Lamar Jackson has been the most exciting, impactful player in the NFL this season, and enters the final month of the regular season the clear . John Harbaugh has to be on every shortlist possible for Coach Of The Year as well, completely rebranding his team around Jackson and creating, with his staff, an iconoclastic offense that has torn up the league, with the Ravens exemplifying team-first, unselfish football every week.
This football team, all of a sudden, is brimming with young, explosive, playmakers on both sides of the ball, with recent first-round picks Jackson, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Marlon Humphrey and Ronnie Stanley becoming pillars of the team and, in every case, producing an output that is even exceeding where they were selected. But that’s not the sole reason the Ravens are now sitting atop the AFC standings despite facing a gauntlet of the NFL‘s best while reeling off eight straight wins. Far from it.
The story far less told about this organization is the bevvy of overachievers who have helped lift it to these heights, the kind of players who have long been a bedrock to a franchise that excels at finding gems deep in the draft, or off the street, in the scouring side, and then helping them maximize their potential through player development on the coaching side. Never have those entities seem more married than in 2019, and what’s not getting enough attention, frankly, is the work that has been done behind the scenes to make so many success stories out of players no one wanted at one point or another.
Of the 22 men who started Sunday’s possible Super Bowl preview against the 49ers, one of the most anticipated games of this season so far, nearly half were what you could term steals – players whose presence in such prominent roles is a testament to the tremendous work of general manager Eric DeCosta and his predecessor, Ozzie Newsome. Of those 22 starters, three were undrafted free agents on their rookie deals (DT Michael Pierce, DT/FB Patrick Ricard, C Patrick Mekari), four were drafted in the fifth-round or later (LB Matt Judon, S Chuck Clark, G Bradley Bozeman, TE Nick Boyle), one was acquired for a fifth-round pick in-season (CB Marcus Peters) and one was a veteran-minimum free-agent signing midseason to strengthen a struggling linebacking group at the time (LJ Fort).
That is nine of 22 starters, folks, and when you add in undrafted free-agent linebacker Patrick Onwuasor, who generally plays regularly on defense as well but missed time with injuries on Sunday. Plus, LB Josh Bynes, who played more than half the snaps Sunday, and, like Fort, was signed off the street a month ago. And C Matt Skura, an undrafted free agent who was excelling as a starter until his season-ending injury opened a spot for Mekari, you get an ever clearer picture out of how well the evaluations have gone. Heck, defensive linemen Jihad Ward and Domata Peko, who were also signed off the street recently due to injuries, have contributed well, also, for the most part, and round out a cast of cast-offs or players other teams didn’t want.
Yes, without a doubt, the seminal moment in the Ravens revolution from an aging defensive team with a check-down passing game to the greatest ground game on grass, came with the bold move to trade back into the first round in 2018 to select Jackson. Without that, none of this is possible. But that was also just the beginning of a great hot streak for DeCosta, with Hayden Hurst (first round) and Mark Andrews (third round) from that 2018 draft combining with Boyle for a dominant three-tight end attack and third-round pick Orlando Brown Jr. already a top right tackle and Bozeman a starter as well up front on the remade offense.
And this past spring, adding Hollywood Brown’s blazing speed was imperative to open the offense and give Jackson a true deep ball threat, and Jaylon Ferguson has already become a starter at linebacker. That came after a stellar free agent class that included keeping Boyle, and adding Mark Ingram (who leads all running backs with at least 100 carries in yards per attempt) and safety Earl Thomas to a secondary that badly needed to be revamped.
Give DeCosta credit as well for knowing whom to let go – Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs were nearing the end, and CJ Mosley was never going to be worth the money the desperate Jets gave him (he’s been hurt all year). Yes, keeping Z’Darius Smith would have been huge, but by 2018 it was too late to re-sign him – he was always going to gamble on himself – and the Packers gave him a massive haul. But credit the Ravens for holding on to corner Jimmy Smith, whom many thought would be a cap casualty, with his return from injury huge and giving them abundant depth and match-up options in the secondary now.
And, perhaps most impressive of all, DeCosta got John Elway to not only give him a fourth-round pick for injury-riddled quarterback Joe Flacco, but also take on the entire contract. Pretty good for a backup QB, with this team already Jackson’s by then.
The contributions from the lesser knowns just keep coming. Clark has been a revelation since replacing injured safety Tony Jefferson, getting the defense aligned and playing a pivotal role in the secondary turning it around. Ricard is a handful on offense and defense, a vital rotation guy on the defensive line who has gotten some push to the QB, and an immovable force at fullback in the run game.
Skura was doing a great job at center, a position that has been an issue for Baltimore for years, and when he went down all Mekari did was hold up against Aaron Donald and DeForest Buckner in his first two NFL games. Fort and Bynes have been godsends after former draft pick Kenny Young – pawned off to the Rams in the Peters trade – fell apart. Boyle is one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL. Pierce remains a top run stuffer. Judon is the top pass rusher on the team.
You get the idea.
This team is more than just Lamar, and its rapid rise is a born of the work of many men on the field and inside the meeting rooms. It’s not easy to complete reinvent a football team on the fly, as began last November when Jackson took over as starter, but the Ravens coaches and front office have done just that, and there is abundant credit to go around. And should DeCosta and Co. come up with another offseason in 2020 anywhere close to the past two, the balance of power might be staying in Baltimore for quite some time to come.