Despite big losses, analysts see Ravens in NFL postseason again
ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi raised some eyebrows this offseason when he opined that the Ravens — not the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers or even his former team, the New England Patriots — have the most talented roster in the NFL.
And those comments came several months after the Ravens lost wide receiver Torrey Smith, tight end Owen Daniels, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and didn't replace any of them with free agents.
"I'm really combining a great offensive line with a good defensive front seven," Bruschi explained. "I think that's a huge aspect in having rosters and building it. [They] have a quarterback. The linebackers are great. I like the Ravens' roster."
While praising the Ravens' talent level, other analysts weren't so effusive. Pro Football Focus ranked the Ravens' roster as the third best in the NFL, behind the Seahawks and Packers.
Former NFL general manager Charley Casserly feels that the Ravens have done well to add depth, though he questions how they'll replace Ngata. Former NFL coach Herman Edwards is more concerned with the team's secondary, but he thinks that the Ravens will benefit from a highly-regarded rookie class.
There does, though, seem to be a consensus among football pundits league-wide: The Ravens, who annually lose veteran talent and replace it with young and unproven players, will again enter the season as one of the better teams in the AFC, and in good position to make the playoffs for the seventh time in head coach John Harbaugh's eight seasons.
"To me, they've done as well as they could in the situation that they were in," said Casserly, an analyst for NFL Network. "What you're trying to do is win another championship, we know that. But what you're trying to do every year is be a contender, compete and win your division. They're in position to do that. That's all you can ever do, try and be in that position. I look at this team being a good football team, one of the better teams. It will be a dogfight in December as to who goes to the playoffs in their division."
Lots of questions: When training camp officially begins with the first full-team practice on July 29, the Ravens will face their share of summer questions — every team does.
How will quarterback Joe Flacco, fresh off arguably his best season, perform under Marc Trestman, the Ravens' fourth offensive coordinator in as many years? Will right tackle Rick Wagner, tight end Dennis Pitta, cornerback Jimmy Smith and other players coming off season-ending injuries have enough time to be ready for the start of the regular season? Are rookies like wide receiver Breshad Perriman, tight end Maxx Williams and outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith going to be able to make an immediate impact and fill significant voids?
What the Ravens don't appear to have are significant holes on their roster. They return 18 of 22 starters from last year's team that went 10-6, dominated the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road to win a first-round playoff game and twice built two-touchdown leads on the Patriots' home field before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champs in the divisional round.
"To me, if they had [cornerback] Jimmy Smith in the playoffs, they're going to the Super Bowl," Casserly said.
Deserving of benefit of doubt: Nobody is diminishing the losses of Ngata, one of the best defensive players in team history; Torrey Smith or Daniels, the team's second and third-leading receivers last year; or even McPhee, one of the league's best situational pass rushers. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's departure to become the head coach of the Denver Broncos was a blow as well —the offense set several team records last year with him as the play caller.
But Edwards, now an analyst for ESPN, says that the Ravens deserve the benefit of the doubt because they've proven that they can overcome dramatic changes on their roster and coaching staff. Last offseason, they moved on from starters Vonta Leach, Michael Oher, Jameel McClain, Arthur Jones, James Ihedigbo and one of their top cornerbacks, Corey Graham, yet were a couple of minutes away from playing in the AFC championship game.
"That's a credit to [general manager Ozzie Newsome] and Coach Harbaugh. They do a great job and they have a wonderful philosophy of not really panicking and not reaching for players," Edwards said. "They know what their system is made of and they do a nice job in the draft of really understanding that."
Using the draft: Without the salary cap space to be big players on the open market, the Ravens re-signed a couple of their own players to modest deals on the free agent market, including running back Justin Forsett and defensive end Chris Canty, and then attacked their needs in the draft.
The hope is that Perriman, the first-round draft pick, will become the deep outside threat the Ravens lost when Torrey Smith signed with the San Francisco 49ers; Williams, the second-round tight end, can add the receiving dimension from the tight end position that the Ravens lost when Daniels left for the Broncos; and that defensive lineman Carl Davis (a third-round draft pick) and linebacker Za'Darius Smith (fourth round) will be part of the solutions in replacing Ngata and McPhee, now with the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, respectively.
Timmy Jernigan, a second-round pick last year, is the expected replacement for Ngata at defensive tackle.
"When you look at what they've done, they've replenished their football team with a young group," Edwards said. "I think the secondary is still something you look at and you say, 'Let's see what happens here.' They need some of these guys to pan out and figure out who they're going to be. We saw last year, that was a pretty good defense and it's generally good every year. But the Achilles' heel was their secondary at times."
The Ravens feel that cornerback Kyle Arrington and safety Kendrick Lewis will stabilize things, but they're banking on cornerbacks Smith, Lardarius Webb and Asa Jackson staying healthy, which they couldn't do last season.
Developing depth: At other spots, they've developed enough depth to compensate for potential injuries. They are probably deepest along the offensive and defensive lines, and that was the primary reason why Bruschi anointed the Ravens' roster as the league's best.
He described the offensive line as the most important unit in today's NFL and the Ravens return the top seven members, who consistently opened up holes in the running game and kept Flacco clean last season.
Flacco also proved once again that his play tends to rise when the games mean the most, Bruschi said.
Despite all the talk about the Ravens' wide receivers, defensive backs and their ability to replace longtime franchise stalwarts, Casserly said that the team will ultimately have to lean on its usual strengths.
"What's important for them is the coaching, development and production of the quarterback position," he said. "I think that's one of Marc Trestman's assets. You always start there."
The Ravens said goodbye to several contributors this offseason, but four stand out above the others:
Player, Position, 2015 stats
Haloti Ngata, defensive lineman - 35 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 forces fumbles, 2 interceptions
Torrey Smith, wide receiver - 49 catches, 767 yards, 11 touchdowns
Owen Daniels, tight end - 48 catches, 527 yards, 4 touchdowns
Pernell McPhee, outside linebacker -27 tackles, 7 1/2 sacks