With training camp less than a month away, a breakdown of the Ravens roster is essential to evaluate this season’s expectations. After a “dropped” touchdown by Lee Evans and a shank of a field goal by Billy Cundiff, last year ended in disappointment, but definitely was not a failure. A division title, an AFC Championship appearance (where Joe Flacco looked to make a huge step in his progression) and most importantly two victories over the Steelers profiled an exciting season to build upon in 2012.
Though there has been some turnover to the roster, the main core is still intact. Ray Ray is still in charge, followed by a band of All-Pros and Pro-Bowlers including: Haloti Ngata, Ed Reed, Ray Rice, Marshal Yanda, Lardarius Webb, Matt Birk, Anquan Boldin, Vontae Leach and Joe Flacco.
Ozzie has kept the talent level on the entire roster at a premium, with excellent drafts over the past decade but teams are starting to pry away some of the depth across the board. Losses this offseason include: Cory Redding, Jarret Johnson, Tom Zbikowski, Haruki Nakamura and Ben Grubbs. Of course everyone knows the Terrell Suggs “training” issue and his bum Achilles; while it is not sure when he will actually be able to make it back on the field.
The following is a breakdown of the roster strengths and weaknesses for the upcoming season.
Biggest Offensive Strength: Ray Rice
Rice has become an all-around weapon similar to Brian Westbrook in his prime years in Philadelphia. He has carried a hefty load throughout most of his collegiate and professional career but has not shown of any signs of wear, as he still has several dominant seasons ahead
Biggest Defensive Strength: The starting Defensive Line
Haloti Ngata has already established himself as one of the elite defensive lineman in league, making life easier for the slew of linebackers behind him. Pernell McPhee will take over a starting DE spot after a highly successful rookie season, with ability to get after the QB from the 3-technique (a rarity). Mount Cody holds down the nose tackle, where his mass alone takes on two offensive linemen, freeing up the middle. Overall, the production of the defensive line last season is one of the main reasons Suggs could perform at such a high level and looks to only improve with youth this season.
Biggest Offensive Weakness: The Tackle Position
Bryant McKinnie has yet to participate this offseason due to weight issues and the team cannot expect the same production out of him as last year when he does hit the field. Michael Oher has been a disappointment as he has struggled to perform consistently on either side of the line. The depth is questionable, at best, with their top options (in case of an injury or poor performance) are young, inexperienced and may be better suited to play guard (Jah Reid, Kelechi Osemele).
Biggest Defensive Weakness: Safety Depth
The starters really complement each other, as Ed Reed is the best centerfielder in the history of football and Bernard Pollard is a true in the box safety. The problems lies with the loss of three players (Dawan Landry, Tom Zbikowski, Haruki Nakamura) in the past two offseasons who have filled in as starters. Ed Reed has been an injury waiting to happen lately and with Pollard’s physical nature, the Ravens are two plays away from having a serious problem in the back of their defense.
Most Overrated Offensive Player: Anquan Boldin
This is not a knock on the former Pro-Bowler, but the offense is not best suited for his strengths. His age and production are both heading in a negative direction, and with more weapons on the offense, he will not see as many balls thrown his way. He is still a great receiver but is no longer one of the elite.
Most Underrated Offensive Player: Marshal Yanda
Yanda was overshadowed by Ben Grubbs on the line, even though he made his first Pro Bowl last season. He has been the team’s best lineman for several years now (and one of the best guards in the entire league), as his versatility and consistency have solidified the interior. More will be asked of him this season as he takes over as the leader of the offensive line.
Most Overrated Defensive Player: Terrell Suggs
Though he is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, he still would have made this spot before his tragic injury. He does not produce for an entire season, where he is dominant one game but take the next off (as evidenced by the games in San Diego and Pittsburgh last season). He is a great player, but still has more untapped potential we have yet to see. The injury will really set him back this season, and if he does make his way back, no one can expect anything more than him becoming a situational pass rusher in 2012.
