NEPD Staff Writer CJ Sousa
In the past it was the Colts. The natural geography and Rex Ryan would scream it was the Jets. But in recent playoff years, the Baltimore Ravens have been the Patriots’ biggest rival come January, and arguably the Pats’ biggest competition to earn the AFC crown.
Last year’s divisional round playoff game was arguably the greatest in Gillette Stadium’s history. The only game to compare in my opinion was the 2011 AFC Championship game against…the Ravens.
I’m not sure if Joe Flacco is in cruise control throughout the regular season, or just simply doesn’t care. Maybe he plays against himself every week in some undisclosed fantasy football league.
But in the playoffs he transforms into a different animal. Fun fact coming.
Peyton Manning has gone One & Done an astonishing nine times in the post season, most of which coming as the higher seed.
Joe Flacco has never lost his first game in the post season.
Last year Joe Flacco looked something more like Joe Montana in the postseason. After an abysmal Week 16 performance vs Houston posting just a 41.7 quarterback rating, Flacco torched the Patriots for 292 yards and four touchdowns. He did toss up two costly interceptions late, which was a huge factor in the Patriots’ narrow escape.
The 2014 Ravens could have easily played the Seahawks in Glendale if they held on to beat New England. As for 2015, I have some concern with the Ravens.
Free Agency – Or Lack Thereof
For starters, the Pernell McPhee loss to Chicago may prove to be massive. The Ravens normally draft pretty well in the early rounds, and I expect an edge rusher or two in the near future coming. Nonetheless, McPhee was a key cog on the front 7 and could prove to be a huge blow.
It’s not like McPhee was this unstoppable force who accounted for all of the Ravens’ pass rush last year. He was just third on the team posting a career high 7.5 sacks. But his presence will surely be missed, and will be tough to replicate from a rookie or veteran free agent.
The other big name to leave town was wide receiver Torrey Smith. Personally, I don’t view Smith’s departure to San Francisco as a major loss that some make it out to be.
I know that if the season started today Marlon Brown and Michael Campanaro would start behind Steve Smith Sr. But it doesn’t, so be patient.
Smith was always the “Not really a #1 but probably more than your average #2” kind of guy. The Ravens never fully committed to Smith as their #1, and didn’t make a major push to keep the former second round pick around.
For the money Smith got (5 years/$40M/$22M GTD), it is justifiable to the Ravens to let him walk. It is without question however that the Ravens will be attacking the deep wide receiver class this year, likely early and often.
A somewhat surprise loss for the Ravens in my eyes was the departure of tight end Owen Daniels. Daniels was a key weapon in the playoffs last year, especially vs the Patriots. He seemed to fit well with Joe Flacco and I expect Daniels to have a big year next year for Denver.
Some other losses include the electric Jacoby Jones, Bernard Pierce, Darian Stewart, Tyrod Taylor and Terrence Cody.
The Ravens were able to resign running back Justin Forsett, a big signing in my opinion, and bring in Kendrick Lewis and Matt Schaub.
As you can tell, when Matt Schaub is the second biggest free agent brought in, there hasn’t been much activity going on in Baltimore.
Ravens Draft Plans
As I said earlier, wide receivers are the biggest need on the team. Lucky for them, the 2015 class have plenty of solid early to mid-round guys who can and probably will ultimately start for them.
The Ravens normally kill it in the early rounds. Going back to 2006, their first round picks have been exceptional. Haloti Ngata, Ben Grubbs, Joe Flacco, Michael Oher, Jimmy Smith, Matt Elam and C.J. Mosley have all been first round selections. Outside of maybe Oher, I would consider each of those picks a big success considering a variety of factors including the overall league’s hit / miss ratio and overall draft position.
The Ravens have not selected an offensive player in the first round since 2009, when they took Ole Miss LT Michael Oher. I expect that to change this year, but owning 10 picks makes anything is possible.
At pick 26, if they stay put, a few names stand out to me. He’s received a bunch of Aaron Dobson comparisons for good reason, but Jaelen Strong could be the play here. He is so similar to Dobson on tape. Good speed but not excellent. Struggles to create ideal separation, and doesn’t show great burst off the line. He does show great ball skills and is a tough 1v1 play for most college corners.
I haven’t given up on Dobson yet, so I’m certainly not saying Strong isn’t going to be a productive NFL player. Just making a simple comparison here of two very similar players.
Devin Smith could also be a good fit here. In my opinion he’s the best deep threat in the draft and could help Ravens’ fans forget about Torrey Smith in a hurry. #26 could be a stretch to some, not to me.
I’ve mentioned him before for other teams, but Dorial Green-Beckham could also be intriguing here. A big bodied receiver paired with Steve Smith Sr. could be a nice 1-2 combo, and if slot a guy like Phillip Dorsett could be added later that would make a pretty formidable grouping that balances each other nicely.
