Predicting Baltimore Ravens' Starting Lineup After the First Wave of Free Agency
Now that the first wave of free agency has passed and the Baltimore Ravens have made a few splashes, we have a better idea of the team that will be taking the field at M&T Bank Stadium in 2014. There are still upgrades to be made—either via free agency or the draft—but most of the key pieces are in place and it’s never too early to look ahead.
Here’s a preview of what the Baltimore starting lineup would look like if the season started today. Most of the starters are fairly clear, but this gives us an idea of where general manager Ozzie Newsome needs to focus his attention for the rest of the offseason.
Furthermore, there is a 2014 season outlook for each starter and what we can expect from him. Nobody wants to remember the 2013 season anyway, so on to 2014!
Quarterback: Joe Flacco
It’s a shocker, I know. Joe Flacco will be under center (and in the shotgun and the pistol too) for the Ravens and all the pieces are in place for him to have the best season of his career.
For starters, he will actually have people to throw to. Dennis Pitta’s presence for a full season will do wonders for the passing attack, and the addition of Steve Smith gives Flacco an adequate replacement for Anquan Boldin—just one year late.
Toss in another year of development from Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown and a dash of the field-stretching capabilities of Jacoby Jones, and the Ravens actually have a pretty good receiving corps in store for 2014 (not to mention another unnamed receiver from the draft).
The offensive line is still a work in progress, but with Eugene Monroe back in the fold, a healthy Kelechi Osemele and a new right tackle, the pass protection should at least be somewhat better.
But we haven’t even gotten to the biggest indicator of Flacco’s impending breakthrough: the coaching hires.
Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is a renowned offensive savant, and he’s sure to be more creative with the offense (from play design to personnel groupings to formations to motions) than both of Flacco’s previous play-callers.
Furthermore, while Kubiak is getting all the publicity, there is another new coach that will have a noticeable impact on the gunslinger: QB coach Rick Dennison. Flacco has always performed better with a QB coach in his ear, and the numbers bear that out:
|With QB Coach||82 TDs, 44 INTs, 87.8 passer rating|
|Without QB Coach||39 TDs, 34 INTS, 76.7 passer rating|
Flacco still needs better protection and a semblance of a ground game but if those things materialize then the former Super Bowl MVP will have the best season of his career to date.
Running Back: Ray Rice
Ray Rice’s 2013 season was disastrous. There’s just no way around that. But he’s still the starting running back for Baltimore and he has the talent to be a darn good one.
We’ll have a good idea whether or not Rice is truly “washed up” after the 2014 season, but two things need to happen for Rice to bounce back.
Firstly, he needs to lose some weight. He bulked up before last season but it only hurt his game by impeding his cutting ability and slowing him down. So far, so good based on the reports coming out of The Castle, via Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com.
The second thing that undoubtedly needs to happen is for the offensive line to realize that football is a contact sport so it can start getting its hands on people. It’s hard to gain four yards per carry when you’re frequently getting hit in the backfield.
We don’t yet know how the new O-line will fare because there are still (hopefully) changes to be made. The good news for the Ravens is that both Rice and backup Bernard Pierce were hampered by nagging injuries last year, and they should both be 100 percent with an offseason to rest and recover.
Fullback: Kyle Juszczyk
Kyle Juszczyk wins this starting job by virtue of being the only fullback on the roster, but that doesn’t mean the Ravens don’t have high expectations for the 2013 fourth-round pick. In fact, Juszczyk has the potential to develop into a nifty and unique weapon for Joe Flacco to exploit in the passing game.
Juszczyk was a hybrid tight end/slot back/H-back at Harvard, and he thrived as a receiver thanks to his soft hands and natural pass-catching skills.
Gary Kubiak had a similar player in Houston by the name of James Casey, and Juszczyk envisions that jack-of-all-trades role for himself this year, according to Ryan Mink of the team's official website.
[The coaches] all have the same idea that I’m really going to be a guy that can move around to a lot of different positions. I can be flexed out, I can be in the backfield when I need to be in short-yardage and goal-line situations. It’s a lot of what I expected to do last year but we never got to it.
