Previewing The 2016 Baltimore Ravens
Training Camp for the Baltimore Ravens is right around the corner. To help preview the 2016 season, Baltimore Sports and Life (BSL) has reached out to Pete Gilbert (WBAL) and Jeff Zrebiec (The Baltimore Sun) for their thoughts.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
BSL: Is it reasonable to expect Stanley to be a league average LT as a Rookie? What is your comfort level with Wagner at RT? Who do you see as the starter at LG? With the available cap room, do you anticipate additional O-line depth to be added before the season?
Gilbert: Stanley has the physical tools, is incredibly bright, and shows a good work ethic. He will naturally have some growing pains, but he will only get better through the trials. His athleticism and footwork should keep Joe’s blind side properly protected. Wagner is solid at RT, assuming good health. That has become a bit of an issue during his young career. I’m confident Urshel will start at LG, as they love his smarts and toughness. They want that next to Stanley to help with communication. But don’t be surprised if he shares some time with Ryan Jensen. The Ravens have loved this kid ever since they drafted him in the 6th round out of CS Pueblo, even when we saw little to like. He has progressed well and now has some experience too. Alex Lewis, the 4th round tackle from Nebraska, may be a steal. He will back up both tackle positions. Really good athlete, and nasty. And of course, this group is led by the best Guard in the game Marshal Yanda. As a postion group, this may the one for which I have the fewest questions and concerns.
Zrebiec: Sure, I think that’s a reasonable expectation for Stanley. The struggle of highly-picked tackles in recent years, a group that includes Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel, Greg Robinson and several others, isn’t a coincidence. The proliferation of spread offenses in college has certainly affected the NFL readiness of offensive line prospects. Stanley looks pretty polished. He has to get stronger and there will be growing pains, but I think he’ll get better each game. Wagner isn’t a concern to me. He struggled at times last season, but people forget he was coming off that Lisfranc surgery, which hampered his preparations for the season. That’s a tough injury. We all saw how it affected Jimmy Smith. Urschel is the clear leader to start at left guard. Ryan Jensen and/or Alex Lewis could push him, but I think Urschel wins the job. He played guard at a pretty high level as a rookie. I wouldn’t rule out the Ravens adding offensive line depth, but two things: There is not a whole lot available that’s better than what they already have, and I think they are comfortable with the top backups being Ryan Jensen, Alex Lewis, Vlad Ducasse, and James Hurst and/or De’Ondre Wesley. Lewis impressed in the various minicamps and Jensen was hardly overmatched last season.
BSL: It’s my opinion that the Ravens are likely to keep 3 RB’s (not including the FB Juszczyk), and that the clear favorites are Forsett, Allen, and Dixon. Do you agree there? 3-headed monster, or do you see one emerging as the ‘lead’ back? One transition for most Rookie RB’s is blitz pickup. Any early indication of where Dixon is in that regard? Will there be a consistently productive running game for the Ravens this year?
Zrebiec: As of now, I think the Ravens will go with three backs. I’m basing my opinion on how good Terrance West and Lorenzo Taliaferro looked in the minicamps. It will be tough to lose both of those guys, and nobody is really trading for backs these days, so I’m not sure they can lessen their running back logjam by trading one. Forsett will get every opportunity to become the lead back. He’s not an explosive guy, but as of now, he’s the best all-around back, when you consider vision, ball security, blitz pickup, hands out of backfield, etc. Dixon missed a bunch of practice time with the hamstring injury, so we haven’t gotten a feel for where his blitz pickup is. I can’t imagine it was much of a focus at Louisiana Tech though. Ravens coaches have worked hard to make adjustments this offseason to their running schemes. It will be up to Trestman to ride the hot hand and stick to the run. It’s fair to say that his job probably depends on it. The Ravens absolutely have to establish the run and stick with it.
BSL: It remains to be seen if Pitta can stay on the field, but it’s easy to respect his desire. Even if you don’t yet factor him in, the TE position has 3 other quality options in Watson, Gillmore, and Maxx Williams. Your thoughts on the position? The TE you feel best about? How many will likely be active weekly? Do you expect a lot of 3 TE formations?
