Ravens Reality Check: Lamar Jackson and Baltimore are suddenly Super Bowl darlings

Published 10/23/2023 3:34 p.m. EDT, Updated 10/27/2023 6:10 p.m. EDT

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs with the ball during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023.

Welcome to Ravens Reality Check, where put the Monday morning hot takes in a room and crank up the air conditioning.

For Ravens fans, this is one of those Mondays when you might be watching TV or reading recaps all day (please don’t forget to subscribe to The Banner Ravens podcast!) soaking up the good vibes after Baltimore dismantled Detroit. Here’s just some of what they’re saying:

Whew, we are starting out blistering this morning! In the eyes of ESPN analyst Ryan Clark, the Ravens have gone from a league laughingstock to the title favorite in the span of two weeks? Buckle in for the whiplash.

The Ravens’ win was definitely one of the most impressive of the season by several measures. The Ravens’ DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) against the Lions was 128.6%, a measurement of how the Ravens executed plays against the NFL average. According to DVOA inventor Aaron Schatz, it’s the highest figure of the season and the 14th-best mark ever since 1981. Clark also suggested it was Jackson’s best game ever, and there’s a good case for that considering the level of competition: His 357 passing yards were his second-highest total, and he averaged 13.2 yards per passing attempt, a gaudy figure for any quarterback.

The Ravens now boast the league’s top scoring defense, which has not allowed more than one touchdown in any game since Week 2 against the Bengals. They already had a top-five rushing offense, and now the passing offense looks to be picking up (No. 3 in yards per pass attempt at 8), and they’re in good position in the AFC North thanks to a 2-1 record and the final three division games coming at home.

There’s obviously a long way to go. Fans know all too well that, over the last few years, the Ravens often look like the NFL’s best team midseason. “Favorite” feels like a strong word, but they’ve been as good as any team with Super Bowl aspirations and are probably just two or so turnovers away from being undefeated. There will be a lot of buildup to late-season games against San Francisco and Miami, both of which will register as true test of whether Baltimore is for real. Based on what we’ve seen, the Ravens have a ton of upside.

If you’ve been following along with the Reality Check, you know that we traffic in Lamar takes, and many of them have not been particularly kind. The Backtrack of the Week (maybe this needs to be a permanent Ravens Reality Check section) goes to Stephen A. Smith, who was wondering aloud two weeks ago if Jackson wasn’t living up to his expensive contract. And this week? “I don’t know what this debate was about whether or not he’s worth the money. Of course he’s worth the money.”

But last week I drew attention to The Ringer’s Ben Solak, who this week went even further: Lamar Jackson is “clear and obvious choice” for MVP through seven weeks.

I myself wrote yesterday: “Maybe the Ravens haven’t played the league’s best quarterback because they have the league’s best quarterback,” which I know is a bold take when Patrick Mahomes exists. I’m not so convinced that Jackson is head-and-shoulders above everyone, when you look at the records and outputs of guys like Mahomes, Tua Tagovailoa and Christian McCaffrey, for example.

But the difficult-to-quantify aspects of Jackson’s game are well-chronicled by Solak: When really good defenses play the Ravens, many of them start to stumble. The Browns, Bengals and Lions all had their worst defensive weeks against Baltimore. I couldn’t help but laugh when seeing the end of this “Good Morning Football” clip when the panelists said they wanted to see a fully healthy Deshaun Watson lead the Browns against Jackson and Baltimore: Not only has Watson played far, far below Jackson’s level this season, but Jackson already torched Cleveland’s vaunted defense on the road. Did we forget?

The latest wrinkle in the Todd Monken playbook could be devastating for weeks to come: Jackson frustrated Detroit with option plays that saw him tuck the ball as if on a designed run, then pull up to throw. He had the Lions sweating his running ability, but he hurt them even more with his arm: On pass attempts of 10 yards or more, Jackson was 8-for-10, including three third-down conversions. He was distributing pretty well, too: Odell Beckham Jr., Zay Flowers and Mark Andrews each got at least six targets.

Another MVP award is definitely in the realm of possibility for Jackson given how he’s started the season, and that he’s among the league’s most efficient passers and dangerous two-way threats. Winning can propel his case over the next few weeks (my bold prediction last week was that the Ravens would finish the middle third of the season 5-1, so following that track would help).

This might not be a national hot take, but it sure it something people around town are thinking. At the forefront of Sunday’s win were safety Geno Stone, who leads the league with four interceptions; linebacker Patrick Queen, who had five tackles; and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, who had a sack and a forced fumble.

The common thread? All of them are in contract years.

Jonas Shaffer touched on this a bit last week, but the 2020 draft class is having a moment on the defensive side. Queen has been arguably the second-best player outside of Roquan Smith — he’s consistent and fast to the ball as well as a strong pass rusher. Madubuike has already tied a career high in sacks (5.5) just seven games into the season and is gaining strength as the weeks roll by. Stone has been a ball hawk who has helped absorb the injury to Marcus Williams, and there are weeks when you wonder if he might be a long-term answer at safety.

When you have a deal like the Ravens have for Jackson, there’s a ticking clock on how much you can spend for a competitive window. When you account for the cap hit of five of their most expensive players in 2024 (Jackson, Ronnie Stanley, Marlon Humphrey, Williams and Mark Andrews), the Ravens are spending more than $116 million, nearly halfway to the salary cap.

Look at the pricing for a prime defensive tackle: To crack the top-15 contracts, it costs roughly $15 million annually. The Ravens already reset the market at inside linebacker with Roquan Smith’s $100 million deal over five years; it’s reasonable to think Queen will seek an average annual value in the eight figures based on what others are making, and maybe he’ll be angling for a lot more. Stone might not break the bank, but his production this year suggests he’s at least a starting-level safety in the NFL, which likely fetches $3 to $4 million annually.

One of the biggest issues is that the Ravens already have signed players at those positions: Smith, Williams and Broderick Washington. The overlap is going to be hard to justify come next offseason, probably making it impossible to keep all three. Eric DeCosta and the front office also have well-placed faith in their draft process: indeed, some of the assumed replacements, like Trenton Simpson, are already in the pipeline.

That’s all skirting around the fact that the most difficult person to keep might be the man pulling the levers: defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. His imaginative schemes have gotten him noticed in NFL circles, and the second a coach gets fired this season, he’s probably one of the names that will be batted around.

So yeah, there’s going to be some attrition this offseason. But by and large, these are good problems to have. When teams win and succeed, players earn bigger contracts and coaches get promoted. The Ravens have to hope they can hold on this season and get back to the Super Bowl stage while all of them remain under contract.

This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Deshaun Watson’s first name.

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