When you hold up the trophy at the end of the season, everyone comes gunning for you the following season. However in Baltimore’s case they’re unsure as to who they’re going to be. As the confetti fell, the ink was drying on the retirement papers for Ray Lewis. Friday morning the inked signature of C Matt Birk was scrolled across retirement paperwork as well. Super Bowl XLVII hero Anquan Boldin has said he would retire from the NFL if the Ravens released him. He will not play for another team. Yet a contract restructure should keep his services in Baltimore.
All of this before we find out the fate of S Ed Reed and Linebackers Paul Kruger & Danell Ellerbe with their unrestricted free agent status. Will one of them be franchised if they sign Joe Flacco to a long term deal or will Flacco be franchised and one of them walk away as a free agent?? Not since the 1997 MLB champion Florida Marlins have we seen defending champion with so many roster questions going into the next season. In that situation they were having a fire sale for half their roster, in this one it’s all the team leaders with half already gone and the spiritual / emotional leader in Lewis already out of the complex. These next few weeks leading into free agency will tell the tale. Who will the 2013 Baltimore Ravens be??
Quarterback: Well, well, well… Looks like The Chancellor along with LaMarr Woodley had to eat their words when it came down to assessing Joe Flacco’s projected ability to win the big game. Where last year it looked like his career would be defined by the incompletion to Lee Evans in the AFC Championship, a new Flacco emerged gunning his team to a 28-7 3rd quarter Super Bowl lead. Even when things got tight he drove them to the game clinching field goal while eating up valuable time.
He finally came through and out-dueled Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to get to that Super Bowl victory. The traces Flacco’s transformation began in that divisional playoff against Denver.
Last year our CEO challenged that Flacco wasn’t going through his progressions and just dumping the ball to Ray Rice where there were throws down-field that could have been made. For the season Rice was second on the team with 61 receptions. However in the playoffs, Rice only had 1 reception on a screen against the Colts, none in Denver, 3 in the championship against New England, and 4 in the Super Bowl. Three of those were when the 49ers were coming back and he started to regress a bit. Compare that to Boldin’s postseason, 22 rec. for 380 yards and 4TDs, and you could see how his play improved. He jelled with new play calling coach Jim Caldwell in the playoffs to the tune of 11TDs with zero interceptions in the postseason.
Finally, the Ravens are Super Bowl quality at the quarterback position.
Offensive Backfield: Now if it hit you during the playoffs that Bernard Pierce was getting almost as many carries as Ray Rice you weren’t seeing things. If you go back to the final two games and go through the playoffs, Pierce had 70 car. for 400 yards to Rice’s 108 car. for 521 yards and 1 touchdown. Pierce was the more physical runner as the season concluded and had an eye popping 5.7 yards per carry. He ran with good body lean and fell forward. Yet with Rice with the big contract he’ll get the majority of the carries in the upcoming season.
With 1,527 touches in his first five years, the Ravens were coming close to burning Ray Rice out. Truth be told it’s good that Pierce has emerged to take a load off for various drives or even games where they can afford to rest him. As they did in the season finale against Cincinnati. For the season he did rush for 1,143 yards and 9TDs on 257 carries. However they can trim his work load thanks to second year back in Pierce.
They will rely on their running game a little bit more to offset a defense that won’t be as stout as it had in year’s past. The Ravens are in great shape if either were to go down for a stretch in the upcoming season. Depending on how they strategically need to be used to rest the defense. The Chacellor sees a season where Rice / Pierce should see a 60/40 mix as the runners this season. They may want to re-work his contract but that will be going into 2014. As for now the Ravens are playoff quality at the running back position.
Receivers: Here is where the first of the question marks show up for the Baltimore Ravens. Restrictive free agent TE Dennis Pitta (61 rec. / 669 yards / 7TDs) and WR Anquan Boldin (65 rec /921 yards / 4 TDs) have question marks at the present time. Right now it looks like they’ll be able to re-sign Pitta, whom Flacco developed a bond with, but Boldin is another scenario. From his free agent contract after leaving the Cardinals, Boldin is due $7.5 million this year and the consensus is he’ll be released. Boldin has said if that happens he’ll retire from the game. Although he was clutch in the AFC Championship & Super Bowl, he would be going into his 11th season and gets by on will. He is going to have to take a drastic pay cut to remain a Raven which we think he’ll do. We’ll have to wait and see.
The difference in this team winning the Super Bowl and watching it was Jacoby Jones. While Torrey Smith has emerged as a bonafide playmaker with 8 touchdowns on 49 receptions, it was Jones who was a game changer. When the team needed a charge in the game against Dallas he broke through with a 106 yard kick return touchdown that was the margin of victory that swung momentum in a 31-29 win. When the Ravens took the field in Denver with a little over a minute to go, it was Jones who got behind the defense for the 70 yard touchdown to force overtime. In the Super Bowl when the question was if the 49ers could come back?? Boom he goes 108 on a kick return to boost the lead to 28-6. He is the missing element that the Houston Texans lost when they let him get away as a free agent. Jones will have a bigger role this season even with the return of Boldin. Look for Offensive Co-ordinator Jim Caldwell to unleash formations with Smith and Jones in bunch formations often in 2013. If they get Boldin back this is a Super Bowl caliber group. Without they are still playoff caliber.
