Examining The Ravens’ Biggest Questions Heading Into Training Camp
The Ravens kick off training camp in less than four weeks, which means before the end of the month real, substantive football returns to Maryland. The start of camp also signals that the team must finally address the burning questions that have awaited it all offseason.
For the most part this offseason, the spotlight in Baltimore has focused on quarterback Joe Flacco’s recover from last season’s ACL tear as well as the team’s mid-draft decision to remove Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil from its board. While important points of discussion, both have already played out. By all accounts, Flacco expects to participate in training camp from the first whistle, and the front office selected Notre Dame blindside protector Ronald Stanley with its first-round pick, not Tunsil.
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Yet, several big questions remain unanswered for the Ravens, starting with their cadre of pass catchers on offense.
– Which wideouts can lead the receiving corps?
On a Ravens offense with little certainty heading into 2016, the receiving corps loomed larger than any other part of the unit. Steve Smith Sr., the team’s leading wideout since arriving in Baltimore in 2014, pledged to come back from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in November. With Smith likely on the shelf until sometime during the regular season, the remaining group of slot man Michael Campanaro, 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman, and last year’s breakout receiver Kamar Aiken would have to handle most of the workload in his absence.
Those plans, haphazard as they appeared, changed again when Perriman suffered a partial ACL tear, his second knee injury in as many years. The Ravens have expressed optimism that the former Central Florida could return in time for Week 1, but their recovery timetables have proved unreliable for Perriman before. Until further notice, the team cannot simply assume contributions from him, at least during the early portions of the season.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome did prepare some contingency plans, however. He acquired Mike Wallace off the street after the Vikings released him in March and drafted Cincinnati’s Chris Moore in the fourth round the following month. Wallace’s stock has experienced a sharp decline since his heyday with the Steelers, but he still possesses the straight-line speed to take the top off of secondaries and open up the middle of the field. On the basis of pure physical ability, Moore can rival any receiver on Baltimore’s roster, but he doesn’t reliably do more than attack defenses vertically and may struggle with press coverage early in his career.
All of which could make life more difficult for quarterback Joe Flacco, who has many different weapons at his disposal but no go-to option that commands and wins double teams. Those responsibilities appear likely to fall upon the tight ends again, which can prove unsatisfactory when Baltimore needs a quick score.
– Can Kenneth Dixon take the reins of the ground attack as a rookie?
Since Ray Rice’s last 1,000-yard campaign in 2012, the Ravens’ backfield has found itself in a constant state of flux. 2013 saw no running back rush for more than 660 yards or average more than 3.5 per carry. The following season, career journeyman Justin Forsett exploded for 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns on just 235 attempts, approximately double his previous high marks. Though he returned in 2015, the ground game regressed to the mean, resembling the group that struggled the year before Forsett’s breakout.
Though the core of last year’s backfield this year, the Ravens made an important addition: fourth-round tailback Kenneth Dixon from Louisiana Tech.
Dixon, who nearly produced four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in Ruston and led the nation in rushing touchdowns as a freshman, offers a versatile skillset and both the size and shiftiness to handle lead-back duties. He also projects well in the Baltimore offense, which favors one-cut inside runners with the patience to let holes develop. As an added bonus, Dixon can tilt games catching passes out the backfield as demonstrated by his 63 receptions for 849 yards and 13 touchdowns over the past two years.
Still, offensive coordinator Marc Trestman needs Dixon to prove he can hold up in pass protection and secure the football, two facets in which he struggled during college. Like most programs, Louisiana Tech simply didn’t ask its tailbacks to protect very often, instead utilizing a quick-trigger spread attack to combat the pass rush. Dixon requires plenty of reps before anyone should expect him to serve as Flacco’s personal protector. As for ball security, Dixon fumbled the ball 13 times since the start of 2013, or roughly every third game. If that trend continues in the NFL, the Ravens will opt to play a less productive but more reliable back such as Forsett or Buck Allen.
– What do Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil have left in the tank?
From a 30,000-foot view, the Ravens appear in the midst of a defensive rebuild. All but one member of the defensive line entered the league in 2013 or later, C.J. Mosley has asserted himself as one of the best off-ball linebackers in the game, and the secondary just acquired its new leader in safety Eric Weddle earlier this offseason. That leaves just the edges of the defense, a group led by football geriatrics Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
Over the course of their careers, Suggs and Dumervil have combined for 202 1/2 sacks, an astounding total by any measure. Still, with both giving the Ravens fewer and fewer snaps with each passing year and the threat of injury spiking as they age — Suggs missed the entire 2015 season with a ruptured Achilles — the team cannot assume top-shelf production from either moving forward.
So what can the Ravens expect from their top returning pass rushers? Based on history, a double-digit sack season from either seems unlikely.
Over the past 10 seasons, only 18 players aged 32 or older produced a 10-sack season. That doesn’t bode well for Suggs and Dumervil, though the former did produce one such campaign in 2014. For the most part, pass rushers regress significantly each year after their 30th birthday, especially those who have absorbed the amount of abuse both Suggs and Dumervil have.
That doesn’t mean neither outside linebacker can contribute in a more limited capacity. If Suggs and Dumervil produce 10 or more sacks between them, the Ravens’ younger pass rushers such as Za’Darius Smith (5 1/2 sacks as a rookie in 2015) or Kamalei Correa (18 sacks during his final two years at Boise State) can attempt to make up the difference while gaining extra experience in the process.
For guidance, the Ravens can look to the Packers, who have strategically limited snap counts for Julius Peppers since 2014 and seen the veteran respond with two of the better seasons by an edge rusher in his mid-30s. Peppers doesn’t have the injury history of either Suggs or Dumervil, but the approach could yield better-than-anticipated results for Baltimore’s top outside linebackers.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at SB Nation, Sports on Earth, and other outlets. He also serves as the senior writer and editor for Acme Packing Company, a Green Bay Packers blog.