Since losing to the Steelers in the playoffs last January, our beloved Ravens have encountered a youth movement. Many of the familiar faces and aging vets have left for greener pastures on other rosters. The list of departing players looks something like this (in no particular order):
Marc Bulger, Derrick Mason, Donte Stallworth, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Todd Heap, Willis McGahee, LeRon McClain, Chris Chester, Jared Gaither, Kelly Gregg, Dawan Landry, Josh Wilson, and Fabian Washington.
Phew. That's quite a list of accomplished players. Although Ozzie and Co. have made a few moves in free agency to to fill some of these vacancies, including adding Vonta Leach, Bernard Pollard, and Ricky WIlliams, many of the roster spots previously occupied by all this veteran talent will now be filled with rookies. Here's a breakdown of what Raven's fans can expect to see in 2011 at some of the most uncertain positions...
QB: There is no argument as to who will start. This is Joe Flacco's offense. However, the depth chart behind him consists of Hunter Cantwell and Tyrod Taylor, who have combined for exactly zero regular season snaps in their NFL careers. If the cap situation allows it, the Ravens should and probably will consider bringing in a more experienced option as the primary backup to Flacco. Taylor will get a long look in preseason, but should be the team's #3 option going into the season. Jake Delhomme, Troy Smith, and Brodie Croyle are all still available and have starting experience should Flacco be injured during the season.
My expectation: Flacco, Smith, Taylor
RB: With the signings of Leach at FB and Williams as the #2 HB option behind Ray Rice, the RB situation has mostly solidified. Questions about which young players will make the team in backup and special teams roles still abound. Jalen Parmele and Matt Lawrence are looking for spots, as well as rookies Anthony Allen and Damien Berry. Decisions on this final spot or two may be made based on preseason performances. However, barring injury none of them is likely to make a significant impact on the team in 2011 beyond special teams.
My expectation: Rice, Williams, Allen
WR: After veteran star Anquan Boldin, the WR corps lost every productive member from the 2010 team. Rookies Torrey Smith, Tandon Doss, and LaQuan Williams, as well as youngsters David Reed and James Hardy make up the bulk of the competition for the glaring vacancies at the position. Justin Harper and Marcus Smith also pose a threat to make the team. The word is that the team may be interested in finding another veteran presence to accompany Boldin. Mark Clayton, Jerricho Cotchery, and Houshmandzadeh are potential free agent options, as might be Lee Evans via trade. Expect T. Smith and Doss to make the team, while their role is decided by their preseason play as well as what other additions to the corps Ozzie makes. A rookie could potentially earn a starting spot at WR this season. With 1-3 other openings at WR still up for grabs, expect heavy competition from the rest of the field throughout training camp.
My expectation: Boldin, T. Smith, Cotchery, Doss, Reed, Williams
TE: Heap's release was a surprise to many, as was his departure for Arizona. Those who saw it coming cited second year players Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta as reasons for the move. Adding Davon Drew to the mix gives the team solid depth, but the 12 combined career catches from the crew leaves questions as to how ready the trio will be be make an immediate impact. Most likely Dickson and Pitta will be thrown into the fire, learning in real game situations. There is no lack of pass-catching talent here waiting to be utilized, but there are questions about the blocking abilities of the youngsters. Only time will tell if ending Heap's tenure in Baltimore was a wise decision.
My expectation: Dickson, Pitta, Drew
OL: Michael Oher, Ben Grubbs, Matt Birk, and Marshal Yanda comprise the majority of the starting offensive line. However, there is no cemented player at RT. Rookie Jah Reid has looked strong in practice so far, but Oniel Cousins and Ramon Harewood also warrant consideration for the starting job. Ideally the Raven's would have a solid veteran option to plug in here, but the front office seems content to let the in-house candidates fight it out. If Reid proves himself ready, he might be the most optimistic long-term option. If not, Cousins is the most likely choice to start. Unless his play has improved this offseason, Cousins would be the weak link on an otherwise very solid line.
Also of note is Birk's injury, which may cause a backup center to see playing time with the starting offense. Casey Rabach, who was reported to have signed with the Ravens, failed a physical and did not join the team. Other options on the roster at C are Bryan Mattison and rookies Ryan Bartholomew and Tim Barnes. While these inexperienced players create solid depth and may be viable starters in the future, it would be a desperate situation if any of them saw significant playing time in 2011. Unfortunately, the list of free agent centers is short at this point, and there may not be a viable option there either. If a beneficial scenario comes to Ozzie's attention with regards to center, he would be wise to address it.
My expectation: RT - Reid starting, Cousins, Harewood as depth, C: Birk (hoping he's healthy), Bartholomew as depth
DL: With the departure of Gregg, it seems it is time for Terrence Cody to step up at DT. The Ravens still have quality depth up the middle as Brandon McKinney and Arthur Jones are waiting for their opportunities to display their skills as well. Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding return as veterans on the outside, but potential pass rushers Paul Kruger and Sergio Kindle may finally get chances to attack opposing QBs from either DE or OLB positions. Even with the loss of Gregg, the Ravens have a lot of depth on the defensive line, with Albert McClellan and rookie Pernell McPhee also vying for a chance to prove their worth. The Raven's front seven is likely to be a shape-shifting group, with many players getting into the action based on the formation and game situation.
My expectation: Ngata, Cody, and Redding starting, but quality play from backups McKinney, Jones, Kruger, Kindle, and McPhee help keep everyone fresh.
CB: Although the Ravens lost Wilson to the Redskins, the resigning of Chris Carr and drafting of Jimmy Smith and Chykie Brown give the team fantastic depth at CB. Domonique Foxworth and LaDarius Webb should be healthy after returning from knee injuries, and ever-waiting Cary Williams has looked excellent so far in practice. With all this depth, it is difficult to say who will start, play nickel, etc, but the Ravens should be in a solid position regardless. It may be too much to expect Smith to start right away, but don't be surprised if he earns a starting role at some point in the season.
My expectation: Foxworth, Carr, Smith, Webb, Williams, Brown
S: Some fans will miss Landry playing next to Reed in the defensive backfield, but young-veteran depth in Tom Zibikowski and Haruki Nakamura is already in place to take over in 2011. Furthermore, with the signing of Pollard, the Ravens added a Landry-esque option for run support and pressuing opposing QBs. Pollard and Zibikowski will probably fight for the starting nod at SS, but look for both of them to contribute with quality playing time either way.
My expectation: Reed and Zibikowski starting, Nakamura and Pollard as depth and used in certain packages
Overall: Losing as much of a veteran presence as the Ravens lost is likely going to hurt. The rookies in camp have a lot of talent that may improve the team for years to come. However, for positions like WR and RT were a rookie is likely to see significant playing time, expect growing pains in the short term. The offense is suddenly very young, and will probably take some time coming into its own. The solid veteran core still in place on this team, primarily on defense, should be enough to keep the Ravens competitive into January, but I question their ability to make it "over the hump" this year. They will likely be forced to face experienced rivals like the Colts, Patriots, and Steelers in the playoffs, a daunting task for the most battle-hardened of teams.. Only time will tell what this team is truly capable of. Even so, it should be fun watching our young players mature and develop into a new generation of Ravens stars.