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If Lamar Jackson is still ahead of the curve, Ravens will be hard to stop this season

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NFL: AFC Wild Card-Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Analysts and writers who feel the need to make predictions with total conviction — that their opinions are in fact not opinions but infallible peeks into the future — are not football experts at all, but carnival barkers. Over a century of evidence in American sports alone tells us that as of yet nobody can predict what will happen in the next season or even the next game with any level of consistency that would make a reasonable person look twice. So there are no predictions in these previews of opponents of the 2019 Seattle Seahawks — only my thoughts and within those thoughts, an opinion of what I believe they will most likely look like in the coming year and straightforward updates on changes to the roster and coaching staff. But any team could be turning over 30% of their entire roster or 100% of their coaches and in some cases, a complete changeover in ownership and/or how they plan to run their franchise. That makes things even more volatile when looking ahead, especially with over three months to go until Week 1, but it’s worth a look ahead anyhow. These are my thoughts, some of which will be wrong, but if I didn’t believe my experience in evaluating football things was at least a little bit valuable, I wouldn’t be writing these. Hopefully that experience gives you a clearer picture of what to expect, while also expecting that these pictures could be erased at any moment.

The 2019 Baltimore Ravens

I think “underdog syndrome” has hit most of American football fans. In a poll I ran on Sunday, almost 70% of voters said that the Cleveland Browns were better than the Baltimore Ravens. Are they wrong? Well, if you think that I believe they’re wrong then you didn’t read the intro paragraph. (Probably fair given how long it is and that I post it in every preview.) But if you think the Browns are better than the Ravens and that you are right, then you’re potentially the type of person who judges articles by headlines without reading and movies by watching trailers and nothing more.

Or maybe you’re the type who values a good narrative over facts. It would be a lot more interesting to see Cleveland break a tradition of being awful for 50 years than it would be to see Baltimore — who are of course a piece of Browns’ future that never was meant to be in Cleveland — once again just be a very solid team that consistently has had a say in the AFC playoff races in nearly every season with John Harbaugh.

Since winning the Super Bowl in 2000, their fifth season as a Baltimore franchise, the Ravens have been to the playoffs 11 times in 19 years. Harbaugh helped lead them to the postseason in five of his first six seasons but since their surprising 2012 Super Bowl win, Baltimore has been to the postseason in only two of six opportunities with only one victory. Much of that failure has to fall on the commitment to Joe Flacco, who turned a good postseason run into over $100 million and a six-season run in which he had a rating of 82.3, averaging 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions per year.

The Cincinnati Bengals finally fired Marvin Lewis.

The Browns finally have a quarterback.

The Pittsburgh Steelers parted ways with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

And finally, Flacco is gone from Baltimore. The Ravens turned to Lamar Jackson after their Week 10 Bye and won six of their last seven games, turning from 4-5 into a wild card game against the LA Chargers. Jackson helped make a game of it, throwing two touchdowns in the final seven minutes and driving with under a minute to go and a six-point deficit, but fumbled away hopes of a comeback win. Still, fans were enthralled by the possibility of an NFL offense that could be centered around a quarterback of Jackson’s unique skills and I think we’re all pretty curious ....

Now what?

As hopeful as I am for Jackson, I’m even more worried for him. Not to loosely compare one offense against three others of different times but I’m going to anyway: the 2008 Miami Dolphins, the 2011 Denver Broncos, the 2013 San Francisco 49ers. Wildcat, Tim Tebow, and Colin Kaepernick. They all worked in short bursts one year and were virtually unusable shortly thereafter. Even if Kaepernick deserves a spot somewhere in the league, the pistol offense and Kaepernick’s ability to put up yards and points against most un-elite defenses were all but eliminated.

However, there’s another comparison to be made between Kaepernick and Jackson: Greg Roman.

The Niners offensive coordinator from 2011-2014, Roman has been moved from being Harbaugh’s assistant head coach to offensive coordinator for next season. So Kaep and Jackson will now have the same person running their offenses and it’s certainly possible that Jackson is a better quarterback than Kaepernick. We don’t know that yet but maybe and while his passing was rather awful as a rookie, he was only 21 and getting his first action against real pro defenses. And Baltimore still went 6-1. He also rushed for 556 yards and four touchdowns in those seven games, putting him on a full season pace of 1,271 rushing yards, nine touchdowns on the ground, with 2,546 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, and seven interceptions.

Theoretically, a quarterback who gains 3,800 yards and 20 touchdowns at age 21 or 22 would be a good thing. But can he lead an 80-yard touchdown drive when the team desperately needs it, as most championship teams tend to need? Can he improve his passing? Can any offense hope to succeed in the short or long term with a quarterback who rushes for half as many yards as he passes for? Can that quarterback stay healthy for a necessary amount of time? There are so many questions to a Jackson-led offense, but that’s also kind of what I love about it the most.

