Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

06 Apr 2013

State of the Team: Baltimore Ravens

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.

Color Legend:

  • Star
  • Good
  • Adequate
  • Jury’s still out
  • Just a guy
  • Upgrade needed
  • No longer on the team

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.

Click here for an archive of all State of the Team articles.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

OFFENSE

OVERVIEW

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.

BACKFIELD

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.

RECEIVERS

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.

OFFENSIVE LINE

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.

DEFENSE

OVERVIEW

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.

DEFENSIVE LINE

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.

LINEBACKER

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.

SECONDARY

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.

SPECIAL TEAMS

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.

Follow @Andy_Benoit
e-mail andy@footballoutsiders.com

Posted by: Andy Benoit on 06 Apr 2013

32 comments, Last at 26 Apr 2013, 9:51pm by fb29

Comments

1
by DEW (not verified) :: Sat, 04/06/2013 - 10:55pm

"This non-star quarterback coming off an excellent postseason run is really better than both advanced and conventional statistics say he is because of (reason unrelated to statistical performance)" is not the kind of analysis I come to FO to get. Flacco is a good player and he hasn't deserved some of the crap thrown at him by the media before and during the regular season, but he's not in the league of Rodgers, Brady, Manning, Brees, or the other Manning, and I'd take Big Ben and Matt Ryan over him as well, and you can make arguments over some other QBs as well. That doesn't spell "star player" to me, or at least it ought not to.

3
by jonnyblazin :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 1:28am

I think that even the most rabid Ravens fan would think that Flacco should be a green rather than a blue. But he's entering into his prime and has shown growth making reads and going through progressions, so we'll see how well he does the next couple years.

Webb could be a blue instead of a green. Great in coverage and at blitzing.

10
by herewegobrowniesherewego (not verified) :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 1:50pm

It is hard to tell with Webb because he was out most of the season last year, but will likely continue to improve.

He is generally considered comparable to Joe Haden (Jamison Hensley considered Haden slightly better,) and I see Haden as also being on that blue/green bubble--someone who still lets the elite receivers get their yards but can make merely very good receivers disappear.

Glad we made it to the AFC North.

4
by CBPodge :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 6:05am

Statistical analysis isn't a replacement for scouting, it's a complement to it. I agree with you, Flacco isn't at the level of the guys you mention, but the point made in the article is a good one. He doesn't throw tonnes of short, high percentage, quick hitting routes that pick up quick yardage and first downs. Those are the routes that the likes of Brady and Brees make a living off.

I'm not sure that Flacco actually even can throw those routes with any sort of reliability. I guess if he could do those as well as Brady and Brees we'd see him do it. But that doesn't really matter. Just from cursory watching of ravens games you can see that Flacco does tend to throw tougher passes than average, which will always lead to a statistical knock, both conventionally and in DVOA (given DVOA's underrating of big plays).

I agree, he's green rather than blue, but I like the argument made about why he's rated as blue here.

14
by Sifter :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 5:51pm

I appreciated the explanation too, but I think there is a reverse side to that coin. It's been pointed out below. Making the tough throws into tight coverage isn't a particularly sustainable strategy unless you've got receivers who can bail you out. For starters, if Torrey Smith gets locked down then Flacco seems to struggle - see games vs Steelers last year. Then I watched last years playoffs and I thought Boldin bailed out Flacco quite a few times, just with his great body positioning. Sure, Flacco got it into the right area - that's a good start, but without a good receiver those balls don't get caught, maybe even picked. And then there's Rahim Moore's help...So while it's admirable that Flacco is doing it the hard way with tough throws, I think he'd be a far better QB if he didn't have to rely on his receivers so much and could get people open in other ways ie. more short and medium pass efficiency.

15
by theslothook :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 7:05pm

But that assumes that the receivers are getting open on short and medium routes. Just because brady makes a living throwing short, doesn't mean its his voodoo that is getting them open and to the right play. When I charter two of NEs games, both hernandez and welker just had a knack for knowing how to attack zones and break defenders' ankles to get open. And even some of gronk's attacks in the seam are his own size and body control getting him open. Again, we don't know if its just flacco lacking awareness or maybe his receivers just aren't that great at anything but deep.