Gilbert: The tight ends have everyone really excited, except maybe for me. Not for a lack of talent, of the thought that Marc Trestman won’t use them well (he will). I’m just not ready to trust that this group will stay on the field. Ben Watson comes off a career year but he’s 35 years old. Crockett Gillmore may truly be a star, and told me he thinks this is the best tight end group in the league, but he has missed 7 games in his two years as a Raven. Maxx Williams ended up playing a ton down the stretch as injuries and a suspension (more on that momentarily) forced his role into the offense. And he responded with the best rookie tight end season in team history. Still, he lacks explosion and also missed two games to injury. Nick Boyle looked like the best athlete of them all, but can’t stop taking things he shouldn’t and will miss the first ten games to suspension. Then there’s the greatest question mark, Dennis Pitta. He looks great in OTA’s, showing the speed and ability to get open that earned him a nice 2nd contract. But anyone that counts on a guy coming off two hip displacement injuries lives in day dream la-la land.
Zrebiec: I have the same attitude toward Pitta. If he’s healthy and contributing at the end of the preseason, you start projecting a role for him. That’s no disrespect to Pitta whose persistence, courage and hard work is admirable. He still has a few mental and physical hurdles to clear before you start worrying about how you are going to get him the ball, while also making sure Gillmore, Watson and Williams are involved. My opinion is the same on Boyle because so much can change during those 10 weeks while he’s suspended. The guy I feel best about Gillmore. His improvement from year one to two was significant, and while shoulder surgery this offseason probably hampered his preparation a bit, he’s only getting better. Bet here is three tight ends will be active weekly and sure, I think the Ravens will have a few looks in their offense where they all will be on field at same time. It will be interesting to see how Juszczyk’s role is affected with the depth they’ve assembled at tight end.
BSL: The receiving corps looks interesting. Like the potential of Wallace and Perriman being opposite of each other, pulling defenders from the box. Question somewhat what Smith Sr. will be coming off the injury, but overall believe he will remain productive. Think Aiken gained good experience last year, and like that you can now look at him as a very solid 3rd or 4th. Think Moore has the potential to help, and am glad he’s around with the continued Perriman concerns. Believe in Campanaro’s ability, and like Reynolds potential in the slot if Campanaro can’t stay healthy.
How do you see this group? Which WR interests you most? Will the Ravens carry 6 or 7 WR’s?
Gilbert: And that leads to the receivers where potential and production may prove an unfortunately rare intersection. Steve Smith Sr, 37, coming off a torn Achilles should be best counted on for sound bites not touchdowns. Breshad Perriman should be counted on for neither. Mike Wallace intrigues, but hasn’t averaged more than 13.1 yds per reception since 2011. For the lone deep threat that doesn’t necessarily jibe. Wallace though has only missed one regular season game in a 7 year career. For this group, that’s worth noting. Rookie Chris Moore posted gaudy numbers at Cincinnati, particularly catching the deep ball. But he did so without great speed or route running. Hard to see success in that same role at this level. Kamar Aiken will be the most reliable and told me he expects to lead the team in receptions again this year. I expect that too. Solid, if unspectacular, he may be counted on to make tough catches. Mike Campanaro and Keenan Reynolds vie for the slot position in 3 & 4 receiver sets. Campanaro, if healthy, wins that battle but it’s a big if. Reynolds likely makes this team as a return specialist. And once again, Jeremy Butler will catch everything in training camp and the preseason, then find his way onto the roster in week 8.
Zrebiec: That’s a tough one because there’s probably a significant question about each of the top five or six receivers on the depth chart. How will a 37-year-old Smith Sr. return from Achilles surgery? Does Aiken still have another level he can get to? Can Perriman stay healthy and perform? Is Wallace in decline like his numbers suggest or did he just need to find a better offense for his skill set? Can Keenan Reynolds make the transition to a new position? Can Campanaro stay healthy? I could go on, but you get the point. If health is in the Ravens’ favor, this could be the best and deepest receiving group they’ve ever had. If Smith is a shell of himself and Perriman doesn’t quickly return from his latest knee injury, the Ravens could be in trouble again at the position. How can you not be interested in Reynolds? Great kid and great story. A guy that I think is worth keeping an eye on is Jeremy Butler. He caught 31 balls last year while playing sporadically. Teammates love his potential. I like him to make the team and contribute. I have seven receivers making it, but it depends so much on health that I don’t have a great deal of confidence in that prediction.
