Coming off a 5-11 campaign in 2007, starting an ill-prepared rookie quarterback from Delaware, and under the guidance of a life-long special teams coordinator turned NFL head coach, expectations had hit the basement amongst the observing public. National media pundits widely regarded the 2008 version of the Baltimore Ravens as a major work in progress, and a team that would be lucky to win three or four games.
Yet 13 wins later, and just four minutes and away from the Super Bowl, the Ravens now not only expect to repeat last year’s impressive performance, they intend to improve upon it.
Here are the 10 players to watch as the team prepares in their 2009 quest for the Lombardi Trophy:
OT Michael Oher
Sliding farther in the draft than he reasonably should have, the Ravens were overjoyed to select Oher, a player they believe will give them the young book-end tackles they’ve never before had. Oher’s basketball background highlights his athleticism, but his physicality and aggressive streak make him an ideal candidate to man the right side. Unprotected tackles in the NFL can mean big things for a rapidly developing young passing offense, and as a result Oher’s progress warrants attention. He could be a special football player.
WR Demetrius Williams
When Williams sustained a season-ending ankle-injury last season, it severely limited the Ravens offense, forcing raw and inexperienced players into the vital third-receiver role for the team’s stretch-run in 2008. When healthy, Williams is a big-play waiting to happen, possessing the speed to get deep on defensive backs, the hands to make plays in traffic, and the change of direction skills to get yards after the catch.
Having added a reported 15 pounds of muscle to his upper body this offseason, Williams health could provide Joe Flacco with the field-stretching weapon he needs to maximize his, and this offenses’ potential.
RB Ray Rice
Rice won’t wow you with his speed, and is hardly reminiscent of Barry Sanders when it comes to the juke move. He’s also not the biggest guy in the world, but what Ray Rice brings to the table is the game of a complete running back. The definition of a workhorse during his time at Rutgers, Rice likely benefited from an offseason of relative relaxation, and could burst onto the scene this year if given the chance.
Rice is a down-hill runner with tremendous vision and feel for the game, and he finishes his runs aggressively. He’s also displayed a knack for making defenders miss, and shaking off arm-tacklers. If he secures the starting job in training camp, he’ll be unlikely to relinquish it.
LB Tavares Gooden
Whoever wins the vacant starting linebacker positional battle between budding stars Tavares Gooden and Jameel McClain in training camp, the other will be sure to see plenty of playing time in 2009. But it’s clear that Gooden has the inside track, and that it’s his job to lose.
Gooden is highly-regarded by the Ravens personnel department and coaching staff for his speed, competitiveness, and playmaking skills. Gooden brings more athleticism to the Ravens defense than did his predecessor Bart Scott, but perhaps lacks the football instincts the “Madbacker” once called upon while in purple. That's something that should improve with increased experience and film study, and it couldn't hurt to be playing alongside fellow former Miami Hurricane Ray Lewis.
Gooden’s understanding of scheme should improve dramatically in his second year, and his production may open eyes as a result. He’s so fast that teammates have actually had to tell him to slow down in mini-camp practices.
DT Kelly Gregg
Gregg underwent micro-fracture surgery to repair a career-threatening knee condition this past season, a surgery that was required to prolong his NFL career. Reports coming out of mini camp are very encouraging though. If he comes back true to form, he bring a tough, lunch-pail type work ethic to the defensive line that will only stand to improve a unit that was a strength even in his absence.
“Buddy Lee,” as Brian Billick famously nicknamed him, thrives off of leverage and doing the dirty work that frees up his teammates to make plays. If the former wrestler, who has designs on a post-NFL Mixed Martial Arts career, can return to pre-2008 form, the Ravens defense will only be that much more dominating as a result.
C Matt Birk
Birk is an old pro. After being jilted by substandard contract offers from his former team the Minnesota Vikings, the free agent center signed with the Ravens where he will fill the void left by departed free agent center Jason Brown. Those are big shoes to fill no doubt, but the Harvard-educated center is (naturally) an extremely smart, durable, and tough football player. He will be an asset in recognizing defensive alignments, making line-calls, and setting up protections to keep Joe Flacco clean.
Birk may be a slight physical downgrade at the center position, but he is no doubt a massive mental upgrade at that spot who will serve as that vital veteran presence on the offensive line the Ravens otherwise lack.
QB Joe Flacco
Blessed with prototypical gifts, including a 6'6" frame that will support increased muscle growth, surprising agility, and arm strength that would make almost every starting NFL quarterbacks blush, Flacco is physically the picture of what a team looks for in a young signal-caller. But it’s his emotional demeanor and mental acuity that render Joe Flacco the complete package, and suggest his strong odds of realizing his potential.
With a 13 win season already to his credit, it would appear that there’s not much room for improvement for the second-year passer and former Delaware Blue Hen, but don’t tell that to Joe. Flacco was perhaps the team’s most reliable player down the stretch of last season, and seems primed to etch his name amongst the league’s top quarterbacks in the next few seasons.
In 2009, rested and adjusted to the NFL game, that evolution into the realm of the league’s elite should continue.
DE Trevor Pryce
Perhaps no defensive player in the NFL is more underrated than is Pryce, and as he goes, so to does the Ravens defense. With little depth at the defensive end position behind him, Pryce's health is vital to a team that relies on his ability to command double teams or consistently win man-to-man matchups. His "collapse the pocket" skills are exactly what the Ravens defensive approach is predicated upon—stopping the run on the way to the quarterback.
In 2007, Pryce's absence was palpable, slowing the team's pass-rush and weakening their typically stout run-defense. That trickle down affect crippled the Ravens then, and stands to again if for some reason he can't stay on the field in 2009. Pryce is a tremendous player even in his advanced football-playing age, and is perhaps the most important Ravens defensive player no one talks about.
DB Lardarius Webb
Even if you aren't specifically watching out for Webb this preseason, he will likely command your attention. The 2009 NFL Scouting Combine's fastest cornerback, Webb has a chance to contribute as a sub-package defensive back, in the return game, and perhaps even as a situational offensive weapon if his collegiate career is any indication.
A second-division Nicholls State product, the team's third-round pick will have to answer questions about a major jump in level of competition. Still, Webb loves the game, and has the playmaking skills and explosiveness that are exactly what the Ravens typically look for in their defenders.
WR Mark Clayton
Here’s one for you fantasy freaks in search of a late-round WR prospect to keep on your radar. Having shown flashes but lacking consistent production over the first years of his career, Clayton is a reliable route-runner, consistent blocker, and rarely if ever drops passes thrown his way. And while he may not be the prototypical No. 1 receiver teams often expect their first round draft picks should become, Clayton doesn’t suffer from a lack of talent either (and here's the proof).
Instead a lack of opportunities and a tremendous amount of inconsistency at the quarterback position can largely account for Clayton’s spotty production to date. Now that the quarterback position seems to be solidified for the foreseeable future in the way of Joe Flacco, and in a contract year in which he has to bolster his value upon entering free agency in 2010, Clayton has a chance to prove that the glimpses he showed last season were a sign of things to come this year. The bet here is that he will.