The FO crew takes on the top contenders as the playoff field rounds into shape. Plus: the great Drew Brees debate of 2014.
06 Apr 2013
by Andy Benoit
The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that there are 12 starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.
Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.
Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.
Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.
When Jim Caldwell replaced offensive coordinator Cam Cameron last December, no one imagined the Ravens would go on to win the Super Bowl. The change did not bring about immediate good fortune for the offense, but in the playoffs, Baltimore’s passing game finally started getting more help schematically with receiver-friendly formations and route combinations. This offense still hinged on two things throughout the season though: Ray Rice’s improvisational abilities and Joe Flacco’s cannon of an arm.
QB: Joe Flacco, Tyrod Taylor
RB: Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, Vonta Leach (FB)
I know that many Football Outsiders readers will quibble with the idea that Flacco is good enough to be a "blue" quarterback. Until his magnificent playoff run, his NFL career had been very inconsistent. However, DVOA -- in fact, all statistics, either standard or advanced -- inherently underrates Flacco because it can't account for the difficulty of the tasks the Ravens are asking him to do. The Ravens, by design of their isolation route-based offense, ask Flacco to do more with just his arm strength than any other quarterback. Flacco won a Super Bowl running an offense that was built primarily around his ability to rifle difficult throws downfield through tight windows. A quarterback who depends so much on the big play will naturally have his down days, but when it counted most this past season, Flacco responded.
Rice’s phenomenal short-area burst, lateral agility, and surprising power make him one of the most productive playmakers in the NFL. The only thing he really needs to work on is pass protection, where he uncharacteristically struggled last season. Pierce is an ideal No. 2 back who can shed tackles and has just enough speed to turn the corner. Leach is the game’s best lead-blocker.
WR: Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss, David Reed; Lost: Anquan Boldin
TE: Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson, Alex Silvestro
Smith can be great at times, but too often he disappears against quality man coverage. He’ll also vanish at the mere mention of a double-team. With Boldin now gone, Smith becomes the focal point. That will be a lot for him to handle. Jones is essentially the same type of player as Smith, only slightly watered down. The depth behind these two is a concern. Pitta can line up all over the formation, which brings unique value to the offense, but he’s not a particularly great blocker.
LT: Michael Oher LG: Kelechi Osemele C: Gino Gradkowski RG: Marshal Yanda RT: Jah Reid
Backups: Ramon Harewood, Antoine McClain; Lost: Matt Birk, Bryant McKinnie, Bobbie Williams
Even the most casual football fan knows by now that former Blind Side protagonist Oher is a better right tackle than left tackle. Osemele is a star in the making: he has rare athleticism and, most importantly, he knows how to apply it in his mechanics. He can maintain his power when moving laterally in short areas. This helps make him a natural pulling blocker, both from inside as a guard or outside as a tackle. Gradkowski is an unknown, which makes him the polar opposite of the recently-retired Birk. Yanda is very nimble on movement-oriented blocks, and he has the strength to parry in traffic. Reid, who missed the end of last season with a foot injury, can hold up fine as a starter, but he probably makes more sense at guard.
The aging Ravens defense got pillaged, but not before getting a ring. For Ozzie Newsome and company, that’s "mission accomplished." Now, a new mission starts. The first objectives are to replace Hall of Famers Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, along with rising youngsters Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger. The only familiar stars left, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, have both battled injuries the past two years. It’s on coordinator Dean Pees to do what he did in the playoffs: make the scheme more creative and aggressive. The Ravens no longer have a talent edge over their opponents; they must focus more on finding a strategic edge. The fact that they’re still built to play a hybrid 3-4 / 4-3 front helps.
DE: Chris Canty, Arthur Jones, Pernell McPhee, DeAngelo Tyson, Marcus Spears
DT: Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody, Swanson Miller; Lost: Ma’ake Kemoeatu
Canty was a good signing. He has great size, solid athleticism, and experience playing inside on a four-man front or outside as a 3-4 end. That’s the same kind of flexibility Ngata offers, only he can also play the nose. The only question with Ngata is: can he stay healthy enough to become a dominant force again? At the other spots, Jones made some outstanding plays in the Super Bowl and deserves a shot at more reps. McPhee has the talent to be a terrific sub-package weapon, if not an every-down weapon -- his explosiveness is critical to Baltimore’s interior pass rush. Through three seasons, Cody has proven to be much better in a rotation than in a featured role. The former second-round pick must get better against double-teams. Spears is a solid 5-technique veteran who gives the defense first and second down depth.
OLB: Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw; Lost: Paul Kruger
ILB: Jameel McClain, Albert McClellan, Josh Bynes; Lost: Ray Lewis, Brendon Ayanbadejo, Dannell Ellerbe
We’ll give Suggs the benefit of the doubt and assume he can bounce back from an injury-filled 2012 campaign. It speaks volumes about his toughness that he even played last season. Dumervil should transition just fine from defensive end to hybrid outside linebacker. Replacing Kruger with the veteran will likely be a wash, which is great considering the ex-Broncos endbacker cost less than half the guaranteed money that Kruger would have. Upshaw was drafted to be a full-time starter and movable chess piece, and he did well with these assignments on a limited basis last season. Expect him to gradually emerge in an expanded role over the next two years. His greatest strength right now is run defense, particularly from the weak side.
CB: Lardarius Webb, Corey Graham, Jimmy Smith, Chykie Brown; Lost: Cary Williams, Chris Johnson
S: Michael Huff, James Ihedigbo, Omar Brown, Christian Thompson; Lost: Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard
You don’t lose a guy like Reed and not feel something, no matter who fills his spot. Huff is a better option than an untested youngster, but he doesn’t begin to have Reed’s awareness or instincts. That means a drastic drop-off in what we’ll call "on-field leadership." Tactically, without Reed, it will be harder to disguise coverages. Expect less quarters looks and more basic zones. That could expose Ihedigbo, who is solid by "versatile backup" standards but not a difference-making starter. If Webb rebounds from his knee injury, he’ll be a top-10 corner and arguably the best all-around slot man in the league. At the other corner spot, it’s time for Smith to blossom. If he doesn’t, the Ravens will have to hope that veteran Corey Graham can hold on to the magic he found down the stretch last season.
K: Justin Tucker P: Sam Koch
After adjusting for weather and altitude, Tucker was the best kicker in the league last year: more valuable than anyone else on kickoffs, and second behind only Sebastian Janikowski on field goals.
32 comments, Last at 26 Apr 2013, 9:51pm by fb29