In 2007, the Ravens were a very bad team. 5-11 is miserable by anyone's standards, including the Miami Dolphins, especially since the Ravens lost to them, giving the 'Phins their only win. (If you are interested in my “most annoying moment as a football fan,” that truth is only the beginning. But I will not go into that here.) So now, armed with a new coaching staff led by John Harbaugh, the question is: how do the Ravens get back to the playoffs?
I realize that conventional wisdom says, "Start with offense" in almost every sport, including football, but we in Baltimore remember the 2000 season with a regular-season turnover ratio of +26, and appreciate that our defense scores more points than our offense. Starters are listed for both offense and defense, though important backups are also mentioned.
D-Line: DE Trevor Price, NT Kelly Gregg, DE/DT Haloti Ngata.
These three, when healthy, are elite players. Good teams win because of the players in the trenches. Pryce is the best pass-rusher of the three, and his injuries last season greatly hindered the Ravens' pass rush. Gregg is an ex-wrestler with very good strength and power, though I would not necessarily consider him elite, and is a good run-stopper in the middle. Ngata is a power end, who can stuff the run very effectively, and when the Ravens run 4-3 looks, Ngata and Gregg are the big plugs up front. The Ravens very much need Trevor Price to return to 2006 form.
Linebackers: DE/OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis, ILB Bart Scott, OLB Jarrett Johnson.
The re-signing of Suggs meant that the Ravens kept their best pass rusher. While I would not put him in the league of a Derrick Brooks or an in-his-prime Ray Lewis, Suggs is a Pro-Bowl player. Lewis, while aging, is still the heart and soul of the defense. He is effective primarily because of his awareness on the field.
Scott is a very good player against both the run and the pass, possessing good instincts and a nose for the ball. Johnson is the weakest of the group, but he is still adequate, and backup OLB Antwan Barnes has an extraordinary ability to rush the passer.
Defensive Backs: CB Chris McAlister, CB Samari Rolle, FS Ed Reed, SS Dawan Landry.
McAlister, though he spent most of last year injured, was still a fairly dominant player. Rolle is solid, although certainly not elite. Reed is the best player on the defense, and is excellent in both pass coverage and run support, although he is at his best when he gambles. Landry is a big-time hitter, and while he took a step back last season, he showed something as a rookie that warrants him ownership of the starting job.
Depth is needed here; CB Corey Ivy is no better than a nickel corner and other cornerbacks could not compete with NFL receivers when McAlister and Rolle were out with injury.
Still a solid unit, though many of its members are getting up in age. If Owner Steve Bischotti is serious about getting back to the Super Bowl with this nucleus of players, then the defense is still solid enough to hold down the fort for a few more years, though the window is probably starting to close.
O-Line: LT Jonathan Ogden, LG Jason Brown, C Mike Flynn, RG Ben Grubbs, RT Marshal Yanda.
For obvious reasons, the biggest question about this offseason for the Ravens' offensive line is whether Ogden will retire. The future Hall of Famer has not yet announced a decision, but regardless of whether he returns for this season, it is necessary to line up a replacement. OT Adam Terry has not yet panned out; rookie Yanda beat him out for the starting RT job and I am not convinced that he is the answer.
Jared Gaither is a big man, but is just too unpolished at this point in his career. Yanda is technically sound, but may not have tremendous upside at the tackle position in the NFL. The interior line, however, is solid. Brown and Grubbs can move the pile on the ground and are also good pass blockers, while Flynn, though nearing the end of his career, is still a good player.
Tight Ends & Receivers: TE Todd Heap, WR Mark Clayton, WR Derrick Mason, WR Demetrius Williams.
Heap, when healthy, is among the most dominant tight ends in the NFL. Unfortunately, he never seems to be healthy, and was out again for most of 2007. Clayton took a step back in the 2007 season, not catching a single TD pass. Mason took up a lot of the slack, but he is getting up in age and no longer has the speed of a number one receiver. Williams, too, was injured, and has great speed. He was injured most of this year (sprained ankle), but when healthy in 2006, he was a real home-run threat. For the upcoming season, the only change that needs to be made is in the play of Clayton, who needs to step up.
Running Backs: RB Willis McGahee, RB Musa Smith, FB Le'Ron McClain.
McClain played very well, and was perhaps even a little bit better than expected as the top, true fullback of the 2007 draft. Musa Smith is an above average backup, though he is more of a third-down back. Finally, Willis McGahee was the Ravens' offensive MVP. He was able to pound the ball between the tackles and has great speed to get to the edge. Even more impressively, he did this while the Ravens had difficulty in the passing game, when teams were able to load up against the run. He became the centerpiece of the offense and should remain so for several years.
