Heading into 2015, expectations were high for the Baltimore Ravens. The team, after all, held two separate 14-point leads against the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the previous season’s AFC Divisional round. So, naturally, fans and the Ravens themselves had high hopes that they’d respond to the prior year’s tough out by contending for a title of their own.
Could they have? It’s an interesting question and also one we’ll never have an answer to. The Ravens were decimated by injuries to the point where Shane Falco was begging to seem like a legitimate option at quarterback.
Joe Flacco. Justin Forsett. Dennis Pitta. Steve Smith, Sr. Breshad Perriman. Marlon Brown. Crockett Gillmore. Jeremy Zuttah. Eugene Monroe. Matt Elam. Will Davis. Chris Canty. Terrell Suggs.
Yes, every team has to deal with injury, but the Ravens could’ve created a solid starting lineup strictly with guys who landed on their Injured Reserve last season. With that rotten luck, there’s no faulting Baltimore for struggling last season. The good news is that, even without factoring in the draft and free agency, the Ravens are almost certain to improve in 2016.
But the Ravens’ revival goes beyond the return of injured stars. The team was surprisingly active in free agency and had a draft class lauded by pundits. Add in a franchise quarterback and one of the league’s best coaches and it come to the surprise of no one if the Ravens are a contender again in ’16.
Offseason additions and subtractions
The Ravens’ big-money acquisition was, of course, safety Eric Weddle. Adding the 31-year-old, three-time Pro Bowler is a sign that Baltimore believes it can contend now. Weddle’s not the ball-hawk that Ed Reed was, but the stout run defender should help to solidify a safety position that Baltimore’s been looking to fill ever since the aforementioned Reed departed.
The signing of Mike Wallace certainly isn’t the headline-snatching move it would’ve been a few seasons ago, but it’s still one that can pay dividends for Baltimore. Wallace remains an intimidating vertical threat and gives the strong-armed Flacco the sort of weapon he hasn’t had since Torrey Smith departed.
The Ravens didn’t suffer any huge losses, but did cut ties with a man they once pegged as their left tackle of the future in Eugene Monroe. Baltimore went right back to the well, however, adding Notre Dame tackle Ronnie Stanley with the draft’s sixth overall pick. How he fares in his first NFL training camp will certainly be a story to keep tabs on.
Pivotal roster battles
When it comes to roster battles for the Ravens, it starts and ends with tight ends. Right now Baltimore has four players jockeying for position and a legitimate argument can be made for all. Dennis Pitta’s the injury-riddled incumbent who once looked so promising. Benjamin Watson’s a savvy veteran who had a career year in ’15. Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams are the promising youngsters who should be Baltimore’s future at the position. Who wins this job is anyone’s guess.
Another position of interest is running back. Like Pitta, Justin Forsett’s the proven veteran coming off an injury. Javorius Allen played well in his absence, though, and presumably earned himself at least a share of the job. Given that most teams typically carry three to four backs, that creates an interesting battle near the bottom of this depth chart.
Rookie Kenneth Dixon is coming off a historic collegiate career. Lorenzo Taliaferro was in line to replace Forsett before succumbing to an injury of his own. And then there’s Terrance West and Trent Richardson, disappointing veterans with something to prove. For his promise and youth, Dixon ought to be considered the favorite. But the talent of this quartet makes it no certainty.
The last spot of interest is inside linebacker. The Ravens surprisingly cut ties with 34-year-old, yet still productive, Daryl Smith this offseason and created a void next to C.J. Mosley. Baltimore has three other inside ‘backers with some experience on the roster, but it’s difficult to forecast which will step into a starting role.
Albert McClellan’s a five-year pro and standout special-teamer, but has just 12 starts on his resume. Arthur Brown’s a former second-round pick, but 17 tackles in three pro seasons, and just 10 defensive snaps over the past two, doesn’t exactly scream starter material. A 2014 undrafted free agent in Zach Orr actually saw a solid chunk of Baltimore’s defensive snaps and may be the favorite to earn the spot next to Mosley.
Breakout stars/Potential cuts
Kamar Aiken wouldn’t be a breakout star in the traditional sense. The wide receiver did, after all, come close to 1,000 receiving yards last season. But the fact that he’s been so quickly relegated to afterthought on an admittedly flashy wide receiver depth chart makes him a candidate to surprise all the same.
Aiken may not have the status of a Steve Smith or Mike Wallace or the draft pedigree of a Breshad Perriman. Nonetheless, the undrafted Central Florida product proved to be plenty reliable in ’15. The 6’2″ wide out managed to produce, at least five receptions and 48 yards in each of the season’s final nine games, with a cavalcade of mediocre quarterbacks throwing to him.
Smith and Wallace aren’t Baltimore’s future and Perriman’s yet to play an NFL down. Aiken may not be a household name outside of Baltimore, but he’s one that deserves the chance to become one in ’16.
As for cuts, the secondary is the place to look. Particularly at the safety position. Right now, Weddle and Lardarius Webb are Baltimore’s projected starters at safety. Kendrick Lewis has proven to be a dependable starter in the NFL, including for Baltimore last season, and should be the first man off the bench as well as a factor when the team goes with an extra defensive back.
Seeing as most teams carry four safeties, that likely means Baltimore will likely have to make a difficult decision between two of the younger ones on its roster. There’s Matt Elam, a former first-rounder who’s pro career has been, more or less, a disaster. Or there’s Terrence Brooks, a 2014 third-rounder who’s yet to see much in the way of playing time. Of course, it’s possible that neither man ever makes much of an impact as a Raven, but, for one of them, this camp could be their last chance.