Predicting Baltimore Ravens Starting Lineup Post Week 1 of Free Agency
Despite winning the Super Bowl only a little more than a month ago, the Baltimore Ravens are undergoing a lot of change. Perhaps this is something that was inevitable given the retirement of the face of the franchise.
Ray Lewis's departure may very well be the catalyst that has helped set in motion all the surprising moves that took place through the first week of free agency.
The Ravens that remain are younger. It's possible that come opening day, 33-year old Chris Johnson could be the oldest player on the Ravens' roster.
This team is also largely unproven. The defense has undergone a major overhaul after suffering a disappointing regular season before getting things together in the playoffs. This will result in nearly a 50 percent turnover rate among defensive starters.
The departures of Anquan Boldin and Matt Birk force changes upon the wide receivers and offensive line, respectively. While there are capable backups already on the roster, don't be surprised if a cheap free agent or rookie joins the mix later this offseason.
For now, let's take a look at what the Ravens' depth chart could look like in September when they open the regular season at M&T Bank Stadium.
Quarterback: Joe Flacco
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It likely won't last too long, but for now Joe Flacco is the highest paid player in NFL history. His scorching playoff run could be the sign of better things to come, especially since at 28 years old he's probably in the prime of his career.
Flacco has now started every regular season game for five years, with two to four postseason games each year as well. He is ridiculously durable, arguably on the level of the Manning brothers in terms of never missing games.
That being said, any scenario in 2013 where Flacco misses multiple games is essentially doomsday for the Ravens. Tyrod Taylor is entirely unproven and his one regular season game with extensive playing time ended as a rather ugly, 23-17, loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
The smart money would be on Flacco staying healthy as he usually does. It's also inevitable that his numbers will go down from the postseason, where he was almost playing at a perfect level. That drop may not be significant though, since he now has a full offseason with new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who could be the OC that helps Flacco deliver his first elite regular season.
Running Back: Ray Rice
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Is Ray Rice still the best player on the Ravens' offense? As little as a year ago, most people would have said yes. Now Joe Flacco has won a Super Bowl and carried the team through the playoffs, so his case for being the best on the Ravens' offense is very strong.
The days of a ground-and-pound offense may be over, but you can't underestimate what Rice brings to this offense. He should be up for a fifth consecutive year as the Ravens' lead ball-carrier. He'll also remain as one of the best receiving running backs in the game, and it's possible we could see another season where he gets around 600 receiving yards.
With three Pro Bowl nods under his belt, Rice is definitely one of the premier running backs in the NFL. He's also very blessed to have backups that have spelled him and helped to prolong his career by giving him rest.
Bernard Pierce should continue that tradition in 2013. Though Pierce won't overtake Rice, it's clear Jim Caldwell enjoys using Pierce in the offense quite a lot. He even had two 100-yard rushing games late in the season in which he clearly outperformed Rice.
Though it won't be as much of a focal point, the Ravens' rush offense looks to be dangerous in 2013. The combo of Rice and Pierce is one that should scare many defensive coordinators.
Fullback: Vonta Leach
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Many NFL teams no longer use a pure fullback, and the position is almost in danger of fading out entirely. It almost makes more sense to have two running backs on the field or to replace the fullback with a wide receiver or a tight end.
The Ravens, though, are one of the few teams that will have a traditional fullback in 2013. Despite looking like he could be cut this offseason, Vonta Leach is still on the roster. He's made the Pro Bowl each season with the Ravens and is widely regarded as one of the best fullbacks in the game.
There will still be a fair amount of run-blocking for Leach to do and, at 31 years old, he should be up for the challenge. We may occasionally see a goal-line run or even a touchdown like the two-yarder he got against the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs.
Wide Receivers: Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones
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With the departure of Anquan Boldin, the Ravens' starting receivers will be both younger and faster. Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones will look to fill these roles and, quite honestly, these two players might give the Ravens the fastest starting receivers in the NFL.
