5 Bold (and Slightly Less Bold) Predictions for the 2014 Baltimore Ravens

Shehan Peiris@@shehan_peiris_Correspondent IIIJune 11, 2014

5 Bold (and Slightly Less Bold) Predictions for the 2014 Baltimore Ravens

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    The Baltimore Ravens don’t know who exactly will be taking the field for them in Week 1 of the 2014 season, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make some bold predictions for the upcoming season.

    Over the next few slides, you’ll read predictions about the running game, the secondary, the rookies, a new addition and Joe Flacco. What should we expect from them this year? Nobody knows, but this is what I’m expecting after general manager Ozzie Newsome has spent the offseason tinkering around with the roster, plugging up holes and addressing needs.

    Football fans are dying of thirst in the desert that is the NFL offseason, but hopefully these predictions serve as an oasis—until you realize it’s just a mirage, and we have plenty more offseason to trek through before reaching the promised land.

Revival of the Running Game

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    This will be a welcome sign for all Ravens fans. The ground game of 2013 was pathetic, and the inability to run the football forced a shift in offensive philosophy—one the Ravens didn’t want to make.

    The 2014 season will be a different beast, and it all starts with improvements made to the offensive line.

    Blame for the 2013 performance cannot be assigned to one player. But if you had to pick the most culpable unit, it would be the O-line. It’s early (and they’re playing without pads), but it already looks like the 2014 line will be significantly improved (with one domino left to fall).

    Eugene Monroe and Marshal Yanda are the holdovers, and that’s a good thing because they’re both Pro Bowl-caliber players. The addition of Jeremy Zuttah at center and the recovery of Kelechi Osemele at left guard instantly upgrade the unit, giving them more strength and athleticism at the point of attack—a welcome sight after the duo of Gino Gradkowski and A.Q. Shipley looked frequently outmatched last year.

    The right tackle is an unknown right now, but the other four positions all look good for Baltimore.

    Furthermore, the Ravens actually have the running backs to capitalize on the good blocking. Ray Rice is lighter and more explosive, which will (hopefully) result in a bounce-back season from the veteran.

    But Bernard Pierce is also in the process of regaining full strength, while Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro provide valuable (and reliable) depth at the position. The Ravens have depth in terms of quantity and quality, with a diverse array of weapons to choose from.

    Throw in the hiring of Gary Kubiak as the offensive coordinator, and there is plenty of optimism surrounding Baltimore’s rushing attack. There’s no question that it will be better than last year, but the pieces are in place for the Ravens to be one of the NFL’s top 10 rushing attacks.

More Turnovers from the Secondary

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    The Ravens were tied for 19th in the league last year, forcing only 24 turnovers. That number probably won’t increase drastically, but the secondary should be stocked with quality playmakers capable of creating some interceptions.

    Lardarius Webb is an excellent cornerback when healthy, and he started to look like himself toward the latter half of the 2013 season.

    On the opposite side of the field, Jimmy Smith emerged as a stud in the making, shutting down some of the game’s best receivers (e.g. Brandon Marshall and Andre Johnson). This offseason, he’s focused his energies on expanding his knowledge of the playbooks (plural), according to Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com:

    To increase his turnover production, Smith has spent this offseason working to get a better grasp on NFL offenses. He’s dug into film study to understand how opponents try to attack the Ravens, and what he can do to counteract it.

    'You want to get a few plays a game where you can steal something, so that’s more of a focus,' Smith said. 'I know our defense, and I try to get better at mastering that. At the same time I want to understand the offense and what they’re trying to do to me so I can make more plays for our team.'

    Rounding out the secondary are the safeties. It’s unclear what Terrence Brooks’ role is, but he has the speed to cover a ton of ground on the back end, and Matt Elam has shown signs of tremendous growth in OTAs.

    There are some question marks about the secondary (like the nickel corner and the starting free safety), but the athleticism is there for the Ravens to fly around the field and create some turnovers. If the pass rush can replicate its devastating effectiveness from the first half 2013, quarterbacks will have to get rid of the ball in a hurry, and this Ravens secondary will make them pay.

