In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the AFC North, continuing with the Baltimore Ravens today.
Recap of 2015: The Baltimore Ravens came into their 20th season as a franchise with very high hopes. They had just come off of a 10-6 season and a return to the playoffs. They expected to build off of that and make a deeper run. Many “experts” even had this team representing the AFC in Super Bowl 50 but that came to an end very quickly. The Ravens had their worst season during the Harbaugh-Flacco era and it can be summed up by three major factors: injuries, inexcusable penalties, and failure to close-out games. They also faced one of their toughest schedules in recent history. They were tasked with playing five of their first eight games on the road and four of those road games were in the Mountain Time Zone or the Pacific Time Zone. John Harbaugh knew this was going to be a tough task for his team to make four trips out to the west coast in the first eight weeks of the season and requested to play back to back games so the team could stay out there in between weeks to cut down on travel time. This ultimately backfired as the team would lose all four of those games. The injury bug hit this team harder than ever before. Harbaugh placed 22 players on IR, setting a franchise record. First round draft pick Breshad Perriman injured his knee in training camp and would never be able to get healthy and wound up missing the entire season. Terrell Suggs (T-Sizzle) went down with a torn Achilles in Week 1, Steve Smith tore his Achilles in Week 9, Joe Flacco tore both his ACL and MCL in Week 11, and Justin Forsett broke his arm in Week 11. Elvis Dumervil, Kelechi Osemele, Jeremy Zuttah, and Lardarius Webb also missed all missed time during the season. This team was also one of the more penalized teams this past season. They ranked 6th in the league in penalties committed with 122 for the season. They led the league in pass interference and unnecessary roughness penalties. Despite all of these penalties and injuries, the Ravens were still competitive in all but two games this season. 9 of their 11 losses were decided by one score and had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead in every one of those losses. They also held the lead in the late stages of the 2nd half in seven games and would go on to lose five of those games. The Ravens would end the season with a 5-11 record and were left with several questions about the roster. They did however sweep the Steelers and every Baltimore fan (including myself) completely forgot about the 5-11 record. STEELERS SUCK!
Significant Additions: WR Mike Wallace, S Eric Weddle, CB Jerraud Powers, TE Benjamin Watson ( will miss the entire 2016 season with a torn Achilles)
Significant Subtractions: OT Kelechi Osemele, OLB Courtney Upshaw, OT Eugene Monroe, LB Daryl Smith, DE Chris Canty
Potential Impact Rookies: OT Ronnie Stanley, OLB Kamalei Correa, CB Tavon Young, RB Kenneth Dixon (Note: DE Bronson Kaufusi broke his ankle in training camp and will miss the entire season)
Team Strengths: As a die-hard Ravens fan, I could more than likely pick out several strengths that zero people would agree with. For starters, Joe Flacco is an ELITE QB and deserves to be respected as one. To this day he still does not receive the credit he should get. At least half the league would rather have Flacco under center than whatever journeyman or rookie they are being forced to start. I don’t care what his stats show people every year. The guy gets to the playoffs and wins in the playoffs. All that matters now-a-days are rings. You could be a die-hard fan of the Eagles like my colleague over here at H&H and still not know (and will never know) what it’s like to see your team hoist the Lombardi trophy. Enough of that ELITE talk though, let’s focus on a few actual strengths this team does have. John Harbaugh cut his teeth in the NFL by coaching special teams under Andy Reid as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles and he has always been keen on making sure his special teams unit ranks among the best in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, the Baltimore Ravens had the best cumulative special teams ranking in the entire league with the second place New England Patriots far off in the distance. The team also ranked #1 overall in special teams DVOA. This special teams is led by the three headed monster of K Justin Tucker, P Sam Koch (#puntersarepeopletoo), and LS Morgan Kox. Tucker ranks among the best kickers in NFL history for accuracy rating and Koch ranks among the top punters in the league with a net punt yardage of 43.1 yards (teams only averaged 5.03 yards per punt return last season). It is no surprise this unit is the best in the league with Harbaugh’s background and this unit should remain at the top while these three are all leading the way. The Baltimore Ravens have always prided themselves on toughness since the franchise’s inaugural season in 1996. This team really showed off their toughness in the trenches along the defensive line and offensive line. They had a slight drop-off from 2014 falling from third overall to thirteenth overall, but they were led by two of the top guards in the game, Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele. Center Jeremy Zuttah also ranked in the top half of the league’s centers. They ranked 2nd in DVOA at pass blocking. According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens were sacked on only 3.8% of all pass attempts. On the other side of the ball, the defensive line also displays that typical Baltimore toughness. Many of you readers may disagree with this based off of their DVOA (19th) last season, but a major reason for their low ranking was directly related to the injury of T-Sizzle. He was only on the field for three quarters last season and it really showed. Heading into the 2015 season, the Ravens were a top-6 defensive line and more than likely would have retained that type of ranking had Sizzle been on the field for more of the season. DT Brandon Williams is one of the more underrated lineman in the league. Pro Football Focus rated him as the best defender against the run in the NFL. He is heading into the final season of his rookie contract and he will be playing this season with a big dollar contract on the line.
