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2018 NFL Preview: Maybe the dull Ravens can get a jolt from Lamar Jackson

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Winning always sells. No matter the sport or the market, it’s a universally accepted fact that you can overcome about anything – a bad stadium, a wretched history, a dreadfully boring style of play, whatever – just by winning.

The 2017 Baltimore Ravens were an exception.

A strange thing happened last season in Week 17, long before Andy Dalton and Tyler Boyd hooked up on a miracle fourth-down touchdown to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs. Fans didn’t show up, even with a playoff spot on the line for the home team. Coach John Harbaugh blamed the late start on New Year’s Eve days before the game kicked off. Some said it was because fans were upset the team kneeled during the national anthem once in London earlier in the season.

It wasn’t just Week 17. Empty seats in Baltimore was a theme through the season, even though the Ravens looked like they were going to the playoffs until the final seconds of the season. Fan apathy started to become a story in 2016 (long before the kneeling in London, which pokes holes in that theory).

“Am I disappointed in it? Yes, I’m disappointed in it. Concerned? Yes,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said, according to the team’s transcripts. “If winning is what we need to do to fill the stadium up, then that’s part and parcel with why we’re here. We’re here to win games, we’re here to succeed, and when we fail, the no-shows are a way of telling us that our fans aren’t pleased. So, we’ve got to win. And I hope that solves the majority of the problems.”

But winning isn’t the only factor. Baltimore was in playoff contention all season. The truth is, the Ravens are a boring football team and have been for a couple years. Not bad. Just boring.

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The Ravens offense has become dreadful to watch. They were last in the NFL in yards per pass last season. They had more than 400 yards in a game just once – a fun 39-38 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers – and never had a 300-yard passing game. They did, however, have eight games with less than 200 passing yards, and one with 52 passing yards. They had the fewest 20-yard pass plays in the NFL last season, with 29. They were better on offense in the second half, but it still wasn’t an offense that excited anyone.

What do you do when you’re a successful franchise – the Ravens have had only one losing season since 2007 – but the fans are tuning you out anyway? You go take the most exciting player in the NFL draft.

Picking Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson wasn’t the only change the Ravens made or considered, but it will be the one that defines the franchise in the upcoming years. Baltimore announced this is Ozzie Newsome’s last season as general manager, a plan that has been in the works for a while. Bisciotti didn’t deny he thought about replacing Harbaugh (“It was certainly a consideration, but not one that I was inclined to make this year,” he said). There’s a new defensive coordinator, out of necessity after Dean Pees “retired” only to resurface with the Titans shortly after. Baltimore has three new receivers and two new rookie tight ends. And, of course, a new quarterback controversy.

Joe Flacco hasn’t been dealt a great hand lately. The Ravens haven’t put much talent around him. A back injury he suffered last July might be a reason he didn’t play well last season. But here’s what matters now: It has been a long time since Flacco had a good season, he’s 33 years old with a terrible contract, and he’ll soon be the Ravens’ former quarterback. The clock starts when a team drafts a quarterback in the first round. Ask Alex Smith how that goes.

It’s possible Flacco holds off Jackson all this season. The Ravens added receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead in free agency. They drafted tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews. That will help Flacco. Also, the Ravens probably will be in playoff contention again, and teams rarely change quarterbacks when that’s the case. But the change is coming. It’s just a matter of when.

I think Jackson has the ability to be this year’s Deshaun Watson, a player who has an instant impact and we laugh at the teams that passed on him. There are plenty of teams who will be looking for a quarterback soon but ignored Jackson anyway. Other than Mike Vick, Jackson might be the most dynamic rushing quarterback we’ve seen in college. He’s a far better pocket passer than many critics gave him credit for. Ravens players raved about him in offseason practices. If he’s in the right offense – and the Ravens have assistants who have positive experience with mobile quarterbacks – I think Jackson will be a star. I loved the pick for the Ravens and think it will change their franchise. Even if it makes things uncomfortable in the present.

Even with an inevitable quarterback controversy and incorporating a lot of new faces on offense, we know what to expect out of the Ravens. They won’t be fun to watch, but they’ll contend. They always do.

The question is, will the people of Baltimore come out and watch this time around?

Joe Flacco (5) watches quarterback Lamar Jackson throw a pass during an offseason Ravens practice. (AP)

Before breaking down the moves, a quick rant about the Ryan Grant situation. The Ravens agreed to a $29 million deal with Grant, a former Washington Redskins receiver. It was an enormous contract for someone with Grant’s resume. Before Grant’s deal with Baltimore became official, the Raiders cut Michael Crabtree. The Ravens seemed to have some buyer’s remorse, because they said Grant failed his physical even though he has never missed a game in four NFL seasons. Then — surprise, surprise — the Ravens signed Crabtree. Grant settled for a one-year, $5 million deal with the Colts. While the Ravens stick by their story that is was a medical decision out of their control, it’s easy to be skeptical. And if the Ravens decided to fail Grant on his physical because something better came along, they deserve every bit of bad karma coming to them.

All that out of the way, the Ravens made some necessary moves to improve their passing offense. Crabtree is a solid addition, John Brown has been a good deep threat when he’s healthy and is worth a shot, and Willie Snead was productive with the New Orleans Saints before falling out of favor. Between first-round pick Hayden Hurst and third-round pick Mark Andrews, the Ravens might finally have an answer at tight end. And as stated previously, I believe Lamar Jackson at No. 32 overall will end up being a pick we all remember.

