Season grade: Above average. A poor showing in the playoffs aside, the Ravens believe they’ve found their next franchise quarterback in Lamar Jackson, and they finished with the No. 1 defense for only the second time in team history. Baltimore had one of the more impressive turnarounds of the season, going from 4-5 at the bye to AFC North champion. The season ended with a disappointing home playoff loss, but the Ravens have to be excited about their foundation going forward with the combination of Jackson and coach John Harbaugh.
Season in review: In winning their first division title since 2012, the Ravens also ended a three-year playoff drought. The season looked like it was spiraling downward when the Ravens reached the bye on a three-game losing streak and starting quarterback Joe Flacco was sidelined with a hip injury. But Jackson sparked an unexpected turnaround, turning a pass-oriented offense to a run-dominated one. The rookie first-round pick went 6-1 in the regular season, the second-best seven-game start since the 1970 merger (Ben Roethlisberger was 7-0 in 2004). He led all NFL quarterbacks with 695 yards rushing and did enough in the passing game to lead the Ravens to their first double-digit win season since 2014. The Chargers solved Jackson for three quarters Sunday in their second meeting of the season, playing most of the game with seven defensive backs and containing the run. Defensively, this will likely rank as the Ravens’ best group behind the ones in 2000 and 2006. Baltimore finished the regular season ranked in the top five in fewest total yards, rushing yards, passing yards and points allowed.
He said it: "Every decision is based on what makes us the strongest possible team we can be. ... That's what it boils down to. That's how we feel about this decision and we're rolling." -- Harbaugh in explaining why he chose Jackson over Flacco as the starting quarterback on Dec. 13.
Will the Ravens sign Harbaugh to an extension? There's no uncertainty about Harbaugh in 2019. The Ravens announced on Dec. 21 that Harbaugh will continue to coach the team next season and the sides are working on an extension. But, in an unusual twist, Harbaugh has been evasive when asked about the news, calling it a "non-story." That has prompted speculation that Harbaugh will finish out the remaining one year left on his contract and see what he would command in the open market. Owner Steve Bisciotti has never let money get in the way of making what he feels is the right decision at head coach. He fired Brian Billick in 2007 even though he had to pay him for three more years. So, if Bisciotti wants Harbaugh long term, he will do everything in his power to keep him. It could make for an awkward 2019 if Harbaugh elects not to agree to an extension. At least two teams pondering a head-coaching change are considering calling the Ravens to inquire about Harbaugh, league sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
How much progress can Jackson make in the passing game? With four quarterbacks drafted before him this season, Jackson exceeded expectations in compiling a 6-1 record in the regular season and being the cog in one of the more unique run-heavy offenses. His biggest area of development is obvious. Jackson has to become more accurate in the passing game, which was especially evident against the Chargers on Sunday, and drive more passes downfield as well as outside the numbers. Coaches and players have defended Jackson’s ability to throw the ball, but he finished with a 58.2 completion rate and an average of 157 passing yards per game in his seven regular-season starts. That forced Jackson to run the ball more than any other quarterback in his first season as a starter and exposed him to too many hits. In order for the Ravens' offense to evolve, they have to be able to count on Jackson as a passer.
How much will new GM Eric DeCosta overhaul the roster? DeCosta will face several tough decisions in taking over for Ozzie Newsome, who is stepping down after being the only general manager in the franchise’s 23-year history. The Ravens’ top free agents are linebacker Terrell Suggs, the most tenured player on the roster, as well as Pro Bowl middle linebacker C.J. Mosley and wide receiver John Brown. Suggs will enter free agency for the first time in his career, and it’s unknown whether the Ravens would extend him more than a one-year deal. It’s surprising Baltimore hasn’t reached an extension with Mosley, an indication the sides might part ways. Flacco, the former Super Bowl MVP and the starter for the past 11 years, is not expected to return. Baltimore is expected to release Flacco if it can’t trade him to someone like the Washington Redskins or Jacksonville Jaguars. Baltimore can free up $10.5 million in cap space by parting with him before June 1 and $18.5 million after that date. Other salary-cap cut candidates include: cornerback Jimmy Smith ($9.5 million in cap savings) and safety Eric Weddle ($6.5 million).