Offensive Line: This is where the 2013 questions on the Ravens are the loudest. First of which, how do you replace a team leader and center in the retired Matt Birk?? Are they going to come to terms or even re-sign T Bryant McKinnie?? The Ravens had to shuffle Michael Oher from LT to RT and moved rookie RT Kelechi Osemele to LG and insert McKinnie at LT to replace an injured guard. For the season the team was 20th in sacks allowed with 38. There is no way that Osemele didn’t benefit from learning from Birk as he learned a new position on the fly. It takes more than coaching to do that.
This unit paved the way for 444 rushing attempts 1,901 yards and 17 touchdowns. The yardage was good enough for 11th in all of pro football but they could use a little more muscle in the middle. When it came to 3rd or 4th and two or fewer, or even 1st or 2nd down at the goal line, they pushed for a first down or touchdown 58% of the time as compared to 79% on the right. Up the middle is where they can improve on this to keep drives sustained with a younger center. Look for the Ravens to use a couple of draft picks on the offensive line and a pick up or two in free agency at either Center or Tackle. It’s not a given that McKinnie will come back. Until we know what they do once free agency begins we have to give them a below average grade. Replacing a center means to replace the man responsible for blocking audibles. Doubtful they would leave that to a rookie.
Defensive Line: For years The Chancellor has said that Haloti Ngata is the best defensive lineman in the NFL. Never was it as evident as in the Super Bowl a month ago. The comeback by the 49ers coincided with his leaving the game with an injury. Up until that point the 49ers were unable to sustain the run on the front side of their read-option. Once he went down you saw the Niners mount their comeback and Frank Gore gained the majority of his 110 yards rushing.
In 2012 Ngata made his presence felt again with 50 total tackles and 5 sacks while making his 4th straight Pro Bowl. However you have to worry about the mileage on Ngata’s knees now that he’s turning 30. It’s also time for Terrence “Mount” Cody to start performing like the high draft pick he was out of Alabama. He only started 3 games and had 25 total tackles yet is about to become labeled as a “bust”. Having been beat out by a 33 year old journeyman in Ma’ake Kemoeatu. The Ravens gave up a lot of yards against the run in 2012 and these guys were allowing offensive linemen to get out on linebackers as Baltimore finished 20th against the run.
The Ravens need to make a move here in free agency or the draft. Without a great camp it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cody be released. Lets face it the line in Baltimore is there to stop the run more than rush the passer but they can’t give ground and need to get off blocks. There Cody has struggled. They have to get younger and healthier on the line. If not they will be really beat up toward the end of last season. Right now the Ravens are average on the defensive line.
Linebacker: Did you ever think that we’d ever say the Ravens are weakest at the linebacker position?? Well with Paul Kruger, Danell Ellerbe both about to test the free agency market. That leaves Terrell Suggs as the lone cornerstone linebacker on the roster and let’s face it, he was a shell of his former self. He was only getting a quarterback pressure once every 14.5 rushes. That is not enough. Not for a former defensive player of the year. He came in with 8 games to go and only had 2 sacks on the season and 23 tackles on the year. Last year teams were able to block him one on one.
The most important re-signs are Kruger and Ellerbe. Kruger had 42 tackles, 6 passes defensed, and 9 sacks. Even in the Super Bowl when San Francisco made it in close to the goal line in the second quarter, Kruger made the sack to force SF to kick a field goal. He made plays from the outside. Ellerbe (89 tackles / 4.5 sacks) on the inside is crucial to maintain some continuity along with Jameel McClain 78 tackles. This is another place where the team may make a move to pick up a free agent linebacker and draft someone for the middle.
We see them re-signing Ellerbe and re-signing Kruger is a wish. They do have Shaun Phillips (Chargers), Anthony Spencer (Cowboys), Dwight Freeney (Colts), and possibly Osi Yumeniora (Giants) could be situational pass rushers if they can’t bring back Kruger and they await Suggs to get to full strength. With the questions they have at linebacker we have to say this group is below average if they don’t get Ellerbe back.
Secondary: Here is another position where the Ravens come in less than they were a month ago. The looming loss of future Hall of Fame S Ed Reed is a big loss. However there are two safeties in Dashon Goldston (49ers) and William Moore (Falcons) are available for less money. At SS Bernard Pollard is ready to be a pro bowl player after last year’s 99 tackles 2 sacks, and an interception. They may lose CB Cary Williams who wants more than the 3 yrs and $15 million dollar contract that is being offered. The truth is LarDarius Webb and Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham are solid enough at the corner position. They are very good cover corners but they need to get more interceptions. Webb is their best corner but he is coming back from injury. If they can solidify the FS this group can be Super Bowl caliber. If they need to draft a FS they will drop down to playoff level at best…
Overall: Where other prognosticators are saying the Ravens have a legitimate chance to defend their Super Bowl title isn’t looking at projecting out to next year. This team is going to miss the leadership of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and C Matt Birk beyond what can be quantified. This team hasn’t had to motivate itself or get emotionally ready to play for the last 17 years. The coaching staff and the team will search to find those next leaders. This team had lost 4 out of 5 coming down the stretch before Lewis brought the team motivation with his retirement announcement. They do have holes in their defense and in the first year without a strong defense, The Chancellor doesn’t think the offense is ready to pick up the slack. The Ravens will really slip this year and they may be a 7-9 or an 8-8 team. They won’t come close to getting back to the Super Bowl.
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