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Baltimore Ravens 2014 Season Preview

August 31, 2014 in Baltimore Ravens, Coaching Staff, Fanspeak Radio Network, JOE FLACCO, News, NFL SCHEDULE

BALTIMORE RAVENS: 2013 RECORD: 8-8 (3rd, AFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2012, defeated San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII

HEAD COACH (RECORD): John Harbaugh (62-34 in six seasons)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Gary Kubiak (first season with Ravens)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dean Pees (third season with Ravens)

Final Numbers in 2013:

Points Scored 20.0 (25th), Offense: 307.4 (29th), Rushing 83.0 (30th), Passing 224.4 (18th)—-Defense: 335.5 (12th),  Run D 105.4 (11th),

 Pass D 230.1 (12th), Takeaways 24 (19th), TO Diff (-5), Points allowed 22.0 (12th)

KEY ADDITIONS: RB Justin Forest (from Jaguars), WR Steve Smith (from Panthers), TE Owen Daniels (from Texans), TE Crockett Gillmore (third round, Colorado State), C Jeremy Zuttah (from Buccaneers), DT Timmy Jernigan (second round, Florida State), LB C.J. Mosley (first round, Alabama), DB Dominique Franks (from Falcons), FS Terrence Brooks (third round, Florida State), SS Darian Stewart (from Rams)

KEY DEPARTURES: RB Bernard Scott (free agent), RB Shaun Draughn (to Bears), FB Vonta Leach (free agent), WR Tandon Doss (to Jaguars), WR Brandon Stokley (free agent), TE Ed Dickson (to Panthers), TE Dallas Clark (retired), T Michael Oher (to Titans), DE Arthur Jones (to Colts), LB Jameel McClain (to Giants), LB Rolando McClain (to Cowboys), CB Corey Graham (to Bills), SS James Ihedigbo (to Lions)

Recap of 2013 (8-8 second in AFC North, missed playoffs)

Last season, the Baltimore Ravens missed the playoffs for the first since head coach John Harbaugh and QB Joe Flacco arrived in the Charm City in 2008. The 2013 version of the Ravens offense can only be described as offensive to all that watched it each week. Injuries along the O-line wreaked havoc throughout the entire unit, as Flacco was sacked a career high 48 times and tossed more INT’s than TD’s (19-22). The once vaunted rushing attack, led by Ray Rice, finished 30th in the NFL averaging 3.1 yards per attempt. The defense didn't dominate, as it did in years past but it played well enough to keep the club in games considering the fact that it was first season without future HOFers like Ray Lewis & Ed Reed.

Three Reasons The Ravens Return to the Playoffs:

1. New offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak’s scheme:

Gary Kubiak

Courtesy of ICON SMI

The former Texans HC brings his zone based scheme to Baltimore and when looking at the Ravens offensive personnel, it could be a match made if football Heaven. While all eyes will be on Joe Flacco, Kubiak’s offense is a run zone blocking scheme that accentuates the strengths of the quarterback but more importantly, it heavily relies on a powerful running game. If the O-line does its job, the offense can’t help but produce league leading numbers from the men carrying the ball. From 2008-12, Kubiak’s offense was one of only two teams (Denver) to have its total offense, passing offense and rushing offense each rank in the Top 5 at least once during that span. They led the NFL in passing in 2009 and ranked second in rushing in 2011. However, Kubiak’s offense is also predicated on scoring.  His offenses have ranked among the NFL’s Top 10 scoring units 14 times.

 

2. QB Joe Flacco

Many felt that coming off his MVP performance in Super Bowl XLVII Flacco took a step back last season. He finished with a passer rating of 73.1 and a dismal touchdown-to-interception ratio of 19:22. But I’m predicting a nice season for No.5 in 2014. If you know me, then you know this wasn't an easy thing for me to write. Simplifying things for Flacco has become a priority in the new system. Kubiak expects two things of his franchise QB—he wants Flacco to get rid of the ball quicker and improve his completion rate of 59 percent in 2013. The Ravens lived and died on the long ball during the past two seasons. Since 2010, Flacco has thrown 123 passes of 25 or more yards, sixth most in the NFL during that span. The ability to go deep will still be there but Flacco will just take a different approach. They will use more play action and screen passes to set up the long ball. Both will be new concepts to Flacco and the Ravens offense. Despite having limited success with the screen pass at times under Cam Cameron, since 2001, the Ravens have thrown 123 screen passes, fourth fewest during that span.

When looking at his targets following the snap, Joe Cool must work through his progressions quickly to find the open receiver. If he does, he should complete 60 to 65 percent of his throws and finish with a passer rating around the mid-90s. Matt Schaub had a completion percentage of 60 percent or better in all seven of his seasons with the Texans, and a rating of 90-plus in five. Flacco has a better set of skills than did Schaub and an overall better compliment of weapons this season than Schaub ever did in Houston. Flacco finished the preseason with a 64.4 completion percentage, two TD’s, no INT’s and a passer rating of 102.5. The completion percentage and passer rating would be career highs and Baltimore is 35-6 when Flacco produces at least a 95 passer rating and 18-3 when he’s been able to hit 110 or better.

