This is an odd year. We won a super bowl, yet sports writers predictions for us range from top-5 teams in football, all the way down to 6-10/7-9 and tied with the Browns. What leads to such a disparity in the evaluation of our team? Which teams are they asserting are better than us and why?
I hope to break down here the main reasons why some are discounting the Ravens, and then look at the other AFC contenders to see whether they improved enough to pass us or not.
Why are some people discounting the Ravens so much? People do not like change! They look at our mass exodus on defense, and say that there is no way we can be good after losing such big names like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Cary Williams, Bernard Pollard, Matt Birk, and Anquan Boldin. Wow that is a long list. Ellerbe and Kruger got big time contracts, and everyone knows the name Lewis and Reed are synonymous with winning and strong leadership. So on the surface it looks scary..... until you look at who is sliding into each of their spots. And then you realize how good this team should be. Might there be some speed bumps? Of course, it takes time to gel. But the cream always rises to the top, and the Ravens have ALOT of cream.
Why are Ravens fans so confident in this team when most of the defense hasn't even played a game together yet? Let's start with this: We believe that no injury other than one to Joe Flacco that would derail our season. We have enough quality talent on this team to make it into the playoffs despite an injury to anyone else. Last year we had many important players miss alot of games, including many of those who are gone now. We managed to overcome those injuries and make the playoffs. Once you are in, it is a whole new season. Would an injury to certain players, like Bryant McKinnie or Lardarius Webb worry us? Of course. But we made the playoffs last season without Bryant starting a regular season game, and we won a super bowl despite our elite CB going down for the season in week 6. Yes, Cary Williams played well in his absence, but we also had Jimmy Smith in and out of the lineup due to injuries. Now we will have a healthy Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham in case of any injuries to Webb.
Why aren't Ravens fans concerned about losing all those players on defense? 2 things everyone needs to remember. Firstly, last year's defense was the worst in a decade for the Ravens defensively, so throwing money at guys like Kruger and Ellerbe, and retaining Reed and Pollard to maintain the status-quo wouldn't have been wise. Yes, injuries did contribute to the bad statistical rating, but so did the age and lost speed or tackling ability of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and the limitations of Pollard. Second, you can't just look who they lost, you also have to look at where they added. The Ravens added Elvis Dumervil, Michael Huff, Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, and in the draft brought in projected starters in Matt Elam and Arthur Brown.
Let us start with Dumervil. Dumervil is a proven commodity as a pass rusher, and is the best player we have ever had opposite Terrell Suggs. Dumervil is a large upgrade over Paul Kruger, and the Ravens were able to sign him to a contract giving him only 5 years 26.5 million, with incentives up to 35 million. The Browns had to give Kruger 40 million over those same 5 years with more guaranteed money, and Kruger is thus-far a 1-hit wonder who really only produced when he had Suggs taking attention on the other side, and cannot stop the run (not that Dumervil can so well either).
Next let us look at safety; the Ravens let Ed Reed sign in Houston due to the size contract he was offered (3 yrs, 15 million), and his myriad of injuries. They signed his replacement, Michael Huff, who's current physical abilities definitely eclipse those of Reed's, although he is not as big of a ballhawk as Reed, for a reasonable 3 yrs, 6 million. In this salary cap league, you cannot waste dollars, so the Ravens were forced to let Reed finish his career elsewhere. At the other safety slot, you have rookie Matt Elam, who although unproven, does not have the holes in his game that Pollard did. We hope he can also replace the booming hits we came to appreciate from Pollard. So yes that is 3 players we lost, but we found better or comparable replacements for much more affordable prices.
