Two of Baltimore's cornerstones are no longer Ravens. Who will take their place?
The drastic offseason changes made by the Baltimore Ravens have garnered a lot of media attention. By now, you have repeatedly heard the long list of key players that are no longer Ravens.
You have also probably heard that no previous Super Bowl champion had ever lost more than five starters…until now. On the other hand, keeping a Super Bowl team together hasn’t exactly been a recipe for success in the playoffs.
Since the 2002 season, when the playoff seeding was restructured to create the current system, only the New England Patriots have won a playoff game following a Super Bowl win (they actually won three games to repeat in 2005 and won one playoff game the next year).
That means that nine Super Bowl champions did not win a playoff game the next year, with four of those champions not even making it back to the playoffs.
The odds are against the Ravens making some noise in the playoffs this season, but as the media have pointed out, this is hardly the same team. Baltimore has lost a whopping nine starters, which means that there are significant changes coming to the Ravens depth chart.
This is a brief overlook of how the depth chart has changed at the relevant positions, and a preview of what to expect for the 2013 season.
The writing was on the wall for Vonta Leach after the Anquan Boldin trade and the selection of the Harvard fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the fourth round. As valuable as Leach is, the NFL is evolving and the role of the traditional blocking fullback is being phased out.
That’s where Juszczyk comes in. While he is listed as a fullback, he played H-Back and some tight end for the Crimson, led the team with 52 receptions for 706 yards last year and recorded 22 career touchdowns.
Clearly "Juice" is not a traditional fullback, but he should be an effective weapon in the passing game by providing versatility, being the second-best receiver out of the backfield and keeping defenses on their toes.
While Leach was excellent at paving the way for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, he was on the field for only 41 percent of the Ravens’ offensive snaps, and when he did set foot on the field he was mostly used as a run blocker.
Despite Vonta Leach’s phenomenal play, it simply did not make financial sense for the Ravens to keep him at his existing salary, and that’s why he is no longer a Raven (although Jamison Hensley of ESPN reports that he may end up back in Baltimore).
What remains to be seen is how physical Juszczyk can be as a blocker. The running game is definitely worse for wear if Leach doesn’t come back, but Juice provides a whole new look for the offense at the fullback position.
If he can be a slightly above average run blocker, the fullback position got better this offseason depending on how much he can add to the offense as a receiver. If Leach returns to Baltimore, this is a clear improvement at the fullback position.
Over his time in Baltimore, Matt Birk has been a top-15 center according to ProFootballFocus. His performance during the regular season last year was fairly average, but he was the best center in the playoffs and commanded an offensive line that was a huge part of the Ravens’ Super Bowl run.
While nobody is expecting Gino Gradkowski to step right in and play at Birk’s level, he was drafted specifically for this scenario. He spent last year learning from the 15-year veteran, and he impressed the coaches with his performance in Week 17 against a talented and athletic Bengals defensive front.
Joe Flacco told ProFootballTalk that he has been impressed with Gradkowski’s grasp of the offense and how quickly he’s getting his calls in this offseason. There will be a learning curve for the second-year center, but he appears to be right on schedule.
He won’t be able to replace Birk’s leadership and experience, but the drop-off shouldn’t be too significant, especially with the consistency that the line should have this season with established starters at every position.
Regardless of whether it’s Jones, Doss or Thompson that winds up replacing Boldin on the depth chart, this will be a downgrade for the Ravens.
I don’t think that Jacoby Jones will be a No. 2 receiver this year, and I am very excited about the potential of both Thompson and Doss.
But none of them are Anquan Boldin.
The front office had financial reasons to trade Boldin, and it must be noted that they couldn’t have made the rest of their offseason moves without the cap space that came from trading Anquan away. The Ravens’ payroll is in a better state, but the offense will suffer after losing of one of its biggest playmakers.
He was a perfect complement to Torrey Smith as a possession receiver who worked the middle of the field, and he was a crucial cog in Flacco’s intermediate passing game. The Ravens will try to compensate for his departure by getting Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson and Ray Rice more involved as receiving threats, and it remains to be seen how successful they can be.
The loss of Boldin is going to put more pressure on Torrey Smith as secondaries can key in on him as the lone wide receiver threat. It also makes Joe Flacco’s job more difficult as he lost one of his go-to targets.
I think both Smith and Flacco are up to the task of keeping the passing game rolling, but this is a big loss for the offense. We just won’t know how damaging it is until Week 1.
