With the Ravens coming off an 8-8 season and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007, it’s easy to conclude that the organization needs more from everyone with a vested interest in 2014.
However, with a limited amount of cap space and only so many holes that can be filled through the draft and free agency, the Ravens will lean heavily on a handful of young players already on the roster to emerge and make a difference with another year of experience under their belts.
Here’s a look at five young players the Ravens will need more from in order to bounce back from an underwhelming 2013 campaign:
1. LB Courtney Upshaw
Veteran outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil received the most attention for their second-half slides, but Upshaw did little to establish himself as a force within the Baltimore defense in his second NFL season. The 2012 second-round pick once again battled weight and conditioning issues in the spring and summer before serving as the strong-side outside linebacker in the base defense while Dumervil took his place in passing situations. Upshaw played fewer defensive snaps — down to 650 from 762 a year earlier — with Dumervil’s arrival in 2013, but his tackle total declined from 60 as a rookie to just 30 and he continued to offer little as a pass rusher or in coverage. With Suggs’ future with the organization up in the air and Dumervil recently turning 30, the Ravens need younger players such as Upshaw and 2013 fourth-round pick John Simon to become real factors if the defense is to continue to build on the progress it made this past season.
2. RB Bernard Pierce
If someone had told you before the 2013 campaign that Ray Rice would only rush for 660 yards in a career-worst season, you would have assumed Pierce had taken his job to become the Ravens’ feature back. Instead, the second-year back was even worse in averaging 2.9 yards per carry and gaining just 436 yards for the season. In fairness, both backs dealt with nagging injuries and had an undersized and overmatched offensive line trying to block for them, but it was clear that neither Rice nor Pierce was especially effective in identifying running lanes before they quickly closed shut. Rice will receive more heat going into next season as he enters the third year of his five-year deal signed two summers ago, but Pierce’s underwhelming sophomore campaign has led many to believe the Ravens should be looking for another running back in the middle-to-late rounds of the 2014 draft. Pierce played in all 16 games in his second year, but his durability is still a question mark in terms of handling a bigger workload.
3. DT Brandon Williams
Despite missing the first three games of his rookie season while nursing a toe injury, the 2013 third-round pick appeared to be emerging as a reliable member of the defensive line rotation before winding up inactive in six of the final eight games. Coach John Harbaugh explained that Williams needed some “maturing” and was beaten out by the versatile DeAngelo Tyson for playing time, but it was still disappointing to see the Missouri Southern State product disappear completely in the second half of the season. With Arthur Jones and Terrence Cody good bets to depart via free agency, the Ravens will need Williams to live up to the high expectations they had when he impressed scouts so much at last year’s Senior Bowl. Whether it’s to play Jones’ 3-technique defensive tackle spot or to shift to nose tackle and allow veteran Haloti Ngata more flexibility to move around, the 335-pound Williams is expected to become a consistent contributor along the defensive line in his second season.
4. LB Arthur Brown
The Kansas State product immediately drew comparisons to future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis because he was undersized and very athletic, but Brown only saw 211 defensive snaps in his rookie season, with most of those coming in the nickel package. Listed at 235 pounds but playing lighter than that after being selected in the second round of the draft, Brown showed flashes in pass coverage and as a blitzer, but he must get bigger and stronger to become the three-down linebacker the Ravens envision. With Daryl Smith an unrestricted free agent and Jameel McClain a potential salary cap casualty, Brown is expected to win the Ravens’ weakside inside linebacker job. With so many other positions of need to address and only so many resources, the Ravens need Brown to put in the necessary work in the weight room and to master the defensive playbook to take care of one of the two inside linebacker positions.
5. OL Rick Wagner
It will be interesting to see how the offseason plays out in terms of where Wagner might fit along the offensive line. In a perfect world, the Ravens would probably prefer keeping the 2013 fifth-round pick in a role similar to the one he held last year as an extra tackle-eligible blocker and key reserve, but the sheer number of holes currently on the offensive line might force him into starting duty. As of now, only Marshal Yanda playing right guard appears to be a sure thing with Kelechi Osemele expected to play either left guard or right tackle. The Ravens want to re-sign left tackle Eugene Monroe and add more size to their interior offensive line, but Wagner might be needed to play either left guard or right tackle if they expend resources at center and left tackle. Offensive line coach Juan Castillo worked extensively with Wagner as a rookie, and his 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame and Wisconsin pedigree suggest he has some nice upside, making this offseason an intriguing one in terms of his development.