At CB, Cary Williams was expendable in every way, because besides not wanting to pay his asking price, we had an elite CB returning from injury in Webb. Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith are more than adequate on the other side, andChykie Brown has shown flashes at times. The one area where we were not able to fully replace the players leaving was at ILB. However, Ozzie's early under-the-radar moves in free agency addressed our biggest weakness and that should offset the drop off at ILB. The Ravens run defense was the most porous in Ravens history, so we added 3 big bodies to our rotation up front: Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, and Brandon Williams. Canty and Spears were both cut by their last teams for salary cap reasons, despite being solid contributors on those teams. The Ravens were able to bring both in for bargain prices, and drafted Brandon Williams to be the future nose tackle. The defensive line is now loaded, with these 3 joining all-pro Haloti Ngata, Terance Cody, and up-and-comers Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee. The actual starters at ILB will be rookie Arthur Brown, who excels in pass coverage, in addition to being a leader and a stud in every way in college, and Jameel McClain, who is coming off an injury but had beaten out Ellerbe for the starting spot both of the past 2 years. Backing them up are Josh Bynes and Albert McClellan, both of whom have gotten valuable starting experience over the last year. The Ravens will also have former-DPOY Terrell Suggs at 100% this year, and motivated to prove his detractors wrong. So if you look at who we brought in on defense, you realize that although we need to mesh the new parts, our defense is loaded with really good players who will return our defense to its rightful place in the top-5.
What about the loss of Anquan Boldin? They haven't replaced him! The Ravens return 9/11 starters on offense, and all of their key backups. Matt Birk retired, but they drafted his replacement a year ago and he learned from the best. Plus, they brought in quality depth in AQ Shipley, a player who showed flashes as a starter last year. The other starter is seen to be the bigger loss. Boldin had a great playoff run for us, totaling 381 yards and 4 td's in 4 games, while making many clutch, difficult catches for us. We will miss that. However, 2 important reasons we had to let him go. Firstly, we used the money we would have paid him this year and spent it on Canty, Spears, Dumervil, and Huff. Without dumping Boldin's salary none of those signings would have been possible. And secondly,Boldin has not been the top player he used to be, and has not been so reliable in the regular season, with 921 yds 4 tds in 2012 and 887 yds and 3 tds in 2011. Some of that is on our last offensive coordinator, which we will get to in a second, but some of that is on him. The slack will have to be picked up across the board, but I don't think that is such a big task, as I will detail in a minute. A big factor for our offense will be the play calling of our new Offensive Coordinator, Jim Caldwell who since he took over upped the scoring output to 29 ppg (not including week 17 when they rested the starters) from the 25.5 ppg averaged under Cameron. He improved the play-calling so the offense lacked predictability, didn't abandon the run, and Flacco's numbers were stellar under him (286 ypg, 15 tds 1 int in 6 games).
We will need some players to step up, like 3rd year WR Torrey Smith. Most receivers make the biggest jump going into year 3, so that is not unrealistic. Current #2 WR Jacoby Jones had a 52 reception season a few years ago in Houston, so it is not unrealistic to expect him to add another 10-20 receptions with more opportunities since he got upgraded from #3 to #2. The Ravens also have pass catching stud Ray Rice at RB, and 2 reliable TE's in Dennis Pitta, whose career year in 2012 announced him to the world as one of the better TE's in the NFL, and Ed Dickson, who battled injuries in 2012 after posting a very solid 2011 campaign with 54 rec for 528 yds and 5 tds. So he can be expected to pick up some of the slack too this coming year. And all this is not including the myriad of options the Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens front office has picked up over the past several years who could step up given the opportunity: Tandon Doss,Deonte Thompson, Laquan Williams, David Reed, Aaron Mellete, and Tommy Streeter. They won't all make the roster, but the ones who do will definitely have the opportunity to show if they have the goods. Lastly, they have added jack-of-all-trades Kyle Jusczyk, who is a versatile weapon as a TE/FB/HB. He was split out wide all the time last year at Harvard, and will really give other teams fits once he is worked into the game-plan. So tons of things to look forward from this offense, and Joe Flacco will demonstrate his ability to the world by building on his top-5 all time playoff run by a QB, and he will have his offensive line that dominated 2 of the top 5 defenses in the playoffs last year virtually intact. That line includes an elite RG in Marshal Yanda, a soon to be pro bowler at LG in Kelechi Osemele, and 2 serviceable tackles in Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher. The offense is good enough to put alot of points on the board and keep the team afloat should the defense need some time to adjust and get used to playing with each other. We are all really excited for this upcoming year.
I ran out of room and time, so I will post Part 2: Evaluating our competition as a separate article.