OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens open 2021 NFL training camp Wednesday at the Under Armour Performance Center. Here's a closer look at a few storylines:
How much will quarterback Lamar Jackson improve as a passer?
The Ravens are hoping for a significant improvement, especially when you consider the offseason investment. Baltimore added two wide receivers, drafting Rashod Bateman with the No. 27 overall pick and signing Sammy Watkins in free agency. After watching their wide receivers finish last in receiving yards the past two years, the Ravens now have three first-round picks at wide receiver (Bateman, Watkins and Marquise "Hollywood" Brown) for the first time in franchise history.
It’s more than growth in passing numbers for Jackson. It’s expanding where he throws the ball -- horizontally and vertically. With Bateman and Watkins, Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said defenses will have to defend all 53 yards, from sideline to sideline. Last season, Jackson ranked 27th on completions outside the numbers (94). At the end of minicamp, Jackson indicated a big emphasis for him was throwing the ball deep more consistency. In 2020, he was 20th on successful throws of 20 yards or more (17).
Jackson has proven he’s a winner, leading Baltimore to the postseason in each of his three seasons. Now, surrounded by his most talented supporting cast, he needs to prove he can consistently make defenses pay for trying to stop him running.
This is the biggest question facing the traditionally strong Ravens defense. Baltimore didn't sign an edge rusher in free agency, and the Ravens used a first-round pick on a pass-rusher who didn't record a sack in his final college season. At this point, Baltimore will bank on the blitzes of creative defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and the fast development of Odafe Oweh, the No. 31 overall pick.
In Martindale’s two seasons as coordinator, the Ravens blitzed an NFL-high 555 times, which generated 50 sacks (also a league-high). Oweh, the first outside linebacker drafted in the first round by the Ravens in 18 years, improved throughout the offseason as a pass-rusher and has the potential to be dynamic on third downs. Still, no one would be surprised if Baltimore signed Justin Houston or Melvin Ingram before the start of training camp. This team is so primed to go after a championship that adding an established veteran is the smart move.
What will the revamped offensive line look like?
No position group in Baltimore underwent more changes than this one. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is the only lineman returning to the same spot from last season, and he isn’t expected to line up at the start of training camp because he’s still recovering from season-ending ankle surgery. Bradley Bozeman moved from left guard to center, which he considers his natural position.
Baltimore bolstered the right side of the line by bringing in two veteran AFC North blockers in Kevin Zeitler and Alejandro Villanueva. Rookie third-round pick Ben Cleveland is the favorite to win the starting left guard spot, but he’ll need to beat out Tyre Phillips and Ben Powers. Roman likes to say the Ravens play “big boy ball” on offense. The average size of Baltimore’s starting offensive line is 6-foot-6, 326 pounds. It’s tough to get much bigger than that.
What's it going to take for the Ravens to make an extended Super Bowl run with Jackson?
To put it bluntly, it's score more points. In Jackson's three playoff losses, Baltimore has failed to produce more than 20 points. Jackson goes from nearly unstoppable in the regular season to a slow starter in the postseason. In the first halves of those losses, he has completed half of his throws with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Jackson’s big-game poise is squarely under the national microscope. It’s up to the Ravens to take a hard look at how a prolific scoring offense in the regular season struggles in the playoffs. It’s true that Jackson remains one of the youngest quarterbacks in the league at 24. But the clock is ticking for Baltimore to take advantage of Jackson being on a bargain rookie deal.