27
by Steve in WI :: Mon, 04/08/2013 - 1:45pm

I guess it's an open question as to what "star" really means. I don't think many people would argue that he's as good as the first five you mentioned, so if he's the 6th best QB in the league, can he be considered a star? (4 of the 5 in front of him seem to be certain HOFs). I don't necessarily think he's the 6th-best, but I also don't think that's an absurd opinion.

30
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 04/10/2013 - 9:51pm

The question of who might be a "star" at QB might be open, but when I see Flacco liisted as one, I think "this is nonsense!". Next, I think "Andy Benoit should not be allowed to.write these reviews!"

2
by jonnyblazin :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 1:25am

I'm interested to see if there is going to be a drop off without Reed. Yes, they lose his awareness and instincts, but I don't think they were that valuable because of his limited range at this point in his career. His tackling was also abysmal this year, I don't know if he's keeping up in the weight room or what but several times he just bounced off guys and allowed TDs, it was embarrassing. Not to mention the couple times when he gambles and leaves the CB out to dry on the edge when they are expecting help over the top.

5
by dcaslin :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 9:56am

Yeah, it seems that for the last 2 years there were two completely incongruous analyses of Reed:
1) He's the best cover safety in the league, he takes away half the field at all times with his amazing range. At his best, he turns Peyton Manning in the Madden version of Kyle Boller.
2) He's lost a step, and can't tackle anyone without a helmet to helmet hit, and he'll regularly free-lance and leave his CB out to dry without over the top coverage (which means it looks like the CB f-ed up, but only b/c he didn't realize Ed was MIA)

Every time *I* watched a game, it seemed like #2, but people with All-22 film seem to really think it was #1. So, really, I have no clue at this point. I guess we'll see how Huff compares this season, I'm pretty optimistic that Huff will do well (but still fearful that Ed may have been the secret sauce that made the whole rest of the D work; we know Ray wasn't as we did just fine while he was injured last year)

20
by Independent George :: Mon, 04/08/2013 - 9:55am

Given his age, maybe he's #1 when healthy, and #2 when not. The question then becomes what ratio one might reasonably expect between the two going forward.

Save the text so you can copy/paste for Polamalu when we get to the Steelers.

6
by Never Surrender :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 10:04am

The paragraph on Flacco is well-reasoned and I agree with it. I have to remark, however, that it's exactly the kind of analysis that when appearing on a mainstream site receives reflexive criticism (or even mockery) from FO.

7
by nat :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 10:32am

The Flacco analysis is interesting, and matches up with something I was going to post in the New England thread. In that thread, there was a comment discounting the running game because it benefitted from excellent play calling in situations other than pure running downs, from sets other than heavy run personnel. But that's just wrong. Being willing and able to run from all sets in all situations is great, not bad. I was going to compare that to praising a QB for making risky, difficult throws because he could not make his reads on the easier targets. You shouldn't get a difficulty bonus when the difficulty is self-imposed, nor get penalized for smart play.

Here we have Flacco being praised for making a lot of deep throws into tight coverage. Sure, that's cool and can lead to the occasional string of great games. But isn't it better to be good at making reads, hitting the open man, calling plays that get a man open? Flacco's strength is deep throws into coverage. But that means his weakness is quick reads, accurate short to middle throws etc.

He's good, and the hero du jour. I'd call him good, but not a star.

11
by theslothook :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 3:06pm

It might also be a scheme/ receiver issue. On that front its very difficult to disentangle which. Are the playcallers just stubborn that way(EX - Bruce Arians was pretty stubborn that the colts run that type of offense despite a very poor set of offensive tackles). Could it be the receivers are just primarily speed get down the field types who don't have any route running finesse? Or is it really just flacco lacking awareness?

26
by A_man (not verified) :: Mon, 04/08/2013 - 1:07pm

"Flacco's strength is deep throws into coverage. But that means his weakness is quick reads, accurate short to middle throws etc."

How does that mean he must necessarily have a weakness in short to middle throws?
Flacco was, by all accounts, playing in an offensive system designed to go downfield again and again. The idea that he went downfield because he couldn't make short reads is kind of ridiculous - especially playing in a system that didn't do much to help get guys open.

