Long after the ashes clear from what has been the worst season in Baltimore since their inaugural appearance in 1996, the Ravens have found a group of six players who I think will definitely be part of its rebirth in 2008 and beyond.
In 1996 we found from that dreadful season three players that would become building blocks of the Super Bowl and playoff teams that would follow. Just like we found Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Jermaine Lewis from that first year, I have highlighted six players who have had good seasons. As the team moves forward they should be part of the solution for Ozzie Newsome and Brian Billick.
Le’Ron McClain: This hard-hitting fullback has established himself as a force in the backfield. A Lorenzo Neal-type lead blocker, this bulldozer should team with Willis McGahee to give the Ravens a solid backfield for years to come. He should improve as a pass receiver and runner in the next couple of years, but he is better than Ovie Mughelli at this stage in his career by a mile.
Marshal Yanda: I still think he might make a better guard someday, but the rookie from Iowa has more than handled his own at right tackle. I think he has hit a wall, as do most rookies at this time of the year, which might explain his sub-par performance the last couple of weeks. Yanda has a mean streak and great work ethic, forged from his upbringing on an Iowa farm. He was well taught by Kirk Ferentz at Iowa and is probably at least a good solid 10 year veteran in the NFL either as a starter or valuable swing reserve.
Ben Grubbs: Just book him for Hawaii eight times in the next 10 years. Like Yanda, I think he has hit the wall, but Grubbs is another first round stud found by Newsome. Quick with natural guard instincts, he could be one of the best to ever play the position for the Ravens.
Yamon Figurs: Although at times he has been an adventure, Figures has the kind of speed that you can’t teach. He has proven that he can break open a game as a returner, and hopefully he should become more involved in the passing game next year as well. He could really provide that long ball threat we have missed in special four receiver sets. He already has two returns for touchdowns. 2008 could be a breakout season for the former Kansas State Wildcat.
Antwan Barnes: An ankle injury early in the season cost him some time, but the kid can come off the edge. A good off-season in the weight room, plus either the return of Trevor Pryce or the addition of another pass rusher will make him dangerous. He needs to become an every down linebacker capable of stopping the run and covering. In time, I am sure that coaches Mike Pettine and Jeff FitzGerlad will get him up to speed.
Quinn Sypniewski: I know he is not a rookie, but he really stepped up and became a solid pass catching tight end this season, something most football types felt he couldn’t do in the pro’s. He probably would have looked better if the quarterbacks weren’t so off this year. At the very least, he has proven he can start and be a valuable fixture in a two tight end system.
Here is the shock–of the six players I listed, five are on offense. When was the last time we could say that in this town?
Unfortunately none of these players were at the critical impact positions of quarterback or cornerback. That’s an area the Ravens desperately need to get healthy in 2008 or improve the depth and talent at these spots.
With these six in the fold along with other veterans, the Ravens may return to top flight status quicker than it may appear. Remember in sports, you are never as good as you seem; plus things are never as bad as they seem. Here’s hoping this old maxim is true!