The Ravens began training camp facing what I would call a typical to-do list springing from position battles, roster uncertainties and the desire to polish Xs and Os.
Plenty needs to get done before camp ends next month. But ascertaining the top priority on the Ravens' list – their No. 1 goal for training camp – is a no-brainer:
They want to get their passing game going – need to get their passing game going.
It was their focus throughout an offseason in which GM Ozzie Newsome rebuilt the receiving corps with free agent wideouts and rookie tight ends. Now, the focus of camp (and the preseason) becomes getting those targets in sync with quarterback Joe Flacco before the regular season begins Sept 9.
But you knew that, right? After the Ravens ranked No. 29 in the league in passing last season, they had no choice but to make the fix a priority.
A question with a less obvious answer, I'd say, is what, exactly, are they looking for? What would an improved passing game look like?
A good one brings a lot to the table, including the ability to go deep. But again, I think the top priority is a no-brainer.
Move. The. Chains.
The Ravens' inability to do that consistently a year ago was a significant problem and a factor in their falling short of the playoffs. No doubt, that's where the renewal of the passing game starts.
Move. The. Chains.
Several metrics illustrate what a problem it was last year. The Ravens ranked No. 27 in the league in third down conversions, turning just 34.1 percent of their thirds into firsts. (Top-ranked Atlanta converted 44.7 percent and second-ranked Pittsburgh converted 44.0 percent.) They also ranked No. 8 in the league in a dreaded statistic – percentage of possessions resulting in three-and-outs. Slightly more than one-fourth of their drives (26.5 percent) lasted three plays. If that sounds like a lot, it is.
With that in mind, Newsome seemingly prioritized a specific skill – the potential to move the chains – as he rebuilt Flacco's complement of targets.
Two of the team's new veteran wide receivers, Willie Snead IV and Michael Crabtree, are known as clever route runners more than outright speed burners, making them valuable on third downs.
Snead's numbers are astounding. Ninety-five of his 141 receptions with the New Orleans Saints in 2015-16 produced a new set of downs. His totals dropped last year, mostly due to an injury, but the Ravens are gambling he can still find open space out of the slot and make catches that move the chains.
Watching him on the practice field, it certainly seems he is developing nice chemistry with Flacco.
Crabtree is regarded as a red-zone expert and general big-play guy, but he also has a history of excelling at the nuts-and-bolts skill of moving the chains. Well over half of his career catches (348 of 579) have produced first downs.
Newsome's drafting of tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews seemingly also was engineered with moving the chains in mind. The Ravens were perfectly positioned to add another wide receiver in the first round, but instead, they traded back twice before finally selecting Hurst at No. 25 overall. Then they went back to the well for Andrews in the third round.
I believe the goal is to use the two tight ends to bring back what Dennis Pitta offered and Flacco loved – using the middle of the field to move the chains. That element of their passing game was largely missing in 2017, even as Benjamin Watson fought the good fight with a team-high 61 receptions.
With Hurst and Andrews working the middle and Snead and Crabtree working outside of them , the Ravens hope to give Flacco many better options on third downs.
Of course, they obviously understand there's more to a passing game than just moving the chains. They also want to hit more home runs with deep balls, which helps explain the signing of free agent John Brown, one of the fastest receivers in the league.
But no matter what else they do in the air, if the Ravens improve their third down conversion percentage, they'd be well on their way to fielding a more productive passing game.