The five most important offseason storylines for the Ravens

Lamar Jackson’s status is obviously No. 1, but there are plenty of other concerns.

Published 1/16/2023 6:00 a.m. EST

Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens looks on in the first quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on September 11, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

CINCINNATI — As inside linebacker Patrick Queen considered the end of the Ravens’ 2022 season, Sunday night’s 24-17 playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals not even an hour old, he thought back to how the year had started.

Before the Ravens’ AFC wild-card-round game, before their regular season, before all of their offseason obligations and preseason work, they had watched the Pittsburgh Steelers end their 2021 season. That Week 18 overtime defeat in Baltimore had been a springboard, launching the Ravens into a year that built up to “moments like this,” Queen said.

Sunday night hadn’t delivered enough happy moments, but that was “grown-men football,” Queen said. Just because 2021 and 2022 ended in heartbreak didn’t mean 2023 would have to.

“Just the progress that we’ve made, and the chemistry that we all have, I know a lot of us will be back,” Queen said. “We’ll have a pretty good shot at it again next year. It’s not like we’re doing a whole rebuild or anything. We just have to come back and put the work in the offseason, don’t dwell on this too much, let it motivate us, and then come out there next season.”

The offseason is underway in Baltimore, and it won’t be a boring one. Here are five questions that Ravens coach John Harbaugh, general manager Eric DeCosta and owner Steve Bisciotti will have to consider in the months ahead:

1. What happens with Lamar Jackson?

The biggest question of the playoffs is now the biggest question of the offseason. Rarely does a player with Jackson’s resume — 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player, two Pro Bowl appearances in five years, and record-breaking rushing and passing totals — ever come close to reaching free agency.

The Ravens aren’t expected to let him get there. Beyond cap savings, the most they could get for letting Jackson walk this offseason would be a compensatory third-round draft pick next year.

That leaves them with two options: Sign Jackson to a record-breaking extension or tag him by March 7. Contract negotiations have dragged on over the past two offseasons, slowed last year by Jackson’s reported insistence on getting a fully guaranteed deal. With injuries sidelining Jackson for another late-season stretch, the Ravens probably won’t bow to Deshaun Watson-esque demands.

If the Ravens have to tag Jackson, an exclusive franchise tag seems most likely. A one-year tender would be worth a projected $45 million, a significant raise from Jackson’s $23 million salary in 2022, and would give the Ravens more time to negotiate an extension — or perhaps find a trade partner. The cost for such a deal would be high, likely several first-round picks.

A non-exclusive franchise tag would be cheaper (approximately $32 million) but would allow Jackson to negotiate with other teams. If he signed an offer sheet with another team, the Ravens could match or receive two first-round picks as compensation from the signing team.

A transition tag tender, similarly, would be worth about $30 million, meanwhile, and would give the Ravens the right of first refusal if another team offers a deal. If the Ravens matched the contract’s terms, Jackson would have to re-sign.

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Team officials last year maintained that they were committed to Jackson long term, and keeping him in Baltimore next season would give the Ravens one of the NFL’s most talented rosters. But Jackson’s injury history, stubbornness in negotiations and approach to his job, which has occasionally rankled coaches and officials, could force their hand.

2. Will Greg Roman return as offensive coordinator?

OWINGS MILLS, MD - JULY 28: Offensive coordinator Greg Roman of the Baltimore Ravens watches play during training camp at Under Armour Performance Center Baltimore Ravens on July 28, 2021 in Owings Mills, Maryland.

Three seasons after Roman was named the Associated Press’ NFL Assistant Coach of the Year, his approval rating in Baltimore might be at an all-time low.

The Ravens’ offense was one of the NFL’s worst over the second half of the season, when Jackson’s injury thrust Tyler Huntley and Anthony Brown into starting roles after Week 13. But even Jackson struggled when the Ravens’ ground game ran into trouble.

After a torrid first four weeks, the offense averaged 0.00 expected points added per play when Jackson was on the field, which would’ve ranked in the middle of the pack leaguewide over that same 14-week span. After their Week 10 bye, the Ravens averaged minus-0.11 EPA per play with Jackson, according to TruMedia, which would’ve ranked in the bottom quartile of the NFL in that span.

Familiar issues in the passing game persisted. The Ravens’ crowded route spacing led to dangerous or easily defended throws. Fullback Patrick Ricard, a lightly used receiver, was a frequent presence on third-and-long plays. Screen passes and run-pass-option plays were often ignored or underutilized. The Ravens’ best plan in some weeks was to let Jackson create on his own.

Even as Harbaugh defended Roman and the Ravens’ offense, which finished 12th in opponent-adjusted efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, his frustration with Roman’s management down the stretch sometimes spilled over into news conferences.

After wide receiver James Proche II had his double-reverse pass intercepted in an eventual win over the Denver Broncos, Harbaugh said that, “in hindsight, [it was] just not a good call in the sense of, it was a bad play.”

After running back Gus Edwards finished with just three carries in a Week 17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harbaugh said that “Gus should have played more, there’s no doubt about it. Really no excuse for that.”

After a Week 15 loss to the Cleveland Browns in which the Ravens all but abandoned a successful rushing attack, Roman’s hot seat reached a public boil. Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser shared on Instagram that someone had left handwritten flyers that read “Fire Greg Roman” outside the entrance to the team’s facility, writing on Instagram in the hours after the game: “Well alright then.”

