Chicago Bears at Baltimore Ravens: 2017 Week 6 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (1-4) at Baltimore Ravens (3-2)

The Ravens are 3-2, but their 3 wins have come against the Bengals, the Browns, and the Raiders, who were without Derek Carr, right guard Gabe Jackson, and their top-2 cornerbacks. Meanwhile, their 2 losses (Jacksonville and Pittsburgh) came by a combined 58 points, giving them a -7 point differential on the season, despite the winning record and the easy schedule. They were alright to start the year, but have not been the same team since losing right guard Marshal Yanda and defensive tackle Brandon Williams to injury. They rank just 22nd in first down rate differential, just one spot ahead of their opponents this week, the Chicago Bears.

I also have these two teams close in my roster rankings as well, with Chicago getting Danny Trevathan back from suspension this week, so we’re getting good line value with the Bears as 6.5 point underdogs. I have this line calculated at 3.5, as these two teams are much more similar than the general public realizes. I’m holding out for this line to go back to 7, where it briefly was at the beginning of the week, but the Bears are still worth a bet at 6.5. If this line jumps back to a full touchdown between now and game time, I’ll make this a higher confidence pick.

Baltimore Ravens 17 Chicago Bears 13

Pick against the spread: Chicago +6.5

Confidence: Medium

Baltimore Ravens at Oakland Raiders: 2017 Week 5 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (2-2) at Oakland Raiders (2-2)

The big injury that gets attention in this game is the back injury to Derek Carr, who will be replaced by backup EJ Manuel at least this week, as he recovers from a small fracture. However, the Raiders are basically healthy other than that and the Ravens have lost significantly more to injury this year, with a league most 16 players on injured reserve. Their injuries issues have gone back to before the season even started, most importantly losing cornerback Tavon Young, tight end Dennis Pitta, and left guard Alex Lewis for the year before week 1.

Despite that, the Ravens started 2-0, but they have lost their last 2 games by a combined score of 70-16. What happened? Well, the competition has gotten tougher, as the Ravens’ wins came over the Bengals and the Browns and their losses have come against the Jaguars and Steelers. Their turnover margin has also regressed to the mean, as they’ve posted a -5 turnover margin over the past 2 weeks, after posting a +7 in the first 2 weeks of the season. But the biggest reason they’ve struggled has been the absence of guard Marshal Yanda and defensive tackle Brandon Williams, both of whom were healthy for the first 2 games. Those two were their best offensive and defensive linemen respectively.

Williams could be back in the next couple weeks, but Yanda is out for the year. The Ravens have struggled mightily offensively ever since Yanda when down, including in the 2nd half against the Browns week 2, which is no surprise because he’s arguably the best right guard in football. Without him and Williams against the Raiders, this is still far from an easy game, even with Manuel under center for the Raiders. Even without Carr, I have the Raiders 2 points better than the Ravens, so they should be favored by around 5 points here at home instead of 2.5. There’s enough line value here for a small bet on the Raiders.

Oakland Raiders 20 Baltimore Ravens 15

Pick against the spread: Oakland -2.5

Confidence: Medium

Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens: 2017 Week 4 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) at Baltimore Ravens (2-1)

The Ravens won their first 2 games by final scores of 20-0 and 24-10, but they got destroyed last week in London 44-7 by the Jaguars. Many people are chalking that up to the Ravens being unprepared to play in London, but there are several bigger reasons why they lost. For one, they were facing their toughest opponent yet, as the Jaguars are better than both the Bengals and the Browns, who the Ravens defeated in weeks 1 and 2. Their schedule unfortunately does not get any easier this week. They return home, but will host the Steelers, who are definitely better than the Bengals, Browns, and Ravens.

The second reason is injuries, as the Ravens were without their top offensive lineman Marshal Yanda and their top defensive tackle Brandon Williams, both of whom remain out this week. The Ravens had injury issues even before those two went down (Danny Woodhead, Alex Lewis, Dennis Pitta, etc), but those two are huge losses and their absences will be felt again this week. The third reason is turnover margin, as the Ravens were a league best +7 through the first 2 weeks of the season, but then lost the turnover battle by 3 against the Jaguars. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so, while the Ravens might not necessarily lose the turnover battle again this week like last week, it’s unreasonable to expect them to continue winning the turnover battle the way they did in their first 2 games, especially with injured players and the schedule getting tougher.

