Baltimore Ravens 2008 Preview Report

Boller

By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com

Predicted: 4th

2008 Record: 5-11 (4th AFC North)

Head Coach: John Harbaugh (1st year)

Roster Quick View

*rookie

**new veteran

Offense

QB: Kyle Boller If he’s starting, then Joe Flacco is still too raw. Admirable character, but simply awful under duress. The Ravens can’t win with him.

RB: Willis McGahee Production is there–even with poor endurance and explosiveness. Uses his blocks well, but creates little on his own.

FB: LeRon McClain Very fine athlete who handles his lead-blocking assignments well.

WR: Derrick Mason Consummate possession receiver. Would you believe he caught 103 passes last season?

WR: Mark Clayton A quicker but less effective version of Mason.

TE: Todd Heap No longer an upper echelon TE–though that could quickly reverse. He just needs to stay healthy for once.

LT: Jared Gaither Athleticism and 6’9″ frame give him enticing potential. Coaches must work closely with him.

LG: Ben Grubbs In his second season and already a Pro Bowl caliber blocker. Mobility is exquisite.

C: Jason Brown Ravens like his leadership, which is why they shifted him inside to the more burdening C position. Is playing for a long-term contract in ’08.

RG: Marshal Yanda Survived at RT last season. Not blessed with great natural ability, but you can tell he listens to instructors.

RT: Adam Terry Among the league leaders in second chances. Hasn’t lived up to expectations in previous 3 years. Why will anything change now?

——————–

QB: Joe Flacco* First 1-AA QB to be drafted in Round One since Steve McNair. Baltimore may be wise to develop him from the sideline this year.

RB: Ray Rice* Offers pace-changing quickness and burst that the backfield desperately needs.

WR: Demetrius Williams Will have a chance to develop a niche as a slot receiver in Baltimore‘s more frequent spread formations. Hasn’t produced in his first two years.

WR: Yamon Figurs Speedy return specialist who could become a tool in shotgun situations.

TE: Daniel Wilcox Serviceable reserve coming back from offseason toe surgery.

Defense

LDE: Trevor Pryce Two years removed from a 13-sack campaign, but at 33 (in August), must prove he can stay healthy and energized.

NT: Kelly Gregg Not a traditional NT. Plays more of an agility-oriented game where his lateral quickness makes him a terrific run stopper.

RDE: Haloti Ngata Excellent leverage and improvements in explosiveness have made him a standout blocker-eater. Not a playmaker, though his range is increasing.

LOLB: Jarrett Johnson The weak link of the linebacking core, but that doesn’t mean he’s not serviceable.

LILB: Ray Lewis In the final year of his contract. Has lost a step or two, but he’s always been a step or two ahead of everyone anyway.

RILB: Bart Scott Can thrive in any role. Last season, had to be conservative and play coverage. This year, will be unleashed more as a pass-rusher.

ROLB: Terrell Suggs Baltimore‘s most voracious front seven force. Needs to make a few more impact plays in ’08.

CB: Chris McAlister Somewhere between the bottom of the league’s first tier or top of the second tier as a one-on-one corner.

SS: Dawan Landry One of the elite safeties in the game, but will never be fully appreciated because of the guy listed below him. Bob Sanders and Troy Polamalu also hog his spotlight.

FS: Ed Reed Baltimore‘s improved cornerback play should enable him to be more aggressive in 2008. Excellent leader–a rock in every fashion.

CB: Samari Rolle Epilepsy has caused problems. Nearly 32 and coming off a rough season; must prove his career is not slipping away.

DL: Dwan Edwards Has finally started to show some relevance as a back-of-the-rotation sub.

LB: Nick Greisen High motor and solid instincts make him a great special teams option and reliable fill-in starter at ILB.

NB: Fabian Washington Faster than a drunk Paris Hilton, but must improve his tackling and put off-field distractions behind him.

