From quarterback Lamar Jackson’s future in Baltimore to the departure of offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Ravens coach John Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta addressed a wide range of topics at their season-ending news conference Thursday. They presented a sunny view of the future despite their disappointment at falling short of lofty expectations in 2022. As usual, they left fans and reporters plenty of room to read between the lines. Here are a few early conclusions:
The Ravens want Lamar Jackson to be their quarterback in 2023, but what else were they going to say?
Harbaugh and DeCosta sought to dispel any notion that they were frustrated with their franchise player’s absence from the Ravens’ season-ending loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. You would never have known that national pundits had spent the previous few days predicting a divorce between team and quarterback.
“Lamar Jackson is our quarterback; he’s been our quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “Everything we’ve done in terms of building our offense and building our team, how we think in terms of [bringing in] people and putting people around him is based on this incredible young man, his talent, his ability and his competitiveness.”
DeCosta agreed: “He’s a fantastic competitor, one of the most infectious personalities you’ll ever see, one of the most talented players in the league, a truly wonderful person in the community in everything else that he does. So, that hasn’t changed; that won’t change. We’ll put our heads together; we’ll negotiate a contract. I told Lamar that, ‘Hey, this thing has been a burden for both of us,’ I said, ‘But when this thing is over, we are going to feel like a million bucks,’ and that’s truly how I feel.”
DeCosta added that he had spent time with Jackson earlier Thursday and would not engage when asked if he will listen to trade offers for the team’s brightest star.
“Our focus right now is really to get a long-term deal done; that’s our singular focus at this point,” he said.
Fans who yearn for Jackson to remain in Baltimore might draw some reassurance from these unequivocally positive comments. But in reality, we don’t know much more about Jackson’s future with the team than we did at this time last week. A negotiation that was difficult last summer will remain difficult, as DeCosta acknowledged. The franchise tag, whether it’s the exclusive version at $45.2 million or the nonexclusive version at $32.4 million, remains a distinct possibility. We still do not know Jackson’s perspective on any of this because he has not talked to reporters since two days before he hurt his knee on Dec. 4. But his decision to provide his own injury update on Twitter suggested at least some disconnect with the team’s messaging.
DeCosta said he sees no reason why Jackson would not be the Ravens’ quarterback for the 2023 opener. But of course he’s going to project confidence in his public statements; his negotiating position is stronger this way. Recall that at this time last year, DeCosta said he planned to pick up the fifth-year option on wide receiver Marquise Brown, the first player he’d drafted as general manager. Three months later, Brown was traded to the Arizona Cardinals. That’s not to say the same thing will happen with Jackson. The Ravens probably do want to keep him and keep pursuing the long-term plan they’ve constructed around him. It’s just that they want to do it at the right price.
Will DeCosta and Jackson agree on that price? Maybe, but nothing we heard Thursday told us how this will play out.
Greg Roman’s departure will not lead to a radical transformation of the offense.
With fans ready to storm the team’s training facility if Roman remained offensive coordinator, the Ravens announced he would move on via a kind statement from Harbaugh, detailing the offensive records they have set over the last four years.
Harbaugh is rightly proud of the “revolution” Roman created at his behest in 2019, when the Ravens ran off 12 straight wins with the most productive rushing attack in league history. Perhaps no coordinator could have done a better job capitalizing on Jackson’s rare skills at that point. But Roman’s offense stagnated over the past two seasons, losing steam as the playoffs neared and lacking the ability to finish drives with Jackson sidelined by injuries.
So what’s next?
Harbaugh said he’s eager to hear fresh perspectives on the offense but inclined to keep at least some of what Roman created. “We’ve established an identity for our offense; I think everybody knows that who plays against us and watches us play,” he said. “That’s important; that’s a good identity. That’s an identity that we’re going to carry forward.”
He will interview internal and external candidates, but this seems like a time for the Ravens to look outside their building. The question is, will top candidates be scared off by the possibility of Jackson departing via trade or holding out if the Ravens use the franchise tag to keep him off the market? Either eventuality could throw a wrench into a coordinator’s best-laid plans.
