Fantasy Football 2014 draft prep: Baltimore Ravens

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Veteran Additions:
RB Justin Forsett, WR Steve Smith, TE Owen Daniels, C Jeremy Zuttah, S Darian Stewart.
Early Draft Picks:
ILB C.J. Mosley, NT Timmy Jernigan, S Terrence Brooks, TE Crockett Gilmore, DE/DT Brent Urban, RB Lorenzo Taliaferro. RavensĀ 
Offseason Losses:
FB Vonta Leach, WR Tandon Smith, TE Ed Dickson, OT Michael Oher, DE/DT Arthur Jones, ILB Jameel McClain, CB Corey Graham, S James Ihedigbo.

2014 Baltimore Ravens Offense:
The Ravens were a complete mess offensively this past season, scoring 19 or fewer points in eight games. They managed to post more than 22 points only four times, and one occasion was the opener in which they got some garbage touchdowns in the fourth quarter. There were a number of reasons why Baltimore struggled to light up the scoreboard, and there’s not much cause for optimism that the team will get those issues fixed.

Ray Rice was atrocious this past season. He has been a terrific player for a number of seasons, even helping the franchise claim its second Super Bowl, but he saw his yards-per-carry average drop from 4.4 to 3.1. He didn’t have much help from the offensive line, but his yards-per-reception figure was also down from 7.8 to 5.5, so Rice was mostly responsible for his own sluggishness. He just seemed to lack burst, probably because he shouldered such a great workload from 2009 to 2012. Unfortunately for Baltimore, it’s not looking like he’ll rebound, given that he’ll be suspended for that infamous video that captured him dragging his wife through a hotel.

Bernard Pierce will be more involved on offense, but his numbers were down last year for a couple of reasons. First, he had a nagging shoulder injury that hampered him in 2013, but he’s still dealing with it. He won’t be available for any of the OTAs, though there’s a chance he’ll be ready for the preseason. Second, the offensive line simply couldn’t block for him. It was expected that Baltimore would make a couple of upgrades up front, but that didn’t exactly happen.

The one positive move the Ravens pulled off was signing Jeremy Zuttah away from Tampa Bay. Zuttah is a pretty average blocker, but he’ll be much better than what Baltimore had at center this past season. Gino Gradkowski was horrific at the position, so Zuttah will be a massive upgrade. He’ll be flanked by Marshal Yanda, one of the better guards in the NFL, and Kelechi Osemele, who missed the second half of the 2013 campaign with a back injury.

While Zuttah has been welcomed in, the Ravens let right tackle Michael Oher walk. Oher began his career well, but never improved. He actually got a bit worse, as he wasn’t very good the past couple of seasons. However, the dropoff between him and Ricky Wagner was quite apparent when Oher was knocked out of the opener. The game completely changed when Wagner proved completely incapable of blocking Shaun Phillips. Wagner was just a fifth-round rookie seeing the field for the first time, so perhaps he’ll improve. Regardless, he won’t be nearly as good as left tackle Eugene Monroe, who is an exceptional blocker.

In total, the offensive line will probably be about the same as it was in 2013, which is not good news for Joe Flacco, who is coming off the worst season of his career. He posted his lowest YPA ever (6.4) and threw more interceptions than touchdowns for the first time. He’ll be better in 2014, but a major improvement shouldn’t be expected because the Ravens still have the same issues. Rice lacks burst, while the offensive line is pretty pedestrian as a whole. Also, the receiving corps is pretty weak. Flacco really missed Anquan Boldin this past season, so it’s puzzling as to why Baltimore failed to obtain a big receiver this spring. Instead, all the Ravens did to find a potential upgrade across from Torrey Smith was sign Steve Smith over from Carolina. The latter Smith was completely done in 2013, so he’s unlikely to contribute much. Marlon Brown may have to keep running as the No. 2 wideout.

