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State of the Franchise: Lamar Jackson, Ravens ready to level up?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Baltimore Ravens organization, Ravens fans around the world and those of you who will argue that The Wire was a much better drama than The Shield

Last year. It was a ride -- until that awful ending. In that way, the Ravens' 2019 season was like Avengers: Infinity War, where you enjoy yourself for the first 10 hours of the movie, and then the final stanza has you reeling to the point where you go out to your car and sit behind the wheel for 38 minutes before you're able to drive away. Except instead of being snapped into dust by Thanos, the Ravens lost a playoff stunner to a 9-7 Titans team. But there is good reason for Baltimore fans to be optimistic headed into 2020.

How the Ravens got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs: 

  • Lamar Jackson winning the MVP award. Jackson was the first Raven to claim the award, and the first Baltimore quarterback to do it since the Colts' Bert Jones in 1976. Yes, like you, I was surprised to find that Johnny Unitas (1959, 1964, '67) wasn't the last Baltimore QB to be MVP, with Earl Morrall (1968) also earning the honor in the interim. 
  • Winning 12 consecutive games to finish 14-2. This stretch vaulted the team from beatable by the Browns territory (marked by the Week 4 blowout loss to Cleveland) to conference juggernaut territory. The winning streak included a home triumph over their foes from Super Bowl XLVII, the San Francisco 49ers -- and many thought the matchup would be a preview of Super Bowl LIV. 
  • Sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers. Did you know that in the intense rivalry between the two clubs, one team has swept the season series in three of the last five years (with the Ravens doing it twice)? Does that seem odd to any of you? Nope? Because you're Ravens fans and already knew that? Fine. 

The lows:

  • Losing to the Browns. LOL. 
  • Suffering another early exit in the playoffs. Since winning Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens have made the playoffs three times, never making it past the Divisional Round. This time, Baltimore was beaten by a Titans squad that back-doored its way into the postseason. We'll have to dig a little deeper on that in a moment. Because some might feel it's the beginning of the end. I'm going to go the other way.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: John Harbaugh. Let me tell you a little something about John Harbaugh. Dude is a great coach -- because he's willing to adapt to the style of his players rather than the other way around. That's the way the good ones do it. You don't want to be a Bud Kilmer-type who has only one way to do it and never changes his ways. That's how you get "future endeavored." (And allow your injured quarterback to call the plays after you walk out after halftime.) Instead, you want to view your relationship with your players like, well, a relationship; rather than trying to make someone something they're not, you take what they do best and make them even better. This is likely a big reason Harbaugh has just one losing season (2015) in his 12-year coaching career. He knows what he's doing.

Harbaugh found a pretty good formula with Lamar Jackson in 2018 and (wait for it) RAN with it. Oh yes, that pun was definitely intended. But the first great move heading into the 2019 season was placing Greg Roman into the offensive coordinator role. Roman, who had served as OC for John's brother, Jim, with the San Francisco 49ers, had a lot of success designing plays for Colin Kaepernick. And John figured Roman would be able to get the best of Jackson. Well, Baltimore ranked second in total offense and first in rushing offense while tying for second in the red zone and first in big plays.

Quarterback: Lamar Jackson. This is my guy. I was begging teams to select him on draft night in 2018. (The Ravens finally relented with the 32nd overall pick.) I begged you all to take him in your fantasy leagues last year. I'm a pretty big Lamar Jackson fan, so it is no surprise to me that he's already successful in the NFL. Did I think he was going to be MVP in his second season, his first full year as a starter in the NFL? I have to say I did not. It was a historic effort. He was the first player in NFL history to register 3,000-plus passing yards and 1,000-plus rushing yards in a single season. He also had a passer rating north of 100.

And that was after Jackson potentially saved Harbaugh's job with a 6-1 run as starter during his rookie season, with the only blemish coming in Kansas City after Patrick Mahomes converted an absolute prayer on fourth down to extend a drive late in the fourth quarter. (As an aside, maybe this is why that proposal to let teams take the ball on fourth-and-15 as an alternative to onside kicks has been tabled.) Jackson is 19-3 over his two seasons (including 13-2 last year). And the really scary part is, he's just 23 years old (his birthday is in January). He's younger than 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow (who I just discovered shares a birthday with Matt Forte and me) and already has all of those NFL wins.

Projected 2020 MVP: Lamar. Jackson. I mean, I could try to make the case for another player. But when you're the reigning MVP of the league, then you're sort of the MVP of the entire team. That checks out, right?

