The Ravens went from one of the worst offensive teams in the league in 2013 to one of the better offensive teams in the league in 2014. In 2013, they ranked 30th in rate of moving the chains. In 2014, they moved all the way up to 7th, the biggest offensive leap in the NFL (Miami going from 26th to 8th was the 2nd biggest). As a result, the Ravens went from 8-8 to 10-6 and won a road playoff game in Pittsburgh, before eventually coming up just short in a loss in New England in the next round. How did the Ravens improve that much? Well, it was a variety of factors, but, as you could guess, a big part of it was improved quarterback play.
Joe Flacco rebounded from the worst season of his career in 2013, when he completed 59.0% of his passes for an average of 6.37 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions, posting a career worst 73.1 QB rating and ranking 37th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, also a career worst. In 2014, however, he completed 62.1% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, posting a 91.0 QB rating (2nd best of his career) and ranking 14th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, also 2nd best in his career.
This season, Flacco should end up somewhere in the middle, more in lines with his career averages. For his career, he’s completed 60.5% of his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 148 touchdowns, and 90 interceptions. He’s graded as Pro Football Focus’ 20th, 8th, 14th, 29th, 20th, 37th, and 14th ranked quarterbacks in 2008-2014 respectively, since the Ravens drafted him in the first round in 2008. He’s also never missed a start in 112 career games.
Part of his strong season last year was offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who has since taken the Denver Broncos head coach job, but he was replaced with Marc Trestman, who is a solid offensive coordinator in his own right. Flacco won the Super Bowl in 2012, playing outstanding football in that post-season, but that is an outlier and a fluke when you look at the rest of his career. In terms of recent Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, Flacco is a lot closer to Eli Manning than Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers.
However, he’s still one of the top-15 or so quarterbacks in the NFL. The Ravens had to break the bank to keep him as a free agent after the Super Bowl winning year, re-signing him for 120.6 million over 6 years. It’s a lot of money, but the Ravens didn’t really have much of a choice. As a result of that extension, the Ravens have been cap strapped for the past two off-seasons and will remain cap strapped in the future. Fortunately, the Ravens have one of the best general managers in the NFL in Ozzie Newsome, who has made a number of smart, cheap signings over the past 2 off-seasons to ensure that Flacco had both the offensive supporting cast and the defense to continue being in contention and that Flacco wouldn’t have to do it all by himself.
Arguably the smartest, cheap signing that Ozzie Newsome has made over the past 2 off-seasons was when he signed Justin Forsett for a minimum deal off the scrap heap last off-season. The Ravens didn’t just have improved quarterback play last season, as compared to 2013. They were also vastly better on the ground. The Ravens’ running back situation looked to be about as bad as it gets heading into last season. The previous season, the Ravens averaged a league worst 3.14 yards per carry on the ground, thanks to a combination of poor offensive line play and vastly subpar seasons from both lead back Ray Rice and backup Bernard Pierce.
To make matters worse, Ray Rice, easily their most proven running back, was suspended for the first two games of the season for domestic violence, hurting his chances of a bounce back year. Then, after the NFL decided they didn’t like the public backlash saw the elevator tape of Ray Rice for the first time ever, Rice was promptly suspended indefinitely and released by the Ravens. As it turns out, the Rice suspension was a blessing in disguise for the Ravens, at least on the football field.
Forsett took advantage of the situation and was one of the best running backs in the NFL last season, rushing for 1266 yards and 8 touchdowns on 235 carries (5.39 YPC) and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back. The Ravens went from dead last in the NFL in yards per carry in 2013 to 7th in 2014, averaging 4.51 yards per carry. That made life much easier for Flacco and was a huge part of the reason why the Ravens’ offense was so improved last year.