Key Players Acquired

LB Brendon Ayanbadejo (Chi)

G Adrien Clarke (NYJ)

S Jim Leonhard (Buf)

CB Frank Walker (GB)

CB Lenny Walls (FA)

CB Fabian Washington (Oak)

Key Players Lost

RB Mike Anderson

WR Devard Darling (KC)

C Mike Flynn

DT Kenny King

QB Steve McNair (retired)

OT Jonathan Ogden (retired)

RS B.J. Sams (KC)

RB Musa Smith (NYJ)

CB Jamaine Winborn

The Ravens were strapped under the cap, but they were able to upgrade the secondary depth that killed them a year ago. They traded a fourth-round pick for Washington and signed Walker to a low-end deal. Walls is a journeyman who occasionally plays well. Ayanbadejo was given a $1.9 million signing bonus–a record for a special teams player. McNair’s time was up. Ogden‘s wasn’t, but his passion for the game was waning. It’s impossible to fully replace him. They’ll miss Flynn. His body had betrayed him, but he was the leader of the front five.

2008 Draft

Rd Sel # Player Position School

1

18

Joe Flacco

QB

Delaware

2

55

Ray Rice

RB

Rutgers

3

71

Tavares Gooden

OLB

Miami (Fla.)

3

86

Tom Zbikowski

FS

Notre Dame

3

99

Oniel Cousins

G

Texas-El Paso

4

106

Marcus Smith

WR

New Mexico

4

133

David Hale

T

Weber State

6

206

Haruki Nakamura

FS

Cincinnati

7

215

Justin Harper

WR

Virginia Tech

7

240

Allen Patrick

RB

Oklahoma

They’re hoping the strong-armed Flacco can be the downfield pocket passer that Kyle Boller never became. Flacco comes from the 1-AA ranks and scouts believe his reads are slow and undeveloped. If this is true, then Baltimore has almost no choice but to groom him in a backup role his first season. Rice brings the pizzazz that has been missing from the backfield. Gooden can play inside or out but isn’t expected to be a big factor until next year. Zbikowski is a gambler who will provide depth and special teams prowess. Cousins projects as an OT. Every other draft pick is a developmental project at this point.

Baltimore Ravens 2008 Preview Report

The time had come for a change. On the surface, canning Brian Billick after a 5-11 season seemed impetuous. After all, the longtime head coach had gone 13-3 the year before. But it wasn’t just about Billick.

Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti recognized that his franchise was in need of a cultural makeover. Although their record has mostly been strong, the Ravens haven’t been a surefire Super Bowl contender for several years. They’ve regularly toiled around nine and ten wins, sprinkling a clunky season in every so often. They live up to their potential some of the time. If the Ravens were a small market baseball team, this would be fine. But they’re an NFL franchise, and Bisciotti and company are in it for Lombardi Trophies.

Enter John Harbaugh. Forty-six, brother of Stanford head coach Jim and highly respected as a special teams mastermind the past 10 years in Philly. This is the man tasked with changing the culture in Baltimore. It’s a harder job than you think.

The Ravens have been under a distinct modus operandi since the turn of the century, making their culture as perdurable as the Middle East. No NFL organization in recent years has yielded as much power to its veteran players. The symbol of their democracy is the fervid, flamboyant linebacker wearing number 52. He is a locker room leader with Rasputin-like influence. His key acolytes include free safety Ed Reed, cornerback Chris McAlister, linebacker Bart Scott and hybrid end Terrell Suggs. All are stars, and all play defense. Ray Lewis and his followers have been granted a plangent voice in the locker room, through the press and on and between the sidelines.

Harbaugh–who, by the way, is being pushed to change the Baltimore culture overnight because, after all, this is the NFL–must connect with these guys. Specifically, Lewis. When all is well, the revered ex-Hurricane is a civic hero in the Ravens locker room. But when Lewis is frustrated–which is to say, when the team is losing or he’s injured–he can become a zealot leading a revolt. Many recall a few years ago when Lewis went on ESPN shortly before the draft and criticized defensive coordinator Rex Ryan’s 3-4 scheme. The voracious tackler griped–perhaps not unfoundedly–that he needed more blocker-eating defensive linemen in front of him. Read into this what you want, but shortly after that interview, GM Ozzie Newsome drafted 340-pound tackle/end Haloti Ngata 12th overall.

