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Late for Work 1/4: Where Should Ravens Pump Resources This Offseason? Ranking Five Biggest Needs

Posted Jan 4, 2018

Ravens special teams unit not just good this year, but ranks among best of last 30 years. Oh, and Jerry Rosburg's getting love as potential head coach candidate. Steve Spagnuolo and Vic Fangio interview for head coaching jobs. Both Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey rank among NFL's top corners.

Where Should Ravens Pump Resources This Offseason? Ranking Five Biggest Needs

After spending big free-agent money and using the top four draft picks on the Ravens defense last year, it’s no surprise the offense will need considerable resources for upgrades in the 2018 offseason.

That doesn’t mean the defense can be ignored altogether, as some tweaking is necessary, but of the five biggest needs this offseason, The Baltimore Sun’s Jeff Zrebiec sees four on the offensive side.

Below are his rankings, with my reaction:

1. Wide receivers. “The Ravens badly need help here, and it must come in both the draft and free agency.”

It’s hard to argue with Zrebiec’s top pick. Breshad Perriman took a step back as a healthy scratch down the stretch, Jeremy Maclin didn’t produce as much as expected after suffering through myriad injuries and Mike Wallace and Michael Campanaro are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Chris Moore and undrafted rookies Quincy Adeboyejo and Tim White have potential, but there’s not much dependability on the roster. Zrebiec called Maclin a potential salary-cap casualty.

The Ravens’ wide receiver draft history will leave some fans nervous about Baltimore’s ability to find an immediate difference-maker, but it might be the best avenue to add talent. The 2018 free-agent class doesn’t feature a star-studded lineup. Jarvis Landry is an intriguing prospect, but many of the others expected to hit the street have dealt with durability issues, including Sammy Watkins, Allen Robinson, Terrelle Pryor, Marqise Lee and Jordan Matthews.

“A weak free-agent class is one more reason the Ravens would be well-served to try to re-sign Wallace and prioritize adding a wide receiver early in the draft,” Zrebiec wrote.

2. Pass-catching tight end: "An athletic and explosive tight end is a must this offseason.”

Quarterback Joe Flacco loves throwing to tight ends and surely missed Dennis Pitta, who was lost with a third hip injury after leading all NFL tight ends in catches in 2016. Benjamin Watson filled that role and led the team with 61 catches and four touchdowns, but he and Crockett Gillmore are pending free agents. The Ravens have four tight ends primed for returns – Nick BoyleMaxx Williams, Vince Mayle and Darren Waller – but Boyle and Williams aren’t explosive pass catchers and Mayle and Waller are unproven. Waller also must be reinstated after serving a year-long suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

3. Inside linebacker-hybrid safety. “A fast and physical linebacker who can stick with tight ends is something the Ravens lack.”

I was happy to see this on Zrebiec’s list. The pass catchers on offense are obvious needs, but the Ravens’ struggles in covering tight ends was a below-the-radar issue all year. According to Football Outsiders, Baltimore had the second-most efficient overall pass defense in 2017, but dropped to No. 30 against tight ends. C.J. Mosley is a staple at inside linebacker. Fellow starter Patrick Onwuasor is expected to return as an exclusive rights free agent.

“With the disappointing development of Kamalei Correa, Onwuasor started 12 games at the weak-side inside spot, but the Ravens could use some more competition here,” wrote WNST’s Luke Jones.

4. Young quarterback. “Joe Flacco’s relatively strong finish has quieted some of the calls to find his eventual successor. It’s still something the Ravens should do sooner rather than later.”

If the Ravens are successful at addressing the top two needs, and Flacco has a healthy offseason working with them, then we could see the return of a much-improved franchise quarterback. After the bye week, Flacco was clearly healthier, more accurate and moved around better in the pocket. He threw 10 touchdowns to three interceptions during that span. His worst football of the last seven games was in the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals, but he turned it on in the second half to give Baltimore the lead late in the game. Flacco’s resurgence was particularly notable considering Maclin and Perriman had little impact down the stretch. Zrebiec envisions a solid 2018 for Flacco, who will be 33 years old, but still sees the need to start grooming a young quarterback.

5. Center. “Center will be the big question mark this offseason.”

With the expected returns of a healthy Alex Lewis, Marshal Yanda and Nico Siragusa, combined with the returns of Ronnie Stanley and Austin Howard, the Ravens are mostly set on the offensive line. The exception is at center because Ryan Jensen becomes an unrestricted free agent in March, and plans to “see where life takes me.” Those aren’t the words of a man determined to return to Baltimore (although he’s not against it), so the Ravens may need to look elsewhere. One solution could already be in-house. The Ravens figure to be deep at guard, so a position change could fill the need. “[Matt Skura] did a respectable job filling in for the injured Yanda and could be in the mix at center if Jensen departs via free agency,” wrote Jones. Skura also competed for the starting center spot last summer before Jensen won the job.

