5 Baltimore Ravens Bound to Break Out in 2014
Change is inevitable in an NFL offseason, and the Baltimore Ravens roster won't escape its fair share of roster turnover—especially on the offensive side of the ball. While departures can be sad for fans and team personnel alike, every hole on the depth chart is an opportunity for a player to seize the day and put together a breakout season.
Whether it be individual development, more time to adjust to life in the NFL or the result of coaching changes, all five of these Ravens are poised to put together the best seasons (so far) of their professional careers and open some eyes around the league.
For some, like second-year fullback Kyle Juszczyk, the breakout isn't certain and depends on how the offseason unfolds with regards to personnel decisions (namely Vonta Leach).
For others, like tight end Dennis Pitta, a breakout is certain while his team is not—he is an unrestricted free agent.
The 2013 season, though disappointing, was a success for players like Torrey Smith, Arthur Jones and Jimmy Smith. Here are five Ravens that will follow in their footsteps and take the leap in 2014.
Kyle Juszczyk, FB
The fourth-round selection of Harvard, fullback Kyle Juszczyk was somewhat of a surprise in last year's draft and signaled the (temporary) end of Vonta Leach's tenure in Baltimore.
Leach was released but then re-signed to take over the lead blocking role in the rushing attack. Juszczyk was more of a receiver/tight end/H-back hybrid at Harvard and didn't spend too much time blocking, so he wasn't cut out for the responsibility of paving the way for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in 2013.
But 2014 is a new year, and it breeds plenty of optimism and opportunity for the versatile player.
For starters, one season of NFL-caliber coaching and practices is sure to have done wonders for his ability as a blocker. He did very well as the lead blocker on kick returns and impressed the coaching staff with his physicality according to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com.
Furthermore, Juszczyk's ability to move all around the field and be utilized as a receiver makes him an intriguing weapon in an offense that was short on playmakers last year.
Head coach John Harbaugh elaborated on Juszczyk's unique skill set and how he envisions the fullback's role growing this season (via Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com): "Kyle has got to be a huge part of what we do going forward. ... [Juszczyk’s] the link, as far as being a move guy, lining up in the backfield and lining up out as a wide receiver. He can do those things. We have high hopes for him."
Looking at Juszczyk's abilities and factoring in his new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, it's hard not to think of James Casey.
Casey played for Kubiak as the Houston Texans' hybrid fullback/tight end/jack of all trades. He was used primarily as a blocker in Houston, but also caught a total of 52 passes for 590 yards and four touchdowns in the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
There's absolutely no reason that Juszczyk can't be a similarly effective receiver for Joe Flacco and the offense.
At the end of the day, however, the obstacle in Juszczyk's path to playing time wears a No. 44 jersey: Vonta Leach. The veteran fullback has been a trendy salary-cap-casualty pick (including by yours truly), but his connection to Kubiak (from their time in Houston) may keep him in Baltimore.
If Leach stays, Juszczyk will still have a role on the offense, but it will be limited. If Leach leaves town, don't be surprised if Juszczyk emerges as a useful weapon.
Dennis Pitta, TE
So this one is a little tricky since we don't know whether Dennis Pitta will actually be a Raven for the 2014 season. We do know this: if he is, you should draft him to your fantasy football team.
Pitta was poised to have a breakout 2013 season as Joe Flacco's only reliable possession receiver, but a devastating hip injury knocked him out of all but four games of the year.
Even without Kubiak, Pitta would be in for a big season thanks to the obvious chemistry and rapport he shares with Flacco—both on and off the field.
But with Kubiak calling the shots, Pitta could easily be a top-three tight end in the league. Kubiak is famous for his heavy usage of tight ends in the passing game—something that long-time Houston Chronicle reporter John McClain talked about after the hiring, per Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com:
"If Pitta is smart, he should re-sign with the Ravens because Kubiak loves to throw to tight ends. The tight ends are going to catch a lot of passes and get the ball in the red zone a lot. In 2012, Kubiak ran more two-tight end formations than any team in the league."
