Offseason Power Rankings: Ravens Finally Get Some Respect
This is rare.
Ravens fans won't know what to do with themselves after they've embraced the role as the NFL's blue collar underdogs.
But the Ravens are no underdogs in theMMQB.com's Peter King's NFL offseason power rankings. King went out on a limb with the first training camp practices still 55 days away (meaning nothing of great substance is happening for almost two months), and put Baltimore at the top of his 32-team list.
"Why? I trust John Harbaugh to find answers in a league devoid of a truly great team," wrote King. "I trust the running game to take pressure off Joe Flacco until he develops chemistry with new receivers, and I trust Dean Pees to replace Haloti Ngata with a combination platter of front-seven changeups."
It's an early projection in what King calls a "silly season" of power rankings, but free agency is essentially over and the draft has been in the books for a month. Few teams will add much to their rosters at this point, including the Ravens, who did anadmirable job (at least on paper) replacing key free-agent losses this offseason. We'll see what the season holds.
But one can't help but notice King's first reason for believing in Baltimore before a game is even played: eight-year veteran Head Coach John Harbaugh.
The man has taken his team to the playoffs in six of his seven years despite drastic turnover each season, including a rotating cast at offensive coordinator. He's only had four players remain with him during his entire Baltimore career (since 2008): Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Sam Koch and Marshal Yanda. They're obviously four franchise players, but that's still a whole lot of change. General Manager Ozzie Newsome builds the roster, and Harbaugh coaches them into perennial playoff teams.
King also shows respect to running back Justin Forsett and the offensive line, saying they can help carry the load while a host of young targets develop with Flacco. And despite suffering the biggest defensive loss since Ray Lewis and Ed Reed rode off into the sunset, King doesn't see Ngata's departure stopping the Ravens from finding success.
Oh, and by the way, after one open-to-the-media practice session, word is the defensive line is looking pretty good.
"There will be a lot of focus on how the Ravens fare against the run after trading defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, and rightfully so," wrote ESPN's Jamison Hensley. "But the Ravens had to feel more confident in how they will hold up after watching Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams spend most of the afternoon in the offensive backfield.
"It should be noted again that this was a non-contact practice and the offense had all backups on the offensive line. Still, the athleticism and power of Jernigan and Williams to get around blocks can't be discounted."
All of it adds up to King having major confidence in the Ravens, who weren't too far from a return to the AFC championship game just a few months ago.
"This is a battle-tested team that had two 14-point playoff leads in Foxboro last January. I just think the Ravens will find a way," wrote King.
You can see King's full NFL offseason rankings here, and his top 10 below:
- Green Bay
- Kansas City
- New England
One thing is for sure. Harbaugh won't be able to get on King's case, like he did last year, for not picking him … at least not yet.
Defense Hinges On Secondary, And It's Looking Much Better
While much of the attention has been on filling the gigantic hole left by Ngata, CSNBaltimore.com's Clifton Brown believes the success of the defense in 2015 hinges on the secondary.
And so far, the unit looks promising.
"I think the key is still going to be the secondary," Brown said. "I think a guy to watch is Will Hill. … He's a guy that I think is going to make an impact probably as a starting safety or at least certainly is going to compete for that role. If Will Hill steps into that spot, I think the Ravens have a good chance to have an improved secondary."
Hill could enjoy a breakthrough season similar to the way a rookie does in his second year after getting a full offseason under his belt. Hill was suspended for the first six games last year, and it took some time for him to get fully acclimated. Harbaugh said Hill is "light years" ahead of where he was last year.
On top of that, cornerback Jimmy Smith is well on his way in recovering from season-ending foot surgery. He wasn't interested in wearing his red non-contact jersey last week during OTA practices, opting to tuck it into his shorts.
Cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Asa Jackson are also looking healthy and the Ravens added more firepower with safety Kendrick Lewis and veteran corners Kyle Arrington and Cassius Vaughn.
"Kyle Arrington had good position on several throws, and Kendrick Lewis looks like a good fit alongside Will Hill in the back end of the Ravens defense," wrote CSNBaltimore.com's Bo Smolka. "If Webb, Smith and Asa Jackson are all healthy this fall, this unit is deeper and better than a year ago."
Vaughn Feels 'Blessed' To Join Ravens
Vaughn, the newest member of the secondary, flew to Baltimore Thursday night, passed his physical and signed his one-year, $825,000 contract, according to The Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson.