Neither Kemoeatu nor Terrence Cody were particularly impressive at nose tackle last season, as they couldn’t stuff the run or push the pocket.
The Ravens made serious improvements to the defensive line this offseason, and their newly-acquired talent provides them with depth and versatility up front.
The most likely rotation will have Haloti Ngata playing nose tackle and Chris Canty manning the defensive tackle spot. If rookie Brandon Williams can prove himself, he may get time at nose tackle which will push Ngata to defensive tackle and force Canty and Arthur Jones to battle for playing time at defensive end.
Either way, this is a huge improvement for the Ravens, and their defensive line has been transformed from an area of weakness to one of the biggest strengths of the team.
I know it is a travesty for a Ravens fan to admit this, but I’m going to say it anyway—I think this change is practically a push. Once we see Huff on the field we’ll have a better idea, but Ed Reed had a down year last year.
Reed was hampered by injuries throughout the year, and he deserves a ton of credit for playing through pain and stepping up when it mattered most. As a ball hawk, his instincts are second to none, and he is the definition of a playmaker on defense. Opposing quarterbacks always had to locate No. 20 before unleashing a pass in his general vicinity.
He was, however, somewhat of a liability last year and the numbers show that.
His replacement, Michael Huff, is known for his speed, range and coverage abilities, and he’s a solid tackler coming out of the back end. He’s been durable over his career and should be another ball-hawking presence at free safety for the Ravens in 2013.
The defense definitely lost a leader, but on the field Huff will probably play better than Reed did last year and he will do so earning half of Reed’s salary.
Bernard Pollard was an intimidating force as a strong safety, but he was not always the solid presence needed as the last line of defense. On many occasions you would see Pollard flying at ball-carriers trying to go for the big hit instead of wrapping up, and it cost the Ravens significant yardage in the form of penalties and missed tackles.
Additionally, Pollard was poor in pass coverage, a serious concern considering the increasingly pass-heavy nature of the NFL.
To replace him, the Ravens spent a first-round pick on Matt Elam, and he is already exceeding their expectations, according to Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com.
Elam is great in coverage, effective near the line of scrimmage and a strong tackler with a Pollard-like reputation as an enforcer over the middle who can deliver punishing hits. His speed is elite and allows him to cover a lot of ground and constantly be around the football.
The combination of Elam and Huff will be better than Reed and Pollard last season, mostly because Elam is a dynamic young star with the potential to develop into one of the game’s best safeties.
Despite leading the Ravens with four interceptions last year, Cary Williams was bad in coverage. Quarterbacks threw for 938 yards and six touchdowns with a 98.4 passer rating against him, and seemed to target him as he was thrown at 102 times during the regular season (10th in the NFL according to ProFootballFocus). The most notable opponent to do so was Tom Brady, completing nine passes against Williams’ coverage for 157 yards in Week 3.
According to Football Outsiders, Williams also led the league in tackles on his own coverage, which isn’t a distinction that a cornerback should be proud of.
The Ravens didn’t bring in outside help to offset the loss of Williams given their depth at cornerback with Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham waiting in the wings. It is still unclear who will win the position battle to start at corner opposite Webb, but Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com reported that Jimmy Smith has shown visible signs of improvement and had a terrific minicamp.
Regardless of who wins the competition, the prevalence of three-WR formations should result in a lot of playing time for all three corners. The three of them should make up a very good trio, and the loss of Williams is not very significant to this defense.
This is another position where I’m afraid of committing such blasphemy, but Ray Lewis will not be missed on the field as much as people think. His unparalleled leadership, motivational abilities and work ethic are certainly irreplaceable, but his age was starting to show on the field.
The speed and sideline-to-sideline range that made him a legend were starting to fade, and he faced serious problems in pass coverage last year when matched up against the athletic new generation of NFL tight ends and speedy running backs. ProFootballFocus gave him a -11.7 grade in pass coverage last year, and whether or not you are a believer in the PFF method, it was clear that he was being exploited through the air.
Dannell Ellerbe was the best Ravens inside linebacker last year, and his loss is significant. Ellerbe was one of the best Ravens defenders against the run, and he was also very effective as a blitzer for his position, accumulating 25 combined QB sacks, hits and hurries.