He’s a way better receiver than Vonta Leach, and he could pose problems for opposing linebackers that have to worry about Dennis Pitta in the slot and Ray Rice and Juszczyk catching passes out of the backfield.
Ultimately, however, Juszczyk’s effectiveness and playing time will be determined by how well he performs as a lead blocker. He excelled on special teams, displaying strength and physicality in coverage and as a blocker on kick returns, but we’ll have to wait and see how the Ivy Leaguer functions in the ground game.
Wide Receivers: Torrey Smith and Steve Smith
For the purpose of this slideshow, we’ll label the Smiths as the “starters” although it will be interesting to see how often the Ravens choose to operate with three wide receivers on the field.
Torrey Smith had a breakout year in 2013, setting career-highs in receptions and yards, but his production started to tail off as the year went on thanks to defenses that were more focused on shutting him down.
The one thing that he has done consistently is grow, so it’s safe to assume that he’ll come back better in at least one aspect of playing the receiver position. Even if he doesn’t, however, the presence of more weapons on the field with him will open things up for him in the passing game and should allow him to make the big plays we grew accustomed to in 2012.
One reason that defenses won’t be able to key in on him so intensely is because of Steve Smith. He’s up there in age (35 years old in May), but he’s still an effective receiver with the toughness to make contested catches out of the slot or over the middle.
The Anquan Boldin comparison actually works fairly well in terms of what Smith will add to the offense. He won’t bring the same jump-ball ability as Boldin because he’s only 5’9” but everything else is accurate.
The former Carolina Panther had a down year in 2013, catching 64 balls for 745 yards and four touchdowns, and we can expect similar production this season.
Tight End: Dennis Pitta
Baltimore retained the services of Joe Flacco’s favorite target, and he’s poised to have the breakout year he was due in 2013.
For starters, he very clearly is Flacco’s go-to target and it never hurts to be best friends with your quarterback. Their chemistry on the field is obvious to anyone who has watched the Ravens, so a full season of those two working together can only mean good things.
The other big factor working in Pitta’s favor is Gary Kubiak. The man has a well-documented soft spot for tight ends, and his tight ends have a tendency to do very well (e.g. Shannon Sharpe in Denver or Owen Daniels in Houston).
The addition of Steve Smith will eat into some of his targets since they are both excellent at working the middle of the field, but that will conversely free each of them up more than they are accustomed to.
Expect career-highs in receptions and receiving yards for Pitta in 2014 and fantasy players should keep an eye on the BYU product because he has the chance to be a top-six player at the tight end position.
Left Tackle: Eugene Monroe; Right Tackle: Rick Wagner
The Ravens shelled out a fair chunk of change to keep Eugene Monroe in Baltimore, and he will be well worth the money. He was clearly the best offensive lineman on the roster last year, and the grades from ProFootballFocus (subscription required) support that theory:
With a better left guard beside him and a full offseason to build chemistry and learn the blocking scheme, the Ravens don’t have to worry about Joe Flacco’s blind side.
Right now, it’s his other side that is a concern. Rick Wagner was thrown into the fire in Week 1 of last season when Michael Oher got hurt, and Wagner had a rough debut in the NFL.
Since that point, however, he looked pretty good as a sixth lineman in jumbo formations. The coaching staff is a fan of the Wisconsin tackle, via BaltimoreRavens.com, but they shouldn’t be thrilled about the prospect of him being their Week 1 starter at right tackle.
He has the potential to be a starting tackle, but it’s unclear whether he’s ready right now and he hasn’t had any real experience to prepare him for the task. Wagner is better suited as a backup swing tackle.
It’s probable that Ozzie Newsome will add a more NFL-ready tackle via free agency or early in the draft but for now he’s the starter.
Left Guard: Kelechi Osemele; Right Guard: Marshal Yanda
Much like with Eugene Monroe, the Ravens don’t need to worry about right guard. Marshal Yanda looked a little out of sorts to start the year, which seemed to be attributable to the loss of his neighbor on the O-line: Matt Birk.