Lewis was never above criticizing Billick late in the head coach’s tenure. Most of the time, he was really venting about the tepid offense.

Fortunately for Harbaugh, Lewis is not amongst those holding the opinion that Billick should never have been fired. Indeed, Bisciotti’s move is open to criticism. After all, the Ravens were riddled by injury last season, which made it nearly impossible for them to defend their AFC North title. But rather than wait and see with Billick in 2008, Bisciotti sprung into action. Likely, he followed two trains of thought: One, like most things these days, change is better than the status quo (if you’re not changing, you’re falling behind). And two, change is like a fire alarm: better it come too early than too late.

Whether Lewis understands this line of reasoning or not is immaterial; the important thing is that the veteran is receptive to the new coaching regime. The changes that Harbaugh enacts won’t be subtle.

The Billick era was defined by its liberal policies. (The Ravens culture is deeply-rooted like football’s Middle East, but the culture itself is more Scandinavian.) Under Billick, training camps were short, and practices were light enough that, often times, players could theoretically have eschewed shoulder pads for flags. Veterans were not required to partake in every drill–which is fairly common in the NFL, but not on such an extreme level–and what little contact there was would usually involve the rookies and backups.

Camp Harbaugh won’t be so cushy. Hoping to build the team’s mental toughness through physical asperity, Harbaugh will order more violent drills and longer hours during the summer practices. And come autumn, a day off after a loss will be unlikely.

The veteran players will be receptive to this as long as they’re convinced it will help them win. Lewis and the defense remain stout under the guidance of coordinator Rex Ryan (who, despite the criticism a few years back, has done a marvelous job and has a great rapport with his crew). But the offense could be another story (or, the same old story).

Billick’s offensive brilliance never mustered any results (the coach didn’t have a Randy Moss-Cris Carter combination in Baltimore like he did in Minnesota). That’s why Harbaugh appointed coordinator Cam Cameron to remodel the whole structure.

Cameron’s offense is almost the antithesis of what has become familiar in Baltimore. The Ravens are reversing the playbook’s terminology, installing more three-receiver and shotgun formations and emphasizing individual stars like Todd Heap and Willis McGahee. Oh, and they’re also breaking in a rookie quarterback from the 1-AA ranks. Oh, and the offensive line holding it all together will feature a new starter at all five positions. Not helping matters is the fact that sagacious Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden is gone, and so is emotional leader Mike Flynn and veteran field general Steve McNair.

This is why Harbaugh’s power must be firm. For years, Lewis and company have been waiting for the offense like it were Godot. Currently, they understand that a rebuilding project–another offensive rebuilding project–is taking place. But if offensive turnovers and three-and-outs are piling up come, say, October, do you really think they’ll remain patient?

It will be Harbaugh’s job to keep Baltimore‘s easily-divided locker room united in 2008. He’ll need Lewis’s support in order to do so.

There is a very significant wrinkle to all this: Lewis’s contract situation. The team’s emotional centerpiece is one year away from becoming a free agent for the first time in his 13-year career. Coming off his ninth Pro Bowl appearance, Lewis undoubtedly wants to be compensated handsomely. Thus far, the Ravens have balked at reinvesting in the slowing 33-year-old. History has shown that when an official leader has one year left, his exertion of power usually allays. But when an unofficial leader has security for just one more year, his exertion of power tends to augment. Pride and urgency intensify emotions in both good and bad directions.

Harbaugh is in charge, and the Ravens know who they need on board in 2008. What happens from there will ultimately determine the fate of this organization for 2009 and beyond.

