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Takeaways from a wild-card-round exit and expectations for a pivotal offseason – The Denver Post

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The Ravens returned to the playoffs but crashed out after one round, with franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson nowhere to be seen because of a knee injury that kept him out the last six games of the season.

They were a goal-line fumble away from potentially knocking off the Cincinnati Bengals, who reached their second consecutive AFC championship game. Will that narrow postseason defeat give them hope for 2023 or serve as a what-could-have-been epitaph for a year defined by missed opportunities?

Next up is a franchise-defining negotiation with Jackson, who could sign an extension, play next season under the franchise tag or become the centerpiece of a trade that would drown out all other NFL headlines. As we look back and look forward, here’s what Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker and editor C.J. Doon have to say about the state of the Ravens:

How much optimism should the Ravens feel based on their near-miss against the Bengals?

Walker: On a scale of one to 10, call it a six. The Ravens’ wild-card loss in Cincinnati confirmed what we knew all season: they could compete with anyone for 60 minutes. It also confirmed that even with a decent offensive performance, they would struggle to score enough points to knock off the league’s best. But the Ravens will spend the offseason knowing they came as close as anyone to shutting down one of the NFL’s hottest teams.

That’s the key point. For all their struggles on offense and all the uncertainty around Jackson’s future, the Ravens built a championship-caliber defense in 2022. With the addition of Roquan Smith, they have an elite pair of linebackers in the middle to go with their star-studded secondary and deep collection of interior run crushers. If they find a long-term partner for Marlon Humphrey at cornerback and if coordinator Mike Macdonald coaxes a breakout from either Odafe Oweh or David Ojabo, they could have the league’s best defense. We saw this potential against the Bengals, and it’s quite a foundation for next year.

Doon: They were a 98-yard fumble return away from beating the team that almost returned to the Super Bowl. I’d say that’s a pretty good reason to be optimistic about next season. Macdonald might already be one of the best defensive coordinators in the league, and the Ravens could have a more balanced attack next season with a healthy Jackson and a new offensive coordinator. Nobody is interested in moral victories in January, but at the end of the day, the Ravens went punch-for-punch against an elite team with their backup quarterback.

If Eric DeCosta can’t make progress in negotiations with Lamar Jackson over the next two months, how aggressively should he explore a trade?

Walker: At his postseason news conference, DeCosta refused to entertain talk of a Jackson trade. He said his entire focus is on negotiating an extension with the quarterback he referred to as “a fantastic competitor, one of the most infectious personalities you’ll ever see, one of the most talented players in the league.” He showered fans with optimism, even as national commentators predicted Jackson’s exit from Baltimore.

In reality, all possibilities have to be on the table as DeCosta, Harbaugh and owner Steve Bisciotti plot their future. If there is no financial compromise to be found — and it does not seem Jackson and the Ravens have come close at this point — DeCosta could use the franchise tag to bide time. This would not be the worst thing; he has budgeted for the possibility, and the Ravens would remain a contender in 2023 with Jackson at quarterback. If DeCosta comes to believe Jackson will never agree to the Ravens’ price, however, a trade would make sense. If the Ravens are going to start over at quarterback, they might as well do it at the same time a new offensive coordinator is implementing his vision. But they should only trade Jackson if the draft capital obtained in return would put them in position to draft a top prospect. Think Alabama’s Bryce Young or Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. Their roster is too good for DeCosta to send Jackson packing without seeing a direct path to picking his replacement.

Doon: As former agent and current CBS Sports analyst Joel Corry recently said on the “Ross Tucker Podcast,” 2024 is when the rubber meets the road for the Ravens and Jackson. If they can’t reach a deal this offseason, applying the exclusive franchise tag at the cost of roughly $45 million is worth it for the Ravens to see if they can rebuild this offense around the 2019 MVP. If Jackson threatens to hold out and not sign the tag, then a trade might be inevitable. But the Ravens should be patient and see what Jackson thinks about playing another season on a one-year deal before parting with their biggest star.

Aside from Jackson’s extension, what’s the Ravens’ most pressing piece of business this offseason?

Walker: They need a wide receiver. Again. But DeCosta also needs to find a young starter at cornerback, where the Ravens have yet to develop an obvious successor to Marcus Peters. They could bring the 30-yard-old Peters back as a short-term solution if he’s willing to agree to a modest deal. But they have to assume Peters’ days as an elite turnover creator are behind him and look to draft Humphrey’s next partner. The Ravens are not devoid of young talent at the position. Brandon Stephens made some important plays late in the season with his rugged style. Jalyn Armour-Davis is a smart guy with Alabama pedigree and standout physical tools. Damarion “Pepe” Williams could earn snaps as a slot corner. But none of them seized the opportunity presented by Peters’ injuries. DeCosta could find a starter with the 22nd pick in the first round, and that should be his goal.

