Three weeks after the Ravens’ season ended, the team’s season-ending news conferences are finally set to begin.
Coach John Harbaugh will meet with reporters Monday at the team’s Owings Mills facility to discuss the 2021 season, 2022 offseason and more. It’s the first of three news conferences scheduled for this week; Harbaugh will introduce new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald on Wednesday, and general manager Eric DeCosta will hold his annual end-of-season session Friday.
As the Ravens move past a disappointing 8-9 campaign, here’s how their offseason is shaping up.
1. How committed are the Ravens to quarterback Lamar Jackson? A year ago, Harbaugh said he was “totally certain” that Jackson, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player, would sign a contract extension. In March, DeCosta said he was “confident and committed to trying to get a long-term deal done.” Now Jackson is coming off the most disappointing season of his career and entering the final year of his rookie deal. Jackson has offered little about where negotiations stand, and his lack of traditional representation is a unique variable in a potentially franchise-altering decision. If Harbaugh or DeCosta appear to waver in their commitment to keeping Jackson in Baltimore, there could be a long wait for news on the front office’s most important calculation.
2. What’s the defense’s new direction? After a disappointing season, the Ravens parted ways with coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, one of the NFL’s most respected and aggressive play-callers. His replacement: Macdonald, a former Ravens assistant coach who became the team’s first-ever external hire at the position. With a handful of defensive starters and contributors headed to free agency, and with the AFC amassing one star quarterback after another, Macdonald will take over a unit entering a crossroads. Harbaugh has long embraced an aggressive, attacking mindset on defense, but the team struggled under Martindale to force turnovers and record sacks. After helping to turn around a talented Michigan defense, whom will Macdonald have in 2022, and how will he use them?
3. Will the offense change in 2022? The Ravens appear committed to coordinator Greg Roman, whose record-breaking 2019 attack has bought him only so much patience among fans. The offense’s passing game has been criticized for its lack of creativity and spacing. The Ravens’ dangerous ground game, meanwhile, fell to 11th in the NFL in efficiency after an injury-plagued year, according to Football Outsiders. After last season, Harbaugh and DeCosta called the team’s offense a run-first offense, a unique distinction in the modern NFL. But Jackson said earlier this month that the Ravens would “definitely” keep the more pass-oriented approach they adopted in 2021, which had its ups and downs. With All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews headlining a much-improved receiving corps, where does Harbaugh want Roman and Jackson to take the offense next season?
4. How’s the team’s health? The Ravens had one of the worst injury situations in the NFL in 2021, and also one of the most scrutinized. Ronnie Stanley’s health was shrouded in mystery for several weeks after his subpar Week 1 showing, until the team announced he’d undergo another season-ending ankle surgery. Afterward, Harbaugh couldn’t explain what went wrong. Defensive lineman Derek Wolfe’s incomplete recovery from a training camp back injury — he also suffered from a hip injury that required surgery — was similarly vexing. Harbaugh and DeCosta will likely face questions about what went wrong in 2021 and who should be ready for 2022. Among those also coming back from injury: Jackson, running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey and outside linebacker Tyus Bowser.
Salary cap situation
According to Ravens salary cap expert Brian McFarland of Russell Street Report, the team is projected to have about $7.2 million in space under the 2022 salary cap, which is expected to rise from $182.5 million to $208.2 million.
The Ravens’ most efficient path to more space: Sign Jackson to a long-term extension. Jackson has a $23 million cap hit in 2022, the final year of his rookie contract, but a megadeal could create short-term savings. Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who signed a six-year, $258 million extension in August, has a cap hit of just $16.4 million in 2022, initially the final year of his rookie deal.
The Ravens could also free up space by releasing or trading players with significant cap hits — offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, wide receiver Miles Boykin and cornerback Tavon Young are potential casualties — or by restructuring the contracts of well-paid veterans, as they did last year with defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams.
The Ravens are expected to have 10 picks in April’s draft. Their top pick is No. 14 overall, their highest slot since they took left tackle Ronnie Stanley with the sixth overall pick in 2016.
On Day 2, the Ravens have the No. 45 overall pick (second round) and No. 76 overall pick (third round), plus a compensatory third-round selection for the Houston Texans’ hiring of former Ravens assistant coach David Culley last year.
On Day 3, they have three fourth-round picks — their own, along with the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals’ — and are expected to receive two more compensatory picks for the free-agent departures of edge rushers Matthew Judon (New England Patriots) and Yannick Ngakoue (Las Vegas Raiders). They also have the Miami Dolphins’ sixth-round pick.
Unrestricted: DL Calais Campbell, C Bradley Bozeman, CB Anthony Averett, FB Patrick Ricard, OLB Justin Houston, DT Brandon Williams, S DeShon Elliott, WR Sammy Watkins, CB Jimmy Smith, OLB Pernell McPhee, RB Devonta Freeman, RB Latavius Murray, ILB Chris Board, ILB L.J. Fort, DT Justin Ellis
Restricted: CB Chris Westry, ILB Otaro Alaka
Exclusive rights: QB Tyler Huntley, C Trystan Colon, S Geno Stone, RB Ty’Son Williams, ILB Kristian Welch, LS Nick Moore, G Brandon Knight, DT Aaron Crawford, CB Khalil Dorsey
Offensive tackle: In 2020, the Ravens opened the season with an All-Pro at left tackle and a Pro Bowl pick at right tackle. Now Stanley is coming off his second straight season-ending ankle injury, Orlando Brown Jr. is starting for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Villanueva’s stay in Baltimore could be over just one year into his two-year deal. Patrick Mekari was a revelation this season at right tackle, but he might be more valuable as an interior lineman or swing tackle.
Defensive line: Even if Campbell returns for one last season, the Ravens will need to shore up their defensive front. Run stuffers Williams and Ellis are pending free agents who’ll turn 33 and 32 years old, respectively, over the next 11 months. Justin Madubuike has high upside as an interior lineman, and Broderick Washington showed growth in his second year. But if the Ravens want to keep their linebackers clean, they’ll have to find a big-body lineman who commands a double team.
Cornerback: In Peters and Humphrey, the Ravens could again have one of the NFL’s best cornerback pairings next season. Still, questions remain not only about their effectiveness — Humphrey’s inconsistent year ended with a season-ending pectoral muscle, while Peters is returning from a torn ACL he suffered in September — but also the depth behind them. Averett will likely be too expensive to re-sign in free agency, Smith could be headed for retirement, and Young’s future is unclear.
Interior offensive line: If Bozeman leaves in free agency, the Ravens could open 2022 with their fourth starting center over the past three seasons. Mekari has experience at the position — he took over for Matt Skura late in the 2020 season — but has shown more value at tackle. Colon, a former undrafted free agent, has been solid over two years of spot duty. At left guard, there’s a deeper group of potential starters, but no obvious front-runners. Ben Powers, Ben Cleveland and Tyre Phillips have all struggled with injuries and inconsistent play.