What the anti-rushing self-proclaimed “nerds” don’t tend to address is a bit of a logical fallacy for me: how do teams win? It’s not by passing. It’s not by rushing. It’s not by trick plays. It’s not even by defense. It’s not by anything specific, in my opinion. It’s about being innovative. It’s about changing three years before everyone else does. It’s about finding market inefficiencies. It’s about turning left when everyone else assumes you should turn right. The Seattle Seahawks took the NFL by storm in 2012-2014 in large part because they weren’t playing by everyone else’s rules.

Cornerbacks weren’t as big as they are today until Pete Carroll “exposed” that Richard Sherman was always a top-10 draft talent — it’s just that he wasn’t viewed that way by anyone but Seattle because only Carroll saw what Sherman was capable of on a defense because only Carroll, with his history of working with corners that dates back to the mid-70s, presumed to know that Sherman’s size was an advantage as long as he had the proper technique.

I’m just theorizing outloud here, but this could be why the Seahawks are constantly put on the “reaches” list following most drafts. “Why would Carroll think that so-and-so was a first or second round pick?” Well, back in 2010-2012, nobody tended to think once about what Carroll was doing in the draft and so Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Byron Maxwell could be had later on. Then in 2014, you see Stanley Jean-Baptiste (the “next Sherman”) went 58th overall. Does Jean-Baptiste go before the sixth round if he’s in the 2011 draft?

At this point, Carroll and John Schneider are likely more interested in just getting the players who fit their system than they are in always finding a steal (which they still try to do with versatile prospects who could be changing positions, a la Ugo Amadi or Jacob Martin or Tre Flowers) and they certainly couldn’t care less about what others think about what they do and when they do it. That means that sometimes Carroll needs to beat teams to the punch that are trying to beat him to the punch, something that I’m sure has happened quite a few times in the last five years because regardless what useless grades say, I believe the rest of the league highly respects what Seattle does in the draft.

And I also still believe that the rest of the league respects what Carroll does on the field and there are many parallels between the Seahawks and Ravens today.

In those Jackson games from Week 11-17, Baltimore rushed for a league-high 1,607 yards, eight touchdowns, and 5.1 YPC. In second place during that time span was Seattle at 1,190 yards, nine touchdowns, and 4.8 YPC. (In fourth place, the New England Patriots at 952/6/4.7 and in one less game, but tell me again how you know more about football than Carroll and Bill Belichick.)

Going back to what I was saying about “being innovative,” the reason that the Ravens won six of seven games with their only loss coming in overtime against the Kansas City Chiefs — maybe 2018’s best NFL team — is that teams did not always know how to respond. Maybe with a full offseason to prepare, they will and Jackson will be stopped, but perhaps Carroll will be as ready as anyone because he also knows how to throw defenses off with a unique quarterback and a proficient rushing attack at a time when cornerbacks and pass rushers are valued much higher than run-stopping defensive tackles (like Al Woods) and All-Pro linebackers like Bobby Wagner.

The Seahawks faced the LA Rams — #1 in rushing DVOA — twice last season and narrowly lost both games. They weren’t great against Todd Gurley and company, but not as awful as the Cowboys, Broncos, and Cardinals were. The Carolina Panthers were second in rushing DVOA and Seattle held them to 75 yards on the ground in a pivotal midseason win that put the Seahawks squarely in front of the wild card hunt. Seattle also faced the teams ranked third (GB), fourth (KC), fifth (DEN), and seventh (LAC) in rushing DVOA, while they themselves were sixth.

So you could say that it was a rather brutal schedule of rushing offenses, which also means they were likely focusing on an improved rush defense when they drafted LJ Collier, traded Frank Clark, signed Woods, and I’m sure we’ll see more of that picture come into focus once training camp gets here. Getting more Poona Ford and possibly Mychal Kendricks, should he be available, could also line up with putting a stop on players like Jackson and the rest of the Baltimore rushing offense.

They most likely won’t face a single other team like the Ravens because there really isn’t a single other team like the Ravens, and I do not see why that’s necessarily a bad thing. Harbaugh has his most unique offense yet and given how awful they were trying to run a more traditional passing attack with the wholly underqualified Flacco, this might be the most dangerous Baltimore team yet. That doesn’t mean I’m betting against Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham, Jr., Myles Garrett, and Denzel Ward, it just means that there is more to a football team than just the quarterback.

And we don’t know yet how good or bad of a quarterback either of these players really are quite yet. We can however look at the other 52-ish players and coaches.