Doon: Figuring out their offensive identity. That’s painting with a broad brush, but it’s a true inflection point considering contract negotiations with Jackson and the arrival of a new offensive coordinator. The Ravens need to strike a balance between a punishing running game and an efficient passing attack, something they’ve done spectacularly in a few games but never consistently across an entire season. Only then can they be considered true contenders in a conference that’s only getting stronger.

As John Harbaugh searches for Greg Roman’s replacement, which traits should he prioritize?

Walker: So much of this depends on Jackson. Will the new coordinator be charged with helping him reach the next level or with training his replacement? Either way, Harbaugh does not seem inclined to throw out all the Ravens built under Roman. He needs to find a coordinator who excels at connecting with quarterbacks while also keeping the running game central. Minnesota Vikings passing game coordinator Brian Angelichio, Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson or San Francisco 49ers passing game coordinator Bobby Slowik would bring this desired balance. Harbaugh promised to consider internal candidates such as tight ends coach George Godsey, wide receivers coach Tee Martin and quarterbacks coach James Urban, but an outside perspective would be better given the Ravens’ lack of progress over the last two seasons.

Doon: Someone who looks for the easy stuff. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Jackson’s average intended air yards per attempt — meaning how fair he threw the ball downfield — was 8.8 in 2022, one of the highest in the league. His average time to throw of 3.0 seconds also ranked fourth, in part because of his ability to scramble. The Ravens shouldn’t remove the deep passing game from Jackson’s arsenal, but they need to get the ball out of his hands quicker and incorporate more short passes. It also wouldn’t hurt to rely on more play-action, which has proven to be one of the most effective tools in football. According to TruMedia, the Ravens ranked just 25th in expected points added per play-action play this past season.

Which Raven are you most eager to watch when the team reassembles next summer?

Walker: Rashod Bateman. So much of the Ravens’ hope for their passing offense hinged on a breakout season from their 2021 first-round pick. They and he jumped to a hot start, but a Lisfranc injury shut Bateman down, and he was sorely missed as the Ravens scrounged for touchdowns in the second half of the season. Bateman bristles at the notion he is injury-prone, noting that was never the case in college. But he needs to play a full NFL season and perform more consistently than he did when active in 2022. He has flashed elite talent, beating cornerbacks with sharp moves off the line of scrimmage and snatching balls out of the air in traffic. He has also dropped passes at crucial moments and has played just 18 games over his first two seasons. Harbaugh said Bateman will soon be healthy enough to run at full speed and will have a full offseason to prepare for training camp. He wants to be great, and the Ravens desperately need him to get there.

Doon: J.K. Dobbins. We saw how good he could be as a rookie in 2020, when he led the league with 6.0 yards per carry. While still recovering from a major knee injury, which eventually required a second surgery, he averaged 5.7 yards per carry this past season. If Dobbins can regain the burst and balance that makes him nearly impossible to bring down, the Ravens will have one of the best running backs in the league at the center of their offense.

Come next fall, will the Ravens be a Super Bowl contender or a rebuilding project?

Walker: They won’t be in the inner circle of contenders but will be closer to the top of the league than the middle. Harbaugh and DeCosta made it clear they have no interest in rebuilding. They have the defense, offensive line and running game to win now. Jackson is the great unknown. Will he be the team’s quarterback in 2023? Will his production rise in the context of a refreshed passing game? Can he make it to the end of a season after injuries cut short his last two? Will he show up happy and on time if the Ravens use the franchise tag to keep him in place? The guess here is that he will be around for at least one more season and that the Ravens’ 2022 performance will be the floor for what they can accomplish in 2023.

Doon: It’s hard to envision Harbaugh leading a rebuild, because we’ve never seen it. Even his most disappointing seasons — with the exception of a 5-11 campaign in 2015 after quarterback Joe Flacco got hurt — hovered around .500 and carried playoff aspirations most of the way. It’s also hard to see the Ravens lifting the Lombardi Trophy given how difficult a road it is in the AFC. Assuming Jackson returns and jells with his new offensive coordinator, the Ravens will have a fighting chance against the Bengals, Chiefs and Bills. But they might be more akin to the Jaguars, Chargers and Dolphins in the second tier of contenders than they want to admit.

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