Most Underrated Defensive Player: Jameel McCLain
The Ravens finally found someone to step up next to Ray Lewis, and last season, he filled in admirably as the center of the defense when Lewis was out. McClain took the next step in 2011, surpassing the Ravens leader in production on the field; while more responsibility as a leader will be bestowed upon him as the ageless wonder is closer to hanging it up.
Biggest Addition: Bobby Williams
After the team lost out on Ben Grubbs, there was a major hole in the interior line at left guard. Williams is not anywhere near the talent as Grubbs, but will be a more than serviceable replacement. He fits in nicely with the Ravens style of offense and makes life without one half of their Pro Bowl tandem not nearly as difficult as it initially looked.
Biggest Loss: Jarrett Johnson
Johnson would have made this list as the most underrated player on the defense, if he did not follow Chuck Pagano to Indy. He made the entire defensive strategy possible, as he sealed the edge, while doing the little things to make everyone else around (especially Terrell Suggs) him better. His presence will be definitely missed but hopes are Paul Kruger can play in a similar fashion.
Offensive Player Most Likely to Break Out: Dennis Pitta
Though he has split time with Ed Dickson, Pitta has shown more flashes of becoming the every down tight end. He has a good frame and ability to run block, while the hands to really stretch the middle of the field. Pitta is also the big target the Ravens will look to in the Red Zone, as his production this season should take a major hike.
Defensive Player Most Likely to Break Out: Terrence Cody
Cody really started to produce last season and as long as he remains within his weight limit, he should only improve upon that. He is actually much more athletic than he looks and could be used in a more versatile manner on the line, as his comfort level grows. The Ravens can expect Cody to be a dominant nose tackle in the mold of Gilbert Brown or Keith Traylor for years to come.
Offensive Player Most Likely to Take a Step Back: Bryant McKinnie
McKinnie’s performance last season was noble for someone with his checkered past. As stated before, no one can expect the same from him this season, at his age and size; the chances of him even making it through the entire season are slim. Hopes are they can replace him internally during the season at some point, or Flacco could be in trouble.
Defensive Player Most Likely to Take a Step Back: Lardarius Webb
Webb was more than excellent last season and this is not a knock on him but more confidence in the other corners on the roster. Both Jimmy and Cary Williams will benefit from last season’s experience; possibly enough to the point their talent may take over the starting spots. Webb will still produce at a high level this year but by season’s end he may not be the best corner on the team anymore.
Biggest Question Mark: Ray Rice’s Contract Situation
The Ravens desperately need to make sure this does not get out of hand, leading to a lengthy hold out. Rice is too important to the offense and hold out running backs are notorious for having slow starts to the season (as evidenced by Chris Johnson’s lack luster season last year). The man is too important in the fate of the franchise and needs to be paid appropriately, no matter what the cost.
As mentioned, this is more a result of Ray Rice’s contract negotiations than his actual performance. If the Ravens do not settle the dispute before the training camp begins, Rice will need to get his legs ready for the season. Pierce will be relied upon heavily the first half of the season if there is a hold out, where he will need to display the ability to handle about 10-15 touches a game.
Season Outlook: 9-7; Wild Card Appearance
A tough schedule, especially at the start (with games vs. the Bengals, at Philadelphia, at New England), will tell a lot of where the Ravens stand among the some of the best in the league. Playing in probably the best division football will be a real test; as the Steelers are always consistent and the Bengals are on the rise. With the losses on both sides of the ball and aging team leaders, it cannot be expected to finish better than last year’s regular season.
Though they may not win the division (a title I believe will land in Cincinnati), they still get in the playoffs, where the Giants proved last season anything can happen. With a roster full of experience, the Ravens should make another strong push to the Super Bowl, as long as Flacco can carry them there. While on a side note, and most importantly here in Baltimore, the Steelers have lost more than probably any other team this offseason, as they take a step back in 2013, missing out on the playoffs finishing 8-8.