Forsett’s 5.08 career YPC average suggests that he’s capable of having a similarly strong year in 2015, but he’s already going into his age 30 season and he’s a one-year wonder. Going into 2014, he was a 2008 7th round pick who had never played more than 118 carries in a season in 6 seasons in the league and had 6 carries the prior season in Jacksonville. He’ll also feel the absence of Gary Kubiak, who has a way of getting 1000+ yard seasons out of afterthought running backs. The fact that Forsett couldn’t get anything better than the 3-year, 9 million dollar deal the Ravens re-signed him to this off-season is telling, but I definitely wouldn’t rule out another strong season from him. If he does have another strong year, it’ll be yet another smart off-season signing by Ozzie Newsome as 9 million over 3 years for an above average starting running back, even in today’s NFL, is a steal.
If Forsett declines and the Ravens reduce his carries, it’ll be at the benefit of either Justin Taliaferro and/or Javorius Allen. Taliaferro, a 4th round rookie last year, looks like the favorite right now to be Forsett’s backup and the Ravens primary big back at 6-0 226, but he had an underwhelming rookie year, rushing for 292 yards and 4 touchdowns on 68 carries (4.29 YPC) and wasn’t a highly regarded prospect coming out of Coastal Carolina. Allen, who the Ravens drafted in the 4th round this year, has good size as well at 6-0 221, great hands, and could easily beat out Taliaferro for the #2 job.
The Ravens’ offensive line was also significantly better in 2014 than in 2013, a big part of the reason why the Ravens’ passing game and running game was so much better and why their offense was so much better in general. The Ravens had 3 starters in 2013 that were among the worst in the league at their respective positions, Gino Gradkowski at center, AQ Shipley at left guard, and Michael Oher at right tackle, and the Ravens essentially replaced all 3 of those players with significantly better players in 2015.
The biggest upgrade was at right tackle, where 2nd year pro Ricky Wagner broke out in his first season as a starter. After 131 nondescript snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013, Wagner graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked offensive tackle in 2014. On top of that, he was the 3rd highest ranked right tackle. He’s a one year wonder and he wasn’t highly drafted, but he could definitely have another strong season. He seems like a young building block for the Ravens and yet another draft day steal by Ozzie Newsome.
At center, the Ravens got a boost from a veteran presence last season, bringing in Jeremy Zuttah via trade from Tampa Bay to replace Gino Gradkowski. Zuttah was solid, as he usually is, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked center and making all 16 starts. That’s pretty par for the course for him. A versatile interior offensive lineman who has experience at center (47 career starts), left guard (40 career starts), and right guard (5 career starts), Zuttah has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, but has never really been too much better than average. Only going into his age 29 season, I expect more of the same from him this season.
At left guard, the Ravens’ “new” starter in 2014 wasn’t really a new starter, but they did get Kelechi Osemele back from back surgery after he missed most of 2013 with injury and he was a massive upgrade on AQ Shipley and a massive boost for this offensive line. Osemele, a 2012 2nd round pick, made 16 starts at right tackle as a rookie, grading out about average, but really flourished once moved to left guard during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. The Ravens left him at left guard for 2013, a smart move, but back problems kept him from meeting his potential. He struggled through 443 snaps in 7 games before getting surgery and being put on IR.
Osemele returned in 2014 though and had the breakout year many were expecting from him in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard. He’s still a one year wonder in terms of being a top level offensive lineman, but, like Wagner, I would not at all be shocked if he continued that high level of play into 2015 and beyond. Like Wagner, he’s a young building block and someone they really want to be a part of their future. They’re reportedly currently working on a long-term extension with him, ahead of his contract year.
The Ravens’ other guard, Marshal Yanda, is also going into a contract year, which is why the Ravens used a 5th round pick on Robert Myers in this past draft. The fact that the Ravens are trying to keep the younger Osemele over Yanda (ideally they’d be able to keep both) is telling because Yanda, while older, has been one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL over the past few years. Last year, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked guard, after uncharacteristically grading out 15th in 2013, and that arguably made a bigger difference on the offensive line than any of their offensive line upgrades. Prior to 2013, he graded out in the top-5 at his position in three straight seasons, 2011 and 2012 at right guard and 2010 at right tackle. Even going into his age 31 season, he’s one of the most dominant players in the NFL.