Offense

It’s one thing to throw the first-round quarterback from Boston College into the fire; it’s another to throw in the first-rounder from Delaware. Make no mistake–Joe Flacco is the future of this franchise. Standing 6’6″ with a rocket arm and suitable athleticism, the 23-year-old has a chance to be the prototype passer that has never before come through this organization. But Baltimore must proceed with caution here. There’s always the risk that a disastrous start to a career can instill bad habits and damage the psyche (thus producing the type of passer that has come through this organization before).

One of those quarterbacks is Kyle Boller. A former first-round pick out of Cal, the sixth-year veteran has evolved into a disappointment–albeit a respected one. Boller works hard and is always prepared for action, whether as a starter or in a more fitting role off the bench. The problem is that he simply has too many defects. His accuracy and decision-making are sporadic at best (they can be downright awful when defenders get in his face).

These are unique circumstances in Baltimore. The Ravens run an enormous risk by starting Flacco too early. At the same time, they almost concede games by calling on Boller (who, by the way, is in the final year of his contract). What’s interesting is that Cam Cameron’s new offense is so foreign that both quarterbacks, as well as second-year scrambler Troy Smith, are on equal ground at this point.

Scouts have grumbled that Flacco takes too long to make his reads. This is a problem, considering the absence of speed at wide receiver. Don’t be surprised to see Boller–or even Smith–taking snaps in Week 1.

Whoever it is will be throwing to possession receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton. Mason is prolific (103 receptions last season, 448 since 2002) and can make plays running after the catch. He doesn’t offer Clayton’s quickness or sharp change-of-direction, but he does a better job of getting open and exploiting his opportunities within the flow of the offense.

Baltimore will run more multi-receiver sets in ’08. But considering the unimpressive track record of third-year pro Demetrius Williams, the rawness of fourth-round rookie Marcus Smith and return specialist Yamon Figurs, and the near non-existent experience of Matt Willis, the Ravens’ 23rd-ranked passing game is going to improve at the resolve of tight end Todd Heap. Cameron plans to use the eighth-year veteran in the same manner that he used Antonio Gates in San Diego. This means splitting Heap out in the slot and putting him in motion. When healthy–which hasn’t been nearly often enough–Heap is capable of stretching the seams and elevating for circus catches. The Ravens just need him to be on the field; third-year pro Quinn Sypniewski is out with a blown knee, and backup tight end Daniel Wilcox is predominantly a blocker.

Cameron will not be able to use Willis McGahee in the same manner that he used LaDainian Tomlinson. McGahee simply isn’t quick or versatile enough. But the sixth-year pro is a solid enough runner to handle the power-rush load that is expected to define the ground game. What McGahee lacks in quickness and burst he makes up for in patience and vision. If he’s to be The Man, however, he must improve his endurance. McGahee has never been lauded for offseason conditioning, and critics quipped that he had to take himself out of games too often last year.

Second-round rookie Ray Rice can fill in when McGahee starts gasping for air. Rice gives the Ravens great speed and elusiveness in the open field, something they haven’t had from a running back since maybe Priest Holmes (if that).

Given McGahee’s running style, fullback LeRon McClain is an important piece to the puzzle. Backup fullback Justin Green is noted for his fluidity, but in fact, the 260-pound McClain–who is stronger as blocker–is fairly swift himself. Baltimore did not give McClain the ball much in ’07 (nine receptions, eight rushing attempts) but he could be capable of handling two or three touches a game.

McClain will primarily be an extension of a remade offensive line. All five spots feature a new starter. Most noteworthy is left tackle, where Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden has been replaced by callow second-year man Jared Gaither. Picked up from nearby Maryland as a fifth-round supplemental draft prospect last season, the 6’9″, 350-pound Gaither has shown impressive flashes in practice and preseason activity. His skills are intrinsic, but he’s yet to learn how to channel them. And he’s yet to show true professionalism.

