Ravens Are Among Top Candidates to Be NFL's Next Dynasty
This time last year, the consensus was that the Ravens would finish in third place in the AFC North and the Cleveland Browns would win the division.
But that was then. Just like Lamar Jackson zipping through a hole and juking a defender, things can change direction quickly in the NFL.
Coming off a historic 14-2 regular season, not only are the Ravens one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl, but they're also on the short list of teams capable of being the NFL's next dynasty.
Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas identified six teams that have dynasty potential, and the Ravens came in at No. 2 in the rankings, behind the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
"Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are first focused on getting over the hump of winning a playoff game together. But nothing about the season Jackson had, or the Ravens' commitment to building a paradigm-shifting offense around him, suggests that it was a fluke," Vrentas wrote. "The Ravens have been unafraid to make Jackson the centerpiece of both their passing and rushing attacks, and the shiftiness inherent to Jackson's game eases questions of the approach's long-term sustainability."
As Vrentas pointed out, the Jackson-led Ravens haven't won a playoff game much less a championship, but they seem to possess all the necessary ingredients to capture multiple titles.
It all starts, of course, with Jackson, the 23-year-old reigning NFL MVP. But he is far from the only young star on the team. Seven of the 13 players the 2019 Ravens sent to the Pro Bowl are still playing on their rookie contracts. The Ravens also have one of the league's best front offices and coaching staffs.
"Baltimore has a fantastic coach in John Harbaugh – and inherently, the team boasts a stellar culture," wrote NFL.com’s Adam Schein when making the case a few months ago for the Ravens being the NFL's next dynasty. "They scout and develop and think and plan better than your team. … This organization has everything in place to serve as Kansas City's main foil for years to come. What a series of AFC title games we could have in store!"
Still, as Harbaugh has said, winning in the NFL is hard. Therefore, winning multiple championships in a short period is extremely difficult. The New England Patriots are the anomaly, having won three titles in five years-or-less on two occasions over the past 20 years. During that span, only three other teams won multiple titles: the Ravens (2000, 2012), Pittsburgh Steelers (2005, 2008) and New York Giants (2007, 2011).
"The Chiefs, who feel so invincible right now, were in a 24-0 hole in the divisional round and trailed by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV. The margins on any play, game or season are razor-thin in the NFL, making it exponentially more difficult to establish the dynasties we all love to speculate upon," Vrentas wrote.
Is Ben Roethlisberger the X Factor in AFC North Race?
While Vrentas mused on the Ravens becoming a dynasty, her colleague at Sports Illustrated, Conor Orr, wrote that Baltimore will be hard-pressed to repeat as AFC North champion.
Orr predicted the Ravens will win the division, but he believes they'll have a much tougher time doing so than last year, when they ran away with it. He sees the AFC North as a "brawl" between the Ravens, Steelers and Browns.
Orr projected the Ravens to finish 11-5, with the Steelers and Browns both going 9-7. Although he had the Bengals at 3-13, Orr said Cincinnati "should be far more dangerous in 2020."
The return of 38-year-old Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2 last year, is the X factor, according to Orr.
"It's been difficult to quantify Roethlisberger's value to the good-to-great Steeler teams of recent years, but 2020 provides a wonderful opportunity to do so," Orr wrote. "He was the one major factor absent last year while Jackson, guided by Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman, took over the division. What will it mean for the balance of power now that Big Ben is back?"
There are fewer questions about the Steelers defense, which finished third in Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average ranking in 2019. As for the Browns, they failed to live up to the hype last year, but they undoubtedly have a talented roster.
The key for the Ravens to build on last season's success lies in the coaching staff's ability to stay one step ahead of opponents who've spent the offseason studying film of the offense, Orr wrote.
Michael Vick on Jackson: 'I Can Live Vicariously Through Him'
Even though Jackson broke Michael Vick's single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback last year, the former Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles star isn't ready to concede that Jackson is a better runner than him – not yet, at least.
"I take no credit away from Lamar, but he still has a long way to go," said Vick, who played 13 seasons in the NFL, on “The Ryen Russillo Podcast.” "When you look at my highlights, it's insane. It's sick. It's something like you've never seen before. I think because I was the first to do it, that will always be in the front of people's minds. And Lamar's going to give us more highlights. So if you ask me this five years from now, I might give you a different answer."
Vick admitted he's envious of one aspect of Jackson's game, and it has to do with throwing, not running.
"If there's one thing that I would've loved to have taken from Lamar's game and implemented into my game it's the touch on his passes," Vick said. "He throws one of the softest balls, and when he's throwing to the tight ends he makes it so catchable."
Vick, who was Jackson's favorite player growing up and has served as mentor to him, said he will always feel a connection with the Ravens quarterback.
"Lamar holds a special place in my heart because I can look at Lamar and see everything that he's doing and say, 'I know why he did that,'" Vick said. "So I can live vicariously through him."
Do Ravens Even Need a No. 3 Tight End When They Have Patrick Ricard?
With the trade of Hayden Hurst this offseason, the competition for the No. 3 tight end spot became one of the stories heading into training camp. Rather than finding another tight end to team with Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle, however, Ebony Bird’s Jake Lippman believes fullback Patrick Ricard is the answer.
"Last season we occasionally saw Ricard lined up in line as a tight end and saw him go in motion a lot more than previous seasons," Lippman wrote. "He was used more in the H-back role than a traditional fullback role. Due to the amount of pistol and shotgun formations the Ravens run, Ricard is oftentimes offset or sent in motion to help create angles at the point of attack."
The 6-foot-3, 311-pound Ricard – who made the Pro Bowl last season as a fullback and also played on the defensive line for the Ravens, making him the NFL's first two-way player in over a decade – caught eight passes for 47 yards and a touchdown in 2019 and was a dominant run-blocker in Baltimore' smash-mouth offense.
"His versatility, ability to learn, and athletic traits have kept him on the field," Lippman wrote of Ricard, who signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent defensive lineman out of Maine in 2017. "That doesn't include the nasty mean streak he exhibits on would-be tacklers trying to tackle any of the Ravens' efficient runners. Their success has been highly reliant on Ricard. The Ravens now have no excuse but to deploy him on offense with the loss of Hayden Hurst."