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Winners and Losers of Baltimore Ravens Offseason So Far

Shehan PeirisCorrespondent IIIJune 17, 2014

Winners and Losers of Baltimore Ravens Offseason So Far

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    The Baltimore Ravens of 2014 are beginning to take shape, and there have been winners and losers for every step of the way. This slideshow is (hopefully) a quick and consolidated hub for the good and the bad of Baltimore’s efforts to return to the upper echelon of the NFL.

    There is no fixed definition for being a winner or a loser on this list, but all of these slides give an idea of where things stand heading into minicamp. Most of these candidates are individual players whose chances of contributing every Sunday have fluctuated since the 2013 season ended.

    But there are also a couple of positional groupings sprinkled in and possibly a general manager that makes the cut.

    A lot can happen between now and Week 1, but these are the winners and losers of the Baltimore Ravens' offseason to date.

Winner: Ricky Wagner

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Ricky Wagner is biggest individual winner of the offseason (so far) because he’s continued to give the coaching staff enough reason to keep him penciled in as the starter at right tackle.

    Before the NFL draft, it was assumed that the Ravens would take advantage of a relatively deep tackle class to bring in some competition for Wagner at the very least. The only challenger they brought in, however, was undrafted free agent James Hurst.

    Then there were rumblings that the team could move Kelechi Osemele to the spot if Wagner underachieved. But Osemele has stayed put at left guard.

    In OTAs, Ryan Jensen took some reps at tackle and emerged as a possible rival, but Wagner has kept a relatively firm grip on the job.

    Additionally, the Ravens have had the chance to sign a veteran free agent since June 1—but no move has been made.

    Through all the challengers—both real and hypothetical—Wagner has been the man to replace Michael Oher on the right side of the line. Count offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak as one of his admirers, according to Jamison Hensley of ESPN. Here’s what Kubiak had to say about the Wisconsin product:

    To me, Ricky has been—I don't want to say he's a surprise, because I expected him to play well—but I think we put a lot on his plate early walking in here as a starter, new scheme and those types of things. He has responded and hasn't missed a rep. He plays very hard in what we're doing, so we just have to keep going. But I've been very pleased with Ricky.

    He’s definitely the most surprising starter on the roster, but Wagner has earned the title up to this point—which makes him the biggest winner of the offseason.

Loser: Jah Reid

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    Larry French/Getty Images

    Unlike Wagner, this has been an offseason to forget for Jah Reid. Off the field, Reid was charged with two misdemeanor counts of battery after an altercation at a strip club in Florida.

    He avoided trial, per Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, but it was hardly a good start to the offseason for the utility lineman, and it’s only gotten worse on the field.

    He was kept off the practice field due to a strained calf, and he’s only watched as his competition along the O-line has continued to impress.

    After the unit was the single biggest disappointment from last year, general manager Ozzie Newsome has made significant upgrades to the position, and Reid is the odd man out.

    Excluding Reid, the Ravens have 10 linemen worthy of a final roster spot: Eugene Monroe, Kelechi Osemele, Jeremy Zuttah, Marshal Yanda, Ricky Wagner, Gino Gradkowski, Ryan Jensen, John Urschel, James Hurst and A.Q. Shipley.

    The Ravens haven’t carried more than nine O-linemen in John Harbaugh’s tenure as head coach, so someone is going to be squeezed out in all likelihood.

    The fact that A.Q. Shipley was the starting left guard in Kelechi Osemele’s absence last season (and that he held that position despite an underwhelming performance) speaks volumes about Reid’s place on the roster, and Ryan Jensen has emerged as the new “utility lineman” capable of playing all five spots across the line.

    Barring an injury, it would be surprising to see Reid make the final roster at this point. He’s not just a loser on this list; he may end up losing his job.

Winner: Joe Flacco

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    As far as individuals go, Joe Flacco is right up there with Ricky Wagner as one of the biggest beneficiaries of this offseason. That’s unsurprising considering that Flacco has been the focal point of the decision-making process in many regards.

    Last season was the worst of his career (relative to the expectations), but his inferior supporting cast was the most prominent factor in his 2013 demise.

    Torrey Smith had the best season of his young career, but he was the only reliable target for Flacco last year as the gunslinger played without Anquan Boldin, Dennis Pitta and Jacoby Jones for parts (if not all) of the season.

    This year, he has an impressive receiving corps after the addition of Steve Smith Sr. and Owen Daniels combined with a (hopefully) full season from Pitta and Jones and the development of Marlon Brown.

    Furthermore, Flacco took a beating last season as his O-line looked uncomfortable with the notion of protecting him.

    That unit has undergone an overhaul, with a healthy Kelechi Osemele manning the left guard spot and the experienced Jeremy Zuttah controlling everything from the center spot.

    On top of all that, Flacco’s new offensive coordinator (Gary Kubiak) is widely renowned as one of the greatest offensive minds in the game.

