Last season ended up being a disappointment for John Harbaugh and his squad as the Ravens missed the playoffs for the first time under his lead. There were changes made in the off-season that will assure Baltimore will not be missing the post-season for a second straight season.
The offense got a new look adding new pieces from all angles, starting with new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. The long time Houston Texan head coach comes to Baltimore bringing a new style of offense maintaining a zone-blocking scheme.
Baltimore has new faces to dawn the purple and black for the upcoming season, but one particular athlete is difficult to overlook. Owen Daniels is a nice addition to the offense, but Steve Smith is the talk of the town ever since Carolina decided to part ways with the career long Panther.
Smith brings an attitude to the offense and gives the team a physical presence on the outside that they have not had since trading away Anquan Boldin for next to nothing. Once the upcoming season comes to a close, everyone will look back and wonder why more teams were not more aggressive in trying to sign Steve Smith as he will have one of the biggest impacts on his new team around the league.
The Ravens offense struggled running the ball last season due to the offensive line not being up to par and the ball carriers themselves not playing up to their capabilities. That will be sure to change for the better due to some of the moves made to upgrade the line and because the backs are healthy once again.
If there is a concern to have for the Ravens, it is their secondary. Jimmy Smith had a breakout year last season and Webb across the field make for a good pairing. Cornerback depth is where there is plenty of uncertainty; it is up to either Chykie Brown or Asa Jackson to step up and fill the void in the slot.
Matt Elam, last years first round draft pick, moves to the safety position he is best suited to play. Alongside Elam is Darian Stewart, who was an undrafted free agent during the 2010 NFL draft. Not only is cornerback depth an issue, but inexperience on the backend is as well. If the Ravens want to return to the promise land, can this secondary be good enough to defend against Peyton Manning and Tom Brady when it counts?
Breakout Candidate: Kyle Juszczyk
With the new offense Kubiak brings, there will be all kinds of options for Joe Flacco. The fans of Baltimore got a very small sample of that in the first pre-season game against the 49ers. The Smiths, Pitta, Jones, Brown and Daniels will all be targets for Flacco.
The under the radar target that is being overlooked is Kyle Juszczyk. The second year pro is an interesting player in this offense that fits the mold of what James Casey was for Houston years ago. He is capable of coming out of the backfield and picking his spots in the seams of the defense. Look out for the former Harvard standout to be a solid H-back option for Joe Flacco.
Impact Rookie: Timmy Jernigan
The easy answer is the former Alabama linebacker and first round pick CJ Mosley, but the Ravens struck gold in the second round of the draft. Timmy Jernigan is a top 15 talent who fell due to issues before the combine.
Jernigan was a force for the national champion Seminole defense in college football and stood out to the national audience on the big stage. Even though he was winded toward the tail end of the big game, his impact throughout that game was felt. All year long Jernigan created havoc on offensive lines all across college football.
Losing Art Jones to Indianapolis stung for a little bit until the draft concluded. Getting a talent like Jernigan and not having to pay him a $30 million contract is a win-win for the Ravens. Once Jernigan is healthy and can consistently find himself in the rotation up front, he will have a significant impact on the run and pass defense.
All the talk that surrounds the Bengals is the new contract extension that Andy Dalton received. A six-year extension worth over $100+ million seems to be an awful lot for the former TCU quarterback.
It is a lot for Andy Dalton, but that is the market for quarterbacks these days if franchises want to keep them around once their rookie contracts come to a close. The Bengals caught a lot of flack around the national media for this extension, but add some perspective to this deal.
Good quarterbacks are extremely difficult to find these days and are the ultimate factor that separates the contenders from the pretenders. Andy Dalton is a good quarterback that is a fact. Where there is difficulty grasping this extension is Daltons lack of production come playoff time.
If the three-year starter cannot start winning when it counts, the Bengals could find themselves scratching their heads and Marvin Lewis’ job could be in jeopardy.
Its humorous that once upon a time the Ravens front office got criticized for giving Joe Flacco the big $100+ million deal. When he got that deal, he came off of a historic post-season performance as well as winning the Super Bowl. Dalton is yet to win a playoff game and got the big contract; people have some apologies to make to Ozzie Newsome and company.
The Bengals have seen a lot of change in the off-season as both coordinators bolted for head coaching opportunities. Hue Jackson replaces Jay Gruden as the offensive coordinator and Mike Zimmer left to take command of the Minnesota Vikings.
Zimmer will be the piece most missed by Cincinnati as he has led that good Bengals defense for years. He was regarded as one of the best defensive coordinators in the league for quite sometime.
The defense gets back two primary starters back from injury in Geno Atkins and Leon Hall. The only concern for this team is surprisingly on the defensive side of the ball. This unit must stay healthy and avoid the big time injuries they saw last season.
Offensively, there should be no concern as this side of the ball is loaded with talent. There is great depth at tight end and running back with AJ Green still the stud on the outside.
Breakout Candidate: Giovani Bernard
The former Tar-heel running back was a playmaker his rookie season and was used sparingly. Bernard was not the workhorse of the offense as the “Law Firm” took the bulk of the carries.