Ravens Special Teams Unit Not Just Good This Year, But Ranks Among Best of Last 30 Years … Oh, and Jerry Rosburg’s Getting Love as Potential Head Coach Candidate

Yes, the special teams unit in Baltimore was THE best in 2017.

But it gets even better than that.

The unit was so good that it actually ranks No. 8 in Football Outsiders’ rankings over the past 30 years. Below is the analytical website’s DVOA (a stat explained here) ranking from 1986 to 2017.

YEAR

TEAM

DVOA

2002

Saints

12.2 percent

2007

Bears

11.2 percent

1994

Browns

10.1 percent

1986

N.Y. Jets

9.9 percent

1996

Panthers

9.8 percent

2009

Browns

9.7 percent

1986

Saints

9.3 percent

2017

Ravens

9.2 percent

1998

Cowboys

9.2 percent

2012

Ravens

9.0 percent

The Ravens had it all last season on special teams. The NFL’s best kicker in Justin Tucker converted 34 of 37 field-goal attempts. They had one of the best punters in Sam Koch, who routinely pinned opponents inside the 20. The kickoff return team led the NFL with a 27.5-yard average, including one returned for a touchdown.

“Like 2016, 2017 ends up as a year of parity, with very few teams or units ranking among either the best or worst in DVOA history,” wrote Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz. “The biggest exception is our No. 1 special teams unit, the Baltimore Ravens, who end up as one of the 10 best special teams units of the last 30 years.

“Only 42 different teams since 1986 have managed a special teams DVOA above 7.0%, and four of those teams are recent Baltimore squads with Justin Tucker at kicker, Sam Koch at punter, and Jerry Rosburg as coordinator: 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2017. It doesn't even include 2016, when Justin Tucker had the best placekicking year in NFL history, but the Baltimore return game had an off year. This rating is subject to change once I finally build a new special teams kickoff method that fully accounts for all the pooch kicks teams have been using since the touchback move, but it likely won't change the Ravens much. Most of their special teams value came from placekicking and kickoff returns.”

A quick note about the Ravens Special Teams Coordinator Jerry Rosburg … ESPN asked 45 of their analysts to rank five candidates who currently are not head coaches in the NFL that they’d consider hiring.

It wasn’t much, but Rosburg got a vote. “Rosburg is one to watch,” the article said.

Steve Spagnuolo and Vic Fangio Interview for Head Coaching Jobs

As we wait to hear who the Ravens’ next defensive coordinator will be, two commonly-linked candidates are getting a crack at head coaching vacancies first.

Vic Fangio, who has several ties to the Harbaugh family and an impressive long and proven record, interviewed yesterday to become the Bears’ head coach.

Fangio aspires to be a head coach, and it was logical for the Bears to hear his presentation, not only because of his success, but also because they would value retaining him as defensive coordinator in the event they hire someone else for the top job,” wrote The Chicago Tribune’s Rich Campbell. “Fangio’s contract with the Bears expires this offseason, and he would have no shortage of suitors as a defensive coordinator elsewhere.”

Meanwhile, Steve Spagnuolo interviewed for the Giants’ head-coaching job after serving as the interim head coach for the past month after New York fired Ben McAdoo in early December. Spagnuolo worked on the defensive staff in Baltimore in 2013 and 2014 before leaving to be the Giants defensive coordinator.

“[H]e doesn’t appear to be a primary candidate [in New York],” wrote Zrebiec.

Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh will meet with media at 11 a.m. today and could announce his new defensive coordinator.

Both Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey Rank Among NFL’s Top Corners

The future looks bright at the Ravens cornerback position.

Pro Football Focus says both Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey ranked among the top five NFL corners in passer rating when targeted in coverage. Smith will be rehabbing his torn Achilles this summer, but is expected back at some point midseason next year.

Humphrey took over Smith’s starting role in the final four games of the season and proved he is more than capable of starting full time next season.

“Coming into the league, I think everybody says that Alabama DBs are going to be a bust,” Humphrey told reporters during Monday’s locker room cleanout. “So that was one of the things I was trying to change that trend around. Me and [Chicago Bears safety] Eddie Jackson, that was one of the things where we were like, ‘That’s going to have to change.’ [New Orleans Saints cornerback] Marshon Lattimore is probably the [Rookie] Defensive Player of the Year, but I think all of the rookie cornerbacks balled pretty well this year. So it’s definitely a big thing for me to be in that top five.”

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