The Ravens' rookies report to training camp tomorrow, and a new season officially begins. Before that happens, let's look at the new players on the roster and determine who the Ravens' stud players are, which players are underrated and which players are question marks headed into the season. This is all my opinion so feel free to chime in.
The Ravens have been aggressive this off-season, but not many people would accuse them of being reckless. They have taken a below-average receiving corp and made it one of the deepest in the league by adding Anquan Boldin, Donte' Stallworth, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. They took a defense that struggled to pressure the quarterback and added one of the top pass-rushers in the 2010 NFL draft in Sergio Kindle. They also took a traditionally feared run-defense and added a behemoth nose tackle in Terrence Cody. These moves have made it obvious that the Ravens' front office and leadership believe that this year could be very special for the team.
Most Ravens fans agree, and there's an almost tangible feeling of excitement among the fan-base. On the other hand, many fans are still apprehensive. Many of us remember the 2007 season when the Ravens were also pre-season Super Bowl favorites but disappointed with a 5-11 record. We also remember the up and down seasons under Brian Billick and are still wondering whether those days are over. We've all enjoyed that last two seasons and hope that John Harbaugh's consistency is here to stay, but everyone knows how quickly things can change in the NFL. That being said, things are still looking good for the Ravens going into the 2010 season. They are loaded with star players, and nearly every position has solid players as starters and backups.
1. WR Anquan Boldin, The Ravens finally acquired their number one wide receiver in a trade that probably should have happened last season. Despite what some people might say, Boldin is one of the toughest, most respected and competitive receivers in the NFL. Not overly fast, Boldin makes a living with his physicality and quickness. Boldin can make all of the tough catches and take a five-yard pass to the end-zone.
The best part is that Boldin was technically included in a trade that the Ravens made on draft day. The Ravens traded their first round pick (25th overall) to the Broncos on draft day and received the Broncos' second (43rd overall), third (70th overall) and fourth (114th overall) round picks. The following is a list of the the players that they picked with the draft picks that the Ravens acquired and the draft picks that they traded away:
1 (25), traded to Denver for picks 43, 70 and 114 overall.
2 (43), drafted Kindle.
2 (57), drafted Cody.
3 (70), drafted Dickson.
3 (88), traded to Arizona for Boldin.
4 (114), drafted Pitta.
4 (123), traded to Arizona for Boldin.
5 (156), drafted Reed.
5 (157), drafted Jones.
6 (194), drafted Harewood.
7 (232), traded to Tampa Bay for Douglas.
Basically, the Ravens traded down 18 picks (from 25 to 43) and received the following:
- Anquan Boldin.
- Traded up 18 picks in the third round (from 88 to 70).
- Traded up 9 picks in the fourth round (from 123 to 114).
2. WR Donte' Stallworth, The signing of Stallworth was probably the biggest gamble that the Ravens took during the off-season. It took many fans by surprise because the Ravens are usually very conservative and do not like signing troubled players, but after listening to interviews with Stallworth, even the most jaded critic must see that he's a changed man. All in all, the signing of Stallworth has extremely high potential with very little risk. He could become a deep threat for the Ravens or could be a disappointment. However, the Ravens only signed a one-year deal and do not stand to lose very much even if Stallworth doesn't work out. Personally, I believe that Stallworth is going to excel as the Ravens' slot receiver and should be a huge threat when defenses focus too much on Mason and Boldin.
3. DE Cory Redding, The signing of Redding is easy to overlook with the signing of Boldin and the other off-season activity, but let's not forget that the Ravens lost Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards this off-season. For many teams, those would have been crippling loses. Luckily, the Ravens took them in stride. Redding was formerly one of Detroit's best defensive players and had eight sacks in 2006. Redding may rediscover his former self on the Ravens' defense, which is far better than any other defense that he's been part of.
4. S Ken Hamlin, Hamlin is a former Pro Bowl safety that was cut by the Dallas Cowboys this off-season. Most people believe that this signing was insurance in case Ed Reed misses significant time at the beginning of the season. Hamlin may not be considered one of the best safeties in the league any longer, but his presence on the roster gives the Ravens great depth and experience at a position that has been struck with several injuries recently.