Flacco is a winner, plain and simple. His 62 regular season wins rank second to Drew Brees since 2008 and are the most by a starting QB in his first six seasons in NFL history. There are no more excuses for Flacco; his success will depend on him in 2014 and I’m betting Flacco finally has that breakout year.

3. Ray Rice Returns to Form:

and more of this....

Ray Rice Returns to Form

Rice will serve a two game suspension to start the season for violation of the leagues conduct policy stemming from his February elevator incident in Atlantic City NJ. But once Rice returns—-so should his game. He looked great in limited play during the preseason, which is at least a bit soothing to Ravens fans considering No.27 is coming off his worst season as a pro. Last season, Rice played in 15 games while battling a hip injury and rushed for a mere 660 yards on 214 carries with just four rushing touchdowns.

As a team the Ravens ended with 1,328 yards on the ground, the lowest yardage total in franchise history, while their 83 rushing yards per game was the third-worst in the NFL. Some of this was due to the performance of the offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, the Ravens offensive line had the sixth-worst run blocking in the league. The play calling was a bit unusual at times as well. Take the game in Buffalo last season when Flacco threw 5 INT’s. Baltimore threw the ball 50 times and ran it a mere nine times. One could also point to the Green Bay Packer game at home and the play calling sequence which led to three unnecessary points for the Packers just before the half. For the record, Baltimore lost both games by a combined five points (3 in Buffalo—2 at home to GB) and winning either of them would have been enough for a sixth straight playoff trip.

As his system will do for Flacco, Kubiak’s scheme will benefit Rice—perhaps even more. As a team during the preseason, the Ravens pounded the ball on the ground. Baltimore finished the preseason as the NFL’s best rushing offense, averaging 171 yards a game. The Ravens averaged 15.2 more yards per game than the second-ranked Eagles. In this system, Rice is likely to return to the back that is a three time Pro-Bowler and owns the NFL’s most total yards from scrimmage (8,487) dating back to the 2009 season, registering 42 games where he’s gained 100-or-more total yards. As he has in the past (see 4th & 29) Rice will play a pivotal role in helping Flacco out of trouble.

Kubiak’s offense will prevent defenses from keying on Rice as a passing option out of the backfield. How critical is it that Rice returns to the duel threat back he was for his first five seasons—-very critical when you consider the following. Rice ranks first in the NFL in catches and second in receiving yards by a RB since 2008, amassing 369 receptions for 3,034 yards. Rice also owns 104 catches for 961 yards on third down during this time, tying Darren Sproles (104 for 1,042) for the most such catches and second-most such yards among NFL RBs.

Three Reasons the Ravens Fail to Make the Playoffs:

The Secondary:

Webb, Smith & Jackson

Smith, Webb & Jackson

Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith proved to be a solid CB duo last season, and both will once again be the starters in 2014. However, there are concerns here. Webb has had an injury-filled career and while he did recover from his most recent ACL tear to play in all 16 games last season, he’s currently dealing with a back injury that kept him out of the preseason. Smith, whose play improved seemingly every down last season, also failed to finish the preseason, and has a tendency to be “nicked up” prone. While both are good players both can inconsistent from one series to the next and take unnecessary penalties, which chew up big chunks of yards.

The top backup at the position, Asa Jackson was also injured in the preseason and missed the final two exhibition games. By the way, it’s worth noting Jackson has never played a down during a regular season game.

As of today (Saturday August 31) all of the Ravens injured CB’s returned to practice and are expected to play in the season opener. If either Webb or Smith miss significant time there isn't much on the depth chart. Corey Graham, who could play outside or in the slot, is in Buffalo. Chykie Brown, who has appeared in 39 games with one start over parts of three seasons in Baltimore, is also listed on the depth chart.

At safety, the Ravens are blessed with young talent but with youth comes inexperience. Matt Elam struggled in his rookie season and was quiet in camp while third round pick Terrence Brooks started to come on. The former FSU star is a ways from starting and sits behind Darian Stewart, whom the Ravens signed from the Rams. However, Brooks may prove to be valuable as he slid down and played some corner in the preseason and didn’t look all that bad.

Technically, the Ravens were below average in the NFL last year generating 40 sacks, if they fail to build on that number in 2014, opposing QB’s may have their way with a secondary that isn't yet ready to shut down any portion of the field. This could have a trickle-down effect. The Ravens want to play a ball control offense with the ability to hit the big play—but if they are forced to play catch up or become involved in shootouts that could spell doom and a second straight year of missing the playoffs.

