In honor of the Ravens’ opening preseason game this evening I’ll be going through the depth chart and giving quick analysis as to where we’ve improved or fallen back from the AFC Championship game last January. After the preseason I’ll have game-by-game predictions for the 2009 season.
QB: Obviously Joe Flacco was the breakout star of the 2008 season. Guiding this team with the poise of a 10 year veteran he became the first rookie to ever win 2 playoff games. Many analysts believe a “sophomore slump” is inevitable for many young players in the league, but I think Flacco will charge forward this year and not miss a beat. You can tell from his interviews with the local media that this kid eat, sleeps, and breathes football. Even with the success he had as a rookie I have no doubt he’s come out and worked just as hard this season as last and will be even more prepared for the rigors of an NFL season.
RB: While some people seem down on our backfield coming into this season I think this could be a surprisingly versatile unit. Willis McGahee has been pushed by second year player Ray Rice and I don’t think McGahee wants to see any more of his carries go to the second year back out of Rutgers. I think these two can work well in tandem, not necessarily splitting touches but by getting Willis 15-20 touches per game and Ray 10-15 touches per game we can constantly play to the strengths of each back and keep their legs fresh for the ends of games and the end of the season. Even though he was obviously getting up there in age it was sad to see Lorenzo Neal cut this spring. La’Ron McClain can be a great FB in this league, but without Neal on the roster he won’t get as many opportunities to run the ball as he did last season.
WR: Injuries. That will most likely be the key to success for this unit in 2009. Many people, including myself, believed we needed to add more prominent receiver in the offseason to take our offense to the next level, but a move was not made and we’re back with the top trio of Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, and Demetrius Williams. Mason is coming off shoulder surgery and while I believe he can be as productive as he was last season, as Flacco’s #1 target, he needs to stay on the field for this passing game to succeed. Since he was drafted I’ve been rooting for Mark Clayton to emerge in the receiver we thought he was coming out of Oklahoma, but he’s yet to reach the next level. Clayton showed signs of brilliance last season only to follow them up with periods when casual viewers wouldn’t have even known he was on the field. The wild card in this group is Williams. The coaches can’t stop raving about this guy and when he’s been on the field he’s made some terrific plays, but he’s only played a combined 16 games the past two seasons. While Mason and Clayton frequently remind fans of one another Williams is a different breed od receiver with an ability to stretch the field that we desperately need. With Flacco progressing as a quarterback and these three on the field for a majority of the season I think we can attain the passing success of last season, but my concern is that last season’s productivity was not enough to take us all the way.
TE: While Todd Heap’s receiving numbers have declined the past few seasons I think his blocking has been a major asset for our young offensive line. Not necessarily the advantage he once was for us I still think Heap is an above average NFL TE.
OL: Hopefully the breakout unit of the offense. Coming off a successful year in ’08 I’m hoping this group can build on that and become one of the more powerful lines in the league. I certainly don’t mean to talk about him on Jon Ogden’s level, but last season there were shockingly few times that we looked at Jared Gaither on the left side of the line and screamed for JO to come out of retirement. At 6’9″, 330 lbs, the guy in an absolute freak. His raw athletic talent was never questioned and after studying under the greatest LT of all time and becoming an NFL starter, virtually as a rookie, his desire for greatness can’t be questioned either. While he’ll most likely never be on the same level of #75 I think we’ve got a young star in the making at LT. That category can also be used for our LG Ben Grubbs. A first round pick out of Auburn this guy has never seemed out of his league. A great run and pass blocker we can only hope he and Gaither develop the type chemistry Ogden and Mulitalo had on the left side of the line. Many people we upset to see Jason Brown go, but for that kind of money I can’t blame Ozzie for wishing him luck and watching him walk. It also doesn’t hurt when you turn right around and bring in a Pro Bowl quality, veteran center to anchor this line. Matt Burk was a great signing and should a great help to Joe Flacco and the rest of the OL. Unfortunately he missed a majority of the season in ’08, but he’s ahead of schedule in his recovery and I can’t wait to see Marhall Yanda at RG. Another young lineman, I never heard comments from anyone who wasn’t impressed with his ability. Our 2009 first round pick, Michael Oher, seems to be destined to start at RT on opening day. Although in a “competition” with Adam Terry for the first part of training camp, Terry went down with a knee injury and Oher has stepped into the starter’s role. I think every Ravens fan is excited to see what this kid can do as the Ravens’ front office couldn’t have been more excited to land him in the draft.
