By John Doylemason
This article is part of our 2013 Fantasy Team Preview series in which we are profiling every NFL team leading up to the season, click here for the complete list of published previews. Also, check out our staff rankings for see how we value each player.
First, let me preface that I jumped on the band wagon when the Ravens won their first Superbowl in 2000. I am a diehard Ravens fan. I fully admit I am band wagoner, but believe me the next 12 years had a lot of heart breaking moments.
Last summer, I traveled to EDC in Las Vegas and in the fog of revelry I traveled to the Bellagio Sportsbook and slapped down $20 for Baltimore to win the AFC and another $20 for Baltimore to win the Superbowl. The roster was setup to win that season and the team did not disappoint. At 12:1 and 14:1, I did fairly well and added a feather to my cap. Although my expectations are tempered by the reality of major roster turnover in 2013, in Ozzie I trust. The defense is scary good on paper, and the offense did not lose much if you look at the math. Things are as bright as ever for the Ravens and their fantasy owners.
Added: FS Michael Huff, DT Marcus Spears, OLB Elvis Dumervil, DE Chris Canty, QB Caleb Hanie, ILB Daryl Smith, C A.Q. Shipley
Drafted: S Matt Elam, ILB Arthur Brown, OLB John Simon, DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, CB Marc Anthony, FB Kyle Juszczyk, G Ricky Wagner, C Ryan Jensen, WR Aaron Mellette, NT Brandon Williams
Lost: MLB Ray Lewis, C Matt Birk, SS Bernard Pollard, FS Ed Reed, CB Cary Williams, MLB Dannell Ellerbe , NT Ma’ake Kemoeatu, OLB Paul Kruger, DT Ryan McBean, WR Anquan Boldin, G Bobbie Williams, LB Brendon Ayanbadejo, FB Vonta Leach, OLB Michael McAdoo
After winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens were shredded through free agency and cap purges, especially on the defensive side of the ball, including 10 starters. The secondary and linebacker corps have undergone a total facelift, each only one starting remaining from that Super Bowl team. Last season, the Ravens did not perform like a their perennial top-10 defense until far later in the season in large part due to injuries and their run defense faltering. That was addressed with 3 additions; Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, and rookie Brandon Williams. The secondary has Pro-Bowl CB Lardarius Webb returning, two hyper athletic and fast safeties in rookie SS Matt Elam and FS Michael Huff. Terrell Suggs should be fully healthy and is now paired with equally imposing Dumervil to rush QBs. The ILBs have Jameel McClain returning and rookie Arthur Brown stepping in unless veteran Daryl Smith makes waves in camp. If Webb, Ngata, Suggs, and McClain can return to form from injury this defense has scary good potential.
Offensively the loss of C Matt Birk and WR Anquan Boldin are very big. Pro-Bowler Birk leaves a major hole that 4th round 2012 draft pick Gino Gradkowski should help plug. WR Torrey Smith will be able to take over the WR1 position and the WR2 role will likely fall to Jacoby Jones and partially to Tandon Doss. Losing FB Vonta Leach was painful emotionally but the cap numbers did not work out. He’ll be replaced with pass catching 4th round H-Back Kyle Juszczyk.
One Up: Ravens Defense – Once a fantasy bastion, the defense fell sharply last season and ended the regular season ranked 17th overall. Nearly every statistic was down from years prior as a swath of injuries slowed the unit. Nearly every marquee player was injured or returning from injury and it was evident between the 20’s. One bright spot was that the Ravens were tied for 7th in the league in TDs allowed and 12th in points allowing 21 ppg. The defense only had 37 sacks (T-15th), 13 INTs (19th), and 12 fumble recoveries (T-8th), numbers I believe all should rise in 2013.
A healthy Suggs and Ngata paired with prized free agent Elvis Dumervil; sign me up. The depth on the defensive line is very good and in pure pass rush situations (sacks averaged over their last three seasons) it will likely be Canty (2.5) and Ngata (5) paired with Suggs (9) and Dumervil (12.5) on the ends. That’s 29 sacks on paper right there. Any boost in the sack production should equate to a boon in the interceptions category so I’m buying the Ravens defense for 2013.
One Down: Ray Rice, RB – It is hard to see a player that had any level of value deteriorate with so many holes left to fill throughout the roster. However, Ray Rice‘s value is going down because Bernard Pierce is right on his heels and the Ravens lost Pro-Bowl FB Vonta Leach. The diminutive pass-catching back will see a decrease in run attempts but likely an increase in pass attempts to fill in for Anquan Boldin as the offense spreads out. If Joe Flacco and his young receiving corps gels quickly then the split ground game will be lessened and if he cannot, Rice still has to worry about Pierce outperforming him (as he did in his 108 rushing attempts in 2012). Harbaugh will have no qualms benching Rice if Pierce is the hot hand. I expect him to still have a solid season, but a lot of that will come in the passing game as he loses touches to Pierce in the rushing attack. Our staff rankings still have Rice 6th at RB.