The only starter on the offensive line that struggled for the Ravens last season, weirdly enough, was left tackle Eugene Monroe, who was one of their only good offensive linemen in 2013. He graded out 63rd out of 84 eligible offensive tackles last year, but he has a good chance of bouncing back. A former first round pick in 2009, Monroe struggled early in his career, but graded out 6th in 2011, 19th in 2012, and 16th in 2013 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Overall, it’s one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and one that will continue to really help out their passing game and running game.
Another one of Ozzie Newsome’s recent smart pickups was wide receiver Steve Smith, signed to a 3-year, 10.5 million last off-season. His addition was another big part of why this offense improved last season, as he was an upgrade over Marlon Brown, a 2013 undrafted free agent who played 821 snaps as a rookie and graded out 82nd out of 111 eligible wide receivers. The Smith signing seemed like a weird deal at the time because of Smith was just cut by the Panthers, despite having guaranteed money on his contract for 2014, because he was at an advanced age in football years and coming off of the 3rd worst season of his career in yards per game.
Smith proved the doubters wrong though, catching 79 passes for 1065 yards and 6 touchdowns, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 47th ranked wide receiver. That’s the good news. The bad news is he’s unlikely to be able to repeat that kind of year in 2015, his age 36 season. While Smith started out last season well, catching 41 passes for 675 yards and 4 touchdowns in his first 8 games, he caught just 38 passes for 390 yards and 2 touchdowns in his final 8 games. Over the first 8 games of the season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked wide receiver, but he ranked 72nd out of 105 eligible during the final 8 games. Down the stretch, he resembled the receiver who got cut by Carolina the season before, bad news for his 2015, considering his age.
Smith has had a fantastic career and could be eventually bound for the Hall of Fame, with 13,262 receiving yards currently, 14th all-time. However, even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. It’s very likely last season was Smith’s last 1000+ yard season and he could see his abilities fall off a cliff significantly this season.
That’s especially bad news for the Ravens because they lost Torrey Smith to free agency this off-season, as the cap strapped Ravens were simply unable to match the 5-year, 40 million dollar deal the 49ers gave him. Smith was overpaid by San Francisco, but he was still a solid contributor for them in the passing game, grading out slightly above average last season and catching 49 passes for 767 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’ll be replaced by rookie 1st round pick Breshad Perriman, who has plenty of upside, but who also is very raw and has issues with drops. He’ll be counted on for a big role as a rookie and could end up leading this receiving corps in targets if Smith struggles. He might not be ready for that kind of a role.
The Ravens’ depth at wide receiver isn’t good either. Marlon Brown is currently penciled in as the 3rd receiver, but he struggled as a rookie, as I mentioned, and then played just 379 snaps last season, grading out below average again. Michael Campanero, a 2014 7th round pick who flashed on 66 snaps as a rookie, is his primary competition. Kamar Aiken is also likely going to be in the mix. The 2011 undrafted free agent played 16 career snaps from 2011-2013 and then graded out below average on 279 last season.
Without much depth at wide receiver, the Ravens are probably going to use a lot of two tight end sets. The Ravens are banking on Dennis Pitta being healthy, but he’s missed 24 of 32 games over the past two seasons due to two separate hip dislocations. He caught 61 passes for 669 yards and 7 touchdowns and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked tight end in terms of pass catching grade in 2012, but he’s a major injury question going forward into his age 30 season. He’s currently unsure, but optimistic about his status for 2015, but the Ravens are reportedly expecting him to spend the first 6 weeks of the season on the Physical Unable to Perform list and are considering anything they get from him this year a bonus. If he didn’t have guaranteed money on his contract for 2015, he would have been an off-season cap casualty. Pitta is a poor blocker anyway, so he’ll be used in only a pass catching capacity even if healthy.
