STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
It is starting to sound like a broken record in Baltimore. The Ravens have lost to the eventual AFC Super Bowl representative in the playoffs each of the last four seasons. Last year, Billy Cundiff missed as 32-yard kick in the final seconds of a game that would have sent the Ravens into overtime against the Patriots. Two plays earlier, Lee Evans dropped a sure touchdown that should have sealed the team's ticket to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens are oh so close, something the front office has highlighted by keeping the makeup of the team relatively intact. Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata and (presumably) Ed Reed all return to a team capable of competing with anyone in the league.
The Ravens will be down at least one very key core member, however. Terrell Suggs, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, tore his Achilles' during an April workout, potentially sidelining him for much, if not all, of the season. An improved Suggs and the attention he commanded were big reasons why the Ravens went from 27 sacks in 2010 to 48 last season. Rookie Courtney Upshaw will likely be tasked with replacing the veteran pass-rusher and his 14 sacks from a year ago, a tall order to be sure.
Still, the defense should be fine, assuming Lewis and Reed continue to defy their age and stay healthy. The Ravens were first in the league last year, holding teams to an average 68.6 passer rating, and tied for first with San Francisco, giving up just 3.5 yards per rushing attempt. Perhaps we can expect the team to slide back from those numbers a bit, but they won't dip drastically overnight.
Joe Flacco will continue to be the most analyzed player on the Ravens heading into his fifth season. He didn't improve statistically last year, leading many to think that he has hit his peak as a player. That's not bad, as a lot of teams would kill for a 3,600-yard passer with a 20-12 TD-INT ratio and a 57.6 completion rate. No one will confuse such numbers with those of Aaron Rodgers, however, and that has stuck in the craw of some fans.
The talent around Flacco is still solid, however. Rice led the league with 2,068 yards from scrimmage last year, and Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith complement each other nicely as receivers. Tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta turned into sneaky good weapons by the end of the season.
The pieces are in place, but the clock is ticking on the Ravens. They have the nucleus to win it all in 2012, but whether that will be the case in 2013 and beyond remains to be seen.
Jacoby Jones, WR (Texans)
Jones, who can also help in the return game, is clearly behind Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith in the Ravens' WR pecking order, but he has a good shot to nail down the team's No. 3 wideout gig.
Curtis Painter, QB (Colts)
Painter provides Joe Flacco with a more experienced backup than Tyrod Taylor. Still, the hope is that he never sees the field.
Courtney Upshaw, DE/LB, Alabama (Round 2, 35th overall)
The young linebacker was considered a first-rounder by most until he fell to the Ravens. He's a potential game-changer and will need to be in the wake of Terrell Suggs' injury.
Bernard Pierce, RB, Temple (Round 3, 84th overall)
A big back who should come in handy in short-yardage situations and near the goal line this season in place of the retired Ricky Williams.
Jarret Johnson, LB (Chargers)
A reliable run-stuffer for many years in Baltimore, Johnson will be missed on the field alongside Ray Lewis.
Ben Grubbs, G (Saints)
Jah Reid and rookie Kelechi Osemele will compete for the starting left guard spot. It remains to be seen whether either can match the veteran's consistency.
Ricky Williams, RB (Retired)
Did his service, but the Ravens could potentially get similar production out of rookie Bernard Pierce this season.
Haruki Nakamura/Tom Zbikowski, S (Panthers/Colts)
With these two gone, the depth chart is scary behind Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, both of whom are injury risks.
DEPTH RUNNING THIN ON DEFENSE
If the defense performs at or above the Ravens' already lofty expectations, it will be a testament to GM Ozzie Newsome's reputation on draft day. Linebacker Jarret Johnson, defensive end Cory Redding and safeties Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski all left through free agency. In their place, 2009 draft pick Paul Kruger, 2011 pick Pernell McPhee and rookie Christian Thompson are all expected to play important roles this season. Kruger and McPhee are the current projected starters at SAM linebacker slot and defensive end, respectively, while Thompson will be one of the first men in should Ed Reed or Bernard Pollard, both of whom have had injury trouble in the past, go down. Behind them are a slew of unproven characters, meaning that not only will the youngsters need to perform, they also must remain healthy. The Ravens could be in serious trouble should the injury bug strike at any point this season.
DEAN PEES TAKES OVER FOR CHUCK PAGANO
The Ravens took significant leaps defensively from 2010 to 2011 with roughly the same player personnel. The Ravens went from 10th in total defense to third, 21st in passing defense to fourth, and gave up 0.4 yards less per carry. The change in defensive coordinators from Greg Mattison to Chuck Pagano was seen as a big reason why. Pagano endeared himself immediately to players and fans with blitz-happy game plans. Now he's the head coach of the Colts, leaving the keys to the defense in the hands of Dean Pees, the Ravens' linebackers coach last season. Pees insists that he will maintain Pagano's aggressive ways, perhaps necessarily since he will be without Terrell Suggs' instant pass rush for much of the year. He had success with the Patriots from 2006-2009, finishing in the Top 10 in points allowed each season. Whether he will be a smash success with the Ravens, as Pagano was, remains to be seen.
STICKING UP FOR Joe Flacco
Skip Bayless and Terrell Suggs butted heads on ESPN last season over Joe Flacco, the former giving the quarterback the "Joe Uncool" moniker and the latter defending his teammate as among the best at his position. The truth is, Flacco, after four years in the league, doesn't fit so neatly in either the boom or bust category. Last season, he just as easily completed 65 percent of his passes against the 49ers one week and 43 percent against the Browns the next. As a fantasy option he can be an occasionally productive QB2. Whether or not he can win was answered when what should have been the game-winning touchdown pass fell out of the arms of Lee Evans in the end zone during the final seconds of the AFC Championship Game. He isn't among the elite, few are, but with the proper pieces around him, Flacco is perfectly capable of leading his team to the Super Bowl.
RISING: Torrey Smith caught 50 passes for 841 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and should only improve in his sophomore season. He is still the Ravens' only true deep threat.
DECLINING: Anquan Boldin still serves an important role on the Ravens, but his numbers may have flat-lined around the 60-reception mark.
SLEEPER: While Ed Dickson caught more passes last year, Dennis Pitta came on strong late with 13 receptions and two touchdowns over the Ravens' final three games.
SUPERSLEEPER: The Ravens need wideout depth, and 6-5 rookie Tommy Streeter is athletically gifted though a bit raw.
Ray Lewis, LB
The obvious choice for over 16 years. If not for four missed games, he would have had around 130 tackles again.
Ed Reed, S
Numbers dipped last year but still a ball hawk, assuming he remains committed to playing in 2012.
Courtney Upshaw, LB
Risky pick, but someone has to pick up the slack with Terrell Suggs out.
RotoWire Rank: 10