As a result of the Ravens’ loss last week, this line has moved from even to the Steelers being favored by a field goal, even though the Steelers blew a winnable game in Chicago last week. I typically like to go against significant week-to-week line movements, but I have this line calculated at -4 given all of the players the Ravens are missing, so we’re still getting a little bit of value with the Steelers. Teams tend to cover off of blowout losses, going 54-28 ATS since 2002 off of a loss of 35+ or more (17-8 ATS since 2012), as teams tend to be overlooked, undervalued, and embarrassed after a huge loss, so I can’t be confident in the Steelers, especially given how heavily the public is betting them, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Pittsburgh Steelers 24 Baltimore Ravens 20

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -3

Confidence: None

Baltimore Ravens vs. Jacksonville Jaguars: 2017 Week 3 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (2-0) vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-1) in London

The Ravens have been the most banged up team in the league all season in terms of number of guys on injured reserve, but they have managed to start the season 2-0. That’s partially because of weak competition (Cincinnati and Cleveland), but the big reason is simply that the Ravens hadn’t lost anyone irreplaceable. That changed when right guard Marshal Yanda broke his ankle against the Browns, ending his season. Yanda is arguably the best right guard in football, so that’s an enormous blow to this offense. The Ravens will also be without talented defensive lineman Brandon Williams in this one with injury.

Despite that, this line is still at 4 because casual bettors don’t pay attention to injuries as much as they should. This is on a neutral field in London, suggesting the Ravens would be full touchdown favorites if this game was played in Baltimore. That’s just a half point less than they were favored by against the Browns, who are significantly less talented than the Jaguars, and that was before Yanda and Williams went down. The Ravens covered that spread in 14-point victory, but the Browns had numerous opportunities to cut it to a single touchdown late because the Ravens couldn’t move the ball after Yanda got hurt. That was against a weak Cleveland defense. Jacksonville’s defense is one of the best in the league.

The Ravens were able to stop Cleveland’s comeback attempts with takeaways, but they won’t be able to rely on that every week. The Ravens lead the league with 10 takeaways and a +7 turnover margin right now, but unfortunately turnovers tend to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. Teams that win the turnover battle by 3 like the Ravens did last week, on average, have a +0.0 turnover margin the following week. The Ravens are on pace for 80 takeaways and a +56 turnover margin, both of which would blow away the all-time records. Even if the Ravens do end up finishing near the top in both of those categories, their pace will slow down considerably going forward and that will be noticable on the field.

The Jaguars opened their season with a +4 turnover margin in Houston, but returned home last week and posted a -2 turnover margin. They had similar first down rate differentials in the two games (+0.22% week 1, -3.00% week 2), but the games had completely different results because of turnover margins, as Jacksonville won by 22 in Houston and lost by 21 at home to Tennessee. With Yanda and Williams out for the Ravens, these two teams are about equal. The Ravens have a slightly better offense, but the Jaguars have the better defense. This line shouldn’t be any higher than 1, so we’re getting at least a field goal of line value with the Jaguars. About 30% of games are decided by 4 points or fewer, so I like the Jaguars chances of keeping this one close and they have a decent shot to pull the upset as well.

Baltimore Ravens 17 Jacksonville Jaguars 16

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +4

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens: 2017 Week 2 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (0-1) at Baltimore Ravens (1-0)

Coming into the season, I had the Ravens winning just 6 games. They pulled the week 1 upset in Cincinnati last week, shutting out the Bengals in a 20-0 victory, but the Bengals are having major offensive problems after losing their top-2 offensive linemen in free agency, not scoring a single touchdown so far through 2 games (including this week’s Thursday night game). The Ravens have a strong secondary, but are very inexperienced in the front 7, with first-time starters at 4 of 7 spots, so I don’t expect them to be that dominant defensively all season.

That will expose their offense, which has been weak over the past couple seasons and is arguably as weak as it’s ever been right now, thanks to free agent departures and injuries. They’ve lost 3 starting offensive linemen (Alex Lewis, Jeremy Zuttah, Ricky Wagner), 2 of their top-3 receivers (Steve Smith, Dennis Pitta), and their most promising running back (Kenneth Dixon) from last season. They added veterans like Jeremy Maclin, Austin Howard, and Danny Woodhead to plug holes in free agency, but none of those players are spectacular and Woodhead is already out for an extended period of time with injury. Injuries have seriously thinned depth on both sides of the ball for the Ravens, as they now have a league-high 12 players on injured reserve.

Despite that, they’re favored by more than a touchdown (7.5) here at home against the Browns. That’s not just because the Ravens are an overrated team, but also because the general public still thinks the Browns are as bad as they were last season. They’re far from a playoff team, but I think they’re noticeably improved on both sides of the ball from a year ago and aren’t that much less talented than the Ravens. They’ve drastically improved their offensive line and have taken a big step forward defensively, even if they still have issues on that side of the ball. We’re getting great value with the visitors here.