Owen Daniels was their starting tight end last season and did a decent job, but he left as a free agent. With Daniels gone and Pitta hurt, the Ravens are expecting a pair of young tight ends to be their top-2 tight ends this season and see a lot of action. Crockett Gilmore, a 2014 3rd round pick, flashed on 378 snaps as a rookie, grading out above average. He’s not much of a pass catcher, but he’s a strong blocker in-line with some pass catching abilities.
Maxx Williams, meanwhile, will be the “move” tight end and will handle most of the pass catching duties from the tight end position. He’s only a 2nd round rookie, but was widely considered the top tight end in the draft class and a steal at the end of the 2nd round. Overall though, it’s a bad mix of really young and really old in the receiving corps for the Ravens. With Gary Kubiak gone, Joe Flacco and Justin Forsett likely regressing in terms of their production, and a thin receiving corps, the Ravens’ offense probably won’t be as good in 2015 as it was in 2014, but they should still be a lot better than they were in 2013.
It wasn’t just the Ravens’ offense that was good in 2014. They also ranked 8th in rate of moving the chains differential allowed, which is why they ranked 3rd in rate of moving the chains differential, better than their record. That showed in the playoffs, as they went into Pittsburgh and won and almost beat New England in Foxboro. However, as is the case on offense, the Ravens suffered losses defensively this off-season, as result of their cap situation.
The biggest defensive loss, at least in terms of size, was defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, who the Ravens traded to the Lions for a 4th and 5th round pick, in order to free up 8.5 million in cap space. Considering his cap number and his contract situation (going into an age 31 contract year), it was a good return for the Ravens, but he’ll definitely be missed. A versatile player who could play anywhere on the Ravens’ 3-man defensive line, Ngata graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014 and he’s graded out as a top-18 player at his position in every season since Pro Football Focus’ inception in 2007.
The Ravens will be counting on a pair of talented youngsters to play bigger roles this season to make up for the loss of Ngata and move this perennially dominant Ravens’ defense into the next generation. Those two players are Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan. Williams actually played more snaps than Ngata last season (569 vs. 546). The big nose tackle probably won’t be able to play much more than 600 snaps maximum and he isn’t much of a pass rusher, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked defensive tackle last season, including 4th as a run stopper. The 2013 3rd round pick also flashed on 93 snaps as a rookie and has some young Haloti Ngata like abilities at 6-1 335, though he’s not quite as versatile.
Jernigan, meanwhile, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season, as a 2nd round rookie. That’s especially impressive because he did that on only 312 snaps, with no one grading out better than him and playing fewer snaps. The 6-2 300 pounder has the most to gain from Ngata leaving in terms of extra snaps because he and Ngata play similar positions. In his 2nd year in the league in 2015, Jernigan could easily have a breakout year on 600 or so snaps and end the season as one of the top few 3-4 defensive ends. That’s obviously not a guarantee though, as he’s still unproven, especially at a higher snap volume.
Chris Canty remains as the 3rd starter, but he was actually cut this off-season by the Ravens, before returning on a cheaper deal (4.65 million over 2 years). He’s not completely washed up and drew some interest on the open market, but there’s still a reason why they originally cut him. Canty is going into his age 33 season and played just 360 snaps last season because he missed 5 games with injury. Over the past 3 seasons, he’s missed 13 games. He graded out above average as recently as 2013, but he graded out below average last season and his days of being even an average starter are probably gone. He’ll primarily play in base packages this season, as he really struggled as a pass rusher last year.
He’ll be pushed for snaps immediately by 3rd round rookie Carl Davis, a 6-5 320 pounder who will play a significant rotational role either way. DeAngelo Tyson also remains as a reserve. The 2012 7th round pick has played a combined 722 snaps in 3 seasons with the Ravens in that role, but he’s graded out below average in all 3 seasons. Brent Urban, a 2014 4th round pick who missed his entire rookie year with injury, could push Tyson for that reserve role.
