Tanking and rebuilding are becoming an overtly obvious trend in the NFL. Like in all pro sports, trying to fall to the bottom of your respective league in order to contend in the future is showing itself more than ever. It’s as if you have to fail upward to become relevant with teams even being rewarded by pundits for losing properly. For the 2019 Baltimore Ravens, that clearly isn’t the case.
The team somewhat bucked that trend of tanking in order to become the team they look like in 2019. Despite coming off an AFC North title in 2018, the team has quietly been completely reshaped over the past two seasons. All the while they had appeared to be in win-now mode. There have been a ton of personnel changes almost at every rank in the Ravens organization but the results have remained consistent and could also be on the uptick.
The Ravens moved to 2-0 on the new NFL season with an imperfect 23-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals this past Sunday, and it’s becoming evident that this current Ravens team looks very different to the ones led by Joe Flacco. Behind a completely new offense and the explosive Lamar Jackson, the Ravens are not a team built like the rest of the league. They utilize the run and feature an electric offense behind a still stingy defense.
In 2019, Baltimore’s rebuild is showing itself and the Ravens look like a powerhouse in the making.
The 2019 Baltimore Ravens Quietly Rebuilt Behind the NFL’s Back
The New Look 2019 Baltimore Ravens
When people think of the Ravens, they think smash-mouth running mixed with a stingy defense. That somewhat holds true with respect to the 2019 Baltimore Ravens. The team has made a commitment to running the ball but it is clear that they also understand that you need to score a lot in today’s NFL.
The game plan is basically, run at their opponents until they wear out but if you try and come up, throw it over the top. The deep threat role has been played very well by rookie Marquise Brown and has been complemented in the intermediate by the Ravens’ group of tight ends. Jackson has made clear improvements to his throwing game and they are very necessary. He is making far more reads from inside the pocket this season as opposed to his first.
Lamar Jackson is the first player with at least 250 passing yards and 120 rushing yards in a single game in NFL history 🤯 #SCFacts
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 16, 2019
Another of the key contributors to this new offense has been new offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Roman is known for his work with the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers in Colin Kaepernick‘s most successful season. Not once in his six years between these franchises did he have an offense rank outside the top-10 in rushing. His system is one that suits Jackson and his supporting cast well but will also hopefully bring some stability to a coaching position that seems to be ever-changing. Roman is the fifth offensive coordinator to be hired in Baltimore since 2012.
Coach John Harbaugh has also been upfront about creating a “revolutionary” offense around Jackson. Earlier in the year, he agreed with former Ravens head coach Brian Billick when he said that the he “expects the Ravens’ offense to look unlike any ever seen before in the NFL” per Pro Football Talk. Baltimore is simply all in on Jackson and making the most dynamic team they can around him.
Unsung Hero of the Defense
Though the Ravens head coach is entering his 12th season with the team, it’s important to note Baltimore’s significant change at defensive coordinator. The door at offensive coordinator has always been revolving, but the Ravens replacing a defensive coordinator is far rarer. Dean Pees was the Ravens defensive coordinator for six seasons, dating back to their Super Bowl XLVII victory, and retired from the Ravens organization following the 2017 season. Replacing Pees was their current defensive coordinator Don Martindale.
It’s possible to argue that Martindale is just as responsible for the Ravens excellent defense as the great players they’ve brought in over the years. His scheme has opened up easy pass-rushing lanes for a number of players and continually shows looks that keep opposing quarterbacks guessing where pressure is coming from. It is also largely in the hands of the defensive players. When Eric Weddle was a member of the Ravens, he had a lot of power in deciding pressures and coverages on the field and it allowed his team to adapt to what they saw on the field instead of on complex play calls. This now appears to be in the hands of Earl Thomas early in the season.
With so much talent on the back end and an adaptive system, the 2019 Baltimore Ravens defense is still the strongest of their team. After building the NFL’s best yardage defense in 2018, Martindale is looking to improve its turnover margin and pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2019.
Baltimore’s Building Blocks
The foundation of this current Ravens team is almost solely made up of players from the last three drafts.
On offense, Brown looks like the first real number-one wide receiver the Ravens have had since Steve Smith Sr. retired. He has registered the second-most receiving yards by a rookie to begin an NFL career in his first two games. And Brown isn’t the only new member of the passing game. Through two games in 2019, 45 of Jackson’s 60 targets have been attempted to players acquired in the past two drafts.
Marquise Brown's 233 rec yards are the most by a player in his first 2 NFL games since Anquan Boldin had 279 yards in 2003. pic.twitter.com/awRNutccBC
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) September 15, 2019
Perhaps the most impressive member of that group being tight end Mark Andrews. Andrews has 16 catches for 220 yards and two touchdowns to begin the season and became the first Ravens tight end EVER to record back-to-back 100 yard games. That’s something that neither Shannon Sharpe or Todd Heap ever accomplished in their 165 games played between them. Andrews has played 18. For a bonus, he’s the highest-graded offensive player per Pro Football Focus in all of football through two weeks.