The Ravens don’t really blow teams out anyway because they tend to play low scoring games. They have just 3 wins by more than a touchdown over the past 2+ seasons. One of those wins came last season in Baltimore against the Browns, but these two teams are not the same as the last time they met. The Ravens are also in a tough spot having to travel to London to play the Jaguars next week. Teams are 10-20 ATS all-time before having to fly over to London for the week, which makes sense considering how taxing London trips can be for team’s schedules (hence why teams usually go on bye afterwards). The Browns have a very good chance to keep this one close throughout and have an outside shot at winning outright. This is one of my favorite plays of the week.

Baltimore Ravens 16 Cleveland Browns 13

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +7.5

Confidence: High

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals: 2017 Week 1 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (0-0) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-0)

This line is at 3 in favor of the hometown Cincinnati Bengals, which suggests these two teams are more or less even, but I have the Bengals with 3 more wins than the Ravens in my season preview. The Ravens finished with the better record last season, finishing 8-8, while the Bengals finished 6-9-1, but the Bengals had the advantage in first down rate differential, finishing 12th (1.03%), while the Ravens finished 25th (-1.37%). The Bengals’ record was largely the result of going 1-5-1 in games decided by a touchdown. They finished the season with one more offensive touchdown than they allowed, while the Ravens finished -8 in that category.

The Bengals lost their top two offensive linemen in free agency, with left Andrew Whitworth signing with the Rams and right guard Kevin Zeitler signing with the Browns, which obviously hurts, but they have both AJ Green and Tyler Eifert back healthy at the same time, which was a rarity last season. Add in their top-2 draft picks, wide receiver John Ross and running back Joe Mixon, and the Bengals have considerably more offensive talent around Dalton than they did last season. They have some issues, but could easily compete for their 6th trip to the playoffs in 7 seasons in a weak AFC.

The Ravens, on the other hand, lost 3 starters on the offensive line this off-season, including right tackle Ricky Wagner, who was one of the best in the game at his position. They also are without 2 of 3 their top-3 receivers from last season and lost their most promising running back, Kenneth Dixon, for the season with injury. Jeremy Maclin and Danny Woodhead were added in free agency, but both are veterans coming off serious injuries and injuries have already thinned their depth on both sides of the ball significantly, with 11 players already on injured reserve.

Their offense finished last season 27th in first down rate and figures to be one of the worst in the league again in 2017, while their defense is unlikely to be as good as we are used to from them. Their secondary is strong, with Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr coming in as free agents and Marlon Humphrey being added in the draft, but they lost their best cornerback from 2016, Tavon Young, to injury and have very little experience in the front 7, after losing 3 starters upfront this off-season. This looks like a down year for the Ravens.

Despite that, I am not jumping on Cincinnati -3 for a couple reasons. For one, Cincinnati is missing a few starters on defense to start the season, with top linebacker Vontaze Burfict suspended for 3 weeks, cornerback Adam Jones suspended for 1 week, and safety Shawn Williams nursing an arm injury. On top of that, the Bengals have to turn around and play another game in 4 days when they host the Texans on Thursday Night Football. Favorites are just 58-84 ATS before Thursday Night games since 2008, including 2-4 ATS in week 1. The Bengals may have split their focus a little bit this week with two games coming up in 5 days, which could hurt them in this game. They’re a risky pick this week, even if they still do have a slight edge in talent.

Cincinnati Bengals 20 Baltimore Ravens 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati -3

Confidence: None

Baltimore Ravens 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Ravens shockingly won the Super Bowl in 2012, with just 7 of 14 of their wins coming by more than a field goal, but have been paying for it ever since. After sneaking into the playoffs with 10 wins, Joe Flacco played unlike he ever had in the Ravens’ 4 playoff victories, en route to the Super Bowl, completing 57.9% of his passes for an average of 9.05 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions. As a result, the Ravens gave him a then-record 6-year, 120.6 million dollar deal to keep him as a free agent the following off-season, but he has not been able to recapture his 2012 post-season form.

In fact, his numbers have arguably gotten worse since. In the first 5 seasons of his career, prior to winning the Super Bowl, Flacco completed 60.5% of his passes for an average of 7.08 YPA, 102 touchdowns, and 56 interceptions. In the 4 seasons since winning the Super Bowl, he has completed 62.5% of his passes for an average of 6.66 YPA, 80 touchdowns, and 61 interceptions. He’s finished above average over a season on Pro Football Focus just 3 times in 9 years in the league and finished last season 25th out of 34 eligible quarterbacks. He hasn’t nearly been worth his contract.

That contract has clogged their cap space up and forced them to part ways with important players ever since. As a result, they’ve made the post-season just once in 4 seasons since that Super Bowl victory. The Ravens have also re-negotiated the deal several times, in an effort to free up immediate cap space, at the cost of future cap space. In one of those re-negotiations, they made the deal 3 years longer and gave him more guaranteed money, so he is now under contract through his age 36 season in 2021. His cap number for 2017 is still a league high 24.55 million and the Ravens wouldn’t save cap space by releasing him until after the 2018 season. He’s already been paid 91 million since the Super Bowl and is scheduled to make 187 million total over a 9-year period under his current contract.

