upside. That’s a scary proposition with the all-world playmaking ability of Lamar and his counterparts.
Coaching and Intangibles
Few franchises have more stable and trusted front office management than the Baltimore Ravens. Former defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale went to the Giants. Newcomer Mike Macdonald (from the University of Michigan, a Harbaugh connection) will take his place. Apparently he plans to keep the scheming just as aggressive as Martindale, which may not be beloved by everyone. Greg Roman continues his role as offensive coordinator, and John Harbaugh is among the most successful head coaches in football.
Harbaugh has a special way of creating chemistry and community while producing highly disciplined players at the same time. It’s a rare quality that only a few coaches can pull off. Showing trust in Lamar from the beginning and an ability to shift his approach to what his players’ need, this feels like a perfect year for the award-winning coach to catapult this team to another level. The Ravens won’t lose this season because of Harbaugh.
It’s hard to take the over on Baltimore’s 9.5 win total, but it’s not because of the Ravens. The AFC North continues to prove its grit. The Steelers are perpetually tenacious, and the matchups between Pittsburgh and Baltimore are as brutal as any rivalry. The Browns are as talented as any team in the NFL, and the Bengals are returning from a Super Bowl appearance. They’ll try to prove they’re worthy of another. Still, Baltimore has everything a team could want, both objectively and in ways that are tough to quantify. It’ll likely rest on Lamar’s precision passing, or lack thereof at the end of the season. We hope that good things happen for the ultra-talented QB and a roster that’s ready to win it all.