The Baltimore Ravens are coming off a Super Bowl win and you rarely see a title team remodeling themselves as much as the Ravens did this offseason.
They watched as middle linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk retired, free safety Ed Reed left via free agency to Houston, LB’er Paul Kruger departed for the rival Cleveland Browns, cornerback Cary Williams went to Philadelphia, as well as several other players. Oh, strong safety Bernard Pollard went to Tennessee, and they traded disgruntled wide receiver Anquan Boldin to San Francisco for a 6th round draft pick. Boldin was a key contributor in their SB title, he caught 22 passes for 380 yards, with 4 touchdowns in 4 playoff games.
So, the Ravens enter the 2013 regular season with a lot of questions and a revamped defense.
Joe Flacco was paid like one of the best QB’s in the League when he was awarded a 20 million per year contract in the offseason after winning the Super Bowl. With the defense losing a lot of players, the pressure will be on him to justify that contract and the loss of veteran WR Boldin means his job will be even tougher. Looking at his regular season numbers last year, you wouldn’t have guessed he was about to do his Tom Brady impersonation in the playoffs, but he really stepped up his game when it mattered most. He completed 58% of his passes for 1,140 yards (285 yards per game), 9.0 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. Expectations will be high and if he doesn’t perform, the boo birds will be out in force.
With the loss of Boldin, Torrey Smith becomes the #1 receiver after a solid season last year (49 catches, 17.4 yards per catch, 38 of his catches were for first downs, 16 plays of at least 20 yards and 8 TD’s), but he’ll be seeing a lot more double coverage. The one negative was he caught just 49 passes in 110 targets (44.%). He’ll need to be a lot more efficient as the #1 guy. Jacoby Jones will be the WR opposite Smith and he’s really best suited to being a return man/backup WR. He caught 30 passes for 406 yards (13.5ypc), with 9 plays of at least 20 yards and 1 TD. Brandon Stokley is 37 years old, but he managed to have a solid season last year as the slot WR for Peyton Manning (45 catches, 12.1ypc, 30 FD’s, 8 plays of at least 20 yards and 5 TD’s). As long as he isn’t forced into a starting role, he should be a capable backup and slot WR when they go with 3 receivers.
Ray Rice is still a stud running back (71.4 yards per game, 4.4 yards per carry, 51 FD’s, 9 runs of at least 20 yards and 5 TD’s), but the emergence of Bernard Pierce resulted in his fewest carries since his 2nd year in the NFL. Rice caught 61 passes (tied for 2nd on the team) for 478 yards (7.8 yards per catch), 6 plays of at least 20 yards and a TD. In his rookie season, Pierce showed some home run potential with a 78 yarder and is a very nice backup to rest Rice. Having a quality backup like Pierce will help elongate Rice’s career. Vonta Leach will be the starting fullback and is one of the better blockers in the NFL.
The offensive line gave Flacco some great protection during the playoffs and was a huge reason he was able to pick apart opposing defenses in the postseason. The OL is anchored by 2 excellent tackles in Bryant Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher. The main concern could be the loss of center Matt Birk to retirement. They will try to replace him with Gino Gradkowski.
Flacco may rely on his tight ends a little more with the loss of Boldin and this may not be such a bad thing. Ed Dickson will start after Dennis Pitta (61 catches and 7 TD’s) was placed on the injured reserve to start the season after hip surgery. Hopefully, he’ll be able to contribute at some point. Dickson has been inconsistent in his 3 seasons, but he has the potential to be a very good starter. In 2011, he caught 54 passes (30 for first downs), including 5 TD’s. The Ravens decided to add some depth when they signed veteran free agent Dallas Clark. Last year in Tampa, Clark caught 47 passes (4 of which were TD’s). Clark might be 34, but as a backup he will be an insurance policy in case Dickson gets hurt or Pitt can’t play this season.
Ozzie Newsome was a great player, but he has proven to be a magician as a general manager. The Ravens have lost players like Jarrett Johnson and Bart Scott to free agency, but they just reload. What did Newsome do after Lewis retired and Reed (the backbone of the Baltimore defense for years) bolted to the Texans?
Well, he went out and signed Dumervil after the Broncos seemingly dropped the ball in their contract dealings with Elvis. Dumervil (54 tackles, 11 sacks, and 6 forced fumbles) and a healthy Terrell Suggs (22 tackles and 2 sacks in just 8 games) will give Baltimore the best OLB duo in the League. Dumervil will be replacing Kruger and Suggs will be starting in his usual spot. Courtney Upshaw played all 16 games in his rookie season, including starting 9 games (60 tackles, 2 FF’s, and 1.5 sacks) and will provide some valuable depth.
