Three Defensive Players Who Are Ready to Step Up
The Ravens have fielded a strong defense so often throughout their history that it's almost a given year in and year out. Case in point: The unit has ranked in the top 10 in yards allowed 18 times in the past 22 seasons.
For a team to achieve such remarkable consistency, especially in the salary cap era, players have had to step up after their teammates moved on. Coaches have had to groom their replacements. This offseason, the Ravens defense lost Pro Bowlers Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, as well as contributor Jihad Ward.
Russell Street Report's Tony Lombardi identified three defenders who are ready to make their mark this season:
ILB Patrick Queen
"From the day the Ravens made Patrick Queen the 28th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, [Defensive Coordinator Don 'Wink'] Martindale salivated over the possibilities of his newest defender. Queen is an explosive player with rare speed at the position and despite his youth, possesses keen skills in coverage. As an instinctive blitzer he has the ability to wreck plays and create havoc. However, during his rookie season Queen only flashed. .. But with a year under his belt, familiarity with Martindale's schematics, the addition of inside linebackers coach Rob Ryan and an opportunity to prepare his body for the grind of an NFL season, more impact plays … are expected."
DT Justin Madubuike
"During training camp in 2020, veterans Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams and Derek Wolfe took notice of Madubuike. The willingness to learn was just as evident as his natural skills. And like Queen, the Dallas native can unleash his talents and build upon his takeaways from last season. … The former Texas A&M Aggie has an explosive first step, powerful hands and an ability to slip through small crevices provided by opposing offensive fronts. The result – he's a natural disrupter. In 2020 Madubuike fought through an early season soft tissue injury to his leg, setting him back to start the campaign. He didn't see any game action until Week 5 but as his leg healed and as made a bigger impact, Justin's snap count increased."
OLB Tyus Bowser
"There's no denying Bowser's physical gifts. He possesses superior athleticism. He's a quick-twitch athlete whose skill set plays well in Martindale's defense. He's already proven to be an asset in coverage with purposeful drops into his zone after bluffing an edge rush and he has good body lean coming off the edge. He just seems to have struggled to impact games on Sundays in a way that belies his talents. … Now 26, I look for Bowser to ascend as a quarterback nemesis in a manner similar to former Ravens Paul Kruger and Za'Darius Smith when they were 26 and posted sack totals of 9 and 8½ respectively. Opponents will be seeing '54' show up on tape much more in 2021."
Ravens Ranked 10th Among Potential Super Bowl Winners
Sports Illustrated's Conor Orr identified 12 teams that have a "real shot" of winning the Super Bowl this season. Not surprisingly, the Ravens were one of them. However, it's somewhat surprising that he ranked the Ravens at No. 10.
The top five were the defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs, defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers.
All of them have a loaded roster and won at least one playoff game last season. That applies to the Ravens as well, and one could certainly make the case for them being in the top five.
Also ranked ahead of the Ravens were the Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts.
As to why Orr believes the Ravens can hoist the Lombardi Trophy next February, he wrote:
"Having a gifted playmaker like Lamar Jackson ensures you'll be in the mix regardless of how circumstances fall around him. … The additions of two capable wide receivers into the scheme should be enough to bolster an offense that found itself susceptible to pressure (Baltimore was the 16th-most pressured team in football last year), given the team's tendency to run the ball. Jackson needs to change his heat map in order to be truly effective beyond what the scheme is providing, and bringing in both Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman will be a critical step in that direction."
Could Justin Tucker Win the NFL MVP Award?
Justin Tucker has been voted the Ravens MVP twice, but could the four-time All-Pro kicker win the league MVP award?
ESPN's Bill Barnwell identified 237 plausible NFL MVP candidates and separated them into various position groups and tiers. Tucker was listed as the favorite among kickers.
"Surely the consensus best kicker in football, Tucker's established reputation would help in an MVP race," Barnwell wrote. "It would take something dramatic for him to win, like hitting seven or eight game winners in the final minute for Baltimore. There's no kicker I would rather have in the NFL right now in those situations than him."
Obviously, it's unlikely that a kicker would win MVP, but it's not unprecedented. Washington kicker Mark Moseley won the award in the strike-shortened 1982 season.
A quarterback has been voted MVP eight years in a row and 13 times in the past 14 seasons. So how did Jackson, the 2019 MVP and second unanimous choice in history, fare on Barnwell's list?
Jackson was among the 13 candidates in the category of quarterbacks on rookie deals, but he did not get the nod as the favorite or even the second-most likely winner. Those distinctions went to the Arizona Cardinals' Kyler Murray and Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen, respectively.
The only other Ravens who received mention were J.K. Dobbins, who was among 25 running back candidates; and Calais Campbell, who was among 31 pass rusher candidates.
Don't Underestimate Kevin Zeitler's Importance to the Offense
When a team signs a guard it doesn't receive nearly the same fanfare as landing a skill position player. However, the Ravens' acquisition of veteran right guard Kevin Zeitler this offseason could be the domino that lifts the potent offense to even greater heights, Russell Street Report's Darin McCann wrote.
"Receivers are flashy new additions. Quarterbacks and pass-rushers are, too. Right guards? Not so much," McCann wrote. "But at the end of the day, if Zeitler is who I think he is, that new right guard could be the piece of the puzzle that helps the Ravens get to where they hope to get."
McCann noted how steady and durable Zeitler has been in his nine seasons in the league. Zeitler has made 134 starts in 135 games with the Bengals, Browns and Giants, and has missed just one game over the past six seasons.
Zeitler could elevate the offense through both his individual performance and his impact on the entirety of the line in general, McCann wrote.
"With Bradley Bozeman moving from his previous spot at left guard to center, and longtime Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva moving into a new gig at right tackle, a dependable, productive veteran at right guard could help both players' transition, and should provide comfort to quarterback Lamar Jackson that what is supposed to happen on his right side is going to happen on his right side," McCann wrote.
Sean McVay Says Former Raven Eric Weddle Would Be a Great Coach
When Los Angeles Rams Head Coach Sean McVay was asked on his "Flying Coach" podcast which of his former players would be good coaches, he mentioned former Raven Eric Weddle.
McVay, who coached Weddle in his final season in 2019, said he learned a lot from the six-time Pro Bowl safety.
"John Sullivan and Eric Weddle are unbelievably smart players," McVay said. "I think John Johnson, who's going onto the Browns, is in that same sort of mold as what Eric is. Great communicators, charisma, presence."
Weddle, who spoke to the Ravens defense in a virtual meeting last offseason, said at the time that he would consider returning to the team as a scout or coach in the future if the opportunity arose
After Weddle announced his retirement in February 2020, he told The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec that he considers himself a Raven even though he played just three of his 13 seasons in Baltimore.
"Everybody knows how much I loved that place and how much joy and happiness it brought, and how much I tried to give to them," Weddle said. "I think they admire that and how I helped that organization and team to build what it is now. I had a strong hand in a lot of those guys. That's obviously something that is there, and of course, I'd be open and honored to have those conversations if they ever happen."