Instead of worrying about change, the Ravens are embracing it.
Many outsiders believe it will be difficult for the Ravens to repeat as AFC North champs after so much roster turnover during the offseason, headlined by the departures of C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle and Za’Darius Smith.
But the Ravens don’t view themselves as gambling on young talent. They are trusting their talent. If enough players step forward during OTAs, training camp and the preseason, Head Coach John Harbaugh believes the new-look Ravens will evolve into a very good football team.
“I guess if a guy has never played in the National Football League, he’s a bad player,” Harbaugh said, disagreeing with the perception the Ravens have lost too many holes to fill. “It’s really fun to see what the next generation is going to do and who they’re going to be and who’s going to make a name for themselves. Really, one of the things you do as a coaching staff and a scouting staff is build competition in there. Give yourself as many options as you possibly can, and the cream will rise to the top. These guys, it’s their dream to play in the National Football League, now they have to go do it.”
With the free agent signings of safety Earl Thomas and running back Mark Ingram, the Ravens brought in proven talent and leadership. But the expectation for young players has been raised at many positions, including:
Second-year player Kenny Young is expected to become a starter next to Patrick “Peanut” Onwuasor, while Chris Board figures to see more action than last season when he made the roster as an undrafted rookie and was used primarily on special teams. It will be difficult to replace Mosley, who signed with the New York Jets after making the Pro Bowl in four of his five seasons with Baltimore, but the Ravens hope Young and Board can make the leap that Onwuasor did last season when he became a top playmaker on the defense.
Anyone who shows consistency getting to the quarterback will play, whether it’s third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson, free agent acquisitions Shane Ray and Pernell McPhee, or returning players Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser. Williams and Bowser have yet to blossom as NFL pass rushers, but the opportunity for a bigger role in their third season is wide open. The Ravens know what they have in Matthew Judon, a talented player who had 15 sacks over the past two seasons. But the Ravens lost 15 ½ sacks between Smith and Suggs, so Baltimore needs contributions from other pass rushers to remain one of the NFL’s top defenses.
Harbaugh has been impressed by McPhee and Ray during early OTA practices.
“Those two guys are both in really good shape,” Harbaugh said. “They both came in and obviously they were preparing and training for when their opportunity would come.”
For the first time in team history, the Ravens used two of their first three draft picks on wide receivers by taking Marquise Brown in the first round and Miles Boykin in the third. The expectation is that both young receivers will become consistent playmakers, sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, the competition at wide receiver is loaded with veterans with something to prove like Michael Floyd and Seth Roberts, and young players vying for roster spots like Jaleel Scott, Jordan Lasley, Antoine Wesley, Joe Horn Jr. and Jaylen Smith.
Much has been said about the importance of Lamar Jackson improving as a passer. However, it is also crucial that the Ravens find reliable receivers to take pressure off Willie Snead IV, who led the team with 62 receptions last season.
With OTAs having started, it’s no longer about who left. It’s about who will step up. Harbaugh likes the way young players and new players are seizing the moment.
“I’m confident with the competition,” Harbaugh said. “We have a lot of speed. We have a lot of good players who are very dedicated and love ball, so let’s see who rises.”