The Baltimore Ravens have been three distinct teams in 2021. For the first five weeks, the team was Lamar Jackson. When he was in his MVP form, the Ravens won. When he was not, the Ravens lost. Between Week 6 and Week 12, the Ravens leaned on a much-improved defense while Jackson struggled. Outside of a disastrous game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the defense was nothing short of excellent. In the last few weeks, the Ravens have been entirely undone by injuries to key positions. They have one-score losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns.
Perhaps more importantly, the Ravens lost Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey for the season in the Pittsburgh game, and Jackson sustained an ankle injury against the Browns. His status for Baltimore’s Week 15 game against the Green Bay Packers is up in the air.
Despite nearly everything going wrong for the Ravens, they enter Week 15 with the No.4 seed in the AFC. They hold a one-game lead in the AFC North, and they will have the opportunity to beat the Bengals (Week 16) and Steelers (Week 18) to lock up the division. They have difficult games with the 10-3 Packers and 9-4 Los Angeles Rams, but they just need to take care of business against the Bengals and Steelers to make the playoffs with a 10-7 record and a third AFC North crown in four years. However, this is not the same Ravens team it was supposed to be coming into the season.
Every Team Deals With Injuries
Fans of the other 31 teams will be quick to mention that their teams have dealt with injuries. Dozens of former All-Pros or Pro Bowlers have missed time in 2021, however, no team has been undermined as much as the 2021 Ravens have.
Out of the 30 or so players that the Ravens expect to be productive in a given week, almost all of them have been injured at some point in the 2021 season.
It starts with Jackson who is nursing an injury as of writing, and he missed Week 11 with an illness. Baltimore’s projected top-two running backs for 2022 combined for zero carries in 2021 (J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards). Even Baltimore’s third running back entering 2021 was injured (Justice Hill). Patrick Ricard, the second-best fullback in the NFL, is currently injured. Marquise Brown also missed Week 11. Rashod Bateman missed the first five weeks of the season with an injury, and Sammy Watkins missed three games in the middle of the season.
Mark Andrews is on pace for a full healthy season, but Nick Boyle has played in just two games. The interior of Baltimore’s offensive line has been healthy, but their top three tackles for 2022 are all out for the time being. Ronnie Stanley played one game. Ja’Wuan James is projected to start at right tackle for the Ravens in 2022, but he has played just three games since 2019 began. Swing tackle Patrick Mekari has missed three games.
It Gets Worse
Defensive stalwart Calais Campbell missed Week 12, and he is currently injured. Derek Wolfe will miss the entire season. Justin Madubuike and Justin Houston have each missed one game. Brandon Williams and Pernell McPhee have both missed four games. The trio of Patrick Queen, Odafe Oweh, and Tyus Bowser has been completely healthy, however. In the rest of the linebacking corps, Josh Bynes missed three games, and L.J. Fort missed the entire season. Malik Harrison has also missed three games.
Perhaps no position room in the NFL has been more snake-bitten than the Ravens’ cornerback room. Of the six that were projected to start the season, more have played zero games for the Ravens than have played all 13 of them. Marcus Peters tore his ACL before the season began. Shaun Wade was traded before the season, and he has played two games for the New England Patriots. His replacement, Chris Westry, has played in just four games.
Humphrey will end up missing five games with a season-ending shoulder injury. Anthony Averett is on the injury report every week, but he has only missed one game. Jimmy Smith has missed five games. Ironically, Tavon Young is on pace to play as many games in 2021 as he did in his previous four seasons. For those counting at home, the Ravens’ top six cornerbacks have played 49 of 78 games. They’ll miss at least eight more with Humphrey and Peters’ season-ending injuries.
The safety room was not immune from the injury bug. Chuck Clark has maintained solid health, but his partner-in-crime DeShon Elliott will end up missing 11 games with a season-ending injury. Of Baltimore’s base defense, five of the 11 are on season-ending injured reserve.
The Bottom Line
Every team deals with injuries, but the Ravens have had a rash of injuries at three key positions. Sure, the New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans have been ravaged with injuries, but their only group injuries came at tackle and wide receiver respectively. The Packers have not had the services of three All-Pro caliber players for much of the season, but David Bakhtiari, Jaire Alexander, and Za’Darius Smith play three different positions. The Ravens have had at least three serious injuries in their running back room, their tackle room, and their cornerback room. Of the nine injuries, only James’ was planned for. The Ravens have reasonable depth, but the depth erodes quickly when everyone is injured.
What’s Next in 2021?
The Ravens could end the season on a six-game losing streak no matter if Jackson is healthy or not. They have built themselves a solid cushion, and they would own several key tiebreakers, but they have a brutal last month of the season. Each of their final four opponents either beat them head-to-head or is at least five games above .500.
2022 and Beyond
For any realistic expectation, 2021 deserves an incomplete grade. The Ravens have lost so many pieces on both sides of the ball that they are bordering on uncompetitive. When fully healthy, the Ravens are among the best teams in the NFL, but when the injury roster reads like a novel, there is little John Harbaugh can do.
If there is any solace that the Ravens Flock can take, 2022 is shaping up to be one of the best teams the Ravens have ever had. The Ravens will need to retain some potential free agents (or replace them through the draft), but much of the roster is intact for 2022. No player is a guarantee to return to full strength from injury, but the names on the roster are encouraging. Baltimore should return to having an elite rushing offense with the three-headed monster of Jackson, Dobbins, and Edwards in the backfield. The receiving corps is the best the Ravens have ever had with Andrews, Brown, and Bateman. All six of those players are under contract already.
In terms of skill positions, the Ravens should look to re-sign Ricard, but the services of Watkins, Latavius Murray, and Devonta Freeman may not be needed. Devin Duvernay and James Proche can fill much of the role Watkins has in the current offense. Murray and Freeman could be replaced with a late-round or undrafted free agent running back.
For the offensive line, four spots are locked in with Stanley and James manning the tackle positions, Ben Cleveland or Ben Powers at left guard, and Kevin Zeitler at right guard. Bradley Bozeman will likely be extended and be Baltimore’s long-term center. Mekari is a restricted free agent, and the Ravens should look to re-sign him to be the priority backup for all five offensive line spots. The Ravens should have an average (at worst) player in all five spots.
The defensive outlook is hazier, but the projections could be promising. The defensive line could take a hit as Campbell, Brandon Williams, and Houston are unrestricted free agents, but they are veterans who could sign a one-year deal to have an opportunity at a Super Bowl. (Keep in mind that a potential Jackson extension would not kick in until the 2023 season). Fort is an unrestricted free agent, but the Ravens have seen some development from Queen. The Ravens could look to get younger through the draft or free agency.
Four of the five defensive back slots are filled. Humphrey, Peters, Young (as the slot cornerback), and Clark should be Week 1 starters. The free safety is in flux with Elliott due for a new contract. He is not a great fit as a free safety, and he has been a major injury risk, but he could be retained in unrestricted free agency. Smith is likely gone, and Averett could garner more money elsewhere. Depth could be an issue, but the main pieces are in place.
2021 has not gone to plan. The Ravens are not dead yet, but they might as well be. Even if they were able to sneak into the playoffs, they would likely be stomped by a vastly superior team. There is a silver lining as most of the injured players suffered their injuries early enough in the 2021 cycle for them to not linger into 2022 (as Boyle’s 2020 midseason torn ACL did). A fourth-place finish in the AFC North would also fetch an easier 2022 schedule, helping Baltimore. It is unfortunate, but the dominoes are lining up for the Ravens to have a successful last hurrah before Jackson’s mammoth extension kicks in.
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