Tons of potential. Tons of questions.
That's my nutshell take on the Ravens' 2016 offense as the team heads into its third preseason game tonight at M&T Bank Stadium and builds toward the regular season opener on Sept. 11.
Yes, Baltimore's disappointing 2015 season vividly demonstrated the axiom that you should never count on big things until you actually see them. OK, point made. But in terms of potential, what COULD happen, I see a high ceiling on the offense this season.
Anytime you start with a Super Bowl-winning quarterback in what should be his prime, there's legitimate reason for optimism. Even though he's coming back from a knee injury and will take his first hit tonight, Joe Flacco looks healthy and has performed well in practice. I'm not quite ready to stamp "crisis averted" on his situation, but I'm close.
The next most important ingredient in the equation is the line, which, as always, could make or break the season. There's some change and uncertainty, which I'll get to, but the group is anchored by an All-Pro guard, a solid veteran center and a No. 6 overall draft pick playing lefttackle. I sense a quiet confidence.
As for the skill positions, the Ravens have four running backs who appear capable of handling at least part of a load, more quality tight ends than Offensive Coordinator Marc Trestman can deploy and an interesting receiving corps marked by a blend of youth and experience, different sizes and skill sets, three veterans who have registered 70-catch seasons and a first-round draft pick making his pro debut.
The Ravens haven't always surrounded Flacco with enough playmakers, but my two cents, Trestman has plenty to work with this year.
A year ago, he wrangled a No. 14 total offense ranking out of an inconsistent unit undermined by major injuries. I think it's fair to expect the top 10 this year. Hired in January 2015, Trestman is the first Ravens OC to start back-to-back seasons since Cam Cameron in 2011 and 2012, so there's philosophical and tactical continuity.
But while the offense's potential is evident, at least to me, a host of questions remain unanswered as the regular season nears.
For instance, can any of the running backs become a No. 1 who consistently makes plays? Justin Forsett did two years ago, and I'm guessing Kenneth Dixon could be the starter by next year. (Did you hear Flacco praise the quick-footed rookie in a podium interview Thursday?) But what about 2016?
The wide receivers generate even more questions. Who are the starters? Can Trestman find enough snaps and catches to satisfy everyone? Can Mike Wallace become a No. 1-caliber target again after several years of declining production? Did Steve Smith Sr.'s Achilles tear set him back or can he still produce at age 37? Can Breshad Perriman and Michael Campanaro stay healthy? Is rookie Chris Moore ready to contribute?
At tight end, the depth chart and possibilities run deep, but there are doubts about the durability of everyone except veteran Benjamin Watson. When, if ever, will Dennis Pitta finally get back on the field? Can Maxx Williams and Crockett Gillmore stay healthy?
Up front, it remains to be seen whether Ronnie Stanley can protect Flacco's blindside as a rookie; whether the Ravens really can prosper with two rookies on the left side if Alex Lewis ends up at guard; whether center Jeremy Zuttah is all the way back from a shoulder injury that ended his 2015 season; and whether tackle Rick Wagner can raise his performance from a year ago.
Can this line dominate opponents enough to get the running game going? That's a crucial question, as Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh is demanding that the ground game pick up.
Earlier this week, when asked what he expected to see from his offense in 2016, Trestman gave a long answer. My translation, he wants to see a) fewer turnovers; b) a better running game; c) skill-position guys mixed and matched to create mismatches; and d) more playmaking from the wideouts.
It's all possible. The potential is there. But so are the questions.