The Best Quarterback in the AFC North Is … Not Lamar Jackson?
Let's give Pittsburgh writers credit for one thing: They're not afraid to make bold statements.
In this space a couple weeks ago, I highlighted a writer from Behind The Steel Curtain who said the Steelers could "dominate [the Ravens] and take back the AFC North title" if they eliminate the defensive mistakes they made against Baltimore during the teams' two meetings last season.
Now there's this: TribLIVE.com's Mark Madden predicted the best quarterback in the AFC North this year will not be reigning, unanimous NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, but Steelers veteran Ben Roethlisberger.
Madden's forecast was in response to ESPN analyst and former general manager Mike Tannenbaum's assessment that Roethlisberger is the fourth-best quarterback in the division.
"Here's predicting Roethlisberger is the AFC North's best quarterback in 2020," Madden wrote. "If that happens, the Steelers can win the division. Cracks are showing in Baltimore. The Ravens won't go 14-2 again, maybe not anywhere close."
Madden didn't elaborate on the cracks in the Ravens except to say that the team's passing game is suspect.
"There's no doubting Jackson's MVP performance of last year. But as he enters his third season in the NFL and just his second full year starting, will foes figure him out?" Madden wrote. "That's clichéd, but it happens. Baltimore also has an average group of wide receivers."
Madden is right about the notion that defenses will "figure out" Jackson being cliché. It also could be classified as wishful thinking on the part of Jackson's detractors. As for the Ravens wide receivers, there's significant upside for the young and talented group, starting with a healthy Marquise "Hollywood" Brown.
Back to Roethlisberger. Madden acknowledged there's risk in his bold prediction for the Steelers quarterback, who is entering his 17th season. After all, Roethlisbeger is 38, coming off major reconstructive surgery and played just two games last season.
The key, Madden wrote, is for Roethlisberger to make the transition from gunslinger to game manager.
"If he leads the NFL in pass attempts like he did in 2018, that won't be good," Madden wrote. "The Steelers had Antonio Brown in 2018, and even that potent aerial combination didn't get them in the playoffs. There's a tightrope there. Is Roethlisberger willing to walk it? Good question. Peyton Manning changed his game. Brett Favre never did."
On a side note, there was a poll accompanying Madden's article asking who the best quarterback in the AFC North will be in 2020. Roethlisberger was the overwhelming choice at 69 percent, with Jackson, who led the league in touchdown passes last season and set the single-season rushing record for quarterback, a distant second at 28 percent.
Keep in mind, however, that it's a Pittsburgh-based outlet, and most of the voters probably think a panini is superior to a crab cake.
Jackson Ranks No. 2 in League in 'Win Share' Metric
Bold predictions aside, the analytics point to another big season for Jackson.
Inspired by the idea of wins above replacement in baseball and real plus-minus in basketball, NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund created a metric called win share that measures the number of wins each NFL player is responsible for on an individual level.
"The metric is built around the number of times a player impacts first downs and touchdowns that lead to wins or losses, either by creating such first downs and touchdowns on offense or by preventing them on defense," Frelund wrote.
Jackson's projected win share is 5.3, second only to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (5.5).
"The Ravens' defense improved this offseason with the addition of Calais Campbell, and their corners rank as the league's third-best unit at the position in my model. This means it's possible a little less will be required of Jackson in 2020," Frelund wrote. "I should point out that the more complementary the team is as a whole, the more wins it earns. So it's not a knock on Jackson that he ranks second among QBs; it's more a reflection of the Ravens' overall strength as a team."
Incidentally, Roethlisberger did not make Frelund's list of the top 5 quarterbacks, based on her metric. One player who did was the Arizona Cardinals' Kyler Murray, who came in at No. 4.
An anonymous GM said Murray will eventually be harder to stop than Jackson, but ESPN analyst Ryan Clark said to pump the brakes on that proclamation.
"People believed that [Murray] was a better thrower of the ball than Lamar was coming out of college, and I think they just still believe the same thing," Clark said. "This is no indictment on Kyler Murray. He is extremely quick … he's explosive, and he can also throw the football. But when you talk about neutralizing a defensive line? Have we ever seen any quarterback neutralize a defensive line, a linebacker corps or a secondary better than Lamar Jackson did with his legs last year?
