NFL News & Analysis

Baltimore Ravens 2021 free agency and draft preview

Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs the ball past Cleveland Browns strong safety Karl Joseph (42) during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead up to the start of free agency on March 17 and Day 1 of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season. Here, we’ll preview the Baltimore Ravens offseason as they attempt to get back on top of the AFC North in 2021. 

Things didn’t come quite as easily for the Ravens this past season as they did in 2019 when they lit the league on fire en route to a 14-2 record. Lamar Jackson and company did pick things up over the back half of the season — winning a playoff game for the first time since 2014 — but they’ll have their sights set higher next year. 

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That effort starts with improving the offensive line and passing game over the next several months. Baltimore must also decide what to do with several upcoming free agents along its front seven on defense. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $18,203,773 (13th in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 27, 58, 122, 152, 186

Projected 2021 offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Lamar Jackson 15 / 32 $3.0 million
RB J.K. Dobbins 33 / 70 $1.3 million
WR Marquise Brown 43 / 127 $3.2 million
WR ?
TE Mark Andrews 10 / 71 $3.6 million
TE Nick Boyle 17 / 71 $5.8 million
LT Ronnie Stanley N/A $15.3 million
LG Bradley Bozeman 21 / 39 $2.2 million
C ?  –
RG Ben Powers 31 / 40 $1.0 million
RT ?

Willie Snead IV, the Ravens' No. 2 wide receiver in 2020, is set to be a free agent. As of now, Miles Boykin would be the guy filling that role next year, but Baltimore will likely try to upgrade at the position following just 32 receptions in two years from the former third-round pick despite little competition.  

Baltimore's offensive line is the big question mark on offense, though. Ronnie Stanley is seemingly the only offensive lineman the Ravens can feel 100% secure about just two seasons after boasting one of the best offensive lines in the entire league. Orlando Brown Jr. has expressed his desire to play left tackle, requesting a trade last week. That opens up a starting spot at right tackle. Bradley Bozeman should get the start at left guard again after an improved third season, but center and right guard remain less certain. 

Center seems the likeliest interior position to see a new starter, as starter Matt Skura (49.1 PFF grade in 2020) struggled this past season. Patrick Mekari took over for Skura and played reasonably well (62.4 PFF grade), but Mekari delivered his worst performance of the season, by far, in Baltimore’s playoff loss to Buffalo. He earned a mere 1.3 pass-blocking grade in the game. There is a chance Bozeman — who played center at Alabama — could slide over from left guard. 

As things stand right now, 2019 fourth-round pick Ben Powers would be the team’s starting right guard after taking over that job in Week 11, but that could be another position where the Ravens look to improve. Powers earned a 57.2 overall grade on the year, and like Mekari, he delivered one of his worst performances of the year in the Ravens' postseason loss to the Bills. 

What is the bigger priority: Offensive line or adding more talent at receiver?

Baltimore having an offense unlike any other team in the NFL adds an extra layer to this question. For most other teams with a roster makeup like the Ravens', I would say adding a true X receiver would be the top priority. Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown are young complementary pieces, but the Ravens still lack a No. 1 receiving option who can win at all levels of the field. It’s hard to have a dominant passing attack without that player. 

However, the Ravens are not your typical offense. They showed they could build an elite passing offense without elite weapons outside in 2019. Their 0.215 expected points added per pass play ranked second in the league, behind only Kansas City. But Baltimore dropped to 21st in the same metric last season. The receiving options didn’t change. The offensive line did in a big way with the losses of Ronnie Stanley to injury and Marshal Yanda to retirement. 

At its core, Baltimore wants to impose its will in the running game, and Jackson makes them uniquely suited to have a successful offense with a run-first attack in a pass-first league. The team needs a strong offensive line for that strategy to work. The Ravens shouldn’t avoid adding to their receiving corps, but upgrading their offensive line should be the top priority this offseason. 

What does Orlando Brown Jr.'s trade request mean for this offense?

Strictly looking at how this will impact the 2021 Ravens, Brown's seemingly inevitable departure is not ideal. His 81.8 pass-blocking grade since 2018 ranks 18th out of 90 qualifying tackles, and he was an improved run blocker this past season, as well. Losing a reliable starting tackle is far from an insignificant loss. 

On the other hand, getting something of value back for Brown in a trade is good business from a team-building perspective. The Ravens drafted him in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, got three solid years of starting play from him and should be able to flip him for a better return than a third-round pick without committing long-term “left tackle” money to him. 