1) Ray Rice has a lot of miles on his tires and has a quality backup pushing him for carries. Will he still be a fantasy stud or will we see a sharp decline?
Rice will surely see a decline in his rushing attempts as he has the past three seasons. This is not to say he won’t be a force in fantasy but his potential is somewhat capped. With new Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell taking over with only three games left in the regular season, Rice only saw 12 carries in a blowout loss to the Broncos but was used heavily in a decisive Week 16 win over the Giants. In the playoffs Rice had 84 carries (21 per game) to Pierce’s 39 for a near 2:1 ratio. That trend will likely continue. Rice is far too talented and explosive to be taken off the field unless the situation commands it (short yardage and goal-line work). Having Pierce spell Rice will keep #27 fresh so he can be explosive all game.
Early predictions have Flacco’s passing more than the current 55% of the time. Although Caldwell enjoys a vertical pass game, he never deviated from the run game, even in the Peyton years. He nearly maintained a 50/50 run/pass split throughout the playoffs. With the Ravens having arguably the best backfield in the league and a lot of question marks in the passing game, I don’t believe Caldwell will deviate much from last year’s 55/45 split. However, reports out of Baltimore suggest that Ray Rice remains entrenched as the feature back. The backfield will be utilized heavily, and Pierce will be involved but Rice will still get his touches.
With the rise of powerful slasher RB Bernard Pierce, Rice’s attempts will fall from 257 to somewhere around 220. He’ll be rotated out in short yardage situations and very well could lose goal-line carries to Pierce as well. At 6’0” 218, Pierce can push the pile better and breaks an insane percentage of tackles. On 115 touches Pierce forced 25 missed tackles (nearly 22%). Pierce also averaged 3.58 yards after contact which was 3rd most in the NFL. Those kind of numbers demand touches.
The declines in rushing attempts for Rice should be partially offset by an increase in receptions. Averaging just under 70 receptions a year the past 4 seasons (61 last season), Rice will see an uptick in catches as the offense spreads out. I predict around 20-30 more receptions to have him top out between 80-90. He has averaged 8.7 yards per reception and 4.6 yards per carry the last 4 seasons so in theory (220 attempts, 85 receptions) we’re looking at 1000 yards on the ground and about 750 in the air. That kind of production still has Top 5 rankings all over it. His decline in goal-lines will hurt his stock but he averaged 8 TDs on the ground the last 4 years so that number won’t likely go too far down when his volume of attempts is factored in. He has averaged 1.5 TDs in the air the last 4 seasons and that will likely bump up to 2-3 TDs in 2013 so the output should balance out.
The 2000+ yards from scrimmage seasons (as in 2009 and 2011) are over for Rice as long as Pierce is in the mix. Even if the offense is firing on all cylinders there is a hungry mouth that deserves carries behind him. 1700-1800 yards from scrimmage and 8-10 TDs in total seems about right. I’d still draft him high. His ability to dominate games statistically is huge and although he’ll cede carries to Pierce, he will remain fresh, culminating in consistent production throughout each game and the full season. Ray Rice is currently ranked 6th in our staff rankings, while Bernard Pierce comes in at 41st.
2) Torrey Smith has elite WR potential. Is he ever going to deliver?
In his two pro seasons, Torrey Smith has averaged 848 yards with 7.5 TDs mostly as the deep threat in the Ravens offense. He clearly has the ability, size, or scheme to have him produce at a top 10 level, but the Ravens usage and his consistency needs to be significantly altered from last season.
Torrey is a burner with solid hands. He lacks ideal size at 6’0” 200 lbs but he makes up for it by taking the top off defenses regularly. Isn’t that right Bronco fans? Smith was 4th in 2012 in yards per catch with an average of 17.4 yards per catch. Not all of these receptions are deep bombs. Smith has a capable route tree and is used frequently on crosses, digs, and out routes to gain chunk yardage. He has been working furiously in the off-season to develop his route running to shoulder the WR1 load but Caldwell won’t change what is working. Flacco throws a great deep ball. Flacco threw the ball 20+ yards 17.3% of the time and tallied 11 TDs to 0 INTs. That kind of production is right up Smith’s alley.
The WR2 role is currently Jacoby Jones’ to lose. Although he’ll likely be the featured #2, he’ll be flexed in certain situations so he can remain fresh for kick and punt returns (he is a special team Pro-Bowler after all). Tandon Doss has shrugged off injuries and battled against the depth chart but has impressed many with his route running and fearlessness over the middle. He is a faster than Boldin and could push for time in certain WR combinations. Although an ankle injury late in 2012 kept him on the side, the Ravens depth chart was the main issue for Doss.
Deonte Thompson is another preseason wonder turned depth chart casualty. He has incredible hands and can catch all of Flacco’s bullets while working the slot. Like Doss, he is fearless over the middle but lacks ideal size. He runs routes well but does not pop on film.