Flacco will at least have better tight end play this year. Dennis Pitta was out for the first 12 games of the 2013 campaign, but he was a big contributor when he returned, posting 20 receptions in four contests. Flacco will have Pitta all season, as well as Owen Daniels, who was brought over from Houston. Daniels is constantly hurt, but he’ll be an upgrade over Ed Dickson as the second tight end when he’s actually on the field.
2014 Baltimore Ravens Defense:
It was expected that Baltimore’s defense would decline severely in the wake of Ray Lewis retiring and Ed Reed leaving for Houston. It was actually the offense that fell off. The defense, on the other hand, surrendered just 0.4 points per game more than in it did in 2012. The reason for this is because general manager Ozzie Newsome did a great job of finding pieces to make sure his defense remained a strong unit.

Newsome signed over Daryl Smith from Jacksonville to be Lewis’ replacement. Smith has always been relatively unknown because he played in such a small market, but he has been one of the better 4-3 linebackers in the NFL. He transitioned into the 3-4 exceptionally. The Ravens didn’t have much next to him, however, so they used the No. 17 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on Alabama’s C.J. Mosley. That was perceived as a good pick by the national media, but multiple teams that needed linebackers revealed that they wouldn’t have touched Mosley until the second round because they believed him to be “damaged goods.” Mosley will likely miss extensive action most seasons, but when he’s on the field, he’ll be a big upgrade over Jameel McClain.

Baltimore also brought in a pass-rusher to mitigate the loss of Paul Kruger, who signed with the Browns. Elvis Dumervil was released because of a fax error, and Newsome pounced on him quickly. It paid off, as Dumervil registered 9.5 sacks across from Terrell Suggs, who mustered 10. Suggs was awarded with a 5-year, $28.5 million contract this offseason. The problem is that Suggs will turn 32 in October, so Baltimore is paying on past performance more than anything.

The Ravens only lost one decent starter on defense this spring. That would be defensive end Arthur Jones, who signed with the Colts. Jones was a tremendous run-stuffer, so Baltimore’s rush defense will worsen unless second-rounder Timmy Jernigan can step in right away. Jernigan was fantastic in the national championship, dominating the line of scrimmage, so it’s puzzling why he fell to the second round. Regardless, he’s expected to start along with Chris Canty and Haloti Ngata, both of whom excel against the run as well.

Baltimore used its third-round selection on safety Terrence Brooks, who will replace the Detroit-bound James Ihedigbo. The current Lion performed well for the Ravens this past season, so he’ll be missed unless Brooks can shine right away. That, or Matt Elam must improve. Elam, chosen in the first round in 2013, had a disappointing rookie campaign.

Perhaps Elam can follow Jimmy Smith’s example. Smith, a 2011 first-rounder, struggled early in his career, but finally lived up to expectations this past season. He was solid across from Lardarius Webb, who is coming off an exceptional campaign. Depth, however, is lacking at corner because Baltimore lost Corey Graham to the Bills in free agency.

2014 Baltimore Ravens Schedule and Intangibles:
John Harbaugh has done a terrific job of maintaining a dominant homefield advantage during his tenure as Baltimore’s head coach. The Ravens are an outstanding 41-9 as hosts since 2008, including a perfect 9-0 back in 2011.

Justin Tucker is one of the top kickers in the NFL. He was 38-of-41 this past season, including 6-of-7 from 50-plus. Most importantly, Tucker was very clutch.

Sam Koch tied for seventh in net-punting average in 2012, but he dropped to 22nd in that department this past season. He ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of attempts placed inside the 20.

Thanks to Jacoby Jones and Tandon Doss, the Ravens scored two special-teams touchdowns compared to none for their opponents.

Baltimore has a pretty easy schedule. It has just two very difficult games: Saints and Colts, both on the road. Playing at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will also be tough. However, the Ravens get to beat up on the likes of Carolina, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, Miami, Jacksonville, Houston and Cleveland twice.
2014 Baltimore Ravens Analysis: The Ravens have a decent chance to bounce back and reclaim the AFC North. However, they’ll need a few things to happen. For example, the offensive line needs to improve, and one of the young safeties has to play up to potential. Having Steve Smith and Ray Rice be not completely useless like they were in 2013 would also help.

Projection: 9-7 (2nd in AFC North)

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