A pass rusher or two must be added as well in my opinion. This may be a pipe-dream for the second round as he could be the play at #26, but I think Virginia’s versatile Eli Harold would be a beautiful fit. The Ravens are like the Patriots and want their defenders versatile and dangerous from multiple areas of the field, and that is Harold in a nut shell.
Arkansas’ defensive end Trey Flowers may not be as an ideal fit as Harold, but would certainly fit the bill as the situational pass rusher the Ravens are looking for. Flowers has proven he can line up all over the defensive line and can cause havoc in the backfield. Another thing I love about Flowers? Durability. He missed just one game during a four year career where he appeared in 49 games, starting 39 of them.
A less talked about guy who I’m higher on compared to most is Kentucky defensive end Za’Darius Smith. He’s played some five-technique in a 3-4 as well as a traditional 4-3 end. The kid has a never-ending motor who consistently makes plays in the backfield. Sure, Bud Dupree is the better Kentucky prospect. I just don’t think the gap between Dupree and Smith is as big as most make it out to be.
A positional grouping not talked about yet that could use some late round help is running back. We all know the Ray Rice story, so no sense even talking about it. Past Justin Forsett the Ravens currently have Lorenzo Taliaferro and Fitzgerald Toussaint.
If you have read any of my articles during the season, you know that I am personally driving the Josh Robinson Bandwagon. I think he’d be a solid fit for about 22 NFL teams, the Ravens are no different.
How about Jeremy Langford? He isn’t overly shifty but turned heads at the combine running a 4.42 40 yard dash. What do I love most about Langford? He understands blitz pickups in a way that most young backs don’t. He can catch the ball a little bet, and could be the perfect spell to Forsett.
Similar to Langford, I think Auburn star Cameron Artis-Payne could be an ideal late round spell. I know, anybody who plays RB for Gus Malzahn at Auburn will rush for 12 touchdowns and 1,000 yards at least. But I like Artis-Payne. He is quick too & through the hole with a decisive running style. He isn’t going to rival 2011 CJ2K as far as home run capability for sure, but my goodness the guy is productive. He led the SEC last year with 1,608 rushing yards. Both Artis-Payne and Langford can be bell cow type backs who could carry the load should anything happen to Forsett.
Cornerback is the last pressing need I see with the Ravens. I like their starting combo of Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, but they need depth for sure.
I think some mid-round options who can be intriguing and be a nice fit are FAU’s D’Joun Smith and TCU’s Kevin White. More so Smith, but I am confident both could start for the Ravens next September in a nickel situation and could be nice developmental guys into a potential starting role.
Later round options for the Ravens I like include Senquez Golson and Lorenzo Doss. I think both are pretty underappreciated and could turn some heads. If Lorenzo Doss would get this “I need to pick 6 every ball thrown my way” mentality out of his head I think he could be a really good player as I think his actual technique is better than advertised.
Personally, I think Pittsburgh will be kings of the North next year, except not lose to a divisional rival at home in the playoffs. The Ravens always seem to be a thorn in the Patriots’ side no matter the circumstances, but I just see a roster who has a lack of talent at some key positions and will have to rely on some rookies to fill in the holes.
To an extent, that is a direct product of Joe Flaccos whopping 6 year $120.6M contract (2nd highest in the league). Listen, the Ravens were handcuffed and had to pay Flacco the king’s ransom. It’s just unfortunate and it causes an overall weaker team. The contract is less ridiculous however when you consider Jay Cutler’s 7 year $126.7M deal and Colin Kaepernick’s 6 year $114M abomination.
Can they make the playoffs? One would assume the AFC West will get at least two teams in the playoffs with Denver, San Diego and even Kansas City. The AFC East will be vastly improved with Miami, Buffalo and New York all making some legitimate noise in the Free Agency period.
The AFC North themselves have three playoff contenders with Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore.
The Colts will be there in the AFC South, and while the Texans may not make the playoffs they certainly won’t be any fun to play with Watt & Clowney barreling in at opposing quarterbacks.
As you can see, there are about ten teams playing musical chairs for six spots. I think Baltimore will be in contention come Week 16 and Week 17 for a wild card, and that’s as bold as I’ll get as we still are in April.
If they can reach the playoffs, Joe Flacco will transform into Joe Cool and all bets are off. Truly, Baltimore will be one of the more interesting teams to follow in the coming season.
Up next on Eyes on the Competition : we bounce it back into the division – Miami.
Tags: 2015 NFL Draft, Baltimore Ravens, Cameron Artis-Payne, D'Joun Smith, Devin Smith, Dorial Green-Beckham, Eli Harold, Jaelen Strong, Jeremy Langford, Joe Flacco, Kevin White, Owen Daniels, Pernell McPhee, Torrey Smith, Trey Flowers, Za'Darius Smith