    All the moves from this offseason point to Flacco bouncing back in a big way this year.

Loser: Tyrod Taylor

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Things are rosy for the starting quarterback, but they aren’t so great for his backup, Tyrod Taylor. He ended last season on a terrible note, committing two turnovers that led straight to touchdowns for the Cincinnati Bengals in the season finale.

    Coach Harbaugh made it clear that the Ravens aren’t impressed with his production, via Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com:

    Well, you know, Tyrod’s only got one year left on his contract. We’ve been very happy with Tyrod, and we feel like he has a great future, but we have been a little disappointed how he’s played in games certainly. We feel like he’s a lot better than he’s showed. I know he feels that way too.

    We feel like Tyrod’s best football is by far definitely in front of him, but he’s only got one year left with us, so we need to add a quarterback into the mix, whether it be offseason or in the draft.

    Taylor’s contract may be up at the end of the year, but the Ravens had discussions with Brandon Weeden, according to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, before he signed with the Dallas Cowboys—presumably about taking over backup duties. While it didn’t work out back then, the Ravens turned to the draft to provide some competition for the former Hokie, spending a sixth-round pick on Keith Wenning.

    Wenning may not take Taylor’s job this season—he’s a rookie after all—but the Ravens' words and actions from this offseason show they aren’t content to rely on Taylor as their backup quarterback. Unless he shows drastic improvement, it doesn’t look like he’ll be re-signed at the season’s end.

Winner: Ravens Running Game

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    The most logical explanation for the Ravens’ 2013 performance on the ground was that commissioner Roger Goodell threatened to ban every Baltimore player for life if they put forth a modicum of effort in the rushing attack. That’s how bad it looked.

    That’s how bad it was.

    Fortunately, Ozzie Newsome was watching that monstrosity and made a concerted effort to prevent an encore.

    The improved O-line was discussed on the Joe Flacco slide, and that alone will do wonders for the running game since the tailbacks were routinely staring down multiple defenders in the backfield.

    Likewise, the addition of Gary Kubiak has already been mentioned, but Kubiak’s emphasis on the ground game as the foundation of his offense is a very good thing for the Ravens rushing attack.

    Those two schematic and systemic upgrades will be a boon for the running game, but the running backs themselves are also better.

    Primary back Ray Rice shed some weight to return to his usual elusive and shifty self, and the early results have been promising, according to Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com:

    He is noticeably slimmer from last season, which was a focus coming into the year. Rice has shown no lingering signs of a hip injury that hindered him throughout last season, and he appears to have re-gained his explosiveness out of the backfield.

    Rice may have to deal with a suspension from the NFL to open the season, but he appears to be putting himself in good position to make a significant impact when he does get back on the field.

    It’s not just all about Rice, however. Bernard Pierce is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, but the additions of Lorenzo Taliaferro and Justin Forsett give the Ravens depth they sorely missed last season with both of their premier backs hampered by nagging injuries.

    With improved blocking up front and a diverse array of weapons out of the backfield, the running game will once again be the foundation of the Ravens offense.

Loser: Sam Koch

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Sam Koch was uncharacteristically erratic for the first half of the 2013 season, which is probably the impetus behind the Ravens’ decision to bring in undrafted free agent Richie Leone.

    Koch has held a stranglehold on the Baltimore punter spot since he was drafted in 2006, and he already holds plenty of the franchise’s punting records. But for the first time since 2011, he has a running mate for the offseason.

    That’s not to say his job is in a precarious position. The rookie will need to play very well to unseat Koch, but the fact that Leone was brought in serves as a notice to Koch that he will need to perform better to warrant his $2.8 million cap figure, per Spotrac.com.

Winner: Dennis Pitta

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Dennis Pitta was an unrestricted free agent, but he never hit the market. That’s very good for the Baltimore Ravens, but it’s just as good for Pitta, who sticks around in a brilliant situation.

    For starters, his quarterback is one of his best friends and the two have amazing chemistry on the field, where Flacco loves to target the big-bodied tight end.

    Pitta was poised to have an outstanding season last year, but a devastating hip injury cut his season short. With a full season ahead of him, Pitta should put up excellent numbers from the tight end position, especially with Gary Kubiak calling the shots.

    Kubiak is famous for how he utilizes tight ends in the passing game, and Pitta—one of the league’s best receiving tight ends—should benefit tremendously from a Kubiak-led offense that highlights tight ends in the middle of the field and in the red zone.

    So Pitta is reunited with his best friend and has a coordinator that will call his number early and often. Oh, and he signed a five-year, $32 million contract in February...so there’s that.

    That makes him a winner in my books.

Loser: Deonte Thompson

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    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    At this point last offseason, the future looked bright for Deonte Thompson. With a wide receiver free-for-all on the horizon and playing time up for grabs, Thompson was considered one of the favorites to snap up a more significant role in the offense.

