Ravens Reinforce Special Teams; Still Missing Key Component

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 25: LaQuan Williams #15 of the Baltimore Ravens returns a punt against the Washington Redskins during the second half of a preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium on August 25, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Redskins 34-31. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The Baltimore Ravens didn’t sign any big-time wide receivers, no top-tier offensive linemen, and in general barely made even the slightest ripple in the free agency pool while other teams created huge waves.

The acquisitions of both cornerback Corey Graham and Safety Sean Considine, as well as the re-signing of linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, suggest that the Ravens are keying in on improving a special teams unit this off-season that greatly underachieved last year. Though the Ravens’ special teams unit wasn’t the worst to take the field in the NFL last season, it was a clear weak spot that will need some fine tuning over the coming months.

While the Ravens are off to a good start with the recent free agency signings, the team is still missing perhaps the biggest special teams component of all: a return man. The Ravens have deployed David Reed over the past couple of seasons as the primary kick returner, but after suffering an ACL injury, it remains unclear what his status will be for next season. And though he may be the Ravens’ most viable option as a punt returner, cornerback Lardarius Webb may have become far too valuable to the Ravens defense to continue his returning duties where he is certainly at an increased risk of injury.

The Ravens actively pursued but ultimately missed out on Ted Ginn Jr. this off-season. The multi-dimensional wide receiver and kick returner eventually re-signed with the San Francisco 49ers after being courted by several teams including the Ravens. Although Ginn Jr. would have solidified the Ravens’ kick return position and alleviated the pressures on Webb, the Ravens will have many options this off-season on how to improve their return game.

(After the "Jump", see a quick breakdown of the Ravens’ 2011-2012 return stats, and what the Ravens can do to bring stability to the position)

After missing out on Ginn Jr., John Harbaugh was admittedly "disappointed" that the Ravens couldn’t snag him off of the market before his brother Jim Harbaugh, head coach of the 49ers, re-signed the kick returner to his team. While Ginn Jr. could have been a huge addition and a big piece of the puzzle, the Ravens will have to move forward into the off-season still in search for a permanent solution to their return woes.

Though the Ravens certainly didn’t field the worst special teams unit this past season, as a whole, it was a group that was uncharacteristically out of sync and in general lacked a certain spark.

The Ravens’ kick return statistics ranked 9th overall out of the entire NFL at the end of the regular season. The numbers were as follows:

Kick Returns: 42 returns/1,047 yards/24.9 yards-per-return average/0 TDs/4 fumbles

Punt Returns: 36 returns/345 yards/9.6 yards-per-return average/1 TD/3 fumbles

While those numbers aren’t hateful, it’s obvious that the Ravens lack a certain spark in their return game and even more than that they could simply just use a stable and consistent fix in this department. Though the Ravens would certainly like to have more TDs scored off of returns, the Ravens don’t need anything flashy or even spectacular at this point. What they need is a returner who can gain decent yards, put the offense in good field position, and most of all secure the football.

The most worrying stat above all else is that the Ravens gave the ball away a staggering 7 times on returns last season. Turnovers are hard enough to overcome when an offense gives the ball away, but when a special teams unit coughs the ball up to opponents on a return attempt on a usually already "short field" giving the opponent possession with good field position, it begins to spell major trouble when these turnovers can possibly sway the outcome of a game.

So while the Ravens don’t need an elite return specialist, they certainly do need a stable and consistent option that can be relied upon to return kicks and punts each Sunday. As mentioned previously, David Reed may not be fully healthy for the upcoming season and Lardarius Webb may have become too valuable for the Ravens’ defense to continue returning punts.

The Ravens will have several options on how to address this position; chief among those options is the 2012 NFL Draft where there will be several solid return prospects in the middle rounds for the Ravens to choose from. Some of these prospects include: Joe Adams (Arkansas), Marquis Maze (Alabama), Ryan Broyles (Oklahoma), and T.Y. Hilton (Florida International).

This week, the Ravens picked up two extra draft choices. One 4th rounder (130th overall) and one 5th rounder (169th overall). Several of the above mentioned return prospects are predicted to fall somewhere between the 3rd-5th rounds, and now that the Ravens have gained additional picks, it gives them even more ammunition to go out a grab one of the several multi-dimensional return prospects that should be available to them in the middle rounds.

Outside of the draft, the Ravens have perhaps one more option to take over full-time return duties: 2nd-year un-drafted free agent receiver LaQuan Williams. Williams, if deemed ready, could very well become a viable returner for the Ravens as he has shown the ability to return kicks in the past. Last season, Williams’ returned 5 kicks for: 109 yards/21.8 yards-per-return average/0 TDs/1 fumble.

At 6-0 200 lbs., if Williams can work on ball security and fine-tune his skills as a returner, he could very well compete for the starting job this off-season and hopefully bring some consistency to the overall return game.

One way or another, the Ravens will be looking for a permanent to solution to return kicks whether or not that player is currently on the roster now, in the upcoming draft, or somewhere out in free agency. The Ravens need a spark to add to their special teams unit that could add a new element to an already dangerous team, and they’ll surely try to find that player sometime very soon.

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