It was a somber Monday at the Ravens training facility last week, and the garbage bags lined up at each locker only added to the impression that this Baltimore season was being packed up before its time.
But rooting around, a handful of players uncovered a few gems. Tyler Linderbaum found an unlit cigar — a celebratory trinket from Brent Urban after his son Levi was born in August — in his locker, along with shorts and a hat that had been missing for much of the season. Linderbaum passed the stogie under his nose, savoring the pleasant thought on an otherwise dour day.
“The cigar was a good memory,” Linderbaum said. “You always find those little things like that.”
Baltimore fans may be scrounging around similarly through the wreckage of an AFC championship loss, trying to find hope amid the disappointment. The Ravens are almost certain to change a lot next season, but there were glimmers of potential from a handful of players who will return. Here’s who will have to step up next season on a roster in flux.
Tier 1: Still-surging stars
We’ve asked plenty of times in this space: What can’t Kyle Hamilton do? This season, that was difficult to answer, as he was one of the best cover safeties in the NFL, blew up screens and sacked quarterbacks. The area Hamilton needs to grow the most in, according to Pro Football Focus, is stopping the run, and he also had a couple nagging injuries that were the only real thing that could keep him off the field. Another year in an NFL strength program could help both areas.
It’s unclear what Geno Stone’s future is, and Marcus Williams struggled through much of the season with a pectoral injury. Hamilton is the force-multiplier that the Ravens defense needs in the secondary. He’s a different player than Ed Reed, but he has the same game-breaking influence when he’s at his best.
With an offensive line that has some huge question marks, Tyler Linderbaum is the Raven’s steady lynchpin. He earned PFF’s highest passing block grade of any center and secured a trip to the Pro Bowl. Linderbaum is smaller than some of his elite opponents, and the separation between him and centers like Jason Kelce or Frank Ragnow seems to be run-blocking. Linderbaum was solid on runs and had some epic plays, including against Houston when Lamar Jackson was drawing up the middle. Linderbaum helps make the middle of the line play better than the sum of its parts at times, which will be even more necessary if the Ravens go with less experience at guard next season.
Tier 2: Upward trajectory
It’s now quite obvious that Isaiah Likely has talent. The biggest question remains how the Ravens get the most out of it. Mark Andrews and Likely thrived in the starting role, but when they were both on the field, it didn’t seem there were enough passes to go around. On the depth chart, Andrews is a more established playmaker, a better blocker and (of course) better paid. It’s going to be hard, still, for Likely to beat him out for reps in one-TE packages. But Likely’s aerial ability and soft hands have to count for something — he’s possibly the third-best receiver returning next season. It’ll be on Todd Monken (and Jackson, frankly) to figure out how to keep Likely hot even when Andrews is healthy.
Lost in the hype around Justin Madubuike and a new contract for Michael Pierce, second-year DT Travis Jones was a very solid rotational tackle for the Ravens. His PFF grade was 38th among interior defenders, behind Pro Bowler Zach Sieler and ahead of respected defenders like Buffalo’s Ed Oliver. He quietly jumped Broderick Washington, who has a more significant contract, in the DT pecking order. Tipping the scales at 338 pounds, Jones’ physicality will be required, especially with uncertainty hanging over Madubuike’s future with the team. The depth Jones provides is already valuable, but maybe there’s upside to squeeze out of him.
The ultimate goal of a corner is to never be noticed. That might be why Brandon Stephens flew under the radar last season. It was pretty much forgotten that he only started at the position this year because the preseason depth was so thin. But Stephens, 26, seems to have found his positional home. He played 99% of the defensive snaps last year, and was targeted a team-high 108 times in the regular season, but held his own (11 passes defended, a career-low 6.6 yards per completion). Advanced metrics grade out just OK for Stephens, but it doesn’t give the context that he was often covering the toughest receiving threats. It’s worth wondering what a full offseason as a corner can do for Stephens, who was initially regarded as a temporary solution but now feels to be a key piece in an elite defense.
Tier 3: Waiting in the wings
Since he was drafted, inside linebacker Trenton Simpson was quickly penciled in as the presumptive replacement for Patrick Queen, cleats that now seem even larger to fill than last spring. DeCosta suggesting Queen will have the chance to test free agency felt like an acknowledgement that the Ravens don’t actually have the cap space to bring him back. Simpson didn’t have a huge role this season, but in the last regular season game against the Steelers, he played well — notably earning attaboys from even Queen himself. While we have yet to see how Zach Orr will change this defense, you can bet the former inside linebackers coach will continue to put a ton of responsibility on that position group. If Simpson gets the nod to start next year, he’ll have to be ready for a whole lot more on his plate.
It almost feels unfair to expect much from outside linebacker David Ojabo at this point. His career has been derailed by injuries. But with the uncertainty around Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy coming back next year, that means the Ravens are accounting for 18.5 sacks potentially not returning. Even if you think the sack success was about the system and not the personnel, there are questions with Mike Macdonald and Anthony Weaver getting promotions elsewhere (though notably OLB coach Chuck Smith comes back). When they drafted Ojabo, the Ravens knew they had to be patient, but two years in, they haven’t gotten much. Year Three feels make-or-break for the former Michigan standout. Hopefully he’s healthy enough to give himself a shot.
On the offensive line, there are a few candidates, but it seems apropos to remind folks about a seventh-round draft pick who was almost a footnote last spring: former USC lineman Andrew Vorhees. After suffering an ACL tear in the predraft process, Vorhees fell from a possible second-day pick to the Ravens, who traded back in the draft to get him. He was a longtime starter for the Trojans and his scouting profile reflects a fundamentally sound blocker. There are big questions at guard, with Kevin Zeitler up in the air and John Simpson (who had a solid season) not necessarily a lock as the long-term answer. We haven’t heard much about Vorhees in the last year, but it will be interesting to see if the 2023 draft pick might be able to make a splash in camp.