The Ravens haven't had the most exciting offseason. Their most publicized move was the dramatic resigning of Ray Lewis, and they failed to create a splash with their draft (as usual).
Ozzie Newsome and the rest of the Baltimore personnel evaluators, however, are among the best at what they do for a reason. A series of low key personnel moves should give the Ravens plenty of opportunities to expand their playbook in 2009, and help them build on their success from last year.
Addition of Michael Oher
The Ravens traded up in this year's draft to take offensive tackle Michael Oher at pick 23. With the retirement of Willie Anderson, it's likely that Oher will step in immediately at right tackle.
The addition of center Matt Birk, the return of Marshal Yanda, and another year of experience under the young line's belt will make this an improved unit in 2009.
The game of football is won and lost in the trenches, and improving the offensive line improves nearly every facet of the offense as a whole.
The running game will be more effective, Joe Flacco will have more time to throw and will take fewer sacks. In turn, receivers will have more success getting open and making plays.
Securing the tackle spot on both sides of Joe Flacco should help relieve the tight ends of blocking duties, allowing them to run routes and contribute more to the passing game in 2009.
In 2008, the Ravens made use of a formation known as the unbalanced line. The set involves stacking an extra offensive lineman on one side of the center, making that side "heavy."
Plays running out of the unbalanced line require talented and versatile offensive lineman. Michael Oher fits the bill perfectly, as Ravens coaches believe he has the ability to play on both sides of the line.
Michael Oher also possesses the athleticism necessary to contribute to the Wildcat package. The Ravens used this formation sparingly, but had some success snapping the ball directly to Troy Smith. Oher should allow Cam Cameron to develop and expand this package in 2009.
Addition of L.J. Smith
It wasn't long ago that Todd Heap was considered an elite tight end. He was consistently posting top five numbers, despite an anemic offense and shaky quarterback play.
In 2008, when the Ravens finally found some stability at quarterback and brought in one of the most talented and innovate offensive coordinators in the league, Heap strangely saw his statistics plummet.
It's arguable whether or not Todd Heap is the same player that he used to be. At 29 years old, he's entering his 8th season as an NFL player, and there's no doubt that the years have taken a toll on his body.
He's struggled with injuries throughout his career, and it's unclear if he can still play at an elite level. Heap dropped passes in 2008 that he would have caught easily in 2005 and 2006.
While Heap may not be the player he once was, wear and tear on his body is not the only explanation for his performance last year.
With a young and relatively inexperienced offensive line protecting a rookie quarterback, Cam Cameron chose to keep Todd Heap in as an extra blocker. Rather than running routes down the middle of the field, he was often used to help pick up blitzes and keep Joe Flacco out of the dirt.
This offseason, the Ravens brought in L.J Smith, the former Eagles tight end, and his presence should have an immediate impact on the offense. As a solid receiver and blocker, he should be able to spell Todd Heap in any situation.
The two could also provide a dangerous receiving threat when on the field together.
One way or another, the duo should help provide quarterback Joe Flacco with a couple of big targets to look for in the red zone.
Return of Demetrius Williams
Amidst all of the clamor in Baltimore for a premier wide receiver, one of the Ravens favorite young talents has gone unnoticed. Demetrius Williams, although plagued by injury problems over the last three seasons, has shown flashes of being the deep threat Joe Flacco and Cam Cameron desperately need.
His career statistics are unimpressive. 55 receptions in three seasons and 3 touchdowns. The upside is that he has averaged over 15 yards a catch and scored 2 touchdowns of 70+ yards, despite severely limited playing time.
The Anquan Boldin deal appears to be ancient history at this point. The Ravens aren't interested in Plaxico Burress and his legal problems, and the Browns would never trade Braylon Edwards to a division rival. If and when the Ravens decide to pursue a high profile receiver is uncertain.
For now, though, coach John Harbaugh is more than happy with Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, and a healthy Demetrius Williams.
Having a reliable third receiver will allow Cam Cameron to open sections of the playbook that remained tucked away throughout the entire 2008 season.
Besides Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams was the only other Ravens receiver to catch more than one ball last year, and he only played 6 games.
Lining up in 3 or 4 wide receiver sets will open up room for the running backs to make plays, and may allow tight ends Todd Heap and L.J. Smith to take advantage of favorable matchups over the middle.
Demetrius Williams and Mark Clayton should find more room to operate out of these sets if Mason continues to receive double coverage in 2009.
Addition of Domonique Foxworth, Chris Carr, Ladarius Webb
The defensive unit has always been the anchor of the Ravens as a team. Ray Lewis and company consistently finish out seasons among the top 5 defenses in the league, often leading the league in turnovers and defensive touchdowns.
While Ray Lewis has essentially agreed to finish his career as a Raven, there is little doubt that the unit will be formidable once again, but this offseason has seen a bevy of changes on the defensive side of the ball.
Key departures include lineback Bart Scott (Jets), safety Jim Leonhard (Jets), cornerback Chris McAlister (free agent), and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan (head coach of the Jets). That's a lot of talent to lose in one year, though the Ravens have made every effort to minimize the losses.
Linebackers coach Gret Mattison has been promoted to Defensive Coordinator, and he is intimately familiar with Rex Ryan's defensive scheme.
Cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth, Chris Carr, and Ladarius Webb have been added to provide depth to a thin defensive backfield.
With Fabian Washington showing last season that he has the tools to be a starting corner, and the return of veteran Samari Rolle, the Ravens are ready to begin the season in good shape at the corner position. If even one of the three young talents signed this offseason can provide solid coverage skills and contribute to the defense, Greg Mattison should be able to utilize a variety of defensive packages.
Coverage in 2008 was a glaring weakness on the Ravens' defense (see week 6 @ Indianapolis and the AFC Championship @ Pittsburgh). The secondary's inability to lock down receivers hindered the effectiveness of the blitz. They finished with 34 sacks (11th in the NFL), down from the whopping 60 sacks the same unit posted in 2006 (2nd in the NFL).
With a solid coverage unit behind the likes of Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and rookie Paul Kruger, the Ravens should have more success utilizing their infamous exotic blitz packages.