The result was that we saw a lot of un-Yanda-like play, with penalties and missed assignments popping up on film. As the year went on, we saw Yanda return to his usual dominant self and that’s what we’ll see in 2014.
On the other side of the center, there are some questions to be answered.
The Ravens will be apprehensive about which Kelechi Osemele they’re going to get in 2014. While still new to the position, Osemele played very well at left guard during the Super Bowl run. But last year he looked out of place.
The coaching staff will be hoping the dip in performance was due to the back issue that ended his season prematurely, but there are also concerns about how well he fits into a true zone-blocking scheme since he has the strength and physicality of a gap-scheme mauler.
Since he’s so young and played so well in 2012, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’ll be back on track in 2014.
Center: Gino Gradkowski
This is the biggest decision still facing the Ravens. Every lineman deserves some blame for the atrocious performance in 2013, but Gino Gradkowski deserves a larger portion of that blame as the man making the calls in the middle.
The drop-off from Matt Birk to Gradkowski was significant, and the Ravens need to be certain that Gradkowski will be much better than the worst center in the league—as he was in 2013, according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required).
To his credit, Gradkowski did look more comfortable as the year went on, but there are also some issues that may not be fixed with more experience.
He really struggled in pass protection and couldn’t stand his ground against bigger nose tackles. Perhaps that’s a technical issue that can be fixed, but it may also be limitations related to his strength and size.
Baltimore may opt to roll the dice with Gradkowski in his second year as a starter, but it would surprise nobody to see them add a center in the coming months.
Nose Tackle: Haloti Ngata
Haloti Ngata was on-and-off during the 2013 season, but he’ll be anchoring the defensive line and stuffing the run with ferocity as he normally does for the Ravens.
The good news for Baltimore is that Ngata was relatively healthy for the entire season, but it would be nice to see him be more aggressive throughout the year.
Brandon Williams will be replacing Terrence Cody as the backup, but Ngata will get the overwhelming majority of snaps at the position.
Defensive Ends: Chris Canty and DeAngelo Tyson
Chris Canty is locked in as a starter on the defensive line, and the Ravens will be hoping that he can generate more consistent pressure than he did in 2013.
They’ll need it in order to replace some of the production that they lost when Arthur Jones signed with the Indianapolis Colts.
In Jones’ stead will be DeAngelo Tyson to start the year. Tyson has developed very nicely for the Ravens as a seventh-round pick and he’s become a valuable part of the rotation on the D-line. This season is a terrific opportunity for Tyson to grab a starting job.
The more likely answer, however, will be that Arthur Jones’ spot is filled by a committee of sorts. Tyson has the most experience so he’ll get the lion’s share of the snaps but last year’s rookies Brandon Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore may also get the chance to contribute and earn more playing time at the position.
Lewis-Moore only practiced for three weeks last year after sitting out most of the season with a torn ACL, but head coach John Harbaugh made a point of saying that “he’s got a chance to be a starting five-technique or be in the rotation for sure,” according to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com.
This is another position where the Ravens will consider an upgrade through free agency or the draft but unlike right tackle they should have more confidence in the current crop of defensive ends on the roster.
Inside Linebackers: Daryl Smith and Arthur Brown
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees must have breathed an enormous sigh of relief when the news broke that Baltimore had re-signed Daryl Smith to be the quarterback of the defense for 2014 and beyond. Smith had an excellent year filling in for the departed Ray Lewis, and he was definitely one of the most valuable Ravens last year.
He’s a lock to start—and play well—in the middle of the defense, but the spot next to him will likely be a timeshare between Arthur Brown and Josh Bynes.
Brown is the favorite to win the job given his upside, and Garrett Downing of the team’s official website reports that Coach Harbaugh expects him to win the starting job in training camp.
That’s an ideal scenario, but that would leave the Ravens vulnerable against the run since both Smith and Brown are relatively small and not great at shedding blockers. Hopefully Brown used his rookie season to bulk up and hone his run-stuffing skills, but Bynes is sure to be in the mix for playing time as a downhill thumper that can attack ball-carriers.