He will compete with Jackson and Rashaan Melvin as the fifth or sixth corner, says Hensley, as he jumps into practices with the team this week.
"It's a great opportunity," Vaughn told Wilson. "It's a blessing that the front office gave me this chance and let me become a Raven. I've been watching them for so long. It's a steady consistency and a great organization."
Vaughn has played five NFL seasons, including last year for the Detroit Lions where he started five of 13 games, intercepted two passes and made 18 tackles.
Injuries forced him to play in the slot last year, but he excels more on the outside. He graded as the 80th-best corner last season by Pro Football Focus, which was two spots below Webb.
"I bring my own type of savvy and knowing the game a little bit," Vaughn said. "I'm still one of those guys who's got a lot to prove. I don't feel like I've necessarily got it all down yet. I've always got a chip on my shoulder. This group has a lot of fight in them. I love the way Lardarius plays. I like his game a lot. I'm just trying to add to it and learn from those guys and the coaching staff. It's going to be fun."
The transition to Baltimore's defense shouldn't be too difficult, as Vaughn has played for two former Ravens defensive coaches. He was with former Ravens Defensive Coordinator Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis and former Ravens Secondary Coach Teryl Austin in Detroit.
"There could be a few things that are the same, but, whatever it is, I'm just excited," Vaughn said. "I'm glad to be around the guys and be around the coaching staff. It's going to be a nice process and I'm looking forward to it."
More OTA Observations, Including A Vocal Trestman
Over the weekend, media members published more of their observations from the two-hour practice session they viewed Thursday:
- "New offensive coordinator Marc Trestman is very engaged with the players. He is always a few steps away from the huddle and could be heard speaking to players as they were running their routes. This is a different approach from Gary Kubiak, who took on more of an observer role in practices. Many players have complimented Trestman on his communication, even though he has only been able to talk about football for the last month." – Hensley
- "With the entire starting offensive line absent for the voluntary OTA, it provided a possible glimpse into the future as John Urschel lined up at center. Urschel, who made five starts at guard last season (including two in the playoffs), is certainly smart enough to handle the job. He's a published math scholar who won the William V. Campbell Trophy, which is often referred to as the academic Heisman. This is a good note to remember considering the Ravens traded their top backup at center Gino Gradkowski this offseason and can create $2.1 million in cap room if they cut starting center Jeremy Zuttah next year." – Hensley
- "There's always a saying that the biggest jump for players is between their first and second years because they get a full offseason in the team's conditioning program. This could be the case with backup running back Lorenzo Taliaferro. He noticeably shed some weight since the end of last season and looks sleeker running the ball. Taliaferro is expected to battle rookie Buck Allen for the primary backup job behind Justin Forsett." – Hensley
- "What a difference a year makes for Justin Forsett. Last year at this time, Justin Forsett was a virtual unknown in Ravens camp, a veteran newcomer fighting to carve out a spot in a crowded running back group that figured to be led by Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. But now Forsett is a proven No. 1 back and the undisputed leader of the running back group." – Smolka
- "Darren Waller is a physical specimen. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, the rookie receiver from Georgia Tech stands out in the receiver group. He had a couple of nice catches during 11-on-11 drills and could be a handful for defensive backs. Waller had just 51 career catches in Paul Johnson's triple-option offense at Georgia Tech, but he will be an intriguing prospect to watch in camp. "He grabs your attention out there just when he walks on the field," Harbaugh said after Thursday's workout, "but as we know, that's not enough. But he's making plays after the ball is snapped also. Again, when the pads come on, we'll know more, but he sure has a good frame, and he knows what he's doing, and he's a pretty good route runner for a big man like that." – Smolka
- "The outside linebackers had an excellent day as well, being fast to the ball during running plays and displaying a bit of speed on the outside blitzes. Courtney Upshaw would have had a massive sack on the day if the players were able to hit and the Ravens would be looking for a new backup quarterback. Upshaw came around the right side of the line untouched and would have planted Schaub into the ground. On the other side, Za'Darius Smith is already showing that he is a clone of Pernell McPhee with his dreads flying around behind him. He had great instincts, picking up a screen pass from backup quarterback Matt Schaub, ultimately tipping it into the air for an interception and a rumble all the way for a touchdown." – Matthew Stevens, Baltimore Beatdown