Baltimore Ravens Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis, X-Factors and More
The Baltimore Ravens are a team on the rise after a subpar 2013 season. For the first time in the John Harbaugh era, Baltimore didn't have a winning record after finishing 8-8 in 2013. That was also the first time in the Harbaugh era, which began in 2008, that the Ravens didn't make it to the playoffs.
It didn't come as a big shock though. Following their Super Bowl winning-season in 2012, the Ravens lost a host of key players to free agency and retirement.
Center Matt Birk and inside linebacker Ray Lewis retired, while cornerback Cary Williams, outside linebacker Paul Kruger and inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe all left to sign lucrative deals with other teams in free agency.
All of those players were vital to the Ravens' success in the years prior to their departures, and not adequately replacing them played a big part in the team's struggles in 2013.
Baltimore took its lumps, and now it has reloaded and are ready to get back to its winning ways in 2014.
Here's my preview of the 2014 Baltimore Ravens.
1. Joe Flacco
2. Tyrod Taylor
The Ravens will go into the 2014 season with just two quarterbacks on their roster, with franchise quarterback Joe Flacco set to lead the way for the seventh consecutive year.
To this point, Flacco has started in all 96 possible regular-season games in his career. That kind of durability is hard to find, and it helps Baltimore feel confident about keeping just two quarterbacks.
In March of 2013, Flacco signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract that made him the NFL’s highest-paid player. The Ravens are committed to Flacco for the foreseeable future.
That said, Flacco's first year playing under that contact was one to forget, and Baltimore will need him to perform much better in 2014. Last year, Flacco completed 59 percent of his passes and threw just 19 touchdowns, both of which were the second-lowest marks NFL career.
Flacco also threw a career-high 22 interceptions. Not all of this can be solely blamed on quarterback, however. The offensive line struggled, and no receiver other than Torrey Smith proved to be a consistent, reliable target.
All Flacco needs is a better supporting cast in 2014, and his play will resemble the level of play he displayed in 2012. That's when he threw 22 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions while leading Baltimore to a Super Bowl win.
Backing up Flacco will be Tyrod Taylor. Entering a contract year, Taylor could be in his last year as the No. 2 QB. He's played well enough that the Ravens should feel comfortable with him being stepping in were something to happen to Flacco , though Taylor has never started a regular-season game.
The only time Taylor has ever played significant snaps in a meaningful game was in Week 17 of the 2012 season vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. Baltimore had already clinched a playoff berth and locked down the seeding, so Taylor was put in the game early to replace Flacco.
Taylor went on to complete 15 of 25 passes for 149 yards and ran for 65 yards and one touchdown. Taylor looked like a serviceable QB in that game.
It may have been just one game, but the fact that Baltimore enters 2014 with just two active quarterbacks indicates the level of confidence the Ravens have in Taylor.
1. Eugene Monroe (LT)
2. James Hurst (LT)
1. Jeremy Zuttah (C)
2. Gino Gradkowski (C)
1. Kelechi Osemele (LG)
1. Marshal Yanda (RG)
2. John Urschel (RG)
1. Ricky Wagner (RT)
2. Jah Reid (RT)
The Ravens offensive line struggled mightily in 2013, evidenced by the 48 sacks they allowed. That was tied for the fourth most of any team in 2013, and Baltimore made sure it upgraded that unit in the offseason.
That started with re-signing their best lineman in left tackle Eugene Monroe. Baltimore acquired Monroe in the middle of the 2013 season after they traded fourth-round and fifth-round draft picks to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Monroe's plus-24.0 grade was the highest any Ravens player received in 2013. Stability along the offensive line needs to be a priority for Baltimore this offseason, and re-signing Monroe helped do just that.
Wagner played only 131 offensive snaps in the entire 2013 season, but got plenty of work this preseason. He played in 112 offensive snaps and received a 1.3 grade from Pro Football Focus.
The only other spot that will have a new starter in 2014 is at center. Baltimore traded for him this offseason to replace Gino Gradkowski.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Gradkowski was the worst-rated Ravens offensive player and lowest-rated NFL center in 2013 (minus-18.1). Not long after Baltimore acquired Zuttah, John Harbaugh stated that the former Buccaneer lineman would take over as the starting center.
Zuttah should be an upgrade over Gradkowski, who will now serve as a backup guard and center this year.
At guard, Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda are retaining their starting guard spots. Neither do much to stand out, but they both are solid starters, nonetheless.