Outside Linebackers: Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw
All three of these players are listed because Courtney Upshaw and Elvis Dumervil will both “start” depending on the situation. Furthermore, they will play a similar number of snaps anyway (just like they did last year), so it only makes sense to group them all together.
Terrell Suggs is the big dog thanks to his ability to play well against the run or the pass. With an offseason of conditioning, Suggs should open the 2014 season like he did in 2013: like a man possessed.
“Sizzle” was an absolute monster to start the year, but the Ravens need to figure out why his play dropped off so precipitously in the second half of the year.
The same thing happened to Dumervil, but that was due to a nagging ankle injury that dampened his explosiveness and burst off the edge. Dumervil and Suggs showed that they can be one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league, and the Ravens are counting on the sack artists to bring the heat on opposing quarterbacks.
Lastly, is the forgotten Raven: Upshaw. I call him the forgotten Raven because he never gets the publicity and always flies under the radar, but Upshaw is an integral part of the run defense and is a phenomenal edge-setter against the run.
Upshaw showed a little more ability as a pass-rusher in 2013, so we should expect a more well-rounded linebacker to show up in 2014. Regardless, his role on the defense is to stop the run, and he’ll do it well.
Cornerbacks: Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith
If you’re looking at the top two cornerbacks, Baltimore should have one of the best duos in the league. Both Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith came on really strong to end the 2013 season but for different reasons.
For Webb, it was a matter of fully recovering from his torn ACL and gaining more confidence in his movement ability. Smith, on the other hand, made a substantial leap in his skills and emerged as a breakout corner.
Combined, they’ll be able to contain most receiver combinations—especially because they have such different skill sets.
Webb can cover smaller and quicker receivers while Smith can body up against the more physical specimens on the outside.
Positions No. 1 and No. 2 on the depth chart look rosy, but it’s the third-string cornerback where Baltimore has cause for concern after losing Corey Graham to free agency. Chykie Brown has the edge over Asa Jackson due to his more substantial playing experience, but the Ravens will add another defensive back to the mix in all likelihood to shore up that rotation.
Safeties: Matt Elam and Omar Brown
After being selected in the first round last year and playing really well in his rookie year, Matt Elam will be a fixture in the Ravens' defensive backfield for a while—albeit in a new position. The former Florida Gator played as a free safety last year alongside James Ihedigbo, but Ihedigbo’s departure leaves the door open for Elam to slide over into his more natural spot as a strong safety.
Elam showed the skill set to thrive as a strong safety when he played close to the line of scrimmage last year, but he still has the coverage skills necessary from any safety in today’s game.
The transition will do wonders for Elam, and he could show flashes of dominance at the position if he can improve his form as a tackler instead of going for the knockout hits.
The real question is: who will be lining up next to Elam in 2014? Right now, it would be Omar Brown, which is an intriguing proposition.
It’s unlikely that GM Ozzie Newsome lets the position remain that way with a couple of suitable free agents (e.g. Chris Clemons, Thomas DeCoud) on the market and a few enticing safety options in the draft, but Brown will get the opportunity to compete for the job in training camp and he could surprise if he continues to display his knack for finding the football.
His nickname is “Mini Ed Reed” after all.
Special Teams: Justin Tucker, Sam Koch and Jacoby Jones
“The Wolfpack” will be kept together next year, which is fortunate since Sam Koch stood a real chance of being released as a salary cap casualty before the new record salary cap number was announced.
The trio are close friends off the field, and they work extremely well on it. Justin Tucker will once again chase perfection in the kicking game and continue to impress with his gigantic leg.
Koch ended last year well, but displayed some inconsistency earlier in the season so he’ll have to get that sorted out.
Elsewhere, the Ravens re-signed the return dynamo Jacoby Jones, so the return game should continue to be a strength of the team and a threat to put points on the board at any time.
Baltimore has a track record of special teams excellence, which will continue in 2014.
Shehan Peiris is B/R's Lead Featured Columnist covering the Baltimore Ravens and a co-host of Ravens Central Radio, a weekly podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network that focuses on all things Ravens-related. For breaking news, roster evaluation, draft analysis and links to the latest episodes of Ravens Central Radio, follow me on Twitter:
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