Team Weaknesses: The Ravens biggest struggles were at the wide receiver position and in the defensive backfield. The secondary really struggled. There was a revolving door at the cornerback position opposite of Jimmy Smith. Lardarius Webb started the season injured and struggled with starting receivers. Kyle Arrington also couldn’t keep up with starting receivers. Rashaan Melvin showed he was nothing more than a back-up and practice squad player after he was burned by the likes of Marvin Jones and Andy Dalton. Asa Jackson and Will Davis both were lost for the season with knee injuries. The starting safeties weren’t much better either. Matt Elam, 2013 1st round pick, tore his bicep in training camp and missed the entire season. The two opening day starters Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis struggled for much of the season as well. Hill was the team’s best safety but had trouble covering the deep ball. Kendrick Lewis also struggled with coverage on the deep ball. The team allowed 51 passes of over 20 yards and 10 passes of over 40 yards. Opposing quarterbacks also achieved a QB Rating of 99.6. This is especially concerning when they got to play the Browns (x2), Jaguars, Rams, Andy Dalton (x2), Squidward (Colin Kaepernick), and Ryan Tannehill in half of their games. The Ravens secondary was also only able to produce six interceptions and flirted with setting the record for fewest interceptions in a season. They were fortunate enough to play Ben Roethlisberger in Week 16 and picked him off twice to avoid the record. Part of the secondary’s troubles can also be credited to their lack of pass rush. The loss of Sizzle changed the entire dynamic of the Ravens pass rush. Dumervil was also ailed by various injuries and teams were able to throw double teams against him. The loss of Pernell McPhee in Free Agency also played a large part in the drop-off of the pass rush. There was also a revolving door at wide receiver. The Ravens lost Torrey Smith (#heaterp) to free agency. The team drafted Torrey Smith 2.0 in the draft in Breshad Perriman but as I alluded to earlier, he missed the entire season with a nagging knee injury. The absence of Perriman left the team with Steve Smith Sr., Marlon-I-don’t-know-what-I-am-doing-Brown, Michael Campanaro, and Kamar Aiken as their top receivers on the depth chart. Smith Sr. was having an incredible season and just having his way with DBs despite receiving all of their attention. He was also very keen on letting opposing DBs know he was having his way with them. Unfortunately Smith Sr. would tear his Achilles in Week 9 and miss the remainder of the season. Campanaro, a 2nd year player out of Wake Forest, had very high hopes heading into the season. He was injured in Week 4 against the Steelers and missed the rest of the season. This left the Ravens with no choice but to add WRs to the roster. Chris Givens, Chris Matthews, and Kaelin Clay were all added to the roster with the hope of picking up some of the slack for the injured players. Outside of Kamar Aiken and Steve Smith, no other receiver had more than 365 yards receiving. The Ravens headed into this offseason needing to address both of the positions by adding better quality players and more depth. The team also struggled to get the same kind of production out of their run game that had experienced in 2014 and in 2012. The injury to Justin Forsett played a large part and the team was playing from behind and forced to throw the ball more. Last season, they ranked 26th in the league in rush offense and were only able to produce 3.9 yards per carry. I could also point out the TE position here but again the position was decimated by injuries and I am tired of beating the injury drum.
