We’re finally a week away from the curtain rising on the 2016 Ravens.
Sure, we caught a brief glimpse during last month’s mandatory minicamp, but how much could we really learn from non-contact practices that didn’t even include the starting quarterback, their No. 1 receiver, the starting outside linebackers, the top cornerback, and their 2015 first-round pick?
Trying to rebound from the worst season of the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens are hoping for better health after a team-record 21 players finished 2015 on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform list. They believe the free-agent additions of safety Eric Weddle, tight end Benjamin Watson, and wide receiver Mike Wallace and the continuing development of young players will provide the upside to return to the playoffs after failing to qualify in two of the last three years.
With a pedigree that includes two Super Bowl championships, four division titles, and 10 playoff appearances in the last 16 years, the Ravens bouncing back from a 5-11 campaign to once again become an AFC contender in 2016 would hardly be shocking. But there are more questions to ask than answers to offer as players report to Owings Mills over the next week.
What about this roster truly makes the Ravens brass rest easy at night?
Coming back from the first significant injury of his career, Joe Flacco is a franchise quarterback capable of playing at a championship level, even if his regular-season numbers don’t always reflect that. Coaches will need to be smart with him less than eight months removed from major knee surgery, but it’s comforting to know that the 31-year-old will be back on the field for the first day of training camp.
The Ravens offense has the best guard in football in Marshal Yanda and veteran starters at center and right tackle as well as arguably the deepest collection of tight ends in the NFL. The defense has one of the NFL’s best nose tackles, a 2015 Pro Bowl outside linebacker, a young inside linebacker who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, and a three-time Pro Bowl safety in Weddle, who should bring more leadership and order to a volatile secondary.
Baltimore has an elite trio of specialists in kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch, and long snapper Morgan Cox, who have all been to Pro Bowls and have signed long-term contracts over the last 12 months.
The talent and potential strengths don’t end there, but the serious questions begin at this point.
What can we reasonably expect from Steve Smith and Terrell Suggs coming back from Achilles tendon injuries?
It’s been a difficult recovery for the veteran receiver, who originally intended to make 2015 his last season. Doubting Smith’s heart and determination is foolish, but we know Father Time is undefeated, making it fair to question whether the 37-year-old can play close to the level he did prior to last year’s injury when he was still a No.1 option.
The little we’ve seen from Suggs since his injury last September includes a traffic-related arrest in Arizona in March and a guest appearance on HBO’s Ballers in which he played himself getting into a scrap with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s character. Set to turn 34 in October, the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker has been working out at the team’s facility in Owings Mills, but his conditioning and explosiveness will be scrutinized after his second Achilles injury in a four-year period. A substantially-diminished Suggs puts even more pressure on fellow veteran Elvis Dumervil as well as unproven options such as Za’Darius Smith and Kamalei Correa as pass rushers.
Will a second foot procedure allow Jimmy Smith to recapture his No. 1 cornerback form?
The 28-year-old had the screws removed from his surgically-repaired right foot this spring after he was still experiencing soreness from the 2014 Lisfranc procedure. The Ravens paid him handsomely last spring to be a difference-making presence in the secondary and need him to be the player he was in 2013 and 2014 if this defense is going to take a significant step forward this season.
What’s the reality with the Breshad Perriman injury?
It was great news that Dr. James Andrews didn’t recommend full ACL reconstruction surgery for Perriman in June, but the fact that he still prescribed a stem-cell injection makes you wonder about the healing process and stability of his left knee. The young receiver missed his entire rookie year with a right knee injury originally considered to be minor, so you hope this isn’t a cruel repeat of 2015.
For a team in desperate need of dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball, Perriman may possess more upside than anyone on the roster if he can just stay on the field.
The questions go beyond players coming off injuries.
Even if 2016 first-round pick Ronnie Stanley proves to be more like Jonathan Ogden and less like the many who have tried to replace the Hall of Fame left tackle over the last decade, how confident can the organization honestly feel about a rookie and a new starter at left guard — projected to be John Urschel — protecting the blindside of a quarterback coming off a serious knee injury?
Baltimore has a collection of talented running backs, but is there truly a No. 1 guy in the bunch?
Who is going to play inside linebacker next to Mosley?
Is the rest of the defensive backfield ready to build on its second-half improvement from last year to be more of a force under new secondary coach Leslie Frazier?
Who might step forward to make a difference in the return game?
Finally and perhaps most importantly, are there at least a couple of young players ready to step forward to become special?
The Ravens have solid-to-good football players; they need more great ones.
All teams face questions this time of year, but there are more than usual for Baltimore entering 2016. It’s understandable after a 5-11 season that fell apart even before the injuries piled up at a record level.
We’ll soon get to see what’s behind the curtain.