John Urschel was drafted out of Penn State in the fifth round of this year's NFL draft. He made the final 53-man roster, and he'll serve as a backup this year. Undrafted free-agent left tackle James Hurst and veteran lineman Jay Reid will serve as the backup tackles.
1. Ray Rice (RB)
2. Bernard Pierce
3. Lorenzo Taliaferro
4. Justin Forsett
1. Kyle Juszczyk (FB)
The Ravens struggled to find a consistent ground game in 2013, and they're hoping a new season brings about better results.
Baltimore ranked 29th in total offense and 30th in rushing offense in 2013, and much of it had to do with the struggles of running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce
They played behind a poor offensive line while dealing with nagging injuries that limited them to a combined 1,096 yards on 336 carries (3.3 yards per carry).
Rice was plagued with a hip injury and weight issues last year. That led to him rushing for a mere 660 yards and four touchdowns in 15 games. Prior to last year, Rice rushed for over 1,100 yards in each of the previous four seasons while scoring a combined 39 touchdowns.
The offseason hasn't been much better. Rice was charged with third-degree charge of aggravated assault of his then-fiance and was later suspended for two games by the NFL. He'll miss Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals and the following week's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Rice should be the starter when he returns, but in the meantime, Pierce will start in his absence. As a rookie in 2012, Pierce gained 532 yards, averaging a sparkling 4.9 yards per carry.
His second season in the NFL was plagued by a shoulder injury that helped limit him to just 436 yards on 152 carries (2.9 YPC) in 2013. The second-year man out of Temple was also dealing with labrum damage in his shoulder, for which he had surgery this offseason.
If Pierce is healthy, his 2014 season should be more reflective of his 2012 numbers than of those in 2013. Backing him up, at least for the first two games, will likely be rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro.
The 6'2", 230-pound Taliaferro was drafted in May in the fourth round out of Coastal Carolina. He was named the Big South Offensive Player of the Year in 2013 after leading the conference with 1,729 rushing yards. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry and racked up 27 touchdowns in 15 games.
During this preseason, Taliaferro was Baltimore's workhorse, leading the NFL with 243 rushing yards in four preseason games. for at least the first two games of 2014, Taliaferro should be the No. 2 RB on the depth chart behind Pierce, meaning he should get a good amount of touches early this year.
The fourth RB will be Justin Forsett, a journeyman who signed a one-year deal with Baltimore this offseason. Forsett spent the 2013 season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he carried the ball just six times for 31 rushing yards.
In seven NFL seasons, Forsett has rushed for 1,692 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns. He's also caught 115 passes for 850 yards (7.4 yards per catch) and one score.
The team's lone fullback is Kyle Juszczyk, though he's more of a pass-catching back. He caught 10 passes for 90 yards during the preseason, but he also showed signs that his blocking has improved. The second-year fullback from Harvard spent his rookie season limited to special teams duties.
1. Torrey Smith
2. Steve Smith
3. Marlon Brown
4. Jacoby Jones
5. Deonte Thompson
6. Michael Campanaro
7. Kamar Aiken
Baltimore ranked 29th in total offense last year while also allowing the fourth-most sacks (48) of any team. While part of the blame was on the offensive line's poor play, another part of the issue was that quarterback Joe Flacco was holding the ball too long because his receivers weren't getting open.
Gone are Dallas Clark, Tandon Doss and Brandon Stokley 62 combined receptions from a year ago. In their place are newcomers Steve Smith, Kamar Aiken and Michael Campanaro, who make up a deep receiving unit headlined by Torrey Smith.
Coming off a career-best 65 catches for 1,128 yards and four touchdowns, Smith emerged as one of the NFL's best young receivers—and he did so with little by way of a supporting cast.
Outside of Smith, no other Ravens receiver had more than 524 receiving yards in 2013. Baltimore receivers also caught only 13 touchdowns, and 11 of them were between Smith and Marlon Brown.
Joining them after the Carolina Panthers cut him is Steve Smith, who will immediately upgrade what was a very thin group of Ravens receivers. This past year with Carolina, he was the team's leading receiver with 64 receptions for 746 yards and four touchdowns.
He is also the Panthers' all-time leader in catches (836), receiving yards (12,197) and touchdowns (67) and ranks 19th in NFL history in receptions.
Expect to see Steve Smith to open the year as the No. 2 receiver next to Torrey Smith.
