2022 NFL Preview: Don't underestimate Ravens after their historically unlucky season

In the Baltimore Ravens' 2021 preseason finale, running back J.K. Dobbins tore his ACL after catching a screen pass. It was a blow for a run-heavy team, but injuries happen in the NFL.

The Ravens didn't know that injury would start an unprecedented string of bad luck that would ruin their season.

When cornerback Marcus Peters and running back Gus Edwards both tore ACLs a few plays apart in a practice on Sept. 9, the jinx was set. By the end of the season, 25 Ravens were on injured reserve. Football Outsiders has been tracking adjusted games lost due to injury since 2001, and the 2021 Ravens broke the record with 191.2 games lost. The previous record was 171.6. The Ravens' prorated mark for a 16-game season would have set the record, too.

The Ravens weren't just unlucky when it came to injuries. They were the unluckiest team we've seen for at least two decades. By a significant margin, too.

And despite all of the personnel losses, the Ravens were a contender at midseason and would have been in the playoffs if not for another run of bad luck, this one in close games.

The Ravens lost their final six games to finish 8-9. Their losing margin in five of those games: 1, 2, 1, 1, 3. To lose all five of those games is incredibly unlucky. They outgained their opponent in four of those five close losses, despite being severely depleted. The Ravens didn't have former MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson for all or most of five of their final six games, and they still were barely losing. Five of the final six losses came against 2021 playoff teams including the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams, who would meet in the Super Bowl.

If you looked only at the standings, 8-9 was disappointing for the Ravens. It was John Harbaugh's second losing season since taking the job in 2008. But with some context, it was actually a pretty remarkable season for Baltimore, who had no business being close to .500 after a record-setting run of injuries. It spoke to how good the Ravens' organization is.

That bad injury luck won't follow them for a second straight season. There's no guarantee all those injured players return good as new — for example, there's already a debate over when Dobbins will be ready to return by Week 1 — but theoretically the Ravens will be whole again. And they will be pretty good, because they always are.

The issue with the Ravens lately has become the lack of a playoff run. It speaks to the bar the Ravens have set that it seems they've been underachieving by not making a Super Bowl since the 2012 season. They're 2-4 in the playoffs since then, with both wins coming in the wild-card round. There's a lot of random variance involved in that, though Jackson's critics will tell you Baltimore can't win with an offense and quarterback that is unlike any other in the NFL.

Lamar Jackson is looking to lead the Ravens back to the playoffs. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Lamar Jackson is looking to lead the Ravens back to the playoffs. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Jackson is unique. The Ravens, being a smart organization, have fully embraced that. Jackson wasn't at his best last season, as he threw a career-high 13 interceptions. Yet, his pace before suffering what ended up being a season-ending ankle injury was 4,428 passing yards and 1,178 rushing yards. If that's a down year, the Ravens will be OK. For whatever reason, Jackson's greatness has been understated this offseason, but he's still one of the most electrifying players in the NFL and can easily have another MVP season at age 25. And Baltimore can win a Super Bowl with him.

The Ravens had a hard season in 2021. Their defense added to the secondary and should be just fine with all those injured players returning. Baltimore traded receiver Marquise Brown to the Arizona Cardinals for a first-round pick, which was a very good return but also leaves the Ravens thin in the passing game. But tight end Mark Andrews is coming off a monster season, 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman could be ready to shine and Baltimore wants to run it down your throat anyway.

The Ravens will be right back in Super Bowl contention this season. They just need a little better luck.

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

The Ravens are a smart organization and they see the rising value in having versatile, elite safeties in an evolving league. They double-tapped at safety, signing Marcus Williams from the New Orleans Saints on a five-year, $70 million deal, then taking Notre Dame's Kyle Hamilton at a fantastic value with the 14th overall pick of the draft. Some thought Hamilton was the best player in the 2022 draft class. The Ravens crushed the draft. Baltimore and the New York Jets got the two best consensus draft grades among analysts. Their other top-100 picks, center Tyler Linderbaum, edge defender David Ojabo and defensive tackle Travis Jones, were all good values. Ojabo is coming off an Achilles injury and might not be much of a factor this season, but he was a projected first-round pick before the injury. Trading receiver Marquise Brown hurts receiver depth but the Ravens couldn't pass up getting a first-round pick for him. Their other free-agent investment was offensive tackle Morgan Moses, who steps right in as a starter on a good line. The Ravens' only addition to help the pass rush right away was Justin Houston, who is 33 and coming off a 4.5-sack season. That might haunt them. It was also a bit surprising they didn't add at receiver, though maybe that happens in the next few weeks. Overall it was a quality offseason.

GRADE: A-minus

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphic by Amber Matsumoto)

Lamar Jackson didn't have his best season in 2021 but did have perhaps his best passing game, a 442-yard, four-touchdown masterpiece in a Week 5 comeback win over the Indianapolis Colts. He's still one of the best players in the NFL, and at age 25 he should still be peaking. What's hanging over Jackson and the Ravens is the lack of a contract extension. There haven't been many reported details on how the negotiations are going, just reminders that a deal is not done. Jackson's style of play could be a concern for the Ravens. Jackson isn't likely to have a long career like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. He's more likely to age like Cam Newton, given how often he runs. But he's clearly worth a superstar QB contract while he's in his prime. Jackson is a unique player and that makes contract negotiations unique as well. Another complicating factor is that Jackson doesn't have an agent. The Ravens still have the franchise tag available in 2023 if nothing gets done, though that could lead to acrimony and a holdout. It's also possible Jackson has a "hold in," and doesn't practice without a new deal. It's a storyline worth watching as the season gets closer.

