The 2014 NFL season was a major bounce back for the Baltimore Ravens. After a miserable running game in 2013 and a career high 22 interceptions by Joe Flacco, Gary Kubiak entered and made an immediate impact, as the Ravens went from the 29th ranked offense (18th best pass, 30th best rush) to the 12th ranked offense (13th best pass, 8th best rush). Now under new Offensive Coordinator Mark Trestman, the Ravens’ offense looks to continue to improve in 2015. With Training Camp underway, let’s take a look at the Ravens offense position by position and examine the biggest positional battles ahead.
Quarterback: Let’s start here because it’s the least interesting position in camp. Joe Flacco will start, and if he goes down to injury the team will be in trouble, even though Matt Schaub is a serviceable back-up. Flacco will be dealing with his 4th offensive coordinator in as many years with Mark Trestman, but other than Jay Cutler’s recent woes, Trestman has helped improve every QB he has been paired with.Forget about the “elite” conversation- Flacco doesn’t care, and neither should Ravens fans. What fans should watch for is to see if Flacco can build on his career year in 2014, in which he posted career highs of 3,986 yards (despite a league leading 472 yards worth of dropped passes), 27 TDs, and a 67.0 QBR. He also recorded his fewest fumbles (2, previous low of 6) and total turnovers (14, previous low 16). Watch for more plays out of the shotgun this year; the Ravens took the fewest snaps out of the shotgun league-wide under Kubiak, while Mark Trestman’s Bears offense had the 5th most shotgun snaps. This should mean good news, as Flacco historically has done well out of the gun.
Center: Jeremy Zuttah will pick up where he left off as the starting Center of this team. The 8th year man from Rutgers was solid in his first year with the Ravens, but on occasion struggled at the point of attack. His struggles were largely masked by the greatness of the offensive guards, who we’ll look at next. Behind him sits Ryan Jensen, who was the Ravens 6th round draft pick in 2016 who has only appeared in one game in his career after missing most of 2014 with a foot injury. Although by no means the best offensive lineman on the team, Zuttah’s health is critical to the Ravens’ success.
Guards: The Ravens are absolutely spoiled when it comes to offensive guard, with Marshall Yanda on the right side and Kelechi Osemele on the left. Many rankings and listings (including Pro Football Focus) laud Yanda as the NFL’s top offensive lineman, especially against the run. His PFF score of +34.2 against the run was nearly twice as high as the second best in the league (San Fran’s Mike Iupati notched an 18.5), and he is an ideal player for Trestman, who like Kubiak, runs a zone-blocking rushing scheme. Osemele is also a highly respected guard, earning third-team honors from PFF and was a key piece in Justin Forsett’s breakout season. This will likely be the last year the Ravens get to enjoy this tandem, as both are set to be Free Agents in 2016, but the future looks bright with John Urschel and Jah Reid waiting in the wings. Reid has been a bit of a disappointment since being taken in the 3rd round of the 2011 draft, and was surpassed by Urschel (who is a math genius and great twitter follow), but the two make for nice depth at the position. It will be interesting to see whether Robert Meyers, the Ravens 5th round pick out of Tennessee State, as well as the group of undrafted free agents can put some pressure on Reid and/or Urschel and jump up the depth chart.
Tackles: Not much competition here, as the Ravens are invested in Eugene Monroe at left tackle (entering year two of a 5 year, $37.5M contract) and last year’s emergence of Rick Wagner as a solid right tackle. The Ravens certainly hope for some improvement from Monroe, who led the offense with 7 penalties despite missing 5 games to injury, but improved health and another year of chemistry with this offensive line should help. Wagner is coming off of a foot injury, but reports indicate he should be ready for opening day. Second year man James Hurst filled in admirably when injuries pressed him into action, and Osemele also has the ability to slide out to tackle if need be (and Urschel can slide in at guard). The offensive line should be one of this team’s strengths in 2015.