———

Speaking of rushing, the New Orleans Saints were also a top-10 rushing team in 2018 and two-time Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram is now in Baltimore too. He joins Jackson, Gus Edwards (654 yards and 5.3 YPC from Week 11 on), Kenneth Dixon (5.6 YPC), and fourth round pick Justice Hill; Alex Collins was waived in March following an arrest in which a car crash, marijuana, and a handgun were allegedly involved.

They play behind an offensive line of Ronnie Stanley, Alex Lewis/James Hurst/Ben Powers, Matt Skura, Marshal Yanda, and Orlando Brown. Ravens fans would like to see the rookie fourth rounder Powers win the job at left guard, and center isn’t totally solidified, but Stanley, Yanda, and Brown could be among the best at their current positions. Overall, if we’re just comparing the Ravens to the Browns, I think this is a much better bet at offensive line than what Cleveland has. They’re also specifically tuned to blocking for the ground attack and perhaps that does give them somewhat of an advantage, at least when the team is leading.

What about the receiving groups when they aren’t?

Michael Crabtree remains a free agent and Baltimore seems content with Willie Snead as the lone veteran receiver who seems likely to return and make the final roster. Snead had 658 yards and one touchdown, with 253 yards over the final eight games, including the wild card loss; there’s simply no way to avoid this thought but the Ravens might not have a player who eclipses 600 receiving yards next season. That does not seem to be something they’re worried about right now. The rest of the receivers includes six rookies, four of whom are undrafted free agents, and a few veterans who’ve been floating around.

First round pick Marquise Brown will have all the attention from fans and cornerbacks but as a rookie in a unique run-first system, I’m not expecting much in 2019. They next picked up Miles Boykin in round three, a 6’4, 220 lb receiver out of Notre Dame. Seth Roberts has consistently been around 450 yards in the last four seasons with the Oakland Raiders. Chris Moore was a fourth round pick in 2016 and still sticking around for now. It might be a waste of time (for now) to talk about the rest of the receivers.

At tight end, 2018 first rounder Hayden Hurst dealt with a foot injury last August that plagued him throughout his rookie season. He still has great potential ahead, one could assume, but fellow 2018 rookie Mark Andrews helped make up for the loss by accumulating 34 catches and 552 yards. Andrews may have been Jackson’s best target in the stretch run, catching 13 of 20 targets for a passer rating of 125 and 15 yards per attempt. Andrews, Hurst, and Nick Boyle — a potentially elite blocking tight end — could on the down-low be the AFC’s best tight end group.

Again, I’d ask for a closer comparison between Baltimore and Cleveland that goes beyond just asking if Baker Mayfield is a better passer than Lamar Jackson. We can safely say that he is. Is he a better quarterback? Probably. Mayfield looks amazing. But what about the 10+ players around them? We know that Beckham and Jarvis Landry are an exciting 1-2 at receiver but the Ravens have really interesting pieces at offensive line, tight end, and running back, and those are also the positions they emphasize over receiver and quarterback.

You can disagree with the strategy but you can’t say that the Ravens aren’t doing their best to execute it.

Defensively, I would be hesitant to bet any team over Baltimore given their 20-year history of being consistently good-to-great on that side of the ball, let alone the Browns — even if I do think that Cleveland has an advantage on the defensive line.

———

It’s not as though Baltimore has a bad defensive line, though. Running a 3-4 under Don Martindale (second season as DC, eighth season under Harbaugh), the Ravens feature maybe the league’s best run-stuffer in Brandon Williams. They were sixth against the run last season by DVOA, third against the pass, and third overall. Baltimore was third in YPC allowed and second in net yards/pass attempt allowed. Yes, this defense was elite.

What people might point to though is the loss of sacks — something else that Seattle is also facing right now — among other defensive stars of note.

Za’Darius Smith took 8.5 sacks to Green Bay; Terrell Suggs took 7 sacks to Arizona; C.J. Mosley raised Wagner’s price tag as the four-time Pro Bowl linebacker went to the Jets; Eric Weddle, who went to three Pro Bowls in three years with the Ravens, went to the Rams. The cupboard is not bare though.

Next to Williams will be 2017 third rounders Chris Wormley and Tim Williams, free agent/former Raven Pernell McPhee, rookie third rounder Jaylon Ferguson, and fifth rounder Daylon Mack.

The linebackers group has some changes to adjust to and in place of Mosley, Smith will be 2018 fourth rounder Kenny Young, Matt Judon, who has 15 sacks over the last two years, Patrick Onwuasor, who had 5.5 sacks and 12 QB hits last season, disappointing former second rounder Tyus Bowser, and former Denver linebacker Shane Ray, who the Seahawks considered this offseason as well. Versatile safety/linebacker Anthony Levine could also get additional snaps in the middle of the defense.