BSL: I went into last year really excited about the potential of Jernigan and Davis. Jernigan played in 15 games last year, but wasn’t a force. Davis made zero impact, and was a healthy scratch in 3 of the last 6 games. Expectations for the duo this year?
As camp starts, do you have Brent Urban in or out on your projected 53 man? The Ravens need some consistent pass rush from DE? Do you think the Rookie Kaufusi can provide it?
Gilbert: Timmy Jernigan took a step back in his second season which surprised just about everyone. He knows it, and I’m told it really bothered him this off season. Expect an effort closer to his potential. Carl Davis did not adjust well to life in the NFL. The question we don’t yet know the answer to, was it just a rookie trying to find his way and not figuring out how, or is he just not that great. Size and speed are in his favor. If Brent Urban is healthy he can make a significant impact. There just aren’t that many human beings with his height and agility at 295 pounds. Kaufusi is a wild card, but with similar physical traits. Rookie defensive linemen are hard to count on.
Zrebiec: I try not to read too much into the various minicamps, but Jernigan looks primed for a big year. He’s in very good shape, saying all the right things and I think he knows just flashing a couple of times a game isn’t good enough anymore. He has the talent and ability to dominate for stretches of the game. As for Davis, he should have a bigger role in the defensive line rotation this season, but I’m reluctant to predict anything beyond that. He’s got a few guys in front of him who are just better at this point. I do have Urban making the team and I can see him playing in a platoon of sorts with Lawrence Guy on obvious running downs and Urban rushing the quarterback on passing ones. Kaufusi should enter the mix, too. He missed just about all of the on-field workouts with the back injury, so tough to predict how he’ll fit in until we see more of him. But you’re right. The pass-rush can’t just come from the edge. With Brandon Williams, Jernigan, Urban, Kaufusi, Guy, Davis and Henry, there’s no reason the Ravens can’t generate a good interior rush. New defensive line coach Joe Cullen is an aggressive coach, too, and he should have his guys dialed in.
BSL: Mosley was a 2nd team All-Pro as a Rookie, but was picked on in pass coverage at times last year. It’s unfair to ask Mosley to be Ray Lewis in his prime, and it might also be unfair to ask Mosley to be Luke Kuechly. I think it’s fair to say that for Baltimore’s defense to again be a unit which is feared; that Mosley has to be a premier 3 down MLB. Your current thoughts on Mosley?
Gilbert: C.J. Mosley has been given an awful lot of credit and praise during his three year career. And a trip to the Pro Bowl as a rookie helps the resume. And I offer this next criticism with the caveat that he plays a ton of snaps and rarely finds himself out of position. But where are the big plays? The 3rd down pass break ups, or heaven forbid, a forced turnover. We have been spoiled with the play at MLB , and what we expect from the position is probably not realistic. But now with Darryl Smith gone, Mosley not only must direct the defense, he must make impact plays for this defense to excel again. I’m not as convinced as some that he will.
Zrebiec: To be honest, I’m not sure Mosley was as good as some felt he was in his rookie year, or was as bad as some suggested he was last year. I do agree that he was exposed at times, but most linebackers would be with some of the matchups he drew. I’m not making excuses for him, but he was banged up, too. He should be better this year, especially with improved personnel around him. I haven’t seen enough to conclude Mosley will be a star, like a Kuechly. I do think he will make a couple of more Pro Bowls and be a quality inside linebacker in the NFL for many years.
BSL: Coming off the Achilles, it appears Suggs will likely sit out the preseason, but has a chance to be ready for the opener. Dumervil turned 32 in January. In ’14, the duo combined for 29 sacks. In ’15, without Suggs opposite of him; Dumervil’s sacks dropped from 17 to 6. Do they have enough left in the tank to again be a force in ’16? Can the defense be effective if they are not? Will their snaps be limited?
