The Ravens shocked the rest of the league and possibly themselves by making the playoffs last year with a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback. They did it with a strong running game and their usual prowess on defense, but those two spots could be in trouble this season. Baltimore bolstered its offensive line with free agent center Matt Birk and rookie tackle Michael Oher, but veteran Willie Anderson retired and standout fullback Lorenzo Neal is now in Oakland. Those two losses will be felt on offense, especially Neal.
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LeRon McClain, who turned into a stud last year running behind Neal, will move back to fullback. The Ravens still have Willis McGahee and Ray Rice, but McClain was a tremendous Fantasy option that is now gone. Joe Flacco should build off a solid rookie season, but the Ravens failed to improve his weapons. On defense, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs remain part of the dominant unit, but defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is now the head coach for the Jets. He took Bart Scott with him as a free agent, so the unit could take a step back in production.
Sleeper ... Ray Rice, RB
Rice had the chance to make an impact as a rookie last year with Willis McGahee again dealing with injuries, but he was supplanted by LeRon McClain and never recovered. Rice finished the season with 454 rushing yards and 33 catches for 273 yards, but he failed to score a touchdown. This year, McClain is moving to fullback to replace the departed Lorenzo Neal, which opens the door for Rice to be the No. 2 option in the running game. He will likely be on the field for passing downs and showed last year he can catch the ball out of the backfield, and the Ravens need plenty of help in the passing game. With McGahee's injury history (he had another minor ankle surgery this offseason) and with McClain out of the way, Rice has the chance to get significant touches this year behind a good offensive line.
Breakout ... Mark Clayton, WR
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Clayton is the type of player you want to target with a late-round pick because the Ravens are desperate for someone to step up in the passing game. Derrick Mason remains a productive wide receiver, but he's coming off shoulder surgery and is 35. Todd Heap has been injury prone, and L.J. Smith, a free agent acquisition, isn't going to dramatically improve the receiving corps. That's where Clayton comes in, and he has the extra motivation of being in a contract year. Last season, Clayton improved as Joe Flacco did with strong outings in November and December. Clayton had three touchdowns in five games in November and two games over 120 yards receiving in his final five games. If he can produce at that level for a full season, he could emerge as a No. 3 Fantasy wide receiver. We used to view Clayton as a potential star, and now is the time for him to prove it.
Bust ... LeRon McClain, RB
The news that McClain was moving to fullback nearly brought my colleague Dave Richard to tears. Many Fantasy owners would likely agree after McClain had a breakout season last year with 1,025 total yards and 11 touchdowns. But with Lorenzo Neal leaving as a free agent, the Ravens needed to move McClain back to his natural position since Willis McGahee and Ray Rice are on the roster. McClain will likely remain the goal-line back and continue to find the end zone, but his yardage is going to significantly decrease. If you want to view McClain as a poor man's LenDale White or even in line to what T.J. Duckett has become in Seattle, that's a safe comparison, and McClain could still get carries if McGahee gets hurt again this year. But with the news that McClain won't be starting or even sharing carries at tailback, it's enough to make a grown man cry.
Training camp topics
The Ravens have some adjustments to make this season with Greg Mattison replacing Rex Ryan as defensive coordinator. Will he be as aggressive and creative with his blitz packages? And can Ray Lewis and Ed Reed continue to stay healthy? Those two factors will determine how good the unit will be this season. The defense does get some good news with Kelly Gregg, Dawan Landry and Tavares Gooden coming back from injury. But Mattison's influence will be the biggest factor.
Joe Flacco will have a lot of pressure to carry the offense if the run game falters with Lorenzo Neal gone, but Matt Birk and Michael Oher should help the offensive line remain stout. Flacco will need Derrick Mason and Todd Heap to return to health and Mark Clayton to pick up where last season left off. Willis McGahee also needs to stay healthy with LeRon McClain now playing fullback. If you're big on special teams, the kicking battle between Steven Hauschka and Graham Gano will be interesting as the two fight to replace longtime kicker Matt Stover.
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