It was a tale of two halves for the Baltimore Ravens this season. After starting out 4-5, Baltimore made a quarterback change and took off, winning six of its last seven games to claim the AFC North.
While rookie Lamar Jackson helped get the Ravens into the playoffs, he couldn't keep the success going as they lost 23-17 at home to the Chargers in the AFC Wild Card game. Still, it's pretty clear that this is Jackson's team going forward, meaning the Joe Flacco era has come to an end.
And while at one point it seemed that John Harbaugh could be leaving as well, all indications are that he will be back for a 12th season. General manager Ozzie Newsome is retiring so between some personnel and front office (assistant GM Eric DeCosta will take over) changes, this is shaping up to be a pivotal offseason for the franchise.
3 Biggest Offseason Questions Facing the Ravens
1. Quarterback transition
Even though Baltimore trailed Los Angeles 23-3 halfway through the fourth quarter of Saturday's AFC Wild Card game, there was never any thought by John Harbaugh to bench the struggling Lamar Jackson for Joe Flacco. Between that decision and Harbaugh's postgame comments it sure seems like the Ravens have already passed the torch from Flacco, the franchise's all-time leading passer and Super Bowl XLVII MVP, to Jackson, who has eight total starts under his belt.
While you certainly can't argue that Jackson provided the team with a spark coming out of their Week 10 bye and was a big reason why Baltimore won the AFC North, it also needs to be pointed out that if not for a late fourth-quarter rally, the Ravens would have been blown out at home on Saturday as Jackson couldn't get much going on the ground or through the air. Los Angeles' defense certainly learned from its first encounter (Week 16) facing the dynamic, dual-threat quarterback, forcing him to try and beat them with his arm by employing seven defensive backs on every snap. The result was Jackson looked uncomfortable if not confused, as the Chargers finished with seven sacks and three takeaways (two fumbles, INT all by Jackson).
Jackson did orchestrate a late rally, tossing a pair of touchdown passes in the final nine minutes, but it was too much of a deficit to overcome. Perhaps fittingly, the Ravens' final play was a sack in which Jackson fumbled the ball away, which Los Angeles recovered. For the game, Jackson completed less than half of his pass attempts (14 of 29) for 194 yards, but the team's net total was just 139 passing yards due to the sacks. He was the game's leading rusher with 54 yards, but that came courtesy of a team-high nine carries, which isn't a great sign. Going into the wild-card game, there was much talk about Jackson's need to improve as a passer and those questions certainly weren't answered with Saturday's performance. But it appears that Baltimore has seen enough to entrench him as the starter moving forward. Now it's just a matter of Jackson becoming more familiar with the playbook while Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg tailor an offense that caters to their quarterback's skill set and puts the unit in the best position to succeed.
Even though Flacco handled the demotion with class and remained a model teammate to the very end, he also has made it clear he doesn't view himself as a backup. So it seems pretty obvious that the soon-to-be 34-year-old has suited up as a Raven for the last time. One of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL, Flacco is currently under contract for three more seasons. It would be easier for Baltimore to cut ties after next season but a potential $16 million cap hit if he's released this offseason is better than the $26.5 million it would cost to keep him on the roster. A trade seems unlikely given his contract along with the fact that his production has declined over the past three seasons.
2. Decisions on defense
Baltimore's defense finished the regular season No. 1 in the NFL in yards allowed per game and second in points. But this unit could look quite different next season, especially in the middle, depending on what decisions are made as the team's leading tackler and top two sack specialists are among those defenders set to become free agents. C.J. Mosley figures to be the priority as the 2014 first-round pick earned his third straight (and fourth overall) Pro Bowl invite this season. The 26-year-old will have no lack of potential suitors should the Ravens let him get to free agency.
The tougher decision comes with Terrell Suggs. The seven-time Pro Bowler is far and away the franchise's all-time sacks leader (132.5) and the unquestioned leader on defense, if not the entire team. However, he's 36 and just finished his 16th season. No one is sure if he wants to play another season and if does, what he has left in the tank. As much as Baltimore probably wants to keep him so he can finish out his career as a Raven, it's probably going to come down to cost. Baltimore is projected to have nearly $32 million in cap space (and will get a little more back if the team releases Flacco/other players), but pressing needs elsewhere (i.e., re-signing Mosley) could result in having to cut ties with another longtime veteran.
Fellow linebacker Za'Darius Smith, who led the team with 8.5 sacks, is another pending free agent from the defense, as is starting end Brent Urban. The secondary could be reshuffled with Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle as well as cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr potential salary-cap casualties. Weddle has already stated that he will retire if the Ravens don't bring him back.
3. Who joins Jackson in the backfield?
When Jackson took over as the starting quarterback, the offense titled even more towards the run. Over the final seven games of the regular season, Baltimore led the NFL with nearly 230 rushing yards per game. Alex Collins suffered a foot injury that ended his season early, but undrafted rookie Gus Edwards stepped up and emerged when given the opportunity. Both of them, as well as Javorius "Buck" Allen and Ty Montgomery, are pending free agents. The Ravens still have Kenneth Dixon on the roster, but the 2016 fourth-round pick has had trouble staying on the field, whether due to injury or suspension.
Jackson is going to the focal point of the offense, but as the wild-card loss to Los Angeles showed, he can't carry the load himself. Jackson led the way with 54 rushing yards while Edwards and Dixon managed 36 on 14 carries. The 90 total yards on the ground were by far the fewest in a game since Jackson became the starter (and the fifth-fewest in a game all season). It doesn't seem likely that Baltimore will make a big splash in free agency at this position but chances are there will be a new face or two in the backfield picture by the time training camp opens.