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Roster Roundouts ’10: A Baltimore Ravens Season Preview

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Baltimore Ravens (projected finish: 10-6)

Team synopsis: Were the Ravens among the best teams in football last season?  In their division, they were just a win over the Bengals away from tying atop the division, and the game at Baltimore is one they just simply weren’t able to close out over Cincinnati.  If the Ravens weren’t already thought to be the best team in the AFC North, they certainly took a step to prove as much when they blew out the New England Patriots in Foxborough in the AFC playoffs, while the AFC East runner up Jets physically decimated the Bengals in Cincinnati.  The Ravens likely weren’t a better team than the Colts, as they were never really in the AFC Divisional playoff game against the high powered offense of the Colts, but a conclusion that suggests that Baltimore was one of the two best teams in the AFC, as they probably were, suggests that the team could get a little worse on both sides of the football, and still improve on last years 9-7 record.  That’s the prediction here.

Best Players

  • RB Ray Rice (drafted — Rutgers/2008 2nd round pick)
  • WR Anquan Boldin (trade — Arizona/2010 3rd round pick)
  • TE Todd Heap (drafted — Arizona State/2001 1st round pick)
  • OT Michael Oher (drafted — Ole Miss/2009 1st round pick)
  • LG Ben Grubbs (drafted — Auburn/2007 1st round pick)
  • OT Jared Gaither (drafted — Maryland/2007 5th round supplemental draft pick)
  • NT Haloti Ngata (drafted — Oregon/2006 1st round pick)
  • LB Terrell Suggs (drafted — Arizona State/2003 1st round pick)
  • LB Ray Lewis (drafted — Miami/1996 1st round pick)
  • S Ed Reed (drafted — Miami/2002 1st round pick)

Best Prospects

  • TE Ed Dickson (drafted — Oregon/2010 3rd round pick)
  • TE Dennis Pitta (drafted — BYU/2010 4th round pick)
  • OT Ramon Harewood (drafted — Morehouse/2010 6th round pick)
  • NT Terrence Cody (drafted — Alabama/2010 2nd round pick)
  • LB Sergio Kindle (drafted — Texas/2010 2nd round pick)
  • LB Dannell Ellerbe (signed — Georgia/2009 undrafted free agent)
  • LB Tavares Gooden (drafted — Miami/2008 3rd round pick)
  • CB Lardarius Webb (drafted — Nicholls State/2009 3rd round pick)
  • S Tom Zbikowski (drafted — Notre Dame/2008 3rd round pick)

QB Joe Flacco is in his third season with the Ravens.  In his last three seasons, Flacco has appeared in nine postseason games.  That’s four college games with the Delaware Blue Hens in 2007, three more with the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, and two more last year.  Flacco has more postseason experience than any quarterback in the same timeframe, pro or college.

That’s a good thing.  His personal accomplishments are more middle of the road.  Flacco improved in most statistical categories as a passer in 2009 from below average in 2008 to above average (his sack rate was unchanged).  However, Flacco was done in by the quality of his skill position players over the course of the year, and if you break down his production by game, Flacco’s improvements occurred in the first five games.  After that, he was pretty much the same quarterback from his rookie year.

That’s a problem.  Flacco has enjoyed unparalleled amounts of team success for a quarterback in his first two seasons, but he has to find a way to lead his passing game to the next level.  The Ravens believe that it wasn’t Flacco’s fault that the passing game declined into a fancy way to set up blocks for Ray Rice in the open field.  So as soon as the season ended, and before free agency opened, the Ravens added Donte Stallworth after the Browns released the troubled receiver who missed the 2009 season after pleading guilty to one count of DUI, and one count of Manslaughter.  Stallworth isn’t necessarily a character concern for the Ravens, as his troubles appear to be a thing of the past.  But he did miss last season, and he might not be the deep threat the Ravens require.

