The Ravens approached this offseason with a clear and persistent mantra: We Need Offense! The Ravens had focused much offseason efforts in previous years to restocking their defensive depth and, while the defense did fail in key moments last season, the depth is easy to see. This is especially true when looking at position battles at Cornerback, Defensive Line, and Outside Linebacker, where the team may be forced to cut or trade promising young talent who have earned roster spots as undrafted free agents, or release veterans who can be strong performers, in lieu of releasing a developing young player. While this was occurring, the Ravens allowed some problem spots to develop in their offensive depth. Notably, the team was largely devoid of starting caliber WRs and TEs, which led to drafting 2 TEs in the first 2 days of the draft, and a complete rebuild of the Ravens WR room with 3 free agent additions and 2 draft picks. Additionally, while the Ravens do have some young offensive linemen developing, they are struggling to find the right fits for some of them, while others struggle to stay healthy. This has all led up to the overarching offseason directive to invest in the offense.
Going into the Minicamp stage of the season, the Ravens have certainly added pieces that can contribute on offense in 2018. Michael Crabtree is a proven veteran WR who should easily become Joe Flacco’s top WR target if he stays healthy throughout the season. Willie Snead and John Brown should also see a healthy volume of targets, though their career resumes are not quite as developed, so it’s harder to predict them having a strong season (750+ receiving yards, 60+ catches) vs having a season similar to what the Ravens got last season out of a Jeremy Maclin or Chris Moore. They also added two young tight ends that should inject some excitement into a group where two of the returning options are players with suspension histories, and the other is a struggling former 2nd round pick that has long injury histories. These additions will certainly help the team, but we also need to see how they begin to fit together with the other pieces of the offense, before we can predict future success.
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We can start with the strength of the Ravens offense last year: The Run Game. Last year, the Ravens run game started slow, but electrified with the success of Alex Collins and the resurgence of Buck Allen. The Ravens finished with the 11th best Rushing Offense in Yards Gained and the 10th best Rushing Offense in Rushing Scoring. Alex Collins earned the right to be the favorite to win the starting RB job this offseason, but the Ravens will certainly hope for a continued strong performance by Buck Allen to complement Collins, and on the healthy return of Kenneth Dixon, who was widely expected to be the top RB last season until he encountered health and personal setbacks. The Ravens chose not to address running back in the draft, which shows that they are comfortable with those 3 being the group this year. Additionally, to help matters, the Ravens were able to retain Greg Roman as Assistant Head Coach. Roman had a heavy hand in assisting the offense last season and was seen as a big reason why the Ravens committed more to running the football. The biggest question mark in the run game is how well the offensive line will hold up between last year and this year. The Ravens lost their best offensive lineman in Week Two last year, and should get Marshal Yanda back healthy. However, late in the season, the Ravens’ replacement offensive linemen began to gel and were playing at a decent level. Then, breakout Center Ryan Jensen left in free agency to sign one of the largest deals for a Center in NFL history. The Ravens will instead likely have to rely on an unproven option at Center in Matt Skura or Nico Siragusa. The Ravens were able to re-sign James Hurst, who seemed to do well at Guard, but it’s unsure if they will be able to play him at Left Guard, or if they will have to move him to Right Tackle.
This year, we can expect that the Ravens run game may start off slow due to changes and adaptations in offensive line personnel (Reminder that Austin Howard wasn’t signed until August last year, so if Center or Right Tackle remains a sore spot, the Ravens could look for a veteran to step in). However, with Alex Collins now having a full year in the Ravens system and having earned the Ravens regard as a front line RB, I expect the Ravens to finish in the Top 10 Rushing Offenses again. Buck Allen had struggled in the past to find a role on the team, but really seemed to thrive in a complementary role to Collins in 2017. On top of this, the Ravens could have Kenneth Dixon to contribute for something. Dixon has been a bit of a tough case, between his recurring knee injuries and his suspensions, but he was widely expected to develop into a starting level RB in 2016, so if he can recapture that ability, it only serves to upgrade over Terrence West from 2017. Greg Roman and Marty Mornhinweg may need to get creative with the running plays they can run, based on their offensive line groupings, but I expect the Ravens to meet and even exceed their rushing performance from 2017.
