Every year the NFL produces a handful of breakout performers that make the playoffs. In 2021, the Las Vegas Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, Arizona Cardinals, and Philadelphia Eagles emerged as a surprise. Each had expectations to be somewhere between below average and average, but not solid playoff teams.
But on the other hand, others had to fall short of expectations to help those teams break through. Injuries played a large part in the disappointing campaigns of the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints, and Minnesota Vikings.
After seeing the free agency frenzy and 2022 NFL draft play out, no team has a bigger boom-or-bust season on deck than the Ravens. Baltimore finished 8-9 in 2021 despite losing five games of Lamar Jackson, a full season from several other impact players, and a breakout year from Cincinnati. It might be easy to do the math of reintegrating those talented players and project a healthy year from Jackson, but the NFL doesn't work like that.
We'll dive into three key areas of why the Ravens could again miss the playoffs in 2022 or reestablish themselves as a Super Bowl contender. An extreme season either way could have major ramifications on how the franchise proceeds with Jackson's contract.
Sink or Swim with Greg Roman
The 2021 season continued the Ravens' descent from their astonishing 14-2 finish in 2019, dipping to 11-5 in 2020 and down to 8-9 last season.
After two disappointing divisional-round losses in the two prior seasons where the offense was exposed as one-dimensional, offensive coordinator Greg Roman had to get away from his run-heavy game plans with Jackson. Unfortunately, injuries to left tackle Ronnie Stanley and running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards erased the explosive element of the run game.
Roman responded with a vastly different offensive attack after accounting for the limited personnel. The Ravens finished last in the NFL in both 2019 and 2020 in passing attempts and first in the run game. Baltimore still had the third-most attempts and yards in 2021, but its passing attempts swelled to the ninth-highest in the league.
The result was predictable, considering the Ravens' issues along their offensive line and an uninspiring receiving group. Jackson was sacked a career-high 38 times at a career-high nine percent sack rate.
His touchdown rate dropped from 9.0 percent in 2019 and 6.9 percent in 2020 to just 4.2 percent. Jackson's interception rate jumped dramatically to 3.4 percent, which ranked 31st. This iteration of the offense clearly didn't work.
Some of that was due to the personnel. Nonetheless, Roman failed to build a creative passing game that elevated the receivers above their talent level or evolved the rushing game beyond read-option looks that never threatened the defense.
Baltimore has entrusted their offensive identity to Roman once again in 2022 after retooling the personnel.
The good news is the offensive line should be much better. Getting Stanley back is massive, and the addition of right tackle Morgan Moses provides stability and much-improved pass protection. Joining them will be first-round center Tyler Linderbaum.
The primary issue with Baltimore is its receiving corps. The Ravens opted to trade receiver Marquise "Hollywood" Brown for a first-round pick that resulted in Linderbaum but have not added a notable talent to take his place. This is despite the team's knowledge of Brown's trade request since the start of the offseason and the fact that they didn't need to fulfill his request since he had two more years of control on his contract.
Barring a trade or a free-agent signing, Roman will rely heavily on elite tight end Mark Andrews, 2021 first rounder Rashod Bateman and a bevy of former middle-round picks who showed next to nothing over the last two years. Even Bateman needs to prove he can consistently get open since Roman's scheme lacks creative concepts that spring big plays for receivers.
Brown had his faults, but he was a respected deep threat and trusted receiver for Jackson. Taking away his element limits the upside for offensive design. Roman will have to balance his approach to avoid overly relying on running the ball like in 2019 and 2020 and having Jackson perform straightforward dropbacks like in 2021.
Banking on Recoveries
Every NFL team deals with injuries at some point, so a team's depth and ability to scheme for missing playmakers go a long way in withstanding tough losses. By mid-December, Baltimore's starting lineup had become a desolate shell of what it once was.
We already mentioned the return of Jackson, Stanley, Dobbins and Edwards, but several other game-changers are set to hit the field at some point in 2022. Marlon Humphrey missed five games, while Marcus Peters and Derek Wolfe missed the entire season.
If each comes back to play 17 games and Bateman develops into a reliable solid starter, the Ravens should expect to be among the top overall AFC teams. Jackson, even with a dip in his numbers, is an extremely smart passer who made the most out of what was available last year. His accuracy and touch continued to improve on difficult throws, even if his numbers didn't always show it.
The defense will get a crucial boost if Humphrey and Peters return to their usual form, as both are ballhawks and impactful coverage defenders. Few teams can withstand the loss of two starting corners—especially ones as good as Humphrey and Peters—and survive. Baltimore's dip to 19th in points allowed and 25th in yards allowed after being a top-seven defense in both categories in prior years is understandable.
Factor in the addition of safeties Marcus Williams and Kyle Hamilton, plus the development of linebacker Patrick Queen and edge-rusher Odafe Oweh, and this defense should again be effective.
Granted, the Ravens are counting on healthy recoveries for three torn ACLs (Dobbins, Peters, and Edwards), a pectoral tear (Humphrey), and two ankle injuries (Jackson and Stanley) to help reestablish themselves as an elite team in what is already a stacked division and conference. Baltimore can't stomach the loss of any of these players besides Edwards for an extended period of time in 2022.
If any suffers a setback or isn't performing at the level Baltimore needs from them, the divisional competition will eat at its playoff odds.
Forget the rest of the AFC—which includes a loaded West division, the Buffalo Bills, an Indianapolis Colts team with Matt Ryan, and the Tennessee Titans—the Ravens need to survive their own division. The AFC North alone will provide six difficult battles for Baltimore.
DraftKings has the Cleveland Browns as the favorites to win the division, followed by the Bengals, then the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The race is expected to be tight, so the margin for error is slim.
We still haven't received any clarity on whether the NFL will suspend new Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson as he faces 22 civil lawsuits for allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. If Watson only misses a handful of games, Cleveland's deep roster may be able to survive in the playoff race without him. It's also possible its Week 7 showdown against the Ravens is the first time Watson plays for the Browns.
The Bengals are an obvious threat after their Super Bowl appearance last year, fielding a ton of offensive firepower and an underrated defense. The Ravens surrendered 41 points in each of their two matchups last season.
Pittsburgh doesn't appear to be as much of a challenge after losing Ben Roethlisberger and replacing him with Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett. However, the Steelers haven't had a losing season under head coach Mike Tomlin yet and still beat the Ravens in both of their games in 2021.
It's possible the Ravens prove skeptics wrong, either by staying healthy and seeing the offense become more diverse or outperforming their previous levels of play. Any type of setback could mean they're battling in the final weeks for a wild-card spot or not in the race at all. They simply don't have the roster depth or proven, healthy playmaking their peers do entering this critical season.
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