Is Excitement Surrounding Wide Receivers Justified?
A year after their disappointing passing attack ranked 29th in the league in yards per game and 20th in touchdowns, there's a buzz surrounding the Ravens' passing offense.
The Ravens almost entirely retooled their receiving corps, bringing in free agent veterans Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV. When Baltimore names its 53-man squad for the regular season, at most, there will be just two receivers in the group that were on the team in 2017.
All three of Baltimore's additions have excelled this summer in training camp practices, and local media has raved about the trio's potential. But despite the optimism, there are still some doubters who don't believe the Ravens did enough to address their deficiencies from last season.
Pro Football Focus’ Michael Renner didn't show much faith in the Ravens' new receivers when he put them at No. 23 in his preseason rankings. You can also count Sports Illustrated's Andy Benoit among those who aren't excited.
Benoit even called the team's new receivers "mediocre" during his preview of the 2018 Ravens.
Though Benoit's wording is harsh, it's fair to question Baltimore's passing attack because it is so unknown right now. The Ravens' first-string receivers have played just one series through two preseason games, though they did do well, leading Russell Street Report’s Carey Stevenson to write it's "just jarring the upgrade in talent for this offense."
One series is not enough to gauge how this unit will do over the course of the season though.
It's also unsettling because the Ravens were in this position just last season. At this time last year, there was optimism surrounding the wide receivers because of Mike Wallace's 1,000-yard season in 2016, and the signing of free agent Jeremy Maclin.
The addition of Maclin really had Baltimore excited, as the team and fans hoped he could regain his previous form when he posted more than 2,400 yards from 2014-2015. The receiver was wanted so badly that even Jimmy’s Seafood helped recruit him by offering Maclin free crab cakes for life.
Maclin's production fell even more though, as he finished the year with 40 receptions, 440 yards and three touchdowns. Wallace was better with 52 catches, 748 yards and four touchdowns, but the duo did not become the explosive 1-2 punch the Ravens had hoped for. Maclin was released and is still unsigned. Wallace left in free agency for Philadelphia.
Simply put, it just didn't work out. It's always possible the same could happen this year. Crabtree, Brown and Snead are all coming off seasons in which their production dropped significantly from the year before. They're all searching for rebounds.
There are reasons for enthusiasm, though. For starters, the passing attack struggled during the preseason last year, and that carried into the regular season. The Ravens' passing offense has looked crisp and explosive all throughout the summer.
It plays into the notion that Benoit simply disagrees with – the revamped receiving corps is an upgrade on last year's group. Despite rating the Ravens' receivers in the bottom half of the NFL, even Renner noted "the Ravens are one of the most improved receiving corps in the league."
One area where the receivers should definitely improve is the red zone. Crabtree helps with that -- his 25 touchdowns over the past three seasons ranks among league leaders and is also more than Maclin's and Wallace's combined total for the last three years. Recently, Pro Football Focus’ Austin Gayle named Crabtree as the NFL's best wide receiver in the red zone.
Brown's play has also been encouraging, which led The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec to name him as the "standout" of training camp.
"Nobody made more plays than Brown during training camp," Zrebiec wrote. "He caught deep balls, he got his share of underneath stuff and he even showed an ability to go up and make contested catches. Brown and quarterback Joe Flacco were on the same page throughout the summer."
That unknown factor will surround the receivers until the Ravens open the regular season against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 9. It might be best to reserve judgment of the group until then. That's what Crabtree is doing.
"You see it the first game," Crabtree said May 31. "Practice is what you practice, and in the game, it's showtime. Once you see it in the game multiple times, then you get comfortable."
Mixed Reports on Offensive Line
Benoit wasn't just critical of the Ravens' wide receivers in his preview. He also went after Baltimore's offensive line.
"A run-based approach can help an unathletic offensive line, since run-blocking is proactive movement, not reactive like in pass-blocking," Benoit wrote. "Still, Baltimore's front-line limitations will be a concern."
Zrebiec is also unsure about Baltimore's offensive line, referring to it as "the team’s biggest question mark."
The main issue with the offensive line seems to be similar to that of the wide receivers – that sense of unknown creates doubt about whether this group will be effective. Outside of left tackle Ronnie Stanley and Marshal Yanda at right guard, the starting alignment still isn't settled.
Much of that uncertainty hinges on the battle at right tackle, which features veteran James Hurst and rookie third-round pick Orlando Brown Jr.
"If rookie Orlando Brown, who fell to the third round after a disastrous combine, can't acclimate, the Ravens will be left with perhaps the NFL's worst right tackle situation," Benoit wrote.
That's a stretch considering Hurst is a proven five-year veteran coming off his best season as a pro. While Hurst doesn't have a lot of experience at right tackle, he's started 32 regular-season games.
