After the Baltimore Ravens ran away with the AFC North and the NFL in 2019 to the tune of a 14-2 record, it’s fair to say that the 2020 season was rather a disappointing one. Fresh off of Lamar Jackson’s MVP victory, it’s no surprise that the Ravens were the co-favorites with the Kansas City Chiefs to win Super Bowl LV. While Lamar had another record-setting season as a dual-threat quarterback, the team ultimately fell three weeks short of expectations, falling to the Buffalo Bills in the division round of the playoffs.
It wasn’t an easy season for the Ravens, which started with the distraction of Earl Thomas fighting with teammates, and included a full blown locker room outbreak of Covid-19 as the regular season reached the final turn. Finishing the season at 11-5 and reaching the second round of the playoffs was a feat in itself.
The 2021 season is already starting with adversity for Baltimore who lost David Culley to the Houston Texans, and have more drama with Orlando Brown requesting a trade to a team that will let him move back to left tackle where he played in college. After waiving a number of veterans at the end of the season including Mark Ingram II and Robert Griffin III, the Ravens are starting to shift to rely on their young core now, who are stepping up into leadership. With the announcement that the salary cap floor for teams will be no lower than $180M for 2021, the task for third-year general manager Eric DeCosta will be to find the right guys in free agency and the draft to find the right accent pieces for a team on the cusp.
Pending Free Agents
With such a young roster, the Baltimore Ravens have some cap space that other teams don’t have, thanks to some key contributors still being on their rookie contracts. The time will come soon to start paying that talent as soon as this season with Jackson and Mark Andrews now entering the fourth season of their rookie deals.
With $18M currently in cap space, the team may not be able to play as big in free agency as that number would allude to, and bringing back some of their own free agents might be a bit difficult. Now in his third offseason as general manager for Baltimore, DeCosta has to start deciding how guys acquired under Ozzie Newsome now start to fit his construction of the team.
Gus Edwards, Running Back (RFA)
While Edwards’ name might not pop off the sheet to most, the release of Ingram in January would mean that two-thirds of the backfield for Baltimore would need replaced if the team doesn’t bring Edwards back. A run-heavy team, the Ravens could draft a running mate or two for second-year back J.K. Dobbins, but expect them to bring back Edwards.
Yannick Ngakoue, Edge Rusher
Acquiring Ngakoue from Minnesota for just a third-round pick this year and a conditional fifth-round pick in 2022 was a strong move by Baltimore last year in an attempt to team him with Calais Campbell and Matt Judon along a fearsome defensive front. The vision was shortly lived, as injuries from Calais and Yannick, as well as a positive Covid-19 test from Campbell, impacted their time together. Ngakoue was a near non-factor in the playoffs, yet Yannick looks like he fits. Can they make the years and money work?
Willie Snead IV, Wide Receiver
Snead’s role with Baltimore has largely dipped from his time in New Orleans, but he did post his second highest catch percentage in 2020. Surely Jackson would welcome the veteran back as he continues to wait on Marquise Brown to develop consistency. It isn’t clear whether either side wants to split, but would Snead be open to giving Baltimore a discount so the team can find their quarterback a true number one receiver?
Potential Cap Casualties
As it stands currently, the Ravens have $18 million in cap space, though that number could quickly disappear if they were to extend Jackson before his fourth season. Quarterback money isn’t cheap, especially for a young guy who has already won an MVP award and helped his team to the playoffs each of his first three seasons.
If there is pressure to get a deal done this offseason, Baltimore may have to let some of their own talent go so they can sign Jackson, one of his favorite targets in Andrews, and some lower end replacements for any casualties due to their impact on the cap. If Baltimore decides to wait another season, it may cost them more in the long run, but they’d also have the flexibility to avoid cutting their own talent, and even be decent players on the market as they ramp up for another shot at the Super Bowl.
Calais Campbell, DT ($6 Million Saved)
Campbell enjoyed another Pro Bowl season in 2020, his fourth straight, despite moving to the interior of the line and playing the fewest games in a season of his career. He just got to Baltimore on a new two-year extension that will account for eight percent of the Raven’s salary cap in 2021. Campbell was brought in before the Ngakoue trade, which shifted things along the line, and the team may eat the $10M in dead money from his guarantees to save themselves $6 million in cap space that could go toward the younger defensive end in Ngakoue, or to keep Judon in Baltimore.
Brandon Williams, NT ($7.5 Million Saved)
Campbell’s neighbor on the defensive line, Williams, could also be a cap casualty this offseason, as the Ravens have more to gain by cutting him than Campbell. Releasing Williams before June 1st would clear up $7.5 million for the Ravens in cap space, while costing them just under $7 million in dead money. Like the rest of the defensive front, Williams missed some games this season, and on the wrong side of 30 years old, could be let go to allow the team to keep some of the bigger names.
Marcus Peters, CB ($9.5 Million Saved)
A talent in the secondary that Baltimore would really like to keep, releasing Peters would be a purely financial decision, as he could clear nearly $20 million in cap space over the next two seasons, during which he is only guaranteed $6 million. The only way this would possibly happen this season, however, would be if the Ravens had a bigger fish on the line in free agency and needed to clear massive space.
Open Free Agent Targets
The kind of players that Baltimore can target in free agency will all rely on whether they feel the need to address the approaching free agency of their 2018 draft class that has had a major impact on this team’s trajectory. Letting their own free agents walk this season wouldn’t be a major loss, and could actually be well addressed affordably on the free agent market, and there are some potential additions that would have serious upside with the Ravens.
