Reloading or retreating? Ravens could go either way.
Are the Ravens a Super Bowl contender set up for an easy reload after injuries destroyed their 2021 season? Or are they a team in transition as they lick their wounds from last winter and navigate a tricky contract situation with franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson?
Their roster is stuffed with former All-Pros and lauded draft values; it’s also thin at several premium positions. There will be nervous moments during the preseason as star players test rehabilitated knees and ankles. Coaches will face questions about schematic changes designed to ward off the stagnation that set in over the second half of last season.
The Ravens encompass a wide range of possibilities as we look ahead to training camp and the season beyond, with plenty of fascinating individual stories adding up to an uncertain whole. With that in mind, here is our annual countdown of the 10 most intriguing people in the franchise heading into the season:
Steve Saunders /Adrian Dixon
When a team suffers through a year of historically awful health, it’s difficult — nearly impossible from the outside — to discern which troubles are due to bad luck and which are due to bad practice. But when John Harbaugh laid out his narrative for this offseason, one of the first things he said was that the Ravens would turn over every stone to avoid another year defined by catastrophic injuries.
To that end, the team hired a new head trainer in Dixon, who previously worked for the Tennessee Titans, while keeping
former head trainer Ron Medlin on staff. Harbaugh opted to keep Saunders, the team’s strength and conditioning coach who was suspended in 2020 as the Ravens faced NFL discipline for failing to obey coronavirus protocols. But he said the team would review its offseason conditioning program and practice schedules from the foundation up.
We do not hear from the Ravens’ trainer or strength coach during the season, and Harbaugh surely will not blame either Dixon or Saunders if injuries mount again. But he has established health as a performance metric for 2022, and that means these behind-the-scenes figures could become part of the story if the Ravens are either notably healthier or again plagued by breakdowns.
Two years ago, Dobbins was well on his way to becoming the Ravens’ first homegrown star at running back since Ray Rice. His exceptional balance allowed him to squeeze positive yards out of well-defended plays and given room to work, he exploded for much bigger gains.
Without Dobbins and backfield mate Gus Edwards, who both suffered season-ending knee injuries before Week 1, the Ravens still finished third in the league in rushing in 2021. But they averaged 4.8 yards per attempt compared to 5.5 the year before. Aside from Jackson, who relied more on scrambles than designed runs, they lacked their usual sizzle.
Will they be back at the top of the league this year, with Dobbins leading the way? Harbaugh has said the third-year running back would play now if allowed. He’s that confident. But even a slight loss of quickness can make a profound difference at a position with one of the worst attrition rates in professional sports. Dobbins will have to prove he’s still the dynamic threat we saw in 2020, and his form will be the subject of much scrutiny whenever he returns to the practice field.
The Ravens took a calculated risk, using their second-round pick on a top-15 talent who tore his Achilles tendon during a pro-day workout in March. They needed an edge rusher going into the draft but did not fancy their choices at No. 14 overall. Instead, they waited for Ojabo, who would have been an option for them at that pick if he was expected to play all of the 2022 season.
The conventional wisdom is that this will amount to a redshirt season for the former Michigan standout, who broke out last year under the Ravens’ new defensive coordinator, Mike Macdonald. But Ojabo has said he expects to play at some point in 2022. With his long, powerful frame, he looks the part of an NFL pass rusher, even when he’s merely walking around a practice field in shorts and a pullover. Given his athletic traits and his familiarity with Macdonald’s system, could he make a crucial play coming off the edge in a late-season game?
We cannot rule it out, and that means Ojabo’s progress will be a story to watch all season. The Ravens are short of young pass rushers aside from Ojabo’s old high school pal, Odafe Oweh, so they’ll be awaiting the cavalry.
Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said he could not believe the team’s good fortune when Hamilton — a top-five player on many analysts’ big boards — was still available at pick No. 14. Was this happy spin after the Philadelphia Eagles leapfrogged the Ravens to take block-out-the-sun defensive tackle Jordan Davis? It’s difficult to say, but it’s not difficult to agree that the top safety in the draft was a good value where the Ravens selected him.
The 6-foot-4 Hamilton looks more like an outside linebacker than a typical defensive back, and whatever his 40-yard dash time might say, he covers ground effortlessly when the ball is in the air. During OTAs and minicamp, he earned strong reviews from teammates and coaches with his confidence and tendency to avoid repeating mistakes.
How will Macdonald use Hamilton’s unconventional talent? Will the Ravens trade veteran Chuck Clark to clear a starting role for the rookie? A first-round pick is usually one of the most intriguing players on a team’s roster, but Hamilton will be a special treat for football nerds.
Perhaps we should not have been surprised after the Ravens finished last in the league in pass defense, but Harbaugh’s decision to move on from defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale was one of the major headlines of the offseason. Martindale’s exotic blitzes and colorful comments were defining elements for the Ravens in recent seasons, and Macdonald has plenty to live up to considering how well his predecessor’s defenses performed from 2018 to 2020.
Of course, Macdonald grew up as a coach on the Ravens staff, so he learned plenty from Martindale. He’s a more buttoned-up figure who might not attack at all costs if we’re to read anything from his one season as Michigan’s defensive coordinator. But we’re not talking about a radical reform here.
