The B-Gap: The Ravens turned a looming catastrophe into a Super Bowl contender

By Sam Robb O’Hagan

The last three wide receivers to catch a pass for the Baltimore Ravens were Sammy Watkins, DeMarcus Robinson and Tylan Wallace.

The next three? Injury luck permitting, it could be Rashod Bateman, Odell Beckham Jr. and Zay Flowers.

Now, remember the last player to throw a pass for the Baltimore Ravens. Then, consider the $260 million man who’s going to be the next one.

Baltimore was staring down the most catastrophic of barrels not even 16 days ago; Beckham, Flowers and (technically) Jackson weren’t even Ravens, and Tyler Huntley was another team’s two first-round picks away from being a starting NFL quarterback.

Offensively, for all intents and purposes, the Ravens had nothing. Barely two weeks later, they have their generational quarterback, and critically, they have two electric receivers for him to throw to.

Of course they do. Their transactions the last two weeks once again prove the Ravens can do what so many other teams can’t — learn. 

Baltimore watched the last three seasons of Jackson brilliance go to waste because of flawed coaching and counterproductive roster building. After four straight postseason exits, the Ravens stood up and proactively addressed their problems. 

Greg Roman, whose over reliance on the run and uninventive aerial concepts handcuffed one of the league’s most improved passers, is out as offensive coordinator. In is Todd Monken, who squeezed a historically productive passing attack out of Jameis Winston and the 2018 Buccaneers in his last coordinator gig in the NFL. That’s one failing offensive philosophy out, one polar opposite offensive philosophy in.

After refusing to field multiple capable wide receivers simultaneously for four straight seasons, the Ravens invested significantly at the position twice in as many weeks — signing Beckham to a deal that can cost the team as much as $18 million this season and using the 22nd overall pick on Flowers. Once ignored, Baltimore’s wide receiver room has been funded with two first-round picks (including Bateman) and another $18 million. 

It’s a defiant shift in approach. The Ravens didn’t care to assemble an explosive passing attack in Jackson’s first four years as the full-time starter, and poor results followed. Baltimore finished with negative expected points added per dropback (EPA/dropback) in 2022, and even in the 13 weeks before Jackson’s season-ending injury, they ranked only 17th in the league. The Ravens were first in EPA/dropback in 2019, when Jackson was league MVP and the team won 14 games, but in the three seasons since, the highest they’ve finished in the metric is 15th.

The Ravens offense was critically flawed, even if it was still good (it was ninth in EPA/play with Jackson on the field last season). Baltimore’s willingness to acknowledge their offense’s flaws this offseason is impressive. And though they could’ve done it much, much earlier, NFL front offices and coaching staffs historically struggle to admit they’re wrong (they’ll just keep being wrong until they get fired). John Harbaugh, Eric DeCosta and co.’s humility is refreshing and encouraging.

They’ve turned a budding catastrophe into a legitimate Super Bowl contender because of it.

Jackson, who spent his last three seasons throwing remarkable balls to unremarkable players, is now staring at an embarrassment of riches (literally, too).

Beckham is still Odell Beckham, the world-famous one who made three Pro Bowls, even if his tank is emptying. Bateman is a former first-rounder and a promising, ever-improving one at that. Mark Andrews is one of the league’s most capable pass-catching tight ends. Isaiah Likely is an extremely promising complement.

And Flowers — he is the draft’s worst kept secret.

Some considered Flowers the top wide receiver in the class. It’s hard to argue with his explosiveness. His route-running is sound, his hands reliable, but his short area quickness is game-changing. Flowers brings unique playmaking capacity to the Ravens offense, a constant and necessary offensive spark that — until his arrival — has only been provided by Jackson.

Baltimore can now rely on more than just their quarterback to go out and make a play. That’s an invaluable addition to an offense that has spent the last few years forcing themselves to schematically make up for lackluster skill players. With Beckham, and especially with Flowers, the Ravens offense, finally, has good football players. It really is that simple.

A screen pass to Flowers actually has potential, now. A slant to Beckham the same. The Ravens are now capable of converting third-and-seven without Jackson’s backfield heroics, or housing a 75-yard touchdown without a jaw-dropping Jackson rush or a perfectly placed Jackson deep-ball. The extent to which that raises the ceiling, and the floor, of Baltimore’s passing offense is incalculable. And it’s endlessly exciting.

The Ravens have completely transformed their offense in the space of two weeks — from a flawed, limited, overly run-reliant mess glued together by one of the league’s best players to an exciting, complete unit that can rely on multiple different players.

Add that kind of juice to a team with this defense, which returns all of the critical pieces that made it one of the most dominant units in the second half of last season, and the Ravens are finally a complete team. The receivers are capable. The offensive line is stable. The defense is elite. And, of course, the quarterback is still the same generational talent that has been making up for the other three all along.

The Ravens are the winners of the 2023 NFL Draft because of their humility. On the same day they finally recognized just how good Jackson is, and how essential he’s always been, they acknowledged the over-reliance on his talents that has stopped them from going where they want to go. 

Surrendering the $260 million to their calm, confident superstar they can’t live without is one thing. Surrendering a first-round pick, and $18 million more, to take some of the inevitable weight off of his shoulders is entirely another — and it could be a franchise-altering change of direction.