It doesn’t appear to be a strength, but as with Carroll and defensive backs, you can expect Harbaugh to get the most out of these players based on his career history with linebackers. The secondary appears to be Baltimore’s strength however and you know a lot about at least one of the reasons for that.

The second-ever draft pick by Carroll and Schneider, Earl Thomas leaves behind nine seasons in Seattle to replace Weddle at free safety for the Ravens. He missed 12 games last season after breaking his leg for the second time, but prior to that Thomas still looked like the NFL’s best free safety. There is no reason for me to believe that he won’t be at 100% going into Week 1 and that he won’t be just as much at risk for injury as any other player always is; at 30, Thomas should be able to play at least 2-3 more years at a high level given what we’ve seen from other elite safeties in the past. The important thing in this case is that I don’t expect Thomas to not be Earl Thomas when the two teams face each other in Week 7.

Can you believe that it’s 3,000 words into this article before I mentioned when the game is?

Weddle is great. But Thomas is better.

Strong safety Tony Jefferson is not Kam, but he’s been a solid player for the last three years. There’s also some buzz around DeShon Elliott, who missed all of 2018. At corner, Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey want to be in the conversation for the best starting duo in the league, while Tavon Young at nickel could make it an even stronger argument that the Ravens have the best starting-three. Behind them are veteran Brandon Carr, who could start for many teams, fourth round pick Iman Marshall, and speak of the Baptist — Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

Talk all you want about Mayfield, Odell, and Garrett, which I agree is an amazing 1-2-3 on a roster, but what about the Ravens being in the conversation for the best secondary in the NFL? Thomas, Jefferson, Smith, Humphrey, and Young is something that Carroll isn’t just potentially jealous of, it might even remind him of the secondaries he tries to build himself, if the signing of Thomas and the commitment to Young as a slot corner (three-year, $25 million extension) didn’t make that obvious enough.

A secondary that strong should give McPhee, Wormley, Judon, and others a greater chance to get to the quarterback, while Williams and some of the players behind him have a history of getting after the run. When you combine that with a rush-first offense, it’s pretty clear that just like the Seahawks, the Ravens have a plan to beat you like it’s 1969. (Not sure if it merits mention or not, but with Justin Tucker making a case as a Hall of Fame kicker, punter Sam Koch going into his 14th season with the team, and Harbaugh coming from a background on this side of the ball, special teams figures to be at least above-average again.)

If their opponents don’t have a definitive answer for Jackson — which I totally admit that they might, as I outlined in my previous examples similar to what Baltimore did — then I think I could make a very good case for the Ravens being the best team in the AFC and having a legitimate chance at winning the Super Bowl. While the Rams came from 4-12 to winning the difficult NFC West in each of the last two years and getting to the Super Bowl, I file that away as an exception, not the rule. Freddie Kitchens has so much left to accomplish in the league, such as ... being a head coach for the first time ever. Or Mayfield starting in September for the first time ever. Or Odell playing with the Browns for the first time ever.

Comparatively, Harbaugh’s got more playoff wins himself than Cleveland’s had in the last 68 years. Yes, 68 years. They might have three Pro Bowl players on the offensive line. They could have the NFL’s best tight ends and secondary. They could be the best special teams unit in the league ... again. They’ve got coaching. They’ve got experience. And they could finally have a distinct advantage over the Steelers. I expect Baltimore to be a very good team with at least a few players who could make a name for themselves for the first time (Marquise Brown, Orlando Brown, Hurst, Andrews, Tavon Young, Ferguson, Tim Williams, Judon, Levine) in 2019.

Luckily for the Seahawks, this game comes in Seattle. It’s an afternoon game on October 20 and while the focus will be on Earl’s return in another uniform, this is about two similar teams trying to out-rush and out-defense the other. Since the Seahawks have an advantage in stadium and quarterback, I like their chances. And because they’ve had to focus on how to better stop the run, they might be even more ready to stop Jackson, Ingram, and everyone else than they would’ve been a year ago. That means that the Ravens will also be more suited to stop Chris Carson, Russell Wilson, and Rashaad Penny, but I trust Wilson to throw Seattle to victory much more than I expect Jackson to do so for Baltimore.

That being said, I think this is the best team in the AFC North and maybe the AFC. And no, they aren’t passing the football, so settle that among yourselves.

Poll

Who is the best team in the AFC North?

This poll is closed

  • 81%
    Ravens
    (798 votes)
  • 4%
    Steelers
    (41 votes)
  • 6%
    Browns
    (62 votes)
  • 8%
    Seriously?
    (83 votes)
984 votes total Vote Now