The Ravens followed an uncharacteristic 5-11 season, the first losing campaign in John Harbaugh’s eight-year tenure, with an equally unusual offseason. Normally content to mostly sit out free agency, the Ravens were aggressive in March, signing established veterans Mike Wallace, Benjamin Watson and Eric Weddle, while also making sure that cornerback Shareece Wright and kicker Justin Tucker stayed with the organization.
The signings, coupled with an 11-player draft class, have strengthened a roster that was short on talent and healthy bodies last year. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome believes the team is as deep at the offensive skill positions as it’s been in years.
But in order to rebound, the Ravens will still be largely dependent on veterans — quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Justin Forsett, wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs — returning to form following significant 2015 injuries, and the improvement of a defense that has struggled to regain its identity.
By the end of the 2015 season, the Ravens’ starting quarterback, running back, No. 1 receiver, tight end, left tackle and center were all on injured reserve, making it difficult to evaluate Marc Trestman’s first year as offensive coordinator. The group’s shortcomings, though, were evident before the injuries hit.
With first-round receiver Breshad Perriman missing the entire season with a knee injury, the Ravens lacked top-end speed on the outside. The running game never got on track, and Flacco made a host of late-game mistakes while often facing heavy pressure. As he rehabbed following December surgery for a torn ACL and MCL, the team reaffirmed its commitment with a three-year contract extension. The Ravens then sought to get him help.
Ravens offensive coaches spent a chunk of the offseason reviewing the running game and making some alterations to the team’s zone-blocking schemes. Ultimately, it will be up to Trestman to establish and stick to the run. The team’s 383 rushing attempts last season were the fewest in franchise history. With a backfield that includes Forsett and the young and versatile duo of Javorius Allen and Kenneth Dixon, the Ravens will likely spread the ball around and stick with the hot hand. Last season, Forsett led the team with 641 yards on a 4.2-yard average. Allen added 514 yards.
Finding a solid replacement for departed left guard Kelechi Osemele will be crucial to the success of the running game. However, another vacancy opened up when left tackle Eugene Monroe was released on June 15. Monroe played in just six games last season before suffering a shoulder injury. The move was a little surprising considering the team re-signed him in 2014 to a five-year, $37.5 million deal that included $17.5 million in guaranteed money. With Monroe gone, the expectation is that Ronnie Stanley, the No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft, will take over as Flacco’s blind side protector.
At least now, the Ravens have some speed on the outside to keep defenses honest. The Ravens don’t need Wallace to catch 60-plus balls like he’s done most of his career. They need him, and a supposedly healthy Perriman, to make some big plays down the field and take advantage of Flacco’s big arm. Last season, the Ravens did not have pass play longer than 50 yards. Perriman’s health will continue to be a hot topic after he suffered another knee injury in OTAs. Originally feared to be serious, the hope is that he will be ready to return at some point during training camp in August.
With underneath and intermediate threats such as Smith, Kamar Aiken, Crockett Gillmore and Benjamin Watson, the Ravens have enough weapons to have a high-scoring offense. Last year, they averaged 20.5 points per game (25th in the NFL), down from 25.6 (12th) in 2014.
The Ravens played much better defensively over the second half of the 2015 season, but the organization spent the spring trying to make the unit quicker, younger and more versatile. Gone are middle linebacker Daryl Smith, defensive end Chris Canty, strong-side linebacker Courtney Upshaw and safety Will Hill. Young players such as outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, defensive end Brent Urban and inside linebackers Zachary Orr and Arthur Brown will assume bigger roles, with C.J. Mosley sliding over to the middle linebacker spot. The Ravens like Orr’s coverage skills, so he’s the favorite to start on the weak side.
After watching their normally vaunted pass rush disappear following Terrell Suggs’ season-ending Achilles injury in Week 1, the Ravens drafted three pass rushers — Kamalei Correa, Bronson Kaufusi and Matt Judon — to join Suggs, Smith and Elvis Dumervil. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees figures to cut down on Suggs’ and Dumervil’s snaps and get back to the attacking style of defense the Ravens used to play. Dumervil also is coming off of offseason foot surgery, but he should be ready to go once training camp commences.
The major defensive questions lie in the secondary, which has undergone a shakeup after the Ravens had a franchise-low six interceptions last year and allowed a franchise-high 30 touchdown passes.
Harbaugh hired former NFL head coach Leslie Frazier to lead the group. The Ravens also signed Weddle, re-signed Wright, converted long-time cornerback Lardarius Webb to safety and added veteran cornerback Jerraud Powers late in free agency. The team hopes the changes lead to a secondary that gives up fewer big plays and causes more turnovers. The hope is that Weddle, a cerebral player and vocal leader, becomes the presence the Ravens have lacked since Ed Reed’s departure following 2012.
Last year’s group was the strength of the team, and that doesn’t figure to change with all the key components back. The Ravens used the franchise tag to keep Tucker, who even in his worst year as a pro in 2015 converted 33-of-40 field-goal attempts, all 29 of his point-after tries and was among the league leaders in touchback percentage. With the new rule moving touchbacks to the 25-yard line, the Ravens have already spoken to Tucker about experimenting with high and short kicks outside the end zone.
Punter Sam Koch, the second longest-tenured player on the team behind Suggs, is getting better with age as he finished second in the league with a 42.9-yard net average last year while making his first Pro Bowl team. His variety of directional punts also nullifies return games.
The Ravens failed to come up with a long-term replacement in the return game for Jacoby Jones last season. The candidates this year include Michael Campanaro, Kaelin Clay and Keenan Reynolds. Campanaro’s sure hands give him the edge as the punt returner. The Ravens, however, are intrigued to see what Reynolds can do. The college quarterback, who set the FBS record with 88 touchdowns during his four years at Navy, has been working on that skill set with former NFL return man Brian Mitchell.
Because of the number of players returning from injuries and the number of veterans and rookies the Ravens added this offseason, the team should have its most competitive training camp in years. On paper, the talent level of the roster has been upgraded significantly. However, last season can’t be chalked up to an aberration, a product of a ton of injuries and a grueling schedule. After years of trying to replace free-agent losses with young players, the Ravens lacked the talent level and the depth to compete with the AFC’s best. They are better equipped this year and have a far less formidable schedule, but they remain very dependent on veterans coming off injuries — and that can be a scary proposition.