As many go through the exercise of making division-by-division forecasts, these predictions focus on the Ravens and their goal to return to the playoffs after the worst season in the John Harbaugh era.
A look back at last year’s predictions shows some were accurate (Kendrick Lewis didn’t make the impact the Ravens anticipated) and a few were embarrassing (predicted future starter Rashaan Melvin was cut before Halloween) as an overrated roster and a plethora of injuries contributed to a 5-11 season that no one truly anticipated. Regardless of the lack of accuracy, it’s fun to envision how the next four months could play out.
Below is a new forecast to mock and tear apart:
1. Seriously, Joe Flacco will finally be voted team MVP by the local media after reaching the 4,000-yard passing mark for the first time in his career.
I’ve predicted this three years in a row now, but a return from a serious left knee injury coupled with better weapons in the passing game will remind everyone how good Flacco can be. Questions remain about the running game and a revamped offensive line, but there is enough talent diversity in the passing game to expect the Ravens to be able to move the ball effectively through the air. Entering his ninth season, Flacco isn’t the type of quarterback you want to be throwing 45 times per game, but offensive coordinator Marc Trestman will give him more than enough opportunities to exceed 4,000 yards.
2. Steve Smith and Terrell Suggs will not match their 2014 levels of production, but both will augment their legacies with respectable comebacks.
Knowing exactly what to expect from a 37-year-old receiver coming off a horrendous Achilles injury and a 33-year-old pass rusher returning from his second Achilles tear in four years is impossible, but dismissing two players worthy of Hall of Fame consideration would be unwise. Baltimore doesn’t need Smith to be a 1,000-yard receiver, but he’ll contribute at least three or four catches every week while providing leadership to the young receivers. The defense is depending on Suggs at the rush linebacker spot, and he’ll play the run well and will be able to disrupt some quarterbacks with seven or eight sacks.
3. No Raven will reach the 10-sack mark for the second straight season.
The pass rush will be better than it was a year ago when it collected 37 sacks, but there’s still too much reliance on Suggs and Elvis Dumervil and a learning curve for younger options to completely fill that gap this year. This will be an important season for second-year outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, but rookie fifth-round pick Matt Judon will show better production with seven sacks to create some optimism for the future. The overall depth of this group is improved from last season, but there won’t be that one guy who completely changes the complexion of a game.
4. Kenneth Dixon and Will Davis will become starters by the midway point of the season.
I’m concerned with the committee approach at running back and the run blocking off the offensive line under Trestman, but Dixon is their most talented back and should receive the most touches after he returns from a knee injury. The only concern is his health as the fourth-round rookie has missed time with three different injuries since being drafted. Davis elevated his play as the summer progressed and will be the first in line to replace the up-and-down veteran Shareece Wright. However, he is coming off ACL injuries to each knee over the last two seasons, making his health another question mark.
5. Eric Weddle will improve the communication in the secondary, but the pass defense will remain a weakness.
To say the Ravens have struggled at safety since the departure of Ed Reed would be an understatement. The organization has wasted early draft picks and free-agent dollars, but Weddle will stabilize the communication in the secondary. He would be the perfect addition to turn a good defensive backfield into a great one, but the talent level is suspect here with even doubts about top cornerback Jimmy Smith, who didn’t play well last year while feeling the effects of foot surgery. With only three interceptions over the last three years, Weddle isn’t a dynamic play-maker, but he will help minimize the big plays.
6. Ronnie Stanley will have one of the best rookie seasons in franchise history that no one will talk about.
Did you notice how little discussion there was about Baltimore’s first-round pick this summer? That’s an encouraging development for an offensive lineman, who’s only noticed by the masses when committing a penalty or giving up a sack. Stanley is bound to have a bump or two in the road over the course of his first season, but the Ravens are very pleased with the way the Notre Dame product has performed. It remains to be seen how the likes of Laremy Tunsil and Jalen Ramsey fare in their pro careers elsewhere, but Stanley has given general manager Ozzie Newsome no reason to think he didn’t make a strong choice.
7. Breshad Perriman and Zach Orr will be players to take a step forward.
The 2015 first-round pick won’t match Torrey Smith’s rookie production of 841 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but he will average 17 yards per catch with five scores to give Flacco a young deep-ball threat to open up the intermediate portion of the field for possession receivers and tight ends. Orr is the latest former rookie free agent to become a starting inside linebacker for Baltimore, joining Bart Scott, Jameel McClain, and Dannell Ellerbe. He will do particularly well in coverage, which is what prompted the Ravens to use Orr in place of veteran Daryl Smith in the nickel defense late last season.
8. Kamar Aiken and Elvis Dumervil will be players to take a step back.
This isn’t at all a knock on Aiken’s ability, but it will be a result of diminished opportunity. Aiken really excelled when playing Smith’s position and running his routes in the second half last year, so you wonder how he’ll fit into the equation with the veteran returning to the field. There’s been mystery surrounding Dumervil’s offseason foot surgery and subsequent setback, but the Ravens need him to return sooner rather than later. After Dumervil handled a heavier workload out of necessity in 2015, the Ravens need to limit his early-down action to get the most out of the 32-year-old’s pass-rushing ability.
9. Marshal Yanda and Brandon Williams will be Baltimore’s Pro Bowl selections.
Yanda remained the best guard in the NFL last season and has quietly become one of the top players in the history of the franchise. His leadership and knowledge on the field and in the meeting room will be vital as the Ravens begin the season with a brand new left side of the offensive line. Meanwhile, Williams will finally receive the recognition he deserves as the best run-stopping nose tackle in the NFL. Of course, such an achievement will only increase his value approaching free agency as the Ravens will face the dilemma of how much to pay a defensive tackle who hasn’t shown great ability as a pass rusher.
10. A brutal final month will leave the Ravens with an 8-8 record that results in missing the playoffs for the third time in four years.
I never bought into the narrative of last season being all about the injuries, so it would be disingenuous to predict a dramatic turnaround in 2016. The Ravens are relying heavily on aging players at a few key positions and possess a young core that needs further additions and time to develop. This will be a better football team that will remain in the playoff hunt entering December, but road games against New England, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati over the final four weeks will be too much to overcome. Despite the optics of missing the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, the Ravens would be in good shape for 2017 if young players like Stanley, Perriman, and Dixon prove to be the real deal.