Under Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh, Baltimore is almost always competitive. But an 8-8 season in 2016 left the team out of the playoffs for the third season in four years.
The team was better last year than in 2015, but a number of late game letdowns cost the team some close games.
Now, heading into 2017, the team has seen a lot of turnover. And Joe Flacco is another year older. Has the team adequately enough addressed its needs to become a postseason player yet again? Or is this team still enough of a work in progress that it’s going to take a season or two before it can again seriously chase the Lombardi Trophy?
Tony Lombardi, founder of the Russell Street Report, shares his insights.
Zoneblitz: The Ravens improved at least in almost all facets on offense and defense in 2016, but still landed at 8-8 and out of the playoffs for the third time in four years. How would you assess the season?
The Ravens offense failed to commit to running the ball and that put unnecessary pressure on the offensive line and Joe Flacco. The defense struggled to get off the field in the fourth quarter and relinquished leads during winnable games. One or two fourth quarter stops and maybe the season ends differently. The Ravens were a microcosm of the NFL in 2016 – a league with several teams that could have been as weak as (6-10) or as strong as (10-6). That’s the parity the league seeks.
Zoneblitz: Joe Flacco has been pretty solid for most of the last nine years. What’s his shelf life? Have or should the Ravens started looking toward the next QB?
Lombardi: I don’t see a decline in Flacco just yet. Physically I think he still has what it takes to compete successfully. That said, the moment his physical gifts start to decline, I think his decent will happen rapidly. He doesn’t do the little things that the best quarterbacks do. He’s not cerebral. He lacks the cognitive skills to effectively make the proper pre-snap reads; he doesn’t use cadence as a weapon and post-snap, he too often fails to allow plays to develop. He gets away with a lot because of his physical gifts. What happens when they’re gone?
As for a successor, I think Flacco has at least 2, possibly 3 good seasons left in him. Therefore, I think it’s important for the Ravens to draft a QB in 2018 or 2019 and begin the developmental process. It doesn’t have to be a first-round guy, but it can’t be a Day 3 draft pick either.
Zoneblitz: Steve Smith is gone. Mike Wallace isn’t young. Breshad Perriman has a history of injuries. Kenneth Dixon is suspended to start the season. Danny Woodhead has arrived. And Dennis Pitta has suffered another hip injury. What is the skill talent surrounding Flacco going to look like this season? Who has to step up?
Lombardi: Joe Flacco is at his best when he has a complementary running game. Therefore, it will be important for offensive assistant Greg Roman to implement a ground attack that utilizes the skills of his offensive front and those of Terrance West early on. When Dixon returns, he’ll be fresh and he’ll play especially faster than the others on the field, due to the wear and tear of the season. Wallace, I think, will have a season similar to 2016 and I look for Perriman to have a break out year. He’s been outstanding during OTA’s and most importantly, he’s completely healthy.
As for guys that need to step up, besides the O-line, West and Perriman, it has to be one of the tight ends (pick one) and Chris Moore. And despite being a big fan of what he can do when healthy, I’ve given up on Michael Campanaro. I would love to be proven wrong.
Zoneblitz: Ricky Wagner left in free agency and Jeremy Zuttah was traded to San Francisco. What’s the outlook for the offensive line?
Lombardi: Many fans are clamoring for the Ravens to make a play for Jeremy Maclin or Eric Decker. And while either would be nice to have, I’d rather they hold back their limited cap resources to make a play for a right tackle who could shake free from some team’s roster. The danger in that approach though, is that teams don’t have to cut down their rosters until after the fourth preseason game. If they somehow land a RT, I do believe that Ryan Jensen or John Urschel can be a one-year solution at center. I don’t think Nick Mangold is part of the plan. From what I hear, he’s priced himself out of the Ravens range.
Zoneblitz: The defense gave up 80 fewer points in 2016 than 2015 and it’s been ranked in the top quarter of the league in yards allowed three straight years. What improved last year and what still has to be addressed?
Lombardi: I don’t buy into those stats. Just because the Ravens gave up fewer points in 2016 doesn’t necessarily mean they were any better. They still gave up 4th quarter leads and they failed miserably against good quarterbacks (See Messrs. Brady, Roethlisberger & Carr). Plus, let’s not forget the injuries from 2015 that crippled the secondary and a banged-up offense that struggled to stay on the field without Joe Flacco, Justin Forsett and Steve Smith, Sr. Heck, Matt Schaub was responsible for about 28 of those 2015 points allowed all by himself!
So, to your question, “What improved defensively in 2016?”
Zoneblitz: Are the additions of Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr through free agency and Marlin Humphrey through the draft enough to shore up the secondary? And how big a loss is Elvis Dumervil?
Lombardi: The investments in Jefferson, Carr and Humphrey are substantial and while they certainly help, those additions were not enough. The Ravens needed to improve their pass rush to fortify their investments in the secondary. And with the additions of Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams and Chris Wormley, they’ve done exactly that. These additions to the front seven complement Terrell Suggs and Matt Judon. The Ravens won’t wilt in the fourth quarter because the added explosiveness off the edge allows the incumbents to remain fresh. Substantive improvements to the secondary coupled with young talent to menace opposing quarterbacks, will allow Dean Pees’ unit to improve markedly in 2017. If they don’t, Pees will move on.
As for Elvis Dumervil, I do believe there’s a little left in his tank as a situational pass rusher if he’s healthy. He provides leadership, experience and he’s an excellent locker room presence. I wish him well in San Francisco.
Zoneblitz: What did you think of the Ravens’ approach to the draft and free agency, and what would you like to still see the team address before camp?
Lombardi: Through their actions in free agency and during the draft, the Ravens seemed determined to improve their defense. But that comes at the expense of the offense. I’m ok on holding off until 2018 to provide some firepower for Joe Flacco provided they protect their quarterback and crank up the running game. If they can do that, they’ll be competitive and then the front office can attack the offensive side of the ball during the next offseason.
Until then, the one thing they need more than anything else is a solid right tackle. James Hurst’s inadequacies were responsible for Flacco’s injury in 2015. Do they want to put the same guy out there to protect him in 2017? If they do, the Ravens offense might look a lot like the 2000 offense that went 21 quarters without a touchdown.
Zoneblitz: What’s your prognosis for the season? Is this team a contender in the division and for a postseason run? Or is it stuck in the middle of the pack again?
Lombardi: The Ravens are an incomplete team at the moment. They’ll need that right tackle. They need a complementary receiver. Without either, I see a team that is 7-9 to 8-8. If they fill those positions adequately and the injury bug is kinder to them in 2017, they could push for a wildcard berth and that would be a successful season.
One more offseason of re-tooling, particularly on offense, and the Ravens will be back to being a perennial contender like they were between 2008-2012.
Follow Tony Lombardi on Twitter at: @RSRLombardi
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