Friday, October 31, 2008

The State of the Ravens - 6 Questions to Ponder

As the Ravens sit at 4-3, second place in the AFC North, here are six questions to ponder at the halfway point.

1) How will the Ravens finish?

The Ravens face a difficult stretch of three straight road games, starting this Sunday in Cleveland. If they can go 2-1 against Cleveland, Houston, and the New York Giants, they will put themselves in position to contend for a playoff spot.

Facing the impressive NFC East will allow the Ravens to show what they’re made of. A 2-2 record against New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Dallas would impress and put them in contention. They also face difficult home games against Pittsburgh and Jacksonville at the end of the season.

Considering the injuries to the offensive line and secondary, 9-7 would be a realistic goal and would exceed the expectations of most people entering the season. Given the competitive balance of the AFC this season, this would allow the Ravens to contend for the playoffs, quite a feat for a team with a rookie quarterback and coming off a 5-11 season a year ago.

2) What will quarterback Joe Flacco's final statistics look like?

Flacco’s poise and confidence as a rookie has to excite Ravens fans that have yearned for a franchise quarterback since the team’s inception in 1996. His calm demeanor is exactly what you want in a starting quarterback.

As for this season, Flacco simply lacks the weapons to really take the next step, production-wise. Though Derrick Mason is as reliable as they come in the short to intermediate range, the Ravens lack a receiver that can stretch the field, especially now that Demetrius Williams is on injured-reserve.

Flacco has clearly struggled when throwing beyond 12 or 13 yards. Part of this is due to inexperience, but the receivers’ lack of separation is a major reason why. Mark Clayton is too similar to Mason and cannot beat his man consistently.

Flacco’s season stats will be somewhere in the area of 2,800 yards with 13 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

3) Will Todd Heap's role in the offense increase?

Heap is starting to see more passes being thrown his way. Due to the uncertainty at both left and right tackle, Heap has been used more as a blocker, especially earlier in the season. As Jared Gaither and Willie Anderson continue to gel with the rest of the offensive line, Heap’s blocking will not be needed quite as much. However, the injuries to Adam Terry and Marshal Yanda (injured-reserve) have depleted the line’s depth, further complicating the situation.

Heap is still trying to win over the new coaching staff. His toughness has come into question, as he missed much of training camp with a calf injury after missing most of last season with a torn hamstring.

It will be interesting to see if Cam Cameron attempts to throw a few more wrinkles into the offense, trying to get Heap more involved. If not, it will be difficult to justify keeping him around after this season, given his high salary.

4) Now that he's healthy, will Troy Smith continue to get more playing time?

The “Suggs” package has sparked much excitement in Baltimore this past week. It is refreshing to see a Ravens offense with imagination and trickery after so many years of vanilla packages and ineffectiveness.

However, let’s not print the playoff tickets yet. This is a gimmick offense. It will only remain effective in small doses. As Smith continues to play, more tape will be available to opposing teams for scouting. Smith is athletic, no doubt, but he is not as fast as a young Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick.

John Harbaugh and Cameron must also remember they have a rookie quarterback to groom. Though Flacco appears to have nerves of steel, there’s no telling what effect it could have on him if Smith is inserted into the offense more and more, especially in passing situations.

Flacco is clearly the starting quarterback and the future of the organization. Fans calling for Smith need to remember that Flacco now has seven career starts compared to Smith’s two. Smith’s edge in experience is no longer there.

Flacco needs to be given every opportunity to grow into the offense and make it “his.” Can Smith be a part of that offense? Yes, but Cameron needs to look at the long-term progress of the offense, not just this week or this season.

5) What positions will the Ravens target in the 2009 NFL Draft?

General manager Ozzie Newsome will continue to live by the mantra “best player available.” The Ravens’ history of drafting in the first round is outstanding.

Depending on how they finish, the Ravens will look to draft a good young cornerback such as Malcolm Jenkins from Ohio State or Vontae Davis from Illinois. The current tandem of Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle are on the wrong side of 30 and may not even be with the team in 2009.

If no corners are available, they will look to grab a wide receiver that can really stretch the field. Maryland’s Darrius Heyward-Bey would be a popular choice. Heyward-Bey has good size and blinding speed. Jeremy Maclin of Missouri and Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech could also be good fits.

The Ravens could also look at defensive end, as veteran Trevor Pryce may not return in 2009.

6) Who will not be a Raven in 2009?

With the recent clash between cornerback Chris McAlister and Harbaugh, it appears the former first-round pick could be on his way out of town. McAlister’s knee is in bad shape, and his attitude is even worse. It would be hard to justify keeping a high-priced veteran cornerback with a bum knee and a bad attitude beyond this season. He is not a Harbaugh guy.

Cornerback Samari Rolle has battled injuries the past two seasons and could be a salary-cap cut. The team desperately needs to get younger at cornerback.

Inside linebacker Bart Scott will likely leave as a free agent, because the Ravens will have to sign linebackers Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis to new contracts. Scott is a product of Rex Ryan’s system and can easily be replaced by Nick Greisen or a healthy Tavares Gooden next season.

Pryce may retire or could possibly be cut to save cap room.

The Ravens will definitely look to get much younger in 2009 while maintaining Lewis and their core group of younger players.

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