With the regular season opener just under three months away, the players on the current roster for the Baltimore Ravens will comprise the majority of the 53-man unit that will take the field against the Cincinnati Bengals for the Week 1 kickoff.
Barring a veteran free agent signing or two, beginning to assess the outlook at each position for the Ravens is justified, as much of the roster can already be predicted.
After an 8-8 season, Baltimore has a playoff-caliber roster once again, one with measurable depth at almost every position, and one that resembles more of an AFC contender than a team on the outside looking in at the end of the regular season.
But which positional units on the Ravens are the best right now?
1. Inside Linebacker – Daryl Smith, Arthur Brown, C.J. Mosley. How many NFL teams would trade its current set of inside linebackers for Baltimore’s trio? A lot.
Using an early round pick in back-to-back drafts on a linebacker is going to pay off for the Ravens, as the long term core of Mosley and Brown has the potential to be among the better 3-4 inside linebacker duos in the league. Throw in Smith, who signed a four-year deal in March, and Baltimore has three starting-caliber players to rotate in at each position. Don’t sleep on Josh Bynes, either, who played well with an expanded defensive role last season.
2. Defensive Line – No Arthur Jones? No problem. The Ravens prepared well for Jones’ expected free agency departure, adding defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore in the 2013 draft and Brent Urban and Timmy Jernigan in this year’s draft. Throw in the emergence of former seventh-round pick DeAngelo Tyson and Baltimore’s young core is one to be excited about.
Complementing the young front unit are veterans Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty, as well as linebacker/defensive end Pernell McPhee. The Ravens have almost too much quality defensive line depth, but that’s not a problem to complain about.
3. Wide Receiver – Prior to the 2013 season, Baltimore’s group of wide receivers was something to laugh about. Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are the best two options? And that’s it?
Fast forward to less than a year later, and the Ravens have Smith, Jones – who developed as a receiver in 2013 – and undrafted rookie turned seven touchdown man, Marlon Brown. Oh yeah, and some guy named Steve Smith.
Throw in rookie Michael Campanaro – an ideal slot option – second-year Aaron Mellette and Deonte Thompson, among others, and wide receiver has gone from a glaring weakness to a strength for the team.
4. Running Back – Depth isn’t an issue, as the Ravens have three quality running backs in Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, as well as veteran Justin Forsett.
Based on talent alone, the depth at the position could put the unit higher on the list, but there are too many questions surrounding Tom Hammock’s group heading into the season. How long will Rice’s expected suspension last? Was 2013 a fluke or the new norm for him? Can Pierce fully recover from rotator cuff surgery? Will Pierce ever be 100% for a full season?
Second-year fullback Kyle Juszczyk appears primed to step in as Baltimore’s regular option at the position, and his skill set should make it easy for new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to want to get “Juice” more involved in the offense.
5. Outside Linebacker – Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil started off strong in 2013, but faded off in the second half of the season, particularly Suggs. That should be expected, though, as Suggs turns 32 in October and is playing post-achilles injury, so expectations should be tempered for the remainder of his time in Baltimore as far as how much he can provide as a pass rusher.
Nonetheless, Suggs and Dumervil are still, well, Suggs and Dumervil, who are exceptional players even if they experience rough patches throughout the season. Third-year run stopper Courtney Upshaw showed promise as a rookie in 2012, and if he can return to that form, Baltimore’s trio of outside linebackers is a strong unit.
Keep an eye on second-year player John Simon, who almost exclusively played special teams as a rookie, but notched 16 sacks in his final two seasons at Ohio State.
6. Tight End – Enough about how often Kubiak uses his tight ends; let’s worry about the actual tight ends Kubiak will work with in Baltimore. If the final four games of 2013 (20 catches, 169 yards, one touchdown) were any indication Dennis Pitta should have no trouble returning to 2012 form.
The Ravens weeded out the weak by letting veterans Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark walk in free agency, replacing them with former Houston Texans standout Owen Daniels and rookie Crockett Gillmore out of Colorado State. Daniels is only in Baltimore on a one-year deal, but Baltimore’s current situation at tight end is much more favorable than last season.
7. Quarterback – This isn’t necessarily a positional unit compared to the others, as starter Joe Flacco has yet to miss a snap due to injury through six years.
Flacco’s 2013 season was one to forget, and perhaps an improved supporting cast and offensive system will be the recipe to get back on track. Behind Flacco, rookie Keith Wenning is viable competition for incumbent backup Tyrod Taylor, and Wenning very well may be the backup by training camp’s end.
8. Special Teams – For ranking’s sake, the components of special teams considered here were kicker, punter, long snapper and return man (mainly Jacoby Jones). There is set to be a heated battle in training camp at punter between the incumbent Sam Koch and undrafted rookie Richie Leone. Koch’s 2014 cap hit of $2.8 million can largely be credited for the oncoming training camp battle.
At kicker and return man, the Ravens have two of the best in the game. Kicker Justin Tucker was one of the most accurate kickers in the NFL in each of his first two seasons, and Jones is still a quality return man, although he came back to earth with just one return touchdown in 2013 after four in 2012 (including the playoffs).
9. Cornerback – The second half of the 2013 season didn’t provide many positive moments for the Ravens, but one lasting impression was that the starting cornerback duo of Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb may be finally coming together.
Webb played well as he returned from an October 2012 ACL injury, and Smith appeared to finally tap into the potential fans were waiting to see. But after the two, Baltimore’s nickel corner situation is undetermined, with Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown being the two current top contenders. Regardless of how good Smith and Webb are, the unproven depth behind them is nothing to write home about at this point in the offseason.
10. Offensive Line – Will Baltimore’s offensive line be improved over last season? You can guarantee that. The return of Kelechi Osemele, the addition of Jeremy Zuttah, a (hopefully) healthier Marshal Yanda and a full offseason with Eugene Monroe in Baltimore provides a positive outlook after a season of torment in the trenches.
But, just how healthy Osemele will be remains to be seen, and the unsettled right tackle position likely won’t be complete until late in the preseason. The depth behind the starting unit is a question mark as well, as Gino Gradkowski and A.Q. Shipley underperformed as starters last season, veteran Will Rackley provides little value and second-year player Ryan Jensen has yet to take a snap in Baltimore, and therefore unproven.
11. Safety – The selection of Florida State free safety Terrence Brooks in the third round of this year’s draft will turn out to be a steal, and he may be a better pro than secondary counterpart Matt Elam.
Elam had his ups and downs as a rookie, but the Brooks/Elam duo isn’t one to complain about long term. We’ll see how the unproven duo performs in 2014. Even if Brooks and Elam exceed expectations, the underwhelming depth behind the two (only notable experienced safety is free agent signee Darian Stewart) makes it hard to place safety higher on the list at the moment.
What do you think, Ravens fans?
What are the team’s strongest and weakest positional units right now?