It’s that time of year, when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today, it’s the Baltimore Ravens, who lost their wild-card matchup at home against the Los Angeles Chargers.
What Went Right
The Ravens found a post-Flacco future in first-round pick Lamar Jackson. Entering the Week 10 bye, Joe Flacco’s 379 pass attempts led the NFL. Since Week 11, when Jackson assumed the starting role, the Ravens attempted just 158 passes but led the league in rushing attempts and rushing yards. In the stretch since then, the team went from 4-5 to 10-6 and climbed from third in the AFC North to first. Jackson wasn’t asked to do much as a passer, but the Ravens’ midseason pivot to the most run-heavy attack in football successfully flustered defenses. With an entire offseason for the Ravens coaching staff to build around Jackson, he should continue to grow after achieving such success on the fly.
Credit also goes to Baltimore’s offensive line, which had the highest success rate in the league (78 percent) in “power” situations, which Football Outsiders defines as run plays on third-and-1, third-and-2, fourth-and-1, or fourth-and-2. The Ravens achieved “success” (a first down or touchdown) on 78 percent on those plays, while more celebrated lines like Cleveland, New England, and Indianapolis ranked 32nd, 29th, and 28th, respectively.
The Ravens finished third in defensive DVOA, first in yards, second in points allowed per game, second in yards per play, second in first downs, second in net yards per attempt, second in percent of drives ending in a score, second in points per drive, third in rushing yards per attempt, and third in third-down percentage. Baltimore held its opponents to an average of 13.1 points in 10 wins. And while the Ravens didn’t earn even half of the turnovers that league-leading Chicago did, it’s even more impressive that Baltimore came close to matching the Bears’ defensive output without as many drive-ending turnovers. Baltimore’s defense didn’t make as many headlines as Jacksonville did last year or Chicago did this year, but next season, it might be even better than both of those units.
What Went Wrong
If you told Ravens fans in Week 10 that they would knock the Steelers out of the playoffs after Lamar Jackson usurped Joe Flacco as the starter and led the team on a 6-1 run that won the NFC North and got John Harbaugh a contract extension, they would have stopped you at “knock the Steelers out of the playoffs” and called this season a success. This first-round defeat is a disappointment, but only because the Ravens have come so far so quickly.
The Ravens will have more than $35 million in cap space this offseason, which is around the league median. That figure will shoot up by more than $10 million if the team releases Flacco, who is set for an average cap hit north of $25 million annually for the next three years. Considering how different the offense has looked with Jackson at quarterback, Flacco is poorly suited as Jackson’s backup, regardless of the cost. Robert Griffin III, the other Heisman-winning first-round quarterback on the roster, would make more sense as Jackson’s primary backup in 2019 if the team re-signs him.
Linebackers Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley are both free agents. Suggs, 36, is Baltimore’s all-time sack leader (132.5, a casual 62.5 more than second place); he’ll likely be able to stay in Baltimore as long as he wants to keep playing. Mosley is more important to the Ravens’ elite defense, and at 26 years old it might be tough to keep him if another team is willing to shell out for a top linebacker in the prime of his career. Linebacker Za’Darius Smith, who played two-thirds of Baltimore’s snaps in 2018, is also a free agent, along with emerging linebacker Patrick Onwuasor and defensive tackle Michael Pierce.
Every running back on the roster besides Kenneth Dixon is a free agent. Undrafted rookie Gus “the Bus” Edwards has shown an excellent ability to play with Jackson and is the most likely to stay alongside Dixon. The Ravens can fill a third running back spot with a rookie, but they’ll also have to handle the potential departure of receiver John Brown, who signed a one-year deal with Baltimore in March. With Flacco, Brown averaged nearly four catches and 67 yards per game. With Jackson, he’s averaged roughly one catch for 16 yards per game. Brown may decide his services are best used elsewhere in 2019. Center Matt Skura, the only Raven to play every offensive snap in 2018, is also a free agent. Skura was the 25th-graded center this season according to PFF.
General manager Ozzie Newsome, the first black GM in NFL history and the only head decision-maker in Ravens history, is retiring this season after two Super Bowls and exactly 200 regular-season wins.
For Ozzie. #RavensFlock pic.twitter.com/sZJqTIcBHJ— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) December 31, 2018
Replacing Newsome is his lieutenant Eric DeCosta (yes, bad teams across the NFL, you can plan these things ahead of time). It remains to be seen how closely DeCosta will follow Newsome’s model, which was defined by avoiding splashy free-agency signings and hoarding compensatory and mid-round draft picks. (In the past seven years, Baltimore has made 28 selections in the third and fourth round combined, essentially doubling its allotment.) Considering DeCosta has been assistant GM for six years while learning under Newsome, the Ravens are likely in good hands.
The biggest decision the Ravens will have to make isn’t about a player, but a coach. Multiple teams are reportedly interested in trading for head coach John Harbaugh. Considering Baltimore’s love of draft capital, it’s probably waiting to hear what picks it could add for April’s draft. It would be quite the move to begin DeCosta’s tenure.