Kamar Aiken is one of the last men standing in the Ravens offense.
In a lost season on so many levels, the Central Florida product has established himself as a productive NFL receiver and an important piece moving forward. His 62 catches for 802 yards — already the 24th-highest single-season receiving yardage total in franchise history — and five touchdowns would make for a good season without accounting for the two games he still has to add to those totals.
In the six games since Steve Smith suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 8, Aiken has caught 37 passes for 469 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers put the 6-foot-2 receiver on pace for a 98-catch, 1,250-yard season over a full 16 games. Of course, the Ravens currently don’t have a whole lot besides Aiken in terms of viable pass-catching targets — Torrey Smith’s production similarly ballooned in 2013 — but he’s also played with three different quarterbacks including the last two games with Jimmy Clausen, who’s been with Baltimore for all of a month.
It’s been impressive work from the former practice-squad receiver who had never made an NFL reception before last season. But Aiken’s emergence shouldn’t make general manager Ozzie Newsome feel he’s set at wide receiver this offseason.
Reports persist that Steve Smith is likely to return if his rehabilitation goes well, but he will also be 37 next year and coming off a serious injury that impacts explosiveness. It’d be foolish to doubt such a fierce competitor’s desire to return and be productive in 2016, but expecting him to come back as a No. 1 option like nothing ever happened would be unrealistic — and unfair.
Breshad Perriman will be back, but the Ravens haven’t seen their 2015 first-round pick play as much as a snap in a preseason game. He will need to prove his knee is healthy and that he can contribute as an NFL wide receiver before anyone signs off on him as the No. 1 receiver of the future.
With a plethora of needs on both sides of the ball, the Ravens may not need to draft a receiver in the first round this spring, but another wideout should firmly be on Newsome’s radar in the first few rounds of the draft. Otherwise, Baltimore will once again enter a season with too many questions at a position that’s been an Achilles heel for much of the 20-year history of the franchise.
At the very least, Aiken is shaping up to be a dependable possession receiver — a poor man’s Anquan Boldin — and the one commodity at the position that the Ravens can really trust while shaping their 2016 roster this offseason.
Bracing for Pittsburgh
Based on the number of Seattle and Kansas City fans that made their way to M&T Bank Stadium over the last two weeks, Steelers fans may make Sunday’s game feel like it’s being played at Heinz Field, which would be a disheartening conclusion to a home schedule that has already included five losses — most in franchise history.
I’ll never judge fans for selling their tickets — personal seat licenses and season tickets are a heck of a financial commitment for mere entertainment — but you’d like to see Ravens fans protect their home turf against their biggest rival if at all possible. I wrote about this topic earlier this season, but I also won’t fault fans trying to make some money around the holiday season as the injury-ravaged hometown team is barely recognizable at this point.
To add insult to injury, the Steelers can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a New York Jets loss against New England on Sunday. And, oh yeah, Pittsburgh has scored 30 or more points in six straight games and will be facing a pass defense that has offered little resistance all season.
Optimists will call it a rivalry game in which anything can happen, but it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for Ravens fans to brace themselves for it to get ugly two days after Christmas.
With the preseason feel of recent games that have followed the loss of quarterback Joe Flacco, the narrative surrounding the 2015 Ravens — particularly from a national perspective — now centers around their numerous injuries.
Tight end Crockett Gillmore became the 21st Ravens player to officially be lost to a season-ending injury when he was placed on injured reserve with a back ailment on Monday, but many of the significant names on that list went down after the season was already in the dumpster. Below is a look at the Ravens’ Week 8 starting lineup when they sported a 1-6 record and welcomed San Diego to Baltimore:
Injuries are certainly part of the story — particularly the early losses of Terrell Suggs and Perriman — but don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that’s the only — or even the most — significant explanation for the team’s failures this year. It was apparent early in the season that a number of problems unrelated to injuries contributed to this nightmare season.
The loss of players like Flacco, Smith, and Justin Forsett merely turned a lost year into a punchline with players now on the field whom fans have needed to google on a weekly basis.
Pro Bowl picks
The NFL will announce its Pro Bowl selections Tuesday night and while no Ravens players won the fan vote, coaches and players account for two-thirds of the voting.
My picks would be guard Marshal Yanda, defensive tackle Brandon Williams, and punter Sam Koch.
Yanda has shown no signs of slowing down as he should be in line for his fifth straight Pro Bowl invitation. Meanwhile, Williams has proven himself as the top run-stopping nose tackle in the NFL and has steadily received more praise around the league this season, leading you to believe he has a solid chance to have his name called. But even as Haloti Ngata learned several years ago, players are sometimes deserving of the Pro Bowl a year or two before they are finally recognized to go.
I’m pulling for Koch to finally earn a trip to the Pro Bowl as he is leading the NFL in net punting for the second straight year and is the longest-tenured Ravens player behind only Suggs. Now in his 10th season in Baltimore, Koch has routinely been one of the better punters in the NFL and has brought innovation to the position that should be recognized with a trip to Honolulu.
Not only do the Ravens rank last in the NFL with just four interceptions, but 10 players around the league have more than four this season. The previous franchise low for interceptions in a season was 11 set in 2005 and matched last season.
Future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed collected more than four picks in a season seven different times in his career.
Baltimore has just one interception in its last 11 games.
Where have you gone, Ravens defense of old?