Where does every NFL franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
My friends, when I look at the landscape of the AFC North, I see the drama revolving around the Pittsburgh Steelers. I see the Bengals starting over with a new coach for the first time in nearly two decades. And I see the Browns fighting through the weight of expectations and the media scrutiny that comes with it. But when I see the Baltimore Ravens, I see stability. Even in the wake of losing a long-time general manager and some familiar names on defense, the Ravens are a beacon of continuity in a division embroiled in chaos.
How the Ravens got here
Let’s take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:
— The arrival of Lamar Jackson. After trading up to draft Jackson with the last pick of the first round in 2018, the former Heisman winner replaced Joe Flacco as the Ravens‘ QB1 in Week 11 — and that’s when the team’s fortunes changed. He led Baltimore to a 6-1 finish.
— Winning the AFC North title. Riding a dominant run game fueled by Jackson, the club won its division for the first time since 2012 and advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
— Losing to the Chargers at home in the Wild-Card Round. I know it’s tough to beat a team twice in three weeks (the Ravens defeated the Chargers in L.A. in Week 16). But you can’t drop home playoff games.
Head coach: John Harbaugh. Some real talk here. Harbaugh’s one of the best coaches in the game. He was on the hot seat last year because the team had three consecutive non-playoff seasons. But outside of a 5-11 campaign in 2015, the Ravens haven’t had a losing season under his watch. So I never really understood why he was under such scrutiny. If the Ravens had ever let him go, he would have been unemployed for about an hour. It’s like that episode of “How I Met Your Mother” where Ted is waiting years for this girl to be single so he can ask her out. You know a lot of teams were just waiting for the Ravens to do something foolish.
Quarterback: Lamar Jackson. I know some of you wiseacres will say, “don’t you mean running back Lamar Jackson?” I’m going to ask you to leave. Jackson is the quarterback of this team. As mentioned above, the Ravens rallied from a 4-5 start to reach the playoffs, and it’s no coincidence that the tide turned for the Ravens once Jackson took over for Joe Flacco, who injured his hip in a Week 9 loss to the Steelers. Baltimore went 5-1 down the stretch with Jackson at quarterback, with the lone loss coming at Kansas City. And that only happened because Patrick Mahomes converted this crazy, miracle pass on fourth down to extend a drive late in the fourth quarter. So I’m not going to be too harsh about it. But let’s look at the key takeaways from Jackson’s rookie season: 1) He won a lot, including a huge Week 16 game on the road in Los Angeles. 2) He probably saved his coach’s job and got him an extension. So the Ravens are in the very capable hands of Jackson moving forward.
So Joe Flacco is gone? Yep. Flacco is a member of the Broncos now. He found a team that will like him for what he is — tall and a former Super Bowl champion. I applaud the move. No need to stay together for the kids when it’s best you both move on. You’ll always have Super Bowl XLVII. However, the time was right for the two sides to split.
Wait, what happened to … Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle? Those are key members of the Baltimore defense that allowed 17.9 points per game last season (second fewest in the league), but they all moved on in the offseason. Suggs is in Arizona. Mosley got a ton of money from the Jets. And Weddle ended up joining his hometown team, the Los Angeles Rams, after being released.
2019 breakout player: Tim Williams, OLB. The Ravens have to replace several veterans on defense, so they’ll be looking for some of their younger players to step up. And it will be a testament to retired GM Ozzie Newsome’s ability to stockpile talent via the draft when Williams rises to the occasion. Williams didn’t see the field a whole lot during his first two seasons, but the former Alabama edge rusher is going to emerge as a key piece in 2019. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for him, having paid his dues with the Crimson Tide before becoming a leading contributor. You watch. He’s going to break out this year.
Don’t sleep on: Patrick Onwuasor, LB. He’s shown flashes in the past, but now he’s being counted on to be a leader in the middle of the defense. I expect Onwuasor to be another in a long line of great Ravens linebackers.