Considering he’s better on the left side than right, Adam Terry was thought to be Ogden‘s replacement. Terry, however, does not show Gaither’s star potential. Given Terry’s mediocrity through three years, he’s not worth developing at football’s second most important offensive position. Terry instead will start again at right tackle. Marshal Yanda–the third-round rookie who stole Terry’s starting job last season–moves to his long-term position at right guard. Yanda is a little on the sloppy side, but he absorbs coach’s lessons and regularly finds ways to survive.

The Ravens would have loved for Chris Chester to become the starting center in ’08, but the former second-round pick has not developed the requisite strength to thrive inside. Offensive line coach Joe Matsko puts a lot of stock in leadership from the center, and the team was excited about awarding those duties to 25-year-old Jason Brown, a starting guard for much of his previous three years. Brown is great at nothing but acceptable at everything.

Saving the best for last, second-year guard Ben Grubbs moves from the right side to the left side in 2008. At the risk of over-building the hype, one can certainly say that Grubbs is already an elite lineman. He lands blocks at the second level on an everydown basis–an almost unheard of trait that requires mobility and intellectual fortitude. Some guards have been susceptible to the sophomore slump, so keep one eye open when watching how Grubbs handles his new position.

The Ravens are building a formidable line for the future. Three of their starters are in their second season, plus rookie mid-round backups Oniel Cousins and David Hale figure to get looks sometime down the road.

Defense

Even the finest ship in the Chesapeake Bay will eventually sink should a sharp enough object puncture through its keel and hull. The Ravens learned this last year when an injury-ravaged secondary destroyed their season. Baltimore‘s pass defense was horrendous. There were six backups who saw significant action either as starters or elevated nickels. All six failed. The Ravens gave up a litany of big plays (a league-leading 15 over 40 yards), which explains why they ranked 20th in overall against the pass but 30th in yards allowed per pass play.

Rex Ryan was forced to use Ed Reed conservatively, as the game’s best free safety had to sit back in deep coverage and clean up everybody else’s mess. Consequently, Reed was a non-factor against the run (39 tackles). He did still manage to pick off seven passes (hey, the guy’s an All Pro).

The hope is that a healthy cornerbacking tandem of Chris McAllister and Samari Rolle will change Reed’s–and Baltimore’s–fortunes in 2008. McAllister is coming off knee surgery after missing eight games last season (including five of the final six). At 100 percent, he’s a physical cover corner who has a knack for getting his hands on the ball. Rolle has struggled with epilepsy as of late. At 32, he is out to prove that the disorder won’t derail his career. He restructured his contract and will make just $1.4 million in ’08, though his salary could escalate to as much as $3.9 million if he meets certain playing time milestones.

The Ravens place high value on their nickel back (GM Ozzie Smith once said he prioritizes the No. 3 cornerback position ahead of the starting strong safety position). This in mind, they were wise to trade for former Raider first-round pick Fabian Washington, a blazing-fast though shoddy-tackling fourth-year pro. Washington had a bad season in 2007 and a more miserable offseason shortly after (he was arrested for domestic battery and now must complete anger management classes). Saying all the right things, he’s eager to mature from his mistakes and rebound on the field (perhaps even as a No. 2 should Rolle struggle). Baltimore needs Washington to excel; their only other corner options are Frank Walker (underachiever) and Corey Ivy (one of the six liabilities from last year).

Strong safety Dawan Landry is the best player you’ve never heard of. Or at least never appreciated. Stuck in the shadow of Reed, the older brother of LaRon is a missile with a nose for the ball. Because of Reed’s deep coverage responsibilities, Landry is actually a more active down-to-down stopper for the Ravens.

Improved cornerbacks are expected to aid more than just the safeties. Linebackers Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott will be allowed to blitz more often in 2008, all but ensuring that they’ll improve on their measly six combined sacks from a year ago (the Ravens as a team had just 32 sacks). Both are terrific athletes who play with great pop at the point of attack. Suggs, who was slapped with the franchise tag over the offseason, will be playing for a new contract.