Brown could very well take a step back in another offense, as well. The way opposing teams have to pass rush against Jackson — afraid of the numerous ways he can beat you when he gets outside the pocket on scrambles — protects an offensive tackle like Brown and makes his life easier. Trading the Oklahoma product at the top of his value and using the return from that trade to target his potential replacement is not the worst of outcomes for the Ravens. 

How does Baltimore fix its passing game woes from last season?

It is no secret that the Ravens passing attack took a major step back in 2020. Part of that falls on Jackson failing to live up to his 2019 MVP play. And part of that falls on a receiving corps lacking in high-end talent, as well. The Ravens' coaching and offensive game plans last season aren't absolved, either. Former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith had this to say of the Ravens’ passing offense following their postseason loss to the Buffalo Bills.  

“When you’re running the type of route combinations that are very elementary school, very Cracker Jack-like, very easy to defend, you can’t necessarily put it all on the wide receivers. If you have, “Hey, you two go deep and you two go shallow and Lamar throws it to whoever is open,” that’s just not the NFL. That’s not the complexity of the NFL, and their passing game is not very complex,” Smith said. 

From a personnel perspective, there is no question the Ravens need to get better along the offensive line in protection of Jackson and at wide receiver, targeting players who can create separation quickly. Reimagining their passing attack from a schematic standpoint will be equally as important as Baltimore heads into the 2021 season. 

Potential targets at open spots

Wide receiver: Marvin Jones Jr., Sammy Watkins, Rashod Bateman

Allen Robinson II is the Ravens' ideal free agent target, but he will cost around $20 million per year to acquire. It’s tough to see Baltimore prioritizing the wide receiver position to that extent. 

The next tier of outside targets — including Marvin Jones Jr. and Sammy Watkins — could be the sweet spot. Jones is coming off a near-1,000-yard and nine-touchdown season with the Lions in which he served as the team’s top receiving option for much of the year with Kenny Golladay sidelined. He has earned 70.0-plus receiving grades in every season since 2013. Watkins had an injury-riddled 2020 season with Kansas City, but he has produced a similar grading profile to Jones outside of an elite 2015 season with Buffalo (89.8 PFF grade).

If the Ravens choose to address the position early in the 2021 NFL Draft, Rashod Bateman may be the best option on the board at their pick. Bateman has picked up 80.0-plus PFF grades in each of the past two seasons in two different roles — primarily out wide in 2019 and from the slot in 2020. He should be able to produce right away in the NFL with arguably the best release package in the draft class.  

Center: Corey Linsley, Landon Dickerson

Corey Linsley will be one of the top free agent offensive linemen this offseason, and the Ravens could choose to aggressively upgrade their interior. Linsley’s 86.4 PFF grade this past season for the Green Bay Packers was over five points higher than any other center in the league, and he was one of the highest-graded centers in the league on gap runs — a skill set Baltimore would covet. He would immediately provide a boost to their interior offensive line.

Alabama's Landon Dickerson wouldn’t make quite as big an impact as Linsley out of the gate, but he has the potential to turn into a quality starter the Crimson Tide with a dominant performance in the run game. He would give the Ravens some positional versatility, as well. Dickerson has spent time starting at all five positions along the offensive line for the Crimson Tide and could realistically play any spot along the interior.  

Tackle: Teven Jenkins, Jalen Mayfield

The Ravens should be targeting maulers, and these two tackles in the draft qualify as potential replacements for Brown at right tackle. Teven Jenkins’ strength in the PFF Draft Guide is listed as upper-body strength, and he showed this past year at Oklahoma State that he can impose his will in the run game. Jalen Mayfield’s biggest strength was listed as raw power, showing the ability to hold up well against the bull rush. Any potential pass-protection weaknesses won’t be punished as harshly as they may in other situations given how defenses have to rush Jackson.   

Projected 2021 defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Calais Campbell 27 / 126 $15.0 million
DI Brandon Williams t-41 / 126 $14.4 million
DI Justin Madubuike t-41 / 126 $1.1 million
LB Patrick Queen 82 / 83 $2.8 million
LB L.J. Fort 9 / 83 $3.0 million
CB Marlon Humphrey 12 / 121 $10.2 million
CB Marcus Peters 39 / 121 $13.5 million
CB Tavon Young N/A $6.0 million
S Chuck Clark 27 / 94 $3.9 million
S DeShon Elliott 28 / 94 $2.2 million

One of the NFL's better defenses in 2020 will stay mostly intact for 2021. Season-ending injuries have cost Tavon Young playing time in each of the past two seasons, so he'll look to finally see the field for significant snaps after signing an extension with Baltimore prior to the 2019 season. 

