NFL Futures Friday: Ravens Primed for Massive Bounce-Back Season

After a week off, I’m back with the NFL Futures Friday column. Today, we’re looking at perhaps my favorite bounce-back team in the league, the Baltimore Ravens. The 2021 season went horrendously for Baltimore as they finished 8-9 in just the second season with a losing record in the 14-year Jim Harbaugh era. However, as we look forward to 2022, several metrics suggest a massive turnaround is in store for the Ravens.

2021 Recap

The 2021 season got off to a brutal start from the jump in the injury department. The Ravens had the worst health in the NFL as they led the league in adjusted games lost to injury. Lamar Jackson missed five games, and J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards missed the entire season. Franchise left tackle Ronnie Stanley played in just one game. Cornerback Marcus Peters missed the whole season, and Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith each missed five games.

Despite the brutal injury luck, the Ravens were the #1 seed in the AFC with an 8-4 record as of December 1. However, Lamar Jackson missed the final five games, and the Ravens compiled a 1-5 record in games he missed in 2021 despite a valiant effort from backup Tyler Huntley. Detractors will point out that six of those eight early wins came by one score and were “lucky,” but plenty of metrics suggest massive positive regression in other areas.

The biggest knock on Lamar Jackson’s Ravens over the past few years has been their “predictability” and difficulties playing from behind. That was proven somewhat true in 2021 as they struggled to overcome slow starts. Over the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Baltimore had halftime leads in 78% of their games and went 25-6 overall. In 2021, the Ravens had a halftime lead in just eight of their 17 games (47%).

Baltimore punted at the sixth-highest rate in the NFL in the first half of games after punting at the fifth-lowest rate in the first half in 2020. On a per-drive basis in the first half, the Ravens fell from the seventh-highest scoring offense to 27th per Sharp Football. Their first-quarter margin of victory also fell from +171 over the 2019 and 2020 seasons to -3 in 2021.

Offensive Line and Run Game Faltered

The Ravens had been an offense built on a powerful run game and strong blocking, but that wasn’t the case in 2021. After ranking first and third in rushing DVOA in 2019 and 2020, the Ravens fell out of the top ten in 2021. The inefficient run game resulted in a much more pass-heavy Ravens offense as they had the seventh-highest pass rate on early downs last year at 61% compared to 50% in 2020 when they were the third-most run-heavy team on early downs.

Injuries to J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards left the team without their top two leading rushers, and the duo of Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray averaged just 4.2 YPC. Compare that to 5.5 YPC for Dobbins and Edwards in 2021. Lamar Jackson kept the run game afloat with his 5.8 YPC efficiency and 767 yards in 12 games, and Tyler Huntley made his best impression of the rushing QB with 294 yards on a 6.3 YPC rate in his four starts.

The offensive line also had a terrible season as it allowed pressures in 2.5 seconds or less at a 28% rate, the worst in the league per Sharp Football. Ronnie Stanley played in just one game, while Ben Powers and Patrick Mekari missed a combined eight games. Alejandro Villanueva and Kevin Zeitler were able to play in all 17 games.

However, Villanueva was terrible last year – he graded as the fifth-worst pass-blocking offensive tackle in the league per PFF (min. 964 snaps). Morgan Moses is likely an upgrade at right tackle, although he’s coming off a career-high 49 pressures allowed in 2021 with the Jets.

A return to health for Stanley would also be massive as he graded as PFF’s best pass-blocking offensive tackle in the NFL in 2019, his last healthy season. The addition of rookie Tyler Linderbaum at the center could also pay dividends.

Positive Regression is Coming for Baltimore

Everywhere you look, the Ravens should be set for a massive turnaround in statistical anomalies from last year. After ranking in the top ten in turnover margin in 2019 and 2020 – they had a +14 margin across those two seasons – the Ravens finished fifth-worst in turnover margin in 2021 at -11. After finishing top-12 in sack margin in 2019 and 2020 (+14 margin as well), Baltimore finished -23 in sack margin in 2021, which was the worst in the NFL.

