Your outlook on the Ravens this season likely depends on how you viewed a forgettable 2015 in which they finished 5-11.
If you point to more than 20 players suffering season-ending injuries — the most in the John Harbaugh era — and nine losses decided by one possession, a dramatic turnaround feels inevitable with any reasonable shift in luck.
Or, you remember the myriad of reasons that contributed to a 1-6 start long before the losses of Steve Smith, Joe Flacco, and Justin Forsett transformed a lost season into one more conveniently excused by injuries. From that perspective, those failures were less about bad fortune and more the culmination of a series of missteps over the previous few years.
No matter where your assessment of last season lies, the 2016 Ravens are relying on a slew of older players at key positions, which is a slippery slope. According to Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice.com, Baltimore had the sixth-oldest 53-man roster in the NFL on final cut-down day. That was before general manager Ozzie Newsome re-signed the 30-year-old Justin Forsett and added 33-year-old return specialist Devin Hester at the beginning of the week.
Fifteen players on the active roster are 30 or older. Of their 12 former Pro Bowl selections, only two — linebacker C.J. Mosley and kicker Justin Tucker — are currently in their 20s.
Their projected starting outside linebackers, wide receivers, safeties, and running back are all 30 or older. Experience is certainly valuable, but those are positions where you don’t want to be sparring too frequently with Father Time.
The Ravens have obvious exceptions to the rule — a few of them will eventually be in the discussion for the Hall of Fame — but this is largely a young man’s game.
And that brings us to the biggest key for the Ravens in 2016 and certainly beyond.
The youth movement needs to start now.
Seeing the likes of Smith and Terrell Suggs return from injuries to lead the Ravens back into postseason contention would be fun, but it would be in vain if several younger players don’t take significant steps forward. At 31, Flacco should have several more productive seasons ahead of him at quarterback, but this is an otherwise aging core of difference-makers, which was true even before pass rusher Elvis Dumervil suffered a setback from offseason foot surgery that will keep him sidelined for the start of the season.
It’s time for the next wave of great Ravens to emerge. In fact, it’s overdue, which is a significant reason why 2015 was such a disappointment.
Excluding players yet to take an NFL snap like rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley and wide receiver Breshad Perriman, who are the under-30 talents on this roster that other teams truly covet?
Brandon Williams might be the best run-stopping nose tackle in the league and Tucker is arguably the NFL’s top kicker, but who else?
Mosley and cornerback Jimmy Smith? Maybe in 2014, but not based on the way they performed a year ago.
Others have potential, but the Ravens thought the same about failed draft picks such as Matt Elam, Arthur Brown, and Terrence Brooks not long ago. The proof will be in the results on the field.
Za’Darius Smith, Matt Judon, or Kamalei Correa needs to become as a significant pass-rushing threat to complement Suggs and Dumervil. The defense will be even more dangerous if more than one can do it.
As their earliest first-round pick in 16 years, Stanley must make fans forget every left tackle the Ravens have had since Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden.
Perriman needs to stay healthy and show why he was the first receiver the organization drafted in the first round in a decade.
Jimmy Smith and Mosley have to look more like the players they were in 2014.
If others step up along the way, the Ravens will really be in business — not just for this season but for the future.
If young players fail to develop, they will once again be depending too heavily on aging talent trying to stay healthy enough to play at a high level for another year.
Baltimore can bounce back with the combination of veterans returning and young play-makers emerging.
But it’s difficult to imagine it happening to any meaningful degree without the latter.
The Ravens need their youth to take the baton and step to the forefront.