8
by Dice :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 11:22am

I won't second guess Ozzie, but given the commitment to Flacco, time to grab a left tackle and another wideout for him. Flacco is a star when he has the cast to be a star; keep him clean and have some wideouts who can fight for the ball. As a Ravens' fan, I won't gripe about him. I think FO's position is reasonable, though.

9
by commissionerleaf :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 1:21pm

Flacco is probably a good rating at Black, slightly we-are-being-sympathetic-to-casual-fans at green, and a laugh at blue. I understand he has an offense built around his arm strength. But that's because, outside of arm strength, he isn't actually a very good quarterback. He has, two years running, failed to get out of Mark Sanchez Territory (the 50's) in completion percentage.

Using the same kind of argument, you could rate Tom Brady a black; he is asked to do little to nothing with his arm strength and couldn't hit a tight window with the spray from a bottle of glass cleaner. However, he is in an offense that plays to his strengths; anticipation, not needing to hit tight windows downfield because something short is always open, mismatches on the tight ends, etc. The difference is that New England's offense is consistently good, and Baltimore's disappeared for entire games this past year.

23
by JimZipCode :: Mon, 04/08/2013 - 10:51am

You can't on the one hand say that Flacco is not good except for his arm strength, and then on the other hand say that he has the same completion pctg as Sanchez. Flacco is doing more with those completions than Sanchez is. His yards-per-attempt is higher than Sanchez's, also his net ypa and adjusted ypa (from PFR).

Also, Flacco is not a punk like Sanchez.

29
by commissionerleaf :: Tue, 04/09/2013 - 1:02pm

I didn't say Flacco wasn't a better quarterback than Sanchez. I said Flacco had had a completion percentage in the 50's rather than the 60's, which is a poor marker for quarterbacking excellence and puts him in poor company, including Sanchez.

Obviously, the Ravens are paying $120M for a quarterback product better than Mark Sanchez. But Flacco showed an inability to consistently move the chains with the passing game, and has never been a good timing and anticipation passer. Which means he is dependent on having receivers who can win one-on-one matchups.

It also means that he gets things written about him like "is forced to hit tight windows" because he doesn't throw his receivers open or throw the ball on time so frequently.

Flacco is just under the 50th percentile of NFL starters. Even including the late-season run, his DVOA was negative this year. Sam Bradford had more DYAR. Two quarterbacks from San Francisco did, one of whom was traded for a second-round pick recently, despite an affordable contract. His closest comparable in terms of passing statistics is probably Carson Palmer, although Carson passes for more yards on a worse team.

12
by Jon Goldman (not verified) :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 3:59pm

I have to say that Flacco is only paid like a star player, but doesn't play like one. He is good and the ravens' offense is well suited to him, but he's actually pretty limited in his abilities. A borderline case for Blue is Manning the Younger, who looks like the best QB in that league sometimes, and mediocre other times, or maybe Matt Ryan, who is very good but would probably suffer terribly without his ridiculously good WR team of Jones and White.

He is certainly good, but is he a star? I wouldn't say so, at least in terms of ability.

13
by jonnyblazin :: Sun, 04/07/2013 - 5:19pm

The one thing about Flacco that needs to be considered going forward is the offensive coordinator situation. Its true that the Ravens offense was built around throwing isolation routes deep down field for the most part, but once Caldwell took over I saw some plays and reads made by Flacco that I had never seen the Ravens run before, particular quick outs by the TE, slants by the WR, crossing patterns, and generally more throws in the middle of the field.

If you look at Flacco under Caldwell, the first game (vs. the Broncos) wasn't good. But for the next 5 (vs. Giants, Colts, Broncos, Pats, 49ers- excluding the first quarter of the game vs. the Bengals that the Ravens didn't prep for and the Ravens sat the starters) he went:

98/162, 60.05%
1449 yards, 8.94 Y/A
13 TDs, 0 INTs

So a week after when the Ravens fire the OC that everyone wanted fired for the past 2 years, Flacco went on an insane run in which he was undoubtedly elite and won the super bowl. Now it's never a good idea to base projections on 5 game samples, but this uptick in performance is likely not just a coincidence.

