Baltimore Ravens 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

2015 was the season from hell for the Baltimore Ravens, especially on offense. The Ravens had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury in the league and their offense had the most adjusted games lost to injury of any offense in the league. As a result, they finished 29th in rate of moving the chains, plummeting from 7th the season before. Even the always durable Joe Flacco wasn’t spared from the injury bug, tearing his ACL week 11, snapping a 122-game consecutive start streak that was tied for 6th longest in the NFL at the time.

Flacco’s injury was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the season was basically lost anyway when he went down. They moved the chains at a worse rate in the 6 games he missed, moving them at a 67.20% rate, but they only moved them at a 68.37% rate in the 10 games he was healthy. Flacco completed 64.4% of his passes for an average of 6.76 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. His yards per attempt, touchdowns per attempt, and interceptions per attempt were all below his career average. He didn’t play horribly, finishing just below average on Pro Football Focus, but didn’t have much of a chance to produce given how much talent the Ravens were missing around him.

Even though he’ll be just over 9 months removed from the injury week 1, Flacco’s recovery has reportedly gone very well and there’s no reason to expect him not to be ready to go for the start of the 2016 season. That being said, it’s not unreasonable to think that it could take him a little bit to get back into the flow of things with the repaired knee. Even if he doesn’t, I wouldn’t expect him to have the kind of year he had in 2014, when he completed 62.1% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

Those numbers all exceeded his career averages and I’m not expecting a career best year or anything from him coming off of an injury and going into his age 31 season. He kind of is the quarterback he is at this point, solid, but unspectacular. He’s only been a bottom-10 quarterback on Pro Football Focus once in his career (2013), but he’s also only graded out above average in 3 of 8 seasons in the league since the Ravens drafted him in the first round and made him an instant starter in 2008.

In fact, I wouldn’t expect the Ravens’ offense as a whole to play as well as they did in 2014. They finished 7th in rate of moving the chains that year, but 29th in 2015 and 30th in 2013. Injuries can be blamed for a lot of last season, but 2014 also just happened to be a particularly good year this offense, coached by talented offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. They could easily stay healthier and have a bounce back year and be a passable offense, but they’re not a top-10 offense on paper. Flacco isn’t a top-10 quarterback on paper either.

In his absence last year, the Ravens started Matt Schaub, Ryan Mallett, and Jimmy Clausen. The veteran Schaub came into the season as Flacco’s backup and got the first crack at the starting job after Flacco went down, while Mallett and Clausen struggled in limited action in Houston and Chicago respectively, before being put on waivers and getting a chance in Baltimore when Schaub struggled. Schaub is gone, but Clausen and Mallett remain to compete for the starting job. Neither played well last year and neither has ever really played well, but Mallett has the greater upside and played a little bit better last season, so he should be Flacco’s primary backup. He’s a steep dropoff from Flacco though, so the Ravens are obvious hoping that Flacco can play his 8th 16-game season in 9 years in the league and shake off that ACL tear.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Flacco wasn’t the only starter to go down week 11, as running back Justin Forsett broke his arm in that game and subsequently missed the final 6 games of the season along with Flacco. Owed 3 million in his age 31 season in 2016, Forsett was let go ahead of final cuts this off-season, so the Ravens will go forward with 3 younger backs at the position. The Ravens got a steal with Kenneth Dixon in the 4th round of the draft, as he earned a 2nd round grade from Pro Football Focus, but he’s dealing with a knee injury, so Terrance West figures to open the season as the starter.

West will also probably finish the season as the team leader in carries, though that’s less of a guarantee. West has averaged just 3.88 yards per carry on 233 carries in 2 years in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2014 by the Browns (he also spent time in Tennessee), but he’s had a good off-season and is only going into his age 25 season, so he could be better this season. He figures to be a downgrade from Forsett though, as Forsett averaged 4.25 yards per carry last season on 151 carries, and Dixon could overtake him by the end of the season.