Replacing Lewis as 1 of the MLB’s will be Daryl Smith. He played in just 2 games last year with Jacksonville, but had a great 2011 campaign (107 tackles, 8 passes defended, 3.5sacks, and 1 interception). Jameel McClain (79 tackles) will be the other MLB and he will help Smith’s transition be a little smoother since he is familiar with the Ravens defense. Arthur Brown was drafted in the 2nd round and will push for playing time as a MLB. It’s tough to say the LB’ers will be better without a HOF’er in Lewis, but they are going to be better at the OLB spots so this will be a more athletic core of players.
Cary Williams is a loss at one cornerback position, but Corey Graham (60 tackles, 8 passes defended, played well last year when Lardarius Webb was hurt. Webb (25 tackles, 8 PD’ed and 1 INT) tore his ACL in October and played in just 6 games. A healthy duo of Graham and Webb is a pretty solid 1-2 combo, but they need to stay healthy, depth is a concern.
Losing Reed hurts, but Baltimore added a physical player in free safety former Raider Michael Huff. Huff was always around the ball in Oakland and was forced to play CB at times last year. Huff (56 tackles, 13 PD’ed and 2 INT’s) is also more durable than Reed, he has only missed 4 games in 7 years. As opposed to Reed who didn’t play in any preseason games for the Texans and doesn’t look like he’ll be ready to start the season. James Ihedigbo will be the strong safety to begin the season, but Matt Elam was drafted with the 32nd overall pick in the first round and may not be sitting on the bench long. Ihedigbo is in his 7th season and has made 15 starts in his entire career. The pressure will be on him to perform or Elam will take over the starting position.
Haloti Ngata is the best (albeit highly paid) player on the defensive line, but he also produces (51 tackles and 5 sacks in 14 games) as a defender against the run and getting pressure on the opposing QB. Arthur Jones is a very good defensive end (47 tackles, 4.5 sacks and a FF), but he won’t be available when the Ravens open the season against the Denver Broncos. So, that opens the opporunity for veteran Marcus Spears to step in and take advantage of his absence. Spears is entering his 9th season and coming off a down year with the Cowboys, but he should be able to help out against the run. Chris Canty will be the other starting DE and should have a little football left in his tank. Canty started all 9 games he played in with the Giants (26 tackles and 3 sacks) and needs to show he is over the pesky knee injury. Brandon Williams was drafted in the 3rd round and will get some time as Ngata’s backup so he provides some insurance.
Justin Tucker had a great rookie season, nailing 30 of 33 FGA’s (90.9%) and all 42 of his PAT’s. Tucker’s longest kick was a 56 yarder and he had 4 FG’s from 50 yards or longer. Tucker has the kicking game in good shape.
The punter is veteran Sam Koch. Koch had a 40.8 yard net average (just 34.3 in the postseason), but just 33.7% of his punts were inside the 2o yard line.
Jones will be the primary kickoff and punt returner. He averaged an NFL-best 30.7 yards per kickoff return, including 2 TD’s. He had a 106 yard kickoff return and he also averaged a respectable 9.2 yards per punt return, including a 63 yard TD. 3 special teams TD’s for Baltimore, 0 for their opponents. The return game is in good hands with Jones.
The Ravens have proven over the years they can lose players (and defensive coordinators as well, Rex Ryan) and keep on winning games. This year should be no different, even with a difficult schedule. Flacco needs to show he is worth the hefty raise he received and I think he’ll develop into a top 5 QB, the postseason was just the tip of the iceberg for the player I used to refer to as Flaccid Joe. The defense will be more athletic than it has been in a few years and the running game has 2 very capable players. The WR position is the only area that could use a little improvement, but Rice will probably see more passes thrown his way. The Ravens will win the North, but I doubt they make a deep playoff run. I think the AFC comes down to Denver vs Houston for all the marbles.
No champion in the SuperBowl era has ever lost as much as Baltimore did. I will be the first to admit that Ozzie is much smarter than I, but I question if he’s handcuffed with the Flacco deal. Thats a TON of money there in a salary cap era, and lets face it, if the Ravens don’t win the title, he’s not making half that money in the open market. The Ravens have a good bit of talent left, a good->great coach, and drafted really well. I see a temporary dip, I have them second in the AFC North, how long they stay there- depends on the cap.
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