Behind them will be Marlon Brown, who was a bright spot for Baltimore last season. An undrafted rookie free agent out of Georgia, Brown caught 49 passes for 524 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns.
The 6'4", 205-pound target is a huge red-zone presence who figures to put up even better numbers in his second season. Pro Football Focus even tabbed Brown as its Ravens secret superstar for 2014.
Serving as the fourth receiver in addition to being the team's primary return man will be Jacoby Jones. He caught 37 passes for 455 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 2013.
Jones also had 31 returns for 892 yards and one score. That's the role he needs to focus on more this year. Jones has never caught more than 51 passes or registered over 562 receiving yards in a single season in his seven years in the NFL.
After Jones, there's not much else Baltimore can rely on. Deonte Thompson was expected to take on a bigger role with the offense in 2013, but failed to do so. He caught just 10 passes for 96 yards while appearing in just seven games.
Kamar Aiken is a journeyman who entered the NFL in 2011, but doesn't have a career reception.
Baltimore selected Michael Campanaro out of Wake Forest with the 218th overall pick in this year's NFL draft. Over four years, Campanaro caught a school-record 229 passes for 2,506 career yards and 14 scores. Campanaro's senior season saw him catch 67 passers for 803 yards and six touchdowns in eight games, as he missed five games with a collarbone injury.
1. Dennis Pitta
2. Owen Daniels
3. Crockett Gillmore
The tight end position was one that didn't produce much last year, but that's because the unit's best player was hardly ever on the field.
A hip injury limited Dennis Pitta to just four games in 2013. He should return to reclaim his status as the No. 1 tight end and one of Joe Flacco's favorite targets.
In 2012, Pitta caught 61 passes for 669 yards (11.0 yards per catch) and seven touchdowns.
Owen Daniels was signed to a one-year deal to complement Pitta this year, while third-round rookie Crockett Gillmore develops and replaces him next year.
Daniels has had a productive eight-year career, all of which came with the Houston Texans. There, he he caught 385 balls for 4,617 yards and 29 touchdowns, but a leg injury limited him to just 252 yards and three touchdowns in five games last year.
1. Haloti Ngata (DT)
2. Timmy Jernigan (DT)
1. Brandon Williams (NT)
2. Terrence Cody (NT)
1. Chris Canty (DE)
2. DeAngelo Tyson (DE)
Haloti Ngata is one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. He's a five-time Pro Bowler and a four-time All-Pro selection, but he's moving to defensive tackle this year after starting at nose tackle last year. Ngata is moving because of the loss of defensive lineman Arthur Jones.
The wild card on the defensive line is rookie Timmy Jernigan. Currently listed as a backup defensive tackle, Jernigan was drafted out of Florida State in the second round as a nose tackle.
The 6'2", 300-pound Jernigan had 108 tackles (19 for a loss) and six sacks over the past two seasons for the Seminoles. He'll likely get playing time at both tackle spots as a rookie.
Terrence Cody will be another backup at nose tackle when he comes off the PUP list. He's there right now because of offseason hip surgery, and he'll miss the first six games of 2014.
Chris Canty won the starting defensive end spot in training camp. DeAngelo Tyson will back him up.
1. Terrell Suggs (OLB 1)
2. Pernell McPhee (OLB 1)
1. Elvis Dumervil (OLB 2)
2. Courtney Upshaw (OLB 2)
In Baltimore's 3-4 defense, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil once again are the starting outside linebackers. The two combined in 2013 to form one of the NFL's best pass-rushing duos.
The two combined for 19.5 sacks, while, according to Pro Football Focus, Dumervil was credited 40 QB hurries and Suggs 37. The tandem is what make the Ravens defense so intimidating.
Courtney Upshaw and Pernell McPhee are solid backups who will give Baltimore quality play when they're on the field, though they won't be asked to do much.
In 2013, McPhee played in 340 snaps and had 15 QB hurries. Upshaw was in effect another starter, given that he was so often on the field. Though he recorded 650 snaps, Upshaw managed to get just 11 QB hurries. He needs to be more productive with the amount of playing time he gets.
1. Daryl Smith (ILB 1)
2. Josh Bynes (ILB 1)
3. Zachary Orr
1. C.J. Mosley (ILB 2)
2. Arthur Brown (ILB 2)
3. Albert McClellan (ILB 2)
Inside linebacker might just be the Ravens' deepest position heading into the 2014 season. This, after drafting Alabama's C.J. Mosley with their first-round pick.
