After what many are calling an unexpectedly good 2008-09 season, the Baltimore Ravens are poised to perform even better this year.
They have had a very productive offseason and while losing some important figures, still maintain the keys who got the Ravens to within a game of the Superbowl.
Statistically, Joe "Cool" Flacco had an average season. But when you take into consideration some very important points:
- Flacco was a rookie, not expected to even throw a ball this season, until McNair retired and Boller and Smith were injured/sick.
- Baltimore's receiving corps are not exactly stellar, with No. 3 receiver Demetrius Williams injured for the majority of the season.
- Tight-end Todd Heap, who is a very productive player, had to block for most passing downs as the Ravens' right-tackle position continued to be a an area of concern.
- The majority of Flacco's interceptions were thrown in his first few games, with Flacco becoming a real threat as the season progressed.
- Baltimore is a run heavy team.
Now we can still expect Baltimore to be a run heavy team, but Flacco should be expected to have a more commanding role this season with a full season starting under his belt. We can expect both tight ends to play more significant roles this season, as well as the receiving corps if they stay healthy.
The more healthy targets Flacco has, the better he will perform. He has great pocket presence and has a great ability in getting himself out of sack situations. He also has a huge cannon of an arm and if Williams can stay healthy, it will be utilized.
Backup Troy Smith will continue to have a presence with the "Suggs Package". Preseason training has shown him lining up as another receiver, so expect some gadget plays involving both quarterbacks this season. They have some good depth with John Beck signed from the Dolphins. My only concern is that they do not have a veteran quarterback in the squad (all these quarterbacks are young) and with Steve McNair's recent passing, they have lost a good mentor also.
Expect good progress this year from the quarterbacks.
Baltimore's triple threat running attack is back, but they have suffered a loss that will go noticed. Lorenzo Neal is a stellar blocking fullback and with LeRon McLain slotting back there, we can't expect that same kind of blocking. After having a Pro Bowl season, expect McLain's yardage to decrease significantly this season, but he should become a more rounded fullback.
Ray Rice and Willis McGahee will share the bulk of the carries this season. Ray Rice had a great rookie season, especially considering that he was behind McLain and McGahee in the pecking order. Rice should step up as a serious threat this season, while McGahee will continue to be the warhorse that he has been. Injuries aside, he is still a great between the tackles runner and still has a great stiff arm, once he gets on the outside.
There has been a lot of movement in the offensive line during the offseason for the Ravens, with Pro Bowler right-tackle Willie Anderson retiring, losing stellar guard/center Jason Brown to free agency, signing Pro Bowler center Jason Birk, and drafting tackle Michael Oher. Those two new signings will step in immediately into the holes vacated and will be just as effective.
Oher will give Flacco a pair of franchise tackles (Jared Gaither on the other) to grow with and they should anchor the Ravens' offense for years to come. Returning from injury is right-guard Marshall Yanda who will continue to improve, as will left-guard Ben Grubbs.
The Ravens have the youngest offensive line in the league, but they are also exciting and will provide the protection for Flacco and the push for the running backs. This is by far the most exciting area of the Ravens, as these exciting young players will only continue to improve. Birk will be a good mentor for them too.
We can expect some more of Harbaugh's gadget plays such as using an unbalanced line (both tackles on one side) and these young players will eat them up.
Todd Heap returns for another year with the Ravens after a less than productive year where he spent the majority of it blocking. Expect a much more productive season after the signing of Oher and Flacco having a full season under his belt. LJ Smith, signed from the Philadelphia Eagles, will combine well with Heap in two tight end situations.
Baltimore's other tight ends will have limited game time, except for injury coverage, but we will wait until the depth chart is released to see who will play.
Wide receiver is still an area of concern for the Ravens, but I doubt they will pursue any of the disgruntled players wanting trades. That is not how John Harbaugh runs his team.
Derrick Mason returns after a productive season with over 1,000 receiving yards, but at 35, we must assume he's in his twilight years.
Mark Clayton needs to step up as a receiver. While he works well in the slot, he is not much more than an average receiver. We can probably expect some more gadget plays involving him, after he threw a huge touchdown pass last year.
If Demetrius Williams can stay healthy, this should be his breakout season, but that's a big if. He is a big target, unlike Mason and Clayton, and has good hands over the middle, but he needs to stay healthy to prove his critics wrong.
Signing Kelley Washington was a good move by the Ravens, even if he only plays on special teams. He is consistent and has good hands. I expect him to play on multiple receiver downs and be productive for the Ravens.
Yamon Figurs must step up as a legitimate receiver or he will be looking for work elsewhere soon. He is not the premier return specialist that the Ravens expected. While he has soft natural hands, he doesn't cut as smooth as the Ravens would like.
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