The Ravens’ 2022 season went just as everyone predicted: The team made the playoffs without quarterback Lamar Jackson healthy over the final month, then fumbled away a chance to stun the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round.
Of course, the Ravens have made a habit lately of defying conventional prognostications. In 2021, a coronavirus outbreak and injury epidemic helped knock the team from atop the AFC to out of playoff contention. In 2020, the defense revolted against safety Earl Thomas in the preseason, then went on to finish as a top-10 unit after his release.
So what might happen in 2023, a season with as many high-profile variables — a new offensive coordinator, flashy additions at wide receiver, risky gambles at cornerback and edge rusher — as any in recent memory? Probably a whole lot. Here are 10 guesses, with varying levels of boldness, at how this year will unfold.
The Ravens will win two playoff games
The AFC North is one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. It features three of the league’s best quarterbacks — Jackson, the Bengals’ Joe Burrow and the Cleveland Browns’ Deshaun Watson — and two of its longest-tenured coaches, the Ravens’ John Harbaugh and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin.
Because of the talent in the division, there’s a scenario in which the Ravens could have the second- or third-best record in the AFC but still make it to the playoffs as a wild-card team. Just look at the Dallas Cowboys last year; they went 12-5 but were the NFC’s No. 5 seed because the NFC East champion Philadelphia Eagles went 14-3.
If the Ravens don’t get the AFC’s No. 1 seed, two playoff wins would get them into the conference championship game for the first time under Jackson. With a No. 1 seed, two wins would put them in the Super Bowl. The Ravens have struggled in the playoffs since Jackson’s arrival, going 1-3 with him as a starter and 1-4 overall. Perhaps this is the year the paradigm shifts.
Lamar Jackson will set a career high in passing yards
Jackson had one of his worst years as a starter last season. In another injury-shortened campaign, he finished with the second-fewest passing yards of his career, and his play declined as the year went on. Jackson also struggled to find receivers deep, finishing last in the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks in catchable rate (41%).
Some of those struggles could be placed on the Ravens’ receiving corps, which didn’t have a star wideout who threatened defenses, especially after 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman suffered a season-ending Lisfranc (foot) injury. But an equal share of the blame can be placed on Jackson. Either way, a rich contract, new receivers and new offensive coordinator Todd Monken could get Jackson back to the player he was in 2019, when he won league MVP honors.
That year, Jackson put together one of the most impressive seasons in NFL history, setting the league’s single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback and throwing for 3,127 yards, 36 touchdowns and just six interceptions while completing 66% of his passes — all career-best marks as a full-time starter. If Jackson can get close to his 2019 levels, the Ravens will be a legitimate contender.
Two Ravens will have over 1,000 receiving yards
Much has been made about the Ravens’ offseason investments at wide receiver. General manager Eric DeCosta retooled the room, adding Odell Beckham Jr., Zay Flowers and Nelson Agholor. On paper, the group appears to be the best collection of receivers the Ravens have had in recent memory, and maybe in franchise history. That should make life easy for tight end Mark Andrews, who has led the the team in receiving yards in three of his years in Baltimore.
The challenge of this prediction is figuring out just who will hit 1,000 yards this season. Andrews seems like a lock, but could he see fewer targets with the talent at receiver? Could there be an equal distribution of targets that keeps a handful of players hovering under 1,000 yards?
Zay Flowers will be an Offensive Rookie of the Year finalist
The Flowers hype train is overflowing with passengers by this point. Most people who saw Flowers this summer, whether it was at practice or in games, came away impressed. He’s dominated against veteran corners and first-round rookies, winning with a variety of moves and sometimes going viral in the process.
With how quickly Flowers gets open, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him become one of Jackson’s favorite targets. The biggest hurdle to being one of three finalists for the award could be Flowers’ number of touches. The Ravens are laden with talent at receiver, and they have Andrews at tight end and J.K. Dobbins in the backfield. That could make it tough to beat out a running back like the Atlanta Falcons’ Bijan Robinson or quarterbacks, like the Carolina Panthers’ Bryce Young or Houston Texans’ C.J. Stroud.
J.K. Dobbins will lead all NFL running backs in yards per carry
Considering he’s done it once before, this isn’t too outlandish. As a rookie in 2020, Dobbins averaged 6 yards per carry, second on his own team — Jackson happened to lead the NFL (6.3 yards) — but first among running backs leaguewide. A catastrophic knee injury in the 2021 preseason cost him a shot at the crown the next two years.
But even without a breakaway gear, Dobbins was one of the NFL’s most productive backs late last season. After returning from arthroscopic knee surgery in Week 14, he averaged 6.6 yards per carry on 14 attempts per game over four regular-season games and the Ravens’ playoff loss. Even more impressive, Dobbins averaged 1.7 rushing yards over expectation per carry in that stretch, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, a mark that would’ve been a runaway No. 1 overall last year.
Dobbins might not get the heavy workload he covets entering a contract year. The Ravens’ offensive line might not be as stable as it was last year, either. But if Dobbins’ long speed has returned, and Jackson’s back to threatening defenses as a runner, he could again be ruthlessly efficient.