Regarded as one of the top linebacker prospects in this year's NFL draft, Mosley won the Butkus Award as the top linebacker in college football and was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.
He started 13 games and was Alabama's leading tackler with 108 tackles, nine tackles for loss and five pass breakups.
Because the Ravens use a 3-4 defense that features two inside linebackers, Mosley and veteran Daryl Smith will be the two starters at that position. Smith, who led the Ravens in tackles last season and signed a new four-year, $16 million deal this offseason to keep him entrenched as one of the two starting inside backers.
Behind them is 2012 second-rounder Arthur Brown. After playing in just 211 snaps as a rookie, Brown is expected to take on a bigger role in the defense this year.
Veterans Josh Bynes and Albert McClellan will also compete for backup snaps. Bynes actually started the first six games at inside linebacker last year but was benched due to poor performance.
As for McClellan, he played in just five snaps last year, as most of his work came on special teams. Zachary Orr is an undrafted free agent out of North Texas who will probably be a game-day inactive for most of his rookie season.
1. Lardarius Webb (CB 1)
2. Chykie Brown (CB 1)
1. Jimmy Smith (CB 2)
2. Asa Jackson (CB 2)
The Ravens are going with just four cornerbacks to start the 2014 NFL season. Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith will return as the full-time starters. When healthy, Webb is one of the game's top corners, as evidenced by his 10 career interceptions to go with 65 passes defensed, including 50 in his past 38 games.
Smith is a solid starter next to Webb, and those two helped Baltimore rank 12th in pass defense last year. Smith grabbed two interceptions, registered 15 passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown will serve as the primary backups, though they have little playing experience. Brown played in just 39 snaps in 2013, while Jackson was only used on special teams. Both will be forced to play more in 2014, but this is a dangerously thin position for Baltimore.
1. Matt Elam (SS)
2. Anthony Levine (SS)
3. Brynden Trawick (SS)
1. Darian Stewart (FS)
2. Jeromy Miles (FS)
3. Terrence Brooks (FS)
Matt Elam is a rising star in the Ravens secondary. He started 15 games at free safety as a rookie in 2013, but he'll likely be moving to his more natural strong safety spot this year.
He's doing so to replace James Ihedigbo, the full-time starting strong safety in 2013, who signed with the Detroit Lions this offseason after registering 101 tackles, three interceptions and 11 passes defensed last year.
As for Elam, he played out of position at free safety, so it will benefit him to move to other safety spot. Anthony Levine and Brynden Trawick will compete for playing time behind him while also getting snaps at cornerback. Both players played there in the preseason in hopes of shoring up Baltimore's lack of depth at the position.
At free safety, Darian Stewart won the starting job after a training camp battle with Jeromy Miles and Terrence Brooks. Stewart joined Baltimore this offseason after being a backup for the majority of his career with the St. Louis Rams.
For his career, Stewart has started 19 games in four seasons, but he's still the most experienced safety on the roster. He's got one career interception to go with 18 passes defensed. Miles is a career backup who plays mostly on special teams.
Keep an eye on Brooks, the third-round pick out of Florida State. He started in 13 games last year for the national champion Seminoles while registering 56 tackles and two interceptions.
1. Justin Tucker (Kicker)
1. Sam Koch (Punter)
1. Morgan Cox (Long Snapper)
Like most NFL teams, the Ravens will have just one player at each specials teams spot. Justin Tucker is one of the best kickers in the NFL.
In 2013, Tucker became the first NFL kicker to kick a field goal in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s in one contest. Those came in a crucial 18-16 win over the Detroit Lions, as Tucker kicked six field goals, including the game-winner from 61 yards away, to give the Ravens the two-point victory.
Punter Sam Koch ranked 13th in net punting average in 2013. He punted the ball 90 times and averaged 46.0 yards per kick. Only two players punted more than him in 2013, a sign that the offense wasn't very efficient. Baltimore hopes they won't need him to punt that much again in 2014.
Morgan Cox returns as the long snapper.
Offensive X-factor: Gary Kubiak
The Ravens offense was a mess in 2013, so Baltimore brought in one of the best offensive minds to fix it, hiring former Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak to become their new offensive coordinator.
It's a role in which he's thrived in the past.
Regarded as an offensive guru, Kubiak has won multiple Super Bowls as an offensive assistant coach. He won his first as the quarterbacks coach for the San Francisco 49ers in 1994.