2 The Youth of the Team Fails to Deliver

During the first 5 years of the John Harbaugh era in Baltimore, veteran leadership keyed the team’s success. Early on, along with Ray Lewis & Ed Reed there was Todd Heap and Derrick Mason. During the Super Bowl season of 2012, Lewis, Reed and players such as Anquan Boldin, Bernard Pollard and Danelle Ellerbe were all key veteran contributors. Due to retirement, free agency or in Boldin’s case, a trade, all are gone. Each, while their contributions considered invaluable were seen as road blocks to this truly being John Harbaugh’s team. With all of them gone in 2013, the Ravens finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs—you could hear the whispers that maybe just maybe Harbaugh couldn't do it without some of them, which is why all of the young talented players GM Ozzie Newsome has drafted in the last four three years must now step up and become play-makers.

Speaking of the draft and excluding this past Mays selections, there have been 47 players drafted by the Ravens since their last Pro Bowl player, running back Ray Rice in 2008.  They have drafted good players but not Pro Bowlers. No one could have predicted the success the Ravens enjoyed by selecting players such as Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Ed Reed, Jamal Lewis and Terrell Suggs. In the franchise's first 13 drafts, the Ravens selected 19 Pro Bowl players, which was tied with the New England Patriots for the most during that period. Now, the Ravens are one of four teams who have failed to select a Pro Bowl player since 2009, and the others (Jaguars, Jets, and Raiders) have all fired their general managers during that time.

It’s not entirely fair to criticize the Ravens but expectations are rising. In 2012, the Ravens won their second Super Bowl with 39 homegrown players on their 53-man roster. In comparison, the Seahawks won the championship three months ago with 29 players who were drafted by the team or signed as undrafted rookies. You can’t’ say that the draft classes since haven’t produced talented players. Being a perennial playoff team means they've been able to add productive starters such as offensive tackle Michael Oher, cornerback Lardarius Webb, tight end Dennis Pitta, defensive lineman Arthur Jones linebacker Courtney Upshaw and wide receiver Torrey Smith . Without any of the above players, the Ravens aren't Super Bowl champions in 2012.

However, if this team is going to return to the playoffs, players such as Bernard Pierce, Matt Elam, Brandon Williams, Arthur Brown and rookies CJ Mosley and Lorenzo Taliaferro must step up and produce when called upon. Teams that consistently make the playoffs in the NFL get solid contributions from their younger players. The Ravens have always been fortunate to have veterans play above their age in this league. While it’s not expected that all become Pro-Bowl caliber players, the Ravens current crop of veteran leadership may not be capable of carrying this team, as their processors once did. You need not look any further than last season for proof of that.

3 The Division:

downloadOne of the biggest reasons the Ravens have experienced so much success during the Harbaugh / Flacco era is because of how the team has done versus its own division, the tough AFC North. Since 2008, the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers have combined to post an amazing 171-116-1 record. The North has been arguably the best division in football during this span. Winning nearly 60 percent of their games, the three teams have combined for 12 playoff appearances, while the Ravens & Steelers have appeared in five AFC Championship games and three Super Bowls, with each team winning one. The Steelers lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas. The Bengals do not have any post season wins during this time but Baltimore & Pittsburgh combined to post a 14-6 mark in January and February.

Harbaugh’s teams have been able to win twice as many games against the division as they have lost (24-12). The team was just 18-18 vs the division prior to his arrival. Baltimore is 13-11 against the Steelers and Bengals since Harbs took over in 2008.

With that said and according to my calculations, it’s likely the Ravens will need to sweep one of their three divisional foes in order to make the playoffs—and even 4-2 may not be good enough to win the division. The Bengals managed to win the division last year by posting a 3-3 record but that’s the exception and certainly not the rule. Since 2007, the average number of division wins recorded by the division champ has been five. On three occasions, the division winner went undefeated within the rugged AFC North (Baltimore 2011, Cincinnati 2009, & Steelers 2008).

The Ravens will need to continue taking advantage of the Cleveland Browns. Under Harbaugh, the team is 11-1 vs the Brownies but Cleveland does appear poised to be better than their four-win record last year; even at just four wins, one of those was still over the Ravens, the first time that had happened since 2007, a year before Flacco and Harbaugh arrived.

Schedule:

AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: San Diego, at Miami
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.1% (28th)

Speaking of winning within the division, the Ravens will have an opportunity to establish what type of team they want to be very early. Baltimore will start with three straight AFC North games before hosting Carolina.

New OC Gary Kubiak will need to have his offense ready to play, as three of the first four teams the Ravens face all finished in the top 10 in defense last season. The other team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, finished No.13 in team defense in 2013 and figures to be much improved in 2014. Starting less than 2-1 in the division would put the purple and black behind the eight ball early.