Even Kubiak himself talked to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun about Pitta's hypothetical role in his offense: "I remember studying Dennis, and I’m very impressed with him as a player. I know he went through a tough year this year with getting injured, but that position has always been a big part of our offense. I’m sure it won’t be any different."
If Pitta re-signs, you can guarantee that he's going to have a monster year.
DeAngelo Tyson, DE
This is a more under-the-radar player on the Ravens roster, but that doesn't mean that DeAngelo Tyson won't have a big impact on the defense in 2014.
It is widely assumed that Arthur Jones' breakout 2013 season will elevate his price tag out of what the Ravens can afford this season, and that leaves a gigantic hole on the defensive line.
Jones was the most consistent and active defensive lineman on the roster last year, so it's very possible that the front office looks outside the organization to bring in a free agent who can step in as a starter right away.
But that won't happen without some of the players already on the roster getting a crack at the starting role.
And DeAngelo Tyson might just run away with the job.
Tyson was a seventh-round draft pick in 2012 and wasn't even a sure thing make the final roster. He made major strides this season, however, and was even singled out by general manager Ozzie Newsome in his end-of-year press conference as an example of the importance of player development.
He had a very limited role, but he made an impact in his 154 snaps,which included two sacks, five total QB pressures, 12 total tackles and one very athletic interception.
Tyson is a solid run defender and has shown flashes of pass-rushing ability. Even if he doesn't win a starting job, Tyson will be a very important piece of the defensive rotation.
Tandon Doss, Returner
Jacoby Jones is an unrestricted free agent, but he may be a luxury Baltimore can't afford. If the dynamic returner (and celebration-dancer extraordinaire) skips town, it will be a blow for the Ravens special teams units; but it's not all doom and gloom.
Tandon Doss proved that he was more than up to the task of at least being one of the league's best punt returners, and he may be able to handle kick-return duties, too, if necessary.
Doss was initially cut from the Ravens roster, but he found his way back to the team through his special teams play.
He finished the season as the league's best punt returner in terms of average return yardage by picking up more than 15 per attempt.
Doss eventually lost his punt return duties to Jones later in the year—mostly because of his decision-making when it came to fielding punts or letting them go—but he could be thrust back into that role again if Jones signs with another team.
Questionable decisions aside, Doss is sure to make more big plays as a returner in 2014—if he gets the chance.
Ray Rice, RB
Ray Rice may not have a "breakout season" in terms of the best numbers of his career, but everything seems set for him to bounce back in a big way.
Firstly, he's going to be on the roster. Some unhappy Ravens fans have been calling for his release, but that would actually cost the Ravens money, so there's no way that's happening this offseason.
And if he's on the roster, the front office is going to do everything in its power to jump-start the running game.
The rushing attack has been the backbone of the Ravens organization since its inception, and the disgust of the players, coaching staff and executives about the rushing failures of 2013 was evident.
Simply put, there is no way that the Ravens make it through the summer without significantly upgrading the offensive line—especially considering that the ground game has always been the foundation of Gary Kubiak's offense.
Furthermore, there's no denying that Rice was bothered by injury for most of the season. Here's what Rice had to say on the subject, as told to Ross Jones of Fox Sports:
It’s sort of like having your transmission messed up in your car where you can’t get it in third and fourth gear. First and second gear are good, but if you want to go into overdrive you can’t do it. Your body is not going to let you, and that’s what muscular issues do. ...
I played through an injury and I probably should have thought twice about it.
Perhaps he's making excuses, but the burst and power we're accustomed to seeing from the diminutive back were nowhere to be found in 2013. Given his tremendous production during his tenure in Baltimore, he's earned the benefit of the doubt.
With improved health and a better offensive line leading the way, Rice will return to his usual self in 2014.