The Ravens should be doing more to find and develop a future franchise quarterback behind him. His salary is only going to get less justifiable as he gets older and he’s already going into his age 32 season. Even if the Ravens can’t realistically move on from him for two seasons, they should try to be prepared with another option by that point. In the meantime, the Ravens need to run the ball more consistently if they want to make it back to the post-season. They have led the NFL in passing attempts in each of the last 2 seasons and that is not that kind of offense Joe Flacco thrives in.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

The Ravens finished 24th and 20th in the league in yards per carry in 2015 and 2016 respectively and averaged just 3.92 yards per carry between the two seasons, despite often running in situations where the defense is playing sub packages and expecting the pass. They needed to add help at running back this off-season, but only added Danny Woodhead, who will be much more valuable to the Ravens in the air as a receiver than on the ground. His career high is 109 carries in a season and he heads into his age 32 season coming off of a season in which he misesed all but 2 games with a torn ACL.

Their best chance at having a true feature back at some point this season is second year back Kenneth Dixon, a 4th rounder in 2016. Dixon missed the first 4 games of his rookie season with injury and didn’t really get into the flow of things until mid-season, but he led the team with 61 carries over the final 6 games of the season. He had 8 more carries than Terrance West over that stretch, even though West led the team with 193 carries on the season. Dixon also outperformed West on the season, averaging 4.34 yards per carry on 88 carries, while West averaged just 4.01 yards per carry on his carries.

West, a 2014 3rd round pick, has just a career 3.94 YPC on 426 carries and is a low end lead back at best. Dixon has much more potential, but will miss the first 4 games of the season after failing a drug test this off-season, which definitely hurts his breakout potential. West will carry the load in Dixon’s absence, and West and Dixon will split carries in some fashion upon his return, likely with Dixon leading the way. Woodhead, meanwhile, may lead the position in snaps played because he figures to play in just about every passing situation. That will hurt Dixon and West in terms of many targets they get (64 combined in 2016), but Woodhead has had 75+ catches in his last two healthy seasons, so he’s obviously a better passing down option. They need Dixon to break out as a running down complement.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The Ravens didn’t just have the most pass attempts in the league last season. They also lost the most targets this off-season, as players totalling 345 targets last season are no longer with the team, more than half of their total amount of 679. Most importantly, the Ravens lost wide receiver Steve Smith (103 targets) and Dennis Pitta (119 targets). The former retired this off-season, while the latter is likely to retire, after dislocating his hip for the 3rd time in 4 years. Even if he does not officially retire, he will not play this season.

Their top returning target is Mike Wallace, who was targeted 117 times. He impressively turned those 117 targets into 72 catches for 1017 yards and 4 scores. He’s unlikely to be that good again in 2017 though. Wallace is a well known name because of his speed, but last season was the first season in which he topped 1000+ yards and the first season in which he finished above average on Pro Football Focus since 2011. Wallace seems to have great chemistry with Joe Flacco, but is going into his age 31 season and could easily take a step back performance wise in 2017.

Free agent acquisition Jeremy Maclin could easily be this team’s #1 target. Maclin was let go by the Chiefs after the draft, but that was primarily because he wasn’t worth his 10 million dollar salary to a team that was in a rough spot in terms of cap space. The Chiefs claim he lost a step, but that’s probably because he played half of last season with a torn groin. Prior to his injury, Maclin was on pace for a solid 69/859/5 slash line.

Prior to last season, Maclin posted slash lines of 85/1318/10 and 87/1088/8 in 2014 and 2015 respectively and finished in the top-25 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. He’s still only going into his age 29 season, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy. That’s a big if though, as he’s played all 16 games just twice in 8 seasons in the league and has missed 26 of 128 games in his career. With injuries starting to pile up, it’s possible his best days are behind him, but he’s still a solid starting caliber receiver at the very least when healthy. He’ll start opposite Wallace and move inside to the slot in 3 and 4 wide receiver sets.

Maclin was acquired partially because the Ravens still don’t trust 2015 1st round pick Breshad Perriman, who will remain the 3rd receiver with Maclin in town and play outside opposite Wallace in 3-wide receiver sets when Maclin moves inside. Perriman missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury and then was unspectacular on 486 snaps in 16 games last season, catching just 33 of 66 targets (50%) for 499 yards and 3 touchdowns and finishing 83rd out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Still only going into his age 24 season, Perriman still has a high upside, but needs to show that he’s more than a situational deep threat. Considered a boom or bust prospect coming out of college, it’s possible Perriman never figures it out.

