Four Ravens That Will Define Baltimore's 2018 Season
If you had to choose four Ravens that will define Baltimore's 2018 season, who would they be?
Would Marlon Humphrey be one? If he ascends and becomes the next shutdown corner, it would go a long way in preventing the late defensive collapses that have plagued Baltimore the last few years. Perhaps C.J. Mosley? If he balls out (again), he could be in line for a massive payday that will lock him in as a long-time defensive cornerstone.
Or, somebody could come out of nowhere and make a surprisingly massive impact like the one running back Alex Collins had on the offense last year. I'd argue that few people will have a bigger role in shaping this season than Ozzie Newsome, who is in his final year as the Ravens general manager and whose personnel decisions could set up the team for years to come.
All these story lines, and others, are important, but they're not the biggest of 2018, says ESPN.
Dan Graziano, Mike Sando and Kevin Seifert teamed up to name 99 players and themes that will define 2018 for the entire NFL, and they identified John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco, Lamar Jackson and Marshal Yanda as the biggest influencers in Baltimore.
Let's see how ESPN breaks it all down:
Overall defining story: "Will this be the end of the John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco era?" "Over the past 10 years, Harbaugh and Flacco have combined for 92 regular-season wins, six playoff seasons and one Super Bowl title," the website wrote. "But the pressure is on for both to get back to their winning ways. Owner Steve Bisciotti said he considered firing Harbaugh after the Ravens failed to reach the postseason for a third straight year, and Baltimore drafted potential Flacco heir apparent Lamar Jackson in the first round this year. Given that this is already the final season for General Manager Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens could undergo a major transformation if they're sitting at home in January again."
John Harbaugh: "Coach on the hot seat" "Harbaugh has raised the bar in Baltimore by posting a 94-66 regular-season record, plus a 10-5 mark in the postseason," Sando wrote. "But three consecutive seasons without a playoff berth have put pressure on him in 2018."
Joe Flacco: "Quarterback on the hot seat"
"The Ravens' decision to draft Lamar Jackson at the end of Round 1 suggests they see the huge gap between Flacco's compensation ($22.1 million a year) and his performance (25th in Total QBR over the past three seasons)," Sando added.
Lamar Jackson: "Backup quarterbacks who could make a difference" "Not because I see him as a threat to usurp Flacco's starting role this season, but because Baltimore could look for creative ways to use his unique speed and skills during his rookie season," Graziano wrote. "And no, I'm not suggesting he move to receiver, just that his athleticism could lend itself to a trick play here or there that could help make a difference."
Marshal Yanda: "Veteran star returning from injury"
"One of the NFL's best guards is still recovering from a fractured leg but is expected to open the regular season," Seifert wrote. "The Ravens struggled to replace him last season, losing five of their next eight games after his injury and watching their points average drop by six per game."
PFF: Yanda's Level Of Dominance Is Rare
ESPN isn't the only outlet anticipating an impactful return from the big guy.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) named nine key players returning from injury, and Yanda was identified along with other big-name players like the Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck, Philadelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz, New England Patriots' Julian Edelman and San Francisco 49ers' Richard Sherman.
"From 2011 to 2016, Yanda produced a PFF grade of 90.0 or higher every season," wrote PFF's Gordon McGuinness. "That level of dominance is rare and when you combine Yanda's power in the running game and his work in pass protection, where he allowed just six hurries from 611 pass-blocking snaps in 2016, it's easy to see why his name is so often mentioned among the elite in the NFL."
With the Great Power Wink Martindale Is Giving Defensive Players Comes Great Responsibility
It's abundantly evident that Ravens players are excited about the freedom and flexibility new Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale is giving them.
Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs says the "handcuffs" are coming off players. Defensive tackle Brandon Williams says Martindale doesn't "make you a robot." Safety Eric Weddle likes that players can react and change on the fly, rather than making them work within a "blackboard defense."
Harbaugh explained that the defense hasn't changed much in terms of new calls, but it's more inclusive.
"If you think about it, it's a little bit like if you talk to people in the military, and they talk about one of the big differences over the years in the U.S. military and other militaries, is the fact that our military is given the ability and the training to think on their feet in real time in combat," Harbaugh told reporters last week. "I think that's what we want to do with our guys."
WNST's Luke Jones is intrigued by the new approach, but points out that players will have to be more accountable for both successes and breakdowns on defense.
"It's an interesting concept, but with great power comes great responsibility," Jones wrote.
Getting Snaps to Young Safeties Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott
The Ravens are always looking to develop raw young stars, and that ideally happens simultaneously with veterans in front of them producing at a high level. Then, when it comes time to transition, everything runs smoothly.
That's what the Ravens hope will happen with a pair of sixth-round safeties in Chuck Clark (2017) and DeShon Elliott (2018).
Clark was an important special teams contributor last year, and saw his role on defense expand late in the season. He even lined up at linebacker in the unit's dime packages. Elliott wants to prove he's worthy of snaps this year too.
"While Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson are rightly entrenched as the starters, the bet here is that the Ravens will look for ways to get young safeties Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott on the field in the right situations," wrote The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec. "Elliott, a sixth-round pick, doesn't carry himself like a rookie on the field and certainly looks the part."
Jokes About Ozzie Newsome Using Burner Accounts (Yeah Right)
You may have read the curious report by The Ringer about Philadelphia 76ers President Bryan Colangelo secretly operating five "burner" Twitter accounts.
The accounts have been used to criticize players, coaches and executives, while also defending Colangelo himself. Colangelo has admitted to using one of the five accounts, which has never posted any tweets, but he denies using the others, saying "someone's out to get me."
The 76ers announced they are investigating the situation, and whatever happens, it's already provided jokes for all other sports franchises a about their top executives potentially using burner accounts.
Some Baltimore accounts have already joked that they are actually secretly run by Ozzie Newsome.
Ha. Ha. Could anyone care less about the Twitter than Newsome?
"After beginning his rookie season as the team's third cornerback, he capably stepped in for Baltimore's No. 1 cornerback, Jimmy Smith, in five starts down the stretch, allowing only six yards on nine targets in a game against the Steelers," Rosenthal wrote.
"Humphrey doesn't need to improve as much as back up his performance over an entire season. If he does that, he'll replace Smith, coming off a torn left Achilles tendon, as the team's top cornerback for good."