2020 NFL Preview: Ravens and Lamar Jackson were incredible last season, with one big blemish

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

With one bad night, the 2019 Baltimore Ravens were mostly erased from our memories.

We’ll still remember Lamar Jackson’s historic MVP season. But the team, which was so dominant in the regular season, became an afterthought.

The Ravens were really good last season. Probably better than you think. With three more wins, they’d have ranked among the greatest teams in NFL history. It’s true. By multiple measures they were one of the most dominant teams in league history. But then the Tennessee Titans (who also beat the Kansas City Chiefs last regular season) came to Baltimore for a divisional round playoff game, jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead and won 28-12.

We like championships to definitively tell us who had the best team. A good way to get most sports fans mad is to suggest the team that won a title in a particular season wasn’t necessarily the best team. Yet it happens all the time. Four-month seasons are probably better indicators of how good a team is than a single-game sample size.

The Chiefs were deserving champions. Over the entirety of the 2019 season the Ravens were the NFL’s best team. Both can be true.

The Ravens’ plus-249 point differential was seventh-best of the Super Bowl era. They finished far ahead of the Chiefs in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and posted the seventh-best DVOA mark ever tracked, dating back to 1985. The Ravens led the NFL in rushing and passing DVOA. Their defense was top five in just about any measure. The Ravens won their final 12 regular season games, and eight of those wins came by double digits.

None of that really mattered because the Ravens got handled by the Titans in their first playoff game. The Chiefs won three games with everyone watching and are the favorites to win the Super Bowl again. That’s how it works.

Baltimore might not repeat as the NFL’s best team. The league changes fast and plenty of teams don’t just pick up where they left off. But the Ravens had a good offseason and should be hungry. They also have Jackson.

The greatness of Jackson’s 2019 season seems to be fading a bit, which is probably also due to the playoff loss. Patrick Mahomes, who is undeniably great as well, has been the player everyone is gushing about this offseason. But Jackson is the reigning unanimous MVP and no part of that was undeserved. Jackson led the NFL in passing touchdowns and set a single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback. One player shouldn’t be able to do both. Give the Ravens coaching staff credit too. The NFL isn’t a league that likes change, and the Ravens used an offense no other NFL team had ever run before. Had it not worked out, they’d have been mocked endlessly by the folks who are just coming around to the idea that going for it on fourth-and-1 might be a good thing.

But Jackson was a smash hit. Critics might say “the NFL will adjust,” but it’s far from that easy. When the quarterback has to be accounted for in the run game, and that quarterback is the best runner the position has ever seen, it’s a sound offensive scheme. It’s just not common for the NFL.

Look up and down the Ravens roster and you’ll see standout players: Jackson, running back Mark Ingram, explosive receiver Marquise Brown, tight end Mark Andrews, elite left tackle Ronnie Stanley, dominant nose tackle Brandon Williams, franchise-tagged outside linebacker Matt Judon, potential Hall of Famers Calais Campbell at end and Earl Thomas at safety, stellar cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, and Justin Tucker, the most accurate kicker in NFL history. There’s also coach John Harbaugh, who has one losing season in 12 years with the Ravens. Baltimore is absolutely loaded.

The Chiefs earned their Super Bowl rings. But the Ravens could be the best team in the NFL this season. Just like they were through last season. The trick will be not falling flat in January this time.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson will try to win another MVP award this season. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson will try to win another MVP award this season. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The Ravens were aggressive, as they should have been. They signed defensive end Derek Wolfe (after a deal for Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers fell apart due to concerns over Brockers’ ankle) and traded a fifth-round pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for defensive end Calais Campbell. Campbell was the No. 3-ranked interior defensive lineman in Pro Football Focus’ grades last season and Wolfe has been a standout for the Denver Broncos. They’ll help replace Michael Pierce, who signed with the Minnesota Vikings (but opted out of the 2020 season). If the Ravens had a weakness in 2019 it was their run defense. Wolfe and Campbell should fix that. The Ravens got a good return trading tight end Hayden Hurst to the Atlanta Falcons, but they could regret it if injuries hit the position. The Ravens topped off their offseason with an excellent draft, getting one of three “A” grades from Yahoo’s Eric Edholm. Linebacker Patrick Queen and running back J.K. Dobbins, the team’s top two picks, could play huge roles. It needs to be mentioned that guard Marshal Yanda retired and he’s a likely Hall of Famer who was still playing at a high level. That’s not a small loss for a run-first team. But overall, it seems the Ravens are better than last season.

GRADE: A-minus

Lamar Jackson’s running ability is undeniable, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he matches his 1,206 yards from last season. But can he repeat the passing, or even improve upon it? He had 36 touchdown passes last season, and that will come down. He threw touchdowns on 9 percent of his throws, which is unsustainable. The league average was 4.5 percent. Jackson can still be a highly efficient passer, even if he won’t be a high-volume thrower in the Ravens offense. Jackson’s completion percentage jumped from 58.2 to 66.1 last season, his yards per attempt rose from 7.1 to 7.8, his touchdowns skyrocketed and he decreased his interception rate from 1.8 percent to 1.5. He had a top-five passing grade from Pro Football Focus. Even if Jackson doesn’t put up 36 touchdown passes again due to some regression, he could still improve his passing again in year three. He’s just 23 years old with plenty of room to grow.