Running Backs: Obviously the question here is if Justin Forsett can repeat his magical 2014, where he went from journeyman to Pro-Bowler, averaging a league high 5.4 yards per carry, and totaling 1,266 yards and 8 touchdowns. After cutting ties with Bernard Pierce, Lorenzo Taliaferro looks to be the primary back-up, and he saw success in his limited role last year in averaging 4.3 yards per carry on 68 carries and finding the end zone four times. Rookie Buck Allen from USC and Fitzgerald Toussaint will battle it out for 3rd back, but don’t expect much of an impact from either- Forsett will get the bulk of the touches.
Fullback: Kyle Jusczzyk. Great blocker, good hands, and makes plays on special teams. Be jealous, Peter Gumas.
Wide Receivers: With the departures of fan-favorites Torrey Smith and Super Bowl XLVII hero Jacoby Jones, this group will be the talk of training camp and the pre-season. Despite those losses, this position group is loaded with young talent, and will be led by veteran Steve Smith, who led the team with 1,065 yards in his first year with the team. After Smith, the battle for the #2 and #3 spots are wide open, and there is a long list of candidates fighting for the spots. The primary candidates appear to be first round selection Breshad Perriman (pick #26 out of UCF), third year veterans Marlon Brown and Kamar Aiken, and second year man Michael Campanaro. Perriman appears to be the favorite, as he is billed as a similar player to Torrey Smith in his ability to stretch the field, but the concerns on draft day were that he drops too many passes. This is obviously an area he needs to improve in, but the talk at OTAs was he was catching nearly everything. The battle between Brown and Aiken is what I am most excited about, as both have shown flashes of greatness in the early stages of their careers, and appear to be the front-runners for the 3rd spot. The 6’5 Marlon Brown caught 7 TDs in his rookie season, including a game winning catch in a wild victory against Minnesota, but failed to find the end zone on his 31 targets in 2014. Aiken seemed to surpass Brown in 2014, when after missing his rookie season due to injury, he found the end zone three times on his 32 targets. At 6’2 and 215 lbs, Aiken also has the size to be a solid NFL wide receiver, and I personally expect him to win the spot in a tight race with Brown. Michael Campanaro also showed flashes of success in his rookie season, but suffered some injuries that limited his playing time. Expect Campanaro to factor into the return game though, as someone will have to step up to replace Jacoby Jones. While these fives are the players expected to win the spots, don’t count out the late round picks and UFA’s- word on the street is that 6th round pick Darren Walker is “catching everything” and UFA DeAndre Carter is making some nice plays. This should be fun to watch play out.
Tight Ends: The story here obviously starts with Dennis Pitta, who has already been placed on the PUP list and will miss at least the first 6 games. One of Flacco’s favorite targets, Pitta has been tremendous when healthy in his career, and was a huge part of the offense that Flacco led to the Super Bowl win just two years ago. But with his season, and possibly career in doubt, the Ravens nabbed the highest rated TE in this year’s draft by picking up Maxx Williams from Minnesota. At 6-4, 250, Maxx Williams is nearly an identical physical copy of Pitta, and has great athletic ability that should allow him to make an immediate impact as a rookie. I’m excited to see if Williams can become the next Pitta, and it seems like the Ravens have enough weapons around the offense where he won’t face too much pressure as a rookie and can go out and learn on the fly. The other tight end to watch is Crocket Gillmore, a huge body at 6’6 270, who posted modest numbers receiving last year but showed good blocking ability and came up with a big touchdown that effectively sealed the playoff victory over Pittsburgh.
Overall, the offense looks primed for another good year. A strong offensive line should lead to continued success running the football, which should help Joe Flacco continue to develop and play to his strengths of taking chances down the field with his big time arm. If a few of Flacco’s young pass-catching targets can step up this offense has the potential to be top 10 in the NFL.
Click here for my positional guide to the Ravens defense.