How the Ravens Can Get to Super Bowl LVI

QB Lamar Jackson

Eight seasons have passed since the Ravens last played in the Super Bowl. Seven different franchises have won it, with nobody winning back-to-back.

It's extremely difficult to win an NFL championship, but there's no proven dynasty standing in the Ravens' way. By pummeling the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed the entire NFL that Kansas City can be humbled on the game's biggest stage.

The Chiefs still figure to contend for more championships, and Vegas oddsmakers have already made them favorites to win next year's Super Bowl. But having made the playoffs the past three years, the Ravens remain one of the AFC's top contenders led by Lamar Jackson, a 24-year-old franchise quarterback obsessed with winning a championship.

Dreaming of winning a Super Bowl next season is realistic for at least a dozen NFL teams, especially if the right offseason moves are made. Two of the last four Super Bowl winners, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia (2017), did not even make the playoffs the previous season.

Here are some decisions the Ravens could make this offseason to help them climb from contender to champion.

Adding a Consistent Target for Jackson

Bringing in another playmaker for Jackson seems likely whether it's via free agency, trade or the draft. The Philadelphia Eagles made a key move during free agency in 2017, that helped them win a Super Bowl, when they signed Alshon Jeffery . The veteran wide receiver caught 57 passes for 789 yards and nine touchdowns during his first season in Philadelphia, and he had 12 catches and three touchdowns during the Eagles' playoff run.

After signing Tom Brady last offseason, the Buccaneers traded for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who ended his retirement. Then in October, Tampa Bay signed wide receiver Antonio Brown,. Brown caught a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl, while Gronkowski caught two touchdown passes. Adding a veteran target to the mix could be the most effective way to upgrade the passing attack, regardless of what changes the Ravens make schematically.

Meanwhile, the 2021 draft class is strong at wide receiver and the Ravens may find a rookie target who can make an immediate impact. Two of the Ravens' new offensive coaches, Pass Game Specialist Keith Williams and Wide Receivers Coach Tee Martin, have built strong reputations for their success with young wide receivers. Martin has coached three receivers who had more than 800 receiving yards in 2020 – Robert Woods, Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Martin's son is former Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers, a top prospect in the upcoming draft.

"Tee is a natural, charismatic leader whose bright offensive mind will benefit our young group of wideouts," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "His history of coaching standout receivers on the collegiate level will translate well to the NFL."

Williams has been a personal wide receiver coach for NFL wideouts Davante Adams of the Green Bay Packers and Sammy Watkins of the Chiefs.

"Keith has extensive experience working as a personal coach for some of the NFL's top wide receivers," Harbaugh said. "His offensive knowledge – particularly in the passing game – and his ability to get the very best out of his players aligns well with the values of our coaching staff."

The Ravens hope Martin and Williams will help accelerate the development of the four young wide receivers they have drafted since 2018 – Marquise "Hollywood" Brown, Miles Boykin, Devin Duvernay and James Proche II. However, if the Ravens acquire at least one more experienced target this offseason, it could immediately elevate their passing attack, while taking pressure off Brown and Mark Andrews as the primary targets.

Improving Pass Protection

Both Harbaugh and General Manager Eric DeCosta mentioned protecting Jackson better as an offseason priority during their postseason press conferences. Despite his elusiveness, Jackson has been sacked 19 times in four career playoff games, while being forced to throw under more duress than the Ravens would like.

"I think one of the things we have to do is get better up front with pass protection," DeCosta said. "Losing Ronnie Stanley was definitely a tough deal for the offensive line to handle. Orlando [Brown Jr.] did a great job, and I think the offensive line, in general, really battled versus some adversity this year. But, pass protection is going to be a factor."

A lasting image from the Super Bowl is Patrick Mahomes being pressured a Super Bowl-record 29 times by the Buccaneers' pass rush. Without starting left tackle Eric Fisher, who suffered an Achilles injury in the AFC Championship, the Chiefs' offensive line was vulnerable and the Buccaneers took advantage.

Meanwhile, Brady's protection was rock solid and starting right tackle Tristan Wirfs, a player the Buccaneers drafted last year, had a stellar Super Bowl,. The 13th overall pick in the draft, Wirfs was one of the NFL's best rookies, allowing just one sack in 799 pass-blocking snaps. Brady had time to dissect the Chiefs defense, sacked just once in the Super Bowl.

The Ravens want to give Jackson more comfort from the pocket, particularly in playoff games, where a few completions can make the difference between winning and losing. Seeing the Ravens acquire an offensive lineman in free agency, then doubling down by drafting one or two offensive linemen would not be a surprise.

Retooling the Outside Linebacker Group

The Ravens are in flux at this position with Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee and Jihad Ward all set to become free agents. That's a lot to sort out, with Jaylon Ferguson the only returning outside linebacker under contract.

A number of mock drafts are already predicting the Ravens will draft an edge rusher in the first round, given the outside linebackers who could be departing. Playing under the franchise tag in 2020, Judon was 11th in the league with 25 quarterback hits and had a superb all-round defensive season, that led to his second straight Pro Bowl selection. He will get paid well again this offseason, the only uncertainty being who will pay him, and how much?

Over the last five years, Ngakoue ranks 12th in the league in sacks (45.5), 14th in quarterback hits (95) and he's just 25 years old. Bowser had his best all-round season and is also an ascending player. Regardless of which outside linebackers stay, the Ravens defense has consistently been one of the best in the NFL under Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale. Winning a Super Bowl is always difficult. But after making the playoffs the past three seasons, the Ravens enter the offseason believing that they're close to reaching their ultimate goal.

"We call it the offseason, but it's really our season," DeCosta said. "That's the best part of my job, is we can be eliminated, and the next day, you get right back and ready to work again with your new mission – which is to build a better team than you had the previous year. And, we will do that."

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