The Ravens will need their top-3 receivers to all play well because, with Pitta gone, they don’t have a single tight end on the roster who caught more than 10 passes or played more than 247 snaps last season. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk was their de facto #2 tight end last season, catching 37 passes on 465 snaps, both league highs for fullbacks, but he’s in San Francisco now. Darren Waller finished 2nd on the team in catches by a tight end last season with 10, but turned them into just 85 yards and didn’t block well at all. A converted college wide receiver who was just a 6th round pick in 2015, Waller is suspended for the whole 2017 season after failing multiple drug tests.

Fortunately, the Ravens do have some options at tight end, though most of them are coming off of serious injury. Ben Watson is their most experienced receiving tight end, but also missed all of last season with a torn achilles and is going into his age 37 season, so he’s a complete question mark for 2017. Watson shockingly had a big receiving year in 2015 with the Saints, posting a 74/825/6 slash line, but that was largely because he got 109 targets on one of the best offenses in the league. Prior to 2015, Watson had 39 catches in his previous 2 seasons combined. He could still be a solid blocker, but I wouldn’t expect much from him as a receiver, given his age and the injury he suffered last season. He had to take a paycut from 3 million down to 1.25 million this off-season to keep his roster spot.

Maxx Williams is a promising tight end, but he played in just 4 games last season and basically missed the whole season with knee problems, as he played just 54 snaps and didn’t catch a pass. Williams, a 2015 2nd round pick, flashed as a receiver and a run blocker on 477 snaps as a rookie and still has upside if he can stay healthy, in still only his age 23 season. He’s not expected to be ready for training camp though, and could reportedly be placed on the reserve/PUP and miss the first 6 games of the season, so that’s a big if, but he’s easily their highest upside receiving tight end.

Crockett Gillmore, meanwhile, is their highest upside overall tight end, but he too is coming off of a serious injury. A 2014 3rd round pick, Gillmore flashed on 378 snaps as a rookie and then was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked tight end in 2015 through 10 games, before missing the rest of the season with a back injury. That back injury carried into 2016 and he also dealt with shoulder, hamstring, and thigh injuries, which all limited him to 247 nondescript snaps in 7 games. If healthy, he has obvious bounce back potential. He isn’t a great receiver, but isn’t a bad one either (57/720/7 pace before injury in 2015) and is a strong blocker at 6-6 260. Best case scenario, he and Maxx Williams make a solid tight end duo, but both need to get healthy and stay healthy.

The Ravens also have Nick Boyle in the mix. He was limited to 116 snaps in 6 games last season, but not by injury, as he missed 10 games with a suspension for multiple failed drug tests. A 2015 5th round pick, Boyle was the slowest tight end at the combine and has averaged just 8.21 yards per catch on 24 catches in 2 seasons in the league (17 games), but is a strong run blocker at 6-4 260 and could earn a role in two-tight end sets, depending on the health of players ahead of him on the depth chart. A lot is up for grabs at the tight end position and Danny Woodhead figures to catch most of the balls in the typical tight end receiving areas. This receiving corps once again leaves a lot to be desired, especially for how often they pass.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

In addition to losing two starters in the receiving corps, the Ravens also lost two starters on the offensive line. Unlike Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta, who are relatively replaceable, both offensive linemen are going to be tough for the Ravens to replace. Center Jeremy Zuttah is not an irreplaceable player, but the Ravens don’t have an obvious replacement for him, which makes their decision to trade him to the 49ers for a swap of late round picks even more head-scratching. Zuttah was owed just 3.5 million in his age 31 season in 2017 and finished last season 13th among centers on Pro Football Focus as a 16-game starter.

With Zuttah gone, John Urschel and Ryan Jensen will compete for the starting center job. Urschel, a 2014 5th round pick, made 7 starts at center in place of an injured Zuttah in 2015, but finished 31st out of 39 eligible centers. He’s been better at guard in 6 career starts there, but is an underwhelming option at center. Jensen, meanwhile, is a 2013 6th round pick who has made 9 starts at guard over the past 2 seasons, and now moves to center out of desperation. He was never that good at guard, but might be a better option at center than Urschel. Both players seem best as backups though, so center figures to be a real problem position in 2017.

Right tackle Ricky Wagner, who signed with the Lions on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal this off-season, is also not an irreplaceable player, but he’s a significantly better player than Zuttah and the Ravens also don’t have an obvious replacement for him, so he’ll really be missed. He was Pro Football Focus 18th ranked offensive tackle last season in 14 starts. James Hurst, who has been their swing tackle for the past 3 seasons since going undrafted in 2014, is penciled in as the starting right tackle, but he has been horrendous in 16 career starts and is a very weak option. Unfortunately, the Ravens don’t really have another choice. Behind Hurst on the depth chart is 2015 undrafted free agent De’Ondre Wesley, who has never made a start, and 5th round rookie Jermaine Eluemunor, who is unlikely to be ready to start as a rookie.