Haloti Ngata wasn’t their only defensive loss this off-season, as they also lost Pernell McPhee, who signed a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Bears this off-season. McPhee was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season, despite being a part-time player, playing 540 snaps. On 331 pass rush snaps, he had 8 sacks, 21 hits (2nd in the NFL behind JJ Watt), and 35 hurries. He could flourish as an every down player in Chicago this season and he’ll definitely be missed in Baltimore.
However, the Ravens still have a ton of depth at the position. McPhee, as efficient as he was on a per snap basis, was still 4th on the team in snaps played among players who play at outside linebackers in base packages. The depth and versatility he provided, especially on passing downs, will definitely be missed, as he could rush the passer at a high level from the outside linebacker, defensive end, and defensive tackle positions at 6-3 278, but the Ravens still have a lot at the position.
Courtney Upshaw will be the starter in base packages on one side. The 2012 2nd round pick has been in that role for 3 straight years. He’s not much of a pass rusher, grading out below average in that aspect in all 3 years, but he’s graded out above average as a run stopper in 2 of the 3 years and made strides in coverage last season, grading out above average in that aspect. He essentially plays the old Jarret Johnson role in Baltimore’s defense and has the same responsibilities as a two-down 4-3 outside linebacker, so his inability to rush the passer is minimized.
Elvis Dumervil handles all of the pass rush duties when Upshaw comes off the field and he’s fantastic in that role. Dumervil spent the early part of his career in Denver, but he wasn’t really used properly there, as he was an every down player. Dumervil had some great years rushing the passer, grading out 4th in pass rush grade among 4-3 defensive ends in 2007 and 4th in pass rush grade among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2009. However, he graded out below average against the run in every season in Denver, which caused him to grade out below average overall in 2008, 2011, and 2012 (he missed all of 2010 with injury) and led to the Broncos making him a cap casualty after the 2012 season.
In Baltimore, he’s only been a part-time player, playing primarily in obvious passing situations, which has maximized his talents. While the 5-11 250 pounder is really weak against the run, he’s a force off the edge in obvious passing situations. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 (1st in pass rush grade) and 6th in 2014 (2nd in pass rush grade). He’s getting up there, going into his age 31 season, but he should have enough strong year.
Terrell Suggs will continue to play every down on the other side, but he too is getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season. However, Suggs is also coming off of a dominant year and has a good chance to have another strong year. Suggs was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014, which is pretty par for the course for him. He ranked 9th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013, 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, and 8th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2010, with an injury plagued 2012 season in between. Behind Suggs, Dumervil, and Courtney Upshaw is 4th round rookie Za’Darius Smith, who will see limited snaps. The position is weakened with Dumervil and Suggs aging and McPhee gone, but they still have plenty of talent off the edge.
The Ravens also have a pair of talented linebackers inside as well. Daryl Smith is another one of the cheap, smart free agent signings that Ozzie Newsome has made over the past few off-seasons. Smith came cheap two off-seasons ago because he was limited to 2 games by injury in 2012 and because he was going into his 30s. However, Smith was a dominant player before the injury, grading out 1st, 8th, and 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Smith has basically picked up where he left off before the injury since joining the Ravens and moving inside in their 3-4. Ray Lewis’ replacement, Smith looked like a steal on a cheap one-year deal in 2013, grading out 14th among middle linebackers and earning a 4-year, 16.1 million deal last off-season.
Smith continued to be a value for the Ravens in 2014, grading out 7th at his position in 2014. Like Suggs, he’s going into his age 33 season so it’s fair to wonder how long he can keep this up, but he should have another solid year in him. Conversely, fellow starting inside linebacker CJ Mosley is coming off of only his rookie year, but he too is coming off of a strong year. Mosley graded out 10th at his position as a rookie and the 2014 1st round pick has a bright future and looks like a big part of the next generation of this perennially dominant defense. He rounds out what is still one of the better front 7s in the NFL.