Fantasy Players to Watch: This really pains me to say but there aren’t really any fantasy players that are must haves off of this Raven’s roster. I feel as though it will take a few weeks into the season to figure out which guys are worth taking fliers on and which guys you should just avoid altogether. The Ravens backfield is a big question mark and the preseason really hasn’t helped give any clarification to that question mark. Justin Forsett is expected to be the starter by many, but he has only nine touches in three preseason games. The heir apparent Kenneth Dixon, Terrence West, and Javorius “Buck” Allen have all seen a relatively equal amount of touches. Dixon and West are averaging more than 4 yards a carry and Allen is 2nd on the team in catches with 7 coming out of the backfield. Dixon also hurt his knee last Saturday and is expected to miss at least four weeks. If you are desperate for RBs and Justin Forsett is on the board, make sure some combination of West, Allen, and Dixon are also still available and grab one of them in the later rounds. The Ravens ground game has the potential to be one of the better ones in the league but I need to wait to see who emerges as the number 1 during the season. I am also hesitant to tell you to draft any of the receivers. Kamar Aiken was a solid WR3 last season but that was mainly due to the injuries around him. He was really the only formidable WR the team had on its roster. Steve Smith Sr. was in the WR1 range but he tore his Achilles and is another year old. I’m sure if he reads this he will tell me to “ICE UP SON” and then return to his WR1 status. So ICE UP and draft Steve Smith Sr. He should come at a discount with his age and injury status but don’t let that deter you. This guy goes to war every time he steps on the field and produces for his teams. Mike Wallace is another intriguing pick and he could play himself into the boom or bust WR3 line. He is in an offense that suits him and if his hands aren’t bricks he should hit a few home run balls with Joey Flacco this season. Another boom or bust guy on this roster is Breshad Perriman. He missed his entire rookie season with a nagging knee injury and he hasn’t seen any action as of yet this preseason. (he is scheduled to make his first start on Thursday in New Orleans). I would take a shot on Perriman in deeper leagues and stash him on your bench and hope (like all us Ravens fans are) he turns out to be the 1st round pick Ozzie and co. thought he was going to be. I stand by my previous comments regarding Joe about his ELITE status, but if you are paying serious money to play fantasy football, then I am going to have to steer you clear of taking Joe on draft day. Joe is nothing more than a bye week filler. Joe has a tendency to turn the ball over and the Ravens offense often settle for FGs which leads me to my only must have on your roster: Justin Tucker. He is one of the most accurate kickers in the history of the NFL and he has the potential to boot a 69-yard FG. In all four of Tucker’s seasons, he has averaged 8.8 points or more per game. He should be one of the first kickers to be drafted.
2016 Outlook: It appears that the only direction this team can go from here is up. The Ravens still have one of the best front offices in the league and John Harbaugh is one of the winningest coaches since he took over the helm in 2008. This team has also had a chance to get healthy, sort of (Dennis Pitta and Breshad Perriman have not played yet in the Preseason and they have already lost Benjamin Watson and Bronson Kaufusi to season ending injuries). They have, however, gotten Joe Flacco, Justin Forsett, Steve Smith Sr., Elvis Dumervil, and T-Sizzle back on the practice field and have even gotten them to take some Preseason game snaps. The Ravens also turned in one of their best drafts in recent memory. The received grades of B+ to A from the majority of the draft experts around the league. They also brought in additional veteran leadership on the defensive side of the ball by signing S Eric Weddle. In addition to Weddle, they also brought in Jerraud Powers and drafted Tavon Young to provide depth at cornerback. The Ravens should also benefit from a much softer schedule. Their toughest non-division road game is at the Patriots. Their other non-division road matchups are at the Giants, Jets, Jaguars, and Cowboys. All are very winnable games. This franchise also knows how to defend M&T Bank stadium better than well over half the league. Prior to last season, only the Patriots had a higher home winning percentage since 2002. The home schedule is also favorable for the Ravens this year with non-divisional matchups against the Dolphins (in December), Bills, Redskins (LOL), Eagles (LOL), and Raiders. Should this team stay healthy, pressure the quarterback, and get some more production from the skill players on offense, I expect to see them back at the top of the AFC where they have made a name for themselves in the Harbaugh era.
Record Prediction: SUPER BOWL LI CHAMPIONS! Okay fine, I’ll stop drinking my own kool-aid. In all honesty, I think the Ravens get healthy, stay healthy, and start to get production out of their first and second year players and make a return trip to the playoffs as a Wild Card. Winning the division seems to be a tall task again this season with the likes of the Steelers and Bengals still on the top of the division. I think we will see somewhat of a drop-off from the Bengals, but not enough for the Ravens to re-take the division. They also have some favorable matchups this season with a relatively easy schedule. Also getting to play the NFC (L)East will be a break for this team. Looks for the Ravens to finish the season 10-6 and make it into the playoffs as the 6th seed. OH OH OH OH OHHHHHHH OH OHHHHH OH OH OH OHHHHHH OH.
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