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Late for Work: Steelers Writer Declares Ravens' Super Bowl Window Has Closed

ILB Trenton Simpson
ILB Trenton Simpson

Steelers Writer Declares Ravens' Super Bowl Window Has Closed

While some pundits have said they expect the Ravens to take a step back next season, the prevailing opinion is that they'll continue to be a championship contender. As noted in yesterday’s Late for Work, oddsmakers are projecting the Ravens, Chiefs, and 49ers to lead the league in wins next season.

However, Touchdown Wire’s Jarrett Bailey contended that the Ravens' Super Bowl window has closed. (Bailey is also the deputy editor of "Behind the Steel Curtain," an SB Nation website that covers the Steelers.)

Bailey cited the Ravens' losses in free agency from last season's top-ranked defense as the main reason for his opinion, specifically mentioning inside linebacker Patrick Queen (Steelers) and safety Geno Stone (Bengals) defecting to two of Baltimore's AFC North rivals.

"The defense will still be good, in all likelihood, but expecting them to repeat what they did last year with the mastermind of it all departed, as well as two key defenders — that would be very naïve to say the least," Bailey wrote. "That was the best defense they are going to have for the foreseeable future, and they didn't capitalize on it."

Bailey also noted that the AFC is loaded with talented teams.

"I understand the fascination with Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, but look at how stacked the conference is in terms of teams and quarterback talent," Bailey wrote. "Teams like the Texans are getting better, and C.J. Stroud is a budding superstar. The Titans are going all in to build a really good roster. The Jaguars have a special quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. Justin Herbert now has Jim Harbaugh, and we'll see how that goes. The Dolphins will be in the mix. The Jets may be fun with a healthy Aaron Rodgers.

"In the Ravens' own division, the Steelers are much better on paper, and Jackson is 1-3 against Pittsburgh in his career. The Browns were just a playoff team, and the Bengals will get Joe Burrow back and be right back in the thick of things. And, of course, there is Buffalo and Kansas City, who always seem to be playing deep into January. For how great the quarterbacks and teams are in this conference, some of them won't ever get over that hump. And for as talented as he may be, Jackson fell short in the best opportunity to get to the Super Bowl that he may ever have. And in a crowded AFC, there is no guarantee he'll get that chance again."

There's no doubt that competition in the AFC is fierce. But even with significant turnover on the roster, the Ravens still have an abundance of talent on both sides of the ball, including the reigning and two-time NFL MVP at quarterback. They also made a big-time addition in four-time Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry, which Bailey neglected to mention.

Moreover, General Manager Eric DeCosta has a proven track record in the draft and of making shrewd moves in free agency. The Ravens don't rebuild, they reload.

"Baltimore is plug and play," ESPN's Jeremy Fowler wrote last month. "The Ravens have just about everything they need to make another run."

Would Ravens Consider Having Henry Return Kicks?

The Baltimore Banner's Jonas Shaffer looked at how the NFL's new kickoff rules for the 2024 season, which are aimed at bringing more returns into the game while also addressing player safety, could affect the Ravens.

One particularly compelling idea raised by Shaffer is the possibility of the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry returning kicks.

Shaffer noted that Eric Galko, part of the XFL team that helped develop the NFL's new kickoff rules, tweeted that the value of kickoff returners "will be less about top end speed and burst, and more about vision and reacting. In short, more 'running back attacking the hole'-type will be more valuable than … 'receivers navigating in the open field' types."

"If blocking for kickoff returns starts to more closely resemble run-blocking schemes, with sophisticated pulls and opponent-tailored strategies, could the Ravens' list of returner candidates include starters such as wide receiver Zay Flowers or — gasp! — running back Derrick Henry?" Shaffer wrote. "Henry hasn't returned kicks since high school, which presents an obvious problem. Returners who can't actually field punts and kickoffs under [Head Coach John] Harbaugh typically don't play.

"But, if the Ravens want to maximize the value of a star whose rushing workload will probably fall in Baltimore, they might at least consider giving their unnaturally fast, strong and coordinated star the kind of takeoff lanes (and relatively safe conditions) that he could have only ever dreamed of."

Shaffer said running backs Justice Hill and Keaton Mitchell could also be candidates to return kicks.

Pundit Says Justin Madubuike's Contract Among Riskiest in Free Agency This Offseason

Bleacher Report’s Gary Davenport named the eight riskiest contracts signed in free agency this offseason, and All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Madubuike's deal with the Ravens made the list.

"The fifth-year pro shattered his career highs across the board — 56 total tackles, 13 sacks and a jaw-dropping 33 quarterback hits," Davenport wrote. "That massive season earned Madubuike an equally massive payday —$ 98 million over four seasons. In terms of average annual salary, the only interior linemen who make more are Chris Jones of the Kansas City Chiefs and Christian Wilkins of the Las Vegas Raiders. However, that huge season was also an outlier —over Madubuike's first three professional seasons combined, the 26-year-old had just 8.5 sacks and 16 QB hits.

"It's possible that last season was a coming-out party — that Madubuike will continue wreaking havoc this year and establish himself as one of the NFL's elite defensive tackles. But the history of free agency is littered with players who parlayed a big season into an even bigger payday and then never sniffed those heights again. That possibility can't be ruled out, either."

Not every mega-deal works out, but it's hard to argue against re-signing Madubuike being a no-brainer for the Ravens.

It's true that Madubuike's stats increased dramatically last season, but it's also true that he has improved every season and a breakout year was not unexpected.

During Madubuike's appearance on "The Lounge" podcast earlier this month after signing his new contract, he acknowledged that some believe his 2023 season was an aberration.

"They think I'm just a one-hit wonder. Nah, I've put in this work for years. I see that as a little disrespectful," Madubuike said. "It's not for you to know, it's for you to find out.

"It's better to be the top dog. They're going to be scheming and planning to stop me. If you don't come with your best for four quarters, you're going to be embarrassed. I'm not going to do that. I'm going to embarrass them."

Ravens Named Best Landing Spot for CB Xavien Howard

Pro Football Focus’ Brad Spielberger identified the best landing spots for the top remaining free agents, and he said Baltimore is the ideal fit for cornerback Xavien Howard.

"Howard was released after a great eight-year run in Miami, with his coverage grades dipping into the 50s in each of the past two seasons," Spielberger wrote. "He has expressed a strong desire to play for a contender, and has even said he'd be open to taking less money to chase a ring. Pivoting to playing more man coverage could get him back to where he excelled earlier in his career."

The 30-year-old Howard, a two-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler, led the league in interceptions in 2018 (seven) and 2020 (10).

The Ravens have a solid starting cornerback duo in Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Stephens, but the team's philosophy is that you can never have too many cornerbacks.

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