Gilbert: I didn’t think Terrell Suggs would come back from the first Achilles tear and remain a star, yet he did. So I won’t count him out without at least watching him this training camp, but again it’s hard to believe he can find his All Pro form once again. I do believe better days are ahead for Elvis Dumervil. With Kamalei Correa showing a ton of speed and a history of getting to the quarterback from many different places on the field, Dumervil should be able to once again focus on the pass rush and not a hundred other things. He also fought through numerous injuries to stay on the field last year. Surgery has eased the foot pain and he offered smile we didn’t see all of last year during OTA’s.
Zrebiec: It’s impossible to say on Suggs. The local beat guys haven’t seen him or spoken to him since a couple of days before the Broncos’ game last season, when he tore his Achilles. I doubt he’d be coming back if he didn’t feel like he can contribute, and reports have been good about the amount of time he’s spending at the facility these days rehabbing. I’m not sure if they can be one of the NFL’s best sacks duos anymore. However, I do think they can still be effective if they are healthy and used correctly. I suspect both will see a reduction of snaps. The Ravens need to give Za’Darius Smith an opportunity and they drafted Correa and Judon as well. Kaufusi can also move around a bit. So Suggs and Dumervil shouldn’t have to play as much. Dumervil and/or Suggs have to be factors of some sort for them to have a top defense. But I don’t believe they each need to have double-digit sacks for the Ravens to be good defensively. There are a lot of other ways you can generate a pass rush.
BSL: With Daryl Smith gone, who do you like to start inside with Mosley? Orr? Brown? Correa? Another position where you think the Ravens will be looking to add depth prior to the season?
Gilbert: Alongside Mosley I actually think Albert McClellan has the best chance to start inside. He has earned more and more playing time and shown great progress from undrafted free agent. That’s the case unless Correa so thoroughly impresses a grasp of the defense and wins the job. Orr has earned more time with the regulars and still starts on special teams so he’s not going anywhere. I’d be surprised if Brown makes the team.
Zrebiec: Orr. He played some solid football last year when given an opportunity, and his insertion on passing downs over the second half of the season contributed to the team having one of the best pass defenses statistically in the NFL over the final eight games. He’s a smart and athletic kid who plays fast. Yeah, I could definitely see the Ravens adding another inside linebacker. It’s probably their thinnest position. However, the question again is who is really out there that would help them? People bring up A.J. Hawk a lot, or even a Stephen Tulloch. Well, the Ravens made an effort all offseason to get faster in the middle of the field. That’s one of the reasons Daryl Smith isn’t here any longer. I don’t think they’re looking for another inside linebacker who can play the run but would be vulnerable in coverage.
BSL: In-general, I’m encouraged about the Secondary. Love the Waddle signing. Like Webb at Safety. Like the reports on Powers, and some of the depth (Brooks, Young). To me, the units performance will come down to the pass-rush in-front of them, and Wright, and Smith. Are you a believer in Wright? In April, Smith had to undergo a 2nd surgery to the ankle. We’ve seen reports that Harbaugh has hinted Smith is unlikely to see preseason action.
I understand not rushing his rehab, but if Smith feels ready, I hope he gets time on the field before the regular season begins. Seems to me that Smith dealt with confidence issues last year when his body was not responding as he wanted or expected. He needs to prove to himself that he’s ready to go, before the lights officially come on.
Is Smith still capable of being a true #1 shutdown corner? Taking the challenge of lining up each week against the best WR’s in the league, and holding his own?
Gilbert: Jimmy Smith is another huge question mark for 2016. He says his foot finally feels good after having the screw removed from his original lisfranc surgery. If truly healthy, Jimmy Smith is head and shoulders above anyone else on the roster. He can stay with the best and be in position to (gasp) intercept a pass.
Zrebiec: The jury is still out on Wright, but there’s no denying their secondary improved in the second half last year and Wright was a big part of that. You have to give him credit. He had about as bad of a debut as you can have with a new team against the 49ers and he bounced back and was playing at a high level in December. I think the Ravens could have used another veteran outside cornerback to push Wright for the starting job opposite Smith (I see Powers more as a No.3/slot corner). Again the demand for corners far exceeds the supply, and the price of quality free agent corners was very high. As for Jimmy Smith, I think a case could be made he’s the defense’s most important player heading into the year. If he’s able to line up against the top receivers and hold his own and force some turnovers, the Ravens defense could get to the next level. I honestly am not sure whether he can be that guy, simply because we haven’t seen it for long enough stretches. He played about as well as any corner in the league for the first half of 2014. Then came the Lisfranc injury and he hasn’t regained that form yet. The Ravens badly need him to.