On defense, Marlon Humphrey has come a long way from being a surprise pick in 2017. He’s had a bit of a rocky start to 2019 but has looked like a true shutdown corner in the NFL over his first two years of play. Upping his passes defended in 2018 from his rookie season, Humphrey already as three in 2019, on pace to once again increase his total. He is also showing he has the speed to get into the backfield and make tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Corner perhaps the most important position in today’s NFL defenses and the Ravens have an elite one in Humphrey.
Never Appearing Weak
If you were to ask the majority of people around the NFL if the Ravens have ever ‘rebuilt’ by the strictest definition, most would say ‘not since their inaugural season’. The Ravens have remained a consistent playoff contender throughout their 24-year history largely based on being able to build properly around their stars. They’ve only finished a season with a losing record four times since the turn of the century.
The current Ravens began to assemble after a 2016 season in which they looked like they had hit a ceiling with their current core of players.
Despite being competitive that season, something seemed a bit different about the Ravens off-season in 2017. They were coming off of a good but not great defensive season but decided to basically only address the defensive side of the ball despite being the league’s 27th-ranked offense. This started with the free-agent signing of safety Tony Jefferson and the resigning of defensive tackle Brandon Williams and continued with the Ravens not picking an offensive player in the 2017 draft until the fourth round. An interesting plan for a team who so clearly needed offensive game-changers.
But these moves weren’t made for the 2017 season — they were made for winning down the road. Maybe I’m giving Ozzie Newsome a bit too much credit but he assembled a stout defense just one season before drafting a new quarterback. And this had happened before. In a similar situation, when the Ravens drafted Flacco in 2008, they sent five players to the Pro Bowl; a fullback and four defenders. The Ravens know that the way they win games is through their defense. Then in 2018, they went all-in on offense; drafting four players on offense in the first three rounds.
DeCosta Isn’t Done Yet
During Eric DeCosta‘s first season as Ravens general manager, he let a lot of cornerstone players walk in free agency and it caught a lot of people by surprise. Perhaps the most shocking being middle linebacker and former 17th overall pick C.J. Mosley. Terrell Suggs was also a surprising loss but not because of his ability, rather, what he meant to the Ravens organization.
Mosley stepped into Ray Lewis‘ role as captain of the defense at an early time in his career and passed most tests with flying colors. He may even end up in the Hall of Fame as a Raven one day. However, DeCosta just simply wasn’t able to rationalize paying him the $18 million per year contract he was handed by the New York Jets.
The benefits of letting an annual Pro Bowler walk? Cap space. Baltimore was consistently trying to flex their way under the cap with Flacco’s $20 million hit and it limited the team following the 2012-13 season. Now with Jackson, the Ravens have their franchise quarterback on a rookie deal and will have approximately $68 million and change to work with in 2020. This gives the Ravens the option to finally attack NFL free agency while still having their youthful core tied down to affordable contracts. The Ravens also have a ton of draft capital. Letting players like Mosley go always gives Baltimore valuable compensatory picks and 2020 is no different. DeCosta is projected to have 10 picks in the upcoming draft — including potentially six in the first four rounds.
Ravens updated 2020 draft picks:
Their own 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th rounders. Extra 4th from NE (Eluemunor), 5th from Vikes (Vedvik) and conditional 7th from Jets (Lewis). Projected 3rd and 4th-round comp picks. Traded their own 6th to NE (Eluemunor) and 7th to GB (Montgomery)
— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiec) August 29, 2019
With all the wiggle room the Ravens have, they are poised to improve even further after the 2019 season is over.
The Future is Very Bright
To demonstrate how far the Ravens have come in just two years, ESPN’s Jamison Hensley published an article titled “Ravens’ free fall: Fire John Harbaugh? Start Lamar Jackson?” just 10 months ago. Even I was one of the skeptics when Baltimore was sitting at 4-5 coming off a loss to the Steelers and falling 2.5 games (as of November 8th) back of the division lead. Since that ‘free fall’ around November 5th, 2018, the Ravens are 8-2 with just one regular-season loss.
Only two games into the regular season, it’s hard to call the 2019 Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl contenders, especially considering their competition thus far, but they look like they are just around the corner. Not only, just for this season, but likely over the next four with Jackson coming at a very affordable price.
The Ravens have done so much under the radar over the past two years and the results are beginning to show themselves in 2019. The new era in Baltimore is here and could be very special. BELEE DAT!