Coming into the season, the 2000 Ravens came to mind when considering what this team could look like. That team was powered on offense by Jamal Lewis’ 1660 yards from scrimmage, Priest Holmes’ 809, and Shannon Sharpe as the team’s leading receiver with 810 yards.
The team was fifth in rushing, 22nd in passing, and first in points allowed. Led by Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer at quarterback, the team was 14th in the NFL over the course of the 2000 season scoring 20.8 points per game. The offense had just 176 passing yards per game, but the defense limited opponents to just 187 per game, so it evened out.
This year’s team has Lamar Jackson leading the NFL at 6.7 yards per carry for 460 rushing yards, while Mark Ingram has 424, and Gus Edwards has 199 of his own. Jackson’s averaging 76.7 rush yards per game, Ingram’s at 70.7, and Edwards adds 33.2 of his own per game. The leading receiver is Mark Andrews with 410 on 34 catches, a huge beneficiary of the play action based system that Greg Roman runs.
During the 2000 season, Sharpe had 105 of 488 targets. When you add Ben Coates’ 18, that’s 123, so 25% of targets. This year, Andrews, Hayden Hurst, and Nick Boyle have combined for 81 of 193 targets, a whopping 42%. The emphasis on the tight ends has increased, as has the reliance on play action, Jackson is 6th in the NFL in play action percentage as 29.3% of his drop backs have been play action passes. As I’ve explained before, a direct benefit of play action passes are those tight ends due to the reactions from linebackers.
Like the 2000 team with Qadry Ismail, Marquise Brown is a speedster who stretches the field, serves as the #2 guy in targets, and provides space in the defense for the tight ends to make plays underneath.
The result of all of this with Jackson’s continued development as a passer is the #2 offense in points and the #1 offense in yards. Baltimore is first in rushing yards with 205 per game. At the Ravens current pace, they’d rush for 3280 yards, which would be an NFL record, beating the 1978 New England Patriots by 115. Quarterback Steve Rogan ran for 6.7 yards per carry on the way to 539 yards, while Sam Cunningham, Andy Johnson, and Horace Ivory all ran for over 675 themselves.
Jackson averaged 159.1 passing yards per game over the last seven games of 2018 and has now thrown for 251.2 per game in the first six. It’s turned this offense into something much more than most were projecting.
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Baltimore started 2019 as the 16th most likely team to win Super Bowl 54 with +3200 odds. After six weeks, they’re ninth at +2200. A reason for that jump has been Jackson’s play.
A bit surprisingly, the defense has been a disappointment as the NFL’s 2nd ranked defense in points and first in yards allowed last year is now 18th and 13th. The 2018 group gave up 17.9 points per game, this year’s team is giving up 23.3 per game.
This could be looked at two ways. They gave up 33 to the Chiefs and 40 to a Browns offense that should be more solid than they’ve displayed otherwise, so there’s a points per game bump that comes from those two match-ups. But the teams they’ve kept in check are all bad teams in 2019: Miami, Arizona, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.
The defense just got some help that might have been a reasoning behind that bump from Vegas as the team acquired Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback and two-time All Pro Marcus Peters for linebacker Kenny Young, who had just been benched by the team, and a 5th round pick in 2020.
If Baltimore wants to re-sign him, which I would imagine they do considering his performance thus far in the NFL, they have $69 million in projected cap space according to Over The Cap, so it’s a trade that could result in a long-term acquisition.
Baltimore is his third team in four years despite his abilities on the field for a good reason, he had character question marks in the draft process after being dismissed from the team at the University of Washington and has still had issues in the NFL. It might be why he only netted a 5th round pick and Young despite being a top cornerback. Joshua Dobbs was traded to Jacksonville for a 5th
It is possible the Ravens don’t elect to retain him. Baltimore would then likely receive the third or fourth round compensatory pick that Los Angeles would have received if they kept Peters and he left in free agency.
The result of the trade on the field is that the defense is now less reliant on snaps from Anthony Averett or Maurice Canady and it seems that Brandon Carr is now the full-time slot cornerback with Peters taking a position outside opposite of Marlon Humphrey. Tavon Young will return from his neck injury next season, Tony Jefferson will return from his ACL tear, and the defensive backfield could be a major strength in 2020. Jimmy Smith is still on the shelf with a knee sprain. The defensive backfield will be deep when he returns.
As long as Peters doesn’t have any issues, I could see the team signing him to an extension or hitting him with a franchise tag as a means of delaying the decision.
With so many starters at expensive positions on rookie contracts, plus $69 million in cap space, the team is in position to make whatever decision they want, and it’s in their best interest to have a player like Peters around as re-signing him allows them to still potentially maintain the compensatory pick formula in their favor, while not needing to seek cornerback help elsewhere.
Currently, the Ravens have seven draft picks in the first five rounds in the 2020 draft. As of May 2019, Nick Korte from Over The Cap has the team projected to see a third round pick for Za’Darius Smith due to the $16.5 million average per year (APY) deal he signed with the Packers. John Brown’s APY of $9 million with the Bills was slated to earn the Ravens a fourth round pick, but Korte writes that the Titans releasing of Brent Urban, which comes before Week 10, removes this compensatory pick. But, the Ravens could get the pick back if they similarly cut Justin Bethel before Week 10. However, as Korte points out, “he is the leading contributor on special teams at more than 80% of the snaps.
While it looked like the Ravens could have nine picks in the first five rounds to make up their 2020 draft class, they could now have eight. They have the allotted seven picks in 2021 as of today, so the team is in good standing to maintain the roster. And the roster is already strong, a few more pieces in the draft and free agency and they catapult to the top of the contenders list.
