The Baltimore Ravens saw their 2018 season come to an end Sunday in the Wild Card round with a 23-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers at M&T Bank Stadium.
The final score was not indicative of how close the game was as the Chargers dominated the Ravens throughout the game. The Ravens defense kept the game within striking distance as the offense put together arguably the worst performance in NFL playoff history through three and half quarters.
Two garbage time touchdowns from Lamar Jackson to Michael Crabtree made the game close and the Ravens actually had the ball back with a minute to go and a chance to drive down the field and inexplicably win the game. Jackson fumbled on the final possession and the Ravens hit the offseason.
For the first time in 11 years, the offseason begins in Baltimore without Joe Flacco figuring to be a part of the quarterback equation. Flacco is expected to be cut or traded this offseason as the Ravens have officially handed the keys to the offense over to Jackson. Flacco was a class act one again in the locker room following what was likely his final game dressed in a Ravens uniform:
We know Joe won’t be here, but who will? There are more questions than answers as the Ravens hit their first offseason with Eric DeCosta calling the shots as Ozzie Newsome steps down as the team’s general manager.
1) Is John Harbaugh the head coach?
The Ravens came out and announced that Harbaugh would be back as the head coach for the 2019 season prior to their contest with the Chargers in Week 16. They also said that both parties are working towards a contract extension to keep Harbaugh in Baltimore.
So Harbaugh is slated to be back right? Not so fast. Many pundits have stated that while the possibility for a contract extension in Baltimore does exist, it is also possible that could be done to help in facilitating a trade of Harbaugh to a team in need of a new head coach. Harbaugh has one year left on his current deal and that can’t be too reassuring if you are a suitor for Harbaugh’s services.
If the Ravens choose to part ways with Harbaugh, they need to request a king’s ransom. He has been to the playoffs in seven of his 11 seasons in Baltimore. He has often over-achieved with rosters that severely lack difference-making talent.
He took a 4-5 team that lost their starting quarterback at the bye week to a 6-1 record down the stretch and an AFC North crown. Whatever hot shot coaching candidate you might want, ask yourself what would happen if he had a 4-5 record at the bye and had to change starting quarterbacks. Collapse would be imminent.
The Ravens hadn’t been to the playoffs in three years prior to 2018 and many of this year’s players were a part of those teams. There was no in-fighting. No locker room discontent. Look at what is going on in Pittsburgh who had been to the playoffs four straight years. Their tight end is calling them the Kardashians of the NFL.
Look at the coaches that have been signed this offseason . Kliff Kingsbury to the Cardinals bringing his 35-40 record at Texas Tech with him. Matt LaFleur is on his way to Green Bay after taking the Titans offense to the 25th ranking this past year. Adam Gase is getting a shot with the Jets after going 23-25 at the helm of the Dolphins.
Give me Harbaugh and all that comes with him for as long as he wants to be here.
2) Can the Ravens develop a sustainable offense and who develops it?
The offense that got the Ravens to the playoffs isn’t sustainable. If you’re not convinced of that after Sunday’s offensive nightmare, then I can’t help you.
There’s a lot of blame to go around for Sunday’s performance but the most obvious scapegoat has been the much maligned Marty Mornhinweg:
There’s 1000’s of these but you get the point.
Were people bashing Marty when the team was 6-1 down the stretch and absolutely torching opposing defenses with the NFL’S best run game? Of course not, they were handing that credit to the almighty Greg Roman. But nowhere this week did we see people giving Roman hell for the run game getting shut down on Sunday. Many believe he is the catalyst behind this offense but when it fails everyone goes right to Marty.
Let’s look at what Marty has to work with on offense shall we? His left tackle Ronnie Stanley is average at best. Whoever they play at left guard stinks. Matt Skura at center is awful. Marshal Yanda is excellent. Orlando Brown Jr. looks like a solid get at right tackle.
His wide receivers stink. His tight end is a rookie who had a massive year and looks like he could become quite a factor moving forward. His running backs are an undrafted guy and another one that everyone wanted to cut heading into the season.
And here’s the kicker. The best thing you can say about his quarterback is that he is great at running the ball. Here’s a few breakdowns from people much smarter than I am to illustrate how frustrating this is:
There’s also 1000’s of these.
Jackson has a ton of work to do. His weaknesses are glaring. He has terrible footwork. He is wildly inaccurate whether it be from in the pocket or on the run. He struggles to hit any route with consistency outside the numbers. He is a turnover machine.
He’s a rookie. He can improve. He is an exceptional athlete and arguably the fastest player in the NFL. He needs to get significantly better for the Ravens to find their way back to the playoffs. The blueprint to shut him down is out and whoever is in charge of the Ravens offense next season has their work cut out for them to get this unit heading in the right direction.
But it’s not just Jackson that needs to improve. The Ravens need to make an effort to surround him with players that can help him succeed. The Ravens should be looking at offense all throughout the draft. Stanley and Brown Jr are likely your bookend tackles, but Stanley’s contract expires after next season. Tackle could be a need but not the biggest along the offensive line. Skura is a guard playing center and looks like it. Yanda isn’t going to play forever. James Hurst is a nice backup and the Ravens don’t have much to be excited about otherwise.
The Ravens also sorely need a wide receiver. What year is it? The same issue that has plagued this team throughout their existence here in Baltimore. The Ravens have drafted just one receiver in the first three rounds of the draft since 2013. Only Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs are impact players drafted outside of the first three rounds since 2013. You want to find an impact receiver, you better draft one early.