Cornerback Marcus Peters looks like a great acquisition for the Ravens. Baltimore traded a fifth-round pick and linebacker Kenny Young to the Rams for Peters during last season, and Peters was one of the best cornerbacks in football the rest of the season. There’s a reason Peters came so cheap. He does go through stretches of giving up big plays and can be disruptive off the field. But if Peters is locked in all season, he could be an All-Pro. Along with Marlon Humphrey, the Ravens could have the best cornerback duo in the NFL.

It’s not like sportsbooks don’t know the Ravens are good. They’re huge -200 favorites to win the AFC North at BetMGM. Their over/under win total is 11.5. The Ravens’ odds to win the Super Bowl are tied for best in the NFL with the Chiefs at +650. Obviously I like the Ravens but they’re not some well-kept secret, so I don’t see a lot of value in any of their positive future bets.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “We can’t take Marquise Brown’s rookie year at face value, because he was playing hurt for most of the season. Nonetheless, he got his feet wet and had some splashy moments — seven touchdowns, and a 7-126-0 smash in the playoff loss to Tennessee.

“Brown’s touchdown count will be especially variable year to year, as he’s a smaller receiver who might see limited red-zone looks. But his upside is enormous; perhaps something close to the peak of DeSean Jackson’s career. Brown is an interesting upside pick as you look to fill your third or fourth receiver spot; he’s currently carrying a reasonable ADP around 90 in Yahoo leagues.”

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Most fans have heard that the Ravens set an NFL record with 3,296 rushing yards. But their efficiency and how far ahead they were of any other NFL team in rush offense is startling. Their 5.5-yard average was 0.5 better than anyone else. They had 188 rushing first downs. No other team had more than 131. They picked up a first down on 31.5 percent of their rushing attempts, almost 4 percent above second place. The Ravens’ 23 20-yard runs were seven better than anyone else, and they tied for the league lead with five 40-yard runs. And the Ravens are adding exciting rookie back J.K. Dobbins to go with Mark Ingram this season.

Have the Ravens done enough to give Lamar Jackson adequate passing targets?

If there’s a spot on the Ravens that’s a little concerning, maybe it’s the pass catchers for Lamar Jackson. Marquise Brown, a 2019 first-round pick, had seven touchdowns on 46 catches as a rookie and looks like a great big-play threat. The passing offense runs through tight end Mark Andrews, who posted a 64-852-10 line last season. Other than them? Nobody on the Ravens roster for 2020 had more than 339 receiving yards last season. If Brown or Andrews went down, it’s hard to figure out who could replicate their production. Willie Snead and Nick Boyle are probably the third and fourth options in the passing game and that’s not comforting. Maybe 2019 third-round pick Miles Boykin or 2020 third-round pick Devin Duvernay will emerge. The Ravens rely on the run game, but they need to pass the ball efficiently too and their receiving corps is pretty thin.

Why couldn’t Lamar Jackson keep going down the Patrick Mahomes path and follow up an MVP season in year two with a Super Bowl MVP his third season? The Ravens went 14-2 and it’s possible their roster is better this season. They’re well-coached, have a remarkable offense, the defense should be in the top five, and on top of it all Justin Tucker is one of the best kickers ever. It’s hard to repeat 14-2, but that’s not the goal anyway. It’s easy to see the Ravens picking up right where they left off and using last year’s playoff loss as motivation to win it all.

It’s a cop out to talk about quarterback injuries in this section. Just about any team would be sunk without its quarterback. It’s probably a little more relevant for a quarterback who has had 147 and 176 rushing attempts the past two seasons. I’ll push back against the notion that Lamar Jackson is more susceptible to injuries than any other skill-position player, but he does put himself in harm’s way more than any other quarterback. I have a hard time believing a relatively healthy Ravens team won’t at least win double-digit games. If you’re waiting for other teams to “figure out” the Ravens offense, it’s not happening. But the offense is virtually unstoppable because of Jackson’s incredible dual-threat skills, and without him they wouldn’t have the same success, or probably anywhere close.

Why are the Ravens ahead of the Chiefs for the No. 1 spot? I think Baltimore is a little more well-rounded. The Chiefs have the better offense but the Ravens have a great offense too, it’s just a different offense than every other team in the NFL. Baltimore’s defense is stacked at all three levels, and they have the edge on the Chiefs there. I also believe motivation matters. The Ravens should feel like they blew a chance at a Super Bowl last season.

“It’s still pretty bitter,” tight end Mark Andrews said at the Pro Bowl, via CBS in Baltimore. “It’s something that’s been in the back of my mind almost every day. It’s definitely something I’m going to use to help drive me… workouts, stuff like that as fuel. I don’t think that one will go away for a long time.”

I’m envisioning a Ravens team that was 14-2 and clearly the NFL’s best last regular season learning from a playoff disappointment and focusing on making it right this season. There’s no reason the Ravens can’t take the next step and win it all.

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