GRADE: B

The Ravens have a heck of a secondary. They allowed a 72.4 passer rating last season. Assuming cornerback Jimmy Smith has a smooth recovery from Achilles surgery, it should be a great group again. Between Smith, Brandon Carr and 2017 first-round pick Marlon Humphrey, the Ravens have great cornerback depth. And Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle form one of the NFL’s best safety duos.

I wonder if the way last season ended causes a hangover. In the final minute of the season finale, Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd somehow got free on fourth and 12 for a 49-yard touchdown. The Bengals won and the Bills took the Ravens’ playoff spot. You don’t shake that off in a day or two.

“We get into a fourth-and-12 situation, we get into a coverage that we think has a chance,” John Harbaugh said after the season. “We do not play it exceptionally well. It is a little bit of a safer coverage. It is a coverage built for that down and distance, and (Andy Dalton) moves around the pocket a little bit and drops one in there, and your heart is broken. That is football. Nobody writes a script. You do not get a chance to decide how the script is going to be written. That is all you can do. That is the human reality of the whole thing.”

It’s a loss that will sting for years. The Ravens won five of six late in the season, were a huge favorite to beat the Bengals, and had to assume until that fourth-and-12 they were going to the playoffs. Then, poof, their season was over. Harbaugh is a good coach and I figure he’ll lead his veteran team through this, but that’s one tough way to end a season.

This stat is a staple in these previews: Since 2006, the year after Aaron Rodgers was picked by the Green Bay Packers, Jake Locker and Brady Quinn are the only two first-round quarterbacks to not start at least one game as a rookie. Of the past 29 first-round quarterbacks, 27 got at least one rookie start. That tells us the chances of Lamar Jackson sitting all season are probably slim. The holdup might be that the Ravens’ offense will have to change dramatically when the change is made. The offense Joe Flacco runs might not have much in common with what the Ravens use with Jackson. It wouldn’t be easy to change, then go back to Flacco if Jackson struggles. No matter, recent history tells us it’s probably a good bet we see Jackson start at least once this season.

For what seems like the 20th straight season, Terrell Suggs led the Ravens in sacks. And continuing another streak, I’ll wonder in the Ravens preview how long Suggs can keep this going. He’s a great player, a future Hall of Famer, but it’s not like there’s a great history of 36-year-old pass rushers (Suggs will turn 36 on Oct. 11). At least the Ravens have emerging rusher Matt Judon, who had eight sacks last season, but no other Raven had more than three-and-a-half sacks. There is a lot of promise at the position, but they need more production. They need a Za’Darius Smith (who had a lot of quarterback hits, just not many sacks) or 2017 second-round pick Tyus Bowser to take the next step, because Suggs won’t be this good forever … I think.

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “Keep an eye on Willie Snead. Sure, his 2017 campaign underwhelmed, but a lot of that had to do with a three-game suspension and a nagging hamstring injury. The year prior, he posted a 72-895-4 stat line, demonstrating sticky mitts (catch rate of 69.2 percent) and dominating after the catch (373 yards). Given the Ravens’ lack of pass-catching weapons, the former Saint figures to get fed. He’s not a prime red-zone target, but he could easily see 95 targets on the season and have value in PPR-friendly formats.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Ravens.]

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We talked about fumble luck in the Titans preview. Many analysts believe strongly in fumble luck, good or bad, being a key indicator of regression. The Ravens might have reason to worry then. Baltimore had the best fumble luck in the NFL last season, recovering 65.9 percent of fumbles according to Team Rankings. That helped fuel a plus-17 turnover margin. If that doesn’t repeat, the Ravens will have to improve in other areas to be in the playoff hunt again.

IS ALEX COLLINS THE REAL DEAL?

Collins is a good example of why teams should think twice before investing a lot into the running back position. Collins was a fifth-round pick of the Seahawks in 2016. He got 31 carries as a rookie, was cut before last season and got signed to the Ravens’ practice squad. Then Collins, who couldn’t find a spot on anyone’s 53-man roster to start the season, finished the season as one of the more efficient backs in the league.

The Ravens signed Collins from the practice squad early in the season, and he ended up with 973 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry and brought a much-needed spark to the Ravens offense. He had the eighth highest success rate among all NFL backs last season, according to Football Outsiders. While the Ravens get Kenneth Dixon back from a torn meniscus that wiped out his 2017 season, and Javorius Allen is still around too, Collins should be the clear lead back. There’s no reason to believe Collins can’t repeat, or even improve upon, his breakout season.

The Ravens were very good last season on defense and special teams (kicker Justin Tucker is simply amazing), and that should carry over. The offense also improved late, even if few people noticed. There were some important upgrades on offense this offseason. While I’m not sure a team with Michael Crabtree as a clear No. 1 receiver is in a great spot, the offense should be better. If that’s the case and the defense and special teams play well again, it’s not too tough to envision the Ravens improving by a couple wins and challenging the Steelers for the AFC North.

Quarterback controversies are usually tricky to navigate. And there will be a controversy at some point, especially since Lamar Jackson is such an exciting option. If Joe Flacco struggles early, John Harbaugh will be in a tough spot with a quarterback who helped him win a Super Bowl. And as much as I like Jackson, maybe when he gets a shot we’ll see exactly why he fell in the draft. I’m through picking the Ravens to have a losing season because it seems they never do, but it’s easy to see them missing the playoffs again.

The Ravens will probably be what they usually are. They won’t be particularly exciting, but effective. I’ll assume they’re in the nine-win range, not good enough to make the Steelers sweat but in the wild-card hunt. Maybe this time around they won’t have a playoff spot snatched from them in the final minute of the season.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers
16. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!