Lamar Jackson - Baltimore Ravens
Lamar Jackson - Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens changed the identity of their offense on the fly during the 2018 season. After turning to Lamar Jackson, the Ravens turned their season around and won the division. This turnaround likely saved head coach John Harbaugh’s job. Now, they’ll embark on a new era starting this offseason.

After the Baltimore Ravens’ 4-5 start, there were major rumblings about head coach John Harbaugh’s job. So, Harbaugh threw a Hail Mary like his brother Jim did at the end of the 1995 AFC Championship Game. However, John’s attempt worked while Jim’s failed as his Indianapolis Colts lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Ravens’ version of the Hail Mary was to insert rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson and change the entire offensive identity. The switch resulted in a 6-1 stretch run and the franchise’s first AFC North title since 2012. The division title earned themselves a wild-card matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers but they fell short 23-17.

The Ravens are always known for their great defense and the 2018 season was not any different. They led the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game and forced an NFL-best 34 turnovers while giving up the second fewest points.

However, it was their offense that raised many eyebrows. The Ravens finished the regular season ranked second overall in team rushing with 2,441 yards on 547 attempts. During the team’s 6-1 finish, Baltimore averaged imposing 229.8 yards per game on the ground. The ground game led all clubs in the NFL by nearly 400 yards during that period.

Nonetheless, the passing game was abysmal. Jackson averaged 159.1 passing yards a game, which produced the Ravens passing attack to the third worst in the NFL over his seven starts. The failure of the Ravens to create any semblance of a passing game is why they didn’t go deeper in the playoffs.

Coaching staff and front office changes heading into the 2019 season

Based on the sudden success at the end of last season, Harbaugh saved his job, and it even resulted in getting him a contract extension. Weeks after the season ended, he agreed to a four-year deal, cementing his future in Baltimore. 

Over the next four years, Harbaugh will be able to continue to cement his legacy. Already, he is the longest-tenured and winningest coach in Ravens history. The Ravens have made the playoffs seven times during his 11-year tenure with the team and won Super Bowl XLVIII in 2013. However, entering this season, he owned a 40-40 regular season record over the previous five years and had reached the playoffs just once.

The move to Jackson after Joe Flacco remained out with a midseason hip injury also coincided with a staff promotion. The Ravens announced that assistant head coach/tight end coach Greg Roman had been promoted to offensive coordinator. His influence during the second half of last season on the offense was essential to the Ravens’ playoff run.

Ozzie Newsome, who became the NFL’s first African-American general manager, announced that he was stepping down after 16 seasons at the end of the 2018 season. Newsome was the builder of two Ravens Super Bowl teams and was probably the most respected and admired front-office executive in the NFL.

Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta will transition to the general manager role, and he has enormous shoes to fill. DeCosta needs to build upon what Newsome started and sustained throughout his executive regime.

Which impending free agents should the Ravens re-sign?

DeCosta comes into a difficult situation with the Ravens pending free agents. They have some serious work to do to keep the Ravens on top of the AFC North. Let’s take a look at each of their free agents and what they should do with each player.

C.J. Mosley, Linebacker
The re-signing of Mosley should be a no-brainer. Mosely is a four-time Pro Bowler. He led the team in tackles last season with 105 and had registered 100-plus tackles in all but one of his five NFL seasons. He has missed only three games in his career and is the best player on a great defense.

Terrell Suggs, EDGE
Suggs is a longtime Raven, and is a tireless worker at age 36 who can be the perfect role model for a young linebacker. His seven Pro Bowls and 132.5 career sacks should earn him another contract in Baltimore.

Za’Darius Smith, EDGE
Smith led the team with a career-high 8.5 sacks. He will be more than likely hitting the open market to cash in on his career season.

John Brown & Michael Crabtree, Wide Receivers
The Ravens did a major overhaul on the wide receiver corp heading into the 2018 season, and it looks like they will have that same challenge again going into this season. John Brown was the team’s best big-play option last season. He finished with a team-best five touchdown receptions. However, he did not make a significant impact due to the Jackson-led running offense. Michael Crabtree is likely out the door as a cap casualty. He is not a game-changer.

Who should the Ravens seek out in free agency?

The Ravens have difficult decisions to make on a few veterans. Safety Eric Weddle is 34-years-old and has been getting by with his smarts and experience. However, we all know that father time eventually catches up to everyone. We may have seen the last of Weddle in the Ravens uniform. Veteran cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr carry significant cap hits. The veterans may have to face some harsh financial decisions.  Alex Collins, who finished last season on the injured reserve, witnessed the emergence of rookie running back Gus Edwards along with the return of Kenneth Dixon to the backfield. I don’t see Collins returning to Baltimore. So who do I see the Ravens signing as free agents? Here are three players that the Ravens should seek for the black & purple:

Matt Paradis, Center
Even though the run game was dominant toward the end of last season, the offensive line needs help. Paradis is the top-rated free agent center, and incumbent Matt Skura was mediocre at best.

Tyrell Williams, Wide Receiver
At 6’4: 205 lbs, Williams always seems to be open. Only nine other receivers had more plays of 40+ yards. He has averaged 16.3 yards per reception in his career. He is a good deep threat that Lamar Jackson can chuck bombs to so it can open up their offense.

T.J. Yeldon, Running Back
The current running backs of Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon do not catch the ball very well. Enter T.J. Yeldon. Yeldon ended up in the Jaguars doghouse at the end of last season, so he will probably end up being fairly inexpensive.  He is an open field runner who caught 55 balls last season while registering a catch percentage of 70.5 percent.  I could see Jackson dumping passes to Yeldon a lot in 2019.

What should DeCosta do in his first NFL Draft?

Round 1-Pick 22: Montez Sweat, EDGE, Mississippi State
Sweat would be the ideal pick for the Ravens. He was an absolute force at MSU and registered 22.5 sacks over the last two seasons. His athleticism will allow him to play anywhere on the outside. With Suggs another year older, Sweat would make an ideal successor and learn from the relentless veteran.

Round 2: No pick
The Ravens used this pick to jump back into the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft that led to the selection of quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Round 3-Pick 85: Chris Lindstrom,  Guard, Boston College
At 6’4″ 305 lbs, he has the size and skills to play on Sundays. Lindstrom be an immediate starter on the Ravens offensive line.

The Ravens take a look at the crystal ball for the 2019 season

There is no question that the Ravens need to take the next step and go deeper in the playoffs. The continuing development of Jackson and specifically the Ravens passing game must make considerable improvement. The Ravens can assist the escalation of that growth by providing Jackson with more offensive weapons. There is a glaring need for a pass-catching running back and the improvement of the wide receiver position is essential.

Defensively, the Ravens had an outstanding season. Of course, they can’t be stagnant and need to look to improve the pass rush and secondary. While these suggestions might seem overwhelming, they are definitely within reach. The Cincinnati Bengals are rebuilding. The Pittsburgh Steelers have a soap opera going on within the confines of Heinz Field. Surprisingly, their biggest competition is Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns. If the Ravens can make a few key personnel moves, they should be able to see consistent playoff appearances in their near future.