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Roster Roundouts: A Baltimore Ravens Preseason Report

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flickr.com/Phil Romans

flickr.com/Phil Romans

Since football returned to Baltimore, it’s hard to pick a single word that describes this Ravens franchise.  It’s much easier to just use bone crushing highlights and no words.  The team has relied on brute force ever since re-inventing themselves as the Ravens, and that force shows up in everything the team does: the power running game, the stingy run defense, the hard hitting style they’ve employed since 1996, and the emotion that is funneled down through the team leaders and permeates the roster.

Last year, the Ravens re-invented themselves as one other thing: thinkers.

Coming off a 4-12 season and an overtime loss to a hapless Dolphins team that was anything but scrappy, something had to be done.  They fired Brian Billick who was the team’s only super bowl winning coach in history: that’s a history that goes back to Cleveland, when they were the Browns.  One of the most successful pre-merger NFL franchises had only a few moments despite the fact that three of the greatest coaches ever were on this franchises’ sideline: Paul Brown, Marty Schottenheimer, and Bill Belichick.  When the Ravens hired Billick in 1999, they were expecting him to re-invent their offense to look something like the downfield, explosive, three receiver attack that was featured by the Minnesota Vikings.

Only problem was that, instead of finding the next Randy Moss or Cris Carter, the team ran out an endless line of Qadry Ismails, Travis Taylors, Brandon Stokelys, and Marcus Robinsons at the receiver position.  At no point were things more ridiculous than 2003 when the Ravens made the playoffs….with a base 1 WR, 2 TE, 2 RB offense.  The franchise’s leading receiver is TE Todd Heap, who is a blocking tight end with functional athletcism.  The team signed Derrick Mason away from Tennessee in 2005 and he really has made all the difference in the passing game, which went from inept to merely boring overnight.

So in place of Billick’s non-offense, the team hired young John Harbaugh, a man whose reputation is tied up more in his surname than by his past.  But Harbaugh was refreshing because he showed an adept knowledge of both offensive and defensive talent, and a creativity to use his players correctly without limiting two of the better coordinators in the game: Cam Cameron and Rex Ryan.

Ryan left for the NY Jets head coaching job, and took LB Bart Scott with him, so the Ravens are working a little shorthanded in the middle of the defense with an aging Ray Lewis and a developmental prospect (Tavares Gooden) at inside linebacker.  But how many years in the franchises existence has this defense been among the best in the NFL?  It’s not like Rex Ryan was reaching heights his predecessors had never seen, the Ravens defense incrementally increased from a league worst in 1996 (Lewis’ rookie season) to the league’s best unit by 1999.  In the last ten years, the Ravens have ranked in the top ten in defensive DVOA every season, in the top TWO 6 times, and I saved the most mind boggling stat for last…the last time the Ravens were a below average run defense–they were the Browns.

I’d venture to say there has never been a better defensive decade of dominance than the 2000’s Ravens.  Not the Steel Curtain, not the Doomsday defense, not the no-name defense, not the Ditka Bears.  No one in history has been this good for this long.  Just look at what’s happening to the Bucs.  In some ways, I think the case for the 2000 Ravens defense as the greatest of all time (it probably wasn’t the greatest Ravens defense of the decade) gets overstated, and it overshadows the fact that these guys are fantastic every year.

In short, they’ll do fine without Rex Ryan.  Haloti Ngata is scarier anyway.

What you can question, is the offense.  Last year, the Ravens figured out what the Ravens before them never could: you can shape a passing offense around the strengths of a flawed passer.  In previous years, Brian Billick wasted lots of time trying to shuffle quarterbacks in and out trying to find a guy who could run his system.  No one could.  So in comes Cameron, and he stripped down the offense to bare bolts.  The play design was basic, yet creative: unbalanced lines, two fullback backfields, primarily blocking tight ends, double moves and deep in routes from the receivers, and a quarterback who could fit the ball into tight spaces.  And the results were fantastic in the running game, and functional in the passing game.  It’s a combination that had not been seen since 2000 when Jamal Lewis was chewing up the yards despite no threat of the pass.  And more significantly, it clicked right from the first snap.

This year’s problem is two fold: there’s been some deck shuffling with the personnel, and at some point, young Joe Flacco’s development has to become a priority.  He got his feet wet in the NFL last year, and got valuable playoff experience, but he needs to show he can be successful with a higher pass to run ratio, and in a more wide open offensive scheme (i.e. anything).  Frankly, the Ravens still have no idea what they have in Flacco in terms of a franchise quarterback, and probably won’t until the end of this season.

What they will feature this year is the do-it-all tailback that Willis McGahee never was: Ray Rice.  McGahee will still have his niche in the offense, but this season will be about getting touches for the second year back, and about the development of Rice as a runner, a pass blocker, and a receiver.  This also represents a land mark in Flacco’s development: it takes great confidence in your quarterback to move in one offseason from a run-first, run-second, throw-third-only-if-unsuccessful twice mentality to one build around third and fourth reads (and running).  But Flacco executed so well in his first preseason game that there appears to be little to worry about.  This is what he did at Delaware.

