STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
As far as defending champions go, the 2013 Ravens were rather forgettable. Coming off of five consecutive postseason appearances and a dramatic Super Bowl victory, Baltimore struggled to an 8-8 record while failing to qualify for the playoffs for the first time under coach John Harbaugh's leadership. Life in a post-Ed Reed/Ray Lewis world was tougher than expected for the perennial contenders but not for the reasons one might expect. The Baltimore defense actually showed signs of improvement from 2012, while the offense struggled miserably in Joe Flacco's first season after signing a massive six-year contract. Flacco was inconsistent and certainly deserves some of the blame for a disappointing campaign, yet the bigger issue was the players surrounding him. An offensive line that was expected to be a point of strength instead turned into arguably the Ravens' biggest weakness. Making matters worse, Flacco lacked reliable targets to throw to, and the running game failed to get going all season.
The Ravens' well-respected front office addressed two of the team's glaring weaknesses in the offseason, signing veteran wideout Steve Smith, then trading for center Jeremy Zuttah. Smith's best days are behind him, and Zuttah is no Pro Bowler, but the team badly needed another reliable target for Flacco, not to mention some stability on the interior line. The Ravens also added long-time Texans' tight end Owen Daniels, who should serve as a strong complement to a now-healthy Dennis Pitta, who was slowed last season by a hip injury.
With Daniels and Smith joining a pass-catching corps led by Pitta and Torrey Smith, the Baltimore passing game should take a step forward this season, after taking a decided step back in 2013. However, the bigger question is whether the team's traditionally strong running game will bounce back to its previous heights. Long known for an organizational emphasis on defense and running the ball, the Ravens shockingly finished dead last in the NFL with just 3.1 yards per carry last season. The interior offensive line was consistently terrible, while running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce looked like shells of the players we saw the previous year. Rice and Pierce are back to lead the backfield in 2014, as the Ravens didn't sign any notable running backs and didn't select one until the fourth round of May's draft. Of course, with Rice possibly facing a suspension to start the season, rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro may have a role in the backfield from day one.
Things are significantly more stable on the other side of the ball, where Baltimore only lost two or three starters from a unit that ranked 12th in total defense last season. The Ravens didn't add much to the unit in the way of notable free agents, but did use their first three draft choices on defensive players, including a first-round pick on star Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley.
Steve Smith – WR, Panthers
A starting job all but assured, but targets may be hard to find.
Owen Daniels – TE, Texans
Look for Baltimore to use more two-TE sets this season.
C.J. Mosley – LB, Alabama (Round 1, 17th Overall)
The college superstar is a likely starter at inside linebacker, and a possible three-down player.
Lorenzo Taliaferro – RB, Coastal Carolina (Round 4, 138th Overall)
Could carve out role amid a shaky backfield situation.
Terrence Brooks – S, Florida State (Round 3, 79th Overall)
Has a good chance to secure the team's starting free safety job.
Dallas Clark – TE, FA
A healthy Dennis Pitta makes Clark of little use to the Ravens.
Ed Dickson – TE, Panthers
The backup tight end has always struggled with drops.
Corey Graham – CB, Bills
His absence leaves the nickel corner spot as a major question mark.
REVIVING THE RUNNING GAME
In one of the more surprising developments of the 2013 season, the Baltimore running game was historically ineffective while implementing a zone-blocking scheme. Ray Rice, who piled up at least 1,600 total yards and six touchdowns in each of the previous four seasons, finished the year with 981 total yards and four scores in 15 games. Backup Bernard Pierce wasn't any better, leading to obvious questions about the offensive line. The line was among the league's worst, but it wasn't bad enough to fully explain the precipitous drop in production. While the Ravens should improve up front this season, the team's carry distribution is unclear at press time as Rice could be suspended for an offseason domestic violence incident. That leaves Pierce as a potential Week 1 starter, coming off a sophomore campaign that saw him produce just 2.9 yards per carry. Pierce and Rice will get every chance to reprove themselves, but fourth-rounder Lorenzo Taliaferro has to be pleased with the situation he landed in.
THE KUBIAK IMPACT
With Jim Caldwell moving on to coach the Lions, Baltimore hired former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak as the new offensive coordinator. Known for a zone-blocking scheme similar to what the Ravens unsuccessfully deployed last season, Kubiak should take a liking to this new team's personnel. He brought Owen Daniels with him from Houston, giving the Ravens a respectable No. 2 tight end for the first time in years. With Baltimore expected to use more two-tight end sets and maintain a balanced offense, targets may be hard to come by for the wideouts. Andre Johnson always got plenty of looks under Kubiak in Houston, but the team's other receivers never made much noise.
HOW WILL FLACCO USE HIS TARGETS?
The Ravens likely regret trading Anquan Boldin to the 49ers, after watching Joe Flacco spend his 2013 season throwing to the likes of Dallas Clark and undrafted rookie Marlon Brown. Brown caught an impressive seven touchdown passes, but the Ravens still signed Steve Smith and re-signed Jacoby Jones, indicating that they aren't counting on much from Brown in his second season. Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta will get their targets, but how about Steve Smith, Jones, Brown and Owen Daniels? Ray Rice aside, the Baltimore offense has never been a great source of fantasy production. By signing with the Ravens, Smith and Daniels seemingly both acknowledged that their days of posting big numbers have come to a close. As for the other Smith, Torrey remains as inconsistent as he is fast, and he's likely facing a drop from the 137 targets he saw last season.
Rising: Bernard Pierce struggled in 2013, but Ray Rice's troubles both on and off the field could lead to a golden opportunity. Pierce thrived as a rookie in 2012.
Declining: Owen Daniels' best days are behind him and his role with his new team should reflect that reality. He probably won't see much of the field in obvious passing situations.
Sleeper: Marlon Brown caught seven touchdowns as an UDFA last season but he'll have to fight for his spot on the depth chart and is unlikely to win a starting job.
Supersleeper: Lorenzo Taliaferro may benefit if Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce can't bounce back from down seasons. While powerful, the rookie isn't much of a receiving threat.
Daryl Smith - LB
The drafting of C.J. Mosley puts Smith's role into question.
Terrell Suggs - LB/DE
Declining but still effective, Suggs has something left in the tank.
Matt Elam - S
2013 first-round pick could be primed for a breakout season.
RotoWire Rank: 9