Baltimore Ravens: Best and Worst Players of the 2011 Regular Season
With a 12-4 record and an AFC North title, this has clearly been one of the best seasons in franchise history for the Baltimore Ravens. The best part is the season is not over, as they now wait to see who they will face in the divisional round of the playoffs.
There was a lot of good and some bad that came out of the Ravens regular season. Before the Ravens begin their postseason run, it's a good time to look back and give credit to the players who helped get the team this far.
Best Offensive Player: Ray Rice
This one may be one of the most obvious awards given out. Not only is Ray Rice arguably the best running back in the league today, but he is one of those running backs who is absolutely vital to his team's offensive success.
Rice had a career year this season, finishing second in the NFL with 1,364 rushing yards. He added 16 total touchdowns (12 rushing, three receiving and one passing) to break a franchise record. He is scheduled to be the AFC's starting running back in the Pro Bowl should the Ravens fail to make the Super Bowl.
Despite his small size, Rice has become a successful every-down back. He's now just as good running between the tackles as catching passes out of the backfield, something that makes him a very dangerous player. His 76 catches for 704 receiving yards this season were second only to Darren Sproles of the New Orleans Saints among running backs this season.
Getting the ball to Rice and occasionally his capable backup Ricky Williams, will be essential to the Ravens' Super Bowl aspirations. The Ravens were 1-3 this season when Rice had less than 10 rushing attempts in a game. Frequently getting the ball to Rice has to be a priority for the Ravens for them to go far in the playoffs this year.
Best Defensive Player: Terrell Suggs
With Ray Lewis sitting out four games this season due to injury, some other Ravens defenders took the opportunity to receive more attention. None more so than Terrell Suggs.
Suggs finished the season with 70 tackles and a personal best of 14 sacks. He also was great at forcing turnovers with seven forced fumbles and two interceptions on the season. His consistent play this season has now made him a possible favorite for winning the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Being one of the longer tenured players on the Ravens, Suggs helped provide leadership on the defensive side during Lewis' absence. Amazingly, the Ravens went 4-0 without Lewis playing, a testament to how well Suggs did his job.
It seems likely that when the inevitable occurs and Lewis retires, Suggs will be the Ravens' defensive captain, a role he is already stepping into, as he frequently talks to reporters and shares post-game comments after nearly every game.
Best Offensive Rookie: Torrey Smith
Torrey Smith had one of the roughest preseasons that any Ravens rookie has had. After a preseason where he totaled four catches for 20 yards, fans were already calling him a bust and hoping he would be cut. Thankfully, the Ravens did not react that quickly, and Smith would definitely reward them during the regular season.
Smith got off to a record breaking start in Week 3 against the St. Louis Rams, where his first three career catches all went for touchdowns. Smith went on to have a breakout season that pushed him into the starting lineup. With seven touchdowns, he led the team in receiving touchdowns and also broke a record for most touchdowns by a Ravens rookie.
What makes Smith stand out is his breakaway speed and viability as a deep threat. No other receiver on the Ravens roster is as much of a threat to take it the distance as Smith. With 841 receiving yards on only 50 receptions this season, Smith is definitely a receiver to watch in the 2011 NFL Playoffs.
Best Defensive Rookie: Jimmy Smith
Admittedly, this was a hard award to give out since very few rookies contributed on the Ravens defense this year. First-round pick Jimmy Smith gets the award even though he only started three games this season.
Smith was not able to get a starting cornerback position this year thanks mostly to being injured but also due to the surprisingly good job Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams did as starters.
With limited playing time, Smith still did well for himself, collecting 20 tackles and finishing third on the team with two interceptions. Most of his stats came later in the year when he was finally healthy and injuries gave him the chance to start.
Unfortunately, there's also some bad associated with Smith's 2011 season. One of the lingering memories would be in the loss against the San Diego Chargers, where Smith was unable to cover Chargers receiver Malcolm Floyd.
Still, Smith is clearly on the upside as a young player, and he will likely get the opportunity to start at some point.
Most Underrated Player: Jarrett Johnson
Whenever Ravens fans hear the word underrated, Jarrett Johnson's name seems to be one that frequently comes up.
As linebacker, he is frequently overshadowed by louder and more successful players like Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. Still, Johnson just keeps trucking along and playing solidly just about every game.
Johnson has the longest active starting streak of any Ravens players, having not missed a game since 2006. Most seasons he's reliable to get around 50 tackles, and this year he was reliable as ever, putting up 56 tackles to finish eighth on the team.
Johnson is also well known for his veteran leadership off the field. He is one of the best examples of the "Ravens Way," given that he stays quiet off the field and lets his play do his talking.
Like several other veteran defensive players on the team, Johnson's selfless and team-first outlook has helped this defensive unit become the elite one it is today.
Most Overrated Player: Ed Reed
It is unfortunate that Ed Reed has to appear in this position. However, because Reed is a future hall of famer and one of the greatest safeties to play the game, his performance this year has been disappointing.
Reed finished the season ranked seventh on the team for tackles with 52. He also had three interceptions, which is a down year for him, especially when considering that two of them were thrown right at him in Week 1. Unlike in previous years, Reed did not miss time for injury, although he looked noticeably slower on the field this year.
Reed is still a dangerous player, though, as evidenced by the fact that other teams tend to throw away from him. The past shows that Reed is just one bad pass away from an interception and possibly taking it back to the house.
Reed could do that again, although, with age and injuries catching up to him, it seems he could retire as soon as next year.