BSL: Over the last x amount of years, there has been a tradition locally and Nationally to discuss, “Is Flacco elite?“ As last year illustrated, that discussion is mostly meaningless. It doesn’t matter where on the overall hierarchy of NFL QB’s one places Flacco. What matters is that Flacco is the definition of a franchise QB, and him having previously consistently been available during his career is a large component of why the Ravens advanced to the playoffs 6 times in his first 7 years as QB. Having Flacco back under center for the Ravens is one immediate reason to believe team improvement is possible. What questions do you have for Joe as the year begins? What do you want to see from him?
Gilbert: The only question I have for Joe, and it’s the one he has for himself. Will he trust his rehabbed knee and be able to stand in the pocket with pressure bearing down. He reiterated again at his media gathering to become spokesperson for M&T Bank that he just doesn’t know. It’s what I love about dealing with Joe as a reporter. He admits that it worries him and is very curious to see how he holds up. Not many have to courage to share any doubts. As far as his game, he is who he is. A tough, great armed QB who won’t shy from any stage but is prone to a few bad decisions a game that may cost the Ravens. It’s QB resume about 20 other teams would take in a heart beat.
Zrebiec: The big question is how Flacco will handle his own offensive linemen getting pushed back into his face and pass rushers getting after him. He’s been pretty honest about how that will be his biggest adjustment. Is he skittish? Does he feel the rush too early and in turn, make mistakes by taking unneeded sacks or throwing the ball to the other team? That’s going to be an adjustment for him, given how the initial injury was sustained. The Ravens need him to stand in there and make plays and it might take a little while before he regains his pocket presence and stops thinking about getting hit. It’s only natural. I’m sure other quarterbacks who have sustained knee injuries, like Carson Palmer and Tom Brady, had to go through same thing. Palmer has said as much. As do what I want to see from Joe, the biggest thing is just making better decisions and eliminating or at least cutting back on those two or three head-scratching throws he usually makes per game. Since Kubiak left, his decision making has been suspect at times and needs to be improved, especially late in games. He also is going to have a great responsibility this year to get everybody involved. The Ravens have a lot of guys that need the ball. You can’t please everybody, but the onus will be largely on Flacco to get the best out of all these guys.
BSL: The Ravens went 5-11 in 2015. The team has spent the last few years staring up at Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati in the AFC North. Will the Ravens finish ahead of either divisional foe this year? Overall, do you expect Baltimore to get back to the Playoffs?
Gilbert: I expect a winning season because there is enough talent on both sides of the ball to handle most adversity. The issue becomes the quality of division. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati remain deep and talented while the Browns under Hue Jackson (even with their ownership and QB issues) will be tougher to fend off. 9-7 sometimes finds the post season, I expect we’ll find that out for the Ravens in 2016.
Zrebiec: I’ve been kind of waiting until later in camp to make any predictions, just because there probably isn’t another team in the NFL which enters camp with as many injury questions to prominent players as the Ravens have. We really need to watch them and see how things come together over the next 4 or 5 weeks. If you ask me now, I’d probably say something like a 9-7 season and in playoff contention, but maybe not quite good enough. Talent-wise, I think the Steelers are on another level (That may not matter when the two teams play but over the course of the full season, I think it will). And for some reason, the Ravens can’t beat the Bengals. I think the Ravens will be much improved and will have a little better luck on the injury front than last season. However, the Ravens have a lot more question marks right now than the top teams in the AFC.
Chris Stoner founded Baltimore Sports and Life in 2009. He has appeared as a radio guest with 1090 WBAL, 105.7 The Fan, CBS 1300, Q1370, WOYK 1350, WKAV 1400, and WNST 1570. He has also been interviewed by The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Business Journal, and PressBox (TV). As Owner, his responsibilities include serving as the Managing Editor, Publicist, & Sales Director.
You can reach him via email at [email protected].