David Reed could make moves up the WR corps. He has wowed the Ravens brass before with his kick return ability. In 2010-11 he averaged 29.3 and 29.7 yards per return with longs of 77 and a 103T against the Texans. He signed a $2 million contract in the offseason so it would appear the coaching staff favors his explosive potential. His injury history is very apparent as he suffered a broken wrist, shoulder sprain, thigh strain, and a knee injury that placed him on Injured Reserve in late 2011 and into the PUP list in 2012. If he can stay healthy he’ll definitely compete for the WR3 spot.
The only certainty we can assume is that Torrey Smith is the WR1. He should see his targets increase greatly from 2012′s 110, so expect career highs in receptions, yardage, and TDs. Because of the depth at WR, he comes in at 27th in our staff rankings, but I expect him to out perform that, and have a great season as Flacco’s go-to wide receiver.
3) With Boldin gone, is the center of the field Pitta’s playground now? Can he build on last year’s flashes of brilliance?
“The white tight end. He’s American Express. He’s everywhere you want to be. Don’t leave home without him.”- Terrell Suggs
Yes, Dennis Pitta will dominate this year, but I want to first address the Anquan Boldin situation. The one glaring offseason departure many saw with the Ravens was his trade to San Francisco for a 6th round pick. I scoffed at the deal myself. He racked up 380 yards on 22 receptions and 4 TDs in the playoff run for heaven’s sake. The chemistry between Flacco and Boldin was the best it had ever been over his 3 year tenure, but once again, it was the cap monster that spelled the demise of another great Raven. Boldin’s regular season was forgettable, however. With 921 yards on 65 receptions and only 4 TDs, he was not worth the $6 million he demanded. He has not surpassed 1000 yards in any season with Baltimore and only averaged 4.66 TDs in those regular seasons. Although his route running and hands were among the league’s best, he could not stretch the field and that is not the direction the Ravens want to go offensively; long ball, mid seams, and pass catching backs. He was essentially playing the role the TEs should be playing and asking for many millions more.
Baltimore mimicked New England by drafting two TEs in the 2010 draft with the idea of running a 21 offense (2 TEs, 1 RB). This formation would provide incredible balance in the run and pass and is a big reason why New England has been so dominant offensively the past few seasons. With Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones stretching secondaries, Pitta and Ed Dickson should have free range against overmatched linebackers and undersized nickel-corners. Then a combination of Rice, Pierce, and new pass catching HB/FB Kyle Juszczyk will be able to slip underneath and gain chunk yardage.
The only issue with this style is the summation of its parts. Flacco only completed 59.7% of his 531 attempts for 317 completions. Last season the lead receivers were Boldin, Pitta, and Rice at 65, 61, and 61 receptions. Under Caldwell the offense may pass a smidge more but as I previously mentioned, I’m not endorsing that fully. Flacco will toss under 600 attempts and in all likelihood probably around 580. That’s about 3 more throws than normal, totaling 36 attempts a game. The Ravens will continue a balanced approach so they can emphasize Flacco’s cannon via play-action. Assuming he has 580 attempts, at 60% completion, he’ll completed 348 passes in 2013. If Rice takes 85 (theory above) and T. Smith takes around 65 (lead WR1, featured), that’s about 200 left for five more mouths to feed including a WR2, two TEs, and two pass catching backs. In other words, temper your expectations.
After recording 61 receptions in 2012 for 669 yards and 7 TDs, things are looking extremely positive for Pitta. The issue for Pitta taking another step forward in 2012, was just usage. He was targeted only 93 times in his breakout 2012, and without Boldin to clog the middle, that number is sure to rise. According to BaltimoreRavens.com writer John Eisenberg:
Joe Flacco looked like the accomplished veteran he has become, very much in command. And there’s no doubt his favorite target is tight end Dennis Pitta. Pitching the ball to Pitta almost seems to be Flacco’s default mode now. The two are best friends off the field and have a keen rapport on it. You can’t manufacture that, but it would be nice to see Flacco develop the same caliber of rapport with another downfield target.
Let’s assume a floor of 70 receptions, and utilize his 11 yards per reception average, he should rack up 770 yards. He averaged a TD every 8.7 receptions in the ’12 regular season. Extrapolating that to his presumed 70 receptions, he should grab about 8 TDs. His value isn’t the best in drafts, going as the 6th TE in the 8th round, but if he finishes with those numbers, that’s a top 5 TE with the upside to be even higher, draft him with confidence, you won’t regret it! He’s currently ranked as the #7 TE in our staff rankings.
The Baltimore Ravens are primed for another great season. Reloaded and retooled, the team will compete in the division and the AFC. Defensively, they are incredibly potent on paper. Offensively, it is Flacco’s year to shine. He has hit or miss streaks and a lack of weapons at the WR corps however. Look for Rice/Pierce, and Dickson/Pitta to fill in for Boldin’s departure. Ray Rice is a top 10 RB, and Pitta can take a run at the top 5 TEs. Torrey Smith has a great opportunity to prove his worth and if his route tree expands in the new scheme and he can become more consistent, he could easily have a top 15 WR season.