Meanwhile, 2015 4th round pick Buck Allen struggled as a runner as a rookie, but proved himself as a pass catcher in Forsett’s absence, finishing 6th among running backs on Pro Football Focus in pass catching grade, catching 45 passes for 353 yards and 2 touchdowns. West struggles as a receiver (15 career catches for 85 yards), so Allen should at least see the majority of the passing downs, even if he isn’t a serious threat for a ton of carries. Trestman’s offenses have always had a lot of opportunities for running backs to catch passes out of the backfield (Matt Forte had 102 in 2014 for Trestman’s Bears), so that’s a significant role. It’s a decent group of running backs.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Nowhere were the Ravens hit worse by injury than in the receiving corps; only the Bears had more adjusted games lost to injury at wide receiver. First round pick Breshad Perriman’s season never got off the ground, as he ended up missing the whole season with a knee injury suffered in the pre-season. Aging ex-Panther Steve Smith carried the receiving corps on his back for the first 7 games of the season, catching 46 passes for 670 yards and 3 touchdowns, while grading out 5th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but then he tore his achilles and missed the rest of the season.

Smith is a potential future Hall of Famer and changed his mind about retiring because he didn’t want to go out the way his 2015 season ended, but he’s going into his age 37 season and coming off of a serious injury, so it’s very uncertain what kind of season he’ll have in 2016 or if he’ll even make it through the season. It’s tough to bet against him, but this time around it might be a good idea to. He’s the oldest receiver in the league and only 2 receivers have had more than 600 yards in an age 37+ season in the last 20 years (Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice).

With Smith originally announcing last off-season that 2015 would be his final season, the Ravens drafted Perriman to be the future #1 receiver at this point and, even with Smith still around, he may have to be. However, his future is obviously clouded by the knee injury that cost him his entire rookie season. Making matters worse, he suffered another knee injury this off-season. Though he’s expected to be ready for the start of the season, it’s still a concern as, at the very least, he’ll miss more off-season work.  A combine star considered very raw coming out of the University of Central Florida who missed his entire rookie season, Perriman needs all the experience he can get, even if it’s just practice experience. Injuries and inexperience are serious concerns for a player the Ravens need to be good in 2016.

Without Perriman and Smith in 2015, Kamar Aiken stepped up as the #1 receiver. The 2011 undrafted free agent led the way with 75 catches for 944 yards and 5 touchdowns, despite playing with some suspect quarterbacks down the stretch, and finished 19th on Pro Football Focus among wide receivers. AIken was kept on a 2.55 million dollar 2nd round tender as a restricted free agent this off-season, but could start the season as the Ravens’ 4th receiver, as they signed Mike Wallace to a 2-year, 11.5 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season.

That’s starter’s money, but, even with the Ravens needing insurance behind Smith and Perriman, it’s an overpay. Wallace was one of the better receivers in the league in 2010 and 2011, but struggled in the contract year of his rookie deal in 2012 after holding out, disappointed in 2 seasons in Miami, after being signed to a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal, got traded to Minnesota for basically nothing but a salary dump last off-season, and then was horrible in his one season in Minnesota.

Wallace caught just 39 passes for 473 yards and 4 touchdowns, finishing 96th out of 121 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus on 751 snaps. He was an easy cap casualty for the Vikings this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 11.5 million dollar salary in 2016. He’s a good fit in Baltimore, as he’ll be paired with a capable deep ball thrower in Joe Flacco, after three seasons of short-to-intermediate passers in Ryan Tannehill and Teddy Bridgewater. However, he hasn’t been a top-40 receiver on Pro Football Focus since 2011 and is going into his age 30 season, so it’s hard to count on much from him.

Even if Aiken starts the season as the 4th starter, it would not surprise me at all if he finished the season with more snaps and yards than Wallace. If either Smith or Perriman get hurt again, Aiken would probably become the go-to guy before Wallace, though it’s worth noting that Aiken is a complete one-year wonder after playing just 295 below average snaps in the first 4 seasons of his career from 2011-2014. I don’t expect any Ravens receiver to put up big numbers, but it’s definitely a deeper and improved group from 2015.

Tight end Dennis Pitta is another Ravens’ pass catcher that missed the entire 2015 season. In fact, the 2010 4th round pick has played in just 7 games over the past 3 seasons combined thanks to two separate hip dislocations. Many expected him to retire ahead of his age 31 season this off-season, but he’s reportedly been practicing without limitations this season and the Ravens expect him to play a role. In his last healthy season in 2012, Pitta caught 61 passes for 669 yards and 7 touchdowns and was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked tight end in pure pass catching grade, but it’s very hard to expect him to match his best season in 2016. A poor blocker, Pitta will primarily play on passing downs.