To replace them, Jameel McClain will take over the reins as the quarterback of the defense, a position where he performed well two years ago when Ray Lewis missed four games due to injury. McClain was the best of the three linebackers in pass coverage last year, and he has shown the football IQ and leadership to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
Ultimately, the fate of the inside linebackers rests on the shoulders of Arthur Brown. Brown was incredibly impressive in college, showing the speed and mobility to excel in pass coverage. Most of the questions surrounding his game were regarding his size and ability to shed tackles in the NFL, but he’ll be supported by a massive and imposing defensive line which should give him the room to fly at the ball and make plays.
Brown has missed time after a sports hernia surgery so he may not be ready to start in Week 1, but at some point in the season he will step into a starting role. I expect him to impress with his speed and ability to make plays all over the field, and this year’s group of inside linebackers should be much better against the pass and weaker against the run.
With Terrell Suggs battling injury last year, Paul Kruger stepped up in a big way. He led the Ravens with 15 sacks (including the playoffs), and it led to his big payday with the Cleveland Browns.
The Ravens signed Elvis Dumervil after a fax snafu that led to his release from the Broncos, and the always-opportunistic Ozzie Newsome filled the void that Kruger left with a much more proven pass-rusher.
That’s not to take anything away from Paul Kruger. Kruger was excellent last year, especially during the playoffs, and he is actually better than Dumervil against the run.
But the role that Kruger had (the same role Dumervil will be asked to fill) was to get to the quarterback. Dumervil is one of the best in the league at putting pressure on the quarterback, especially as a 3-4 outside linebacker where he led the NFL with 17 sacks in 2009 before Denver transitioned to a 4-3 defense.
Who was his defensive coordinator during that year? Don Martindale, his new linebackers coach in Baltimore. I think both of them are excited to be reunited, as is Terrell Suggs who told the Baltimore Sun that he can’t wait for the chance to play with another dominant pass-rusher.
Again, this is not intended as a slight to Paul Kruger, but Dumervil is a much more proven commodity as a sack artist and the tandem of Suggs and Dumervil gunning for the QB is going to cause problems for offensive tackles this season.
It will be up to 'Joe Cool' to keep the offense afloat in 2013.
The offense will probably take a step backwards this season after losing vital pieces of their passing and rushing attacks.
The emergence of Bernard Pierce gives the running game a new dimension and should give Ray Rice more rest, keeping him fresh for the end of the season. I expect Kyle Juszczyk to be an adequate blocker and give the offense some unpredictability with his receiving prowess.
At the end of the day, however, this offense will go as far as Joe Flacco can take them. While many look at his Super Bowl run and attribute it to a quarterback getting hot at the right time, some of Jim Caldwell’s schematic changes definitely played a role in his historic play.
Joe was given greater control of the offense, running more and more no-huddle, which kept defenses off-balance and wore them down. Caldwell also used Flacco’s greatest strength (his cannon) more than Cam Cameron did, which transformed the Ravens into a big-play offense.
Anybody who has watched Joe Cool over the years knows he has one of the best arms in the NFL. He can make every throw in the playbook, and he also possesses one of the strongest arms in the league.
If he can show some consistency, this offense will continue to click on all cylinders as there are enough playmakers on the roster. If he reverts back to the inconsistent Joe Flacco we saw during the regular season, the Ravens are in trouble.
'Sizzle' is back in phenomenal shape and ready to regain his DPOY form.
Ozzie Newsome needs to be commended for the job he has done rebuilding the Baltimore Ravens defense. While we have yet to see the finished product on the field, this group has the chance to be dominant. More importantly, this should be a defense that doesn't need the offense to put a ton of points on the board to win games.
In the trenches, there is great talent and depth with players who can play multiple positions, allowing the Ravens to give offenses a variety of different looks. This defensive line should not be gouged by rushing attacks next year and these linemen are also capable of disrupting the pocket and putting pressure on the quarterback.
The linebackers should be relatively similar to last year despite the new faces. Arthur Brown is a special talent and if he can adjust to the professional ranks quickly he will make it another position where the Ravens have improved this offseason.
The secondary also has the potential to be one of the better groups in the league, with a trio of good cornerbacks (assuming Jimmy Smith’s improvement isn’t a mirage) and two fast safeties that are excellent in coverage.
Most of all, this defense should greatly benefit with the full health of some of their leaders. Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Lardarius Webb and Jameel McClain are all recovering nicely from injuries that either ended their seasons or significantly hindered their play last season.
If they are all completely recovered and all the new faces can pick up the playbook, expect greatness from the Ravens defense in 2013.