The Baltimore Ravens have been a very boring team for a very long time, but things got very interesting during Ozzie Newsome's last draft when the long-time GM decided to use his final first-round pick on quarterback Lamar Jackson, selecting the former Heisman Trophy winner and (somehow) controversial quarterback as the ostensible replacement for Joe Flacco.
Flacco feels the pressure and, as CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora has detailed, the pressure is real: the Ravens know Jackson is the shot in the arm the city and franchise needs. The Ravens are fully on board with letting Lamar play as soon as he's ready.
There is a clear "all in" for Ozzie's final year too. The team went out and spent big at receiver, signing Michael Crabtree (after a potentially disastrous contract for Ryan Grant fell through), Willie Snead and John Brown. It gives them some added speed, albeit veteran speed, at the position. They also added elderly rookie tight end Hayden Hurst, a sure-handed pass catcher and capable blocker, in the first round of the draft. (Ozzie traded back up for Lamar.)
Defensively there's plenty of juice left in the orange, with Brandon Williams, Terrell Suggs, CJ Mosely and a sneakily loaded secondary featuring Jimmy Smith/Brandon Carr/Marlon Humphrey at corner and Tony Jefferson/Eric Weddle at safety.
If there was any way to know how this quarterback battle might play out, the over/under for this team --, which implies some confusion -- would be even more interesting to monitor.
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Early Schedule Analysis
Like all the AFC North teams, this is a tough schedule, because both the NFC South and AFC West -- the two best divisions in my opinion -- are on the docket. The Ravens at least get a little reprieve with their opening stretch, drawing the Bills (home), Bengals (road), Broncos (home) and Steelers (road) to start. 3-1 is on the table regardless of who is under center. The Browns and Titans wrap up a three-game road trip, which is always brutal. The Saints (home), Panthers (road) and Steelers (home) is a rough stretch before Baltimore's schedule before their Week 9 bye. The post-bye sked isn't easy, but it's manageable: if Baltimore is struggling on offense with Flacco, or below .500, I would expect to see Lamar at this point. The Bengals and Raiders at home are prime spots to unleash an exciting first-round rookie. The Falcons and Chiefs on the road are much tougher in the next two weeks, and then the Ravens wrap up with the Buccaneers (home), Chargers (road) and Browns (home). You can imagine Jackson ripping off a nice little stretch to close out. And if Flacco's playing well enough to keep the job, it means Baltimore's firmly in the playoff hunt.
Why They'll Go Over
The offense has to be better next year. Right? The wideout additions almost mean it should happen by default -- Mike Wallace was their No. 1 wideout, Ben Watson was second in receiving yards and those dudes were a combined 68 years old -- and Alex Collins looked like he could carry a full load as a physical back. If John Brown is healthy he gives Baltimore a perfect field-stretching burner to catch deep passes from Flacco. The offensive line should be a net positive again -- it was a top-10 unit last year per Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards metric and boasts the talent (Ronnie Stanley, Marshall Yanda, etc,) to repeat. The 2017 Ravens lost a whopping five games by a single score or less, including an overtime loss to the Bears and that brutal beat by the Bengals in Week 17. They only had two such wins (both by seven points) and managed to shut out three different teams over the course of the season. The Flacco/Jackson thing is a real wild card, but I look at it like this: if the Ravens are playing well early with Flacco, they're going to hit the over. If they turn to Jackson at some point, I like the over even more because I think you can design a successful Year 1 offense around Jackson's skillset if you know what you're doing.
Why They'll Go Under
Maybe Flacco and Jackson are BOTH disasters. Flacco has never led the league in a single, meaningful regular season category (including interceptions) and he caps the ceiling of this offense over the course of 16 games. Jackson might not be ready out of the box. Snead/Crabtree/Brown do not have to be a great wideout trio. The run game could stall out behind a weak passing attack. Even an elite defense against a difficult schedule could result in a 7-9 -- or worse -- season, especially if the Bengals and Browns are able to make leaps forward in terms of expectations. Lose some bottom-feeding division games and the Ravens could be in trouble. They might fold under the pressure to perform for Newsome's final season and we might see some heat surrounding John Harbaugh, who has failed to make the playoffs in the last three years. The 2012 Super Bowl victory is a long time ago -- it was Ray Lewis' final season and he's about to be inducted into the Hall of Fame before 2018.
Might be starting to like the Ravens as a sleeper this year, which is not my M.O. It might depend on the offense and the team staying healthy -- remember, they battled a crazy rash of injuries last year in training camp -- but eight wins seems too low for a team with talent on both sides of the ball, a potentially strong defense and run game and the upside that's built in with Jackson.
VERDICT: OVER (8)