The best ability is availability. The next-man-up philosophy sounds great in news conferences, but the 2021 Baltimore Ravens proved that motivating quotes can only take a team so far.
Head coach John Harbaugh saw his roster decimated with more impactful injuries than any other team in the league. After starting the season 8-3, Baltimore dropped its final six games and failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in Lamar Jackson's four-year career.
You often hear analysts in betting refer to injuries as bad luck, accurately assigning a degree of randomness to the brutal part of the game that renders even the best coaches helpless. However, what we witnessed in Baltimore last year looked more like a curse. Losing CB Marcus Peters, RB J.K. Dobbins and All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley before entering the season's second week is enough to send any contender into a tailspin. Still, the Ravens endured and were able to post the AFC's best record through the first 11 weeks. But the injuries were unrelenting, as top CB Marlon Humphrey and QB Lamar Jackson went down before the season's final month.
After an 8-9 season, it's safe to assume some positive regression regarding Baltimore's injury luck. So in 2022, betting on a Baltimore bounce-back makes a ton of sense. But things have changed in the AFC North. The Bengals are defending conference champions, and the Browns have a very deep, talented roster despite the uncertainty at quarterback. Plus, the Ravens' front office shipped Marquise "Hollywood" Brown to the desert.
So while Baltimore's appeal in the futures market is rooted in several key impact players returning, there's also legitimate reason for bettors to pause. There is a risk in betting on a team with many key players returning from injury. Will it translate into Baltimore reclaiming its perch at the top of the AFC North?
Lamar Jackson's record speaks for itself
Lamar Jackson is 37-12 as a starter and broke the NFL record for most wins by a quarterback before turning 25. It's fair to question some of his playoff performances, but win totals are based on the regular season. And that's where Baltimore has dominated under Jackson when healthy. The Ravens averaged 12.5 wins in the two seasons before last year's injury-ravaged outlier. Here's why I am betting they will return to themselves in 2022.
The Ravens' run game has been their identity since Jackson's arrival midway through the 2018 season. Despite the injuries last season, Baltimore still ranked sixth in rushing success rate and 11th in EPA per rush. Not only did they get All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Staley back to anchor the offensive line, but they also drafted center Tyler Linderbaum to upgrade the interior. So even if J.K. Dobbins isn't 100% in September, they should still have one of the league's most formidable rushing attacks.
An offensive tackle is a quarterback's best friend. Staley's return helps Lamar Jackson as a passer much more than the departure of Hollywood Brown hurts him. Without Staley, Baltimore's offensive line finished 31st in adjusted sack rate. Defenses came after Jackson frequently, and the Ravens' quarterback struggled, averaging 1.9 yards per play less when facing the blitz. Staley's leadership and experience should help the unit and give Jackson the confidence to continue his development as a passer.
Turning a weakness into a strength
Baltimore gave up more passing yards per game than any team in the NFL. They allowed 278 yards per game, a number that ballooned up to 344 yards in the final three games without Marlon Humphrey. They responded by pairing their standout cornerbacks, Peters and Humphrey, with former Saints safety Marcus Williams and Kyle Hamilton. The offseason improvements have Baltimore's secondary ranked fifth-best in the NFL, according to Sharp Football.
As much as I would love to see the Ravens get Lamar Jackson an elite receiver, history has proven that he can win 11 games without one. In the Ravens' 31-25 win over the Colts last season, Jackson accounted for 96% of Baltimore's offense, throwing for 442 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Rashod Bateman should be able to fill the void left by Brown. The second-year wideout is coming off a rookie season where he ranked 22nd in catch rate and only dropped two passes. Jackson has done more with fewer weapons in years past. Considering his contract situation is unsettled, I expect him to be highly motivated for a huge season.
While the AFC North has improved, there is a benefit to the Ravens' last-place finish in 2021. Baltimore gets the 11th-easiest schedule and is the projected favorite in 13 games. Getting over 10.5 wins at +105 odds makes Baltimore a solid bet at an attractive price. The Ravens' front office did an impressive job addressing their weaknesses in the offseason, and the addition of Mike Macdonald as coordinator brings a more modern approach to their defense.
I don't think 11-6 and a division title are out of reach. Six of eight division winners won at least 12 games last season, making their alternative win total of over 11.5 wins (+155) and their division odds (+150) worth a look. But I don't think we need to be that aggressive. Betting the Ravens to return to form at plus money is more than enough for me.