Coming off a surprising and superb 2008 campaign, expectations for the Baltimore Ravens are high as the 2009 season approaches. But the offseason has not been kind to General Manager Ozzie Newsome and company, who have parted ways with a number of big names. Newsome did his best to fill the team’s biggest holes, but even wizards fall short sometimes.
The good news for Ravens fans is that the core of the team is still intact. For a group that found its way to the AFC Championship, that is not an insignificant statement. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed still lead a strong defensive unit and Joe Flacco and Derrick Mason anchor the offense—hardly a bad place to start on either front.
Unfortunately, the weaknesses threatening a repeat of last year’s playoff run will sound all too familiar. In training camp, the Ravens two weakest positions will line-up face-to-face on every down.
Offensively, the Ravens are still searching for a difference-maker at wide receiver. The team’s struggle to find a franchise quarterback has been well-documented, but after an impressive rookie season, most fans believe they have found their guy in Joe Flacco. Now Flacco just needs someone to throw to.
Veteran Derrick Mason is arguably the best possession receiver in the game today. And tight end Todd Heap is still considered by many to be one of the best tight ends in the game. Yet neither player is capable of shaking a defender and changing a defense’s schemes.
A brief look at last season’s game tapes show just how desperate the Ravens are for a receiver. Many of Flacco’s mistakes were not caused by defensive pressure or a heavy pass rush, but rather by a lack of options downfield. Too often, Flacco had plenty of time, but no one open.
There were plenty of options at receiver this off-season, but the Ravens have yet to make a move for a wide out. They passed on veteran Pro Bowlers Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt and did not take a single receiver on draft day. Rumors continue to swirl about the possibility of a trade for disgruntled Cardinals star Anquan Boldin, but most Ravens fans are not holding their breath.
Newsome, the team’s long-time general manager, says the team does not need an upgrade at receiver. He and the coaching staff are confident that with Joe Flacco, Willis McGahee and a more experienced line, the offense is ready to take off.
They will also point to a number of young receivers drafted in previous years ready to make a difference—from the well-known Demetrius Williams and Mark Clayton, to the lesser known Justin Harper and Marcus Smith.
Newsome may be right. His instincts on players are rarely wrong. But receiver is one position where he has yet to find the answer.
Defense will continue to be the Ravens strong suit, but the unit is far from perfect. The team struggled last year in pass defense, especially on the corners, and Newsome attacked the problem head-on in the off-season.
To be more accurate, Newsome began to deal with the problems in the secondary in 2008. He brought in speedy veterans Fabian Washington and Frank Walker, both who possess impressive physical skills but less than impressive resumes.
This offseason, Newsome continued the overhaul. Aging Pro Bowler Chris McAlister is gone after a season of injuries and apparent run-ins with the coaching staff. In his place, the team acquired Dominique Foxworth and Chris Carr from the Falcons and Titans respectively. Both moves continue Newsome’s shift towards speed in the secondary.
It is still unclear whether these moves will solve the Ravens issues at corner. Newsome’s hope is obviously that quicker corners will allow the Ravens to have better success against pass-oriented teams like the Indianapolis Colts, who have dominated the Ravens in years past. But trading in proven talent for underperforming athletes has drawn serious criticism.
The Ravens are banking on the hope that faster defensive backs will result in better coverage at the start of a play, buying a stellar front-seven more time to get pressure on the quarterback. They won’t really know what they have, though, until they get to training camp in July.
The Ravens certainly have many more weaknesses than the two mentioned above. But the one that has to be most intriguing for this club in particular is in the kicking game. The Ravens allowed Matt Stover, the only holdover from the team’s days in Cleveland, to enter free agency.
So far, Stover has not signed and the Ravens have yet to fill the void. Steve Hauschka, who handled kick-offs for most of last season, and Graham Gano, and undrafted rookie out of Florida State, will compete for the job. But to put it simply, both are unknown variables.
While Stover struggled with long kicks and kick-offs in previous years, his accuracy on kicks under 45 yards was nearly unmatched. Around Baltimore you will find as many Stover jerseys as you will Ray Lewis’ and Joe Flacco’s.
You can be sure that the starting kicker will be a hot-topic all season long and that whoever gets the job, an early season miss will bring on the choir of doubters around the city.