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We've all noticed the preseason rankings, and we've seen and read reports as the national media has poured through Westminster this preseason proclaiming how good the Ravens can be in 2010. Almost all of the ratings by the big-timers – ESPN, CBS, FOX, etc. – have the Ravens rated among the top five teams in the NFL. Each suggests that the Ravens are a legit Super Bowl contender.
Are we? Do we deserve that acclaim?
We'll all know eventually. But, if you're willing to listen to someone who has been in the NFL for all but two years since 1977, I'll say: "We're pretty good."
Let's start with the lines. You can't win at a big-time level if you're weak at either the offensive or defensive lines. We're good on both sides of the ball. Former NFL O-lineman, Brian Baldinger, rates our offensive line as one of the five best in the NFL. Our center Matt Birk is a six-time Pro Bowler. Guard Ben Grubbs was a runner-up to the Pro Bowl last season. Left tackle Michael Oher is special, and some insiders believe that guard Marshal Yanda, a great effort player who brings a little nasty to every play, might be our best lineman. Whether it's Jared Gaither or Oniel Cousins, the Ravens will line up one of the better right tackles in the AFC.
On the other side of the ball is a line that features Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata, described by Baldinger as one of the five best players – players, not linemen – in the NFL. Throw in four-time Pro Bowler Trevor Pryce, Kelly Gregg and newly-signed Cory Redding, and you have a group that is impressive. Add three-time Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs rushing from the down position in pass situations, and you have a powerful group.
To be one of the best teams, you have to have a big-time quarterback. We believe we have it with Joe Flacco, who already has played in five playoff games in his first two seasons, winning three of them – all on the road.
Is Joe ready for the next step? Yes. And, it will be made easier with the additions of recievers Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth. Boldin, by the way, is the best receiver I've seen with the Ravens. He's a big man with strong hands with a willingness to catch in the most physical of situations. The best compliment I can give him is that he plays offense like Ray Lewis plays defense.
Add Pro Bowlers Ray Rice, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap to the Ravens/Flacco arsenal, and you start to understand why national reporters are so geeked about the Baltimore offense. You want more? Rookie tight end Ed Dickson is the real deal, and fellow rookie tight end Dennis Pitta isn't far behind. Hey, don't forget the Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain, who can be a top-notch tailback, when he's not clearing the way for Rice or Pro Bowler Willis McGahee.
Do we have to remind anyone that our defense was third in the NFL in total yards and points allowed last season? It starts with the line we already mentioned. That group is backed by No. 52 Ray Lewis, who continues to play at a league-best level. I don't know how much longer Ray can play the way he does. Logically, he should be slowing down and looking mortal. Just watch him. Savor it. Enjoy it. He's absolutely spectacular. Tough, quick, strong and seemingly all-knowing on the field, Ray clearly deserves to be in the conversation of the greatest defensive player ever.
Oh, by the way, outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, is outstanding. Lewis, Suggs and "J.J." are surrounded by a group of young linebackers that is the envy of teams in the league. "We'll have to let go of at least two linebackers who will play in the league this year," General Manager Ozzie Newsome has said.
We've all heard it: "What about the secondary?" This group is supposed to be our soft belly. In reality, we've lost one important player: Domonique Foxworth, who was placed on injured reserve after knee surgery. Losing the talented Foxworth is a blow. No doubt. But, Fabian Washington, Chris Carr and Lardarius Webb, who I believe will be back soon, are good corners. Do we have the elite corner that can go to the Pro Bowl seven or eight times? Probably not. Who does? How many elite corners are there in the NFL? Five? Six? Seven? I know there are not 10.
Look, there is no team in the NFL that is elite at every level. None. Are we weaker at corner than we are at quarterback, the lines, running backs or linebackers? Yes. But, we're not bad at corner. Ozzie would agree that we can't afford another injury there, and he'd love to add another good corner before the season starts. If that happens, great. If not, we'll survive.
We're really good at safety. We might have the best quality depth in the NFL. We're special and elite when Ed Reed plays. Will he play? Yes. When? That's something all of us – including our opponents – will find out when No. 20 comes back to the starting lineup.
I like our special teams. Whichever kicker wins the battle to be on our team, we'll be good. The other kicker, either Billy Cundiff or Shayne Graham, will kick for another NFL team this year. Sam Koch is one of the best punters, and our return and coverage teams will be at least better than average – hopefully very good with a core group that has now been together for a season.
That leaves Head Coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens' assistants. They've proved their worth already. Under Coach Harbaugh, the Ravens have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, winning three road playoff games, the most in the NFL in the last two postseasons. If the Ravens earn the playoffs this season, it will be the first time in team history that we've done that three years in a row. In fact, "Harbs" can become just the fourth coach in NFL history to have his team make the playoffs in his first three years as the boss. Pretty impressive.
Surely you need a little luck when it comes to winning championships, especially when it comes to the health of your players. However, there is no doubt that the Ravens are primed for a serious playoff and championship run. The ride will be fun and dramatic. Let's get ready to rumble…and enjoy it.
Talk to you next week,
Kevin Byrne , a Ravens senior vice president, has worked in the NFL for 32 years. Byrne has been with the Ravens since the start of the franchise in 1996. Earlier in his career, Byrne was the sports information director at Marquette University, his alma mater, when they won the 1977 NCAA basketball championship under coach Al McGuire.