The Ravens' passing game has evolved so much from the days of four years ago when the plan seemed to be a checkdown to Derrick Mason and a rare bomb to Todd Heap up the middle. Now Joe Flacco can do it all, whether he's chucking it deep, throwing a screen or throwing for a first down late in the Super Bowl.
Smith will enter his third NFL season hoping to cement his role as Flacco's top target. The main knock with Smith is that he's very inconsistent and he'll often go multiple games with minimal impact. With the exception of a huge game against the Denver Broncos, Smith had a pretty quiet postseason during the Ravens' Super Bowl run.
Jones slides in as the other starting receiver and for now he's earned it. Known mostly for doing damage as a kick returner, Jones showed that he's a great wide receiver with two long receiving touchdowns during the 2012 playoffs—one of which will likely go down as the greatest play in franchise history.
The main concern with Jones is that he's also the team's starting kick returner. It's really rare for receivers to excel at both kick returner and starting wide receiver, so the extended playing time could lead to Jones' return skills decreasing. Who knows, maybe Jones will focus on receiver and Deonte Thompson will return kicks instead.
It's also very much worth noting that with Boldin gone, the Ravens need someone that can line up in the slot. Theoretically Tandon Doss could fill that role, but it's hard to feel good about him after his first two seasons were big disappointments.
Maybe Dennis Pitta or Ed Dickson will be able to replace Boldin, since many teams love to use multiple tight end formations. This is also a very good place for the Ravens to look into drafting a rookie receiver who could potentially make some noise as a third-stringer.
Tight End: Dennis Pitta
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Dennis Pitta had somewhat of a breakout season last year, with 61 catches for 669 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He's shown more chemistry with Flacco than Ed Dickson has, so for a second straight year Pitta will start at tight end.
Just because he isn't starting, it doesn't mean Dickson will have a bad year. While Pitta is better at receiving, Dickson is better at blocking. He'll still get in plenty of sets where he lines up as a blocker.
The Anquan Boldin departure could also lead to Dickson getting more receptions. Someone needs to fill the void and, if he can reduce his drops, Dickson is a candidate do that.
Offensive Tackles: Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher
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Although he's currently a free agent, Bryant McKinnie could still return to the Ravens in 2013. His postseason performance proved that he's the best choice at left tackle and, considering the Ravens' relative inactivity in free agency, it's a little surprising they haven't signed him yet.
What also works against him is McKinnie's seemingly permanent residence in John Harbaugh's doghouse. This past year it nearly cost him the entire regular season and, despite the Super Bowl run, it could be possible that bad feelings still exist between McKinnie and the Ravens' coaches.
At the end of the day, though, McKinnie is an older player who could struggle to find a new team. The Ravens, meanwhile, know that the offensive line is good with McKinnie in it. If they start a rookie or the frequently injured Jah Reid, the offensive line could go back to the struggles they had early in the 2012 season.
McKinnie's return could put him at left tackle, which would thankfully keep Michael Oher at right tackle. Oher has consistently been better on the right side where he doesn't usually need to line up against premier pass-rushers. As long as he doesn't false start and does his job blocking, Oher should be set up for success at right tackle.
Offensive Guards: Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda
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With no free agents at the guard position, it's currently a lot more stable than the other offensive line positions. Kelechi Osemele will start at left guard while Marshal Yanda will start at right guard.
Osemele had a solid rookie season as he started every game. There's also the possibility that Osemele could move to tackle if need be, since he's a fairly versatile player.
On the other side, you have Marshal Yanda, who is hands down the Ravens' top offensive lineman. An amazing fact about Yanda is he is the only offensive player on the Ravens' roster that was here in the 2007 season before John Harbaugh became the coach, making him one of the elder statesmen on that side of the ball.
Yanda also has All-Pro experience and it's very possible his rough style of play will lead to another All-Pro season in 2013.