That may sound like a tough start but even with the fourth easiest schedule; nothing is ever as it seems in the NFL. As they usually do in October, the Ravens will take to the road. Baltimore will play four of five games away from M&T Bank Stadium where they are 39-9 under Harbaugh. It begins with an Oct. 5 trip to AFC South favorite Indianapolis, where the Ravens are 0-5. After a road game in Tampa Bay and a home contest against Atlanta, the Ravens play consecutive road games at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

If the Ravens can survive that stretch— and outside of a trip to New Orleans Thanksgiving week– they have a favorable homestretch. Their final seven opponents combined for a 45-67 record (.401) in 2013. Baltimore should finish strong over the final month, as they face the Dolphins, Jaguars, Texans, and Browns in the final four weeks of the season. Harbaugh’s teams are 34-18 in November & December, so he knows how to prepare his teams for a stretch run.

Prediction:

Not so Fast Joe

Not so Fast Joe

Missing the playoffs was a huge underachievement for the 2013 Ravens. However, if the team returns to the playoffs in 2014, then Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and company will have completed one of the quickest rebuilding-retooling efforts in the last 10 to 15 years. Lost in the expectations of last year’s transition was replacing nine contributing players (seven starters) from the Super Bowl winning team. The two biggest issues were on defense and at wide receiver.

Newsome has spent two drafts taking care of the defense. The Ravens selected eight defensive players with their first nine picks combined in each of the last two drafts. Players such as CJ Mosley, Matt Elam and Timmy Jernigan were drafted to help rebuild the toughness, regain the quickness and recapture the middle of the field—all areas the Ravens dominated or at least controlled during their top ranked defensive days. At WR, the Ravens signed veteran wideout Steve Smith to take over the Anquan Boldin role, re-signed Jacoby Jones, and added TE Owen Daniels from Kubiak’s old team in Houston. They also kept seven WR’s on the final 53 man roster.

John Harbaugh said he wants the defense to be a top 5 unit in 2014—that might be a bit too much to ask but it may not matter if the offense can finally do their part on a consistent basis. Joe Flacco simply must be better than he was last year and the Ravens rushing attack must be the engine that makes the offense go. Flacco is the guy that drives the engine but he must work within the system. If he does, I see Flacco passing for 4,100 yards with 25 TD’s. Despite sitting for the first two games, RB Ray Rice should hit 1,200 all-purpose yards. Anything less than that in 2014 and the Ravens are no better than 8-8 and then the pressure really starts to mount in the charm city.

There will be growing pains on offense with a new system and on defense, where the Ravens have a lot of youth and inexperience at critical areas. They could lose a game or two to start the season that many feel they should have won but it won’t be too late to figure it out once Halloween is has passed. Given the potential for an easy strength of schedule to finish the year, the Ravens should win nine games but I’ll say they win a game late many didn’t expect them to win (New Orleans). I look for a return trip to the playoffs and one more victory on the Harbaugh / Flacco playoff resume.

Final Record: 10-6

Second in AFC North (first Wild Card Team)

Ravens Receive Four Compensatory Picks

March 24, 2014 in News, NFL Draft

The Baltimore Ravens have received four compensatory draft picks today for losses sustained in free agency last year.

These four picks come in the third (No. 99 overall), fourth (Nos. 134 and 138) and fifth round (No. 175). The maximum number of compensatory picks that a team can receive is four. The addition of these four picks––which can't be traded––push the Ravens total pick count in the upcoming draft to eight.

Joe Flacco

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Ever since the NFL has implemented the compensatory pick system in 1994––two years before the Ravens were established in 1996––the Ravens have led the league in total compensatory picks awarded with 41. The next closest are the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys who each have received 33.

General manager Ozzie Newsome loves compensatory picks as they are "free" draft picks. This shows in the numbers above.

Teams are awarded compensatory picks for losing more or better free agents than they signed during the free agent period. Players cut by teams don't count in this equation and there is a cut-off date for signings to have an impact on the compensatory draft pick formula.

Last offseason the Ravens lost outside linebacker Paul Kruger (Cleveland Browns), inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (Miami Dolphins), safety Ed Reed (Houston Texans) and cornerback Cary Williams (Philadelphia Eagles) in free agency.

According to the formula, the Ravens signed zero free agents that effected compensatory picks. The outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, safety Michael Huff and defensive end Marcus Spears were all cut by their prior teams. Inside linebacker Daryl Smith was signed after the deadline for signings to impact compensatory picks.

It comes as no surprise that the Ravens received four compensatory draft picks as this was expected. The actual picks that the Ravens received represented the best case scenario for the team as it was thought they would receive two fourths, one fifth and one sixth by many people––including me.

Ravens Trade For Jeremy Zuttah

March 23, 2014 in News

The Baltimore Ravens have traded a 2015 mid-round draft pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for center Jeremy Zuttah.

