Instead of going through the exercise of making league-wide predictions, the following focus on the Ravens and their goal to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2014 season:
1. Joe Flacco will not have a career season, but he will throw 25 touchdowns for the third time in his 11 years.
Coming off a career-worst 5.7 yards per attempt campaign, the 33-year-old is healthier than he’s been in three years, has a more diverse group of weapons, likes new quarterbacks coach James Urban, and, yes, feels some heat after Baltimore drafted a first-round quarterback. As the better part of the last five years taught us, you don’t want Flacco throwing the ball 600-plus times, but the aforementioned variables matched with a strong running game will lead to his best season since 2014. His 11 interceptions will be the third-lowest total of his career while a 7.0 yards per attempt average will elevate him to the middle of the pack, which is where he always was statistically when he played his best regular-season football.
2. Lamar Jackson will finish his rookie campaign with three touchdowns in a change-of-pace role.
Some national pundits continue to push the idea of Jackson taking Flacco’s job at some point in 2018, but the decision to retain Robert Griffin III should provide further confirmation that the rookie just isn’t ready to handle the starting duties. That said, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg would be crazy not to pick his spots to get Jackson on the field, especially as a runner. It won’t be a massive role as some defenses will be prepared for any trickery and Mornhinweg will need to be careful not to upset the overall rhythm of the offense, but Jackson will offer excitement and play a key role in helping the Ravens win a game or two over the course of the season.
3. Rookies Orlando Brown and Kenny Young will be starting by mid-October.
The Ravens beginning the season with James Hurst as the starting right tackle isn’t surprising as they’ve frequently given the initial nod to veterans in past position competitions. That said, Hurst has struggled on the outside in the past while Brown was impressive in his first preseason, making his poor combine performance that dropped him to the third round of the draft a distant memory. Meanwhile, Young will begin the season sharing first-team snaps with incumbent Patrick Onwuasor and has shown an impressive nose for the football at the weak-side inside linebacker spot. C.J. Mosley said this week that someone needs to emerge eventually, and Young has the skills to do just that.
4. Alex Lewis and Za’Darius Smith will take a step forward.
Lewis has received much fanfare since becoming a Week 1 starter as a rookie two years ago, but he’s played in only 10 of a possible 32 games and needs to stay on the field to help an interior line with questions at the center spot. The starting left guard received looks at center in camp, an idea that could be revisited at some point. Many noted Tim Williams’ play in the preseason, but Smith was also very disruptive and enters a contract year. Often compared to ex-Raven Pernell McPhee when drafted in 2015, Smith’s 10 sacks over his first three year eclipsed McPhee’s 9 1/2 from 2011-2013. Smith has often done the dirty work as a pass rusher, but he’ll see a bigger payoff in the sack department this season.
5. Matt Skura and Brandon Carr will take a step back.
Skura went from the practice squad at the start of last season to starting 12 games and filling in respectably at right guard, but expectations are higher this year as he attempts to replace Ryan Jensen at the center position. There is concern about his ability to stand his ground against hefty defensive tackles and give a clear path to pulling guards, a staple in Greg Roman’s run-blocking schemes. The 32-year-old Carr is one of the most respected players in the locker room and will continue his amazing streak of 160 consecutive starts on Sunday, but he’ll find himself spending more time on the sideline once top cornerback Jimmy Smith returns from his four-game suspension in October.
6. Marlon Humphrey will tie for the team lead in interceptions and be named a Pro Bowl alternate.
We know the Ravens defense has struggled without Smith over the years, making Humphrey that much more critical entering his second season. The 2017 first-round pick could be asked to travel with elite receivers such as A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, and Antonio Brown in Smith’s absence, so the opening month will be a test run for him as the No. 1 guy. The Alabama product has the skills to be a shutdown corner, and it’s no secret that Smith has played all 16 games only twice in his career and is scheduled to carry a $15.85 million salary cap figure in the final year of his contract next season. Humphrey will play at a level making it easier to move on from Smith next offseason.
7. Michael Crabtree will have the most touchdown catches in a season by a Raven since 2014.
The former Oakland Raider and San Francisco 49er provides the highest floor of the three free-agent additions at wide receiver, and Flacco will depend on him to be his most dependable target in the red zone. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Crabtree may have difficulty running away from defensive backs at this point, but his ability to make contested catches will be critical on third down and inside the opponent’s 20. He has only one 1,000-yard season in the last five years, but his 25 touchdown receptions over his last three campaigns are exactly what the Ravens are looking for in 2018. Crabtree will catch the most touchdowns by a Raven since Torrey Smith snatched 11 in his final season in Baltimore.
8. Alex Collins will give Baltimore its first 1,000-yard rusher since Justin Forsett.
A slight 205-pound frame makes you take pause when predicting monster numbers for the breakout performer from a year ago, but Collins has excellent feet and is a perfect fit in this multi-look ground attack. He is carrying a few extra pounds to try to account for a bigger workload this season, but expecting him to carry the ball 20-plus times every week would seem like a recipe to wear him down. The Ravens would be wise to do what they can to keep their starter fresh and throw carries in the direction of reliable backup Buck Allen and the talented Kenneth Dixon, but Collins is the guy and should be able to build on what he did in an impressive 2017 season.
9. Marshal Yanda and C.J. Mosley will make the Pro Bowl.
The offensive line did its best and improved over the course of last season, but there’s no understating how devastating Yanda’s Week 2 loss was to the offense’s ceiling. His streak of six straight trips to the Pro Bowl was snapped, but the 33-year-old is healthy and primed to continue building on a career resume that could garner some Hall of Fame consideration when it’s over. Contract talks have been very quiet with Mosley, who had a healthy offseason and is eager to take an already-impressive start to his career to the next level. With defensive coordinator Wink Martindale putting more responsibility on his leaders to make calls and adjustments on the fly, Mosley will remind just how valuable he is.
10. The Ravens will go 10-6, return to the playoffs, and advance to the divisional round.
After predicting 8-8 finishes in the last two years, I’m buying stock in a revamped and healthier offense being more consistent and finishing in the top half of the league, which would be marked improvement. I also think there hasn’t been enough discussion about the personnel continuity on defense, something that should more than make up for any early hiccups in the transition to Martindale as coordinator. There’s little question that big changes will be in order if the Ravens fail to make the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Despite a tougher schedule that includes a very competitive NFC South, I see a top-five defense and an improved Flacco guiding the Ravens into January and winning a playoff game.
Bonus Super Bowl pick no one asked for: New Orleans 31, Los Angeles Chargers 24
Future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees earns a second ring and retires after edging out Philip Rivers, the man who took his place in San Diego once upon a time.