Instead of going through the exercise of making league-wide predictions, the following focus on the Ravens and the quest to win their third Super Bowl in the 25-year history of the franchise:
1. The offense will score at least 10 fewer touchdowns than a year ago.
Yes, Greg Roman is back, J.K. Dobbins joins a strong backfield, and a very young group has another year of experience under its belt, all reasons to argue the record-setting offense scoring 58 touchdowns a year ago could be even better. But reality suggests otherwise from a statistical standpoint as 30 of the 34 teams to score at least 50 offensive touchdowns in a season since 2007 saw their total drop the following year and 20 of those saw a double-digit decrease. For perspective, even Super Bowl champion Kansas City scored 20 fewer offensive touchdowns last year than in 2018. None of this is to suggest the offense will be anything but terrific again or that opponents will have “solved” it, but it’s a tribute to how remarkable and efficient the 2019 offense really was and an indication that opponents are likely to adopt more best practices to keep the Ravens from scoring 40 or more as often.
2. Lamar Jackson will once again lead the Ravens in rushing by going over 1,000 yards for the second straight year.
I fully expect Dobbins to cut into the workload of both Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards, which will keep Ingram from going over the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight season. But the arrival of the former Ohio State star doesn’t change the fact that Jackson has the ball in his hands for the start of every one of those read-option plays, meaning the reigning NFL MVP isn’t going to suddenly see a sizable decrease in his number of carries over the course of the season. Make no mistake, Jackson can and will win plenty of games with his arm and Baltimore has very talented running backs, but the third-year quarterbacks’ athleticism remains the truly transcendent component of this one-of-a-kind offense, evident by his league-best 6.9 yards per carry average last year. That isn’t changing for now.
3. Jackson will improve his yards per attempt despite throwing fewer touchdowns than a year ago.
I expect Jackson to throw more passes than last year’s 401, but throwing a touchdown on 9.0 percent of his attempts again is highly unlikely. For context, Tom Brady has never recorded a single-season percentage that high while Patrick Mahomes (5.4 percent) and Russell Wilson (6.0 percent) were well below that mark last season. Where I do anticipate growth is Jackson pushing the ball down the field more often and making more throws outside the numbers, points of emphasis for him this offseason. Jackson’s 7.8 yards per attempt ranked 13th in the NFL last year, but landing in the top 10 in that category will be a sign of the passing game having a better ability to play off schedule and from behind. He won’t be quite as touchdown efficient, but adding more explosiveness will go a long way.
4. Mark Andrews will go over 1,100 receiving yards to lead all Baltimore pass catchers.
Improved health, a bigger frame, and no shortage of workout videos on social media have made Marquise Brown the popular choice for a breakout season. I definitely expect a sizable jump for the 2019 first-round pick who collected 584 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but Andrews made the Pro Bowl and set team highs with 852 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns catches despite playing just 41 percent of the offensive snaps and dealing with a nagging ankle injury for a good chunk of the season. With Hayden Hurst in Atlanta and the Ravens carrying just two tight ends on the 53-man roster, Andrews’ increased snap count alone suggests more targets and production in his third season.
5. The run defense will rank in the top 10 in yards per carry allowed and efficiency.
Finishing an underwhelming 21st in the NFL in both departments last year, the Ravens added veteran defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe as well as rookie inside linebacker Patrick Queen to boost a run defense that proved too vulnerable in key matchups, none more obvious than the heartbreaking playoff loss to Tennessee. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will still need to rely heavily on the blitz to pressure quarterbacks, but these additions along with moving Brandon Williams back to his natural nose tackle spot should result in less handwringing about an inability to stop the run, especially if edge defenders show more consistency setting the edge against stretch zone rushes.
6. Marlon Humphrey will grab a career-high five interceptions to be named a first-team All-Pro again.
There is no shortage of talent in the secondary, but Humphrey is the most complete player after showing off his versatility last season by frequently moving inside after excelling as an outside corner in his first two seasons. With nickel corner Tavon Young returning from last year’s neck injury, Humphrey will again be able to thrive on the outside and strengthen his case as one of the very best at his position in the league. The 24-year-old tackles like a linebacker, covers at an elite level, and will solidify his status as the best player on this defense. Another All-Pro season will have him knocking on the door for a contract extension not far off from what the Los Angeles Rams just gave Jalen Ramsey.
7. A shaky November will cost the Ravens the top seed in the AFC.
Trying to anticipate what teams will look like from a health standpoint — which takes on a different meaning in the midst of the pandemic — in November is anyone’s guess, but a post-bye trip to play a talented Indianapolis team, a road game at New England the next week, and a Thanksgiving night trek to Pittsburgh four days after hosting the Titans? That’s easily the most challenging four-game stretch on the schedule and the biggest roadblock on paper to securing the No. 1 seed for a second straight year. Going 2-2 over that stretch would hardly be disastrous, but it may not be good enough.
8. Six Ravens players will be named to the Pro Bowl.
Jackson, Humphrey, Andrews, Campbell, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, and kicker Justin Tucker will receive the nod, but the Ravens will hope not to be participating in that shoddy exhibition again.
9. A 12-4 record will give the Ravens their third straight AFC North championship.
No AFC North team has ever won the division in three straight seasons as you’d have to go back to the old AFC Central days when Pittsburgh won four consecutive division titles from 1994-97. The Ravens remain a clear favorite, but strong arguments can be made for all three division foes being better than a year ago. If Ben Roethlisberger looks anywhere close to his pre-injury self, the Steelers will be a formidable playoff team. The Browns should win more than six games and have a chance of sneaking in as a wild card with the AFC postseason field now expanded to seven teams. And Cincinnati should improve as the year progresses after handing the keys to first overall pick Joe Burrow. The Ravens won’t run away with this division by six games like last year, but they still own the AFC North.
10. The Ravens will defeat New Orleans 33-24 to win Super Bowl LV in Tampa.
After using much of this space to say the Ravens won’t be as dominant as last year, I’m picking John Harbaugh’s team to break through and win the third Super Bowl in franchise history. As memorable as the best regular-season team in Ravens history was, the winter was as cold as ever after the loss to Tennessee. The best record in the league and the No. 1 seed, an abundance of broken records and individual accolades, and, yes, plenty of national media love and respect — all things coveted by Baltimore fans for years — proved not as fulfilling as seeing the Ravens raise the Lombardi Trophy at the end of 2000 and 2012, two seasons with far more adversity. With Jackson taking a cue from Mahomes in winning the MVP award in his second season, why not continue the trend with a Super Bowl victory in his third year? The Ravens won’t find the 2020 regular season as easy or fruitful in terms of records and awards, but they’ll finally take down the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC Championship. The electrifying Jackson will then get the best of future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, fulfilling that promise he made the night he was drafted with the 32nd overall pick less than three years ago. Baltimore will be picking there again next spring because of him.