The Ravens have signed him to a new, long-term contract that reduces his cap hit for this season from what it was on his old contract. At this point in time, terms of the contract are unknown.

Just 27-years old (28 at the start of the season), he had two years left on a four-year contract worth $16.5 million that he signed with the Buccaneers back in 2012. He was owed $4.5 million this season and $4.25 million next season.

Jeremy Zuttah

Courtesy of ICON SMI

This past season, he started all 16 games for Tampa Bay with 15 of these starts coming at center. (The other start was at left guard.) According to Pro Football Focus, he graded as the 22nd best center in the league (out of 35). If his performance at left guard is taken into account, then he would have been the tied for the 19th best center.

Drafted by the Buccaneers in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft out of Rutgers, he spent his entire career in Tampa Bay before this trade.

As a rookie in 2008, he started five games (right and left guard). In 2009 he started all 16 games at left guard. The next season (2010) saw him lose his starting job, but earn a new starting job at center partway through the season as he started nine games (eight at center and one at right guard). In 2011 he moved back to left guard for 13 starts and one start at center. In 2012 he split his 16 starts between center (seven) and left guard (nine).

His best season came in 2008 as a rookie according to Pro Football Focus, but that was as a limited starter. His best season as a full-time starter was in 2011 where he graded as the 26th best left guard in the league (out of 78).

Playing his college football at Rutgers, he blocked for current Ravens' starting running back Ray Rice. Growing up in Edison, N.J., he grew up about 10 miles away from the Ravens' starting left tackle Eugene Monroe who is from Plainfield, N.J. It is reported that Monroe and Zuttah are friends––which would make sense.

The exact draft pick compensation is unknown at this time, but it is expected to be a 2015 mid-round pick. This makes it the fourth trade that the Ravens have completed in the past year dealing with their offensive line. They have traded for Monroe and A.Q. Shipley while trading away Bryant McKinnie. All of these trades have involved draft picks:  fourth and fifth-round picks for Monroe, a seventh-round pick for Shipley and a seventh round pick in return for McKinnie.

For the Ravens, he is expected to play center. Last year's starter Gino Gradkowski graded as the worst center in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. It was obvious that the Ravens needed to upgrade this position and it looks like they have found their upgrade with Zuttah.

Assuming that Zuttah's brand new contract isn't worth too much––about $3 million per year sounds right––and assuming the 2015 draft pick is a mid-round pick––the fourth and fifth rounds are usually considered this––then this is a good trade for the Ravens. While it sounds like there are a lot of conditions for this to be a good trade for the Ravens, when you consider that his contract is being lowered from just over $4 million per year and the pick is already being called a mid-round pick, then it doesn't look like that.

Overall the Ravens upgraded at center, where an upgrade was severely needed. Zuttah should come in and give the Ravens solid play. He won't be anything special, but he should solidify the center position.

Ravens Sign Darian Stewart

March 21, 2014 in Free Agency, News

Today the Baltimore Ravens announced that they have signed safety Darian Stewart, formerly of the St. Louis Rams, to a one-year contract.

At this point in time the monetary value of the contract is unknown, but it is likely that the contract isn't for much money. The deal is pending a physical which will occur on Sunday.

Darian Stewart

Courtesy of ICON SMI

This past season the 25-year old started six games for the St. Louis Rams at strong safety and recorded 36 tackles, one forced fumble and five passes defended.

After going undrafted in the 2010 NFL Draft, the Rams signed him as an undrafted free agent out of the University of South Carolina.

By 2011 he was a 13-game starter for St. Louis and he recorded 84 tackles, three sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles, 11 passes defended and he scored one touchdown.

In 2012 he was a backup again like 2010 and only had 10 tackles in 12 games. This past season he regained some of the playing time that he had lost.

According to Pro Football Focus, he was the 41st best safety in the league last season (out of 86). When he was a full-time starter in 2011 he graded as the 83rd best safety out of 87. That season he really struggled un run support.

On special teams, he is an average contributor and will likely see time there this season for the Ravens.

When he was signed by the Rams as an undrafted free agent, the Rams' head coach was Steve Spagnuolo. After spending last season as a Senior Defensive Assistant, Spagnuolo is now the Ravens' secondary coach. This likely precipitated the move to sign Stewart as Spagnuolo knows him well and clearly likes him.

This offseason the Ravens are looking for a rangy free safety to play next to last year's first-round pick Matt Elam. Stewart doesn't fit that mold as he is more of a strong safety and is a better fit as a backup. However, this is a good depth signing as the Ravens needed some depth at safety.

Ebron To Visit Ravens

March 19, 2014 in News, NFL Draft

University of North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron is scheduled to visit the Baltimore Ravens next month.

While speaking with Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk on PFT Live, Ebron mentioned that he would be visiting the Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions and the Carolina Panthers next month.

