Ravens remain playoff contenders ... if receivers and DBs hold up
When the Baltimore Ravens trudged out of the locker room at Gillette Stadium following a bitter playoff loss to the New England Patriots, feisty veteran wide receiver Steve Smith vowed they’d be back and that the outcome would be different the next time.
Following an offseason defined by change — offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak left to become the Denver Broncos’ head coach; defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was traded to the Detroit Lions; and wide receiver Torrey Smith and pass rusher Pernell McPhee departed as free agents — the Ravens are confident that their roster is well stocked to make another serious playoff run.
The Ravens have made the playoffs six of the past seven years under coach John Harbaugh and are upbeat about their prospects following a strong draft that filled several needs. That included drafting UCF wide receiver Breshad Perriman (a bigger, faster version of Torrey Smith) in the first round and tight end Maxx Williams in the second.
Although the Ravens weren’t particularly active in free agency due to a tight salary cap situation, general manager Ozzie Newsome cautions that he’s not done building the roster.
Although he is never among the first names mentioned in conversations about top NFL quarterbacks, Joe Flacco is a strong-armed, accurate, mobile QB who owns a Super Bowl ring and a $120.6 million contract. Flacco improved significantly under Kubiak a year ago. Now, he’ll collaborate with new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman to try to capitalize on his arm strength in more of a vertical passing game.
Flacco has a faster deep threat to work with in Perriman than Smith, who was no slouch. Flacco could still stand to improve on his deep-ball accuracy but has matured into a sharp football mind who makes sound decisions and gets the football out of his hands quickly. Matt Schaub is Flacco’s new backup.
Justin Forsett has transformed his NFL reputation from undersized journeyman to featured back. Forsett was rewarded with a three-year, $9 million contract. He’ll remain the primary back despite the Ravens drafting USC running back Javorius “Buck” Allen, a big back with pass-catching skills. Lorenzo Taliaferro is in the mix as a red-zone presence but has to concentrate on avoiding the fumbles that sent him to the bench as a rookie.
Despite being 36 years old and entering his 15th NFL season, Steve Smith remains fast enough to create separation. He’s still physical and combative after the catch, not conceding anything and challenging defensive backs every snap. Smith will be targeted frequently, but Marlon Brown, Michael Campanaro and Kamar Aiken will also be involved.
Williams is expected to have an immediate impact in a passing game that has sorely missed the presence of Dennis Pitta over the past two seasons as he has twice fractured and dislocated his right hip. Pitta’s career is in doubt.
The offensive line represents one of the major strengths of the team. Flacco was sacked only 19 times last year, and all five starters are back. Powerful left guard Kelechi Osemele and gritty veteran right guard Marshal Yanda are entering contract years and are competing for one big deal with at least one expected to leave after this season. Center Jeremy Zuttah’s size and athleticism represent a major upgrade over Gino Gradkowski, a former starter traded to the Broncos. Left tackle Eugene Monroe is coming off a disappointing season in which he struggled in pass protection and didn’t have as much punch as a blocker after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Rick Wagner emerged as one of the NFL’s top right tackles, utilizing his strength and sound technique to wall off pass rushers. The top backup is John Urschel, a math whiz from Penn State who can play both guard spots and center in a pinch.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ aggressive 3-4 scheme creates a lot of pressure without blitzing with an emphasis on getting outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs isolated in one-on-one blocking situations. Dumervil and Suggs combined for 29 sacks last season as one of the most formidable pass-rushing tandems in the game.
Ngata was a disruptive force who will be replaced by Timmy Jernigan. Jernigan showed flashes of being a capable full-time starter with four sacks as a rookie. He needs to be more consistent, though, and maintain his intensity. Built low to the ground and with the ability to bench press more than 500 pounds, massive lineman Brandon Williams is one of the top nose tackles in the game. Chris Canty is a starter and an experienced leader but will be pushed by young defensive linemen Brent Urban, Carl Davis and Kapron Lewis-Moore. Defensive end Lawrence Guy is an underrated player who has a nose for the football. This should be a strong rotation.
C.J. Mosley is one of the most instinctive young inside linebackers in the NFL. He has great recognition skills and the speed to chase down running backs in the open field. Middle linebacker Daryl Smith is up in years but rewarded the Ravens’ faith in him last season when he piled up 128 tackles — five fewer than Mosley — and forced two fumbles. Outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw hasn’t shown much more than being a brawny edge-setter; the team needs more pass-rush production out of him. Rookie rush linebacker Za’Darius Smith is the top candidate to replace McPhee as a situational pass rusher.
The secondary was decimated by injuries last season. Jimmy Smith was arguably playing at a Pro Bowl level before suffering a Lisfranc foot sprain that required surgery. The Ravens felt good enough about his recovery this offseason to invest a four-year, $48 million contract in him. Veteran corner Lardarius Webb restructured his contract and has made a sound return from a troublesome back injury that hampered him last year. The Ravens lack a proven nickel back and will audition Asa Jackson, Rashaan Melvin and rookie Tray Walker for that role. The team also signed veterans Kyle Arrington and Cassius Vaughn to add to its cornerback depth and give the coaches more options to look at during training camp.
Safety was one of the weakest positions on the team last season, but rangy new free safety Kendrick Lewis is expected to stabilize the position. Matt Elam has been a bust through two NFL seasons but will get another chance to redeem himself at strong safety, his natural position. Will Hill revived his career last year after off-field problems cost him his job with the New York Giants. Hill is slated to compete with Elam for a starting position.
The kicking game is headlined by Justin Tucker, a former Pro Bowl selection and the most accurate kicker in NFL history. Tucker has enough range that he’s a constant scoring threat. The return game is in flux after the Ravens cut Jacoby Jones. Punter Sam Koch averaged 47 yards last season and has good hang time and directional punting skills. Long snapper Morgan Cox is good enough at his job that the Ravens keep signing him to new contracts, even after he tore an ACL for the second time in his career last year.
Although the schedule is demanding, the Ravens remain playoff contenders — if a receiving corps in flux can get the job done and if the secondary can avoid the injuries that have prevented them from getting past Tom Brady in the postseason.