As is often the case in the running to a new NFL season, much of the talk is around the favorites to go all the way, with the defending champions invariably among the top picks among pundits. This stance has only been inflamed by the revelation that Tom Brady wasn’t completely healthy last season. Then, of course, there are the back-to-back finalists, recently dethroned Kansas City Chiefs, whose roster defies salary cap logic.
Still, just two seasons ago, the Baltimore Ravens were the team discussed as the Chiefs’ main contender for the years to come, and yet midway through last season, the NFL Playoff Predictors wrote them off, favoring the eventual divisional champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers, to claim the division.
In fact, despite having the best-run game in the NFL and the defense being a menacing unit, the Ravens were out at 35% to trump the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round predictions from FiveThirtyEight. They didn’t fall too far, but the Ravens can certainly be regarded as having fallen from grace, with their perceived problems only being compounded this summer. Still, this Baltimore team has enough to be the surprise package of the season, coming in with greatly tempered expectations.
Issues, not progress, headline offseason Ravens
Takeaways from the start of Training Camp: pic.twitter.com/QdArCg5DIM
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) July 30, 2021
Last season ended unceremoniously against the Bills in the playoffs, with the season as a whole being seen as one of stagnation or even a slide when considering the Ravens’ efforts in 2019. In fairness, as taken away by USA Today, the defense was a real force against the Bills, holding them to a mere 10 points.
Still, the best run offense, but among the worst pass offenses, couldn’t muster anything more than a field goal. Optimism around the roster with clear paths to improvement was still there, but inevitably, losing the likes of edge rushers Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue will hurt, as will seeing the want-away Orlando Brown Jr. depart.
As training camps commenced around the NFL on July 27th, decent work in the free agency and draft for Baltimore was undermined by a slew of non-attendees. Hot prospect receiver Marquise Brown missed out with a hamstring injury, Lamar Jackson and Gus Edwards ended up on the reserve list, rookie Rashod Bateman was suffering from muscle soreness, and both Nick Boyle and Ronnie Stanley weren’t physically able to perform. Overall, that’s a lot of key offensive pieces unable to prepare for the season. With a rebuild offensive line and new receivers to jell with, Jackson missing out on training camp’s early sessions could prove to be very costly through the first few games.
There’s still strength in this Ravens outfit
The underwhelming conclusion to the season and seemingly bad start to the new campaign doesn’t prove this Ravens outfit to be lack of a contender: Baltimore are still to be feared. Despite the big-name losses, the team has improved in key areas, which should result in the defense remaining strong, particularly after the signing of veteran Justin Houston, and Jackson having a fair few more arrows in his quiver. As detailed in the early training camp report from the NFL, new signing Sammy Watkins also looks to be on form.
In addition, there are new developments to the team on the defensive side of the ball in the form of defensive tackles Justin Madubuike and Odafe Oweh, with those two and Houston certainly capable of piling on the pressure. The offensive line has also been reinforced to further build around Jackson, with guard Kevin Zeitler and tackle Alejandro Villanueva signed, along with rookie 6’6’’, 335lbs guard Ben Cleveland padding the trenches.
The Ravens also did very well in the draft, utilizing their capital, which included two first-round picks. Selecting the highly-rated wide receiver Bateman and Tylan Wallace was a statement of intent: they will be going aerial far more often this season.
The backroom has also seen a bit of a mix-up, with all of the new coaches being praised through the early stages of this 2021 campaign. Rob Ryan (linebackers), Keith Williams (passing game), and Tee Martin (wide receivers) have all be very hands-on and have given a great deal of attention to detail, according to Baltimore Beatdown on July 31st. So, despite last season and the training camp troubles, the Ravens look to have improved on an already formidable formula.
As of August 3rd, this hasn’t helped them too much in the important NFL betting odds of Betway, as they’re sitting out at +650 to win the AFC. However, they’re now favored to reclaim the AFC North, leading the division at +120. Their reinstatement as a football superpower following a strong offseason, on paper, has earned them a fourth-place ranking by Pro Football Focus, despite a mere 5% probability of winning the Super Bowl.
The most significant obstacles are yet to come for the Baltimore Ravens, assuming that the out-of-action offensive cast return in time for the new season. J.K. Dobbins is looking to impress, and Jackson seeks to re-establish himself among elite quarterbacks.
So, it won’t be easy, but this team certainly shouldn’t be underestimated. Perhaps last season’s 26-touchdown effort from Jackson can be seen as a sophomore slump, given that he only started seven games in 2018, and like many up-and-coming quarterbacks, can be expected to improve in his third full year of NFL action.
Somewhat troubling headlines may be swirling around the Ravens, but there isn’t any doubt that this team has improved in key areas that should see Baltimore surge up the rankings once again.