Worst Offensive Player: David Reed
Some people may question me putting David Reed here, especially since he is primarily a special teams player. However, in addition to returning kicks this year, Reed did spend some time playing as receiver. Of course, he is now on IR, putting an end to a hugely disappointing second season.
During his two years in the NFL, Reed has yet to catch a ball in the regular season. Many of that is due to opportunity since he has never been higher than fifth on the wide receiver depth chart. Still, he hasn't impressed in his rare opportunities, and his kick return numbers actually don't help.
Reed has been the Ravens primary kick returner for the last two years, and he has rewarded the team with exactly one kick return touchdown. A troubling trend this year was ball control, as Reed fumbled the ball away three times, two of which severely hurt the Ravens' chances to win against the Seattle Seahawks.
For Reed to remain as a Raven next year, he will need to prove himself through the offseason and possibly preseason. The potential is still there, though, if he can get better at ball security.
Worst Defensive Player: Domonique Foxworth
Since the Ravens defense was so good in 2011, it was very hard to find a worst player. In terms of the 11 defensive players who start every game, there really isn't any obvious weaknesses. So I had to instead widen my search to find players who disappointed by not playing or by getting injured.
This was where I found Domonique Foxworth.
He was acquired via free agency in 2009 with the intent of becoming one of the teams starting cornerbacks. He did that to modest success in 2009 and has basically not been on the field at all since then.
An ACL tear in practice sidelined him for the entire 2010 season. He played sparingly in two games this year, getting only two tackles. After suffering knee problems in Week 2, Foxworth went on IR for the second consecutive season.
Formerly a bright prospect expected to start, Foxworth is now almost guaranteed to leave Baltimore after this season. He still has a year on his contract, but with at least four cornerbacks clearly better than him, there's no room for him to compete for a starting position.
It's a shame, but it looks like Foxworth is the rare free agent bust signed by the Ravens.
Best Free Agent Acquisition: Vonta Leach
The free agency period before the 2011 season was both fast and furious. The lockout has just ended and now hundreds of players had to find teams merely days before the beginning of the preseason. Yet, despite the short timeframe for free agency, Ozzie Newsome still made some great signings for the Ravens.
Arguably the best one was that of former Houston Texans fullback Vonta Leach. Leach was coming off a Pro Bowl season where his blocking had helped Arian Foster capture the NFL's rushing title. Widely viewed as one of the best fullbacks in the league, Leach's signing indicated that the Ravens were going to deliberately emphasize their run game in 2011.
So far Leach has been an excellent addition to the Ravens. Unlike the Ravens last fullback, he doesn't ask for carries and instead enjoys leveling defenders and opening up holes for Ray Rice. Leach's blocking helped Rice finish second in rushing yards and resulted in both him and Rice starting in the AFC's backfield at the Pro Bowl.
Worst Free Agent Acquisition: Lee Evans
Strange enough, Lee Evans' story is almost the complete opposite of Torrey Smith's. Technically, Evans is not a free agent acquisition since he was brought in via a preseason trade with the Buffalo Bills. However, Evans has to go on this slide due to the massive disappointment he has been as a Raven thus far.
Although he had a great preseason, things changed quickly when Evans got injured early in the season. He missed seven straight games due to injury, which then opened the door for Smith to come in and steal his starting job. That's exactly what happened, as Smith broke out and Evans had trouble simply catching the ball even after he got healthy.
For the final two games of the season, Evans got more playing time because of Boldin's injury. However, he did not get a single catch during those two weeks, closing out his 2011 season with a miserable four catches for 74 yards. Considering that Evans is the third best receiver on the Ravens roster, it is amazing that he has so few catches.
Right now the Ravens have to hope Evans can redeem himself in the postseason. If not, they may have to accept the fact that he was also a free agent bust.
Best Coach: John Harbaugh
Out of all the coaches on the Ravens staff, the one that is most instrumental to their success has to be the head coach. And they have a great one in John Harbaugh.
Harbaugh has now led the Ravens to four playoff berths during his first four seasons as coach. That is an amazing accomplishment, especially given that few teams make the playoffs four straight years. And thus far in every year, Harbaugh has led the Ravens to win one road playoff game.
Harbaugh's coaching is clearly among the league's best, as he consistently has his team ready to play. Even as they went through adversity, losing to worse teams earlier in the year, Harbaugh didn't panic and stayed the course. He also clearly knows how to hype the team for big games, as they went 6-0 against 2011 playoff teams.
With a new extension signed, Ravens fans can be confident that there will be many years left in the Harbaugh era.
Worst Coach: Cam Cameron
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has become a lightning rod for criticism, more so than most Ravens coordinators. Although he's been here since Harbaugh got here, he has consistently been criticized for calling bad games. And, unfortunately, a lot of that criticism is deserved.
In 2010, Cameron's extra conservative offense caused the Ravens to lack killer instinct and put away teams. Ultimately, this cost them with the playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cameron was lucky he survived that debacle and, as a result, he changed some things for his 2011 offensive schemes.
Still criticisms have been plenty this year. Whether it's not running Ray Rice enough or not throwing the ball enough, Cameron seems to struggle with finding the right balance. Add in the fact that the offense looked terrible in all four of the Ravens' losses and it's no wonder people want him out of town.
Cameron is an established coach with a lot of history at the offensive coordinator position. He has coached some great offenses before and certainly deserves credit for the Ravens offensive success this season. For him to keep his job next year, the offense will need to perform well in the postseason, unlike in previous years.