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2021 NFL Preview: Ravens are always good, and need to get a Super Bowl with Lamar Jackson

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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 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

If it weren't for the New England Patriots, we'd talk more about the outstanding consistency of the Baltimore Ravens

Since the Ravens hired John Harbaugh in 2008, Baltimore has had one losing season. That is nearly impossible in the parity world of the NFL. The defense has finished in the top 12 in either points allowed or yards allowed every season under Harbaugh. The Ravens have also won just one Super Bowl with Harbaugh. Many franchises would be thrilled with one Super Bowl in the past decade. Yet, given how good the Ravens have been for 13 seasons, it feels a little light. That's the Patriots effect too. Baltimore might be Patrick Ewing's Knicks, who were shorted a few titles due to the misfortune of being in the same era as Michael Jordan's Bulls. 

The Ravens entered a new era and opened up another championship window with an inspired draft pick. The Ravens moved up and took Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson with the final pick of the first round in Ozzie Newsome's last draft. Jackson has been phenomenal, rewriting NFL records for a dual-threat quarterback, winning an MVP with a unanimous vote and helping the Ravens to a 30-7 record in his starts. 

If we could better project Jackson's career, maybe there would be more patience over the Ravens' 1-3 record in the playoffs the past three seasons. We've never seen anyone like Jackson, and that applies to his longevity too. When you look up rushing attempts for a quarterback in a season through NFL history, Jackson holds each of the top three spots. He has played three seasons. Jackson isn't exactly built like Cam Newton, who seemed to hit the wall once he turned 30. 

If we were talking about a former MVP quarterback who wasn't averaging 160.7 rushing attempts per season, a contract extension and another decade (or more) of success would be the expectation. The extension should come, but it's more risky than similar second contracts for quarterbacks. 

Jackson is different. That's part of what has made him great. It's also a reason plenty of people are waiting on him to fail (though, fairly, Jackson has plenty of supporters too). The NFL establishment shuns practically anything different ... until it works and then everyone copies it. Outsiders with new ideas aren't embraced. That's why you see the same old coaches get hired over and over, even though there's little realistic expectation of success. The NFL takes comfort in old, often outdated, ideas. Jackson doesn't fit in with that. 

Jackson is a fantastic player who beats teams with his phenomenal movement and being an effective passer. Jackson will never be Drew Brees when it comes to accuracy. He probably will never be a master at working the perimeter with outside passes. But a career 102.6 passer rating isn't exactly a detriment. Critics focus on what he can't do. He clearly does enough for the Ravens to win a lot of games. 

What Jackson has in common with any other successful quarterback is that he'll be downgraded until he wins a Super Bowl. Memories of Jackson struggling in playoff losses to the Los Angeles Chargers (2018), Tennessee Titans (2019) and Buffalo Bills (2020) fuel the idea that an unconventional offense can't win big. Never mind that the Ravens have won 81 percent of their regular-season games Jackson has started. 

We don't know how many years Jackson has. He won't be John Elway, winning his first Super Bowl at age 37. That feels like an easy bet. But will he be done as an effective quarterback by age 30? Earlier? We just don't know because there's no fair NFL comparison to Jackson. 

What we do know is the Ravens will be good again. They always are. Personnel losses are the norm and the Ravens are masterful at finding someone else to fill in. They're going to run the ball better than anyone in the NFL, have a top-10 defense and pass the ball well enough (especially with new targets) to win many games. The Ravens are pretty much the house in blackjack: If you sit around waiting for them to lose, you'll be disappointed by the time you leave. 

But another double-digit win season, division title and great season for Jackson won't move the needle. The Ravens are looking to win a Super Bowl. Nobody can be too sure how many more legitimate chances they'll have with Jackson. 

Lamar Jackson has been fantastic in the NFL, but playoff success has eluded him. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Lamar Jackson has been fantastic in the NFL, but playoff success has eluded him. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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The Ravens lost pass rushers Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, and for most teams that would be devastating. Baltimore also traded offensive tackle Orlando Brown, balking at paying him a huge second contract. After a decade of wondering how the Ravens will withstand personnel losses, we need to assume the Ravens will find capable replacements. The Ravens signed guard Kevin Zeitler, who will replace Marshal Yanda who retired after the 2019 season (the Ravens' line felt that loss). They also signed offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Baltimore struck out trying to land a true No. 1 receiver in free agency, but signed Sammy Watkins and drafted Rashod Bateman in the first round. That will help. Defensive end Odafe Oweh, the team's second-round pick, and guard Ben Cleveland, a third-round pick, will boost both lines. 

Grade: C-

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Lamar Jackson took steps back as a passer last season, and that's not great for a third-year quarterback. Then again, regression was inevitable after his unbelievable 2019 season. Jackson's passer rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt fell a bit, while his touchdown passes went from 36 to 26 and his interceptions rose from six to nine. He missed left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who tore his ACL, and the Ravens' pursuit of top receivers in free agency indicates they knew Jackson's pass catchers weren't good enough. Even if Jackson plays to his 2020 levels as a passer, his running more than makes up for it. 

There was a question earlier about when Jackson would get an extension and how much it would be worth. Presumably the Ravens will take care of their quarterback, even with the unique longevity and injury risks involved.