Bernards playmaking ability will be more visible this season as he will definitely see an increased workload. Bernard is both quick and fast out of the backfield and is an excellent all-purpose back. He is just as good receiving out of the backfield as he is running with the ball.
Hue Jackson will have to get this player involved more to take the pressure off of Dalton and the defense. If there is a play to sum up Bernards ability, look back to his highlight reel run against the Miami Dolphins.
Impact Rookie: Darqueze Dennard
It is simple to look to the first round selection as the impact rookie for any team, but Dennard finds himself in a good situation. With Leon Hall coming off of an Achilles injury and Dre Kirkpatrick only playing 19 of a possible 32 games in his short career, there will be opportunity.
Dennard was regarded as one of the best corners in this past draft and was a leader on the stellar Spartan defense. He is not flashy, but he has shutdown qualities in him that can translate to the big league. Will Clarke, the third round pick out of West Virginia, is another guy to watch out for in the defensive rotation up front.
It was a big surprise that neither Baltimore or Pittsburgh did not make an appearance in the post-season and both are eager at a chance for redemption. The Steelers were on the cusp of a wild card birth, but fell just short.
Things are looking up for the Steelers as they see their star offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey return to hold down the line. The running game was not consistent last season and the loss of Pouncey was a huge reason why.
The run game will be improved with the addition of LaGarrette Blount and a healthy Le’Veon Bell. The second year pro out of Michigan State looks to be the workhorse for the Steelers and has a lot of potential to be a top tier running back in the league.
The primary question that comes to mind offensively is the passing game. There is no question what Ben Roethlisberger can bring, but he has to have the help around him. Heath Miller has been a good tight end for the duration of his career in Pittsburgh, but his days are numbered. Miller is not the caliber of player he once was when he came out of the university of Virginia.
Antonio Brown filled the void that Mike Wallace left and it is time for another wide receiver to assume the number two role. That void will be up to either second year wide out Markus Wheaton or rookie Martavis Bryant to help out Big Ben.
The Steelers defense will be back to their usual ways as they did a solid job in the off-season adding pieces. With drafting Ryan Shazier, the linebacking corps is filled with superb talent. Timmons, Worilds and second year pro Jarvis Jones make up the rest of the lineup. This will be the best unit on the defensive side of the ball.
Breakout Candidate: Markus Wheaton
Big Ben needs help from another wide out and it will be up to Wheaton to give him the support. Wheaton was a poor mans Mike Wallace coming out of college. The former Oregon State receiver has the speed to open things up all around the field. He has no problem getting down the field, but he must be able to make things happen in the middle. If not Wheaton, the Steelers will need to depend on the rookie Bryant from Clemson.
Impact Rookie: Dri Archer
One of my favorite players in the entire draft was Dri Archer. The speedster star from Kent State is in the exact playmaking mold that Tavon Austin was from West Virginia. The only reason why Archer was not as highly regarded as Austin was due to the college he went to along with the competition faced.
There have been plenty of Kent State playmakers that have made a name for themselves in the pros, most notably Josh Cribbs. Archer comes in to Pittsburgh with a great role on the offense with Blount as the bruiser, Bell the well rounded back and Archer with the speed.
Archer will be a matchup problem for defensive coordinators because of his speed and ability to make plays out of nearly nothing. He can come out of the backfield or play from the slot. If you put a linebacker on Archer, he will burn right by that. If you put a corner or safety on him, Archer will be opening up the field for the rest of the receiving options. Great draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers, this kid is electrifying.
The Browns bring in former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to be head coach and he has the potential to fill that role well. The Browns saw some change in the off-season on the defensive side of the ball, his specialty.
They lost safety TJ Ward and replaced him with Donte Whitner. D’Qwell Jackson departed in free agency so Karlos Dansby was brough in to fill that hole. Justin Gilbert, the eighth overall selection, is now paired with the newly wealthy Joe Haden. The secondary is put together nicely and the front seven is not too shabby. The Browns have all kinds of talent on defense; there is no uncertainty about that
The offense looked poise to breakout for the upcoming season until star wide out Josh Gordon ran into more off the field trouble. His suspension appeal is ongoing and it is unknown how long he will be out for. Jordan Cameron is one of the better young tight ends in the league and Andre Hawkins was stolen away from the fellow north rival Bengals.
Cleveland is all excited for their Browns from the draft because of the big first round selection of quarterback Johnny Manziel. Brian Hoyer is the starter for now, but that will not last long. As soon as Hoyer makes a mistake, the noise will be too loud for Pettine to keep sitting Manziel.
Breakout Candidate: Barkevious Mingo
Last drafts sixth overall selection had a solid rookie campaign in the 15 games played. He registered 5.0 sacks and is the kind of playmaker Pettine will be able to work with. Pettine helped Mario Williams take his game to the next level in Buffalo after a lackluster first season after signing a big deal during free agency, so Mingo will be a personal project for the new head coach.
Impact Rookie: Joel Bitonio
Gilbert will have his impact on defense and West will do his part sharing the load with Ben Tate. Bitonio might be an odd choice here, but adding a quality lineman such as Joel to the mix with an Alex Mack and Joe Thomas will pay dividends for the offense. Adding Bitonio will help this offense in pass protection and will open up the holes for the two headed running back monster the Browns have.