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In the passing game, it’s much harder to predict what might happen, because the Ravens are in the middle of essentially wholesale changes. Of the players who caught more than 20 passes for the Ravens last year, only 3 remain (out of 7). The three leading receivers in yards from 2017 are all gone as well, leaving Buck Allen as the top returning player in yards from passes. This isn’t a bad thing, as the Ravens passing game last year was…atrocious might even be too pretty a word there! The Ravens passing game finished 29th in yards and 23rd in scoring. You almost can’t get any worse than how they were last year. While the Ravens have added talent in Crabtree, Snead, Brown, as well as Hurst and Andrews, it’s not as if they went into the season last year with complete nobodies. Mike Wallace was coming off a 1000 yard season with the Ravens in 2016. Jeremy Maclin was just 2 years removed from a 1000 yard season with the Chiefs, which was his followup to a 1300 yard season with the Eagles. Ben Watson had missed all of 2016, but his 2015 featured 70+ catches and 800+ yards with New Orleans. The issue came from putting them all together in an offensive system. Looking at the driver in the passing game, Joe Flacco had his worst season in 4 years. He finished with an 80.4 QB rating, which was only better than his rookie year performance by 0.1 points, and just a few points ahead of his worst season in 2013. We can take some hope in seeing that he had a pretty nice 4 game stretch near season end against Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indianapolis, with a rating no lower than 88 in any of those games. But he had 4 absolute dud games as well, with one of those coming in Week 16 with the season on the line (in fairness, his rating in that game doesn’t reflect on many mistakes by WRs made that did him no favors, like drops and tipped INTs). An intriguing storyline this year will be the presence of a true “competition” at QB in 2018 1st round draft pick Lamar Jackson. Jackson shouldn’t start this year, but he is clearly the future for the Ravens, and he brings an electrifying style of play that could jump-start a stagnant offense with strong, quick running threats to go alongside passing threats. It remains to be seen if that move pushes Joe to improve his play, or just serves to distract him from it. One thing that should provide hope to Ravens fans is the move to hire a true QB coach in James Urban. Urban was a WR coach for the last 8 seasons, but prior to that was the QB coach for Michael Vick and Kevin Kolb with the Eagles. While he will certainly help Joe with his mechanics, he also has experience working with a QB similar in play style to Lamar Jackson
This year, the Ravens have to produce more in the passing game, for several reasons. The first of which is coaching job security. I don’t think it’s an overreaction to say that, if the Ravens passing offense can’t improve from their 29th spot in yardage, John Harbaugh and company likely won’t be here in 2019. If the passing offense is still struggling by Week 10’s bye week, we could even see John Harbaugh remove Marty Mornhinweg as OC and elevate Greg Roman to that position. The coaching staff knows that the passing game must improve, and results are the only way to show that. The second reason would be player job security. Joe Flacco knows that his time on the Ravens is coming to an end soon. That could be as soon as 2019 if he struggles, but could be 2020 or 2021 if he plays well. Regardless, if he wants to continue playing football, he needs to show teams that he can still play at a high level to earn his next job. There’s an overblown notion that Joe Flacco lacks passion or commitment, and I don’t buy into that. I think Joe KNOWS that things are bad and, despite how often he works out with WRs in the offseason, he’s going to put in the time and effort to get those results. That said, I don’t expect the Ravens to suddenly roll out a 4500 yard, 40 TD passing offense. Their passing offense will be successful if it can get to 14-18th in the NFL in yardage, partially because I expect them to run the ball well. Time and time again, Steve Bisciotti has pointed to the Ravens “signature style” as being strong defense and a strong running game. That’s not necessarily the NFL trend, but I believe that is the direction the team is headed into, especially with Lamar Jackson at QB.
On offense, the Ravens are seeing a lot of new blood and new directions coming into their focus. The expectation from all fans should be improvement in the offense, mainly in the passing game. We shouldn’t expect a Top 5 offense in either unit, but we should expect one that produces better than last season, as new additions gel together, and looks for ways to remain efficient. It helps to know that the offense has a strong defense to back them up, and a field goal kicker who only needs you to get him to the 35 yard line to get a near automatic field goal. I would also expect that the Ravens are ready to make changes if things aren’t working. I wouldn’t expect them immediately, but drafting a QB to replace Joe Flacco down the road signals that the team isn’t worried about stepping on toes. If things aren’t working, they are ready to find a new direction that will.