Quarterbacks: Steve McNair, Kyle Boller, Troy Smith.
Entering the 2008 season, the Ravens have "mystery meat" at the QB position. McNair, while he has had a fantastic career, appeared to show signs of his age last season, and was eventually benched in favor of Boller, and then eventually Smith.
Say what you want about McNair, he is a warrior who has historically found ways to win "unwinnable" games. Boller, while not a starter, is an adequate backup who has experience. He never developed into the franchise QB he was supposed to become. And finally, with the last pick of last year's fifth round, the Ravens selected Heisman winner Troy Smith out of Ohio State.
In the last two games of 2007 he showed why he won the Heisman, driving down the field against Miami, tying the game at 16, and then playing relatively well against Pittsburgh, even if they were playing many of their backups. McNair appears to be the incumbent starter, despite his fumbling problems of last year, with Boller and Smith vying for the backup job.
The offense can run, courtesy of McGahee, but last year could not pass. For the Ravens to win, they need to be able to do both, and if Ogden retires without a real replacement, they may not be able to do either.
The Ravens need three things: a replacement for Ogden, depth at cornerback, and consistency at the QB position. But the Ravens need only address two of those in the draft.
FIRST ROUND PICK: Ryan Clady, OT, Boise State.
While the Ravens arguably have a more pressing need at CB, it is time to draft a physical freak to guard the quarterback's blind side—all of the Ravens' quarterbacks are right-handed, and if there is no pressure on a quarterback, that QB is much better. The Patriots' loss to the Giants illustrates this: Tom Brady was under pressure for the entire game.
Additionally, the top CB in this draft (Mike Jenkins, USF) is probably a bit of a reach at the eigth spot, and history has shown that Ozzie Newsome will take the top player on the board. If Jake Long falls this far, he is the obvious pick, but it is very unlikely that he will make it out of the top five. That leaves only the possibility of Matt Ryan falling to number eight.
However, even if both players are on the board, Clady is still the better pick because OT is a more pressing need. Also, the Ravens already have depth at OT...they potentially need a starter, and it is easier to find one in the first round.
SECOND ROUND PICK: Tracy Porter, CB, Indiana.
What the Ravens could have addressed by reaching in the first round, they will get through patience in the second. Porter's good speed, physical coverage, and exceptional closing burst make him a good fit for the Ravens' defensive scheme. He is not a tremendous hitter and is still developing, but the Ravens need depth at corner, not a starter, and Porter would have time to develop.
THIRD ROUND PICK: Kevin Smith, RB, Central Florida.
With the release of veteran RB Mike Anderson, the Ravens are down to two running backs. That is unacceptable in the NFL and they need to draft another one. With a compensatory third rounder, Smith makes a lot of sense. (Matt Forte' out of Tulane would be the ideal choice, but it is likely he'll be off the board.)
Smith has good acceleration and is a natural runner with good vision. He lacks prototypical straight-line speed and competed against the C-USA, but is tall and has the frame to add a few pounds without losing speed.
IN THE LATER ROUNDS, LOOK FOR THE RAVENS TO DRAFT (NOT NECESSARILY IN THIS ORDER)
Another CB. The Ravens' backups last year proved, with extensive playing time, that they could not measure up to starting receivers. It certainly couldn't hurt to have an excess of skill position players here.
An athletic WR, with upside, probably a speedster. Derrick Mason is on his way out, and while he produced last season, it is very unlikely he will be doing the same thing two years from now. Devard Darling has never lived up to being a third round pick, and he too could be replaced.
THE RAVENS SHOULD NOT DRAFT A QUARTERBACK.
The last thing the Ravens need is another player to mess things up for the current QB situation. Fortification of the O-line with Clady is supposed to protect McNair, and if he still plays poorly, Troy Smith is a proven winner at the college level.
At the pro level, he always did his job, and according to many of the Ravens' offensive players, did not act like a rookie in the huddle. Smith was effective at Ohio State—no small program—and had to see over or around his tall offensive linemen there. He did so, and put up prolific numbers en route to a Heisman trophy, despite his small size.
I think he is a winner who will produce, given the chance. In my opinion, it does not make sense to have new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron bring in another QB so he has to split time tutoring two young quarterbacks.
If the Ravens pick a QB, it should be the top prospect on the board for value, and Clady is still the most important piece of the puzzle, so Matt Ryan should not be the pick, even if he's still there.