The Baltimore Ravens' funeral march has to stop eventually, and maybe this offseason can accomplish that.
They have come away from the first couple of days of free agency as an improved team. Wide receiver Steve Smith is the biggest name to join the team, signing a three-year, $11 million contract. But it's the players the Ravens have been able to keep who might be the bigger story.
Tackle Eugene Monroe, who was acquired via trade from the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, decided to stick around along with tight end Dennis Pitta, linebacker Daryl Smith and wide receiver Jacoby Jones.
Though the losses of tackle Michael Oher and cornerback Corey Graham might worry some, the only player Baltimore will really miss is defensive end Arthur Jones, who is headed to Indianapolis.
Factor in that general manager Ozzie Newsome is known for his work in the draft, and this Ravens team could get even better entering the 2014 season.
Putting 2013 in Perspective
Since the Ravens won the Super Bowl following the 2012 NFL season, the talk has centered almost entirely around how terrible this team is.
When quarterback Joe Flacco signed a massive six-year, $120.6 million extension following his Super Bowl MVP award, the talk was that he didn't deserve it. When the Ravens sent wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers for a sixth-round pick, the move was widely panned. When linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed left the team, the funeral pipes started up for the Baltimore defense.
In reality, Flacco played 2013 behind a terrible, underachieving line, without tight end Dennis Pitta (who played in only four games), next to an overweight Ray Rice and with little other help to speak of.
Meanwhile, the defense was actually vastly improved following the departure of Lewis and Reed. Lewis, long a shadow of his former self, took his schtick to ESPN, where he has a chance to shine. Reed, on the other hand, went to Houston, was cut and then headed to the New York Jets and blamed both Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and the media for his poor play.
The Ravens finished 2013 at 8-8, tied for second in the AFC North and only a game out of the playoffs. Offensively, things were a mess, as they finished 29th in the NFL. In total passing offense, however, they only dropped from 15th to 18th.
Individually, Flacco finished 11th in total passing yards but only 32nd in passer rating. Don't get me wrong, Flacco could have been much better in 2013. I'm not going to sit here and pretend he wasn't part of the issue. A quarterback earning what he does should be able to make the talent around him better, but even Flacco's harshest critics must admit he had very little actual talent around him.
Over on the defense that supposedly couldn't live without Lewis and Reed, things improved from 17th to 12th.
Coming off a Super Bowl victory, the Ravens didn't live up to their billing. They certainly were not great, and they probably failed to even reach "good" status, but the idea that Baltimore was a bad team, an overarching disappointment or a club that had fallen off some massive cliff is erroneous.
Already, it's looking like the 2014 playoffs could see the Ravens right back in the hunt.
Steve Smith Will Redefine the Passing Attack
First off, Smith will be 35 entering the 2014 season.
Smith has not lost a step in the past few seasons; he's lost plenty. There are a number of reasons why the Panthers cut him, as he was never going to be around long enough for that offense to truly take shape. So, they moved on and will spend his cap money elsewhere.
That said, the Ravens are a lot closer to being one receiver away than the Panthers. Baltimore certainly has multiple needs to improve its offense, and the defense isn't exactly complete either, but as a final piece to the puzzle, Smith makes sense.
Last season, Smith was Pro Football Focus' 27th-ranked wide receiver (subscription required). The Ravens receivers who qualified for that list were ranked 60th (Torrey Smith), 63rd (Jacoby Jones), 77th (Marlon Brown) and 83rd (Tandon Doss).
Steve Smith may not be the player who single-handedly carried the Panthers' passing attack for years, but he's better than anyone Flacco had to throw to last season.
Statistically speaking, Smith only had 745 yards last year in a run-heavy Panthers offense that leaned far more on tight end Greg Olsen. Compared to the Ravens receivers, that would still be second to only Torrey Smith, who had 1,128 yards.
No. 2 receiver is probably the role that Steve Smith will fill in Baltimore—similar to what Boldin was able to do in his time there, only to a greater degree.
He may not be able to stretch the field quite like Torrey Smith, but he still has great hands, runs even better routes and manages to find himself open down the field, though he's often covered by defensive backs who are increasingly faster and bigger than he is.
As a more ancillary benefit, Smith will immediately become the best blocking receiver on Baltimore's roster. For a team that isn't going to change its stripes anytime soon, that's a bigger positive on the Ravens than it might have been for any other team that may have courted him.
Is Flacco going to turn into Tom Brady or Peyton Manning because of Smith? No, he's not. But he was a far more efficient passer with underneath targets to complement Torrey Smith, and that's something he didn't have last season.
Now, Smith joins a hopefully healthy Pitta, a developing Marlon Brown and Jones to round out the offense. They'll be coached by Gary Kubiak who, while failing as a head coach, has always been regarded as a sound offensive mind.
Again, no one is saying that the Ravens will vault into the upper echelon of NFL offenses, but the unit is clearly trending upward.
Ravens Have Draft Flexibility
Thanks to the trade for Monroe, Baltimore only has four picks. However, one of the reasons the Ravens were so willing to trade away midround picks for Monroe is because of all of those aforementioned free-agency losses before 2013.
According to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley, the Ravens will receive the maximum four compensatory picks for this year's draft. What should Baltimore receive for Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Cary Williams?
I see the best-case scenario as this: One in the third round (Kruger), two in the fourth (Ellerbe and Williams) and one in the fifth (Reed). The worst-case is two in the fourth (Kruger and Ellerbe), one in the fifth (Williams) and one in the seventh (Reed).
So, with eight picks to work with, the Ravens can work some of Newsome's usual magic. The reason I said before that Baltimore was wise to keep players like Monroe, Pitta and Jones was that the team won't be shoehorned into any one position as a major need.
Could the Ravens go after a player like Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio or Notre Dame guard/tackle Zack Martin to boost their offensive line? Absolutely, but they aren't forced to.
Should they try to replace Jones with someone like Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman to play end and replace Arthur Jones? They certainly could, but Chris Canty and Brandon Williams were both brought in last offseason and could man the ends of the line.
Like usual, Newsome has found a way to enter the draft with a host of options.
The team could really blow everyone's mind and select a first-round wide receiver.
Someone like USC's Marqise Lee, Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin or Oregon State's Brandin Cooks would turn the Ravens' receiving corps into a strength of the team rather than the detriment it was in 2013.
This isn't the Ravens' premature Super Bowl parade. Instead, it's a warning to the rest of the AFC North that they won't be nearly as easy to best as they were last season. Let's just extend that warning to the entire AFC, which couldn't decide on a wild-card spot last year for anything.
Baltimore took a year away from the playoffs, but it has spent the last 12 months restocking the Super Bowl-winning shelves.
Don't sleep on the Ravens this season, as they could be one of the best, toughest and most well-run teams in the entire league.
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