Pitta figures to be behind a pair of young tight ends, Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams. Gillmore, a 2014 3rd round pick, flashed on 378 snaps as a rookie and then had a mini breakout year in his 2nd year in the league in 2015, finishing 11th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. His slash line doesn’t look great (33/412/4), but he was 3rd on the team in receiving and he did that on just 520 total snaps in just 10 games and he fared well as a blocker. Like so many Ravens, Gillmore’s 2015 season ended on injured reserve, as he missed the final 4 games of the season with a back injury. If he can stay healthy, he could have a breakout 3rd year in the league.

Williams figures to be their primary pass catching tight end though, as the 6-6 260 pound Gillmore is better as a run blocker than a pass catcher. A 2015 2nd round pick, Williams flashed as both a run blocker and a pass catcher on 477 snaps and, at 6-4 257, has the potential to be a good all-around tight end long-term. He could take another step forward in his development in his 2nd year in the league. It’s a solid tight end duo, but they figure to both keep each other’s receiving numbers down because there are only so many targets and Pitta is also going to have a role.

The Ravens also have one of the best receiving fullbacks in the league in Kyle Juszczyk. He’s not much of a blocker, but he caught 41 passes for 321 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2015 and finished as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked receiving fullback. Baltimore doesn’t have a standout pass catcher at either wide receiver or tight end and they have a lot of players that are either aging, coming off of injury, or both, but this is a much deeper receiving corps than they had in 2015 and they should also have overall fewer games lost to injury in the receiving corps than they had in 2015.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As you might expect, the Ravens also had significant injuries on the offensive line, as left tackle Eugene Monroe was limited to 317 snaps in 6 games and center Jeremy Zuttah was limited to 613 snaps in 9 games. Both were playing well prior to going down, but Monroe is no longer with the team. Owed a non-guaranteed 6.5 million in 2016, Monroe was a cap casualty this off-season, following back-to-back injury plagued seasons and the Ravens’ selection of Notre Dame left tackle Ronnie Stanley 6th overall, and ultimately retired ahead of what would have been his age 29 season.

Stanley will be a week 1 starter at left tackle as a rookie and, though he could have some growing pains, he should be an upgrade over what they had at the position last year if he can stay healthy. With Monroe injured, swing tackle James Hurst was horrendous in 8 starts, forcing talented left guard Kelechi Osemele to move to left tackle for the first time in his career. He wasn’t bad, but he was clearly playing out of position. Osemele also doesn’t return to the Ravens either, signing with the Raiders as a free agent. That made it harder to part with Monroe and I think the Ravens would have been better off keeping Monroe and playing Stanley at left guard to start his career, as now they have a big hole at left guard. Monroe likely would not have retired if he hadn’t been released by the Ravens.

Ryan Jensen played 419 snaps at left guard last season, with Osemele moving outside late in the season, but the 2013 6th round pick graded out below average in the first significant action of his career in 2015. He’ll compete for playing time with rookie 4th round pick Alex Lewis and 2014 5th round pick John Urschel, a natural guard who struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career in 2015, playing out of position at center. On 547 snaps, he finished 31st out of 39 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus. The Ravens don’t have a good option at the position, so losing both Monroe and especially Osemele will hurt this offensive line.

The good news is center Jeremy Zuttah is now again healthy and still with the team, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked center on 613 snaps before tearing his pectoral in 2015. He’s an unspectacular player going into his age 30 season, but he’s made 71 starts in the past 5 seasons and graded out above average in all 5 seasons, with his highest ranked season coming in limited action in 2015. He’s an obvious upgrade over Urschel and a huge re-addition for this offensive line.

Right tackle Rick Wagner didn’t miss a game with injury, but played like he was playing hurt, after breaking his foot late in the 2014 season. Wagner had a breakout 2014 season, finishing 16th among offensive tackles tackles on Pro Football Focus, but fell to 49th in 2015. The 2013 5th round pick is a bounce back candidate, but he’s also a one-year wonder who is no guarantee to bounce back. I’d like his bounce-back chances better if he was hurt last year and is now healthy, but that remains unclear. Another big year would likely land him a big contract in free agency next off-season and would give this offensive line a big boost.

