A .500 record was good enough for the Baltimore Ravens to finish second in the AFC North last season. It won’t be in 2017.
Baltimore stayed in playoff contention until the end of last season mostly because the AFC North was quietly one of the worst divisions in football. In addition to Cleveland going 1-15, the worst record in football, the Cincinnati Bengals were 6-9-1. Three of Baltimore’s eight wins came against those two teams (the loss to Cincinnati was in a meaningless Week 17 game).
Not only are the Bengals expected to rebound this year, but the Ravens got worse during the offseason. Not only did the Ravens get worse, but they’ve been hit with more injuries than anyone during the preseason.
Quarterback Joe Flacco, thankfully, is set to return in Week 1, but has missed the preseason thus far and much of training camp. Left guard Alex Lewis, running back Kenneth Dixon and tight end Crockett Gillmore are all out for the season. And, by the way, this wasn’t a good offense to begin with. Baltimore ranked 24th in offensive DVOA last season, and with the retirement of wideout Steve Smith Sr., got worse.
Flacco is no small part of their struggles. The veteran quarterback ranked 30th at his position in DYAR and 29th in DVOA last season. Flacco tossed 31 interceptable passes, per Cian Fahey’s charting, and averaged just 5.39 adjusted net yards per attempt. At age 32, coming off a back injury and a bad season, Flacco is no longer an above-average quarterback. On top of that, the Ravens have a bare bones supporting cast that ranks among the worst in football.
At running back, Baltimore was poorly equipped before Dixon got hurt. Now, it will be Terrance West getting the bulk of the carries. West averaged just 4.0 yards per carry last season, a career-high, and ranked 28th among running backs in DVOA. Danny Woodhead will also see time as a third down back, but the likelihood that he can be an impact player with the Ravens is relatively low given his injury history. Last season, the Ravens were 21st in rushing DVOA and it’s really hard to see them topping that. All told, this could be one of the worst run games in football.
When it comes to the receiving corps, signing Jeremy Maclin will be of major help. However, when push comes to shove, Maclin is still a guy whose catch rate dropped 12 percent from 2015 to ’16. He also had just 44 receptions for 536 yards in 12 games last season. That’s pretty easily the worst year of his career and at age 29, it’s reasonable to expect a bounce back.
However, Maclin isn’t exactly a star. Mike Wallace, who led current Ravens receivers in DVOA last season, was exactly average in the stat, with a 0.0 percent mark. Behind him, Breshad Perriman has amounted to basically nothing in the NFL. That’s not entirely his fault — injuries cost him the 2015 season — but 33 receptions for 499 yards and a -7.3 percent DVOA last season was pretty underwhelming. Tight end Ben Watson missed all of last season with injury and at age 36, health is far from a given.
The offensive line was one of the best units in the league just a couple seasons ago, but it’s been practically dismantled since. The lone exception has been right guard Marshal Yanda, perhaps the best lineman in football. Yanda’s 91.6 PFF grade led all guards last season and, at age 33, he allowed 0.5 sacks according to Football Outsiders’ Almanac.
Around him, there isn’t much to brag about. Left guard Ryan Jensen is a career backup who played only seven games last season. Right tackle James Hurst had an abysmal 52.5 PFF grade, ranking 61st among tackles. At center, the Ravens got rid of and brought back Jeremy Zuttah, who is now expected to start after John Urschel’s retirement. Despite all of that, Zuttah should be a serviceable piece. He had a solid 76.7 PFF grade last season, a mark consistent with the numbers he’s gotten throughout his career.
Ronnie Stanley, Baltimore’s second-year left tackle, looked good in his first season and could take the next step. Stanley blew 14 blocks last year, per FOA, and had a 79.8 PFF grade. With more development, he could become one of the better left tackles in the league.
The Ravens have always won games with defense, but this offense has a chance to be dreadful. There’s no run game, a declining quarterback, a bad receiving corps, and injuries everywhere. For Baltimore to win this season, the defense has to be one of the best in the league. It’s a strong unit right now, but it’s not good enough to win games by itself.
The defense’s biggest strength is the secondary. In the back, Baltimore features Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, perhaps the best safety duo in football. Weddle was the best player at the position by PFF grading last season, posting a 53 percent success rate, per FOA. As for the newly acquired Jefferson, he ranked 15th among safeties in adjusted yards per target last year, according to FOA.
The Ravens are fairly strong at corner as well. Jimmy Smith is quietly one of the better corners in the league. He ranked fifth at the position with just 5.3 adjusted yards per target last season and had a 54 percent success rate, according to FOA. The Ravens also spent a first round pick on Alabama product Marlon Humphrey. A lynchpin of college football’s best defense last season, Humphrey can run the entire route with the receiver. He has good hip fluidity and ability in man or zone. The only schematic hitch with Baltimore could be in the side Humphrey plays: he was exclusively a left cornerback in college.
However, the Ravens kept their corners in the same place 83 percent of the time last year, per FOA, so it won’t be a huge problem. Nickel back Brandon Carr struggled in Dallas last season. He had just a 49 percent success rate and gave up 7.9 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA. Expect 23-year old Tavon Young and Lardarius Webb to get snaps in the secondary as well.
Run defense was a strength in the front seven last season, as the team ranked 10th in adjusted line yards and third in power success. However, they struggled to get pressure, doing so just 26.7 percent of the time last season, per FOA. That dynamic is unlikely to change much.
The run defense will suffer some from the losses of Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy. However, Brandon Williams is a force at defensive end in Baltimore’s 3-4. He had an 82 percent run stop rate last season, per FOA. Michael Pierce should get more playing time as a result of the aforementioned departures, an exciting prospect given his numbers over a small sample size last year. He played just 375 snaps, but had an absurd 94 percent run stop rate, per FOA.
On the other end, Brent Urban, Carl Davis and third round pick Chris Wormley will all see time. However, if Davis struggles to return from the injury that caused him to miss last season, the position could be a weak spot. Urban played just 150 snaps in 2016 and Wormley has to develop on the technical side of things to be effective in the NFL.
At linebacker, C.J. Mosley is one of the best in the league. His 85.4 PFF grade ranked 11th at the position last season. Alongside him on the inside, however, Baltimore struggled to fill the hole left by Zach Orr’s departure. Right now, the job seems to belong to Kamalei Correa, a 2016 second rounder who played just 49 snaps last season.
Albert McClellan will likely get a chance as well, but the veteran had a terrible 42.9 PFF grade and 40 percent success rate last year, per FOA. On the edge, Terrell Suggs has seen some decline, but he still got it done at age 34 last season. Suggs put up 8.0 sacks, nine hits and 24 hurries last year, per FOA. It isn’t, however, a positive thing that Suggs is far and away the best pass rusher on this team. On the opposite edge, a rotation of Matt Judon and Za’Darius Smith is nothing to brag about. The duo combined for just 5.0 sacks, 10 hits and 24 hurries last year, similar to what Suggs did on his own.
The Ravens aren’t a bad team, but they will be very average and fairly boring. Given the state of their offense, it’s unlikely we see much of them on the Red Zone channel. If Cincinnati sees improvement, as expected, Baltimore will struggle to stay relevant in the AFC North.