"I'm not worried about that right now. I've still got two more years left on my first [contract]," Jackson said, via the team's website. "I'm worried about getting my Super Bowl here and bringing it back home so we can celebrate that and focus on that.

"I'm focused on winning. If you're not winning, they're not talking about no contract with you. I'm trying to win as much as I can and get us a Super Bowl. That's what I'm focused on." 

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The Ravens' win total at BetMGM is 11, and while I think the over is the better play, it's hard betting on an over that large. What I do like is the Ravens at +115 to win the AFC North. The Cleveland Browns are the buzzy team, but I trust the Ravens' consistent excellence to win out.

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "I’ll be upfront and admit I haven’t picked a lane for J.K. Dobbins yet. I like that he boosted his game in the second half of his rookie year, at one point scoring a touchdown in seven straight weeks (including the first playoff game). Averaging six yards a carry is a feather in his cap, too.

"But the Ravens probably have reasonable limits on how much Dobbins can be used. He never had more than 15 carries in any game, and his touch count never got past 17. Given that he averaged more than 10 yards a catch in his final two Ohio State seasons, it was a mild disappointment to see the Ravens target him just 24 times.

"Baltimore says it would like to throw the ball to Dobbins more, but part of this is a Lamar Jackson issue. Jackson’s long recognized that when any play breaks down, his own legs provide the juiciest bailout solution. Baltimore also likes a meaty secondary role for bowling ball runner Gus Edwards; Dobbins is never going to have this backfield to himself. Dobbins carries a current Yahoo ADP of 24, which I think straddles the line properly; I wouldn’t consider him in the second round, but if he slides into the third round — and I can get him as my second running back — I’ll be open minded."

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It's hard to have a top-end pass defense without a top-end pass rush, but the Ravens did it. Baltimore was very good against the pass, allowing an 87.2 passer rating. That mark was seventh best in the NFL. The Ravens had 39 sacks, 14th most in the NFL. They weren't great at generating consistent pressure. Then in the offseason they lost Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, their top two edge rushers. 

Judon led the team with six sacks, Ngakoue had three. Nobody remaining on the roster had more than four last season. The secondary is fantastic, but the Ravens need some pass rush. Will Tyus Bowser be the latest successful rusher off the Ravens' assembly line? Maybe. They need someone to emerge. 

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Have the Ravens put enough around Lamar Jackson? 

The Ravens' lack of dangerous pass catchers is always going to be a chicken/egg conversation. Are subpar receivers holding Jackson back, or does the Ravens' limited pass offense not allow those receivers to blossom? Either way, there are questions. Marquise Brown, a former first-round draft pick, was supposed to break out last season and he mostly disappointed before a solid finish. Tight end Mark Andrews is a very good target for Jackson, who likes throwing between the hashmarks. Other than that, the third-best receiver on the Ravens was Willie Snead at 432 yards. Fourth place was Miles Boykin at just 266 yards. Maybe Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman will help, but Watkins is inconsistent and injury prone, and Bateman is a rookie. 

There might be questions at running back, too. J.K. Dobbins is a good player but not necessarily on the level of a Dalvin Cook or Nick Chubb, to name two elite runners. He is undeniably boosted by being in the backfield with Jackson, the greatest running quarterback in NFL history. The Ravens have a unique, great quarterback and it seems they're still figuring out ways to build around him. 

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Postseason success is not guaranteed to anyone. The Ravens are great year after year, but a one-and-done playoff tournament — especially when we're talking about a three-year sample size for Baltimore with Lamar Jackson — isn't always going to be fair. The Ravens don't have a fatal flaw that prevents them from winning a Super Bowl. They are not a team built to come from behind and win, but that means avoiding slow starts is paramount for them. The Ravens have enough talent to post the AFC's best record and get the bye. If that happens, they'd cut down on variance and perhaps get to the Super Bowl. And as long as they don't fall behind in the final game, they'd have a good chance to win it all. 

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I don't think anyone has figured out the Ravens' offense because it's not like it has an easy answer. It's a sound offense that relies on creating this math problem: Once the quarterback is a runner, the defense has to account for 11 players and not 10. Yet, coordinators understand what Lamar Jackson does well and what he doesn't. That's a reason Jackson's numbers dipped. The more opponents see Jackson, the better they'll be able to defend him. If the defense slips because it can't find a pass rush, the Ravens could have a challenging season. It's not like the Ravens are going to fall apart and have double-digit losses, but anything other than a division title and a chance for a deep playoff run would be a bad season by their standards. 

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We know what to expect from the Ravens. They'll run the ball really well. They'll play good, sound defense especially in the secondary. They're going to win a lot of games. Another AFC North title is coming, but the big question is what happens in the postseason. I won't be picking the Ravens to win the AFC, and it's not because I don't think they or Lamar Jackson can do it. I just like a couple of other teams in the conference more. That's the brutal part about professional sports. You can be a really, really good team and fall short of a championship. The Ravens know about that.

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys
19. Washington Football Team
18. Arizona Cardinals
17. Minnesota Vikings
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. New Orleans Saints
14. New England Patriots
13. Miami Dolphins
12. Los Angeles Chargers
11. Cleveland Browns
10. Tennessee Titans
9. Seattle Seahawks
8. Green Bay Packers
7. Los Angeles Rams
6. San Francisco 49ers
5. Indianapolis Colts

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