You might be hard pressed to find another NFL team with more question marks than the Baltimore Ravens as the 2016 season draws near.
Was the (5-11) 2015 season an aberration or a sign of things to come?
Have they done enough in the offseason to stem the tide?
Will key veterans be healthy enough to contribute in the way their paychecks suggest?
Is the Vegas win total for the Ravens (7 ½) fair?
These are just a few of the questions that the team will need to address during the season if they plan to be postseason participants. On paper the Ravens have the talent to challenge for the AFC North crown and as we’ve seen before, once a John Harbaugh led team earns a playoff dance card, there’s no telling how far they can advance.
Grit. Mettle. Grinders. They all come to mind.
But before we are all seduced by the possibilities, intoxicated by playoff hopes for the Ravens, let’s focus on ten players who must deliver in 2016 if the hometown team plans on traveling the road to Houston, the site of Super Bowl 51.
By most counts Stanley will be a very good player in the NFL who could approach Pro Bowl caliber. But he is a rookie and the leap from Notre Dame to the show is a big one for left tackles. Just ask Jake Matthews, who like Stanley was the 6th overall pick in his respective draft. Matthews was abysmal as a rookie. Even Jonathan Ogden didn’t start out as a left tackle, playing his rookie season at left guard. Joe Flacco’s surgically repaired left knee is at risk if Stanley follows in Matthews’ footsteps. And the next man up for the moment, frighteningly enough is James Hearse…I mean Hurst.
For the moment, Urschel is the leading candidate to start at left guard for the Ravens, a significant drop off from the departed Kelechi Osemele. Ideally offensive line coach Juan Castillo would like a veteran presence beside his rookie left tackle – at least a more established one than Urschel. Plus there are no guarantees that the former Nittany Lion will start at left guard. Some insiders think that Alex Lewis, the
rookie out of the cornhusking fields of Nebraska, will challenge.
Could the Ravens really start two rookies to the left of Jeremy Zuttah in 2016?
The speedy wide receiver is coming off three sub-par seasons – two in Miami and one in Minnesota. But his skill set is a perfect match for Joe Flacco and it isn’t hard to imagine Wallace reaching the productivity levels he enjoyed in Pittsburgh. The former Steeler is key to the Ravens offense because his speed commands attention – attention that opens things up for the rest of the offense, with or without oft-injured Breshad Perriman.
We’ve seen what Jimmy Smith is capable of when he’s healthy but that hasn’t been the norm for the Ravens talented corner. He’s shown flashes of shutdown corner potential but too often his technique slips, his change of direction skills are sluggish, and it reduces him to an inviting target instead of a player to avoid. If Smith can develop consistency it will allow Dean Pees to be multiple in his personnel groupings and in the pre-snap reads he gives opposing signal callers. More than any other Raven, a good season from Smith could help flip the Ravens secondary from one of the league’s most generous units into a tight, stingy one.
Webb carries the team’s second highest cap number into 2016 at $9.5M. He’s playing an unfamiliar position, one that requires pre-snap cognitive skills and proper positioning in order to keep the integrity of secondary coach Leslie Frazier’s unit in tact. How he communicates with and complements Eric Weddle will be the difference between an airtight lid versus a leaky one.
The third-year backer slipped in 2015 and the Ravens hope that it was nothing more than a sophomore slump following a Pro Bowl rookie campaign. He was a day late and a dollar short too often in pass coverage assignments and this season he’ll get the added responsibility of defensive captain while donning the green dot on his helmet.
Mosley’s commitment to film study is key. And it will help him boost his ability to diagnose plays and that means he’ll play faster and be quicker to the ball. Who the Ravens play beside him will be key. That player should be someone who has coverage skills and the guess here is that the mystery player isn’t yet on the roster unless Zach Orr or Arthur Brown surprise us all with marked improvement at the weak side.
The unveiling of the 2016 model of Terrell Suggs will take place on July 28. His conditioning could give us a good read on Sizzle’s level of commitment to close out his career on a plus note. A soon-to-be 34 year old player coming off his second Achilles tear can’t report in bad shape, sit out preseason games after tip-toeing through training camp and flip the switch come September 11.
Suggs doesn’t need to be the kind of player he was in 2011 when he was DPOY. The pass rushing reinforcements that the Ravens have recruited this offseason should help boost the team’s sack totals and it should reduce Suggs’ snap count which will help to keep him fresh during the month of December when the Ravens face murderer’s row in December on the road: New England; Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
The Bell Cow
In 2015 the Ravens slipped from the 6th best rushing offense to 26th while their yards per carry fell from 8th to 21st. Part of the problem was a lack of speed on offense that allowed opponents to bring an 8th man into the box to choke off the run. It forced too many second down throws and negated the effectiveness of play action, effectively limiting offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s playbook.
This season the Ravens could field a surplus of speed with Mike Wallace, rookie Chris Moore and the sasquatch-like second year player Breshad Perriman whose next NFL snap will be his first. This speed should open things up for the running game but who will be the go-to guy for the Ravens? Justin Forsett is now 30 and while Buck Allen showed flashes in 2015, he lacked consistency. Rookie Kenneth Dixon should be a dual threat as a third down back. One of the three needs to step up and become Trestman’s bell cow.
The second-year former Kentucky Wildcat had a decent rookie campaign despite being used in a way that wasn’t planned. Smith was supposed to have assumed Pernell McPhee’s spot as a situational interior pass rusher but injuries forced him into combat action elsewhere.
This season with added reinforcements and the return of key players, Smith should be free to assume the McPhee role in Pees’ defense. His production as an interior rusher will force quarterbacks to pull down the ball and flush them out of the pocket, allowing the edge guys to clean up and help get the defense off the field, something they failed at too often in the fourth quarter of closely contested games in 2015.
By all accounts Joe Flacco will be ready to go by July 28 when the Ravens take the practice field at Under Armour Performance Center. It’s only natural to expect the team’s franchise QB to take it slow after an ACL reconstruction and some believe (me included) that he won’t even take the field during the preseason, with the sole exception possibly being preseason game 3.
With rust to knock off early in the season, Flacco’s first look at live bullets will come from the gun slinging, riverboat gambler Rex Ryan on September 11. The running game will be critical in that game, as will timing routes, the latter being quite the challenge when experiencing regular season game speed for the first time.
Flacco will be equipped with his biggest arsenal of weapons since his arrival in 2008 and he has the skills to utilize them. Consistency has eluded the 9-year vet during the last 3 seasons but substandard talent and a revolving door at the coordinator position can explain some of that away. None of those are in play now.
There will be no more excuses.
There can’t be!
It’s time for Joe to earn that paycheck going forward as the memory of his Super Bowl 47 MVP performance fades in the rearview mirror.