The story of any football team begins and ends with the players. The front office can put the pieces in place, the coaches can move the pieces to the right spots on the chess board, but it’s the players that must land the checkmate move.
For the 2014 Ravens, everyone knows the key players going into the season– Flacco, Suggs, Ngata, Webb, Dumervill, Pitta, and the Smiths. But who else needs to emerge to put the team back in contention for another Super Bowl run?
With OTAs in full swing and training camp right around the corner, Russell Street Report reveals the six Ravens that need to step up heading into the season:
1. Bernard Pierce
It’s pretty simple really. Pierce is the only dependable, every-down
That leaves the rock in Pierce’s hands. During the Ravens’ SB run, he ran like a man possessed. He was a dynamic open-field tackle-breaker that gashed defenses in critical situations, including third-and-short. He also displayed natural instinct as a one-cut-and-go back in the zone blocking scheme. If Pierce is able to stay healthy, and he has better blocking than he did a year ago, there is every reason to believe he could flourish in Gary Kubiak’s zone run scheme. He even looks the part of Arian Foster (Kubiak’s former thoroughbred in Houston). He’ll get his chance in game one against Cincinnati.
2. Rick Wagner
The Ravens concluded the 2014 draft without taking a single OT. That means Wagner is on deck. Wagner will duke it out with fellow 2013 draft pick Ryan Jensen, a couple of undrafted rookies (James Hurst and Parker Graham), and potentially a mystery veteran that has yet to be signed (Eric Winston?). Still, it’s Wagner’s shot to lose. As a left tackle prospect out of Wisconsin, the former fifth-round pick was rated as a top 10 OT in last year’s draft. But the right side is a more natural fit and where scouts and analysts pegged him to play in the NFL. Wagner possesses the power to anchor the line in running situations, and also has the ability to pull and trap in space. As a run blocker, Wagner has the chance to be an improvement over Michael Oher.
3. Keleche Osemele
Don’t discount Osemele as another option at RT ahead of Wagner, Jensen, and the band of rookies. In Kubiak’s scheme, he may be a better fit on the outside given his power and aggressiveness. As a left guard, KO may lack the fluidity and nimble moves to get into space — which is a key role that the LG plays. However, based on the early OTA reports, the Ravens don’t plan to move the third-year starter. He is already developing great chemistry with left tackle Eugene Monroe. The addition of a healthy KO is better than any free agent move or draft pick the Ravens could have made. He was dominant during the team’s Super Bowl run, manhandling the likes of Vince Wilfork and Justin Smith. The hope is he’ll back to form.
4. Brandon Williams
Williams’ rookie season was marred with nagging injuries and inconsistency. The 2013 third-round draft choice was expected to be more of a fixture in the defensive line rotation but instead lost his reps to Terrence Cody and DeAngelo Tyson. Now he’ll get his chance to battle Tyson, Kapron-Lewis Moore, and rookie Timmy Jernigan for the vacant defensive end spot Arthur Jones left behind. There is no denying Williams’ raw ability. For a man his size (6’1″, 335 pounds), he has jaw-dropping quick feet and athleticism. Even though he may have the upper-body strength and stature of a nose guard, he also has the explosiveness to play down the line and be a disruptive force. However, he has to play with better technique and stay healthy. If Williams can be more dependable, he’ll be able to spell Ngata during the season. And a fresher Ngata will be needed during the playoff stretch.
5. Arthur Brown
Like Williams, Brown’s rookie season was mostly spent on the pine. The second-round draft pick from a year ago had his moments as a nickel linebacker. He flashed amazing closing speed on Adrian Peterson on a swing pass and knocked the 2012 MVP out of the game in the process. However, Brown also missed an assignment on a touchdown run by Toby Gerhart in the same game. Those two plays define Brown to this point — tantalizing ability that has yet to be harnessed and channeled properly. Brown will need to see the field more often, especially when the defense is in its sub packages. Brown is a freak athlete that needs to be cut loose in space and as a blitzer. He is simply not adept as a read-and-react defender. By keeping Brown’s role defined to being a coverage specialist and occasional pass rusher — much like the way New England uses linebacker Jamie Collins all over the field to cover tight ends or attack the line on delayed blitzes — he will be more effective.
6. Asa Jackson
The loss of free agent corner Corey Graham has a trickle effect on the depth chart. The Ravens are entrusting the No.3 cornerback job to Chykie Brown for the moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jackson vault past Brown at some point during the season. Jackson is a better run defender and more instinctual in coverage. He stayed inactive last season due to an eight-game suspension. But the former small-school prospect has the skills to be a playmaker in the secondary. In the preseason a year ago, Jackson displayed the natural ability to anticipate timing routes and break on the football. And as a punt returner and special teams performer, Jackson has the explosiveness to contribute in a big way this season.