The Ravens finally got the monkey off their collective back in 2012 after four straight seasons of January heartbreak. That year, right when pressure mounted as high as it ever had— and with Ray Lewis set to call it quits at the end of the season— the Ravens won it all for their leader and for their city.
In 2013, this group will be in unfamiliar territory as the hunted instead of the hunters. They have a murderous schedule up ahead with other AFC powerhouses New England, Denver and Houston on the docket, and also have to deal with the NFC North, a division that housed three teams with records of 10-6 or better a season ago.
It’s not that the Ravens can’t hold their own in these matchups, but with these teams looming, it makes it especially important to rack-up wins over opponents like Buffalo, Cleveland and the New York Jets.
But before we could even begin to look how they stack up against those other teams, we need to know how Ravens roster stacks up in the first place:
The Ravens roster sheet won’t have the name “Ray Lewis” inked on it for the first time in the team’s 17-year existence. Though Lewis’ play on the football field last season could certainly be upgraded, and though the organization did a fine job of addressing his vacancy, they will still miss his leadership and locker room presence.
Ed Reed’s longtime presence will also be missed, and veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin takes away an element of leadership as well as a safety valve for quarterback Joe Flacco. Receivers David Reed, Deonte Thompson and Tandon Doss will compete for snaps in wake of Boldin’s departure, but they don’t have the résumé or the clout a player like Boldin brings to the training facility. Because of these veteran departures, it’s time for guys like Flacco, Ray Rice and Terrell Suggs to take the helm and maintain a winning culture by leading by example.
Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and edge-rusher Paul Kruger left for Miami and Cleveland after they were offered contracts worth $35 million and $40 million, respectively. Starting cornerback Cary Williams, starting center Matt Birk and special teams ace Brendan Ayanbadejo also left, and the team chose to part ways with strong safety Bernard Pollard and fullback Vonta Leach as well.
Add it all up and that’s an overwhelming amount of key players from last season that are no longer in Charm City, but the front office made the necessary additions to fill the voids. These roster moves felt much quieter than the notable departures, but make no mistake, they’ll make noise soon enough.
Speaking of noise, expect M&T Bank Stadium to roar when rookie linebacker Arthur Brown doles out his first big hit. You don’t like to throw around the term “Ray Lewis’ replacement,” so I’ll put it this way: In the 2012 offseason, Brown is far and away the best long-term option to play middle linebacker in the NFL. And after the Ravens had the best one for years in Lewis, it’s fitting that Brown is the next one they got.
Brown isn’t the hulking behemoth in the middle of the defense Lewis was, but he’s quick and rangy enough be a three-down middle linebacker in today’s NFL. He can cover tight ends and running backs and get into backfields at speeds that are just scary. The 4:16 mark of this video highlights the latter point, as Brown chases down a scrambling Robert Griffin III for a sack during a 2011 matchup versus Baylor.
In the secondary, Matt Elam is the team’s first-round selection and should start immediately at strong safety, the spot vacated by Pollard. Right off the bat, fans will see a similarity between these two men, as Elam has the aggressiveness to be an in-the-box run defender as well as someone who can cover the slot on occasion.
But expect bulk of the deep coverage responsibility to lie on the shoulders of another newcomer, Michael Huff. Huff never lived up to the expectations of his high-draft status in Oakland, but he was a solid defender who has great versatility. That can’t be discounted this day and age, where offenses are throwing a billion different packages at defenses that just don’t always have the pieces in place to keep up. Huff should certainly help in that regard.
The Ravens’ answer for Kruger’s departure was signing Elvis Dumervil, who bested Kruger’s sack total 11 to nine in 2012, and also had five more quarterback pressures according to ProFootballFocus.com. They also signed Dumervil for two years and $12 million, opposed to Kruger, who signed in Cleveland for more than three times that amount. Kruger’s the younger option by two years, but the addition of Dumervil on the edge gives General Manager Ozzie Newsome’s paycheck a reprieve, and also more than enough time for him to get a long-term replacement.
2013 Season Outlook
As mentioned before, the additions the Ravens made didn’t make as much of a splash as the big-time departures. This doesn’t mean for a second that they didn’t address their vacancies correctly. Bargains were had, and the team built for the long-term despite having the “win now” expectations that all defending champions have the ensuing year.
The reality is they will have a rough schedule, but even if the Ravens eke out a 9-7 or 10-6 record and clinch a wild-card spot, that’s all they need. Their 2012 team, as well as the 2011 Giants and the 2010 Packers, proved that you don’t need to be a conference heavyweight to win a Super Bowl. More than ever, it’s about catching fire at the right time and the Ravens showed they are as capable of doing that as any other team.
If they take care of business during the season and clinch a playoff spot, there’s no reason to discount the possibility of them going on another brilliant run.
Baltimore’s Next Sports Media Superstar contestant Dan Ciarrocchi is an editor of Hogs Haven, an SB Nation website. He also contributes to the fantasy football section of Pro Football Focus and covered Towson University baseball for two years at The Towerlight.