"Yes, he has to improve in throwing the ball outside the numbers. Kyler Murray is definitely farther along in throwing the ball than Lamar Jackson is. But to compare those two guys and think that Kyler Murray becomes harder to stop, I think that only goes back to when you look at your sheet when Kyler Murray was coming out [of college] and you look at your sheet when Lamar was coming out and you said, 'This guy can throw the ball, this guy can't.'"
Chuck Clark Among Top 10 Breakout Players for 2020
Good Morning Football's Peter Schrager proved prescient when he named cornerback Marlon Humphrey one of his breakout players prior to the start of the 2019 season. Now he's predicting a breakout season for safety Chuck Clark in 2020. Schrager ranked Clark No. 8 on his list of top 10 breakout players.
"Chuck Clark is supposed to be the next great safety for the Ravens, and they've had such a long line of good safeties," Schrager said. "From Ed Reed, to Eric Weddle, to Tony Jefferson. Earl Thomas last year had his moments, but they got rid of Earl Thomas. Look for Chuckie Clark to be the guy in the defensive backfield calling the shots.
"Not a household name yet, but Chuckie Clark could be an All-Pro this season."
Clark's name may not be known in a lot of houses, but those inside The Castle certainly recognize the impact No. 36 has on the defense.
"Chuck's been kind of the guy, quietly on the defense, that guys go to," tight end Mark Andrews said. "He knows that defense incredibly well, and I'm not in those rooms or in those meetings, but those guys definitely respect him a ton. He's the guy that they go to when there's questions. He's a great player. There's really not much else to say."
Last year, Clark began wearing the microphoned helmet, relaying play calls from Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale to the entire defense. He led the Ravens in tackles, was third in passes defensed (behind All-Pros Humphrey and Marcus Peters) and forced two fumbles.
Clark, a 2017 sixth-round pick, signed a three-year contract extension in February. This season, he also will serve as a mentor to third-year safety DeShon Elliott, who will be a starter for the first time.
Which Players Could Be Surprise Stars for Ravens in Week 1?
Looking ahead to Week 1, Ebony Bird's Chris Schisler identified three Ravens who could be surprise stars against the Cleveland Browns. No. 1 on his list was veteran outside linebacker Pernell McPhee.
"It wouldn't be surprising if McPhee got a sack against Baker Mayfield," Schisler wrote. "He's not an elite pass rusher, so I'm not trying to build him up as some unstoppable force. That being said, he should work really well with the new and improved defensive line and he should be able to make an impact."
Rookie James Proche II also could make an impact, both on special teams and offense, Schisler wrote. The sixth-round pick out of SMU is the favorite to be the Ravens' punt returner, but he also has stood out during training camp as a wide receiver.
"Proche is a player people are excited about, but he's not supposed to be a big part of the offense, at least not yet," Schisler wrote. "He can get the job done on special teams and special teams could be the difference in a win and a loss."
While everyone is talking about running backs Mark Ingram II, rookie J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, Schisler said 2019 fourth-round pick Justice Hill should not be overlooked.
"Hill has a chance to be the surprise, not just of the season opener but of the season," Schisler wrote. "He's an explosive runner who can be a dynamic play-maker in the NFL. The potential is there."
Ravens Are No. 3 in Touchdown Wire's Preseason Power Rankings
The Ravens are ranked No. 3 in Touchdown Wire's preseason power rankings, which are based on Football Outsiders DVOA projections.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value over Average) is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players by taking every single play during the NFL season and comparing each one to a league-average baseline based on situation.
"FO's projection of a 16.4% overall DVOA and 10.0 Average Wins for the Ravens came before the team decided to release Earl Thomas, but this group is loaded enough on both sides of the ball to overcome that," Touchdown Wire's Doug Farrar wrote. "The loss of guard Marshal Yanda to retirement might be the bigger issue.
"This third-place finish in overall DVOA for 2020 estimates a massive regression from Baltimore's 41.8% DVOA in 2019, which was the seventh-highest total in the DVOA era, which goes back to 1985. If Lamar Jackson continues to take positive steps as a pure quarterback, the Ravens might finish first in DVOA again — and perhaps there's a Super Bowl in their near future."
The New Orleans Saints took the No. 1 spot in the rankings, followed by the Chiefs.
Meanwhile, the Ravens are No. 2 (behind the Chiefs) in ESPN's Jeremy Fowler's ranking of last year's playoff teams' chances of returning to the postseason this season.
- Ingram was No. 7 on Next Gen Stats' list of running backs who exceeded expected rushing yards last year.