DL: With Kelly Gregg fully recovered, this should be another strong year for these lineman. Is anyone not obsessed with Haloti Ngata? There’s really only one word that comes to mind when you see him on the field: beast. It would be nice to see Trevor Pryce have a comeback year this year after his, in my opinion, disappointing 2008. The run defense will no doubt be stellar, but I’d like to seem more pass pressure from this group in 2009.
LB: Arguably the biggest change to the team in the eyes of many fans will be the departure of Bart Scott and the emergence of Tavares Gooden playing alongside Ray Lewis. I think it’s safe to say, at this point in his career, that Ray will Ray and that pretty much sums it up. I think every Raven fan holds a place in his/her heart for Bart Scott and it was sad to see him go, but his departure provides an opportunity for the Ravens’ next stud linebacker to get on the field. People seem to be raving about Gooden’s speed and I think that will be a valuable asset next to #52 as, hopefully, the pair from the U can build on last season’s dominant defensive effort. One guy I think needs to step it up this year is Terrell Suggs. Suggs game has improved tremendously the past few seasons and he’s become a great all around linebacker, but now that we’ve given him the contract he’s fought so hard for it’s time for him to earn those paychecks. I don’t think double digit sacks is too difficult of a goal for Suggs and I think his pass pressure will be critical for our defense in ’09. I’m hoping Jarret Johnson can maintain the strong level he was at last season, something I think went largely unnoticed during the ’08 season.
CB: The biggest free agent by the team in the offseason was Dominique Foxworth. A local guy out of McDonogh and University of Maryland, he was overshadowed in Denver by Champ Bailey and hopefully a homecoming is just what he needs to get going this season. Paired with Fabian Washington and also alongside Frank Walker, Samari Rolle, and rookie Lardarius Webb I think this group has been improved since last season both in talent and depth.
S: Much in the same vain that Ray will be Ray in 2009, I think we can all agree that, barring injury, Ed will be Ed. A monster at the end of last season, let’s hope he continues to intercept passes and intimidate quarterbacks throughout the season. One of the guys I’m really looking forward to watching at the beginning of the season is Dawan Landry. Lost to a neck injury early in the ’08 season, Jim Leonard emerged as a surprisingly adequate replacement for the SS. I think our joy toward the play of Leonard may have shortened our view of the Ravens’ strong safety situation. Landry was developing into a great safety alongside Ed Reed who could run all over the field and tackle any player on the opposing team.
ST: I’m not sure how often this happens but our most heated battle of training camp and preseason is at the kicker position. Steve Hauschka, our kickoff specialist from 2008, is competing with Graham Gano, a rookie out of Florida State. Most people close to the team think Gano has the edge because of his more advanced pedigree, but we’ll have to wait to see these guys in live games to see if they’ve got what it takes to split the uprights. Another position that will be of intrigue in these preseason games (there aren’t many) will be that of our return specialist. Yamon Figurs remains on the team, but it seems the coaches have cooled on him and brought in Chris Carr in the offseason who has significant return experience. Last, but certainly not least, I couldn’t preview the Ravens not give a big shout out to Sam Koch. I hope he never has to come onto the field but if he does, my money says the punt is dropping inside the 20 yard line.
Hopefully the next four game don’t bore us all to death and we’ll be ready for the real thing at home against the Chiefs in week 1.