The Ravens could move left guard Alex Lewis to right tackle, as Lewis has experience at tackle from his collegiate days at the University of Nebraska, but the Ravens don’t seem to want to do that. Even if they did, that would leave a hole at left guard that would have to be filled by either the loser of the center battle between Urschel and Jensen or by 4th round rookie Nico Siragusa, who would likely be overwhelmed as a rookie. Lewis, a 2016 4th round pick, isn’t that good either, finishing last season 61st out of 72 eligible guards in 8 starts. Regardless of who they decide to play where, left guard, center, and right tackle figure to be positions of weakness for the Ravens in 2017.

Fortunately, the Ravens should still get strong play at left tackle and right guard. Ronnie Stanley, the 6th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, was solid in 12 starts on the blindside as a rookie, finishing 26th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, and could take another step forward in his 2nd season in the league. Still only 23, Stanley has a high upside and could be one of the best left tackles in the league in 2-3 years.

While Stanley is just beginning his career, right guard Marshal Yanda is in the later stages of his career. Yanda has been one of the best guards in the league for many years, but is going into his age 33 season and will probably start declining at some point soon. You wouldn’t be able to tell from his 2016 tape though. He did miss 3 games with injury, but finished as Pro Football Focus’ #1 overall ranked guard.

That was his 2nd straight season finishing #1 at the position and he’s finished in the top-5 in five of the last six seasons, since moving to right guard full-time (Yanda played some right tackle early in his career). Even if he does decline this season, he could easily still be one of the best guards in football. Stanley and Yanda make this offensive line somewhat respectable, but their issues at left guard, center, and right tackle will really hurt this offense. They finished last season 27th in first down rate and could easily be worse than that this season, with a weaker offensive line and no real improvements made at the skill positions.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

With their struggles on offense last season, their defense frequently had to bail them out. They finished the season 8th in first down rate allowed, which allowed them to still finish a respectable 8-8. Unfortunately, they also lost a lot on defense this off-season and have 6 new starters on this side of the ball, including two new starters on the defensive line. Former starting defensive ends Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy are now in Philadelphia and New England respectively. Both players finished above average on 631 and 487 snaps respectively, so they will be big losses. Guy was signed to a 4-year, 13.4 million dollar deal by the Patriots, while Jernigan was sent to the Eagles in order to move up 25 spots in the 3rd round because the Ravens likely would not be able to afford to bring him back as a free agent next off-season.

The Ravens did keep nose tackle Brandon Williams, who was probably the most important defensive lineman to keep. He has led this defensive line in snaps played for 3 straight seasons, playing 550 snaps in 2014, 727 snaps in 2015, and 639 snaps last season. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Williams has made 46 starts over the past 3 seasons. He fell to 22nd among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus last season, after finishing 10th and 8th at the position in 2014 and 2015 respectively, but is still in the prime of his career in only in his age 28 season and should have another strong season in 2017. He might have been a little overpaid on a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar deal, but that was what the Ravens needed to pay to keep him, so it’s not a bad deal.

Even at 6-1 340, Williams is more of an every down player than a true nose tackle, hence why he keeps leading this defensive line in snaps, but the Ravens completely lack another proven veteran on the line and need young players to step up. The Ravens have spent a whopping 5 draft picks in the 3rd and 4th rounds on defensive lineman over their last 4 drafts, but their best young defensive lineman might be 2016 undrafted free agent Michael Pierce, who finished 4th on this defensive line in snaps played as a rookie with 375 and finished 12th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. The 6-0 339 pounder is just a base package player, but is probably locked into a larger role for 2017, given how well he played the run as a rookie. He’s still unproven, but could easily be a useful run stuffer for them on about half the snaps.

All five of their recently drafted defensive lineman are still on the team, so they will all compete for roles too, with no other veteran options. Brent Urban is the most “veteran” of the bunch, going in the 4th round in 2014, but he has never made a start in 3 seasons in the league and played 151 nondescript snaps in 2016. The 6-7 295 pounder could carve out a role as an interior pass rusher in sub packages, but isn’t even a lock for the final roster. In 2015, they added Carl Davis to the mix in the 3rd round, but he played just 241 nondescript snaps as a rookie and then missed all of last season with injury, so he’s a complete unknown. At 6-5 321, Davis is best as an early down run stuffer, but, like Urban, isn’t a lock for the final roster. He could definitely earn a role with a strong off-season though.

In 2016, the Ravens added Bronson Kaufusi and Willie Henry in the 3rd and 4th round respectively, but neither played a single snap as a rookie. Kaufusi broke his ankle in training camp and missed the entire season, while Henry was a weekly inactive before being put on injured reserve with an unknown injury in November. Kaufusi was expected to have a rookie year role before the injury though and could be a starter now that he’s healthy. At the very least, the 6-6 285 pounder should contribute as an interior rusher in sub packages.