Eric Ebron

Courtesy of ICON SMI

The Ravens have already met with the 6-foot-4, 250 pound tight end at the scouting combine. This planned visit with the Ravens will be one of 30 official visits that NFL teams are allowed to have with draft prospects prior to the draft. Teams can also meet with players at the combine, the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine Bowl. All three of these events have already happened so it is down to just official visits now.

Back in January, I slotted him to the Ravens in my mock draft. The number one tight end prospect in this year's draft, he has been compared to Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers. This comparison comes because both Ebron and Davis are physical specimens at the tight end position and have great speed.

After a good sophomore season with 40 catches for 625 yards, Ebron had a breakout season this year for the Tar Heels. He recorded 65 catches for 973 yards and four touchdowns. His best game came against the University of Miami (FL) when he had eight catches for a career-high 199 yards. In his bowl game––the Belk Bowl vs the University of Cincinnati––he impressed with seven catches for 78 yards.

His size creates major mismatches for defenses as he is too big to be covered by a defensive back, yet to fast for a linebacker. This athletic ability is what sets him apart from other tight ends in the draft. Players like this have become more and more popular in the NFL today. He has shown the ability to run a variety of routes including the popular seam route for tight ends. His blocking needs work––like almost all college tight ends––but he has potential and would be a decent blocker from the outset.

Currently, the Ravens have only one tight end under contract, Dennis Pitta––who was re-signed to a five-year contract this offseason. Pitta is a good, dependable tight end who works the middle of the field, but Ebron would add a different element to the Ravens' passing attack.

New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak loves to utilize two-tight end sets so Ebron would be on the field often for the Ravens despite being second on the depth chart.

Ebron would be a good fit for the Ravens' offense and quarterback Joe Flacco would certainly appreciate having Ebron to throw to.

If Ebron is on the board when the Ravens pick with the 17th overall selection in the first round, expect him to receive heavy consideration.

Ravens Sign Steve Smith

March 14, 2014 in Free Agency, News

Today, the Baltimore Ravens announced that they have signed veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, formerly of the Carolina Panthers, to a three-year contract.

This three-year contract is worth a total of $11.5 million. This makes the average value per year of the contract $3.83 million. There was a signing bonus of $3.5 million. The total guaranteed money is currently unknown. When all of the contract information is available, a contract breakdown will be posted.

Since being drafted by the Panthers in the third round of the 2001 NFL Draft, the 34-year old had spent his entire NFL career there (13 seasons).

Steve Smith

Courtesy of ICON SMI

His best season came in 2005 where he caught 103 passes for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns. All of these are career-highs.

During his time in Carolina, he was a five-time Pro Bowl selection (2001, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2011) and a three-time All-Pro (2001 and 2005 first-team and 2008 second-team).

Last season he caught 64 passes for 745 yards and four touchdowns while playing in 15 games. As their number one receiver, he helped lead the Panthers to the playoffs number two seed in the NFC. They would lose in the Divisional Round to the San Francisco 49ers.

Back in the 2003 season, he helped lead the Panther to Super Bowl XXXVIII against the New England Patriots. The Panthers lost 32-29 in a thrilling game where he caught four passes for 80 yards and one touchdown.

An expressive player, he is known for being outspoken on and off the field. Last season, he and former Patriots––now Broncos––cornerback Aqib Talib got into it during a game. Tailb later left the game due to an injury. In a post game interview, a reporter asked Smith if he had anything to say to Talib. In response, Smith gave one of the best one-linners in history: "Ice up son."

Released by the Panthers a few days ago due to salary cap reasons––a high cap hit and old age never bode well for players––he will get to face the Panthers this season as the Ravens will host them this season.

He is the only free agent that the Ravens have signed so far that isn't one of their own. The Ravens tend to not be very active in free agency as they build through the draft. Since he was released, he won't count against the Ravens' compensatory picks in the 2015 NFL Draft. Currently, the Ravens would be getting three––the maximum is four––due to the losses of Arthur Jones, Corey Graham and Michael Oher.

With the addition of Smith, the Ravens top four wide receivers (in no particular order) are now him, Torrey Smith, Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones. This is an improvement from last season and gives the team flexibility heading into the draft. Torrey Smith and Brown are young and Jones is experience, but a true veteran presence was lacking last season without Anquan Boldin. Steve Smith can fill that void.

Overall, this is a good signing for the Ravens. They got a veteran receiver for quarterback Joe Flacco at a reasonable price. At the end of the day, the Ravens' receiving corps is improved.

Ravens Re-Sign Daryl Smith

March 14, 2014 in Free Agency, News

The Baltimore Ravens continue to keep their own players in free agency by re-signing inside linebacker Daryl Smith.

It is a four-year deal worth a total of $16.1 million. The guaranteed money and signing bonus are currently unknown. Once all the contract information is known, I will post a contract breakdown as always.