5. K Shayne Graham, Since the Ravens released Matt Stover last off-season, they have continually struggled at the kicking position. It all started with a kicking competition between Graham Gano and Steven Hauschka. After Hauschka won the battle and eventually lost his job, the Ravens signed Billy Cundiff, who did bring some stability. Now, the Ravens have signed Shayne Graham, a former Bengal and Pro Bowl kicker. The idea is to allow Graham and Cundiff to compete for the job in training camp.
1. DT Haloti Ngata, I think that Ngata is the Ravens best overall player right now. He made his first Pro Bowl last season and it was well deserved. He's basically the rock that the Ravens defense rests on and since being drafted in 2006, he has helped the Ravens defense to consistently rank top-ten among all NFL defenses. Maybe the best run-stuffing defensive end for a 3-4 defense, Ngata has allowed the Ravens to run a truly unique hybrid defense because he can easily play any position along the defensive line. He's a rare talent and the key to the modern Ravens' defense.
2. LB Ray Lewis, Many people would object to putting Ray Lewis as a stud and would insist that he's washed-up. Ravens' fans know better. I would agree that his physical abilities have drastically diminished since the Ravens' last Super Bowl run, but the Ravens' defense doesn't rely on him like they did in years past. He still has enough speed to dominate the middle of the field by shutting down the running game and is still the best leader in the NFL.
3. S Ed Reed, Three of the Ravens best players are on their defense. That's no surprise. Ed Reed has been shying away from contact over the last two seasons but is still a great safety. There's no safety in the league that can cover like he can. His abilities to read the coverages, cover ground and make plays are still unparalleled. No matter what Ravens fans will tell you, the team will miss Reed if he misses any time next season. They have good backups, but there isn't a player in the league that can replace what Reed brings to the Ravens' defense.
4. G Ben Grubbs, Grubbs could also be in the 'underrated' category but is just too good not to be put in the 'stud' category. The Ravens' offensive line has good players at every position, but it wouldn't be a stretch to say that Grubbs is the glue that holds them together. Grubbs is a massive, mauling brute that can move almost any defensive lineman in the league off the ball, but it's his technique and athleticism that most of his teammates and opponents praise. Grubbs is one of the best offensive lineman in the league, and if he follows last season up with another dominating performance, he should begin to get recognition.
5. RB Ray Rice, What can you say about Rice? The guy is amazing to watch. He's the kind of player that every football fan wishes were on his team. He's a dual threat and can catch-and-run better than any other NFL running back. The secret to his success is his ridiculous balance that's a product of his small stature, but there's nothing small about Rice's play on the field. In only his second season, Rice posted over 2,000 yards from scrimmage.
1. OLB Jarrett Johnson, All Ravens' fans love Johnson after last season. While Suggs was sucking wind after signing a huge contract and recovering from an off-season injury, Johnson was having the best season of his career. A defensive tackle in college, Johnson has proven to be a force against the run. Even better than that, he became the Ravens' best pass-rusher last season. Not many people outside the Ravens' fan-base even know who Johnson is, but he is another one of the great, late-round gems that power the Ravens defense. Johnson has not only become one of the best players on the Ravens defense but one of the best players on the entire team.
2. S Tom Zbikowski, If you're scratching your head over this selection, you're probably not a Ravens' fan. The "steely-eyed assassin" maybe the toughest player on the team, and that's saying something. He's also one of the premier special teams players in the league, but what he brings to the team goes beyond a single phase. Zbikowski adds depth to a group that has struggled with injuries over the last two seasons, and if Reed misses significant time, Zbikowski could make a Jim Leonard-like impact. The only difference is that he'll probably stick around as Reed's heir apparent.
3. CB Lardarius Webb, Webb has gotten his share of praise for the way he played last season before his season-ending ACL tear. I only think that he's underrated because people are overestimating how long he'll be gone with his injury and underestimating the difference that he'll make once he's returned. When I was writing an article on defensive coverages, I watched almost every snap that Webb played last season and can honestly say that Webb 'gets it.' You can teach a player to use better technique, but it's hard to teach a player to effectively play with more aggression. Webb plays fast and has elite hips. That makes him a great man-cover corner. He needs to work on his technique in zone coverage, but the ability to lock down receivers with Webb will be significant when he returns from injury.