Henry, meanwhile, could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, but he’s a complete unknown and it’s not promising that he was unable to even make it to the active gameday roster as a rookie. The Ravens also added Michigan’s Chris Wormley in the 3rd round of this year’s draft and could give him playing time immediately. The Ravens have options on the defensive line, but it’s unclear if any of those options are going to be good.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Ravens also have a couple of new starters in the linebacking corps as well. Elvis Dumervil opened last season as a starting outside linebacker, but was limited to 272 snaps in 8 games by injury and was subsequently released this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 6 million in his age 33 season in 2017. In his absence, Za’Darius Smith and Albert McClellan split snaps, but both struggled, finishing 92nd and 99th respectively out of 109 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, on 492 snaps and 605 snaps respectively.

The Ravens used a 2nd round pick on the University of Houston’s Tyus Bowser and he figures to have an immediate role. He’s pretty raw and could struggle with some of the finer points of the game as a rookie, but he is very athletic and should provide value in sub packages. McClellan could still see snaps in base packages because he’s an adequate run stuffer, but McClellan is a career special teamer who is going into his age 31 season, so Bowser will be an every down player before long. Smith, meanwhile, hasn’t shown much in 2 seasons in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2015, and is unlikely to have much of a role unless injuries hit.

Terrell Suggs remains as the starter on the other side, but he too is getting up there in age, going into his age 35 season. Suggs didn’t have a bad season in 2016, but was not as good as he normally is. He was a top-10 player at his position in every healthy season from 2010-2014 (he missed 8 games in 2012 with injury), but missed all of 2015 with a torn achilles and was not the same in 2016. He could continue declining in 2017. In addition to adding Bowser in the 2nd round, they drafted pass rush specialist Tim Williams in the 3rd round, who could be a long-term replacement for Suggs. He could eat into his snaps as a rookie.

The Ravens also lost starting middle linebacker Zachary Orr this off-season, after he made 15 starts in 2016. Orr was not tendered as a restricted free agent by the Ravens this off-season, but only because he was diagnosed with a congenital spinal condition that forced him to retire this off-season, at age 25. Now, Orr has received a second opinion and wants to try a comeback, but he’s now an unrestricted free agent because he was never tendered and can sign anywhere.

Orr may want to return to Baltimore, but it’s unclear if the Ravens’ medical staff is going to be willing to clear him. One way or another, I don’t expect him to return to the Ravens, leaving 2016 2nd round pick Kamalei Correa to start in his absence. Orr led the Ravens in tackles in 2016, but struggled in coverage and finished 81st out of 87 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus, so he won’t really he missed. Correa has more long-term upside anyway, though he was limited to 49 snaps as a rookie, so he is unproven.

CJ Mosley remains as an every down middle linebacker inside next to Correa. A first round pick in 2014, Mosley is one of the Ravens’ best defensive players and has made 46 of 48 starts in 3 seasons in the league. He’s finished in the top-10 among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2 of those 3 seasons and finished last season a career best 7th at the position. Still only going into his age 25 season, his best days could still be ahead of him. The Ravens will likely try to extend him long-term soon, though he is still under contract for just 10.33 million over the next 2 seasons on his rookie deal. He’s the best linebacker in a group that is not what it once was, on a defense that is overall on the decline.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Ravens’ secondary is their best unit on defense. They lost a pair of cornerbacks this off-season, but they’re arguably better in the secondary than they were last season. Their biggest loss is going to be Tavon Young, who led Baltimore cornerbacks in snaps played last season with 833 and finished 26th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, despite being just a 4th round rookie. He tore his ACL this off-season and miss will the entire season, a devastating blow to a young player who appeared to have a bright future before the injury. Young likely wouldn’t have had as big of a role this season, as he’s best on the slot and was only playing outside down the stretch last season because of injuries to their outside cornerbacks, but he’ll still be missed. He was one of the best pure slot corners in the league last season.

Jimmy Smith and Shareece Wright were their top-2 outside cornerbacks last season and made 11 and 9 starts respectively, with both missing some time with injury. Smith returns as the #1 cornerback, but injuries have been a problem for him throughout his career, especially in recent years. Smith was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback in 2014 through 8 games, but then broke his foot and missed the rest of the season. The Ravens didn’t seem concerned, giving the 2011 1st round pick a 4-year, 41.1 million dollar extension the following off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal.

That deal has proven to be a mistake. Smith didn’t miss a game in 2015, but wasn’t healthy all season and finished below average on Pro Football Focus. He was better last season, but still finished just 42nd among cornerbacks and missed another 5 games with injury. All in all, he’s missed 22 of 96 games in 6 seasons in the league and has never finished higher than 35th among cornerbacks over a full season. Smith is now going into his age 29 season, so he’s no spring chicken anymore and it’s very possible he never lives up to his potential. The Ravens have already restructured his contract once, so they won’t get any real cap relief from releasing him until after the 2018 season. He’s scheduled to make 17.5 million over the next 2 seasons, with cap numbers of 12.6 million and 13.1 million.

