OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Quarterback Lamar Jackson's best footwork of the offseason came when he sidestepped the final question of minicamp like a grizzled veteran.
“We play Miami first. I’m worried about Miami first,” Jackson said, referring to Baltimore’s season-opening opponent. "I don’t really worry about the Browns. We have other teams to worry about. Miami is first.”
Jackson’s response was typical in how the Ravens' players and front office have handled an offseason in which they’ve gone from the top of the division to a betting underdog. The Ravens remain comfortable lying low as the hype continues to build in Cleveland.
The Browns are the favorites in the AFC North after stockpiling talent in free agency with the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., while the traditional division powers in Baltimore and Pittsburgh have taken hits this offseason. The Ravens lost a chunk of leadership from the NFL’s top-ranked defense, and the Steelers parted ways with two of the best playmakers in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
Instead of sounding off about any slights, the Ravens have generally been complimentary of the Browns.
"They deserve that respect right now. They’ve built their team, championship-ready if you want to say that,” wide receiver Willie Snead IV said. "At the end of the day, we’re sitting back in the shadows and we’re working. Internally, we know what we have and we know how good we can be.”
It was about six months ago when Baltimore won the AFC North, clinching the division by beating Cleveland in the season finale. Since then, the Browns surrounded Baker Mayfield with Beckham and running back Kareem Hunt (who will sit out the first eight games because of a suspension) and bolstered the defense with tackle Sheldon Richardson and pass-rusher Olivier Vernon.
At the owners meetings in March, coach John Harbaugh was asked a half-dozen times about the new-look Browns.
"They’re the most talented team in the division; there’s no question about that right now,” Harbaugh said. "We’ll see what that means. I know this: That’s right now. The best team in the division is the team that’s going to win the division. So, we’ll see what the best team is.”
Until the Browns achieve success, the prospects of them overtaking the AFC North will come with raised eyebrows. Since the realignment in 2002, Cleveland has the worst division record (24-77-1) in the NFL. The last time the Browns won a division title was 1989, when former Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was their starting tight end.
Meanwhile, the Ravens and Steelers have been the models of consistency. Under Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin, Baltimore and Pittsburgh have combined for two Super Bowl titles and one losing season.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said the Browns are a lot better team “on paper."
"If they’re that much better, maybe they’ll start beating Pittsburgh,” Bisciotti told season-ticket holders in a conference call in June. "We only have to play them twice a year. It’ll be interesting to see how quickly they develop into the kind of team that some people think they are.”
The Ravens have dominated the Browns, especially in the Harbaugh era. Since 2008, Baltimore is 19-3 (.864) against Cleveland, although the rivalry is closer than it appears. In the Ravens’ past 15 wins over the Browns, eight have come by eight points or fewer.
The perception, however, is the balance of power is changing. In ESPN’s latest Power Rankings, the Browns are at No. 15, the Steelers are at No. 16 and the Ravens are at No. 17.
Can the Ravens use this as motivation?
"For me, personally, honestly, I couldn’t care less. I hope ‘Bake’ [Baker Mayfield] has a great season, just because that’s family -- except for two games out of the year,” said Ravens offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who was a teammate of Mayfield's at Oklahoma. "But other than that, it doesn’t affect me much.”
Still, the Ravens are looking to repeat as division champions for the first time since 2011-12, and the Browns appear to be the biggest obstacle standing in their way.
According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Browns have a 36% chance to win the AFC North. That’s ahead of the Steelers (31%) and Ravens (30%).
"I feel like the Baltimore Ravens are almost used to that -- being counted out and being the underdogs,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said. "We thrive on that type of thing. We work hard each and every day. I feel like we work harder than any team in the NFL. For us to be disrespected and really not getting the credit we deserve being the champs of the North, it is what it is. But we’re going to be coming back.”