Baltimore has had a tumultuous offseason, to say the least. After the Buffalo Bills dispatched them in the playoffs, Baltimore continued to lose pieces. Yannick Ngakoue and Matt Judon left town. Orlando Brown requested a trade, and Baltimore dealt him to the Kansas City Chiefs. Baltimore reunited wide receiver Sammy Watkins with offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Baltimore did retain Tyus Bowser, the most versatile of their edge pieces. In the draft, Baltimore used a pair of first-rounders to nab wide receiver Rashod Bateman (No.27) and edge Odafe Oweh (No.31).
Since the draft, Baltimore has endured a plethora of injuries. Popular breakout candidate J.K. Dobbins tore his ACL in the final preseason game. A second running back, Justice Hill, ruptured his Achilles. Both players will miss the entirety of the 2021 season. Through camp, Baltimore was rarely healthy at wide receiver or cornerback. Heading into Week 1, most names have escaped the injury report. However, Bateman is on short-term injured reserve, so he will miss the first three weeks of the season.
Baltimore did add a pair of veterans in Le’Veon Bell and Justin Houston. Bell is coming off an ineffective season with the Kansas City Chiefs, and he will begin 2021 on the practice squad. Houston was productive in 2020, but he is far from the player he used to be. Both additions are more flash than substance.
Best Position Group
Even after trading one of their draft picks, Baltimore’s premier position group is its secondary. Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters were both All-Pros in 2019. Both are among the NFL’s top 10 cornerbacks. Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young are capable number three and slot options respectively. Both are injury concerns, but they are healthy in the run-up to Week 1. DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark are average safeties, but when paired together, they are one of the better duos in the league. Baltimore is six deep in the secondary of NFL-caliber players.
The depth is enticing as well. As an organization, Baltimore thinks highly of Anthony Averett, Brandon Stephens, and Ar’Darius Washington. As of writing, Averett is the fifth corner while both Stephens and Washington will compete in the safety room. Geno Stone is another talented player to watch in the safety room. He had a tremendous preseason including a two-interception game against the New Orleans Saints.
There are a couple of honorable mentions here. In addition to Humphrey and Peters, Baltimore had three players on the 2019 All-Pro team. Lamar Jackson is one of the best players in the NFL, but the group as a whole (including Tyler Huntley) is not quite as good as the secondary.
Similarly, Ronnie Stanley is a premier left tackle, but the offensive line is in consideration for the worst position group. Justin Tucker is the best kicker in NFL history, but Baltimore’s special teams unit does not have its usual continuity entering 2021. 2020 All-Pro long snapper Morgan Cox left for Tennessee. Nick Moore will take his place. Baltimore should still have one of the better special teams units in the NFL, but Moore is a general unknown.
Worst Position Group
Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison have potential, yes, but they are currently among the worst starting off-ball linebackers in the NFL. With a season-ending injury to L.J. Fort, the Ravens are left with three linebackers who can realistically play snaps. 2012 Super Bowl champion Josh Bynes is back in town, but he is a bandage rather than an effective player. Linebackers are losing importance with each season, but Baltimore’s group is a liability at the moment.
This is not to say that it will continue to be poor, but Queen and Harrison have significant ground to cover. Queen earned a PFF grade in the 20.0s in 2020. Linebacker is a difficult position for a rookie to play, but a final grade of 29.7 is troublesome.
Harrison, to his credit, was better. However, a 52.8 is far from a viable performance. There is room to grow, and both Queen and Harrison have had their fair share of flashes, but they need to be more consistent in 2021. Queen should polish his coverage abilities and have fewer gaffes against the run. Linebacker should not be the worst position group by the end of the season, but it is for the moment.
Wide receiver would likely be a popular choice here, but Baltimore has a stable of solid players. The room is improved when adding Mark Andrews. The room does not inspire confidence with its No.1 receiver being Marquise Brown, but at least Brown is an average to an above-average player. Queen, Harrison, and Bynes are not even average.
Surprise Star Player
Even with a former All-Pro and potential Hall of Famer in Calais Campbell in the defensive line room, the standout of 2021 should be Justin Madubuike. Madubuike was a third-round pick out of Texas A&M in the 2020 draft. As a rookie, Madubuike was fairly quiet. He only recorded one sack and a pair of tackles for loss. However, he was inactive for six games including a stint on the COVID list.
Moving into 2021, expect Madubuike to have an expanded role as a pass rusher. Derek Wolfe and Calais Campbell will handle much of the early-down work as they are both still excellent run defenders. However, Madubuike will be able to unleash his explosiveness on the interior on pass-rushing downs.
Please note that this is not saying that Madubuike will compete for Defensive Player of the Year as one Peter King predicted earlier in the offseason. Madubuike is not even technically a starter for Baltimore as of Week one. The ceiling is high, but he has a lot of room to grow. Madubuike already qualifies as a solid player, and this season could be one that he becomes a good to borderline great player. The Defensive Player of the Year conversation is a long way away, however.
Beyond Madubuike, watch out for a Pro Bowl season from Gus Edwards. He is twitchier than he was early in his career, and he should be a high-profile rusher in Baltimore’s attack. Bradley Bozeman is also a breakout candidate as he is moving to his natural position at center. Queen would not be a surprise based on his first-round pedigree, but he had plenty of flashes as a rookie. If Baltimore deals with injuries en masse at wide receiver and/or cornerback, take a flier on James Proche and the aforementioned Averett.
Record and Playoffs Prediction
By most, if not all, oddsmakers, Baltimore is the favorite to win the AFC North. While Cleveland appears to have the more talented roster on paper, oddsmakers are likely leaning with the consistent culture of Baltimore and John Harbaugh. With that said, the AFC North will be won with a three-game stretch near the end of the season. In Week 12, Cleveland heads to Baltimore for Sunday Night Football.
For Week 13, Cleveland returns home for their bye week. Baltimore must turn around and head to Pittsburgh. Seven days later, Baltimore faces off with Cleveland a second time. While Baltimore’s remaining schedule is workable (with many of their toughest games coming at home), this is a brutal stretch. If Baltimore goes 3-0, they could essentially clinch the division, but it seems they will go 1-2 and suffer back-breaking divisional losses.
Otherwise, Baltimore should rattle off wins when they are not facing Kansas City. Baltimore could be favored against Kansas City, but they are more likely to lose by multiple touchdowns than win that game. With that technicality out of the way, Baltimore could be favored in 15 of their remaining 16 games. As of writing, Cleveland is likely the only team that will be favored over Baltimore. A road trip to Pittsburgh could end with Baltimore as the underdog, but the Ravens should be favored now. Late-season clashes with the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers are home games for Baltimore.
Depending on the specific oddsmaker, Baltimore is in line for 10.5 or 11.0 wins. By performing to expectation, Baltimore will make the playoffs for the fourth-straight season. However, the journey is likely to not end in a Super Bowl. As mentioned earlier, the Chiefs are Baltimore’s Kryptonite. Barring an upset of epic proportions (after all, the Chiefs have only lost to Tom Brady-led teams in the playoffs in the Patrick Mahomes era), Baltimore should finish around 11-6 and be a second-round playoff exit.
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