Baltimore fell just a touch off in the regular season from last year, finishing 11-5. While injuries played a part, talent depth felt like an issue at wide receiver, not helped by Brown catching just 58 of his 100 targets. With Ingram’s release following the season and Edwards’ pending free agency, running back is an area of concern as well. Brown’s request to be traded would also leave a hole on the right side of the offensive line, if the team honors it. There’s some roster holes that need to be addressed one way or another, and for a team on the cusp like Baltimore, experienced veterans may provide better support than trying to fix them all in the draft.
Leonard Fournette, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Needing to fill the backfield stable with quality work-horses, the newly dubbed “Super Bowl Lenny” could be a target to pursue. Making just $2 million after being released by Jacksonville last season, the value could be big if the price stays the same for Baltimore. Not much of a receiving running back, Fournette does possess the ability as he showed in 2019 with the Jaguars. What’s more, the fourth-year running back had just 97 carries in 2020, and has only eclipsed 200 carries in two seasons, both 1,000 yard years. Fournette feels like a great find with low mileage and solid performance abilities.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Detroit Lions
How wild would it be to have two of the most prolific runners over the last decade on the same team? The Ravens could make it an actuality if they picked up the 35-year-old Peterson. Admittedly on his last legs, A.P. can’t go “All Day” anymore, but in an offense where he’d be the third best runner on behind the line, he could still be a contributor in a run-first offense. He wants a ring and took his shot at Tom Brady, but Baltimore could be a better fit. It’s wild to think, but eclipsed 1,000 yards just back in 2018, and was close again in 2019 with Washington.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Arguably the best free-agent fit of the running backs, former rival Bell would likely cost more than Peterson or Fournette, but his contribution could be greater, and a multi-year deal would intrigue both parties. Bell did okay in Kansas City, but Baltimore would likely use him better, and seeing him in purple and black would drive Steeler Nation crazy.
Matt Feiler, RT, Pittsburgh Steelers
If Brown’s request to be traded is met, the Ravens could do well to replace him with someone like Feiler, a seven-year pro who has spent the last six seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Feiler has blocked for the aforementioned Bell and been a part of a championship culture in the Steel City. Of the 848 offensive snaps that Feiler played in 2020, he started at guard and allowed just two sacks. He did sustain a pectoral injury in December that sent him to the injured reserve for the remainder of the regular season, but he was able to return for Pittsburgh’s Wild Card loss to Cleveland.
Antonio Brown, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Ravens need a play-making wide receiver, and Brown has risen from punchline to Super Bowl champion. After catching a big touchdown from Brady in the big game, Brown may have gotten enough of a taste of success to try and be featured somewhere else. While the youth of Baltimore could be a bad mix for the receiver with troubled recent history, maybe playing with family could do wonders for both himself and his cousin, Marquise.
Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee Titans
More than just a receiver, the Ravens could use some size outside of Andrews, and Davis would be an interesting addition. He may not have the best hands, but catching can be taught, unlike his natural 6’4″ size. Davis could fit well as a top or second option on the outside, and wouldn’t be in danger of falling in the shadow of another receiver on the team. Davis wasn’t on the field in the closing minutes of the Titans’ loss to the Ravens in the playoffs supposedly due to injury. Maybe that slight could be enough to push him to the other side.
Previewing the Draft
The Baltimore Ravens have done well in recent drafts in acquiring a number of players that are starting, and the success is reflected by the team continuing to make the playoffs each year. A lot of the key draft additions have come on the offensive side with Jackson, Andrews, Brown, and Dobbins all being selected in recent years. That’s not to say that the defensive side hasn’t been addressed, as guys like DeShon Elliott and Patrick Queen have grown to start as well, and there are a number of contributors.
The Ravens have dealt some picks in recent years sending a seventh-round pick and Chris Wormley to Pittsburgh in exchange for a fifth-rounder in a trade last spring, and sent a seventh-round selection last year for a pair of picks last year that became James Proche and Geno Stone. The team also sent their third-round pick for 2021 to Minnesota as part of the Ngakoue trade, but are set to receive one back for the Houston Texans hiring away Culley as their new head coach.
Round 1, Pick 27: Right Tackle
With the free agent options at wide receiver, experience would better suit them there while the Ravens use their top pick to start addressing the Brown situation. Whether he gets moved this offseason or the next, he’s clearly unhappy, and it’s time to start grooming his successor. With quarterbacks and receivers going early in a talented class for those positions, getting that replacement here would be wise.
Round 2, Pick 58: Defensive End
The defensive front is starting to cycle out fast with free agency, and Campbell is next up. After previously plugging holes in the secondary, and picking up Queen last year, the Ravens could do well to take a defensive end early in day two.
Round 3, Pick 104: Running Back
Another “prepare for the future” pick, the lack of depth in the running back room needs to be addressed, and likely won’t be fully fixed in free agency, if at all. The third round is a nice place to start finding value running backs that are affordable and don’t cost as much to have around, which is key for a team that runs as much as the Ravens.
Early 2021 Expectations
The Ravens have reached the playoffs in each of the last three years, yet have won just one game. The important thing is that they won that game this season to advance to the divisional round. Jackson has the individual accolades of a great playmaker and quarterback, but now it’s time to maximize on his youth and ability, and the expectation has to be the Super Bowl.
The AFC North is getting tougher as the Browns look to have filled the vacancy left by the Cincinnati Bengals a few seasons ago, as the division once again sent three teams into the postseason. With the competition for qualifying for the playoffs heating up, Baltimore is in position to stay one-step ahead, and hoisting that Lombardi will make it easier to stomach paying Jackson his value for the future. Anything short of a Super Bowl victory will once again be a disappointment for the Ravens, and may lead to other questions next year.