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Lamar Jackson will be back — but the Ravens need to give him a little help to get there

Jackson can lead Baltimore to the promised land ... as long as the Ravens can surround him with better skill players.

Ravens QB Lamar Jackson gives a thumbs up, superimposed on a blue and white background
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens got tripped up by the Titans in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

Lamar Jackson could do almost everything for the 2019 Ravens offense. He just couldn’t do it all.

Their Divisional Round loss to the Titans was a perfect storm of uncharacteristic mistakes, a plague of dropped passes, and nagging injuries that tore through an already shallow depth chart of skill players. In the end, Jackson was forced to drag a limited supporting cast back from the depths of an early deficit against a peaking Tennessee team. Even the presumptive MVP couldn’t dredge up enough horsepower to overcome those odds.

The final result was the end of a 14-game winning streak and a fifth straight year without a playoff win for Baltimore. The pungent smell of that loss will linger in Maryland through the offseason — but there’s a chance it sparks a run of prosperity rather than defines the ceiling of Jackson’s Ravens as “a great regular season team. End of list.”

While the Divisional Round pantsing at M&T Bank Stadium may have ended the franchise’s immediate Super Bowl hopes, it also gave team the blueprint needed to make sure that loss doesn’t happen again.

The Titans exploited some of the Ravens’ most fixable weaknesses

Jackson wasn’t on the top of his game after the Titans pressed him into a very un-Ravens kind of offense. Baltimore’s run-heavy offense was forced to throw the ball early and often after falling into a first-half hole against Tennessee. The end result saw Jackson set a career high in pass attempts with 59 — 16 more than his previous personal best.

This year’s breakout star didn’t wilt under this spotlight with a relatively unfamiliar gameplan, but he couldn’t will the Ravens back to life, either. He’d complete 31 of those passes and finish his day with three turnovers and a 63.6 passer rating that was more than 50 points below his regular season average.

To hang this all on Jackson would be a mistake. His stirring play throughout 2019 was flashy enough to distract from the other issues waiting to derail Baltimore’s postseason. In the end, the league’s top offense was a sparkling veneer atop a foundation in desperate need of reinforcement.

The Ravens were perilously thin when it came to non-Jackson playmakers. When injuries limited Pro Bowlers Mark Ingram and Mark Andrews (along with useful tight end Nick Boyle), offensive coordinator Greg Roman had to shuffle his approach away from three players who’d made up more than 36 percent of his total offense (by targets and carries combined).

That left an underwhelming supporting cast to pick up the slack. Rookie wideout Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was able to answer that call with a seven-catch, 126-yard performance that included one of the best plays of the postseason.

The rest of the roster wasn’t nearly as ready. A group of wideouts featuring players like Willie Snead, Seth Roberts, and Miles Boykin had just 11 catches on 20 targets. The Ravens dropped at least six passes. Aside from a 19-yard Gus Edwards run in the first quarter, the team’s non-Jackson players ran for 23 yards on eight carries.

Baltimore needed help across the board to overcome the Titans. With its top options hurt, Jackson had few reliable weapons to provide backup. Fixing that will be general manager Eric DeCosta’s No. 1 priority this offseason.

A smart offseason can ensure this doesn’t happen in 2020

The Ravens have a young pair of playmakers at tight end and wide receiver. Andrews and Brown should improve after solid 2019 seasons. Ingram is 30 years old — typically not a good sign for non-Frank Gore or Adrian Peterson NFL running backs — but showed no signs of slowing down in a 1,018-yard season in which he averaged 5.0 yards per carry. All three are under contract for 2020.

That’s a good start, though DeCosta is going to have to buttress his roster with a combination of rising players and veterans capable of erasing any stigma that Baltimore chokes in the postseason. Fortunately for him, there will be plenty of opportunities to address that problem.

The Ravens have all of their picks through the first four rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft. They’ll also have the Patriots’ fourth-rounder (acquired in exchange for backup lineman Jermaine Eluemunor) and what will likely be third- or fourth-round compensatory picks after losing C.J. Mosley and John Brown in free agency.

That will give them several shots at a banner crop of wide receiver talent. Baltimore could pair Brown up with his former Oklahoma teammate CeeDee Lamb or dig into a class that may feature standouts like Laviska Shenault, Tee Higgins, K.J. Hamler, Justin Jefferson, or Jalen Reagor toward the end of Round 1 (the team’s first selection will come 28th overall). This year’s incoming player pool isn’t as deep at tailback, but college stars like D’Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor, or Travis Etienne could each be groomed to take the reins from Ingram down the line.

Any of those players would give Jackson some extra help, but it seems unlikely the Ravens would stop there. Baltimore has an estimated $34 million in cap space to spend this offseason. Some of that room could be used up on pending defensive free agents like Jimmy Smith, Matthew Judon, and Patrick Onwuasor. It could also be used to turn a good unit — the Ravens ranked fourth in the league in defensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA — into a great one (ideally capable of stopping a workhorse like Derrick Henry) with a few new additions.

Starting center Matt Skura will also likely be re-signed, but even after that there will be money available to add a reliable set of hands to the team’s receiving corps.

Could some of that money be spent to lure A.J. Green across the AFC North? Would Emmanuel Sanders, Randall Cobb, or Danny Amendola provide the kind of reliable postseason presence to take some pressure from Jackson’s shoulders? Even if the free agent market is not as robust or exciting as this year’s draft class, there’s still value to be gleaned.

Lamar Jackson made his teammates better throughout the season, leaving defenses guessing behind his combination of often unstoppable running and accurate passing downfield. Every key member of the offensive line that kept him upright and built an innate understanding of his ability to tuck and run is under contract for 2020 except Skura, who will be imminently re-signable as a restricted free agent.

There’s reason to believe the Ravens can be every bit the regular season juggernaut they were in 2019 again next fall.

Turning around their recent playoff misfortunes will require more work. Baltimore needs to add more talent — both established and emerging — to elevate Jackson’s already-stellar game while ensuring a string of poorly timed injuries won’t leave a crater where a promising season once stood.

Fortunately for the Ravens, there should be plenty of capable options waiting for them this spring.