Easily the Ravens’ best remaining offensive lineman is right guard Marshal Yanda. Yanda was a top-5 guard on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2011-2013, but seemed to fall off a little bit going into his early 30s in 2014, finishing “just” 15th. Even getting up there in age, the Ravens extended him instead of Osemele last off-season, keeping him on 4-year, 32 million dollar extension, which proved to be a steal. Yanda was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked guard in 2015 and has a good chance to have another dominant season in 2016, even going into his age 32 season. He elevates this whole offensive line and this whole offense. Outside of Flacco’s, he’s their most important offensive player and he’s fortunately only missed 2 starts in the past 6 seasons.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While the Ravens’ offense should be improved in 2016, the defense is what’s going to have to carry this team. They weren’t bad defensively last season, finishing 16th in rate of moving the chains, but they also don’t have nearly as many players returning from injury on defense as they do on offense, so they can’t count on better injury luck. They finished last season with the 12th fewest adjusted games lost to injury. This is not the same dominant Ravens’ defense we’re used to, but there are definitely still talented starters on this defense, including nose tackle Brandon Williams.

After flashing on 93 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2013, Williams has made 30 starts in 32 games over the past 2 seasons, grading out 10th among defensive tackles in 2014 and 8th among defensive tackles in 2015. The 6-1 335 pounder is a limited pass rusher and primarily a base package nose tackle, so the 727 snaps he played last season are likely his ceiling, but he’s still an important part of this defense and could easily lead this defense line in snaps played for the 3rd straight season.

Going into the final year of his contract, Williams could command a deal similar to the 5-year, 46.25 million dollar deal Damon Harrison got from the Giants this off-season. Only Harrison had a higher grade against the run among nose tackles than Williams did in 2015. The Ravens’ front office said this off-season they believe he’s the best nose tackle in football, so you can expect them to try hard to extend him this off-season. They are arguably right about that. At the very least, he’s one of the best at his position.

A bunch of players will compete for snaps around Williams on the Ravens’ 3-man defensive line. Veteran Chris Canty began last season as the starter, but was limited to 286 snaps in 9 games by injury and is no longer with the team, ahead of his age 34 season. Younger players Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy were actually 1st and 2nd among the Ravens’ 3-4 defensive ends in snaps played last season, with 531 and 485 respectively. Jernigan, a 2014 2nd round pick, has graded out above average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league and could take another step forward in his 3rd year in the league in 2016. Even if he doesn’t, he’s a solid starter.

Guy also graded out above average, playing primarily as a two-down run stuffer. The 2011 7th round pick had made 3 career starts in 4 seasons prior to last season, so he’s a one-year wonder, but he was a shrewd re-signing on a cheap 2-year, 2.3 million dollar deal this off-season. He should remain as a situational run stuffer in base packages. As young as they are, Jernigan and Guy are actually the experienced ones at the position, as 2015 3rd round pick Carl Davis, who played 241 nondescript snaps as a rookie, and rookie 4th round pick Willie Henry figure to be the primary reserves and rotate heavily with the starters. It’s not the same Ravens’ defensive line you’re used to, as it’s very young, but it’s still talented, led by Williams.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Ravens have the opposite issue at outside linebacker, as starters Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs are going into their age 32 and age 34 seasons respectively. Suggs is also coming off of a torn achilles suffered week 1 of last season that cost him the rest of the season, the one major injury the Ravens had on defense. His age is a concern, as is the fact that he’s missed 23 games over the past 4 seasons with two separate torn achilles, but he’s been a top-10 player at his position in every healthy season since 2010, so he’s still a welcome return, even if he plays a smaller role than he’s used to and doesn’t play as well.

Elvis Dumervil fell to 39th among edge defenders in 2015, after finishing 3rd and 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and 2014 respectively. His age was likely a factor, but the fact that he had to play 813 snaps as an every down player was also part of it. He’s undersized at 5-11 255 and doesn’t play the run well, but still had a good pass rush season in 2015, finishing 18th among edge defenders in pure pass rush grade, and he’s much better when he can play around 600 snaps and play primarily as a pass rusher in sub packages. Even at his age, he should be able to get to the quarterback in 2016. He’s finished in the top-10 among pass rushers at his position in 5 of 9 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history.

Za’Darius Smith was the 3rd outside linebacker as a rookie with Suggs injured, grading out below average on 416 snaps, but could see more playing time in his 2nd year in the league even with Suggs back. Courtney Upshaw, who led the position with 799 snaps played last season, left as a free agent, freeing up a ton of playing time. He wasn’t a very good player, so he won’t really be missed, but Smith hasn’t shown much yet. The Ravens also used a 2nd round pick on Boise State’s Kamalei Correa, though the 6-3 243 pound collegiate defensive end has been seeing action at both outside linebacker and middle linebacker this off-season. He received a 3rd round grade from Pro Football Focus and compares unfavorably to former 1st round bust Shea McClellin, who has been a man without a position thus far in the NFL. If he sees significant playing time either inside or outside, he’ll probably be a liability as a rookie.