Baltimore’s extreme value from rookie contract players shows in Over The Cap’s new Valuation metric. The Cardinals lead the NFL with $81.1 million in value over APY, but Baltimore is right behind them getting $217.2 million in overall value with a team APY of $136.5 million, which results in $80.7 million of value over APY. Jackson, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, center Matt Skura, Andrews, and outside linebacker Matt Judon are the three biggest contributors to team value over APY. The right low-cost veteran free agent signings like Pernell McPhee, Willie Snead, and Mark Ingram are creating value for the franchise as well.
They’re currently in a position to extend talent within the organization, which maintains a positive compensatory pick formula. Some players will leave in free agency in the coming years, which will net picks, and the team is unlikely to reach for an expensive player on free agency to mess up the formula because the roster is already talented.
With the addition of Peters, this roster is in a prime position to be built from within with some supplementary additions through free agency, rather than being in a position where the missing piece is a forced overpay on the free agent market.
Doing that also ruins the compensatory formula, so Baltimore is in prime position to make a jump now or in 2020 dependent on if the team can figure out a way to solve their one glaring issue: a pass rush that PFF ranks as the 28th best in the game. That’s a drop from #11 the year prior as Smith and Terrell Suggs left in free agency. Preferably for Ravens fans, the hope is that the pass rush will be addressed this season, in time to see if this team can make a run at a Super Bowl this year rather than next year.
If the team does want to make a move this year, it’s going to have to contend with a tight cap. According to Over The Cap, after the Peters trade, the Ravens now have $1,284,916 in cap space.
When it comes to clearing cap space, restructures or extensions are a means for creating more. There aren’t many great candidates for a restructure that would clear much cap space, but if the team is willing to restructure a few players, they may create enough space to sign almost anyone on their rookie contract.
Extending Willie Snead or converting his salary into a signing bonus with void years in 2020 and 2021 could free about a million. The team could sign him to an extension in the $4-5 million range that helps clear space too.
Converting James Hurst’s salary into a signing bonus could create just about $2.5 million. Brandon Carr could have $3 million converted into a signing bonus that clears $1.5 million in cap.
Sam Koch has two years left on his contract, so just over $2 million of his salary could be converted to a signing bonus, which would clear another million in cap space as the signing bonus would be prorated over the final two years of the deal.
When you’re considering the players on bad teams that might be available, it’s probably going to be important that they find the lower cost players, but Vic Beasley is on the block and his $12.81 million salary becomes about $7.5 million if he’s traded after this weekend with 10 games left in the season.
If restructuring those three players clears $6 million in space, the Ravens are at $7.2 million and they can surely find another $300,000 to trade for Beasley.
Chandler Jones of the Cardinals is a trade candidate who can fit more easily under the cap with a prorated 10 week salary of $5,588,235. Von Miller’s $17 million salary becomes $10 million over ten weeks, so he’d probably be too hard to fit under the cap unless the team wants to extend Jimmy Smith to decrease his $9.5 million salary this year and kick cap responsibilities down the road on a 31-year old at a position that traditionally ages poorly.
Other trade candidates include Yannick Ngakoue whose 10 week salary would be just under $1.2 million, so if the Jaguars seem willing to deal him, which they might be considering the lack of progress on an extension this offseason that resulted in a holdout.
Shaq Barrett would be a candidate for a bad Bucs team with his $4 million salary for the season. He’s playing in a way that might earn him a mega deal, which would mean a third round compensatory pick in 2021 for the Bucs if he walks in free agency. Jason Pierre-Paul might be someone the team is willing to trade away as well.
Before the season, Jadeveon Clowney was traded to the Seahawks in return for a 2020 third round pick, plus two reserve linebackers and special teamers.
For a Von Miller or Chandler Jones, established veterans with multiple years left on their contracts, those teams might be looking for a combination of a second and a third or fourth, or even a first.
For a player in the last year of a contract, like Ngakoue or Barrett, the teams are probably seeking a third round pick as that would be the return they’d likely receive in the form of a compensatory pick in 2021. For Beasley, who hasn’t performed at a high level since his league leading 15.5-sack season in 2016, the price might be a fourth or fifth. The team has just decided he isn’t a part of future plans and knows he isn’t commanding big money on free agency at this point.
The 2020 free agent class for edge defenders has the potential to be extremely deep, if extensions and franchise tags don’t get in the way of that, but if Baltimore can secure an impact player now, he helps them in 2019, and, if re-signed, the loss of the picks traded is lessened by the compensatory pick formula still being maintained.
All told, considering the roster in place with the list of big needs being essentially just pass rusher, the team is in a position to move draft picks without much concern for the long-term impact as securing an impact player now, within this Super Bowl window, is more critical than what a 2020 pick will net. Teams need to understand the stage of development their roster is in, if they’re in a rebuild, it’s time to stockpile picks, but if the team is in the heart of a Super Bowl window, it’s the time to trade away picks to address core needs.
A trade for an impact edge rusher makes this team a Super Bowl contender now, but otherwise, 2020 and 2021 have the Ravens as top contenders, with a couple moves to further solidify this defense on the edge and at linebacker. Jackson has turned this offense into something much better than those 2000 Ravens, or any Ravens team that I can recall, but the defense needs to catch up.
Zack Moore is a former college football player at the University of Rhode Island. He received his MBA from Rutgers Business School and has written for Over The Cap since 2014. He is the author of Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, which offers insight into how teams use data and analytics to create sustainable, competitive teams through the salary cap that are capable of competing for championships. Zack’s research has appeared on various platforms including ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, USA Today, and the NFL Network.