I’m also projecting Justin Madubuike for a larger role on the Ravens defense in his second season out of Texas A&M. Madubuike played well on just over 300 defensive snaps as a rookie — earning a 70.3 overall grade — and could take some of the snaps potentially lost from free agent Derek Wolfe.  

The edge defender position is the biggest area of uncertainty for the Ravens heading into the 2021 season. Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee and Jihad Ward will all hit the market — a potential mass exodus at the position. Judon and Ngakoue are the big names in that group, and each will command a hefty chunk of change in free agency. Expect the Ravens to bring back some of the names above while adding elsewhere through free agency and the draft. 

Do the Ravens need to sign at least one of Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue?

In a vacuum, the Ravens should want Ngakoue and Judon back for 2021 and beyond. They rank 12th and 16th, respectively, in total quarterback pressures among edge defenders over the past three seasons. The issue is that Baltimore will be competing with several interested suitors for their services this offseason, and contract negotiations won’t come cheap. PFF projects Ngakoue to sign a contract in the neighborhood of four years and $70 million, while Judon is projected to sign for a similar four-year, $68 million deal. 

For good but not elite edge defenders like Ngakoue and Judon, it’s difficult to justify such a high price tag on a Baltimore defense that can generate pressure opportunities with lesser talent through the scheme they run. Judon himself is a good example. His 39 unblocked pressures since 2018 are seven more than the next closest edge defender. 

It seems more likely that the Ravens let Judon and Ngakoue walk while bringing back one or more of Bowser, McPhee and Ward. They could then look to add to the position with cheaper free agent options or draft talent.     

Is safety a need for the Ravens, or should they be confident in Chuck Clark and Deshon Elliott heading into next season?

Clark and Elliott played well for the Ravens this past season. Elliott, in particular, was largely an unknown after playing just 40 defensive snaps across his first two seasons in the NFL prior to the 2020 season. The third-year safety was finally able to stay healthy — logging over 1,000 defensive snaps on the year — and graded out as a top-30 safety in the league while filling Earl Thomas‘ shoes. 

The starting duo of Elliott at free safety and Clark at strong safety is a solid one, and Baltimore shouldn’t have any reservations about carrying that pairing into 2021. The Ravens still could look to add a rangy, playmaking free safety at some point this offseason, though. Elliott and Clark combined for just five pass breakups and one interception during the 2020 regular season. It would give the team more flexibility to run three-safety defenses and add a different skill set to the group. 

In terms of offseason needs, safety won’t come in high on the list, but it could be an under-the-radar area where Baltimore looks to add some competition in the coming months.   

What does Patrick Queen’s second year look like for the Ravens?

I gave a slightly more extensive version of my thoughts on Queen’s rookie season in a piece last month, but the shortened version is that the level of concern shouldn’t be all that high for the former LSU Tiger despite one of the worst PFF grades (29.7) of any linebacker in the NFL last season. 

Most of his downgrades came on plays where he got caught out of position or missed tackles. Queen tied Houston’s Zach Cunningham for the most missed tackles in the league this season, at 22. Those are both areas where there is every reason to believe Queen will improve with more time and experience in Baltimore’s defense. Playing linebacker in today’s NFL is one of the more difficult jobs in the game, and we often see that it takes time for those players to develop and consistently find themselves in the right positions. 

Queen flashed the high-end athleticism that got him selected in the first round of last year’s draft. The Ravens will be hoping that ceiling shows up more consistently in 2021, and there is reason to believe that it will. 

Potential targets at open spots

Edge defender: Tyus Bowser, Haason Reddick, Azeez Ojulari, Chris Rumph II

The Ravens could very well try to re-sign Matthew Judon or Yannick Ngakoue, but the more realistic option seems to be Tyus Bowser on a cheaper deal. Bowser will be just 26 years old next season and has played well in an increased and versatile role for Baltimore over the past two seasons. 

If looking to add a free agent from outside, Haason Reddick — an edge defender turned off-ball linebacker turned edge defender — makes some sense. He took a massive leap in his first full year on the edge in the NFL, earning an 82.6 pass-rushing grade and recording 56 pressures this past season. Little production before the 2020 season could make teams hesitant to offer Reddick a big, multi-year contract, which could open an opportunity for Baltimore to sign him. His experience at off-ball would play well on the Ravens’ defense.  

In the draft, Azeez Ojulari could be a first-round target at outside linebacker. His player comp in PFF’s Draft Guide is none other than Ngakoue, and he is one of the best pass rushers in the draft class at turning the corner on tackles. Chris Rumph II would be a later-round target who has an NFL-ready set of pass-rushing moves but lacks ideal size for the position. That said, Baltimore could make use of his versatility in its blitz-heavy scheme. 

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