And on Sunday, running back J.K. Dobbins fumed over his lack of goal-line touches, most of which went to Gus Edwards. “I’m a guy who feels like if I’m on the field all the time, I can help this team win, and I wasn’t,” he said. “It’s the playoffs. Why am I not out there?”

3. How will the Ravens create more salary cap space?

Joe Flacco #19 of the New York Jets called for intentional grounding after being pressured by Calais Campbell #93 of the Baltimore Ravens at MetLife Stadium on September 11, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

The Ravens would have $40.1 million in space, according to salary cap website Spotrac, if the 2023 cap were set at $225 million. But that flexibility would disappear as soon as Jackson signed his franchise tag tender.

The Ravens’ preference would be to have Jackson sign a long-term extension, which would reduce Jackson’s cap hit next season. If their negotiations go nowhere, they’d have to look elsewhere for savings.

They could restructure contracts. They could ask veterans to take pay cuts. But their most likely recourse would be cutting players. Even potential starters could be at risk.

Edwards, whose 2021 knee injury limited him to just nine games over the past two seasons, has a $4.4 million salary in 2023, the final year of his extension. If he’s released, he’d count just $1.3 million against the cap.

Safety Chuck Clark, a team leader who hasn’t missed a defensive snap over the past three seasons, has a $6.3 million cap hit that would drop to $2.6 million if he’s released. The Ravens have solid depth at the position, as reserve Geno Stone showed over his seven-start stint, and parting ways with Clark would allow Kyle Hamilton to move into a more deep-lying role in the defense.

Defensive lineman Calais Campbell, who has said he’d consider retirement after this year, has a $8.9 million cap hit in 2023. That charge would drop to $2.4 million if he’s released. The Ravens could also look into restructuring his deal.

4. Who’s next in line for an extension?

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen (6) celebrates a tackle with linebacker Roquan Smith during the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, in Baltimore.

The sooner the Ravens can figure out their financial commitment to Jackson, the sooner DeCosta can move on to taking care of business elsewhere. Players are eligible for contract extensions after their third season, and the Ravens have a handful of young standouts who’ve positioned themselves nicely.

Atop that list is Queen, who emerged as one of the NFL’s best inside linebackers this season. Roquan Smith’s five-year, $100 million contract extension showed the Ravens aren’t afraid of investing in the position, but the deal might also make DeCosta less likely to give Queen a top-of-the-market contract.

The Ravens have until May 1 to decide whether to exercise the fifth-year option on Queen’s rookie deal, which currently runs through 2023. Keeping him around in 2024 would cost a projected $11.6 million. The annual value of a long-term deal would be a lot higher.

A handful of other 2020 picks could be in line for extensions: Dobbins, who’s averaged 5.9 yards per carry over three injury-marred years; wide receiver Devin Duvernay, a two-time Pro Bowl returner; and defensive linemen Justin Madubuike, who set a career high in sacks (5 1/2), and Broderick Washington Jr., another stalwart run defender.

(DeCosta’s first draft class, meanwhile, might be gone by next season. Only left guard Ben Powers and running back Justice Hill remain of the team’s 2019 picks, and Powers’ emergence likely knocked him out of the Ravens’ price range, while Hill could be replaced cheaply in the draft.)

More urgent decisions are on the horizon, with a handful of defensive contributors set to hit free agency. Cornerback Marcus Peters didn’t recapture his pre-injury form this year but is a beloved teammate and proven ball hawk. Justin Houston, 33, led the team in sacks, and fellow outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, 34, was a strong run defender. Defensive lineman Brent Urban was a reliable rotational piece.

On offense, the Ravens have decisions to make with Demarcus Robinson, who led all Ravens wide receivers in yardage, and tight end Josh Oliver, who developed into a powerful blocker, among others.

5. Will the Ravens address their wide receiver position?

Rashod Bateman #7 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates a touchdown alongside Demarcus Robinson #10 of the Baltimore Ravens in the third quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on September 11, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

The Ravens have looked for passing-game help in the draft year after year. They just haven’t found much production. For the third time in the past four seasons, Ravens wide receivers finished 2022 last in the NFL in receiving yards (1,517), undercut by injuries, inconsistency, Roman’s scheme and inefficient quarterback play.

Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay, when healthy, were a solid foundation. Bateman had 226 receiving yards over his first three games and averaged 2.38 yards per route run overall (20th among NFL wide receivers), according to Pro Football Focus. Duvernay was a productive early-season complementary piece (226 receiving yards over his first five games) who stressed defenses with his running ability.

But the Ravens will enter the offseason with the same old questions about the group. Bateman has played in just 18 games over his first two seasons, the team’s latest first-round wide receiver to be trailed by injury concerns. He struggled with drops in 2022 and, depending on how his rehab from Lisfranc surgery progresses, could play 2023 with screws in his left foot.

Duvernay’s second-half production cooled off considerably for the second straight year. In his final five games with Jackson, he had 15 catches for just 96 yards. Even before Duvernay suffered a season-ending foot fracture, his trademark burst seemed missing.

Beyond that, there’s not much. Robinson could be elsewhere next season, and Tylan Wallace and Proche combined for 12 catches and 95 yards on 24 targets.

Without more salary cap space, a high-profile acquisition could be difficult. The Arizona Cardinals will reportedly look this offseason to trade wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, a five-time Pro Bowl selection whom the Ravens have looked into acquiring before. But he’d be owed a $19.5 million salary in 2023, a big bill for a 30-year-old who’s played in just 19 games over the past two seasons.