Last year was the only season that he had played with the Ravens during his career. Late in free agency, the Ravens signed him to a one-year deal worth just over $1 million.

Daryl Smith

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Prior to playing for the Ravens, he spent his entire career with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Drafted by them in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft, he spent nine seasons in Jacksonville starting a total of 124 games.

His best statistical season with the Jaguars came in 2011. He recorded 107 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception.

The reason the Ravens were able to get him so cheap last offseason was because he only played two games the year before. A nagging groin injury limited him to just two games all season. This injury––combined with his age, now 32––scared some teams away.

This signing turned out to be a steal for the Ravens. He stepped into the starting lineup right away and filled the void left by the legendary Ray Lewis who had just retied.

For the season, he had 123 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles, three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and 18 passes defensed. Of these, his tackles, sacks, interceptions and passes defensed were all career highs. His interception return for a touchdown was his first touchdown of his career. This occurred in week three at home against the Houston Texans.

In the Ravens' aggressive 3-4 defense, he excelled at blitzing. At least twice a game he would blitz through the "A" gap––between the guard and center. He also was great in pass coverage last season.

According to Pro Football Focus, he graded as the 16th best inside linebacker in the league out of 55. He had the fifth highest pass coverage grade and the third highest pass rushing grade. However, his run defense grade was the sixth worst in the league.

Last season, he provided key leadership and production at the inside linebacker position. Statistically he had a career year and even set a Ravens' franchise record for most passes defensed by a linebacker in one season. His performance last season earned him this new contract which pays him just over $4 million per season. This average value per year is reasonable for a player of his caliber at his position. It will be interesting to see how much guaranteed money that he received.

For Smith, this is a fair contract and a very impressive birthday present. He turned 32 today and I can't think of a better present than a new contract worth $16.1 million.

Overall, this is another solid signing for the Ravens this offseason. All they have done is re-sign their own players so far, but they have kept their most important free agents so far––something their couldn't do last offseason.

Ravens Re-Sign Monroe

March 11, 2014 in Free Agency, News

With free agency starting up today, the Baltimore Ravens made a move to keep one of their own players, left tackle Eugene Monroe.

It is a five-year deal worth a total of $37.5 million with $19 million guaranteed and a signing bonus of $11 million. This is an average of $7.5 million per season. When all contract details are known, I will post a contract breakdown.

He came over to the Ravens in a mid-season trade from the Jacksonville Jaguars this past season. The Ravens gave up a fourth and a fifth round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.

Eugene Monroe

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Once he came over in this trade, he helped stabilize the Ravens' offensive line which suffered through a bad season. Protecting quarterback Joe Flacco's blindside, Monroe gave up just five sacks this season.

According to Pro Football Focus, he was the 12th best offensive tackle (10th best left tackle) in the NFL this past season. In 2012 he graded as the 15th best offensive tackle (10th best left tackle).

Re-signing him was the Ravens' number one goal heading into free agency over the last few days. They had already re-signed tight end Dennis Pitta to a five-year deal earlier this month.

Keeping Monroe is a very important to the Ravens' offense. Since Hall-of-Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden retired after the 2007 season, the Ravens have struggled to find a replacement for him. Monroe is the best left tackle to play for Baltimore since Ogden, so it was important for the Ravens to retain Monroe.

A few days ago, it looked like he wasn't going to re-sign with the team. They were reported to be too far apart in contract negotiations and the Ravens let the franchise tag deadline pass without placing their tag on him. However, over the last day or so, other teams needing a left tackle keyed in on other targets leaving him for the Ravens.

Overall this is a good deal for the Ravens. They needed to keep Monroe as their offensive line was a mess last season and he was a bright spot. Getting him for $7.5 million over five years is a plus for the Ravens as well. He is one of the better left tackles in the league and they re-signed him to an affordable deal.

Ravens Re-Sign Pitta

March 1, 2014 in Free Agency, News

Yesterday, the Baltimore Ravens announced that they had re-signed tight end Dennis Pitta.

An impending free agent, he has signed to a five-year deal worth $32 million with $16 million guaranteed. This pays him as a top-10 tight end, which he is. At this point in time. all the other specific details of the contract––signing bonus, yearly cap hits, etc.––are unavailable, but when they are, I will post a contract breakdown. Expect his cap hit this season to be between $3-4 million. Cap hits in the first year of contracts are usually much lower than the average per year value of the contact, which in the case is $6.4 million.

Drafted by the Ravens in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft, the 28-year old (29 at the start of the season) has quickly developed into quarterback Joe Flacco's favorite target.

Off the field, the two are best friends and on the field, this relationship carries over. Flacco's favorite receiver to look for is Pitta. This is one of the reasons why Flacco struggled this last season as Pitta missed the first 12 games with a hip injury.