How will Macdonald’s defense deliver from Martindale’s? Early on, players have talked about the flexibility he expects from them and about his talent for teaching the broad picture. The Ravens invested heavily in their secondary in the offseason and are hoping for fewer injuries to irreplaceable stars. Their defense was likely to improve in 2022 no matter whom Harbaugh put in charge. If the 35-year-old Macdonald succeeds in his new job as he did at Michigan, he will stamp himself as a rising star in his field and a potential head coach.
No one outside the team’s brain trust seemed to know No. 1 wide receiver Marquise Brown was headed to Arizona via trade. The Ravens followed up that shocker by steering clear of each and every wide receiver in the 2022 draft class. They have not signed a big-name veteran at the position, either.
All of which means they’re preparing to ask a lot of their first pick in the 2021 draft. A groin injury hampered Bateman at the start of his rookie season. Once he showed
up, he gave us glimpses of a potential No. 1 threat, snatching balls out of the air in tight windows and making a beautiful contested catch in Cleveland for his longest gain of the season. In other games, however, the Ravens barely targeted him.
Is he ready for a much greater burden? Jackson has treated Bateman as his new top receiver; he met up with him for offseason workouts and looked for him persistently during 11-on-11 minicamp drills. In those sessions, Bateman flashed the downfield explosiveness that made him a breakout star during his sophomore season at Minnesota. All the potential is there, but if Bateman does not produce every week, fans will wonder, loudly, why DeCosta did not do more to bolster the wide receiver corps.
The Ravens finished last season with a disastrous minus-11 turnover differential, one major reason why their pass defense fell apart. What was the No. 1 reason they stopped producing takeaways? The absence of Peters, who tore his ACL before he played one snap in 2021.
Some talents are irreplaceable, and Peters, who has averaged about one interception for every three games played over his NFL career, proved to be one of them. It’s not just his ballhawking. He knows opposing offenses as well as the coaches and brings an outspoken, in-your-face confidence that was missing from the Ravens defense last season.
Will Peters be all the way back in 2022? It’s a fair question to ask of a 29-year-old veteran coming off a serious knee injury. Peters did not play as well in 2020 as he had in 2019, so he was already facing some questions about whether he could rebound. On paper, the Ravens will go into training camp with as loaded a secondary as any in the NFL. But for the whole thing to function as well they expect, they need Peters to be Peters.
Here we are again. A loud contingent of Ravens fans wanted Harbaugh to fire Roman after last season. Their gripes — unimaginative passing attack, overreliance on the power game, poorly conceived routes for the wide receivers — have become a chorus echoing behind everything the Ravens do (or don’t do) on offense. Brown reinforced their discontent when, after his trade to Arizona, he said Roman’s system “wasn’t for me.”
All this bile for a coordinator whose offense ran all over the league in 2019 and still managed to finish sixth in total yardage last season. Have the Ravens calcified under Roman, who was so lauded three years ago for tailoring an attack around Jackson’s unique abilities? It’s a reasonable question after they averaged just 18 points over their last nine games in 2021. He has promised new wrinkles in 2022, and better health —
the Ravens operated without their projected backfield, their All-Pro left tackle and eventually, Jackson, last season — would provide a boost.
Given the Ravens’ lack of investment in wide receivers and their stockpiling of tight ends, many have wondered if Roman is aiming to recapture his formula from 2019, when the Ravens rolled up rushing yards at a historic rate and thrived on low-volume, high-efficiency passing. Regardless of his approach, Roman, and the hot seat he occupies, will be a story from Week 1 on.
You might not hear about it outside Baltimore, but there aren’t many players in the league more pivotal than Stanley. The last time he played a full season, he was the best pass blocker in football, and the Ravens finished with the best record in the AFC. His ankle injury midway through the 2020 season created a domino effect from which the offense has never entirely recovered. Jackson grew less and less confident over the 2021 season as it became apparent he could not trust his tackles to provide a clean pocket.
Stanley was a shadow of himself in the season opener and quickly decided he needed another surgery and another round of rehabilitation. He has expressed optimism about his recovery. So have Harbaugh and DeCosta. But until we see No. 79 nimbly protecting Jackson’s flank, who can say for sure?
The Ravens have bolstered their offensive line depth through free agency and the draft, but they still don’t have a true stand-in if the Stanley of old does not show up in September. Jackson is the most important player on the team, but Stanley is the guy who allows him to be that player.
As if there was any doubt who would top this list. Jackson’s contract situation alone puts him at the front of the pack. Will the extension talks he alluded to during minicamp bear fruit or is he prepared to go into Year 5 (and beyond) with no long-term security? Would he rather keep his options open or commit to being the signature athlete in Baltimore for a generation to come? Jackson guards his intentions well, so we’re left to speculate.
Set all that aside and he remains one of the NFL’s most fascinating players on the field. In the early weeks of last season, Jackson carried the Ravens with a blend of downfield passing and brilliant scrambling rarely seen from any player in league history. By the second half, he was taking too many hits, rushing throws and leading a sputtering offense. Then, he went down, and the Ravens’ playoff hopes went with him.
Jackson looked good when he returned to the team for minicamp, with added muscle on his frame and plenty of zip on his passes. He said he felt better than he did going into his Most Valuable Player season in 2019. Whether that’s prophetic or not, his story will be the story of this team.