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Today: The Baltimore Ravens
Last Year: 8-8 (3rd place in AFC North)
Entering week 16 of the 2013 regular season, the Ravens were sitting in second-place in the AFC North, only one game behind the division leaders, the Cincinnati Bengals. Furthermore, the Ravens were in perfect position to capture one of the two wild card spots in the AFC. Instead, Baltimore would go on to get manhandled by the Patriots, 41-7, at home and then ripped apart by the Bengals, 34-17, to close out the season. A year after their improbable and remarkable Super Bowl run, the Ravens missed out on a chance to defend their title.
But the Ravens’ lack of success wasn’t that hard to see coming. Prior to the 2013 season, upper-management inked Joe Flacco to a six-year, $120.6 million deal, with $30 million guaranteed in the first year of his new contract. For the sake of comparison, Colin Kaepernick is guaranteed around $13 million in the first year of his new deal. That’s the power of winning the Super Bowl in a contract year: $30 million guaranteed in one season.
After signing Flacco, the Ravens proceeded to trade away their most reliable pass catcher, Anquan Boldin, for just a sixth round pick to the other Harbaugh coach in San Francisco. Without Boldin, Flacco attempted the most passes in a single season in his career and winded up throwing more interceptions than touchdowns (19 touchdowns, 22 interceptions). His average yards per attempt bottomed out at 6.37 yards — the worst mark of his career.
And the running game didn’t do the Ravens any favors either. Ray Rice was downright awful, averaging a measly 3.1 yards per carry.
While the defense held its own, ranked 12th and 11th in passing yards and rushing yards, respectively, the Ravens just couldn’t manage to beat quality football teams, beating just one team that ended the season with a record above .500.
Last Year’s Stud: The Defense
The offense was comatose, so the defense was forced to shoulder the load — as is often the case in Baltimore. The Ravens’ defense found itself ranked in the upper-half of the league in most statistical categories — 12th against the pass, 11th against the run, and 12th in scoring. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil combined for 19.5 sacks and the passing defense was bolstered by strong play from linebacker Darryl Smith, and defensive backs Lardarius Webb, James Ihedigbo, and Corey Graham.
The most remarkable season belonged to former-Bronco and avid-fan of the fax machine, Elvis Dumervil. Not only did he contribute 9.5 sacks, but he also managed to receive a 27.4 overall score by Pro Football Focus. The next closest Ravens defender, Arthur Jones, scored a 15.7. The main reason for Dumervil’s high score? He accumulated an astounding 26.6 score when rushing the passer.
Runner-up: Torrey Smith
Last Year’s Surprise: Daryl Smith
In Smith’s ninth and final season with Jacksonville, he missed all but two games due to a groin injury. After signing a one-year prove-it deal in Baltimore, Smith did just that, racking up 123 tackles, five sacks, and three interceptions. Smith struggled tremendously against the run (-.13.1 rating by PFF) but excelled against the pass. In all, it was a surprise bounce back year for an aging linebacker — he’s 32 years old — and it was enough to land him a four-year, $16 million contract.
Runner-up: Corey Graham
Last Year’s Disappointment: Ray Rice
Rice had a puzzling season, to say the least. Since the beginning of the 2009 season to the end of the 2012 season, Rice averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Through the air, Rice averaged 8.7 yards per catch during that same time span. But, in 2013, Rice regressed in both facets of the game at an alarming rate. Averaging just 3.1 yards per carry and 5.5 yards per catch, Rice only put up 981 yards from scrimmage. To put that number into context, Rice topped Bilal Powell on that list by just 12 yards.
Then, after the season, there was this entire debacle.
Runner-up: Joe Flacco
The Ravens paid $30 million last year for throws like this:
Though fans were clamoring for the Ravens to provide Joe Flacco with some ammunition on offense, the Ravens decided to spend their first three picks patching up their defense. Their first two picks, C.J. Mosley and Timmy Jernigan, are expected to be contributors for years to come.
While linebacker wasn’t an immediate need, Daryl Smith is 32 and likely won’t be playing for the entirety of his four-year deal. The Ravens are hoping Mosley, out of Alabama, is their long-term guy at inside linebacker.
And Jernigan, projected by many to be a first round pick, should fit in on the defensive line. He needs some work with his technique and his often times slow getting off on the snap, but, when he gets off the line fast, he’s tough to slow down.
Other notable pick: Crockett Gillmore
This Year’s Stud: Steve Smith
G.M. Ozzie Newsome knew he had to go out and give Flacco another target at wide receiver, and he found his solution with Smith, who was released by Carolina after a more than successive tenure there. Smith is 35 and was actually going to call it quits before Baltimore called him, but the dude can still ball.
With Torrey Smith stretching the field, Smith should have plenty of opportunities to contribute.
Runner-up: Torrey Smith
This Year’s Surprise: Terrence Brooks
While it’s not guaranteed the rookie from Florida State will even start in week 1, I think Brooks is in for a solid season. He’s a third-round pick, but Brooks’ skills in coverage should translate over to the NFL, after an initial adjustment period. With Matt Elam manning the strong safety position, Brooks will be used in coverage more often, as he was one of the fastest safeties to come out of the draft.
Runner-up: Timmy Jernigan
This Year’s Disappointment: Ray Rice
I just don’t see it getting that much better for Rice in 2014. He’s 27 and has logged nearly 1,500 carries in his career. He’s already talking about retiring when he’s 30. Don’t be surprised if he improves upon his dreadful 2013 season, but don’t expect him to get back to his dominant days.
Runner-up: Joe Flacco
Draft early: No one.
Good value in the middle rounds: Torrey Smith, Ray Rice, Steve Smith
Don’t Draft: Joe Flacco
What Vegas is saying (LVH sports book): 8.5 wins
What We’re Saying: 8-8 (3rd place in AFC North)
The defense wasn’t the problem last season, and, through the draft, it should continue to improve in both defending against the running and passing game. The offense, on the hand, is a completely different story. While Steve Smith adds another dimension to the passing game, I just don’t see it becoming an efficient unit. Ray Rice, after a tremendously disappointing season, has only been bogged down by off the field issues. Joe Flacco is still getting paid a ridiculous amount for being a pretty average quarterback. In the end, it’s unlikely to see this team surpass the Bengals at the top of the division.