Pundits Project Ravens to Finish Behind Steelers, Browns
With the start of the NFL regular season just hours away (finally!), a plethora of predictions and projections from national pundits were published yesterday.
As has often been the case this offseason, the Ravens weren't completely overlooked, but they weren't viewed as favorably in the AFC North as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns – and, in one instance, the Cincinnati Bengals. Interestingly, the Steelers – not the Browns – were the popular pick to win the division.
Pro Football Focus projected the Ravens to finish last in the division with 7.4 wins, trailing the Steelers (9.3), Browns (8.4) and Bengals (7.5), based on "thousands of simulations using our proprietary grades and situational information." PFF gave the Ravens a 26.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, 14.5 percent chance of winning the division and 0.9 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl.
NFL network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund's projection for the Ravens was more positive.* Using comprehensive data to simulate the season more than a million times, she arrived at a win total of 8.6 for the Ravens. She projected the Steelers to win the division (9.5) and the Browns to (9.3) be a wild card.
The reason I inserted an asterisk is because the Ravens had the widest margin between their ceiling (10.8 wins) and floor (5.9) of any team in the league.
FiveThirtyEight.com, which used the Elo model, a system too complex to summarize (you can read about it in detail here), projected the Steelers to win 9.5 games, with the Ravens (8.4) and Browns (8.4) in a virtual tie for second. The Ravens were given a 41 percent chance of making the playoffs, 26 percent chance of winning the division and 3 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl.
"Rumors of the Steelers' demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated," FiveThirtyEight's Neil Payne wrote. "Despite a tumultuous offseason that involved officially losing [Le'Veon] Bell and also shipping receiver Antonio Brown to the Raiders, Pittsburgh remains the top-ranked team in the North. Part of that is thanks to Ben Roethlisberger, who checks in as Elo's No. 1 overall QB, and part of it is because the Steelers have one of the league's easiest schedules.
"The Ravens and Browns are neck-and-neck behind them; Elo is skeptical about Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson after he posted not-so-great numbers as a rookie, but it thinks his supporting cast is superior to Baker Mayfield's in Cleveland — despite the Browns' big offseason (hi, Odell) and general hype level heading into 2019."
Newsweek's Dan Cancian predicted the Browns to go 11-5 and win the division, with the Steelers and Ravens both finishing 9-7. However, he left himself some wiggle room, writing that the Ravens repeating as division champions is "far from an impossible task given the AFC North looks wide open this season."
The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia liked the Steelers (11-5) to not only win the division, but also the Super Bowl, with the Browns (10-6) and Ravens (9-7) also making the playoffs. He had the Ravens losing in the first round to the Kansas City Chiefs.
"The Lamar Jackson experience has ups and downs, but the Ravens produce the most diverse rushing attack in the league under new coordinator Greg Roman," Kapadia wrote. "That, combined with the best secondary and an elite special teams unit, positions the Ravens to be one of three teams in the division to make the postseason. Baltimore gets in as the second wild card."
The Athletic also polled 44 local and national writers to make a variety of predictions. The Steelers, with 30 votes, were the overwhelming favorites to win the AFC North, followed by the Browns (nine) and Ravens (five). The Ravens received the second-most votes (16) for wild-card teams, trailing only the Los Angeles Chargers (23).
There was almost no love at all for the Ravens from Sports Illustrated's MMQB staff of 13 contributors. Nine of them picked the Steelers to win the AFC North, three went with the Browns, and the Ravens received just one vote.
Andrew Brandt, the lone contrarian, had the Ravens going all the way to the AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs after defeating the Browns and New England Patriots in the playoffs. No one else on the MMQB staff believed the Ravens would make the playoffs.
"I am also high on the Ravens, who will show us 'the next' in offensive football with Lamar Jackson playing quarterback/running back," Brandt wrote. "Since many are saying 'you can't play like that!' I am saying they will be highly successful."
Predicting Lamar Jackson's Ceiling, Floor
In keeping with the predictions theme, let's take a look at what two local media outlets wrote about what to expect from Jackson this season.
