Last year was the first time in John Harbaugh's six seasons as Ravens head coach that he did not lead his team to the playoffs. Moves were made this offseason to keep that from happening again, but it could be tough to pull off.
One of the biggest disappointments from 2013 was the play of Ray Rice. Overweight and hurting from a hip injury, Rice failed to get over 1,000 total yards for the first time since he was a rookie. Playing behind a beat up and beleaguered offensive line didn't help -- neither he nor teammate Bernard Pierce could get going at all. That forced Joe Flacco to make plays, which he didn't always do.
The Ravens didn't have the choice to stick to their offensive plan once Jim Caldwell left his post as the offensive coordinator to become the Lions' head coach. So Harbaugh hired Gary Kubiak, the former Texans head coach, to bring in his West Coast offensive scheme and zone-run game that proved to be successful in the past. The Ravens also made a splash signing veteran receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels. Both additions bring a lot of experience to the offense as they try to move toward another playoff run.
But so much of the Baltimore offense will revolve around Rice. Though he has reportedly lost 15 pounds and has healed up, Rice got into hot water this offseason when he was arrested for allegedly hitting his wife inside an Atlantic City casino. The charge might get dropped after he and his wife entered an intervention program, but the NFL is expected to hand down a suspension. Without Rice, the Ravens just don't have the same kind of run game.
Expect Flacco to continue being a huge point of emphasis for the Ravens, which isn't as bad of a thing as last season considering the additions to the offense (a healthy Dennis Pitta helps a bunch, too). The defense also could be in line for a better year even after ranking in the Top 12 against the run and the pass, in part because of first-round pick C.J. Mosley anchoring the middle of the unit.
Top 24 receiver ... Torrey Smith
Some would argue Smith's breakout campaign came in 2013, but there's a chance he posts better Fantasy point production for the third consecutive time. This is because of the offense being installed, one in which the No. 1 receiver typically gets a slew of targets. Smith needs those because he's never had a high catch rate (below 50 percent each of the last two seasons) but might find the work easier because he might not get thrown at deep as often. Playing on the same field as Dennis Pitta and Steve Smith should help ease coverage a little bit, too. He's an acceptable No. 2 receiver to end up with.
Bounce-back coming ... Dennis Pitta
Same story as Smith -- we already know Pitta's name and what he can do, but there's potential for a career year. How often in Houston did we see tight ends get involved, particularly near the goal line? Over the last three seasons, tight ends in Kubiak's offense caught 31 of 61 possible passing touchdowns (50.8 pct.). Pitta won't be the only guy to end up spiking the ball on the turf because Owen Daniels will play a bunch, but after proving to be Flacco's security blanket down the stretch in 2012 and again late in 2013, he's considered a candidate to top the 61 catches for 669 yards and seven scores he had in '12. Dial up Pitta as a Top 10 tight end with a pick in Round 7 or 8, probably soon after Jason Witten gets taken.
Overrated ... Ravens DST
|Ray Rice||272 (214 car., 58 rec.)||34.6%|
|Bernard Pierce||172 (152 car., 20 rec.)||21.9%|
|Torrey Smith||65 rec.||8.3%|
|Marlon Brown||50 (49 rec., 1 car.)||6.4%|
A lot of Fantasy owners will take the Ravens DST because the unit has a repuation. Is perception reality? Last year, this team added pass rusher Elvis Dumervil and did finish as a Top 12 unit against the run and the pass, but still rated poorly for Fantasy, finishing tied for 14th with two other DSTs. Worse yet, they were inconsistent, posting 13-plus Fantasy points just four times in 16 games. On the schedule this season: Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton and of course two games each with the improved Bengals and Steelers offenses, including both in the first two weeks of the year. Playmakers Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Chris Canty, Daryl Smith and Dumervil all on the wrong side of 30, so there's a chance this defense could struggle to produce big Fantasy totals against some tough opponents.
The Ravens open the year playing the Bengals and Steelers at home over a five-day span. That's right, they landed the first Thursday Night Football game (post-Week 1) of the season. They also caught a brutal stretch where they play four road games in five weeks with a homer against the Falcons in the middle (at Indy, at Tampa Bay, vs. Atlanta, at Cincy, at Pittsburgh). Things do open up in the second half of the season, especially the last four weeks at Miami, vs, Jacksonville, at Houston and vs. Cleveland in Week 17. There aren't a lot of stingy run defenses expected along the way -- the Steelers shouldn't be dominant nor should the Bengals or Texans -- but there aren't a lot of layups on the slate either.
Training camp battles
Who's the backup running back? It would only make sense that Bernard Pierce reclaims his spot as the backup rusher to Ray Rice. Veteran Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro will try to put some pressure on Pierce, but unless the team finds another back, expect Pierce to win the job by default. And that means he could begin the year as the team's starter if Rice is suspended.
Is Marlon Brown history? The receiver was a bright spot for the Ravens last year, catching 49 of 81 targets for 524 yards and seven touchdowns. The addition of Steve Smith definitely pushes Brown off the field in two-receiver sets and Jacoby Jones will have a strong case to serve as the third receiver. Jones not only re-upped with the Ravens this offseason, he's reuniting with Kubiak, who was his head coach in Houston. He knows what will be asked of him while Brown will have to adjust to the new system. It'll take an injury to someone else for Brown to come anywhere close to his rookie year numbers.
How much playing time will Owen Daniels earn, and will it impact Dennis Pitta? We know that tight ends are a big part of Kubiak's offense, and we know that Daniels has spent most of his career playing in that offense. But he's 31 years old and has missed chunks of two of his last four seasons (and at least one game every season). If he's a supplemental player then Fantasy owners know to pass on him, but even if he's cast as such, will it mean targets taken away from Pitta? Unfortunately, we might not get our answer until the season starts and we see how often the Ravens use two-tight end formations. It might be frequently.
Any investment in the Ravens run game on Draft Day will be a headache. It is believed that Rice will serve a suspension for his actions in a domestic violence incident, which will cost him the very start of the season. Then when he comes back there won't be any guarantee that he'll be as effective as he was in 2012 or earlier. A similar guarantee can be said for the offensive line, which underwent minimal changes personnel-wise but had to learn a new blocking system. That's a strike against anyone running the ball for Baltimore.
There isn't a good reason to target Rice with a Top 50 pick on Draft Day. Maybe that changes if he impresses in training camp and the preseason. And maybe it'll change if there isn't a suspension after all. But by selecting Rice, a Fantasy owner has to make a commitment to the Ravens run game. It means having to spend a late pick on his backup, Bernard Pierce, who himself wasn't effective last year either and is coming off of shoulder surgery. And it might turn out that rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro ends up having a decent role in the offense. Are you going to spend a roster spot on him and Pierce if you draft Rice?! What a mess. C.J. Spiller, Toby Gerhart and Ben Tate will all be better Fantasy choices than Rice on Draft Day.
Injury report: Bernard Pierce (shoulder), questionable for start of training camp. ... Kelechi Osemele (back), probable for start of training camp. ... Michael Campanaro (hamstring), probable for start of training camp. ... Kapron Lewis-Moore (knee), probable for start of training camp.