The reason he could see playing time at middle linebacker is because the Ravens let another 30+ year old starting linebacker go this off-season, releasing Daryl Smith following a terrible 2015 season, ahead of his age 34 season. The move made some sense, but the Ravens didn’t have an obvious replacement on the roster, nor did they add one this off-season. Zach Orr is penciled in as the starter, but the 2014 undrafted free agent has never made a start, so there’s definitely an opportunity for Correa to be the starter here at some point this season. It figures to be a position of weakness regardless.

The other middle linebacker spot is a different story, as 3rd year player CJ Mosley is an obvious bounce back candidate. Even in a down year in 2015, he still graded out above average, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker as a rookie in 2014. Still only going into his age 24 season, with a first round pedigree, Mosley still has a very bright future and could easily have another big season again in 2016. He’s quickly becoming the leader of an aging linebacking corps that is not what it used to be.

Grade: B

Secondary

Cornerback Jimmy Smith played all 16 games in 2015, but still struggled through an injury. Smith missed the final 8 games of the 2014 season with a broken foot, but was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback when he went down. That was enough for the Ravens to give the 2011 1st round pick a 4-year, 41 million dollar extension ahead of his contract year in 2015, despite the injury and the fact that he had never finished higher than 35th among cornerbacks in a full season in his career. The injury seemed to still really bother him in 2015, as he graded out well below average as a 16-game starter and needed an additional procedure this off-season. That extension now looks ill advised and he’s a very shaky bet going into 2016.

Lardarius Webb was the other starting cornerback opposite Smith last season, making 14 starts in 15 games played, but the aging cornerback will be moving to safety this season, for his age 31 season. Kendrick Lewis, a 15-game starter at safety in 2015, remains, but he graded out below average in 2015 and is expected to lose his job to Webb, who was actually the Ravens best cornerback last season. It remains to be seen how he’ll adapt to the new position and his age is becoming a concern, but he’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons in the league.

Will Hill was the other starting safety in 2015, making 14 starts in 16 games. He finished 17th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, but the Ravens also have a new starter at that position as well, as Hill was suspended indefinitely for yet another failed drug test. In his place, the Ravens signed ex-Charger Eric Weddle to a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal. Weddle was quietly one of the best safeties in the NFL from 2010-2014, finishing in the top-6 among safeties in all 5 seasons, the only safety in the league to do so, but fell off a little bit in 2015, coming in 33rd. That’s a concern, as he heads into his age 31 season, but he should have a couple more solid seasons in him at the very least and there’s definitely bounce back potential here.

With Webb moving to cornerback, the Ravens will start Shareece Wright, who they re-signed to a 3-year, 16 million dollar deal this off-season, opposite Smith. Wright graded out above average in 485 snaps in 2015, but, prior to that, was a healthy scratch in the first 4 weeks of the seasons by the 49ers, who ultimately put him on waivers. Wright was a 27-game starter in 2013 and 2014 combined, but was Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible in 2013 and their 105th ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible in 2014. It’s possible the 2011 3rd round pick has permanently turned a corner, but the Ravens are betting a good amount of money to find out. He’s not a reliable starter.

Free agent acquisition Jerraud Powers is expected to be the nickel cornerback, with Wright moving into a starting role. Powers was a nice, cheap signing on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal, as he has 82 starts in 6 seasons in the league and has graded out above average in 3 of those seasons, though he struggled last season. His only real competition for the job is veteran cornerback Kyle Arrington, who fell to 4th on the depth chart last season and needed to take a paycut to stay with the team. Arrington graded out above average in every season from 2011-2014, before grading out below average in 2015, and has some bounce back potential, even going into his age 30. He’ll provide valuable depth with Smith still rehabbing from his latest foot surgery. Like the rest of this defense, it’s a solid, but unspectacular unit.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Ravens figure to be a lot healthier in 2016, especially on offense, where they were destroyed by injuries last season. That’ll go a long way towards this team getting back into the post-season, but, even healthy, their offense is unspectacular on paper, as is their aging defense, which is not nearly what it used to be. There’s still good talent on both sides of the ball and they have a chance to sneak back into the playoffs in a weak and wide open AFC, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Prediction: 8-8 3rd in AFC North

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