That would put him in the same boat as Ray Lewis. The Hurricane Godfather has lost a step, though his awareness and tenacity still enabled him to wrack up 121 tackles last season. Lewis will play next to converted defensive end Jarrett Johnson, an adept presence in open space. The energizing Nick Greisen is the only experienced backup. Third-round rookie Tavares Gooden can play all four positions, but not right away.

Although the Ravens use a three-man front, ends Trevor Pryce and Haloti Ngata, as well as nose tackle Kelly Gregg, are more than just blocker-gobblers. When he plays with strength, Pryce can be a punishing pass-rusher. He’ll work ahead of run-stopping backup Dwan Edwards in ’08. Ngata is becoming more of a playmaker. He already has enough power to anchor and disrupt on his right side of the line. Backing him up will be underrated Justin Bannan, a one-gap shooter who often lines up inside on the Ravens’ flexed four-man front. Gregg is one of the most active run-defending linemen in the game. His hard nose and unwavering energy allow him to break into the backfield on a regular basis.

Special Teams

The Ravens will have excellent coverage units in 2008. Over the offseason they signed perhaps the league’s best special teams player, Brendon Ayanbadejo. Rookie safeties Tom Zbikowski (third round) and Haruki Nakamura (sixth round) project as superb special teamers. And still on the roster are Gary Stills (a 10th-year kick and punt coverage aficionado), Corey Ivy and Antwan Barnes.

Kicker Matt Stover is 40 but still effective. His range is great and his accuracy is dependable–even under pressure. Punter Sam Koch averaged 43.6 yards per boot last season, but he must have fewer touchbacks and returns.

Second-year pro Yamon Figurs is the only player in franchise history to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the same season. Figurs has the speed and shiftiness to be elite –

He just needs to cut down on his mistakes.

Bottom Line

There is always plenty of talent in Baltimore, and having so many playmakers on defense makes the Ravens contenders on a weekly basis. That said, Jim Harbaugh and company are breaking in a new offensive system with a youthful line and–whether it’s Flacco, Smith or Boller–a sub-par quarterback (Flacco because of the learning curve, Smith because of the inexperience, Boller because he is Boller).

Myth Buster

Willis McGahee is a star

McGahee is an above average running back, but that’s about it. He needs too many factors to be properly aligned in order to thrive. He doesn’t have the creativity or quickness to make plays without blockers creating holes, and his acceleration only shows up on his second or third step (as opposed to the first).

McGahee’s effectiveness as a receiver is moderate (43 catches in ’07, but for only 231 yards). His conditioning has been called into question, which lends concerns about his stamina and durability. He’s never been accused of being a great team player.

Open Thought

I’m not so sure Ray Lewis doesn’t wear himself out just a bit with all the pregame hype and celebratory gyration. If you notice, Lewis goes nuts after every tackle he makes:in the first half. Late in the game, however, the flamboyance is not as common (though it’s still there).

He’s Ray Lewis, so he knows what he’s doing. His enthusiasm is somewhat self aggrandizing, but he’s done a good job of rubbing his energy off on teammates and fans. It’s Lewis’s M.O. In the book Next Man Up, author John Feinstein told a story about how the linebacker once went to the doctors office to have an injury looked at. In filling out the paper work, Lewis was asked to list his occupation. He wrote “entertainer.”


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2 Responses to “Baltimore Ravens 2008 Preview Report”

  1. Michael says:

    You are totally wrong about Terry. He never got even one chance let alone being the ‘king of second chances’. Now that there is a new coaching staff and new opportunities, he will show you that he is pro-bowl material. Gaither doesn’t care. He is apathetic and hasn’t shown us anything. I put my trust in Terry.

  2. soundaviceuwon'thearanywhereelse says:

    Having epilepsy is NOT the end of a career. There are good meds. For example, lamictal and keppra. lamictal takes care of tonic clonic/atonic seizure activity. Keppra deals with myoclonus, especially myoclonus that progresses to tonic clonic. If that doesn’t work you add a small dose of depakote. and 5 mg diazepam at night, if nocturnal seizures are a problem. Sound advice from mom in so cal.