In the immediate aftermath of the lockout coming to an end in late July, the hammer fell on the Baltimore Ravens as we knew them from past seasons.
Gone were established veterans Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, Kelly Gregg, and Willis McGahee in a wave of releases to create salary cap room. Key contributors such as Le’Ron McClain, Dawan Landry, Chris Chester, and Josh Wilson found homes in other NFL cities.
Fans panicked as general manager Ozzie Newsome worked methodically instead of snatching up any recognizable name from a market suddenly saturated with hundreds of veteran free agents. When the dust settled in time for the regular-season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens were not only younger but had a new batch of veteran acquisitions to aid in a potential Super Bowl run in 2011.
With the Ravens entering the bye week at 3-1 and atop the AFC North, an overwhelming majority of those outside additions have provided positive returns through the quarter pole of the season.
Six noteworthy veterans were acquired in the preseason as I take a stab at grading them through the first four games of the season.
WR Lee Evans (8th year)
Skinny: Despite having rapidly developed a rapport with Joe Flacco after being acquired for a fourth-round pick on Aug. 12, Evans fell victim to a left ankle injury following the Ravens’ third preseason game against the Washington Redskins. His recovery has been slow and frustrating, prompting the Ravens to sit him down the last two games after lackluster play against Pittsburgh and Tennessee in the first two games. Evans has two receptions for 45 yards and has been unable to provide the vertical threat the Ravens envisioned when they brought him to Baltimore.
First quarter grade: INCOMPLETE
RB Ricky Williams (11th year)
Skinny: Signed to fill the role of McGahee, Williams has averaged an impressive 4.7 yards per carry, but the veteran has lost two fumbles on only 35 touches to hurt his overall grade. It’s a concerning stat with Williams viewed as a nice change of pace to Ray Rice and an option to receive carries late in games when the Ravens are trying to protect leads. Turning the ball over is the quickest way to allow the opponent back in the game. The former Miami Dolphin has yet to score a touchdown despite many speculating he would take away Rice’s carries at the goal line.
First quarter grade: C+
S Bernard Pollard (6th year)
Skinny: The former Houston Texan was signed to bring a physical presence in the secondary after Landry signed in Jacksonville. Though not particularly strong in coverage, Pollard has been tough against the run and is a talented blitzer from his strong safety position. Pollard has just six tackles and one pass breakup but has contributed on special teams. He received his first start against the Jets last Sunday night and graded out well, which was needed after normal starter Tom Zbikowski left the game with a concussion.
First quarter grade: B
G/C Andre Gurode (10th year)
Skinny: Signed a week before the start of the regular season, Gurode was a valuable insurance policy for veteran Matt Birk at center, but the Ravens have needed the former Dallas Cowboy at left guard with Ben Grubbs missing three games with a right toe injury. Despite never playing the position in his career, Gurode has provided strong run blocking over the last two games to help stabilize the left side of the line. With Grubbs expected back after the bye week, the question becomes whether Gurode returns to a reserve role or the Ravens consider eventually using the five-time Pro Bowler at center in an effort to upgrade the line — even with Birk’s solid play to this point. Either way, Gurode’s versatility on the interior has filled the void left behind by Chester, who signed with the Washington Redskins at the start of training camp.
First quarter grade: B+
OT Bryant McKinnie (10th year)
Skinny: The Ravens certainly raised eyebrows despite the intriguing payoff when they signed McKinnie, who had been released by the Minnesota Vikings after ballooning to nearly 400 pounds during the 134-day lockout. Past questions about his character and overall work ethic made it a risky proposition to insert McKinnie at left tackle and slide Michael Oher to the right side, but the former Miami Hurricane has been a welcome addition with both his play and attitude. After not taking part in any preseason games, McKinnie thoroughly dominated James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in the Ravens’ 35-7 season-opening win over the Steelers. His play hasn’t been quite as impressive since then, struggling mightily against the Tennessee Titans in Week 2, but McKinnie has stepped into the second-most important position in football (behind the quarterback) and performed admirably despite an abbreviated training camp.
First quarter grade: B+
FB Vonta Leach (8th year)
Skinny: After putting up with fullback Le’Ron McClain’s campaigning for more touches over the past two seasons, the Ravens brought in a throwback, human car accident of a blocking back by signing Leach to a three-year deal. The former Houston Texan has been every bit the bruiser the Ravens thought he would be, opening paths for the eighth-best rushing attack in the NFL. Despite Leach having little interest in touching the football (three career carries in eight seasons), offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has kept opposing defenses honest by occasionally using the 260-pounder in the passing game. The fullback has caught five passes for 15 yards.
First quarter grade: A