2020 breakout star: Marquise Brown, wide receiver. Brown announced his presence by catching an 83-yard touchdown bomb from Lamar in Week 1 in Miami for just the second reception of his career (the first was also a touchdown!), and he went on to be everything the Ravens wanted him to be. He led Baltimore receivers with seven touchdown catches, which might not look great -- until you consider he was playing for the team that attempted the fewest passes in the NFL last season. It's the difference between running a mile on flat land and running a mile on one of those crazy treadmills from the Eliminator on American Gladiators. It's almost like Randy Moss in 2007. All right, all right. That was too far. But Brown was good. I will also point out that injuries took their toll on him last year -- Brown was limited in the preseason because of a foot injury, and after returning from an ankle injury that cost him two games in Week 9, he did not run more than 25 routes in any game last season -- which means we can expect a big spike in production from him if he can stay healthy in 2020. The fact that he had a screw removed from his foot this offseason is an encouraging sign.

Fantasy tip: Brown was one of the best players in fantasy points per routes run, grouped in with guys like Michael Thomas, A.J. Brown, Tyreek Hill, Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins. I'm just saying, you probably should draft him in your leagues this season.

New face to know: Calais Campbell, defensive end. The rebuilding Jaguars gave the five-time Pro Bowler to the Ravens in the way that your neighbor who wants to throw away a mini-fridge insists on letting you have it for free, refusing payment and forcing you to leave a sixer of Stone IPAs on his front door as a thank you. In fact, a sixer of Stone IPAs is more than Jacksonville got for Campbell, with Baltimore sending over a fifth-round pick for one of the best dudes in football, both on and off the field. This was a confounding decision by a Jaguars team that extracted a king's ransom for Jalen Ramsey and apparently wasn't willing to part with Yannick Ngakoue for less than a high-end pick -- and it had to steam the rest of the AFC North. 

Campbell has been down this road before. Broncos fans were livid when he spurned his hometown team as a free agent to join the Jaguars in 2017. My friends down in Duval County went to the AFC Championship Game that season. The expectation should be heightened for the Ravens. With Campbell on board and Matthew Judon back to harangue quarterbacks, this Ravens defense could be even better than last season's edition, which ranked first in the NFL from Week 7 to 17 in points allowed per game (14.2), total yards allowed per game (270.8) and opponent passer rating (71.8). 

It's worth noting, again, that Campbell seems like one of the best human beings on the planet, meaning his impact in the locker room should be immeasurable.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: EXTREMELY HIGH. You can't go into the season with a top-five-ish coach, the reigning MVP and an offseason addition like Campbell without thinking your ultimate goal should be the Super Bowl. Nobody is on the hot seat. Nobody is going to be fired. But anything less than a trip to the Super Bowl is going to feel like a letdown. Kind of like Avengers: Endgame. (Be honest; that move was terrible.)  

Three key dates:

  • Week 3 vs. Chiefs. It's amazing when Monday Night Football gets a matchup as great as the Ravens vs. the defending Super Bowl champs, rather than the game being pushed to Sunday or Thursday. It feels like the good old days.
  • Week 12 at Steelers. The series against the Steelers will conclude on Thanksgiving night at Pittsburgh. Look, I'm all for having these great games on Thanksgiving, and this is the perfect night cap. 
  • Week 17 at Bengals. First, this should be the Steelers -- but if you get past that, this could be a really frisky contest. The Bengals, who I don't expect to be in the playoff hunt, could be on one of those streaks at the end of the year where everything is coming together for Joe Burrow. This could be a scary matchup for Baltimore if it needs a win to capture the No. 1 seed.

Will the Ravens be able to ...

Rally when they fall behind? Lamar is my dude. Make no mistake about that. And nobody can run the ball like Lamar (he had 14 games with at least 40 rushing yards; no other quarterback came close) and the Ravens -- which is great when everything is going well. But what happens when they fall behind? Will they be able to throw the football? This was a fear going into the playoffs, and indeed, when the Titans jumped out to a 14-0 lead, Baltimore struggled to catch up, while Jackson dropped to 0-2 in the postseason with a passer rating of 68.3. Will this be a problem moving forward? 

I don't think so. 

When you go back and watch the tape, you can't pin the postseason loss completely on Lamar. His first interception bounced off the hands of Mark Andrews, one of the best tight ends last season, while Seth Roberts had a brutal drop on an amazing pass in the second quarter that helped stalled a drive. I've seen enough big-time throws from Lamar to know he's going to come through. He's a better passer than he's given credit for, and I'm looking forward to him proving it this season. Hell, he increased his passer rating by 28.8 points from Year 1 to Year 2. I'm not going to count him out.