Ebony Bird's Richard Bradshaw made ceiling/floor predictions for the Ravens' second-year quarterback in four categories:
Passing yards (ceiling: 3,600; floor: 2,200): "If everything clicks, we could see a solid passing attack for Baltimore in 2019. The only thing standing in the way of Lamar Jackson taking the next step as a passer is himself. He'll need to drastically improve his overall mechanics if he wants to improve his touch and accuracy. If he can't, the Ravens might have the worst passing offense in the entire league."
Passing touchdowns (25; 15): "The majority of this receiving core consists of big, tough guys who could be red-zone machines. Hayden Hurst could lead the team in receiving touchdowns and I wouldn't be shocked. Even after Hurst are talented red-zone guys like Miles Boykin. There's also little reason to believe Mark Andrews couldn't benefit in this role, either."
Rushing yards (1,000; 550): "Even if he becomes a better passer, he'll still be running the ball plenty; it's simply his bread and butter and it'll be too much to ask of him to abandon what is second-nature to him."
Rushing touchdowns (12; 4): "The [modern] NFL record for quarterback rushing touchdowns is 14, accomplished by Cam Newton in 2011 [as a rookie]. That number is INSANE. Thinking Jackson could break it isn't illogical, but it seems out-of-reach. … We're all hoping that Lamar Jackson takes that next step forward in 2019 as a passer, but we can still expect the rushing touchdowns to come aplenty regardless. Double-digits is no doubt attainable."
An article by The Baltimore Sun staff focused on which quarterback records Jackson could threaten and the likelihood of him breaking them. Here's a sample:
Single-season rushing carries (147, set by Jackson last year): "Jackson set the mark for quarterbacks last season despite starting just seven games. To eclipse 147 carries this year, he would need to average over 9.2 per game. Considering kneel-downs count as carries, and the fact that Jackson didn't have fewer than 11 carries as a starter last season, that is extremely doable. Likelihood: High."
Single-season rushing yards (1,039, Michael Vick, 2006; 69.1 per game, Bobby Douglass, 1972): "After he took over in mid-November, he averaged 79.4 [yards]per game over seven starts [556 total]. Depending on Jackson's health and how the Ravens' offensive line and defense hold up, both NFL records could be within reach. Likelihood: Low to medium."
Single-game rushing yards (173, Vick, 2002): "Jackson finished with over 173 rushing yards a remarkable seven times in college, and the competition was mostly cupcake-free: Samford, Boston College (twice), Florida State, Kentucky, Syracuse and Texas A&M. But he also had 15 or more carries in each of those games, and at least 21 in all but three. Last season, there were just five NFL games in which a player had more than 173 rushing yards, all by running backs. Likelihood: Low."
Four Players to Watch on Practice Squad
The Ravens had some difficult roster cuts to make to determine the 53-man roster, but fortunately, the team was able to re-sign several talented players to the practice squad. Ebony Bird's Chris Schisler singled out four of them.
At the top of his list was running back De'Lance Turner, who was the Ravens' leading rusher this preseason (35 carries for 144 yards and a touchdown).
"He is the player most likely to make the jump to an NFL roster this season," Schisler wrote. "Turner is a downhill running back who isn't afraid to sprint full speed into any rushing lane. He's got the athleticism to play in this league but he needs to grow as an overall running back."
Schisler also praised wide receivers Sean Modster and Antoine Wesley.
"Sean Modster and Antoine Wesley had impressive glimpses of what they bring to the table," Schisler wrote. "Sticking around on the practice squad is a likely outcome for both of their seasons. It may give them the polish and the confidence they need to take the next step in 2020."
On defense, Schisler identified lineman Zach Sieler.
"Sieler is huge," Schisler wrote. "If the light clicks for Sieler, who has prototype length and size, he could move his way up to the 53-man roster."
- The Ravens have added a Verizon 5G Network to M&T Bank Stadium. [Sports Business Daily]