Last year, the Ravens had arguably the best front 7 in football, which carried their defense to a strong season, despite major issues in the secondary. Their front 7 isn’t quite as good this season thanks to the loss of McPhee, Ngata, and a couple guys getting older, though they have some young studs who can continue improving, so they will need the secondary to be better this season. That’s at the very least a strong possibility.
Things were so bad at cornerback for the Ravens last season that Rashaan Melvin, a 2013 undrafted free agent who was signed mid-season and made his NFL debut week 15, drew the start for them in the playoffs. They failed to replace Corey Graham, a valuable 3rd cornerback, who signed with the Bills in free agency, going into the season with Asa Jackson, a 2012 5th round pick who had never played a snap in the NFL going into 2014, as their 3rd cornerback. He predictably struggled, grading out 99th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks on 335 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse at the position, in 7 games in an injury plagued season.
When Jimmy Smith went down with injury, that’s when things really got bad at cornerback for the Ravens, with the likes of Rashaan Melvin, Dominique Franks, Anthony Levine, Danny Gorrer, Matt Elam, and Chykie Brown all having to play roles down the stretch for this team at cornerback. Smith graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked cornerback despite missing the final 8 games of the season on injured reserve with a foot injury. Through the first 7 games of the season before getting hurt, he was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback, including 4th in pure coverage grade, allowing 51.3% completion and 4.18 yards per attempt on 39 attempts.
It remains to be seen whether or not he can be that dominant of a cornerback for a whole season, but the Ravens clearly believe he can, giving him a 4-year, 41 million dollar extension this off-season. It’s a risky deal that doesn’t appear to have much upside. It makes him one of the highest paid cornerbacks in the NFL and he is unlikely to exceed that contract value, even if he does continue playing well. The bad news is that his play during that stretch is inconsistent with his past history, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked cornerback in 2012 and their 35th ranked cornerback in 2013. The good news is that he’s a former 1st round pick (2011), who has improved in every season as a starter and could easily have a strong, full season in his age 27 season in 2015. Either way, there’s no question his return will improve this secondary, as long as he doesn’t get hurt again (he’s missed 17 games in 4 seasons in the league).
The Ravens also added depth at cornerback this off-season, signing Kyle Arrington to a 3-year, 7.5 million dollar deal. The Patriots cut Kyle Arrington, voiding the 6.5 million in non-guaranteed money over 2 years remaining on his contract. It was a weird move, as Arrington was a valuable slot cornerback for them, grading out above average in 4 straight seasons, including 21st in 2013, and the Patriots had already lost their starting cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner this off-season. Perhaps they thought they could re-sign him a little cheaper, but the Ravens didn’t let that happen. The Patriots’ loss is the Ravens’ gain as Kyle Arrington filled arguably their biggest remaining need and at a reasonable price. With little cap space to work with, the Ravens were right to focus their energy on the cornerback position this off-season.
The Ravens had an option to release cornerback Lardarius Webb to save cap space. Cutting him would have only saved them 2 million in cap space immediately because of the way his contract was structured, but he would have been off their cap completely for 2016. The other option would have been to designate him as a post-June 1st cut, freeing up more cap space this season, allowing them a little bit more freedom in free agency, knowing that they’d have cap space opening up on June 1st that they could use to sign their rookie class, but he still would have been on their cap for 2016.
The Ravens ultimately decided to keep him, after he agreed to a 2.5 million dollar pay cut, which might have been their best option. They save 2.5 million in cap space immediately this season. He’s still on their cap for 2016, even if they cut him next off-season, but they also have him on the roster for 2015 and he’s a candidate for a bounce back year. Webb was given a 6-year, 52.742 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago after he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked cornerback in 2011. However, Webb tore his ACL in 2012, seemed to bounce back in 2013, grading out 19th, but regressed mightily in 2014, grading out 78th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks, thanks largely to a bad back. Last year was the first season that the 2009 3rd round pick had graded out below average in his career, so it could be seen as a fluke, but he’s also going into his age 30 season with a significant injury history so a bounce back is hardly a guarantee.