Find somebody to step up at wide receiver? You already know how I feel about Hollywood Brown, and I really love rookie receiver Devin Duvernay, a speedster out of Texas who, like Brown, can really stretch the field. But the Ravens still could use a chain-moving receiver who can catch those intermediate passes for those times when the team is behind and opponents aren't forced to stack the box -- say, a Julian Edelman type. I would love to live in a world where the Ravens could make a trade for Edelman, because the layers on that would be amazing. Regardless, if I'm general manager Eric DeCosta, I'm working the phones to try to find that guy. I know the Bengals would never trade A.J. Green, especially within the AFC North, but I would love to see Baltimore take a look at Rams WR Josh Reynolds, who could be a great complement to these Ravens wideouts. If the team can't swing a trade, it's up to Andrews to take his game to another level at tight end.

Overcome the loss of guard Marshal Yanda? The future Hall of Famer retired from the NFL after 13 seasons in the NFL. He was a two-time first-team All-Pro and a five-time second-teamer. He also was selected to the 2010s All-Decade Team. So let's not overlook how significant his absence could be. After all, the offensive line is of great importance, because the Ravens run the ball on nearly every damn play -- and they use play-action the rest of the time. Ben Powers is expected to replace Yanda on the offensive line, which, if you're just going on the name alone, it sounds like the Ravens have a winner. If nothing else, it forced me to look up this song from The Simpsons on YouTube.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: The Ravens keep finding great linebackers. How is it possible the Ravens picked so late in the draft and still ended up with a stud like Patrick Queen at No. 28 overall? In my mock draft, I had the Ravens taking a running back and the Chiefs ending up with a linebacker who slid, which turned out to be the reverse of what happened. (Though the Ravens did end up with ... you know what, we'll get to that in a second.) And wow, I really love this pick for the Ravens, especially when the player they landed is someone I figured would have been long gone by then.

Queen got off to a slow start in his college career. I mean, he didn't even become a starter until his junior year. Which will happen when you play behind Devin White. But Queen was amazing in the National Championship Game, earning defensive MVP honors. It's always going to be tough to live up to expectations when you're a first-round linebacker drafted by the Ravens. But Queen is going to do it. And don't sleep on third-rounder Malik Harrison, who is also expected to start. Like, were the other teams even drafting, or was it just the Ravens?

... people are overthinking: How will they work J.K. Dobbins into the mix? Again, this probably stems from the fact that I dabble in the fantasy space. But while there was a heavily mixed reaction to the second-round selection of the running back, I thought it was a great move. I do feel bad for veteran back Mark Ingram, because this kind of happened to him when he was in New Orleans and the Saints brought in Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara in the same offseason. Of course, all Ingram did was continue to go out there and be awesome, and coming off a 2019 season in which he was a beast, I expect him to continue to thrive.

Given how much the Ravens run the ball, it is prudent to bring in another running back. It's like when you're having a bonfire at the beach and you bring an extra case of beer. You don't necessarily want to drink all of the beers you bring, but you want to have enough to go around. This will likely be a source of frustration for fantasy enthusiasts, but well, tough for them. This is great for the Ravens. Especially in the system they run, with Roman being famous for using RPOs, motion plays, pistol plays and unbalanced offensive lines. Nobody did it more (or better) than the Ravens last year. Ohio State ran a similar system, so this will be a smooth transition for Dobbins.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Ravens MUST ...

Win 14 games again. Just kidding. (Although The Checkdown did do a Madden simulation in which the Ravens put up a second consecutive 14-win season.) The one thing you would like if you're a Ravens fan is to just get into the dance again and make a run like the Chiefs did. Kansas City, you might remember, stumbled as a No. 1 seed in 2018 and then won the Super Bowl the following year.

In closing

I don't want to say the loss to the Titans was the worst postseason loss for Baltimore since Super Bowl III, but it was awful. That said, here is why I would feel great if I were the Ravens. Lamar was terrible in a playoff loss two years ago at home against the Chargers. He had fumbles. He made mistakes. He looked inexperienced. But he used the offseason to work on his game, and he went out and won the MVP award. And if you believe in trends or anything like that, think of the path Patrick Mahomes has taken. He lost a tough playoff game to the Patriots after being selected MVP, then went out and won the Super Bowl the following year. The path is there. Will Lamar and the Ravens take it?

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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