Patrick Queen will lead the team in sacks
Outside linebacker Justin Houston led the Ravens last season with 17 quarterback hits, which tend to be predictive of sack totals. Unsurprisingly, he also had a team-high 9.5 sacks. (According to ESPN, pass rushers typically turn about 45% of their hits into sacks in a given year.) Just behind Houston in quarterback hits was Patrick Queen, who tied for second with 14. Surprisingly, that translated to only five sacks, a career high for the inside linebacker but only fourth-most on the Ravens.
As a blitzer, Queen was one of the NFL’s best and most active inside linebackers last year, finishing just behind Houston (14.2%) in overall win rate (14.1%), according to Pro Football Focus. He has the strength to bowl over smaller running backs in pass protection and, after dropping his playing weight this offseason, looked even faster as a blitzer during training camp. Could Queen reach nine sacks, as former LSU teammate Devin White did three years ago in the middle of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense? It’s possible. But even seven or eight might be enough to lead a Ravens team without a sure-thing edge rusher.
The Ravens will add a defender by the trade deadline
Before the Ravens can find a trade partner, they have to find some salary cap space. They’re currently projected to enter the season slightly over the cap, though there are some levers they can pull to push money into future years. But as DeCosta suggested Friday, added financial flexibility gives the Ravens a chance to “get to the trade deadline and maybe make a trade.”
Recent history suggests it’d be for a defensive piece. In 2019, DeCosta traded for cornerback Marcus Peters. In 2020, he traded for edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue. Last year, he traded for inside linebacker Roquan Smith. The Ravens’ injury history at outside linebacker and questionable depth at cornerback might have the defense in trouble by the NFL’s Oct. 31 trade deadline. If the Ravens can afford to take on a cheap contract — one made even cheaper by a midseason arrival — DeCosta’s shown he’s not afraid to part with assets.
Ronnie Stanley will play an entire season
A big part of Jackson’s MVP season was the offensive line that kept him protected. That year, the Ravens had three Pro Bowl linemen in right guard Marshal Yanda, right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and Stanley, who was also named a first-team All-Pro. Stanley has played just 18 games over the past three seasons after suffering an ankle injury in 2020 that’s required multiple surgeries.
The best teams in the NFL often win in large part because of their offensive line talent. The Kansas City Chiefs learned that lesson in Super Bowl LV, when the Buccaneers had quarterback Patrick Mahomes scrambling for his life every play behind an injury-ridden line. That offseason, they went out and put together an entirely new starting line.
So the Ravens know how important Stanley is to this team’s success. It’s why he missed the occasional practice in training camp, careful to ensure that his ankle would be rested and ready for Week 1. Stanley told reporters this summer that he believes the Ravens’ offensive line can be as good as it was in 2019. He also said he felt as good physically as he has since before his 2020 injury. That’s good news for a Ravens team that needs Stanley healthy.
The Ravens will have a Top 3 run defense
This is the goal most years in Baltimore. Last year, it didn’t seem possible until the team traded for Smith. It was only after his arrival that the cogs in the team’s run defense snapped into place. Over the Ravens’ nine games with Smith, the unit ranked fourth in yards per carry allowed (3.5) and tied for first in rushing touchdowns allowed (two). It also had the NFL’s third-most efficient run defense in that span, according to Football Outsiders.
Calais Campbell’s offseason departure is significant, but his absence up front will be felt most acutely by the pass rush. At nose tackle, Michael Pierce and Travis Jones are big, strong space-eaters. Justin Madubuike is a stalwart against zone schemes, and Broderick Washington, who can line up over guards or centers, is tough to uproot. Brent Urban is a more-than-qualified reserve. Smith and Queen have the speed, instincts and finishing ability to clean up behind them.
The unit’s only weakness might be out wide. Outside linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Odafe Oweh have the length and mentality to set the edge on early downs, but they must stay healthy. Safety Kyle Hamilton could also be tough to replace at nickel back, especially if the Ravens line up with smaller defensive backs in the slot.
Keaton Mitchell will win a returner job
It certainly won’t happen before Week 5, the earliest that Mitchell can return from injured reserve. The undrafted rookie running back might not even be a clear-cut option at punt returner; he badly misjudged a ball in the Ravens’ preseason loss to the Washington Commanders, nearly running into it as it tumbled to the ground. A week later, wide receiver Tylan Wallace looked far more comfortable on a 10-yard punt return against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But Ravens special teams coordinator Chris Horton will need a turnaround year from Pro Bowl returner Devin Duvernay, and if he can’t deliver, Mitchell’s acceleration and elusiveness make an obvious candidate. Before the Ravens’ Week 10 bye last season, Duvernay averaged an impressive 15.1 yards per punt return and 31.9 yards per kickoff return, highlighted by the NFL’s only return touchdown in that span. After the bye, his production — at wide receiver and on special teams — fell off, hard. Not only did Duvernay average just 4.8 yards per punt return and 18.3 yards per kickoff return, he also seemed more willing to settle for fair catches.