Center: Gino Gradkowski
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Last year Gino Gradkowski was drafted as the heir apparent to Matt Birk. Now in year two he will get a shot at a starting job. Right now it looks like the job is his to lose and, based on his play in the preseason games and the regular season finale, he should be a solid starter.
Still, Gradkowski will need some competition at the center position. It's likely that the Ravens will draft an offensive lineman, potentially even someone who is a center.
If not, they could sign a cheap free agent. Regardless, Gradkowski should feel confident in his starting abilities and hopefully make the big leap from a backup offensive lineman to leader of the offensive line.
Defensive End: Arthur Jones
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Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee almost shared the role of starting defensive end for the Ravens last season. It worked out pretty well with Jones often getting late-game sacks and McPhee trying to bring pressure on the quarterback.
For now, Jones looks like the slightly more complete player. He had a big impact down the stretch and he's also one of the Super Bowl heroes, with a sack and a fumble recovery notched in the big game.
McPhee will still get a fair amount of plays. You can also add free-agent acquisition Marcus Spears to the rotation, though it looks as if his signing was mostly a depth move. Together, the three defensive ends should make a pretty fearsome position group that pushes each other hard.
Defensive Tackles: Terrence Cody and Haloti Ngata
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The nose tackle might have been the Ravens' single-worst position last season. It doesn't inspire confidence to say that Terrence Cody could start there again next year, after the disappointment that his pro career has been so far.
For now Cody gets the starting job, but this is only temporary. If there is one position where a rookie could steal a starting spot, it's nose tackle. A first- or second-round pick at defensive tackle would serve as warning to Cody, although he's probably already worried due to the constant criticism he's been receiving.
Thankfully defensive tackle is stable with Haloti Ngata entrenched as the starter. The only concern with Ngata is that he was often injured last year. Although he mostly played through it, there were games where he was ineffective.
The depth at defensive tackle improved with the signing of Chris Canty. Previously a New York Giant, Canty already has a Super Bowl ring and he's a great backup for Ngata.
Outside Linebackers: Terrell Suggs and Courtney Upshaw
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Paul Kruger technically wasn't a starter at outside linebacker, but it's still going to be hard to replace the Ravens' sack leader from year ago. Kruger's total of 15.5 sacks in the regular season and the postseason helped convince the Cleveland Browns to whisk him away with an expensive deal.
This leaves Terrell Suggs and Courtney Upshaw as outside linebackers. If the Ravens were to sign a free agent, Upshaw would likely move to middle linebacker thanks to his versatility. Upshaw had a good rookie season and he was one of the few players to stay healthy and play in every game.
Suggs, meanwhile, was lucky to even play in 2012 after a serious Achilles injury during last year's offseason. When healthy, Suggs is a menace to opposing quarterbacks and a valid candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
It almost goes without saying but Suggs is a major candidate for leadership with Ray Lewis gone. He'll be the defense's vocal leader now, and after an entire decade as Lewis's wingman, Suggs could now get a chance to establish his own legacy apart from Lewis.
Middle Linebackers: Albert McClellan and Jameel McClain
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It's really hard to imagine that Ray Lewis's successor is currently on the Ravens' roster. Jameel McClain is solid when healthy, but even that isn't a guarantee after a serious spinal injury sidelined him during the Ravens' final three regular season games and their playoff run.
For now it's McClain and journeyman Albert McClellan who are slotted as the starters. This lineup is very likely to change, and it might actually be backup Josh Bynes who makes his way into the starting role. Bynes was one of the only redeeming factors in the 34-17 loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 17. It's possible that, like McClain and Dannell Ellerbe, Bynes could become the next undrafted linebacker to find glory with the Ravens.
It's also very likely that the Ravens address the middle linebacker position early in the draft. Many thought Ellerbe was the Ravens' best option at middle linebacker, so his exit opens the door for them to look at a top linebacker prospect. It could be someone like Kevin Minter from LSU, Arthur Brown from Kansas State, or even Manti Te'o and the insane media storm he'll bring with him.
