NFL free agency has become its own entity, popular enough to warrant three-hour television specials and keep the Twitter trolls busier than usual. Every roster move draws an almost embarrassing amount of scrutiny.
So how was there not a bigger deal made about Steve Smith signing with the Ravens? It wasn’t just the most underrated signing of this offseason; in terms of 2014 impact, it was the best signing, period.
Smith got a modest deal: three years, $10.5 million. (He says it will be the last of his outstanding career.) Other receivers like Eric Decker, DeSean Jackson, Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate signed richer deals. But none of them can immediately rescue their team’s entire wide receiving corps the way Smith will.
Smith, 35, still has the speed, stop/start acceleration and body control to consistently beat man coverage. It’s been years since the Ravens have had someone who can do that. Last season, Torrey Smith posted a career-high 1,128 yards, but some of that production was simply a function of the rest of the Anquan Boldin-less receiving corps not garnering meaningful targets. Speaking of targets, Torrey Smith caught just 47 percent of his last year. With his limited change-of-direction quickness, Smith is a straight-line deep threat who needs someone underneath him regularly attracting coverage.
No one else in this receiving group is starter-caliber. Jacoby Jones has home run ability but also strikes out a lot. Marlon Brown showed hints of potential as a catch-and-run slot artist last year, but not enough to build around.
But then again, even if Steve Smith hadn’t signed on, defeating man coverage might have been less of an issue this season in Baltimore’s new system. After running a steady dose of isolation routes under Cam Cameron and Jim Caldwell, Ravens receivers will now be fed a diet of natural man-beaters like crossing patterns, pick routes and downfield seam combo routes in new coordinator Gary Kubiak’s play-action zone scheme.
To help fill and transition his scheme, Kubiak, who figures to have almost total autonomy from head coach John Harbaugh, got his trusted ex-Texans tight end Owen Daniels, a smooth, intelligent route runner who will start opposite Dennis Pitta. Entering his fifth season, Pitta has a chance to firmly entrench himself atop the league’s second tier of tight ends. He moves with ease and can catch balls away from his body. The only concern is that he and Daniels are not great in-line blockers.
It will be fascinating to watch Joe Flacco conduct Kubiak’s scheme. Though no Russell Wilson, Flacco is more mobile than people realize. And, being 6-6, 245, he has no trouble seeing downfield, so he won’t always have to fully extend the rolled pockets and bootlegs.
Flacco has better tools (by far) than anyone Kubiak had under center in Houston. The Ravens’ inability to win against man coverage on the outside has actually been a problem for years (even during their Super Bowl run two years ago) but often hasn’t felled this team because of Flacco’s ability to fire stick throws through tight windows. Few quarterbacks even flirt with the degree of difficulty that Flacco regularly attempts.
Last season, Flacco was not able to transcend his receivers’ weaknesses enough to sustain offense because he was intercepted 22 times (tied for second-most in the league). Twelve of those interceptions were explicitly his fault, with seven of them being poor reads.
It didn’t help that that there was no ground game to fall back on. Baltimore’s rushing attack ranked 30th, and it was 32nd in efficiency, averaging 3.1 yards per carry. It posted a league-high 100 runs by backs that generated zero or fewer yards. And that’s out of just 385 attempts.
Ray Rice in particular looked bad. The then-26-year-old lost his lateral cutting ability, patience and zone vision that he’d always used to slither between the tackles. While Rice sits out the first two games as punishment for a domestic violence incident, Bernard Pierce will carry the load. Pierce also was ineffective last season but showed very good ability to get to the perimeter as a rookie in 2012. Ravens venerated GM Ozzie Newsome also spent a fourth-round pick on Lorenzo Taliaferro who, at 6-0, 230, could give the backfield more interior toughness.
The Ravens’ offensive line also holds culpability for the poor rushing performance. It has operated in a zone scheme over the years, but Kubiak’s zone system should still bring about pleasant changes. One will be more stretch handoff elements, which means more outside zone blocking techniques. Two pieces that weren’t here for most of last year should help significantly: left guard Kelechi Osemele and center Jeremy Zuttah. Osemele was the line’s most gifted athlete prior to a season-ending back injury in November. Zuttah was acquired by trade from Tampa Bay, where he had developed into a very good on-the-move blocker.
More stability inside will presumably help right guard Marshal Yanda rediscover his upper echelon form. On the outside, the coaching staff was very pleased with the way left tackle Eugene Monroe played after being traded here from Jacksonville midseason. Monroe is more of a finesse blocker, which fits this system well. Right tackle, on the other hand, is a concern. Ricky Wagner, a 2013 fifth-round pick, really struggled with foot quickness when thrust into the lineup. If that’s the case again, fourth-year pro Jah Reid will capture the starting job.
