Ravens possess attributes of both a division champion and basement dweller
Projecting NFL teams before training camp can prove problematic for a multitude of reasons. Doing so with the Baltimore Ravens, the team facing more health concerns among its prominent players than any other in the league, presents a Mount Everest-caliber challenge. A reasonable review of the 2016 Ravens and their competition could yield anything from an AFC North-title prediction or a last-place finish.
Arguably no club enters the season with as much built-in variance as the Ravens. Despite last season’s 5-11 final record, Baltimore’s roster features one of the league’s better offensive lines (ranked No. 2 in pass protection according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA), a promising young defensive interior headlined by C.J. Mosley, Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan, and perhaps the deepest group of tight ends in the league.
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Meanwhile, the Ravens’ divisional opponents have hit a number of roadblocks this offseason. Last year’s AFC North champions, the Cincinnati Bengals, saw two of their top-three wideouts, Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson and starting right tackle Andre Smith depart in free agency. Meanwhile, suspensions cost the Pittsburgh Steelers the services of Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant for a year and four games respectively. Though both teams enter the season as the favorites to win the division, the loss of talent for each combined with the likelihood of Baltimore incurring fewer injuries than last year suggest a smaller gap than popularly perceived.
The Ravens could also receive a boost on offense as the team enters Year 2 under offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. After finishing 20th in DVOA in 2015, Trestman now commands a unit more fully acclimated to his offensive scheme as well as a more complete backfield from which to build his ground game. To help supplement lead tailback Justin Forsett, the Ravens return a now-healthy Lorenzo Taliaferro while adding versatile fourth-round pick Kenneth Dixon. 2015 mid-rounder Javorius “Buck” Allen should also factor into the equation. If Baltimore’s running attack bounces back to its 2014 form, the entire unit should benefit and help put more games in the win column.
From a more cynical perspective, the Ravens open next week’s camp with Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Steve Smith Sr. and 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman already on the PUP list. Starting quarterback Joe Flacco managed to avoid the same fate despite tearing his ACL last November, though questions about his mobility and comfort in the pocket remain. Top cornerback Jimmy Smith likewise expects to participate on the first day of training camp despite, but recovery from a Lisfranc fracture and subsequent surgery rarely follows a straightforward, linear progression. In a worst-case scenario where most or all of Baltimore’s key injured players struggle with their respective recoveries, another losing season would become all but unavoidable.
Injuries can derail a season for any team, but some better insulate themselves from player absences than others. At least recently, the Ravens have lacked the depth to adequately account for poor health.
For all of general manager Ozzie Newsome’s skill and foresight, his decision not to extend Flacco before the 2012 season continues to haunt the Ravens. Now on his second new deal since that time, the quarterback controls a significant portion of the team’s salary-cap space, leaving Newsome little flexibility to pad the roster through free agency. Combined with some suboptimal returns in the draft of late, Baltimore looks perilously thin at certain spots.
Though the Ravens added former All-Pro safety Eric Weddle earlier this offseason, the secondary has little behind starters Smith, Kyle Arrington and Lardarius Webb. The team hasn’t found much success drafting defensive backs of late, with Matt Elam, Terrence Brooks and Asa Jackson mostly struggling during their Baltimore tenures. Additionally, 2015 mid-rounder Tray Walker passed away tragically before receiving his chance to compete for a more prominent role. As such, even a single lingering injury to a starter could have a dramatic impact on the unit’s performance.
Likewise, the receiving corps contains few proven commodities outside of the tight ends. Smith’s recovery from last year’s ruptured Achilles tendon could keep him sidelined into the regular season, and Kamar Aiken offers only so much as a lead wideout. Perriman has yet to take a snap on an NFL field, and the track record of first-round receivers who miss their entire rookie year isn’t promising. Though 2016 fourth-rounder Chris Moore has tremendous potential, he likely needs a year or more of NFL coaching before he can begin making plays on a regular basis. The lack of a go-to option places even greater pressure on an already strained Flacco to jumpstart the passing game.
All of which underscores the Ravens’ current stars-and-scrubs roster construction. If health allows the team to compete at or near its peak, it can compete for a division that appears less imposing than it did at the conclusion of last season. Conversely, if Baltimore faces the kind of attrition it endured a year ago, any hope for a quick turnaround will quickly dissipate.
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.