This is one position group that is not settled yet, so keep an eye for the Ravens to make a move to bring in competition at middle linebacker either in the draft or free agency.
Cornerbacks: Lardarius Webb and Corey Graham
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While seeing your teammates have success is always good, it's got to be a little disheartening to see them play well in your absence. It has to be even more disheartening for them to win a Super Bowl while you're on the IR and can do nothing but watch.
That's what Lardarius Webb had to deal with. One of the best young corners in the game, Webb initially saw the defense struggle mightily when he went down with an ACL tear. Then players like Corey Graham and Chykie Brown stepped up and the pass defense was able to survive without its star corner.
Webb should be back next season and he'll be fired up to repeat so that he can actually contribute to a Super Bowl run. If he can make a full recovery, Webb has Pro-Bowl potential and he could build upon a 2011 breakout season that saw him become a shutdown corner.
Graham will be the other starter, and his story is definitely way different from Webb's. Graham was a special-teamer back with the Chicago Bears and initially that's what he was in Baltimore. The Webb injury opened the door for him to start, as did the continued struggles of Jimmy Smith, who was ahead of Graham on the depth chart.
Graham made his biggest impact in the divisional round game against the Denver Broncos when he picked off Peyton Manning twice. He's made the transition from special-teamer to corner, and he should benefit from Webb's return as he'll likely cover the opposition's second best receiver in many situations.
Though not starting, both Smith and Chris Johnson could see the field in passing situations. Smith could even overtake Graham if he plays more like he did during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
Safeties: Ed Reed and James Ihedigbo
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It certainly looks like the door is open for Reed to return to Baltimore. Owner Steve Bisciotti has even spoken out and said he thinks Reed will be back.
While this story has yet to be resolved, it seems very likely that Reed will be back. His return would bring welcome continuity to a defense that is lacking familiar faces. It also brings another leader to shoulder the enormous load left by Lewis's departure.
Without Reed coming back, the Ravens are thin at free safety options. Undrafted rookie Omar Brown had a great preseason last year, but that's not enough to make someone a starter. Reed leaving could result in the Ravens taking a free safety with their first or second pick.
James Ihedigbo will take over for Bernard Pollard at strong safety. It's a nice fit and actually in some ways a smart one since Pollard was frequently under fire for violent hits. Ihedigbo will likely play cleaner and hopefully not draw as many penalties or fines.
Kicker: Justin Tucker
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Not really anything to address here. Justin Tucker was brilliant during his rookie season and he only missed three field goals the entire year.
The Ravens spent three seasons after Matt Stover left realizing that the kicker position isn't something to take for granted. Tucker then fell into their laps and has become essentially automatic.
With all the love that Stover got in Baltimore, Tucker could quickly become a fan favorite. Let's just hope that he doesn't have to carry the offense like Stover did.
Punter: Sam Koch
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The player who ended the Super Bowl with an on-purpose safety and the ensuing free kick, Sam Koch continues to prove he's worthy of being the Ravens' punter. He set a career-high in punting yards with 3,911 this year, while his average was also career high at 47.1.
The main question with Koch now is will he get a fake play again. He's had four rushing attempts in his career, including a rushing touchdown against the Oakland Raiders this season. Hopefully the Ravens will get another blowout win that will allow them to showcase Koch's legs again or maybe his arm, since he does have one completed pass in his NFL career.
Kick/Punt Returner: Jacoby Jones
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After the kind of season he had returning kicks, Jacoby Jones is easily the Ravens' top choice for kick and punt returner. He had a total of four return touchdowns, three of which essentially won very close games.
It's going to be hard to repeat that success in 2013. NFL teams will remember Jones' postseason-record 108-yard touchdown to open the second half and try to kick away from him. Still, all Jones might needs is one errant kick to work with.
Jones will also be seeing more receiver work this season, so that could cut into his return work. This could open the door for Deonte Thompson to become the second-string returner. Thompson's blazing speed and his average of 25.9 return yards bodes well for a player who could potentially take over return duties in the near future.