The Ravens are no longer a dominant defensive team, but really, they haven’t been for several years. They just happened to have some dominant personalities.
Last year, in their first season without the most dominant of those personalities (whom you can now find on ESPN), they ranked 12th in both points and yards allowed. In the Super Bowl season before that, they ranked 12th in points and 17th in yards.
Don’t be surprised if those rankings drop in 2014—at least early on. This defense has gotten weaker at critical positions.
Start up front. Defensive end Arthur Jones was just emerging as a high-quality starter before leaving to play for former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis. Current defensive coordinator Dean Pees was given second-rounder Timmy Jernigan to plug into Jones’s spot. That might be a raw talent upgrade, but it could take Jernigan time to transition to the pro game—especially in a scheme that’s very multiple with its fronts.
On the back end, there’s the departure of nickel corner Corey Graham. This may hardly seem like a deathblow; Graham is a respectable but very replaceable player. But the Ravens haven’t replaced him. They’re hoping that 2012 fifth-round pick Asa Jackson or, more likely, 2011 fifth-rounder Chykie Brown can fill the void. If either were truly strong contenders, one would have pushed Graham last season. Jackson missed eight games while serving a suspension; Brown played just 39 snaps and was attacked on the outside.
It’s a similar story at safety. Trusty veteran James Ihedigbo followed his secondary coach, Teryl Austin, to Detroit in free agency. In Ihedigbo’s stead will be third-round rookie Terrence Brooks, who is competing with mediocre free agent pickup Darian Stewart for a starting job. (Recently signed Will Hill is also in the mix after he serves a six-game suspension.) The Ravens already know the risks that come with playing a rookie safety in their scheme. Last season, first-round pick Matt Elam had several rough learning experiences both in the box and back in coverage. Though to Elam’s credit, he did improve late in the year.
Harbaugh and Pees are betting that their defense’s poignant strong spots can overshadow their secondary’s frightening weak spots. It’s a safer bet than it seems given there are strong spots at all three levels.
Helping their nickel corner and safeties is a cornerbacking tandem that’s facing high expectations in man-to-man. On the defensive right side, Jimmy Smith has learned to play to his willowy strength. Don’t be surprised if he shadows opponents’ biggest wideouts. Lardarius Webb was 100 percent recovered from his 2012 ACL injury but has missed virtually all of training camp with a back injury. Once healthy, he’ll be primed to recapture his spot as an elite slot defender and superb deep-ball stopper.
Up front, Haloti Ngata’s big plays have been fewer and further between in recent years, but the ninth-year pro is still a wrecking ball who must be double-teamed. Depending on what front the Ravens are in—it will range from classic 3–4 to 4–3 over or 5–2 under—those double teams will leave single blocking for Chris Canty, which few offenses are comfortable with.
Ideally, second-year man Brandon Williams and fifth-year tease Terrence Cody (coming off hip surgery), will apply their combined 675 pounds of man (give or take a few cheeseburgers) to staunch nose tackle work, allowing Ngata to play various positions again.
On the edges of this front seven, Terrell Suggs remains a force in the pass rush and even more so against the run. Elvis Dumervil, a potent bull-rusher thanks to a 5-11 frame that allows for natural leverage against taller, clumsier offensive linemen, had 9.5 sacks in his first season with this club. And don’t forget Pernell McPhee. Entering his fourth season, the former fifth-round pick was expected to have blossomed into a star by now. He certainly has the explosive movement skills to do so. But last season McPhee, fully healthy for the first time in over 12 months, was about as dynamic as a Ben Stein speech. Instead of using him in a standup position, the Ravens should consider making him a nickel defensive tackle where he can operate out of a phone booth. That plays to his skills.
Courtney Upshaw is also in the outside linebacker mix, not just as a pass-rusher but as an increasingly sturdy cover guy. He joins Daryl Smith, another one of this defense’s strong spots, in a lot of the coverage concepts. Smith, a longtime Jaguar, is 32 but shows no sign of decline. In fact, he’s coming off a career year in which his performance on film actually topped his solid statistical output (five sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles). Accompanying Smith inside will likely be first-round rookie C.J. Mosley on running downs and last year’s second-rounder, Arthur Brown, on passing downs.
Justin Tucker is arguably the best kicker in football right now. Sam Koch hopes to have less work this year after punting 90 times (third-most in the league) because of the offense’s susceptibility to three-and-outs. Jacoby Jones brings electricity to the return game.
This offense needed to be refreshed, and Steve Smith and Kubiak’s system give this offense the infusion it needs. Baltimore’s defense, extremely deep and sprinkled with stars, will have to make some big plays to overcome a few glaring weak spots.