As the Ravens plan offseason strategy, they have exact dates for the NFL Combine, the start of free agency and the draft.
What they don't have is an exact date for the return of Ronnie Stanley, Marcus Peters, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Derek Wolfe, Justice Hill and others who suffered season-ending injuries. That makes this offseason more challenging, knowing that the timetable and recovery process for every player is different and often unpredictable.
"We have to listen to our doctors and trust our doctors and trainers," General Manager Eric DeCosta said. "You normally get good feedback from them, and then part of my job is to communicate daily with the injured players to see where they are.
"It can be challenging. For instance, at the running back position, two of our best players, Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins, [had] season-ending injuries within a week of each other, and then Justice Hill [suffered a season-ending injury]. So, we're a little bit right now in a situation of, 'When do these guys come back?' We have a lot of confidence that they will come back, but the timing is such that we're just not sure when they will come back. So, then the question begs, well, how do they address that position?"
Dobbins recovered from a major ankle injury in high school and is driven to be a great running back. Edwards is one of the team's hardest workers, a player who has fought to earn playing time both at the college and NFL level.
Knowing how Dobbins and Edwards are wired makes DeCosta confident they will return as good, or even better after their ACL injuries. But it's rare to see any team lose its top three running backs before the season. Aside from Dobbins and Edwards, it remains to been if Hill will reclaim his role as the No. 3 running back. Will the Ravens try to re-sign either Devonta Freeman or Latavius Murray, two veteran running backs who are pending free agents?
The Ravens didn't have major questions to ponder at running back last offseason, but they do now.
"There's always uncertainty with those guys, due to the nature of their injuries," DeCosta said of Dobbins and Edwards. "That being said, I know both guys, I know their work ethic, determination. We're optimistic, of course, but there's always …as we learned this year, there's always going to be an unknown with injuries and how guys respond and how fast they get back.
"We'll be conservative, with those guys, for sure. We'll assess the market, we'll assess free agency, we'll assess the draft, and we'll make the best decision we can regarding that position. [I] certainly expect that those guys will be back at some point. Both guys are young, so that bodes well in their favor."
With nine draft picks in the first four rounds, Baltimore has ample ammunition to strengthen its roster at multiple positions. Depth will be important, because there can be setbacks with any player along the road to recovery. Stanley played Week 1, but that was his only game action in 2021 before having more surgery. Tight end Nick Boyle was never 100 percent after returning from his knee injury in November. Wolfe thought he could return late in the season, but the veteran defensive end never played a snap, then underwent hip surgery in January. After being signed last offseason, offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James returned to practice but was never activated as his recovery from a torn Achilles continued.
DeCosta said he believes Stanley will return to being an All-Pro left tackle in 2022, but improving the entire offensive line will be a point of emphasis. Under new Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald, the Ravens want to force more turnovers and improve their pass defense which ranked last in the league in 2021.
The Ravens are “turning over every stone” on injury prevention and rehab research, willing to make any adjustments they deem necessary to be healthier in 2022. Meanwhile, DeCosta plans to use the draft capital and salary cap room to create the deepest roster possible.
"As a group, what we're consumed with going into this season is what can we do to get better?," DeCosta said. "How can we stay healthy? [We're] looking at everything. And some of that's on me. How do we find healthy players or players that will be durable when they get here? How can we protect our players? Is there technology out there? Is it the way we practice? Is it the training room? Is it the doctors? Is it how our players rehab? Is it how our players train? Is it the way we treat the offseason? Is it the way we practice? I think we'll look at all that stuff, and we'll own it."