Gary Kubiak has arrived to juice the offense and push the QB, and old-timer/newcomer Steve Smith looks great early. But Baltimore is aging—and won’t have its load-bearing back for the critical first two games
I made my 2014 entry onto The MMQB RV in Owings Mills, Md., home of the Super Bowl XLVII champions, and ’13 postseason observants, the Baltimore Ravens. It was their first practice of camp, so we encountered the dreaded non-padded practice. We got a break with the weather as we missed the rain and constant cloud cover made it a very comfortable 79 degrees. Loud music blared through the three-hour session, as owner Steve Bisciotti watched much of the practice in his souped-up golf cart, complete with rims on the tires.
One vivid memory from watching practice
Steve Smith, after 13 seasons with the Panthers, looking as if he had played his entire career in Ravens purple. From the swagger with which Smith plays, his nonstop mouth and his propensity for big plays, he’s a perfect fit with this group. Or, as linebacker Terrell Suggs said on Wednesday, “a defensive guy playing offense.” As for his on-field play, I counted four of the standout variety, where he either torched a defender down the sideline (CB Chykie Brown on a 50-yard bomb from Tyrod Taylor), faked a corner out of his shorts after a hitch (Lardarius Webb) or made like Gumby bending for a low pass to keep it off the turf. If Smith is healthy this season, look out.
How this team can go 12–4
Jumping out to at least 4-1 in a tough early part of the schedule (Bengals and Steelers at home, at Cleveland, Smith’s revenge game versus Carolina and at Indianapolis) would be a good start. To do that the Ravens are going to need offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s new scheme to be clicking without RB Ray Rice (two-game suspension) and with a shaky right tackle (Ricky Wagner), and with some big questions in the secondary at safety and nickel corner.
How this team can go 4–12
Aside from Joe Flacco getting injured or Kubiak bringing some of the bad mojo from Houston (his Texans lost their final 14 games last season!) it’s not happening. This team is just way too talented. But if the unthinkable happens and Flacco’s consecutive games started streak (96 since he entered the league) is halted, then 4-12 is possible, because neither Taylor nor sixth-round pick Keith Wenning are capable of winning more than a spot start.
Now, from fantasyland …
1. Owens Daniels does not look like the same type of move tight end he was with the Texans a year removed from a fractured fibula, but he’s still going to get chances in this offense with Steve Smith and Torrey Smith on the outside and Dennis Pitta in the middle. Daniels can catch, which is an upgrade on former No. 2 TE Ed Dickson. So even if Daniels can’t get great separation, he’ll get touches.
2. Look for Marlon Brown, a ’13 college free agent, to build upon his 49-catch rookie campaign and get more opportunities than Jacoby Jones. The Ravens like what they have in Brown.
3. Kyle Juszczyk will have more fantasy value than most fullbacks because of Kubiak’s system and the Ravens’ lack of a decent game-day option at blocking tight end. Juszczyk will line up in a bunch spots, including TE, and increase his chances of touches.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|WR||Steve Smith Sr.||LDE||Haloti Ngata|
|LT||Eugene Monroe||NT||Brandon Williams|
|LG||Kelechi Osemele||RDE||Chris Canty|
|C||Jeremy Zuttah||OLB||Terrell Suggs|
|RG||Marshal Yanda||ILB||C.J. Mosley/Arthur Brown|
|RT||Ricky Wagner/Jah Reid||ILB||Daryl Smith|
|TE||Dennis Pitta||OLB||Courtney Upshaw/Elvis Dumervil|
|WR||Torrey Smith||CB||Lardarius Webb|
|3rd WR||Jacoby Jones/Marlon Brown||CB||Jimmy Smith|
|QB||Joe Flacco||SS||Matt Elam|
|RB||Ray Rice||FS||Darian Stewart/Jeromy Miles|
|FB||Kyle Juszczyk||3rd CB||Chykie Brown/Asa Jackson|
|K||Justin Tucker||P||Sam Koch|
Wagner isn’t anything better than average at this point, but Baltimore should be able to get away with that more in Kubiak’s offense, with all the motion and tight ends, than the previous scheme … Jones will get more looks than Brown initially in camp because he knows the offense from his time with Kubiak and the Texans, but look for Brown to emerge at some point … ILB C.J. Mosley is everything the Ravens hoped for when they drafted him … Free safety is a huge issue, and it’s a long shot that third-round pick Terrence Brooks will be a huge contributor. Safety’s such a tough position for rookies … Wouldn’t be shocked if the Ravens make a deal sometime in camp to land a better third cornerback. In the interim, their best lineup has Webb kicking inside of Smith and Brown ... Keep an eye on DT DeAngelo Tyson, a seventh-round pick in ’12. He made plays all over the field the day we were there. Also did well in off-season practices.
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Best new player in camp
Smith. He doesn’t look 35.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Joe Flacco, who had more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (19) for the first time, will be much better this season—and it doesn’t have much to do with the additions of Smith and Daniels, although that can’t hurt. Flacco, arguably for the first time in his career, is working with a true quarterback guru in Kubiak, and one who will coach him tough. Flacco has had a lot of backslappers among his coordinators and position coaches (Hue Jackson, Jim Zorn, Cam Cameron, Jim Caldwell). His experience with Kubiak will be entirely different. It’s something Flacco needs at this point in his career—he needs to take the next step in his decision-making, and Kubiak can get him there. Kubiak’s offense is also more structured than last year’s system under Caldwell, which gave Flacco too much power at the line of scrimmage. It’s obvious that Flacco is better when he’s uncluttered by the scheme.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
The easy thing to say is that the Ravens are back. And there certainly are some things to like: a much better and healthier offensive line besides the manageable RT spot, the additions of Smith and Daniels as targets, and an impressive group of young defensive linemen. But there are still some big question marks. What if ’13 was no mirage, RB Ray Rice has lost a step and Kubiak’s run-first system can’t find its workhorse? What if Smith is constantly battling injuries, like most players his age? What if Owen Daniels is not effective? What if the Ravens can’t find a viable third cornerback or continue to get poor free safety play? What if the adjustment to Kubiak’s system takes time, and the Ravens falter against a tough early slate? What if Terrell Suggs (32 on Oct. 11) and Elvis Dumervil (30) show their age and the Ravens can’t rush the passer effectively? I came away thinking things could go either way for the Ravens: They could return to being a serious contender, or they could finish around .500 again in a tough division.