Are the Ravens a Dynasty in the Making?
Remember back before the season began when the Cleveland Browns were the AFC North favorites and the defending division champion Ravens were on several lists of the 2018 playoff teams most likely to miss the playoffs?
Fast-forward to Sunday's Week 16 game in Cleveland, where the Ravens (12-2), winners of 10 straight games and their second consecutive division title, can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while the Browns (6-8) have been one of the NFL's biggest underachievers.
Not only have the Ravens become the favorites to win the Super Bowl, but with a record-tying 12 players named to the Pro Bowl this week – including 10 who are signed for 2020 and three that will still be playing on their rookie contracts – it's not unreasonable to wonder whether the Ravens are a dynasty in the making.
"With a bright future thanks to the young and cheap Pro Bowl talent on the roster, I can't help but think a dynasty is just being born in front of our eyes," Ravens Wire's Matthew Stevens wrote.
"They have the MVP front-runner at quarterback [in Lamar Jackson], a dynamic offensive scheme, young talent at wide receiver and tight end, enough top cornerbacks to shut down both passing attacks and young pass rushers just starting to hit their stride. Top it off with a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate in John Harbaugh and the league's best front office and you have the recipe for continued success."
Of the Ravens' 12 Pro Bowl selections, only linebacker Matthew Judon and cornerback Marcus Peters are set to hit free agency this offseason. The Ravens are projected to have $51.5 million in cap space by OverTheCap.com.
"That is a huge positive for General Manager Eric DeCosta, who has done great work this season with far less available funds," Stevens wrote. "In spite of entering the season with an estimated $13.3 million in cap space, DeCosta has been able to sign several players to extensions (Marshal Yanda, Justin Tucker, Willie Snead and others), sign impact free agents during the season and pull off a trade for cornerback Marcus Peters. The Ravens are doing so well, largely thanks to the work DeCosta has done to bolster the roster without breaking the bank."
Adding to the Ravens' prospect for a bright future is the fact that the team could have nine picks in the 2020 draft.
Yes, talk of a dynasty is premature, and Harbaugh has repeatedly made it clear that the team is focused on one game at a time and one goal at a time. The Ravens want to win this year's Super Bowl before they start thinking about multiple.
That mindset was on display when he began last Thursday night's postgame press conference – after the Ravens had clinched the division title with a win over the New York Jets – by putting on a division champions cap and briefly acknowledging the accomplishment before removing the cap and saying, "That's done, move on and get to work."
For Ravens fans, however, it's only natural to be excited about this season and beyond. The Ravens' future's so bright, they gotta …
Lamar Jackson's Rise Among Season's Biggest Surprises
Jackson's rapid rise topped ESPN's Bill Barnwell's list of 15 of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season. Specifically, Barnwell is shocked that Jackson has outplayed New England Patriots star Tom Brady as a passer.
Barnwell recalled sending out a tweet during the first Sunday night game of the season as Brady was having a big game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Earlier that day, Jackson had thrown five touchdown passes and posted a perfect quarterback rating in a 59-10 rout of the Miami Dolphins.
"Little did I know. I'd like to say that I saw what was coming, but I didn't," Barnwell wrote. "Jackson, of course, has picked apart just about every team he has faced this season. … Even though Brady has thrown 181 more passes than Jackson, Jackson's efficiency means he has generated more cumulative expected points added (EPA) as a passer (62.8) than Brady (51.8). The 2018 first-round pick has completed a much higher percentage of his passes despite the fact that his average pass has traveled 8.5 yards in the air, more than a yard beyond Brady's average of 7.1 air yards per attempt."
Like many other pundits and fans, Barnwell has placed Jackson at the top of his list of MVP candidates.
"Purely on cumulative passing EPA, Jackson ranks 14th in the NFL, right around what Aaron Rodgers has produced this season," Barnwell wrote. "By passing EPA per attempt, Jackson is seventh. That's more than enough when you consider what Jackson generates as a runner, where his 43.9 EPA is more than double the guys ranked second (Deshaun Watson) and third (Daniel Jones) combined and better than any running back in football.
"Jackson is an incredibly special player and an easy pick for 2019 MVP."
On a side note, even last year's MVP, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, marvels at what Jackson can do on a football field.
Players Who Fit System Have Sparked Defensive Turnaround
As amazing as Jackson and the Ravens' high-powered offense has been this season, the team's defensive resurgence has been equally spectacular.
After allowing 500-plus yards in back-to-back games for the first time in franchise history in losses to the Chiefs and Browns, the Ravens were ranked 27th in defense. Since then, the Ravens have allowed the second-fewest points in the league and currently have the league's sixth-ranked defense.
The turnaround is especially impressive considering the manner in which changes were made, ESPN's Jamison Hensley wrote.
"First-year General Manager Eric DeCosta added cornerback Marcus Peters and a handful of impact defenders at bargain rates," Hensley wrote. "There were no seven-figure signing bonuses. There were no first-round picks lost. What was gained has been key to one of the bigger comeback stories in the NFL."
The biggest coup, Hensley wrote, was acquiring Peters from the Los Angeles Rams for a fifth-round pick and reserve linebacker Kenny Young.
"The Rams needed the cap space to trade for cornerback Jalen Ramsey and the Ravens took advantage by acquiring Peters for a Day 3 pick and a benched starter," Hensley wrote. "With Baltimore, Peters has returned two interceptions for touchdowns and made the playoff-clinching pass breakup at the 1-yard line in Buffalo. Since acquiring Peters, the Ravens have an opposing passer rating of 72.5, the second-best in the NFL over that time."
In addition to Peters, free agents L.J. Fort, Josh Bynes, Jihad Ward and Domata Peko have all made significant contributions on defense after signing during the season.
"For the Ravens, it was about finding players who fit the system and not about making a splash with a big-name addition," Hensley wrote.
On Sunday in Cleveland, the Ravens defense has an opportunity to show how far it has come since giving up 530 yards and 40 points to the Browns in Week 4.
"As you guys have pointed out two different times, they scorched us last game," Harbaugh said during yesterday's press conference. "So, we have to stop these guys before we start talking about who deserves credit for anything."