“Everybody’s going to want this job,” Harbaugh asserted. And the upside is high, given the overall strength of the roster and the stability of the front office. If a new coordinator built a spicier offense around Jackson and the Ravens rode it to the Super Bowl, a head coaching opportunity might be right around the corner. But what if the Ravens trade Jackson and can’t get high enough in the draft to pick his immediate replacement? The downside for an incoming coach could be low.
The Ravens know they need wide receiver help, but good luck guessing where they’ll find it.
DeCosta and Harbaugh said they’ll shop for new pass-catching talent in free agency and the draft. The Ravens essentially excised wide receivers from their game plan in the second half of the season, resorting to the heaviest personnel groupings the league had seen in many years. They did not recover from the loss of 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman to a Lisfranc injury. He was supposed to provide the downfield sizzle.
“We definitely took on some water this year at that position,” DeCosta said.
There’s no evidence, however, that the Ravens are willing to pay market price for an established No. 1 wide receiver. Even if they could afford to, with $45 million potentially allotted to a franchise tag for Jackson, this year’s free-agent class lacks elite talent. They used first-round picks on the position in 2019 and 2021, but would they do so again, given their competing need for a starting cornerback?
“I know what the fans would like,” DeCosta said. “As we look at it, honestly, when you have a big-ticket item at quarterback, it makes it more challenging — not impossible. We’ll have to get creative, and there are things we can do. There are a lot of different ways to go about constructing the team and finding players and affording players and various things like that. But we’ve got to be really creative.”
In other words, the Ravens will bring in new wide receivers over the next four months, but they might not be the names fans are dreaming on.
The fates of several core players from the 2022 Ravens are up in the air.
In the same breath that he described the difficulties of paying for a top wide receiver, DeCosta said the Ravens will “have to make some tough calls on players that we have on the team.” These could include free agents, such as cornerback Marcus Peters and guard Ben Powers, or veterans under contract, such as safety Chuck Clark and running back Gus Edwards, who might be asked to take pay cuts.
The Ravens would probably like to keep most of these guys at the right prices, but they know it won’t be possible.
DeCosta said a de facto goodbye to Powers, the team’s starting left guard, saying he “has probably improved as much as anybody on our team” but adding “Ben is probably going to be sought after in free agency.”
He described his “crazy respect” for Peters and said he will talk to the veteran cornerback and his agent about a possible return, though he added that the Ravens will look to “augment” one of their thinner position groups through free agency and the draft. He also offered plaudits for Clark, perhaps the most durable defender on the team, without offering any assurances of a return.
Asked if he will pick up linebacker Patrick Queen’s fifth-year option for 2024, DeCosta would not commit, though he said he’s thrilled with the pairing of Queen and Roquan Smith, the “best two young inside linebackers — the combo, the tandem, it’s exciting — in football.”
We could keep going down the roster, but the pattern is clear. With so much of DeCosta’s focus on Jackson and the financial implications of his potential deal, the future for many other prominent Ravens is cloudy.
After two seasons dominated by injury headlines, the Ravens foresee a brighter medical outlook.
If there was one message from Harbaugh and DeCosta free of reservations, it was their excitement over the team’s lack of lingering injury questions.
“This is crazy, but we only have one player right now that’s going to have an offseason surgery, which is a record for us,” DeCosta said. “I can’t talk [about] who the player is, but that’s unusual, to say the least.”
Harbaugh noted that Bateman, the most prominent Raven still on injured reserve, would soon be able to run at full speed. “All these guys are healthy going into the offseason, which gives them a chance to train from now until then to get ready to go,” Harbaugh said. “And that helps your injury outlook going forward, too.”
Think about all the starters and draft picks — Peters, Edwards, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, running back J.K. Dobbins, outside linebackers Tyus Bowser and David Ojabo — who were still recovering from major injuries when the Ravens arrived for training camp last summer. Harbaugh would cherish a summer of preparation unmarred by that strain of drama.