The good news is that Mark Clayton should be able to hold off Stallworth and provide the field-stretching ability that the Ravens need.  Clayton was miscast as a multi-purpose player: he dropped a fourth down pass in the regular season loss to the Patriots that would have given the Ravens a critical first down.  But Clayton was asked to run the window routes and timing patterns across from Derrick Mason because the Ravens didn’t have anyone else to play.

The big acquisition, of course, was Anquan Boldin.  Boldin is going to take over Derrick Mason’s role in the offense.  Mason is back, and his new role will be as the complementary target that uses his superior route running against the weaker side of the coverage offers Joe Flacco his favorite receiver in outlet receiver form.  The problem comes if Flacco throws to Mason even more often than he did last year.  Moving on from Mason would have been risky, but taking away Flacco’s safety valve could have opened up the offense in a way that simply adding Boldin and Stallworth never could have.

Those weren’t the only moves made by the Ravens, who added two TEs in the draft: Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson.  Dickson is the speed-route running-pass catching combo who probably works as a short term complement to Todd Heap, not an eventual replacement.  Pitta is that replacement.

The Ravens’ RB trio of Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and LeRon McClain was so good in 2008 and 2009 that they brought them back for another run in 2010.  But credit must go to the offensive line of the last two seasons, with Jared Gaither and Ben Grubbs the anchors of it.  In 2008, right tackle Willie Anderson and center Jason Brown were significant parts of the success the Ravens had.  Neither returned for 2009.  Brown left in free agency, taking the big bucks to help fix the interior of St. Louis’ OL, and Anderson retired.  But the replacements the Ravens found for them were even better.  They got Matt Birk to leave his hometown Minneapolis to come to the east coast and help them.  And with the 23rd pick in the 2009 draft, they were somehow lucky enough to land Michael Oher out of Ole Miss.  Marshall Yanda came off the bench to replace Chris Chester at right guard, and the 2009 Ravens line was born.  Birk signed a three year contract, so these guys will all return for 2010, a major strength for their team.

Still, commenting on the Ravens means talking about defense.  And while the offense may have received most of the offseason headlines, Baltimore will still call somewhat conservative offensive gameplans as not to take the game out of the hands of said defense, which is again loaded, at least in the front seven.  35 year old Ray Lewis is in his fifteenth NFL season, and doesn’t look a day over 30.  Lewis’ leadership is legendary, but nowhere else is this more impactful (aside from the standings, of course) than for what it allows them to do with the rest of their linebackers.  They go young every year, and they don’t hand out big contracts to linebackers who aren’t pass rushers.

This year, that means that Dannell Ellerbe, Tavares Gooden, and Jameel McClain will split the inside linebacker duties next to Lewis, maybe the easiest position to play in all of football.  Antwaan Barnes, Paul Kruger, and Jarrett Johnson are in the mix to play opposite Terrell Suggs at outside linebacker.  Suggs is still just 27 years old, and now in his eighth NFL season.  Then theres the Ravens first round pick from this year, Sergio Kindle, who hasn’t signed his contract yet due to a non-football related head injury suffered in the offseason.  When Kindle is cleared for football, the Ravens are expected to sign their second rounder.  He is versatile enough to play at any of the four linebacker positions, and excel.

Another reason the Ravens LB are so dominant is the great talent in front of them.  Between Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody, the Ravens can play nearly 800 pounds of beef in an even front at any time.  They overshadow the contributions of Kelly Gregg, who has long been an excellent nose tackle for Baltimore.  Trevor Pryce  — who is here as much to make Lewis look youthful as anything — is still in the lineup here and is still a starter, while Cory Redding will try to make the transition from the 4-3 defense he played in college and again with the Lions and Seahawks, to the 3-4 front preferred by the Ravens.  One thing that’s clear is that if the Ravens wanted to be a 4-3 team, they wouldn’t have to change personnel to do it.