Newcomer to watch: Earl Thomas, safety. The Ravens broke the bank to get Thomas, signing the six-time Pro Bowl selectee to a four-year, $55 million deal. His contract includes $32 million guaranteed — tops among safeties — even though he ended last season on injured reserve with a broken leg. While he’s coming off the injury and entering his age-30 season, Pro Football Focus still ranks Thomas as one of the NFL’s top 20 players. He’ll be one of the most instinctual and intelligent players on the field every week.
The 2019 roadmap
The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. You don’t get to relax because your coach now has a long-term extension. The Steelers have had all sorts of problems. The Bengals are starting anew. And the Browns are getting all of your glory because of a few offseason moves. Don’t let them treat you this way, Ravens.
Will the Ravens be able to …
Hit on their low-risk edge-rushing additions? The Ravens took fliers on Shane Ray and Pernell McPhee, who are both trying to relaunch their careers after signing low-cost one-year deals this offseason. Ray is a former first-round pick who disappointed with the Broncos, and McPhee is returning to where he began his career after playing sparingly for the Redskins last season and previously falling out of a favor with the Bears, who gave him a big payday following his rise with Baltimore. Can they put it together in 2019? Also, the team drafted the FBS all-time sack leader, Jaylon Ferguson out of Louisiana Tech, in the third round (85th overall). What’s interesting to note here: Ferguson set the sack record by besting Suggs’ mark.
Find somebody to catch the ball? The Ravens used a lot of draft capital in an effort to upgrade the receiver room. John Brown and Michael Crabtree are gone. So the team will turn to first-round pick Hollywood Brown and third-rounder Miles Boykin. Brown has the kind of game-breaking speed to help showcase Jackson’s arm strength. Chris Moore is also a candidate to break out, and Willie Snead is a better receiver than he showed during his first season with the Ravens.
Continue their success running the ball (with players other than Lamar Jackson)? Gus Edwards was terrific for the Ravens last season, so it was kind of a surprise to see the team invest in RB Mark Ingram in free agency. I like Ingram’s game, though, and he’s been effective in a committee, sharing time with Alvin Kamara. Speaking of which, fourth-round pick Justice Hill could emerge as the Kamara type for Greg Roman’s offense.
Three key dates
— Week 3 at the Chiefs. A chance to avenge the lone regular-season loss of Jackson’s career. It’s also one of those key games for teams you expect to be jockeying for one of the top seeds in the AFC. You know, the team that will host the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
Storylines people are overlooking and overthinking: Lamar Jackson‘s ability as a passer/workload as a rusher. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti got into the conversation recently when he said Jackson was going to run less this season. Jackson rushed 147 times for 695 yards and five touchdowns last year. That is a lot. In fact, it’s the most rushing attempts by a QB in a single season in NFL history. You think of the shoulder problems quarterbacks like Andrew Luck and Cam Newton have had in recent seasons, and sure, you worry about Jackson taking so many hits. But you can’t stop him from doing what made him great as a rookie. As Pro Football Focus pointed out last month, the threat of the run helped Jackson as a passer in 2018. Nearly 43 percent of his passes came on play-action, and he averaged 8.8 yards per attempt on those throws, compared to 5.9 without play-action. Jackson will never be a classic dropback passer, but he can be a very effective thrower if provided with the right tools. With the offseason additions at both running back and receiver, there is no way Jackson is going to fail in Year 2. He can extend plays. He can get outside of the pocket and throw. He offers so many things you want at the position in the modern NFL.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Ravens MUST …
— Win a playoff game, and maybe even get all the way to the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens need to reignite the rivalry they had with the Patriots a few years back. They had some classic playoff games and I would like to get back to that.
I’m really comfortable with where the Ravens currently stand in the AFC, which seems strange to say for a team that has a second-year quarterback, new stars not only on defense but in key offensive skill positions and a new general manager. But I like what the Ravens have built here. Newsome was one of the best GMs in NFL history and we’ll look at what he did during those glory years as the stuff of legend. But the way he set up the Ravens to be successful for when he walked away should be noted, too. I mean, how easy would it be for a GM run the course with a Super Bowl-winning QB and then be all, “later, guys” while leaving the cupboard bare? That’s not the situation inherited by Newsome’s successor, Eric DeCosta. His mentor has set him up tremendously well. This should be a good year in Baltimore.
Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.