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

Earlier this offseason, you could get the Ravens at better than 2-to-1 odds to win the AFC North. That has corrected and the Ravens are +150 to win the division at BetMGM. I still think that's a fine play. The over on the Ravens' win total of 9.5 has hefty -160 odds, but I think Baltimore finishes with 10 or more wins if you don't mind laying that juice. It's also fairly shocking that Lamar Jackson, who is close to a lock to put up a 4,000-yard passing and 1,000-yard rushing season if he stays healthy, is +2000 to win NFL MVP. There should not be nine players ahead of him in the MVP odds. I also have no problem with a bet on the Ravens at +2000 to win the Super Bowl. When it comes to the 2022 Ravens, I'm investing.

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

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "The price is rising on Rashod Bateman, Baltimore's second-year receiver. His current Yahoo ADP is around 84, but he checks in as a Top 65 pick if you examine NFFC drafts from this month. Baltimore cleared out its receiver room for Bateman, and the depth behind him is thin.

"Bateman's rookie year looks better when you consider that he missed the first five games due to injury. He posted three games with more than 80 yards and had a couple of seven-catch starts. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, he offers an imposing target and a wide catch radius. Baltimore's personnel movement tells you it expects Bateman to have a second-year spike.

"I am reluctant to pay up for Bateman if the ADP continues with the NFFC trend, but if you can land him around the current Yahoo tag, you've done well. This arrow is definitely pointing upward."

[Set, hut, hike! Create or join a fantasy football league now!]

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

The Ravens defense was bad last season. They were tied for last in yards per run allowed and 27th in passer rating allowed, so they didn't defend the run or pass very well. The Ravens finished 19th in points allowed and 25th in yards allowed, which is well off their norm. They finished outside of the top 12 in points allowed just once since 2007. They had finished outside of the top 12 in yards allowed once since 2002. Let's go ahead and assume injuries wrecked the Ravens defense and they'll bounce back, because the track record is strong. They have a new coordinator, Mike Macdonald, who can add some new ideas after a year away running the defense at the University of Michigan under John Harbaugh's brother, Jim. Also, a secondary with safeties Marcus Williams and rookie Kyle Hamilton with cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters should be among the NFL's best. If there's one reason to believe they won't bounce back to being a top-12 defense, it's the lack of a pass rush. Tyus Bowser is the best pass rusher, and he tore his Achilles in the season finale. Rookie David Ojabo is coming off a torn Achilles in mid-March. Justin Houston, resigned in July, is 33 years old. There's no player on the roster you'd count on for 10 sacks.

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

Which wide receiver will emerge?

Tight end Mark Andrews is coming off a great 1,361-yard season. But Baltimore will presumably need some wide receivers to step up, even in their run-heavy offense. Rashod Bateman, a 2021 first-round pick, takes over the No. 1 role with his career totals of 465 catches, 515 yards and one touchdown. Devin Duvernay (53-473-2 through two seasons) and James Proche (17-216-0 through two seasons) are next on the depth chart. The Ravens don't need a bunch of receiving threats like most teams, but this situation is pushing it. If Bateman doesn't play up to his draft pedigree, the Ravens could really be in trouble. They seem like a clear candidate to add an unsigned veteran wide receiver to help.

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

People enjoy criticizing Lamar Jackson, but he's a transcendent player. He was an unanimous MVP in 2019 and he can reach that level again. This is a team that wants to build a creative offense around the run game, which is a throwback but it works. Baltimore is 37-12 in Jackson's starts. An offensive line that should be among the best in the league will pave the way for Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and the running game. If Mark Andrews stays healthy and Rashod Bateman emerges, the passing game will be good enough. The defense might have the best secondary in the league and be a lot better against the run too. We could look back and realize that 8-9 last season, with all the bad injury luck and those five losses by a combined eight points late, was actually pretty impressive and a reason to believe in a quick rebound. The Ravens' ceiling is a Super Bowl. It will be as long as Jackson is in his prime.

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

Just because players return from injuries doesn't mean they'll recapture their old form. What if key players like cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, edge rusher Tyus Bowser, offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards don't come all the way back? There's also the Lamar Jackson contract issue, which could affect the quarterback's play or at very least cause a distraction. The Ravens can't have anything go wrong among Jackson's pass catchers. An injury to Mark Andrews or Rashod Bateman not playing anywhere near a No. 1 receiver could severely affect Baltimore's ability to pass the ball. And while the defense should be good, especially in the secondary, it's hard to be a top-end defense if you can't rush the quarterback. The Ravens are a rock-solid organization and they always find a way, but there are legitimate areas of concern.

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

I have blind faith in John Harbaugh, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens' history. This is a team that is among the NFL's best year after year. The Ravens were contenders early last season. Baltimore was 8-3 before finally collapsing under the weight of numerous injuries, including one to Jackson. I feel confident picking the Ravens to win the AFC North. I also believe Jackson has a much better chance to win MVP than the odds say. I'm not sure the Ravens are going to win a Super Bowl (though the odds on that are good, too) but not because of some nonsense about how Jackson can't win in the postseason. It's because the AFC is really tough. No matter what, you can safely bank on the Ravens being back among the NFL's best teams again.

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

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