The Ravens’ second Vince Lombardi Trophy is prominently displayed in the lobby of their training complex underneath a painting of the late owner Art Modell. But that doesn’t mean that the defending Super Bowl champions are overly sentimental when it comes to making tough roster decisions.
The Ravens traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers following a contract dispute. They cut strong safety Bernard Pollard and allowed free safety Ed Reed, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger and cornerback Cary Williams to leave as free agents.
“It wasn’t that one day we woke up and decided that we were going to let a lot of really good football players walk away and play for other teams, but we had a plan in place,” says general manager Ozzie Newsome, who’s also dealing with replacing the leadership of retired middle linebacker Ray Lewis. “We had to allow the plan to unfold.”
The Ravens have significantly overhauled their roster and are confident they’re built to compete again after qualifying for the playoffs for five consecutive years under the leadership of coach John Harbaugh. “I think we like our football team,” Newsome says. “I’d like for someone to be able to tell me that we aren’t good enough to go to the playoffs right now. Can anyone say that? OK then.”
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 6th
Rewarded with a blockbuster $120.6 million contract after being named the Super Bowl MVP, quarterback Joe Flacco is a strong-armed pocket passer who delivered 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions during the playoffs and has become much more accurate, particularly on the deep ball. He’s willing to take calculated risks with his most trusted targets. Flacco is capable of greater production and will be granted significant freedom due to his growing comfort with the offense and a growing rapport with offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell.
Trading Boldin takes away the Ravens’ most proven receiver, which means that Torrey Smith is being thrust into a more prominent role. Primarily a deep threat, Smith has incorporated more short and intermediate patterns to add polish to his game. Pro Bowl return man Jacoby Jones could become a regular starting receiver this fall. Possession receiver Tandon Doss, speedster Deonte Thompson and David Reed will compete for playing time.
Entering training camp, the Ravens seemed to be set at tight end with sure-handed Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson in the fold. That was before Pitta, who has nearly ascended to a Pro Bowl level, dislocated his hip and Dickson injured his hamstring. Pitta is most likely lost for the season, while Dickson's inability to practice resulted in the team adding veterans Billy Bajema, Dallas Clark and Visanthe Shiancoe to the roster. Once considered a position of strength, tight end has become a rather large question mark headed into the season.
Running back remains an important position in the offense. Ray Rice is one of the most dynamic all-purpose backs, eluding defenders in the open field. Although he’s short in stature, Rice is a physical inside runner and creates mismatches out of the backfield as a receiver. Hard-nosed backup runner Bernard Pierce provides a complementary style to Rice. He prefers to run over linebackers but also has the speed to go the distance. Vonta Leach is a devastating lead blocker who punishes defenders, but his playing time has been reduced because of the fullback only having a part-time status in Caldwell’s offense.
The Ravens re-signed Bryant McKinnie to play left tackle, meaning four of five starters are back after six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk retired. McKinnie’s weight and conditioning are lingering concerns. Marshal Yanda is a gritty right guard who pulls well. Michael Oher has settled in at right tackle after previous stints on the left side. Kelechi Osemele appears best suited to play left guard next to McKinnie. Gino Gradkowski, the younger brother of NFL quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, is an undersized technician who steps in for Birk at center.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees faces a daunting task: He must replace a pair of former NFL Defensive Players of the Year in Lewis and Reed.
Athletic rookie inside linebacker Arthur Brown could fill the void created by Lewis’ departure. Brown is undersized and fast and has drawn some comparisons to a young Lewis. Brown first has to prove to the coaching staff he deserves the opportunity to play in Lewis' spot, which is why the team signed veteran Daryl Smith to a one-year deal in June. Smith, who is the Jaguars' all-time leading tackler, can step in until Brown is deemed ready, while also helping mentor the rookie in the process.
Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, another former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, had an injury-plagued year with a torn Achilles tendon and a torn biceps, hampering his contribution. The Ravens are banking on him returning to form. Inside linebacker Jameel McClain is coming off a spinal cord contusion suffered last December.
Following a bizarre fax debacle, Elvis Dumervil was cut loose by the Denver Broncos and joined the Ravens as a $35 million bookend pass-rusher to work in tandem with Suggs. Haloti Ngata is a dominant interior force when he’s healthy, but he has dealt with nagging injuries for the past few seasons. Arthur Jones is coming off a breakthrough season and returns at left end, but he could be pushed by veteran defensive lineman Chris Canty. Nose guard Terrence Cody has reached a career crossroads after a bad season and is recuperating from offseason hip surgery. Keep an eye on rookie Brandon Williams, Cody’s chief competitor for the job. Marcus Spears figures into the mix as a valuable rotation guy at end and tackle. Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee had offseason groin surgery.
Michael Huff is the new center fielder. He has range and tackling ability but lacks Reed’s game-changing instincts. Rookie Matt Elam, the Ravens’ first-round pick, is expected to replace Pollard at strong safety.
A huge key to defensive improvement — whether $50 million shutdown cornerback Lardarius Webb can make a sound return from a torn ACL. Jimmy Smith had some encouraging moments in the Super Bowl. He will compete with Corey Graham for the nickel back spot and will get a look as a potential starter as well.
This is an enviable kicking game. Justin Tucker beat out Billy Cundiff as a rookie and connected on 30-of-33 field goals and made four kicks from 50 yards or longer. Punter Sam Koch has excellent hang time and is also adept at the coffin corner. He is coming off a career-best season with a 47.1 average. In his first season in Baltimore, Jacoby Jones returned three kicks for touchdowns during the regular season and ran a kickoff back for a score in the Super Bowl. The Ravens are looking for new blood in kick coverage after cutting former Pro Bowl special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo during the offseason.
Final Analysis: 3rd in AFC North
As long as the offense continues to trend upward with Flacco, the Ravens should be able to score enough points to be competitive in every game. If the new-look defense is better than last year’s vulnerable outfit, the Ravens could return to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year. Defending a title is always a huge challenge, but the Ravens shouldn’t be overlooked considering their consistent track record in the Harbaugh era.
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