By Louis Bien
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The cloud of the Super Bowl hangs constantly over the Ravens. Ray Lewis talks about it, seemingly daily, going so far as saying that he will retire should the Ravens hoist the Lombardi Trophy this year. Playing for a contender was a big reason Ricky Williams agreed to play second fiddle to Ray Rice. But come playoff time, it's always disappointment. Three straight playoff berths, three losses, all to the eventual AFC Super Bowl representative, two of them to bitter AFC North rival Pittsburgh.
The Ravens believe they have the core to win big now. They have one of the league's best young quarterbacks in Joe Flacco, now entering his fourth season with the franchise. They have a versatile young running back in Ray Rice, who is once again primed to put up big numbers behind a cohesive offensive line. And as always, they feature a stout defense, mixing Hall-of-Fame caliber veteran stalwarts with a talented group of rising youngsters.
But do they really have enough? The truth is, the Ravens have entered the season with roughly the same expectations in at least the past two seasons (credit is due for the 2008-09 playoff run behind a rookie QB), and both of those seasons ended in disappointment. The fear among Ravens' fans is that perhaps what they have isn't as great as they thought.
Fans and coaches expect Flacco to take that next step into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks. That leap was supposed to happen last year too, but the same struggles under pressure resurfaced, culminating in a dud playoff performance, featuring two second-half turnovers against the Steelers. Flacco has the tools, charisma and seemingly the poise. He will have to put it all together when the games really matter though, the same way the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger do.
Perhaps more concerning are the cracks showing in an aging defense. The Ravens finished 10th overall in total defense last season. Good, but alarming in the fact that it wasn't dominant. Lewis is 36 heading into the season. Ed Reed will be 33 in September. Both are still playmakers, but something has been lost in their step. The Ravens are encouraged by their young talent -- players like Terrence Cody up front, Jameel McClain in the middle and Jimmy Smith at corner -- but that talent has to prove it is ready to lead.
The Ravens are close, and barring a couple of bad breaks in that monumental second half collapse against the Steelers, they might have played the Packers in the Super Bowl. They believe in their talent on offense and in the proven performers on defense, but they need to step up when the world is watching. Week 1 kicks off with the Steelers at home, as good a litmus test as any.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (27) Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado
Graded out as one of the premiere corners in the draft, but there are some character concerns
2. (58) Torrey Smith, WR, Maryland
Lots of speed; should finally give the Ravens a reliable deep threat.
3. (85) Jah Reid, OT, UCF
Competing for the starting right tackle spot.
4. (123) Tandon Doss, WR, Indiana
Already a favorite in camp and gives the Ravens another red zone target.
5. (164) Chykie Brown, CB, Texas
Another athletic body to help depth in the secondary.
5. (165) Pernell McPhee, DE, Mississippi State
Run-stuffing DE could be nice fit in Ravens' 3-4.
6. (180) Tyrod Taylor, QB, Virginia Tech
Tons of athletic ability, but still very raw passing.
7. (225) Anthony Allen, RB, Georgia Tech
Big body, who could also play some fullback.
Ricky Williams, RB, Miami
Veteran backup who may leech touchdowns much like Willis McGahee did.
Lee Evans, WR, Buffalo
Ravens finally get a proven veteran deep threat.
Bernard Pollard, S, Houston
Big hitter, who should make up for the loss of Dawan Landry.
Derrick Mason, WR, New York Jets
Steady vet replaced by Lee Evans as the team's No. 2 wideout.
Willis McGahee, RB, Denver
Replaced as short-yardage back by Ricky Williams.
Todd Heap, TE, Arizona
Often injured but always reliable; young talent has big shoes to fill.
WHAT Ricky Williams MEANS FOR Ray Rice
Ray Rice fans rejoiced when Willis McGahee was released by the Ravens. Last season, McGahee deferred to Rice in every area except one: he led the team with nine goal-line carries, finishing the season with six total touchdowns. This year, it seemed like Rice would finally take over those short-yardage chances. Then the Ravens signed Ricky Williams a couple weeks later and all hope was dashed: another veteran big back in Baltimore, another gaping hole in Rice's otherwise sterling fantasy resume. Maybe. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has said that he would like to involve Rice more at the goal-line, and Williams' legs have even more wear than McGahee's. If Cameron holds true to his word, Rice could be a top-3 fantasy pick. If Williams really is McGahee 2.0, well, Rice's value takes a hit, but are you really going to argue with 1,776 total yards last season?
Lee Evans AND RAVENS COULD BE PERFECT MATCH
Those who thought Donte' Stallworth would become the Ravens' answer in the vertical passing game were ultimately misguided. His two receptions last season were bad, even taking into account that it took him until Week 10 to enter the lineup healthy. Lee Evans is different. For one, he actually caught a fair amount of passes last season whereas Stallworth came off a one year suspension. Okay, so his production has been in steady decline since catching 63 passes in 2008. Evans also has had to deal with some seriously bad quarterback play in Buffalo, and 37 receptions are certainly better than two. The speed is still there, and now, so is the opportunity to play for a contender. Outside of rookie Torrey Smith, the Ravens don't have anybody who can stretch the field like Evans. In short, he is an easily forgotten player on draft day, who might prove to be the perfect player for the perfect team at the perfect time.
CAN AN IMPROVED PASS RUSH PUT THE RAVENS OVER THE TOP?
Ostensibly the Ravens were bad against the pass last season. They were 21st in the league, giving up an average of 225 yards per game through the air. Efficiency-wise they were better, holding opponents to a QB rating of 76.4 and picking off 19 passes to 22 touchdowns. Why the yardage? Simple; the Ravens were bad at rushing the passer, sacking the quarterback just 27 times. Outside of Terrell Suggs, there really isn't a proven pass-rusher on the team, and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was a sometimes frustratingly conservative blitzer. Things should improve however. One reason is that last year's top draft pick and sack specialist Sergio Kindle is back in practice after missing last season with a scary head injury. Another is that new coordinator Chuck Pagano has reportedly been unleashing the rush in training camp. A little extra pressure could be all Baltimore needs to turn a close loss or two into wins.
Rising: Ed Dickson is the de facto favorite to start at tight end with Todd Heap gone. Heap was reliable, but Dickson will add athleticism to the position.
Declining: Joe Flacco was on a lot of "sleeper" lists prior to last season. Though he put up decent numbers, he wasn't an elite fantasy option as many had hoped.
Sleeper: Anquan Boldin was severely overvalued last season. Look for the market to overcorrect itself and undervalue him this season.
Supersleeper: Rookie Tandon Doss may already be the team's third receiver, and could be huge in the red zone.
Ray Lewis, MLB
A man who needs no introduction. Lewis had 139 tackles last year at 35 years old.
Terrell Suggs, LB
Tough to argue with 11 sacks last season.
Bernard Pollard, S
Had 81 tackles last season, and should be able to match that number in Baltimore.
RotoWire Rank: 12