Steve Smith Proves Ozzie Right

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    More than a few eyebrows were raised when the Ravens signed the 35-year-old Steve Smith Sr. to a three-year deal. By the time the season ends, those questions will look silly.

    Part of that is because the contract offers the Ravens financial flexibility in the long run anyway, but the bigger reason is because Smith still has plenty of football left in him, and he’ll be a major figure in the passing game.

    He provides Flacco with a tough, reliable target to fall back on in critical situations. There are other weapons on the roster, but Smith’s impeccable route running, strong hands and his willingness to keep coming back to the football make him a quarterback’s dream.

    He’s a perfect fit in the receiving corps with the underneath game to complement the speed of Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones on the outside.

    Fans and critics slammed Newsome for not replacing Anquan Boldin (or re-signing him), but Smith will fill that void—just one year later.

Rookies Make Their Mark…Early

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    Every year, fans get overhyped about their team’s rookie classes when the reality is that it’s incredibly difficult for first-year NFL players to make an impact. This year, the hype from Ravens Nation will be rewarded.

    The class of 2013 only produced Elam in the way of instant contributors, but the 2014 pool brings more pro-ready talent.

    Right off the bat, first-round pick C.J. Mosley is expected to be a Week 1 starter. In fact, it would be more surprising if he didn’t start because he’s been so spectacular in OTAs and rookie minicamp.

    Not only is he going to start, but he should be one of the league’s best rookies and a favorite for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

    Then there are other defensive players that figure to be rotational players at the very least. Timmy Jernigan, for example, has shown flashes of the physical dominance that made him a one-man wrecking crew at Florida State, and he’ll have every opportunity to earn playing time on a D-line looking for Arthur Jones’ replacement.

    As for Terrence Brooks, the learning curve for a rookie safety is steep, but he is the most physically gifted safety on the roster, and he is more talented than any of the other options at free safety.

    On offense, Lorenzo Taliaferro and Crockett Gillmore both figure to fill important roles near the goal line—Taliaferro as the bruising short-yardage back and Gillmore as an additional blocker and big red-zone target.

    Of the bunch, only Mosley looks like a surefire starter, but the rest will all earn some snaps and provide valuable contributions in their debut seasons.

Joe Flacco Has a Career Year

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    Joe Flacco had a career year in 2013, but it wasn’t all good. He set career-highs in attempts (614), yards (3,912) and interceptions (22) in the first season of his gargantuan contract. Flacco is used to being a magnet for criticism—even before his contract—but he drew plenty of flak for the disappointing performance.

    While the Ravens definitely want more from their franchise QB, last year’s struggles were more of a reflection of the talent surrounding him than the gunslinger himself. Some would argue that, at his salary, he should be successful regardless of the talent surrounding him. There is a nugget of legitimacy in that, but the fact of the matter is that Flacco is not that type of quarterback.

    He needs at least a modicum of talent around him, and he didn’t have it in 2013. Fortunately, Ozzie Newsome spent most of this offseason catering to Flacco’s needs.

    The O-line is restocked with players that will prevent Flacco from taking the 48 sacks that he took in 2013 (second-most in the league).

    New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is a renowned offensive guru, and his presence will be beneficial for Flacco. But the presence of Rick Dennison as the QB coach may be even more helpful for the Delaware product—who has played much better with a position coach in his ear:

    • With QB coach: 82 TDs, 44 INTs, passer rating of 87.8
    • Without QB coach: 39 TDs, 34 INTs, passer rating of 76.7

    Furthermore, the running game (that has already been discussed) will be able to take some of the pressure off the Super Bowl MVP.

    Most importantly, however, he has arguably the most talented (on paper) receiving corps he’s ever had the luxury of working with.

    Steve Smith Sr. is an adequate replacement for Boldin as a tough, intermediate route-runner that snags passes at will over the middle. Dennis Pitta will also work in that area of the field, reprising his role as Flacco’s favorite target.

    Torrey Smith (who continues to improve) and Jacoby Jones boast the speed to connect with Flacco’s huge arm on the outside, and secondary targets like Marlon Brown and Owen Daniels give him big-bodied targets in the red zone.

    Flacco will finally crack the 4,000-yard barrier—anything less would be a major disappointment—and the more balanced offense means less turnovers and more big plays in the passing game.