2017 NFL season preview – Baltimore Ravens

2016 Record: 8-8; 2nd AFC North
Head coach: John Harbaugh (Ravens W/L: 95-64, Career W/L: 95-64)
General manager: Ozzie Newsome

Key ins: CB Brandon Carr Cowboys; S Tony Jefferson Cardinals; WR Jeremy Maclin Chiefs; RB Danny Woodhead Chargers
Key outs: WR Kamar Aiken; LB Elvis Dumervil; DE Lawrence Guy; NT Timmy Jernigan; FB Kyle Juszcyzk; LB Zach Orr; CB Jerraud Powers; WR Steve Smith Sr; T Rick Wagner; CB Shareece Wright; C/G Jeremy Zuttah

Draftees: R1 (16) CB Marlon Humphrey, Alabama; R2 (47) OLB Tyus Bowser, Houston; R3 (74) DE Chris Wormley, Michigan; R3 (78) OLB Tim Williams, Alabama; R4 (122) G Nico Siragusa, San Diego State; R5 (159) T Jermaine Eluemunor, Texas A&M; R6 (186) DB Chuck Clark, Virginia Tech

In Week 3 last year, Baltimore got their third straight win against Jacksonville only for the wheels to come off with a four-game losing tear to follow. In a scheduling quirk, they’ll face the Jaguars again at the same point of this season – only this time it’ll be at Wembley.

It’ll be the Ravens’ first visit to these shores (Jacksonville’s fifth). That means UK fans will get to see the newest Brit to make it into the NFL up close. Tackle Jermaine Eluemunor was inspired by catching a glimpse of the first NFL International Series game on TV in 2007. Who’d have thought a soaking wet Cleo Lemon and Jesse Chatman would provoke such a response?

Eluemunor’s journey took in flag football at the London Blitz, American high school, junior college then the mighty Texas A&M before hearing his name called in the fifth round of this year’s NFL Draft. The boy from Chalk Farm, London can expect plenty of local support when he returns in September.

The rookie joins a franchise that won a Super Bowl as recently as 2012, but that feels like a long time ago. Since John Harbaugh’s victory in the Brother Bowl, starting quarterback Joe Flacco is 29-29. He suffered a torn ACL and MCL in 2015 but his struggles over the last five years have been well documented. He earned his money in 2016, throwing 672 passes – more than anyone in the NFL not named Drew Brees (673). But that career-high in attempts didn’t pay dividends, in fact his touchdown percentage of 20 in 4,317 throws was the lowest of his career at 3.0%. The strong-armed passer was also wayward when pushing the ball downfield. On passes over 20 yards, he completed only 14 of 44 for one score and three picks.

The aerial blitz was largely down to the Ravens pedestrian running game and the team’s commitment to it – the Ravens ranked 28th in the league in yards on the ground. How Ravens fans must yearn for a featured back like Jamal Lewis, Ray Rice or Priest Holmes. Terrance West was, and will remain, the starter. The former Brown and Titan led the team with 774 yards and five scores. Rookie Kenneth Dixon showed flashes of ability but will miss the first four games of 2017 with a suspension for violating the league’s PED policy.

Everyone’s favourite sub-six-footer, the versatile Danny Woodhead was signed from San Diego to boost the backfield. The ex-Jet and Patriot is two seasons removed from a 1,091 all-purpose-yard, nine-TD season with the Chargers (336/3 rush, 755/6 receiving). In between, however, he tore his ACL in Week 2 of 2016. A fully recovered version of the 31-year-old scatback will provide a new receiving option for Flacco. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk went in the opposite direction to join Kyle Shanahan’s revolution in San Francisco.

Fellow new signing Jeremy Maclin will be rubbing his hands at the prospect of running under some Flacco rainbows after a two-year diet of Alex Smith passes in Kansas City. Maclin, cut by the Chiefs in June, drags the Ravens receiver group up a notch after Steve Smith’s retirement left the cupboard a little bare.

Mike Wallace had his best yardage total since his Pro Bowl season of 2011 in Pittsburgh (1,017 yards) and was the offense’s most explosive player, while 2015 first-rounder Breshad Perriman chipped in with 499 yards and three TDs after missing his entire rookie season with a knee injury. The tight end spot will be filled by Ben Watson (who missed and Crockett Gillmore after Dennis Pitta suffered a third devastating hip injury in OTAs.

43 Marshal Yanda (2016 RANKING 37)

Baltimore’s offensive line contains a bonafide star in Marshal Yanda. Rated as Pro Football Focus’s best lineman in the NFL in 2016, the guard has been to the last six Pro Bowls. Suffering from a shoulder injury that kept him out for three games, he asked Harbaugh if he could switch from the right to left to mediate the effect of the sore joint and didn’t miss a beat. Moving back to his usual spot for 2017, the left features two second-year players of promise. Ronnie Stanley (sixth overall pick) started 12 games at left tackle as a rookie and showed unexpected ability in the running game, while Alex Lewis (130th selection) is a fixture at guard after eight starts in his first season. John Urschel steps into the departed Jeremy Zuttah’s shoes at centre. Eluemunor will look to break into this line-up.

Defensively, the Ravens legacy of hard-nosed, rugged play continues. In 2016, the unit, coordinated by Dean Pees for the fifth season, finished top 10 in most categories. The Ravens were the leading interceptors in NFL with 18 passes pilfered from opposing teams. The marshall of the defensive backfield in 2016 was the awesome Eric Weddle.

Fresh from an acrimonious exit from San Diego, Weddle stole four passes, his highest total since 2011 and provided leadership that had been missing in the three previous years after Ed Reed’s retirement. In 2017, Weddle could be one half of the best safety duo on the league after the free agent signing of Tony Jefferson from James Bettcher’s top 10 defense in Arizona. With both players able to play up on the line of scrimmage, blitz or cover, Pees’ will enjoy moving his pieces around to confound opposing offences.

The ability in the secondary doesn’t begin and end at safety, through the draft came Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey (son of former Broncos RB Bobby) with the 16th pick. Mike Mayock rated Humphrey, who ran a 4.41-second 40 at the Combine, as the second-best corner in this year’s class. Humphrey will look to rotate with the starters – former Cowboy Brandon Carr, who’s started all 144 games since Kansas plucked him with the 140th choice of the 2008 Draft and Jimmy Smith, healthy again after being bothered by knee and ankle injuries last season.

7 Marshal Yanda (2015 RANKING 16)
10 Eric Weddle (2015 RANKING NR)
97 Justin Tucker (2015 RANKING NR)

Baltimore’s linebacking corps took a big hit when leading tackler, third-year player Zach Orr retired with a congenital spinal condition. He’s reportedly looking into a return, but due to a paperwork snafu, he’s technically an unrestricted free agent. Kamalei Correa will move inside to fill Orr’s shoes. He’ll pair with CJ Mosley, who went to his second Pro Bowl in three years after four interceptions. At outside linebacker, The Ageless Terrell Suggs™ provides the pass rush (8.0 sacks in 2016), but turns 35 in October. GM Ozzie Newsome drafted Tyus Bowser from Houston and Tim Williams from Alabama to develop behind Suggs.

Downing the quarterback was an issue in 2016 as the Ravens ranked mid-20s in the NFL in sacks. Chris Wormley was drafted in the third round from Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan and much is hoped for from him. In the middle of the line, one of the league’s best run-stuffers, nose tackle Brandon Williams, got paid in the offseason with five-year $54million deal.

In kicker Justin Tucker the Baltimore can boast one of the best at the position in the NFL. He led all field goal kickers with 38 made (from 39 attempts) in 2016 and was flawless on extra points.





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