In any variation of the Ravens defense, an already thin secondary really was hurt when they lost CB Dominique Foxworth for the season.  A preseason trade of QB John Beck to the Redskins for CB Doug Dutch brought depth, but a lot of teams wouldn’t have even seen Dutch as a practice squad player.  On this team, he’s a fifth corner.  Both Fabian Washington and LarDarius Webb are coming off season ending injuries; Webb in particular is an important player for the Ravens to have.  He’s now the best healthy cover corner on the team, and perhaps it’s best kick returner.  It’d be surprising to see him in that role this year, with the team woefully thin at his position.

Safety is believed to be thin with Ed Reed on the mend, potentially for a few games of the regular season, but I’d argue it’s a team strength.  The Ravens have a pair of 2008 draft picks, Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, who fit better in the Ravens pressure schemes than even Ed Reed is.  Right now, Dawan Landry is playing with the first team ahead of Ken Hamlin.  That’s not good for Hamlin’s chances of making the team, considering just how poor Landry was last season.

Clearly, the solution for the Ravens sans Ed Reed is to bring pressure from every angle, and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is a fairly important figure in the NFL this year.  His predecessor, Rex Ryan, gets a lot of publicity to more or less be himself, but Mattison’s defense did not disappoint in his first year.  Still, getting them back to an elite level this year will be a great challenge, as will continuing to mask signs of age in Ray Lewis.  His guys will still lay the lumber for him when they hit, so that aggressive mentality and physical dominance does take a lot of pressure off of the scheme caller.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

The Marc Bulger signing didn’t go over well for the team.  Multiple players, including Reed, spoke out against the Bulger addition.  For good reason to, he takes John Beck’s spot on the roster, but Bulger is a sub-replacement quarterback at this point who just doesn’t study opponents like he used to back in the day.  Bulger blocks Troy Smith from the no. 2 spot on the depth chart.  Smith is clearly not NFL starter material, but he’s probably better than Bulger.

Curtis Steele is battling with Jalen Parmele for the third running back spot.  Essentially, with McClain taking snaps as tailback, this position is mostly a special teams position, which is why most expect Parmele to win it.  Right now, Mike McLaughlin, a rookie from Boston College, is the only other fullback on the roster.  It’s a position that the Ravens require.

Demetrius Williams will battle 5th round rookie David Reed for the fifth wide receiver spot.  Williams has height on his side, but little else: if he was a little-used target last year, a team that added Stallworth and Boldin in the offseason has little use for him.  Davon Drew could be the odd TE out.  He made last years team as the 3rd TE and played some short yardage downs.

While the Ravens starting OL remains unchanged, the backups have overgone significant change, with Ramon Harewood replacing Adam Terry, who is now a Colt.  Chris Chester returns for another season in his utility backup role.  Oniel Cousins can play both guard and tackle, which should keep him safe for another season.  David Hale has the inside track to be the ninth lineman.

The Ravens have three versatile nose tackles, plus now Arthur Jones, a fifth round rookie from Syracuse.  Redding and Pryce are the first DTs on the roster, but both will have to beat out Brandon McKinney, who has developed in the Ravens system, and looks like he has the ability to start at defensive end this year.

Keeping just eight or nine linebackers is going to be a difficult task.  There are eight guys just in the running for starting jobs on this team.  But also, the Ravens have Jason Phillips at inside linebacker, along with Brendon Ayanbadejo, their special teams ace who is going to make the team.  That doesn’t even count Kindle, who is obviously going to make the team.  That’s 11 LBs the Ravens want to keep, which means one, and probably two, aren’t going to make the team.

Even if Ken Hamlin is released and the Ravens do not keep five safeties, there’s still a depth crunch at corner.  Chris Carr could be out of a job if he loses his kick return duties, as his coverage skills are sub par.  Cary Williams is playing great in the preseason, and could open as the team’s nickel, forcing Travis Fisher off the roster.  Prince Miller, a rookie from Georgia, could win that return job, and also provide depth as a fourth or fifth corner; he has been impressive in camp thus far.

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