Kubiak later joined the Denver Broncos in 1995 to become their offensive coordinator. There, Kubiak helped Denver win back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1997 and 1998.
After several more years as Denver's offensive coordinator, Kubiak became head coach of the Texans in 2006. He would go on to lead Houston to an unprecedented level success for that franchise.
In 2011, Kubiak led the team to its first-ever first division crown, playoff berth and playoff win. He followed that up with a 12-4 campaign in 2012 and another playoff win in the Wild Card Round.
Kubiak did all of this with an offense that routinely ranked among the NFL's best. Houston set a franchise-record 153.0 rushing yards per game in 2011, which ranked second in the NFL that year.
However, Kubiak knows how to keep his offense balanced. From 2009-2012, Houston's passing offense ranked seventh, seventh, 10th and 11th, respectively.
The Ravens offense is full of talented players, including Dennis Pitta, Torrey Smith, Steve Smith, Ray Rice and Owen Daniels.
How well Kubiak utilizes all of those weapons will determine how well this offense performs in 2014. If Baltimore's offense can just be "average," that will be a significant upgrade from last year.
Defensive X-factor: Cornerback
As mentioned before, the Ravens have two solid cornerbacks in Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. However, there's very little behind them in the event that either Smith or Webb go down with an injury.
Of all the positions on Baltimore's roster, there might not be a bigger drop-off from the starters to the backups than here.
Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown simply haven't done enough when getting meaningful playing time to show they're capable of making a positive impact.
Those are also the only four corners on the roster. That means Baltimore is one injury way from a safety having to get significant snaps at corner.
Speaking of injuries, Webb missed the entire preseason and training camp while dealing with a back issue. He is expected to return Week 1 against the Bengals though. But having missed so much practice could mean Webb will be rusty.
As if Webb's injury wasn't bad enough, Smith suffered a chest injury in the second exhibition game that knocked him out for the remainder of the 2014 preseason. Jackson also missed a good portion of the preseason with an ankle injury.
Again, this can go from being a solid position to being a big weakness with just one or two injures. How healthy the Baltimore corners stay this year will be a big X-factor on defense.
Two Biggest Games of 2014
Week 1 vs. the Cincinnati Bengals
The Ravens will get their first shot at the 2013 AFC North champions in Week 1, as Baltimore hosts Cincinnati. The race for the AFC North was a tight one last year after 14 weeks, as Baltimore was 8-6 and just one game behind the 9-5 Bengals for first-place in the division.
However, Baltimore lost its final two games, including a Week 17 game at Cincinnati. That final loss also prevented the Ravens from claimed a Wild Card berth.
Week 1 will not only serve as a means of revenge for that setback but also a chance for the Ravens to jump out to a quick one-game lead over the Bengals in the division.
Week 13 vs. the San Diego Chargers
As mentioned before, Baltimore just barely missed out on making the playoffs after losing their final two games in 2013. The team that benefited from Baltimore's collapse were the San Diego Chargers, who nabbed the sixth and final playoff spot with a 9-7 record, one game better than Baltimore.
The two teams didn't play one another in 2013, but are scheduled to square off in Baltimore this year with both teams likely vying for playoffs spots. If Baltimore is unable to win the AFC North this year, a win over San Diego could go a long way toward securing a wild card spot.
Projected AFC North Finish
The Ravens will rebound from a poor 2013 campaign to make it back to the playoffs in 2014, and they'll do so by winning the AFC North.
The defending-champion Bengals lost both of their primary coordinators this offseason, as well as star defensive end Michael Johnson, who left in free agency to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
They also come into 2014 with several key players either injured, or coming off major injuries. All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins is coming off an ACL tear last year, and Pro Bowl cornerback Leon Hall is coming off a torn Achilles, the second of his career.
Both of those players will likely take a while to get their feet back under them once the 2014 season starts, and Baltimore has the advantage of playing them in Week 1. The Ravens win their home opener against Cincinnati, which sets the tone for an 11-5 season that sees Baltimore claim the AFC North for the third time in the past four seasons.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati finish with identical 10-6 records, and both teams earn wild card berths. The Cleveland Browns finish in the bottom of the division at 5-11.
Projected AFC North Finish
Baltimore Ravens (11-5)**
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)*
Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)*
Cleveland Browns (5-11)
*Denotes playoff berth
**Denotes division winner