Dennis Pitta

Courtesy of ICON SMI

Early in training camp, Pitta landed badly on his hip after making a leaping catch. In doing so, he dislocated and fractured his hip. At the time, it was thought that he would be out for the season. However, just before the season began, the Ravens placed him on injured reserve with a designation to return. This allowed to to return later in the season and he didn't have to take up a roster spot while recovering.

When he finally returned in week 14, he had an instant impact catching six passes for 48 yards and one touchdown in a 29-26 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

He finished the season with 20 catches for 169 yards and one touchdown.

His best season came the year before when the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII. For the season, the sure-handed Pitta had 61 catches for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. In the postseason, he added another 14 catches for 163 yards and three touchdowns, including four catches for 26 yards and one touchdown in the Super Bowl.

Not run blocker by any means, he is a pure pass-catching tight end––something that has become more and more common over the recent years. He spends a lot of his time lined up in the slot a receiver to create mismatches over the middle of the field. This led to speculation that he could have been ruled a wide receiver if the Ravens placed the franchise tag on him. Thanks to this new deal though, that won't be necessary.

New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak loves to utilize tight ends and two tight end sets in his offense. While he has remade his offense to better fit the Ravens, expect Pitta to be a key component of this offense.

Currently, Pitta is the only tight end under contract with the Ravens right now, so more work is needed at this position. However, the main goal was to re-sign him and that has been accomplished.

It may look like he is overpaid a bit, but consider two things: he is Flacco's favorite target and tight ends are becoming more important to offenses every year. Even at $6.4 million per year, Pitta is only in the top-10 for tight ends in terms of average value of the contract. He is certainly a top-10 tight end the NFL and is worth more to the Ravens than any other team.

Entering this offseason, the Ravens had two priorities. One was to re-sign Pitta and the other was to re-sign left tackle Eugene Monroe. Now that Pitta has been re-signed, the Ravens can shift their focus to Monroe. If a deal can't be reached with him, then a possibility is to use the franchise tag on him. The deadline for this is Monday and it would cost the Ravens $11.7 million this season.

McClain and Leach Released

February 27, 2014 in Free Agency, News

Earlier today, the Baltimore Ravens announced that they had released inside linebacker Jameel McClain and fullback Vonta Leach.

Neither of these two moves comes as a real surprise as both of them had decently high salary cap numbers this season and these numbers were higher than their production warranted. When I predicted potential cap casualties for the team, both of them showed up on the list.

Cutting McClain will save the Ravens $3.2 million in cap room and the release of Leach saves $1.75 million. Combined, this saves the Ravens $4.95 million in cap room this season.

McClain has played his entire professional career in Baltimore after being signed as an undrafted free agent following the 2008 NFL Draft. Over the

Jameel McClain

Courtesy of ICON SMI

last four seasons, he was a starter.

His best season came in 2011 when he recorded 84 tackles, one sack and his only career interception. That offseason, he was signed to a three-year deal as a free agent.

Late in the 2012 season, he suffered a serious neck injury that initially put his playing career in question. However, he recovered and only missed six games this season.

When he returned this season, he started all 10 games and recorded 52 tackles and one forced fumble.

According to Pro Football Focus, he was the 34th best inside linebacker this season (out of 55). His main struggles came in run defense.

Arthur Brown, a second-round pick last year, and Josh Bynes, an exclusive rights free agent (which basically guarantees he will be back with the Ravens) will likely compete for McClain's starting spot. Daryl Smith––the other starting inside linebacker last season––is a free agent so what happens with him will determine whether Brown and Bynes will compete for one spot or be the two starters.

There is a chance that McClain could return to Baltimore on a cheaper deal, but it is likely that he tests the open market first.

Both players had just one year left on their contract and were on the Ravens' Super Bowl winning team in 2012 season.

Leach was signed as a free agent before the 2011 season and helped pave the way for running back Ray Rice and others over the last three seasons. Last offseason, he was released and then later re-signed to a two-year contract that he was currently on.

This season, his playing time was reduced––230 snaps compared to 579 the year prior––due to changes in the Ravens' offense. As a whole, the team struggled to run the ball and this led to more passing. Being a road-grading fullback, this left him out of the offense.

In the 2013 NFL Draft, the team acquired his replacement in the fourth round. Kyle Juszczyk was selected to take over for Leach. This led to Leach's initial release, but he was brought back when Juszczyk failed to impress in mini camp.

Now that Leach is gone, Juszczyk will take over the starting job at fullback. He is less of a run blocker and more of a versatile H-back. This means that he can move around between tight end and fullback. At Harvard, he played often in the slot as a tight end. This versatility should help the Ravens' offense be more explosive this season under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

Overall, these two moves made sense for the Ravens as they freed up $4.95 million in cap space by releasing two players who overpaid.