    Fast-forward to now, and it’s unclear if he’ll even make the final roster.

    To be clear, this turn of events isn’t totally the result of this offseason, and it isn’t all doom and gloom for Thompson.

    It’s merely a reflection of how much difference a year can make in the NFL, and how fleeting an opportunity can be.

    Thompson didn’t make the most of his opportunities last season to latch on as a fixture in the passing game (although injury played a part in that), and now his roster spot is in jeopardy.

    Torrey Smith, Steve Smith Sr., Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown are locks to make the roster. Then it’s a five-way battle for the last one or two spots depending on how many wide receivers the Ravens choose to carry.

    Thompson will be battling LaQuan Williams (experienced special teams ace), Gerrard Sheppard (practice squad last year), Aaron Mellette (2013 draft pick who spent rookie year on IR) and Michael Campanaro (2014 seventh-round draft pick) for those spots.

    The former Florida Gator may still make the 53-man roster, but he’ll need to earn it the hard wayand his offseason arrest certainly won’t help matters.

Winner: Matt Elam

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Matt Elam’s starting job was always safe as the 2013 first-round pick turned in a very solid rookie season.

    He should be a game-changer this season, which is why he’s a big winner from the offseason—starting with the Ravens’ decision to not re-sign James Ihedigbo.

    Ihedigbo’s departure paved the way for Elam to transition to his more natural position of strong safety. He showed signs of being a force around the line of scrimmage, and he’ll have more opportunities to play in that role this season as a result of the position change.

    On top of that, however, Elam has grown in confidence and knowledge. He’s been so impressive in OTAs that a second-year leap looks imminent. In fact, he’s looked so much better that his teammates have taken notice.

    According to Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com, Lardarius Webb made the following (unprompted) glowing remarks about the Gator:

    The person who is just really growing is Matt Elam. From last year to this year, I see a big jump with his leadership, with him controlling the back end and just being that safety, controlling the calls. I just really like where I see him going.

    Coach Harbaugh expanded on that praise, per Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun:

    He has really good control of the back end. It's pretty seamless. I haven't seen too many miscommunications, and I don't think any when Matt's been back there. He's really grown, so that's been a real plus.

    Elam has the talent to be one of the game’s most impactful safeties, and this offseason has paved the way for a breakout season.

Loser: Ravens Pass Rush

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    The draft came and went and the Ravens failed to add a potential sack artist. Timmy Jernigan and Brent Urban could both generate some pressure from the D-line, but neither of them looks like a bona fide pass-rusher that can wreak havoc all by themselves.

    No, the only players fitting that description are Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil—31 and 30 years old, respectively.

    Each player has been one of the most productive pass-rushers of the last decade, but they’re on the wrong side of 30 and it’s unclear what they’ll be able to provide.

    They were a devastating duo for the first half of 2013 (17.5 combined sacks in the first nine games), but their production tailed off drastically (2.0 combined sacks in the last seven games).

    Which Suggs-Dumervil tandem will the Ravens get?

    Both players need to be very good for the Ravens to consistently generate any kind of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Otherwise, there is nobody else on the roster that is up to the task and QBs will pick apart the secondary with enough time to survey the field.

    The decision to not add a promising young pass-rusher via the draft might not hinder the Baltimore defense just yet, but it could prove to be a fatal decision, as the lack of pass-rushing depth could become an Achilles’ heel for the Ravens.

Winner: GM Ozzie Newsome

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    GAIL BURTON/Associated Press

    The Wizard of Oz is normally a winner during NFL offseasons, and this year was no exception. All evaluations are meaningless until we see this roster in action, of course, but nobody can criticize his decision-making in the moment.

    Starting in free agency, Newsome made the tough choices to walk away from some of his own free agents (e.g. Arthur Jones, Corey Graham, James Ihedigbo and Michael Oher). On the flip side, he managed to sign very reasonable contracts with Eugene Monroe, Dennis Pitta, Steve Smith Sr. and Jacoby Jones.

    Then he nailed the draft, adding a stud in C.J. Mosley and then selecting bargains in Timmy Jernigan and Terrence Brooks—both of whom have the talent to be absolute steals at their respective draft slots.

    Newsome added a lot of young talent via the draft, and this spring and summer has been a brilliant step in the impressive rebuilding-on-the-fly job he’s done.

    The Ravens won the Super Bowl just one season ago, but Newsome has reloaded with a plethora of young talent that has Baltimore’s future looking very optimistic.

    What’s even more impressive is that he’s managed to do this while giving this season’s team a more than realistic chance of competing for another Super Bowl. The Ravens—as constructed—may not be favorites to win it all, but they have enough talent to win the division, and anything can happen in the NFL postseason.

    Newsome continues to prove why he’s among the best in the business, and this offseason was an excellent example of why he’s so highly regarded.

     

    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 the latest Ravens news, draft analysis and links to episodes of Ravens Central Radio, follow me on Twitter:

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