1. So many things went wrong for the Ravens in 2015 that you just chalk it up under the “wasn’t their year” column and move on. This 2016 team has many more similarities to the John Harbaugh clubs that went to the playoffs six out of seven years than it does to the one that just went 5-11.
2. It starts with Joe Flacco, of course. The expectation is that Flacco will be fine coming off last November’s torn ACL. As long as he can remain comfortable throwing from the pocket with bodies around him, and as long as he plays with the discipline that mysteriously cycled in and out of him last season, he’ll be the same strong-armed quarterback we’ve always known. It helps that Flacco plays in an offense suited for his skill set. Coordinator Marc Trestman borrows a lot of concepts from the many Ravens play-callers who have preceded him. But Trestman has also put his own stamp on things, like his downfield switch-releases, where two wide receivers who are running vertical routes crisscross paths. This concept, which distorts a corner and/or safety’s zone coverage responsibilities, demands the type of downfield outside throws that Flacco has always thrived on.
3. Given the nature of Trestman’s system, it’s vital that Breshad Perriman stays healthy. Without the 2015 first-rounder, who missed all of his rookie season with a PCL injury and is planning on playing through a partially torn ACL, the Ravens won’t have the necessary size and speed for their downfield route concepts. Their receiving corps is riddled with questions. Can Steve Smith Sr. bounce back from a torn Achilles? Will Mike Wallace provide anything more than the occasional straight Go route? Can Kamar Aiken separate from man-to-man? The answer on all three of these could very well be “No.”
4. Departed free agent Kelechi Osemele will be missed. The Ravens are a classic outside zone-running team, which means they need proficient on-the-move blockers. Osemele is one of the league’s most imposing players in this regard.
5. The two most important names on this defense are Kamalei Correa and Terrell Suggs. They’re the men who must revive an impotent pass rush that derailed the Ravens’ defense in 2015. Both are mysteries; Correa because he’s a rookie (second-rounder, Boise State), Suggs because he turns 34 in October and is coming off his second Achilles injury in four years. Correa’s and Suggs’s success is in their own hands. One thing Baltimore does well schematically is move its inside linebackers around in ways that compel offenses to block the edge rushers one-on-one.
6. One of those inside linebackers, C.J. Mosley, has a chance to be a premium five-tool player in this defense. The Ravens need Mosley to be more of a week-to-week difference-maker than he was last season. Mosley has excellent read-and-react skills. He’s also usually the designated blitzer in the pressure packages, though he’s capable of covering, too. The question is: Who plays next to him? Since 2013 second-rounder Arthur Brown has not panned out, and since Zach Orr is a solid but career-long backup, the guess here is it will be late free-agent pickup Kavell Conner, a decent athlete who has starting experience from Indianapolis and a little from San Diego.
7. Speaking of San Diego, its best defensive player now resides here. That’d be Eric Weddle. A lot of safeties have had rebirths with new teams late in their careers: John Lynch with the Broncos; Rod Woodson with the Raiders and Ravens; and Charles Woodson with the Packers. Expect Weddle to join this list. For one, he’s only 31. His skills are not eroding. For two, he’s a savant when it comes to pre-snap disguises and play recognition. He’ll be very valuable in a Ravens scheme that makes its free and strong safeties interchangeable.
8. How versatile those safeties will be hinges on how defensive coordinator Dean Pees feels about his cornerbacks. When Pees has corners he trusts, he tends to be more complex and aggressive with his coverage calls and disguises. When he has corners he doesn’t trust, he plays very vanilla. Only time will tell on this year’s cornerback group. Jimmy Smith is capable of contesting bigger No. 1 receivers, but he must curtail some of the lows that detracted from his considerable highs last year. When his technique is sharp, he’s as physical as any corner in the game. Opposite Smith, concerns arise. Shareece Wright is susceptible to big plays and therefore not the answer. Kyle Arrington couldn’t even stay ahead of Wright, a midseason pickup, on the depth chart last year. Lardarius Webb is the obvious answer as the No. 2, but will he see more snaps at safety like he did down the stretch in ’15? And who plays outside when Webb slides to the slot in nickel?
9. The most underrated player in the NFL is nose shade tackle Brandon Williams. He stalemates double-teams, sheds blocks late in the down and can win with quickness off the snap.
10. Extra attention was paid to Timmy Jernigan this offseason. (In large part because he changed his jersey number to 99 in honor of Warren Sapp, only to have Sapp, a man for whom respect has all but vanished, decide to slam him. Whatever.) Here’s the deal with Jernigan: He’s a tremendous athlete, but he was active for 15 games last season, starting eight, and barely showed up on film. If he’s to become a dynamic three-technique like the Ravens hope, he must grow his game. He benefits from playing for an immensely respected D-line coach in Joe Cullen.
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