It also appears as if Brown may be up to the challenge of starting right away in the NFL. He's looked excellent throughout training camp, and was rated by Pro Football Focus as one of the top tackles during the first week of preseason games while being on the field for 57 snaps. Brown was also named to Renner’s Preseason Week 1 NFL Team of the Week.
In fact, the entire starting offensive line (minus Yanda) got rave reviews after its first showing against the Rams. The Baltimore Sun’s Childs Walker wrote the group "played well in protecting Flacco and Jackson," while Russell Street Report’s Brandon Portney noted "the offensive line looked better, particularly in the run game."
It was an encouraging first showing, but Zrebiec still has concerns about the group's overall inexperience.
"The top candidates for the three reserve spots are Orlando Brown Jr. (if he can't beat out James Hurst to start at right tackle), Bradley Bozeman, Jermaine Eluemunor, Greg Senat and Nico Siragusa," Zrebiec wrote. "Those five players have eight NFL games between them, all by Eluemunor. The Ravens will have to stay remarkably healthy up front for this not to become an issue."
When it comes to the unit's health, there's nobody more essential than Yanda. The six-time Pro Bowler is off the Physically Unable to Perform and has been practicing, but is yet to play in a game.
It should also be noted that the line performed admirably last year after losing Yanda in Week 2. The group finished as the league's No. 18 offensive line in 2017 according to Renner. Add Yanda and Alex Lewis to that mix and the group will undoubtedly be better, despite the loss of center Ryan Jensen.
Lamar Jackson Helps a Run-First Offense Most; Jalen Ramsey Weighs in on Jackson & Flacco
Entering training camp, many media members thought a quarterback battle would take place between Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson. However, it was clear since OTAs that there was no quarterback controversy – Flacco is going to be the team's starter in 2018.
Despite this, Benoit still thinks it would make most sense from a strategic perspective for the Ravens to start Jackson due to the expectation of the offense being a run-first unit this season. Jackson, as we all know, is quite dynamic when he takes off running.
"Jackson's mobility presents significantly more dimension to a rushing attack," Benoit wrote.
Indeed, Benoit already has a lot of confidence that Baltimore is going to be able to run the ball well, calling running back Alex Collins "a strong run finisher with surprisingly light feet. He can be a 1,200-yard back if featured for 16 games." Adding Jackson to the mix as a starter would make the rushing attack more explosive.
Benoit isn't the only one clamoring to see Jackson take the field. Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey praised Jackson during his explosive interview with GQ’s Clay Skipper.
"I think he's gonna do a good job. Especially with the [Baltimore Ravens'] offensive coordinator—he likes running quarterbacks, likes that read option."
Ramsey, who ripped numerous quarterbacks throughout the league, was not as complimentary of Flacco after the Jaguars beat the Ravens, 44-7, in London last year. Still dealing with his back injury, Flacco was 8-of-18 for 28 yards and two interceptions (including one by Ramsey) in the game.
Ramsey also found it strange that Jackson fell to No. 32 in the draft. In his mind, Jackson was the quarterback most similar to Baker Mayfield, who the Cleveland Browns selected No. 1.
"If all the other people were competing and wanting Baker, too, then why wasn't Lamar the second quarterback chosen?" Ramsey said.
Michael Pierce Selected to ESPN's Unique All-NFL 53-Man Roster
It's tough enough to select a 53-man roster based strictly off the players within the Ravens organization.
Imagine how hard it must've been for ESPN’s Bill Barnwell when he was tasked with creating a 53-man roster that included a player from every NFL team, while also taking finances into account, as well as multiple other factors.
"Yeah, we did it," Barnwell wrote. "Forget last year's squad – this is the best NFL roster money can buy under the salary cap."
If you say so Mr. Barnwell.
Defensive tackle Michael Pierce was the only Raven selected by Barnwell. Pierce is coming off a strong sophomore campaign in which he finished with 32 tackles, and was rated as the 11th best interior defender in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.
"When we need a traditional nose tackle in run situations, we'll bring on the 340-pound Pierce, who somehow went undrafted in 2016," Barnwell wrote.
Pierce got after it in the weight room this offseason, leading to hopes that he'll be even better in Year 3.
Good Morning Football Gives Ravens Some National Media Love
It's pretty clear that the NFL Network's Good Morning Football crew reads Late for Work every day.
Just yesterday, Late for Work focused on how the Ravens have been getting undervalued by the national media this offseason. Then, Good Morning Football did a segment focused on which team could top the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC North title.
What ensued was, as Kyle Brandt put it, a "Ravens hype segment," as all four of the show's pundits picked Baltimore.
"I look at the Ravens defense and I don't know how teams are going to score points on them," Peter Schrager said. "They are so loaded and if they are healthy this year, the Ravens are going to compete not only with the Steelers, but with every other team in the AFC. They might be a dark horse to go to the Super Bowl."