At safety, the Ravens lost Darian Stewart as a free agent this off-season, after he made 14 starts and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked safety last season. However, they replaced him with a comparable player at a reasonable price, signing Kendrick Lewis to a 3-year, 5.4 million dollar deal. Lewis was a mere 5th round pick in 2010 by the Chiefs, but he’s made 67 starts in 5 seasons in the league, grading out above average 3 times. Last season, he made all 16 starts for the Texans and was Pro Football Focus’ 39th ranked safety.
At the other spot, it’ll likely be Will Hill, who was signed by the Ravens last off-season, which, like the Lewis signing, was another, smart, cheap signing by the Ravens. Hill has a very interesting career story. A 5-star recruit who was a top-10 recruit according to Rivals, Scout, and ESPN, Hill went undrafted out of Florida in 2012 because of a variety of off-the-field problems, including substance abuse issues. Hill was snatched up by the Giants as an undrafted free agent, but the Giants grew tired of him after 2 seasons and 3 substance abuse related suspensions and cut him last off-season.
The Ravens snatched him up and, after his suspension, he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked safety on just 584 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. He started the final 8 games of the regular season, helping to stabilize their back end despite major issues at cornerback, and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked safety from week 9 on. Whenever he’s been on the field in his career, he’s been fantastic. In 2013, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked safety on 787 snaps and was #1 at his position from week 5 on, after serving a four game suspension. He also graded out above average on 218 snaps as a reserve as a rookie in 2012.
The issue has just been staying on the field. He says he’s cleaned up his act and looks poised for a suspension free season and could breakout as one of the best safeties in the game, though, given his history, that’s obviously no guarantee. If he can stay out of trouble, between him, Kyle Arrington coming in as a free agent, and Jimmy Smith returning from injury, the Ravens should have a significantly improved secondary in 2015.
The Ravens also have Matt Elam, a 2013 1st round pick, at safety. He’s technically a candidate to start, but, like much of the first round of that terrible draft class, he’s been a bust thus far in his career and would not be able to win a fair competition against either Lewis or Hill. Elam made 16 starts as a rookie in 2013, but graded out 58th among 86 eligible safeties. He actually made the first 8 starts of the season in 2014 before rightfully losing his starting job to Hill and moving to cornerback for the remainder of the season.
At safety, Elam graded out 78th out of 87 eligible safeties in 2014 despite playing just 439 snaps. No one graded out worse at the position and played fewer snaps and he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked safety through the first 8 weeks of the season. Right now, he only provides value because of his versatility to step in at either safety or slot cornerback in case of an injury. Between Elam and their 2nd round pick in 2013 Arthur Brown, who is stuck behind both Daryl Smith and CJ Mosley at middle linebacker, the Ravens don’t figure to get much of anything from their top-2 picks in 2013 this season. However, that was a terrible draft for a lot of teams, especially early, and getting Brandon Williams and Ricky Wagner in the 3rd and 5th rounds of that draft respectively makes up for their early round mistakes.
The Ravens lost a lot this off-season (Torrey Smith, Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee to name a few), as a result of their cap situation. However, they’ve also drafted well recently, adding Ricky Wagner, Kelechi Osemele, CJ Mosley, Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Williams through the draft from 2012-2014. Between those 5 and Will Hill, who is still on a rookie deal, the Ravens have 6 impact players still on rookie deals. Add in a rookie class of Breshad Perriman, Maxx Williams, and Carl Davis in the first 3 rounds this year, widely regarded as a strong haul, and they have enough cheap, young talent to make up for some of the bigger contracts they have on their cap. They might not be quite as good as they were last season, but they were also better than their record last season. This is still a very talented team that will be in contention again this year. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Ravens after I’ve done all team’s previews.
Prediction: 11-5 1st in AFC North