By Ashley Anderson
Each year, a handful of key players have a tremendous impact on their team’s success. Some are free-agent additions or draft picks while others are returning from injuries. Without further ado, here are the Baltimore Ravens’ x-factors heading into 2021.
Baltimore Ravens Offense – Nick Boyle
It is tempting to take first-round pick Rashod Bateman, or even second year man J.K. Dobbins here, do but Nick Boyle is the guy to watch. Boyle is easily the best blocking tight end in Baltimore, and possibly the league at large. Sadly, his 2020 campaign was cut short due to a devastating leg injury. However, the Baltimore Ravens feel so strongly about him that they re-signed him to a two-year, $23 million extension through 2023.
Health is the biggest question mark for Boyle after suffering his first major injury. Coach Harbaugh has gone on record saying he believes Boyle will be good to go by training camp. Undoubtedly, his return would be a huge boon for Lamar Jackson. Not only will Boyle be an additional strength along a revamped offensive line, he is often overlooked as a receiver.
In nine games last year, he caught 14 passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers do not jump off the page, but it was the seventh highest total on a team that does not pass often. Considering the steep drop-off in play when the Ravens were forced to turn to Luke Willson, Eric Tomlinson, and Sean Culkin, Boyle’s importance cannot be overstated.
Until he is back on the field, everyone will wait with bated breath to see how Boyle fairs. When healthy, he is a critical component for Baltimore’s offense. With no competition for the starting tight end role opposite Mark Andrews, Boyle could be in store for a career year if fully healed.
Baltimore Ravens Defense – Justin Madubuike
On a defense loaded with talent from back to front, there are a number of players who could potentially be x-factors in 2021. That said, the nod here goes to Justin Madubuike. Despite a rookie year that was significantly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and a leg injury, Madubuike improved towards the end of 2020.
Playing in ten games with three starts, Madubuike notched 11 solo tackles and a sack. He steadily improved throughout the year with his best game arguably coming in Week 14 against the Cleveland Browns. He recorded three total tackles in that matchup and was given a 90.4 grade by Pro Football Focus.
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Entering his second year, the Ravens hope the 6-foot-3, 293 pound defensive tackle from Texas A&M can benefit from a more normal off-season. While Baltimore added outside linebacker Odafe Oweh and defensive end Daelin Hayes in the NFL Draft, it is worth noting they did not select any interior defensive linemen. With Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell both set to hit free agency in 2022, Madubuike could soon be a crucial starter.
In an area lacking depth, Madubuike’s value is sky-high heading into the 2021 season. If he can help create interior pressure and snag a handful of sacks, it will significantly elevate the defensive line. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale will certainly find creative ways to get the young DT more involved.
Baltimore Ravens Special Teams – Nick Moore
The Ravens stunned their fan base this off-season when they parted ways with veteran long snapper Morgan Cox. As part of the famed Wolf Pack along with Sam Koch and Justin Tucker, Cox appeared almost untouchable. However, Baltimore opted to get younger and cheaper at the position, hitching their fate to Nick Moore.
The Ravens called Moore up from their practice squad in Week 12 last year when Cox was on the Covid-19 list. From the naked eye, there did not appear to be a significant drop-off in production. As such, Baltimore was willing to part ways with a stalwart who held down the position for 11 years.
Given the importance of the Ravens kicking game and the bond shared by the Wolfpack, Moore must be on point. If he botches snaps, or the timing between he, Koch, and Tucker is off, fans will inevitably question the release of Cox. However, should he play at a high level and the cost savings allows for more free agent signings, all will be well. For Moore, the less he is talked about the better.
Offense – Sammy Watkins
Watkins was the wide receiver the Ravens settled for when other free agents did not pan out. Known for being injury prone, it is easy to forget the impact Watkins had on Kansas City’s Super Bowl run. If he can help keep defenses honest on the outside and stay relatively healthy, Baltimore’s passing game could be unrecognizable from last year.
Defense – Patrick Queen
Any time the Ravens draft a linebacker in the first round, expectations are through the roof. Queen was no exception to this despite being a one-year starter at LSU. Though he had some gaffes particularly in the passing game, his rookie year was far from typical. Queen still finished second on the team with 66 tackles, and he recorded three sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception. If he can take the next step in his development, Queen will be a wrecking ball in the middle of the defense.
Special Teams – Devin Duvernay
Last season, Devin Duvernay put on a show returning kickoffs. His first career touchdown came on a 93-yard kickoff return versus Kansas City, and he eventually overtook James Proche on punt return duties. The Ravens expect to get Duvernay more involved on offense, but he is still the leading kick returner.
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Few things can spark a team like an excellent kick return, and Baltimore has seen some of the best. If Duvernay can make a splash like Jermaine Lewis or Jacoby Jones, he figures to be among the league leaders this year.
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