The offensive line’s run-blocking should improve with the addition of free-agent center Matt Birk and return of RG Marshal Yanda from injury. The Ravens drafted RT Michael Oher in the first round to fill the gap left by the retirement of Willie Anderson.
Depth is a major issue since Chris Chester is the only backup center who has any experience. In his three years in the NFL, Chester has played in 43 games. He started 11 games for the Ravens in 2008.
The Ravens tried to get better at pass protection, an area in which they ranked 18th last season, by drafting Oher. But he doesn't have Flacco's blindside—Jared Gaither, entering just his second year as a starter, does. Gaither must continue to improve if the Ravens' line is truly going to get better.
After an unusually successful rookie campaign, Joe Flacco is back. He threw for 2,971 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2008. In addition, the Ravens made the playoffs and advanced to the AFC Championship Game under his leadership.
Flacco is well-insured by Troy Smith and John Beck.
The Big Three—Willis McGahee, Le’Ron McClain, and Ray Rice—return from their breakout 2008 season. But McClain has been moved back to fullback.
Jalen Parmele, whom the Ravens plucked off of the Dolphins’ practice squad on December 10, 2008, could be a No. 2 or No. 3 running back on a lot of other teams. According to his player profile on the Ravens’ official Web site, Parmele is a "smooth, aggressive athlete who can gain the tough yards and is sure-handed out of the backfield."
But because he’s on the Ravens, he will have to fight for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart against draft pick Cedric Peerman, about whom Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta had this to say:
“He’s as tough as they come with good hands. He’s been a very productive special teams guy. He’s got a tough mindset. He’s a lunch-and-pail-type guy. He was another ‘red star’ for us this year. Guys who get this distinction have a temperament and countenance we want—toughness, high character and intelligence, leadership, and competitiveness.”
The defense and "Big Three" in the rushing offense stole the limelight last year, but No. 1 receiver Derrick Mason had an under-appreciated season, catching 80 passes for 1,037 yards and five touchdowns. However, one can’t help but wonder how many similarly productive years Mason has in him, considering he’s 35.
With a few more touches, Mark Clayton would have the potential to break out in 2009. But with a powerful rushing attack and a more reliable receiver above him on the depth chart, his production will still be limited.
After unsuccessful stints with the Bengals and Patriots, Kelly Washington, who has caught 73 passes for 896 yards and nine touchdowns in seven years in the NFL, signed with the Ravens in May. Washington is exactly what the Ravens needed to build some depth at wide receiver. The team now has two legitimate pass catchers beyond Mason and Clayton.
The team thinks a lot of Marcus Smith.
Stalwart Todd Heap is still the leader of this group. His production has dropped off the past two years (he was injured for 10 games in 2007). But when he’s on his game, he’s a force.
After six years as an Eagle, LJ Smith signed with Baltimore in the offseason. He’s certainly not going to threaten Heap, but Smith has enough pass catching and blocking ability to spell Heap for limited minutes when needed. He can also play more than one role in two-TE sets.
If Heap and/or Smith get hurt, look for draft pick Davon Drew to step in and contribute nicely.
Haloti Ngata is perhaps the best young NT in the NFL anchoring what is one of the top three-man defensive lines in the NFL. He’s only played three seasons, but already he has accumulated 149 tackles.
Tackle Kevin Gregg has been a consistent presence on the Ravens’ defensive line since 2002, the year before Baltimore’s defense became perennially elite. After playing sparingly in his first two years in the league, Gregg has averaged about 58 tackles and two sacks per season since.
Tackle Trevor Pryce may be declining. He’s 33, and since he had his best all-around professional season in 2006 (46 tackles and 13 sacks), he hasn’t gotten after the ball carrier or quarterback as well.
The last two seasons, he has combined for 42 tackles and seven sacks. Furthermore, the extra effort required to make plays in a three-man line could be wearing him down faster than playing in a four-man line would.
Justin Bannan, Brandon McKinney, and Dwan Edwards are nice to have for insurance.
Bart Scott is now gone. However, the heart and soul of the Ravens’ defense, Ray Lewis, returns, as does Terrell Suggs, the other anchor of this linebacking corps.
Jarret Johnson and Tavares Gooden need to step up. Brendon Ayanbadejo, Jameel McClain, and Paul Kruger provide decent depth.
Domonique Foxworth arrived via free agency in the offseason. He had 38 tackles, an interception, and 11 pass deflections in 2008. His partner, Fabian Washington, has commendable ball skills—he batted down 15 passes in ’08, and he has 43 pass knockdowns in his career. This duo should work well together in 2009.
Samari Rolle, Frank Walker, and Lardarius Webb offer nice depth as well for the Ravens' cornerbacks.
Ed Reed, widely considered the best safety in the NFL today—and one of the best in NFL history—returns as usual. Reed ranks third in interceptions (43) among active players. He is second only to Darren Sharper and Ty Law, both of whom have been playing much longer than Reed.
Dawan Landry is coming off of a neck injury that kept him out of 14 games last season. He may be rusty at the beginning of the year, but by midseason, look for him to regain his form from 2006-07, when he combined for 146 tackles and 17 pass deflections.
Having a pair of skilled, ball-hawking safeties over the top should allow Foxworth and Washington to jam opposing receivers on the line of scrimmage without worrying if they’re going to get burned for a long gain or touchdown.
The Ravens just better hope neither Reed nor Landry gets hurt. Reserves Tom Zbikowsky and Haruki Nakumura are not ready to play more than severely limited minutes yet, except in the preseason.
Former NC State kicker Steven Hauschka and Florida State kicker Graham Gano will battle for placekicking and kickoff duties.
Gano has the immediate edge, having gotten significant playing time in his senior season at FSU in 2008. He made 24-of-26 field goal attempts and 33-of-34 extra points. The two field goals he missed were from 50+ yards.
Hauschka has little NFL experience, and he hasn't played much since his collegiate senior season in 2007. But he has great potential in his range. He has made one field goal in two attempts, but that successful try was from 54 yards.
Hauschka will need to prove his accuracy and poise are up to par, but the Ravens must think he will do well. Otherwise they wouldn’t have released longtime kicker Matt Stover in the offseason.
Punter Sam Koch is one of the best in the league, as well as one of the most underrated. He has a booming net average of 39.9 yards. He’s also a master of downing the ball inside the opposing 20-yard line, which makes him valuable in the field possession game. Koch is also the holder on placekicks.
Webb, who was drafted out of Nicholls State, should return kickoffs and punts.
Matt Katula will be the long snapper.
The staff remains intact except for the departure of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to the New York Jets. He has been replaced by Greg Mattison, who was the Ravens' linebackers coach in 2008. Not much should change in any aspect of the way the team coaches.