Lamar Jackson is also set for a significant turnaround in his statistical production. In 2021, Jackson had a 3.4% interception rate, the highest of his career, and a 4.2% touchdown rate, the lowest since his rookie season. Jackson was sacked on a career-high 9% of his dropbacks as the offensive line struggled to keep him upright.

Jackson’s accuracy also suffered – his deep accuracy dropped from 58%, the 14th-best in the NFL, to 49%, the 25th-best. His accuracy while moving dropped from 80% (8th) to 68% (32nd) per Sharp Football. Jackson’s completion percentage was the same in 2020 as in 2021 at 64.4%, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Due to the much less efficient run game and a less accurate Jackson, the Ravens’ third-down offense suffered immensely. In 2020, Baltimore converted on third downs in the first half of games at a 53.2% rate, the third-best in the NFL. In 2021, that dropped to 33.6%, the second-worst in the league per Sharp Football.

The third-down discrepancy was especially prevalent in short-yardage situations. In 2020, the Ravens converted at an 80% rate on third downs when needing three or fewer yards, which was the third-best in the NFL. In 2021, that number dropped to a 37.5% rate, the second-worst in the league. A return to health for Dobbins and/or Edwards would immensely benefit this aspect of the offense.

Defensive Struggles

Much of this breakdown has focused on the offense, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the wild swing for the Ravens on defense last year. Due to the aforementioned injuries in the secondary, Baltimore dropped from the fourth-best passing defense by DOVA in 2019 and the tenth-best in 2020 to the third-worst in the league last year. PFF graded the Ravens with the fifth-worst team coverage grade in the NFL compared to their top-ten grades in 2019 and 2020.

As is expected for teams who struggle in coverage, the Ravens’ pass-rush production suffered as a result. Despite blitzing at the eighth-highest rate in the NFL, the Ravens still generated a below-average pressure rate. Baltimore generated just 34 sacks on the year, the ninth-fewest in the league.

The improved health and additions of veterans Marcus Williams and Kyle Fuller and rookie Kyle Hamilton make this arguably the best secondary in the NFL. In addition to the improved coverage, a second-year leap from Odafe Oweh is expected, and rookie David Ojabo’s potential midseason return from a torn Achilles could also be significant.

2022 Projections

Despite having the worst injury luck in the league, the Ravens had an 8-4 record and the #1 seed in the AFC at the beginning of December. Despite having their worst secondary production in years, the defense still allowed the fourth-fewest points in the red zone and ranked third in the third-down conversion rate allowed. Despite the offensive line collapsing and a non-existent run game, Lamar Jackson was above-average in EPA and QBR.

Now, the Ravens return their key pieces on defense and get J.K. Dobbins back to lead what should be a much more productive run game. While the loss of Marquise Brown stings, Rashod Bateman and Mark Andrews should be adequate in helping Jackson bounce back as a passer, particularly with a more balanced offensive approach.

The Ravens play the eleventh-easiest schedule this year by 2022 projected win totals and the second-easiest schedule of opposing offenses. It wouldn’t be shocking to see their defense near the top of the league in most metrics with the slate of rookie, second-year, and mediocre quarterbacks they face.

Compare their schedule to the Bengals, who face the seventh-toughest slate by opposing team win totals after facing the third-easiest schedule in 2021, and it’s easy to see which team should trend up and which should trend down. Everything went wrong for the Ravens in 2021, and they still barely missed the playoffs and finished just two games below the Bengals. I expect a lot more to go right for Baltimore this year, and I’m investing in all of their futures markets.

The AFC North should be the Ravens’ for the taking. The Bengals are likely primed for a bit of regression after their outstanding breakthrough campaign, while the Browns are staring down a lengthy Deshaun Watson suspension. While the Bills are the rightful favorites to come out of the AFC, the Ravens shouldn’t be discounted in the Super Bowl futures market. Go get them at +2000 value or better while you still can.