Yeah, the Ravens failed to make the playoffs last year. Yeah, they’re facing a degree of transition and upheaval on par with last year’s post-Super Bowl retirements and free-agency defections.
But the Ravens continue to be the Ravens. The franchise that lives by the motto, “In Ozzie We Trust.” The team with one of the best football organizations the past generation has seen. The group that John Harbaugh led to five straight playoff appearances to start his head-coaching career.
Last year’s performance exposed some issues that needed to be addressed. The Ravens have addressed them, for the most part. Here’s a look at where they are as the 2014 season approaches, and why they landed in the top 10 after failing to qualify for the 2013 postseason.
It’s a quarterback-driven league, and the jury is out on how driven the Ravens’ starting quarterback remains after getting a $120.6 million contract in 2013. Does Joe Flacco have the degree of determination that true franchise quarterbacks have shown, year in and year out? Will Flacco act like an unofficial member of the coaching staff, both during the season and when the games aren’t being played?
The answer could be no, at least not for now. Flacco didn’t get together with his receivers before the start of the offseason program, explaining that he didn’t know enough about the new offense to make the effort worth everyone’s time. But he could have learned plenty about the new offense, if he really wanted to. And he could have started the process of teaching it to teammates before the official process for teaching them began, if he really wanted to. (With or without violations of offseason rules that are never enforced.)
And so, while the Super Bowl MVP trophy and the huge contract make Flacco a strength, it’s fair to ask whether he’s the kind of quarterback that makes a team a perennial contender regardless of the quality of the rest of the roster, or whether he has simply been in the right place at the right time with a team that had enough parts around him to allow him to appear to be better than maybe he really is.
The guys expected to catch the passes from Flacco fall into that same “strong but how strong?” category. Torrey Smith enters a contract year with numbers that have been very good, but without the kind of breakthrough in his third season that would make him one of the best receivers in the league. Steve Smith arrives to put some punch (perhaps literally) into the position, but it’s unclear how much he has left, especially with a balky and banged up knee. Jacoby Jones has shown flashes, but at times he falls into the “meh” category. And while the tight end room now boasts Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels, the Ravens claim they coveted rookie Eric Ebron. If they wanted Ebron, how good do they really feel about the guys they have?
Despite plenty of changes in recent years, the front seven on defense sets the tone, led by defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, linebacker Terrell Suggs, and linebacker Elvis Dumervil. Linebacker Daryl Smith became a free-agent steal last year, and he’s now one of the anchors of the unit.
Safety Matt Elam made a big impact as a rookie, helping the secondary weather the departure of Ed Reed. Cornerback Lardarius Webb should be better more than a full year after tearing an ACL, and competition should shake out the rest of an understated but talented depth chart.
On special teams, the Ravens have one of the league’s best kickers in Justin Tucker. Which makes it easier to squeeze out close games premised on field-position battles — and which could be the difference between making to the playoffs or going home early for the second straight season.
The offensive line took a big step back last year. The outcome would have been worse but for the midseason arrival of left tackle Eugene Monroe via trade with Jacksonville. A huge hole currently exists at right tackle with the decision not to bring back Michael Oher, and Gino Gradkowski couldn’t fully fill the shows of the retired Matt Birk. The line will need to get better quickly or the new offense under Gary Kubiak won’t.
At running back, a looming suspension of Ray Rice and an early off-field incident from Lorenzo Taliaferro complicates the depth chart at the start of the season. Rice, who likely will be gone for at least one game if not more, will need to be replaced by Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett, and/or Taliaferro.
Speaking of Rice and Taliaferro and the various other Ravens who found trouble in the offseason, the franchise currently has earned the title of the reigning NFL renegades. They’ll all undoubtedly pay for it in training camp, thanks to a head coach who has little tolerance for nonsense, but who has been forced to tolerate plenty of it. While a positive reaction from the players could turn that weakness into a strength, the misadventures of multiple players are a problem that needs to be solved.
In his first full year as offensive coordinator, Jim Caldwell didn’t do nearly as well as he did down the stretch in 2012. But Caldwell still did well enough to get himself a head-coaching job in Detroit. Gary Kubiak, fired after seven years of coaching the Texans, brings a new system to town, with zone-blocking, one-cut running, roll-out passing, and all sorts of other stuff the Ravens didn’t do on a regular basis last year. The team’s ability to adapt will determine its ability to thrive.
The offense got better with the arrival of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, and it got worse with the departures of tight end Ed Dickson, fullback Vonta Leach, and Oher. If they can adequately fill the hole at right tackle, the offense should be fine.
On defensive, losing lineman Arthur Jones to the Colts hurts, but when a team has a great collection of linemen it’s impossible to pay them all. Also being paid elsewhere will be linebacker Jameel McClain, cornerback Corey Graham, and safety James Ihedigbo.
A fifth-round pick a year ago, Rick Wagner gets the first shot to replace Oher at right tackle. If Wagner can’t do it, Ryan Jensen provides a Plan B, and Kelechi Osemele could be moved back outside if necessary.
At inside linebacker, 2013 second-rounder Arthur Brown and 2014 first-rounder C.J. Mosley will square off for the starting job and total reps. If the Ravens thought Brown could get it done, they wouldn’t have had to draft Mosley. That said, we’re told that Brown had a very strong offseason, possibly responding to the challenge presented by the addition of Mosley.
At cornerback, Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown will battle for the nickel job, and Darian Stewart and Terrance Brooks will compete for a starting safety job, with Stewart getting the first shot.
At a time when the best teams in the NFC have the physicality to routinely pilfer the juice-box money of the best that the AFC has to offer, the Ravens are one of the few teams that can match the muscle of the likes of the 49ers and Seahawks. But before the Ravens can face the NFC champion, they need to climb the playoff tree. Before they can do that, they need to qualify for a seat at the postseason table.
They definitely can get there. And their placement at No. 7 as the season arrives means that we think they will.