In their franchise history the Ravens have drafted just seven wideouts in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. In comparison the Steelers who are actually good at drafting receivers have taken 15 of them since the Ravens joined the NFL. The seven receivers the Ravens have drafted: Patrick Johnson (1998 Round 2), Travis Taylor (2000 Round 1), Devard Darling (2004 Round 3), Mark Clayton (2005 Round 1), Yamon Figurs (2007 Round 3), Torrey Smith (2011 Round 2), and Breshad Perriman (2015 Round 1). Yikes.
Lot of swings and misses in there. That doesn’t mean you stop swinging. Get a wide receiver early in this year’s draft. Get two of them I don’t care. Willie Snead can come back as Jackson seems to like him. If Michael Crabtree wants to be here and the Ravens want him fine. John Brown is gone. Chris Moore, Jordan Lasley, and JaLeel Scott figure to be in the mix. That’s not good enough. Get him an early-round wide receiver, something you almost never did for Flacco.
The free agent crop features Adam Humprhies, Golden Tate, Robby Anderson, Cole Beasley, and Tyrell Williams. For the love of God please draft a wide receiver. Another retread scrub that wasn’t wanted by his prior employer isn’t going to help.
3) What does the defense look like?
Don “Wink” Martindale and his number one-ranked defense were the steadying force behind the Ravens 6-1 run to the AFC North crown. With a revitalized rushing attack giving them a bit more rest than they had been afforded the first nine weeks of the year, the defense stepped up throughout the run with key play after key play.
In the eight games with Jackson at quarterback, the Ravens gave up 18 points per contest, slightly above their season allowance of 17.9 points-per-game. But the real difference came in the way of turnovers. The Ravens generated 11 turnovers in the last eight games of the year after generating just six through the first nine weeks.
The defense also chipped in three scores in that time frame as well. The defense made game-clinching plays in contests against the Browns the last week of the year and the Bengals in Jackson’s first start in week 11.
For the Ravens to remain competitive with an offensive roster full of question marks, the defense will need to duplicate their performance from this season and once again be near the top of the league. The issue there is that this unit has a plethora of question marks in their own right.
Terrell Suggs is a free agent. A team leader and staple of the Ravens defense, Suggs picked up seven sacks on the year, his lowest total 2009 given 13+ games played. He is 36-years-old and a fan favorite, but it will be interesting to see what his value is to the Ravens as well as what his value is on the open market. Suggs has made his wishes known:
Suggs said after the loss on Sunday “I will be lining up for somebody next year.”
Suggs isn’t the only pass rusher hitting the free agent market as Za’Darius Smith will be looking for a pay day after a career year. Smith picked up 8.5 sacks on the year, nearly doubling the 4.5 total sacks he recorded int he last two seasons combined. Pass rushers are typically a hot commodity come free agency and Smith’s figured to be handsomely rewarded this offseason.
C.J. Mosley is arguably the team’s most important soon-to-be free agent. The four-time Pro-Bowler has spent each of his five NFL seasons in Baltimore and has done a fantastic job in the center of the Ravens defense. Mosley is great against the run but often struggles in pass coverage.
There are a lot of folks out there that believe that Mosley could command a deal similar to the five-year $62 million contract that Luke Kuechly received in 2015. This would put the Ravens in a tough spot as they are hoping to get out of some “salary cap hell” this offseason by cutting some veterans on “bad contracts.” This would simply replace a bad contract with potentially another one.
Brent Urban is the other unrestricted free agent from Baltimore’s starting defense. While he doesn’t generate the headlines of the other two key free agents, he is a player that plays a pivotal role inside for the Ravens, helping out Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce.
In the Restricted Free Agent (RFA) realm, the Ravens have two more defensive starters in Patrick Onwuasor and Pierce as notables. Restricted free agents normally receive “tenders” tied to draft pick compensation. These tenders allow the Ravens the right to match any deal that the RFA reaches with another team. If they choose not to match, the Ravens will receive a draft pick given which tender was assigned to the player. If no team signs the RFA to a contract, the Ravens would pay the allotted salary given the tender assigned.
2019 Projected RFA Tenders
Then comes “cap casualties.” For those who don’t know, if the Ravens have a player that has an undesirable salary cap hit for next season, the team could choose to cut the player to save money against the cap. There is dead money tied into these types of transactions. Dead money is defined as the amount of guaranteed money remaining on a cut player’s contract that will count against your salary cap that next season. Dead money is undesirable.
There are also different designations regarding cap casualties. Cutting a player prior to June 1 means that their dead money will all hit your salary cap the next year. Cutting them post June 1 spreads out the dead money against the next two season’s salary caps. For more on this check out this explanation.
The Ravens have quite a few players that fit the bill here on both sides of the ball. But as we continue focusing on defense here, Brandon Carr, Jimmy Smith and Eric Weddle are all candidates for this. The chart below spells that out from Ravens Salary cap Guru Brian McFarland.
The Ravens would not be likely to sign up for the dead money associated with cutting Tony Jefferson and/or Williams so I would assume that they will be back.
So in total, the Ravens have Williams, Matthew Judon, Marlon Humphrey, and Jefferson as near certainties to be back on defense. The other seven starters’ status is currently unsettled. And that is unsettling.
The Ravens need to be smart about which defensive players they choose to put their money into. Bad deals on both sides of the ball have put the Ravens in the salary cap predicament that they have been in the last few seasons. Some relief is finally in sight. Will the Ravens take it? Or will they be in the same place three years from now with a new group of ugly contracts?
The answers await this offseason.
Image Credit: Russell Street Report