So that brings us to the most uncertain of units going into this year: the offensive line.  It’s a young line that’s just oozing with talent: it features a fourth year player, two third year players, and a rookie.  But it lost it’s young Center to free agency (St. Louis), and in his place is former pro-bowl center Matt Birk.  With first round rookie Michael Oher playing the right tackle position, you could argue that they’ve universally upgraded the talent, but Birk is not as durable as the man he replaces, Jason Brown, and there are questions about the long term viability of RG Chris Chester, and that perhaps third year G Marshal Yanda would be a quick fix there.  Add in some natural rookie struggles against speed rushers from Oher, and you can see how this unit might have a limiting effect on Flacco.  But if they gel quickly, they have two future pro-bowlers on the left side in Jared Gaither and Ben Grubbs, and a unit-wide maulers mentality to boot.

The Ravens’ schedule this year is one they will find generally unfavorable, but with that said, they are probably the best top to bottom team in the AFC North.  I didn’t even mention the present day receivers, because they happen to be the same two guys that have graced the position since Mark Clayton broke into the starting lineup in 2006, and despite a quick bout with retirement from Derrick Mason, appear to be as successful a duo this year as ever.  If I’m wrong though, and they aren’t the best team, the Browns and Bengals are both good enough to the point where the fact that only one team in the division plays either the Patriots or the Colts (this would be the Ravens) could determine who gets the final playoff seed in the AFC.

But the Ravens have never been a team defined by their schedule.  Given the above, the word I would use to define them, simply: successful.

Ravens Camp, Westminster, MD

Camp battles are all the rage in Baltimore.

Running back: Jalen Parmalee vs. Cedric Peerman

Peerman, an explosive runner from Virginia will battle with Parmalee for the No. 3 RB spot, which isn’t just an honorary position this season.  With LeRon McClain back at fullback, doing the opening of holes, there’s going to be carries to go around.  Parmalee is ahead on the depth chart, but I think he’s a slight underdog, Peerman is just too good to be overlooked after being picked in the 6th round.

Wide receiver: Yamon Figurs vs. Justin Harper vs. Biren Early

The good news for Yamon Figurs is that while he struggled on kick returns for the first time in his career last year, there have been positive developments regarding his value to the Ravens offense.  He remains a favorite to stave off undrafteds Harper and Early.

Right guard: Chris Chester vs. Marshal Yanda

The contingency plan had Matt Birk re-upped with Minnesota would have ben Marshal Yanda at RG, and then a camp battle between Chester and a veteran center of lesser quality.  The team likes Yanda, and while Chester is a virtual certainty to win at this point, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the team let him walk in the offseason and see what Yanda can do in 2010.

Offensive line: Tre Stallings vs. Bryan Mattison vs. David Hale

The Ravens have roster filler lineman of the “you maybe have heard of these guys” variety.  As mentioned above, Chester’s versatility means that there is no telling which of these guys will make it though (Hale is nominally the no. 2 Center).  I think Mattison has the best chance, after that, your guess is as good as mine.

Defensive line: Kelly Tavalou vs. Brandon McKinney vs. Will Johnson

Some relative no-names are competing to fill out the Ravens roster on the defensive line.  Tavalou played well against Washington while McKinney appeared in 11 games last year.  Will Johnson may be the odd man out.

Outside linebacker: Prescott Burgess vs. Will VanderSteeg

Burgess has the versatility to hold his spot on the Ravens roster.  As a 6th round pick from Michigan two years ago, he played some special teams as a rookie in 2007.  Now, VanderSteeg tries to unseat him, though he’s not likely to make it past the third preseason game.

Inside linebacker: Jameel McClain vs. Jason Phillips vs. Dannell Ellerbe

This is the most fascinating of all the camp battles.  We have one or two inside linebacker spots available behind Ray Lewis, Brenden Ayanbedejo, and Tavares Gooden.  McClain brings experience, but is expendable.  Phillips and Ellerbe were both top draft prospects at the same position and Phillips slid to the fifth round where the Ravens took him as a developmental prospect.  However, they signed Ellerbe for competition as an undrafted free agent.

So how’s this for a camp battle.  The winner is the successor to Ray Lewis in one of the greatest defensive units of all time.  The loser is cut and risks becoming a nobody in the NFL.

Cornerback: Chris Carr vs. Frank Walker

Frank Walker was signed last year with some relative fanfare, but with Chris Carr coming over from Tennessee and the Ravens using their 3rd round pick on a corner, it doesn’t much look like Walker is in the plans.  The Ravens do like to keep 10 DBs, so he’s got a chance, but he won’t unseat Carr, and time is running out to hold his spot as the team’s dime back.

Kicker: Steven Hauschka vs. Graham Gano

This is a hardcore kicker battle to replace Matt Stover.  Hauschka had kickoff duties last year and attempted some field goals, but it’s hard to pass up the allure of a once-a-decade leg like Gano’s.  He’s got accuracy issues, and the Ravens perhaps cannot afford to go through this year with an inconsistent kicking game, but Stover’s not here which means that either way, they are venturing into the unknown.

Surprise Cuts?

  • WR Demetrius Williams
  • TE L.J. Smith
  • G Chris Chester
  • DE Dwan Edwards
  • CB Samari Rolle
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