4. G Marshall Yanda, The term "blue-collar" defines Marshall Yanda. He's a hard working, tough lineman that probably goes unnoticed to all but the most observant Ravens' fans. He's not really Pro Bowl material, but Yanda is the type of player that traditionally fuels the Ravens. He's a third round pick that has proven himself as one of the Ravens' most versatile lineman since he can also play right tackle. That versatility allows the Ravens to carry one less lineman on the active roster than normal. Furthermore, Yanda showed good athleticism at the end of last season when he was pulling from the guard position and making blocks that paved the way for Ray Rice. Yanda was just beginning to come into his own, and Ravens' fans can only expect more from him in the future.
5. WR Derrick Mason, Mason has been the Ravens' best receiver for several seasons, but it seems like he is always underestimated and underrated. People will write him off due to his age, but Mason may be more underrated than ever this season. For the first time in his career with the Ravens, Mason will actually have another receiver on the offense who's also a threat. This should open up the field for Mason, and I believe that the Ravens will rely on him almost as much as Boldin. Teams that underestimate Mason or pay too much attention to Boldin will be in trouble.
1. CB Domonique Foxworth and CB Fabian Washington, No players have received more criticism and concern than Foxworth and Washington. Foxworth disappointed many fans when he appeared to struggle at the beginning of last season. Most fans believed that he wasn't living up to his contract, and truth be told, he wasn't. However, it would be wrong to put all the blame on his shoulders since the Ravens had the second lowest sack totals in franchise history. Washington also struggled and suffered a season ending knee injury. The biggest question and challenge facing the Ravens is regarding these two situations. Can Foxworth continue to improve, and can Washington return at full-strength? When fully healthy, the Ravens have a solid group with Foxworth, Washington, Webb and Carr, but if any of these players miss time, it will be hard for the Ravens defense to stop opposing quarterbacks. The signing of Walt Harris should help, but there is no doubt that the Ravens prefer (and need) their starting lineup to stay healthy.
2. OLB Terrell Suggs, Most fans were expecting a great season from Terrell Suggs, and much to their disappointment, Suggs seemed to spend most of the season catching his breath. Maybe the most embarrassing thing for Suggs was that Jarrett Johnson was having a career year on the other side of the defense. Sugg's lackluster performance, especially early in the season, was a big reason why the Ravens had a hard time rushing the quarterback. Going into this season, everyone is wondering how Suggs will perform. He has vowed never to have a season like that again, and in his defense, he was recovering from a shoulder injury from the previous season.
3. T Jared Gaither, Gaither was one of the most talked about players during the off-season. Many fans wanted to trade him and felt like the Ravens needed to get what they could for him before his contract runs out next season, but most fans knew that the Ravens weren't going to accept any less than what Gaither was worth. I'm in the minority of fans who believe that Gaither will remain with the Ravens long term. It's not impossible for teams to have two good tackles. Regardless of what happens next season, Gaither is playing for the Ravens now, and they will need him to play well and stay healthy in order to reach their lofty goals.
4. QB Joe Flacco, Yes... Flacco is a question mark heading into the 2010 season. He's not a question mark because of disappointing or lackluster play. He's a question mark because he needs to take the 'next step' in order for the Ravens to reach their full potential. Most people are considering Flacco's continued improvement a given, but at this point, I don't see how anyone can objectively do that. There are many quarterbacks in the league that never make it to elite status and hover around good to average every season. We cannot assume that Flacco will be great until he proves it. Personally, I believe that it can happen. With all of the weapons that he has this season, Flacco no longer has any excuses and could explode into elite status. However, Flacco's isn't an elite quarterback yet, and much of the Ravens' success this season depends on his performance.
5. DT Terrence Cody and OLB Sergio Kindle, I'm really excited about these guys... maybe more than is warranted. I just love it when a plan comes together. Obviously, the Ravens couldn't have planned on drafting Kindle and Cody, but they stuck to their draft philosophy and it really paid off. As I detailed above, they basically received Boldin for trading down eighteen picks, and as if to make the deal sweeter, they were able to draft two players that they had graded in the first round. Kindle and Cody aren't question marks because the Ravens will be relying on them. They are question marks because I believe that these guys can make a huge difference this season, and if they can, the Ravens will be a truly special team. History has shown that many Super Bowl teams have enjoyed good production from their rookies.