With Super Bowl XLVII officially laid to rest at the Ring Ceremony and training camp looming around the corner, what can we expect from the 2013 Ravens? The original outcry of the free agent mass exodus has subsided, an under-the-radar early free agent signing period has been completed, and another stellar draft (on paper) was executed. What are the real questions that loom before training camp, and are there underlying positives that may actually offset these questions?
1) How will Anquan Boldin's production be replaced?
This is the most popular question among the national media, and quite frankly, it is a very legitimate question. Boldin was clutch during the postseason. With 22 receptions for 380 yards and 4 touchdowns, he was practically dominant. Not only that, Q stretched the field as he averaged 17.3 yards per reception. He was Joe Flacco's go-to guy.
With a very unproven cast of wide receivers on the roster, who is going to be the next man up? The fact of the matter is Boldin was not a dominant force in the regular season. He caught 65 passes for 921 yards and 4 touchdowns. With a mixture of personnel flexibility, the creativity and direction of offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, and a healthy, stable offensive line the belief here is that things are in place to allow the offense to effectively evolve.
As Matt Vensel from the Baltimore Sun so eloquently dissected, the personnel and Caldwell's preferences could point to more double tight end formations. Add in the potential of versatile rookie fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and the offense becomes much more diverse. Imagine lining up in 22 personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs, and a wide receiver) for one play, then going no huddle and spreading out the defense with five wide receivers. A full house backfield of Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, and Juszczyk? While these scenarios may be pipe dreams, they could be something for defense coordinators to stress over as they prepare for the Ravens.
Moreover, the late-season addition of Juan Castillo will make an enormous impact on the offensive line. Castillo's track record of developing offensive linemen is well documented. The big difference between Baltimore and Philadelphia is that Baltimore puts an emphasis on talent in the trenches. Philadelphia's Andy Reid relied too heavily on Castillo's player development and never invested high draft picks on the offensive line. Castillo never had the talent on hand as he has with Baltimore's line, and he will work to develop Jack Cornell, Rick Wagner, Jah Reid, Ramon Harewood, and others. A healthy and well-coached, stable offensive line will give Flacco more time which will allow Caldwell to incorporate more crossing patterns, clear outs, etc. An effective offensive line will help the younger receivers which will lessen the impact of Boldin's departure.
Anquan Boldin's clutch factor still remains, no doubt. However, the blow will also be lessened by the expansion of Ed Dickson's role. From this view, he is the one who will allow the double tight end formation to be explosive. If Dickson can fill part of Dennis Pitta's role, Pitta will fill Boldin's role. I agree with the sentiment of Tony Lombardi of the Russell Street Report, just not the player. Spreading out Boldin's receptions will lessen the dependence of the younger, greener receivers, and it will allow each of them to carve out their own role within the offense.
2) How will the defense fare with so many changes?
In a word, fine. Actually, most people are realizing that this defense has the chance to be much better than the Super Bowl champion defense. Ozzie and company greatly improved the front seven because it needed to be improved. The Ravens allowed 122.8 rushing yards per game. Marcus Spears, Chris Canty, Brandon Williams, a healthy Terrell Suggs, and a healthy (and playing inside) Haloti Ngata will be formidable. Factor in Elvis Dumervil (not a run stopper), Daryl Smith (phenomenal late signing), Arthur Brown, and Courtney Upshaw (barring his weight), and there is versatility galore. I foresee a healthy Pernell McPhee getting back to his pass rushing roots with a bounce-back season this year. The front seven, in its many variations, provides flexibility, diversity, and the ability for the coaches (watch out for Steve Spagnuolo's influence) to scheme according to the situation.
The real fun comes in the secondary. Michael Huff and Matt Elam are major upgrades over Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard. Philadelphia Eagles' coach Chip Kelly made an astute point leading up to the draft. He believes the days of a strong and free safety are coming to an end. He envisions two hybrid safeties that are interchangeable. Enter Huff and Elam-- two safeties who can cover and can play in the box. Lardarius Webb, Corey Graham, Jimmy Smith, and Chykie Brown lead a deep corner back field. Add in Asa Jackson and Moe Lee, and there is a spirited competition to the group. There are guys suited for the outside and inside among this group. Now, the Ravens are not bound by personnel and they can react more on the fly to their opponents' strategies.
3) With the departures of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Matt Birk, Bernard Pollard, and Vonta Leach, who provide the needed leadership in the locker room?
In the words of the Monday Night Countdown crew, "C'mon man!" Terrell Suggs has been a leader for years. Haloti Ngata leads by example. Ray Rice is a vocal, positive voice. Joe Flacco is an unappreciated leader by the fans, but he has garnered the respect of his teammates. Lardarius Webb will be the calming leader of the secondary. On top of that, rookies Matt Elam and Arthur Brown were almost celebrated equally for their leadership as for their play on the field. The team is in good hands. The torch was respectfully passed.
With nine regular players leaving the team, this was a historic off-season for a Super Bowl champion. No other Super Bowl champion team re-tooled and revamped like the 2013 Baltimore Ravens. Well, except maybe for the 2001 Baltimore Ravens. Let's hope for a much brighter result! The current leadership within the front office, on the sideline, and in the locker room has provided the building blocks and a stronger foundation to withstand the stresses of defending a title.
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An avid sports fan, and a passionate Ravens fan. However, I don't always wear the purple-shaded glasses.