My guess is that the Ravens will run a different offense than they did under Cameron, who is more of a "lets fit these players into the scheme I run" type of coach. Whether Flacco will flourish is up for debate, but there is certainly evidence that his performance could improve. I think he demonstrated an ability to make presnap reads and go through progressions under Caldwell, although under Cameron it was hard to evaluate because he rarely asked Flacco to do those things due to the type of plays being called.

25
by JimZipCode :: Mon, 04/08/2013 - 11:26am

This is the key question about Flacco. Over his last 5 full games, all under new OC Caldwell, his stats were as above, which give a QB rating of 116.5. The Ravens probably think they are finally seeing "the real Joe Flacco". That level of play is certainly "Blue-worthy". Granted that it's unsustainable (8% TD's, 0% INT's); still it seems plausible that Flacco might have taken a step forward to a new level of performance under his new OC.

It's not unprecedented. Eli played at a new, higher level after his 2007 Super Bowl run: completion pctg + 8pts, yards-per +1.25, TD pctg +1pt, INT pctg minus half a point, QB rating +13pts. Flacco is only a year older than Eli was that offseason; and his playoff run was distinctly better than Eli's. He does have a new QB-friendly coordinator, so there is something concrete to point to.

If Flacco takes a similar step forward statistically, then in a couple years we'll say that this postseason made him a star.

28
by dcaslin :: Tue, 04/09/2013 - 12:06am

I regularly get lambasted on various Raven's boards for asserting that Flacco is mostly an average QB with certain unique characteristics that may be good for the team (and might even be worth his contract). Nevertheless, this conversion makes me happy and optimistic. This is the first well reasoned argument for Flacco continuing to play well that I've read, and, even if it's wrong, I will cherish it until the regular season starts. Thank you.

16
by greybeard :: Mon, 04/08/2013 - 12:17am

Wow. Ed Reed is already a hall of famer and he is still playing. I missed that news. Wow.

17
by greybeard :: Mon, 04/08/2013 - 12:34am

Flacco threw higher percentage of his passes behind the line of scrimmage (86/531) than Andy Dalton (81/528) and almost the same as Sanchez (74/453). He also threw a only 2% fewer of his passes between 1-10 yards (234/531) than Andy Dalton 252/528) and Mark Sanchez. (210/453).
Yes he throw deeps balls more often that the other two. But he still throws 60% of his passes within a 10 yard range.Dalton has a higher success with 11-20 range. In fact Flacco is really better than Dalton only in 21-30 range. A total of 17 completions versus 6. He is better than Dalton due to that 11 completions. One is a star, the other one is adequate. Yep.

18
by jonnyblazin :: Mon, 04/08/2013 - 1:42am

Flacco checked down often. Under Cameron the Ravens ran a lot of 2 man routes, when they were covered Flacco had the option of throwing it short or getting sacked.

Maybe Dalton would be looked upon more favorably if he didn't wet the bed every time in the postseason.

19
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Mon, 04/08/2013 - 9:17am

So why isn't Pierce orange? For all of his 'adequacy', he was taking crunch time carries away from Ray Rice in the playoffs.

21
by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Mon, 04/08/2013 - 10:27am

Flacco and Luck as blue is ludicrous. Seriously, do you need to be the 25th best QB in the NFL to not be blue?

A grading scale is meaningless if you give everyone A's.

22
by nat :: Mon, 04/08/2013 - 10:41am

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.

Just imagine if the Ravens asked Flacco to face backwards and heave the passes over his shoulder. That would be inconceivably difficult.

Of course, no one would want him for their quarterback if that's all he could do well.

Star: You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means.

24
by Hurt Bones :: Mon, 04/08/2013 - 10:57am

Minor Correction. Though he is definitely "just a guy" and at 33 the oldest player on the Ravens Roster, Chris Johnson was not "lost". He resigned a one year deal on Mar 22.

31
by Silm (not verified) :: Sun, 04/14/2013 - 9:32pm

Super Bowl MVP. playoff stats comparable to Joe Montana.

Yeah nuff said, farewell army of Flacco Detractors. you no longer have a leg to stand on

32
by fb29 :: Fri, 04/26/2013 - 9:51pm

lol