Here's my nomination for the most important question about NFL teams that doesn't get asked often enough:
How good is your depth?
It's a basic query that produces other, more pointed questions such as: Do your backups have the potential to save you if injuries hit? Or are you operating without a safety net?
Seriously, how often do you hear media chatterers mulling those questions?
The focus is on front-line players, big names, starters. It's inevitable. They're the better players, the stars, the ones making the amazing plays and drawing the fat paychecks.
But while they deserve attention, guys buried on the depth chart in training camp can end up being just as important to their team's prospects.
Everyone wants to know how Ravens starters such as running back Justin Forsett, cornerback Jimmy Smith, center Jeremy Zuttah and others look in training camp, but backups such as running back Lorenzo Taliaferro, cornerback Rashaan Melvin and center/guard John Urschel could end up playing similarly crucial roles by the end of the year. Remember last season?
Unfortunately, injuries are so common in today's NFL that teams never stop reaching into their depth for a dose of salvation at some position. Few days pass in this league without word circulating about a key player going down somewhere.
It's a shame, but the reality is pro football is a rugged game and front offices mostly just hold their breath and hope the wheel of misfortune doesn't stop on them.
The Ravens aren't excused from this bitter calculus. They dealt with a staggering run of injuries to their defensive backs in 2014. Last week, they exhaled deeply on the first day of training camp when top draft pick Breshad Perriman went down with a knee injury that was "only" a bruise. Now, with the news that safety Matt Elam has a biceps injury, it appears they have suffered the first major subtraction from their blueprint for 2015.
Sorry to be a downer, but there are going to be more.
The good news for the Ravens is General Manager Ozzie Newsome is on the case. Remember at the end of last season when Newsome was asked which roster shortcomings he hoped to address in the offseason? "Our goal is to build the best 53-man roster we can," he said. It sounded like he was dodging the question, but I think Newsome was saying, "Our starting lineup is pretty good. I'm focusing on our depth."
If so, call it a lesson grimly learned after a 2014 season in which the secondary's depth was tapped and tapped until it finally went dry, undermining the Ravens' playoff chances.
No GM could have prepared for that many injuries to one part of his lineup, but I'm guessing the feeling of desperation is hard to forget. It wouldn't surprise me if Newsome and his crew spent the offseason playing a theoretical what-if game about each starter, theoretical as in, "What if he's hurt and can't play?"
Call it the football version of "It's a Wonderful Life," the classic film in which Jimmy Stewart's character sees what life is like when he is removed from the scene.
How do the Ravens fare in such a scenario? I think they're in as good a shape to deal with injuries as one could expect, starting with enviable depth on both lines. Offensively, Urschel, already a valuable piece, appears capable of taking over at several spots, and tackle James Hurst started playoff games last year. Defensively, the addition and/or return of young players such as Carl Davis, Brent Urban and Kapron Lewis-Moore has eased the effect of Haloti Ngata's departure.
There's a ton of depth at tight end, where the Ravens have drafted three players in the past two years; and also at wide receiver, where the competition for jobs is so fierce that quality candidates are going to get cut. At running back, where Forsett is the starter but more than 100 "backup" carries are up for grabs, Taliaferro looks formidable in his second season and rookie Buck Allen has impressed. Both will play.
It's not as clear how things will shake out behind the starters at the inside and outside linebacker spots, which weren't addressed in the draft; and also in the secondary, where Newsome has stockpiled candidates but Elam's injury is a grim reminder of what happened a year ago.
Overall, the Ravens appear to possess a deep bench, and in case I didn't make my point clearly, they're going to need it.