Wright, meanwhile, is now in Buffalo, but he wasn’t good and the Ravens upgraded on him and added to their depth outside by signing veteran Brandon Carr in free agency and drafting Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey with the 16th overall pick in the draft. Carr signed a 4-year, 23.5 million dollar deal, so he’s probably the favorite to start opposite Smith, but Humphrey was a high pick and could push him by season’s end.

Carr was once seen as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but was largely a bust on a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal with the Cowboys. He finished last season 50th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, which isn’t bad, but that was his best season in 5 years in Dallas and the Cowboys were definitely expecting more out of him. Now that he’s gotten paid again, his effort could decline and he could regress again. He’s also now going into his age 31 season, so his best days are probably behind him. Humphrey was drafted to be his long-term replacement and could have the starting job sooner rather than later.

For now, Humphrey is likely to open the season as the #4 cornerback, even with Tavon Young injured. Humphrey is probably one of their three most talented cornerbacks, but he would be a poor fit in with Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr in 3-cornerback sets because none of those three are natural fits on the slot. They paid Carr a lot of money and Humphrey is really young (21 in July) and could use a developmental year. He’ll mostly provide insurance as a rookie, but could see several starts if Smith gets hurt again or Carr struggles again.

Instead, Lardarius Webb and Brandon Boykin will compete for slot snaps. Webb is likely the heavy favorite. He played safety last season, but finished 15th at the position and was a corner in the first 7 seasons of his career from 2009-2015. Webb was actually cut this off-season, but only because they couldn’t fit him under the cap and he was brought back on a much cheaper 3-year, 6.3 million dollar deal two months later.  Webb is going into his age 32 season, but he’s finished below average just once in 8 seasons in the league and is a natural fit on the slot.

Boykin is a natural fit on the slot too and was once one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league in the first 3 seasons of his career with the Eagles from 2012-2014, but they traded him the following off-season and he’s bounced around to 4 different teams since, barely playing for 2 seasons. It’s unclear why, though a pectoral injury did wipe out his whole 2016 season, but he’s healthy now and still only going into his age 27 season, so it’s still possible he could find his old form. For now though, consider Webb the heavy favorite for the job.

The reason Webb is moving back to cornerback is because the Ravens signed talented safety Tony Jefferson to replace him in free agency this off-season, their one big free agent addition. Jefferson finished last season 5th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, as a member of the Arizona Cardinals. Last season was his first full season as a starter, but he’s not exactly a one-year wonder, as he flashed as a part-time player in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2013-2015, including a 2015 season in which he finished 18th among safeties on 756 snaps (7 starts). The Ravens signing him for just 34 million over 4 years was steal. He’s only the 8th highest paid safety in the NFL and could still get better in the future, only going into his age 25 season.

This was the second straight off-season that the Ravens signed a safety to a multi-year deal in free agent, signing Eric Weddle to a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal last off-season. That too proved to be a steal, as he finished his first season in Baltimore as Pro Football Focus’ highest ranked safety. That’s nothing new for him, as he was a top-6 safety on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2014. The only reason he was signed so expensively last off-season is because he had a down year in 2015, finishing 33rd among safeties, and appeared to be on the decline, on the wrong side of 30.

Weddle proved his doubters wrong in 2016 and could easily have another strong season in his age 32 season in 2016. He will decline at some point soon, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he remained one of the top safeties in the league for another 2-3 seasons. He’s just the 13th highest paid safety in the NFL in average annual salary. Weddle and Jefferson are arguably the league’s top safety duo and both are bargains. That’s huge for a team that has had cap issues for several off-seasons. The Ravens at least still have a strong secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Ravens look worse on both sides of the ball this season, after an off-season full of losses, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. They finished last season just 25th in first down rate and had 8 fewer offensive touchdowns than their opponents, so they’re not starting from a great baseline. A once strong veteran team that has struggled to develop enough young talent to replace the players they’ve been unable to keep under the cap over the years, the Ravens could have a tough year in 2017 and, at the very least, are likely to finish worse than last season’s 8-8. 

Final update: The injury bug continues to bite the Ravens, as they lost running back Kenneth Dixon, tight end Crockett Gillmore, offensive linemen Nico Siragusa, Alex Lewis, and John Urschel (retired), and linebacker Albert McClellan. They also were without Joe Flacco for the entire pre-season with a back injury. The Ravens signed Austin Howard to play right tackle, which helps this offensive line, but this still has the looks of a down season.

Prediction: 6-10, 3rd in AFC North