Fantasy Mended: Ravens Ready to Take Flight
Injuries are a way of life in the NFL. A team’s fortune with avoiding or minimizing injuries is an enormous factor for success in the modern league. No team placed more players on the season-ending injured reserved list in 2015 than the Baltimore Ravens. Six of these players were week-one starters on the offensive side of the ball.
Much was expected of guru Marc Trestman when he seized the offensive coordinator reigns for the 2015 season. Many are quick to dismiss his first season in Baltimore as a failure, pointing to the team’s 5-11 record. In some respects, they are right; the offense didn’t produce well-enough to win many games. Others consider the injury mess he endured and suggest this season was some of his better work.
Trestman’s group managed to finish in the top half of the league in total offense, even finishing in the top quarter of the league in passing offense. They accomplished this despite two starts apiece from Matt Schaub, Jimmy Clausen, and Ryan Mallet. Top receiver Steve Smith and top running back Justin Forsett both missed roughly half the season. First-round wide receiver Breshad Perriman never took the field in the regular season.
The offensive line suffered season-ending injuries to starting left tackle Eugene Monroe and starting center Jeremy Zuttah. If there is a silver lining to this cloud of injuries, it is the valuable experience afforded to reserve-level players. Players such as Kamar Aiken and Javorius Allen were not expected to have significant roles last year, but both performed admirably upon being thrust into prominent roles and proved to be reliable weapons for the future.
Efforts to Avoiding Injuries
The Ravens have made three changes for the coming season which could help avoid another injury-decimated season. They added renowned trainer Steve Saunders to the staff as “performance coach,” with an emphasis on balance and flexibility. They’ve also reportedly installed a state of the art camera system at their practice facility providing the ability to monitor and test player performance/movement with the goal of identifying specific areas of fatigue. Finally, they are replacing the artificial surface at M&T Bank Stadium with natural grass.
Looking ahead to the 2016 season, Joe Flacco returns with a deep group of weapons, which will allow Trestman to be creative with formations and personnel-packages. This depth should allow for a fluid rotation to keep players fresh as well as breed healthy competition, raising everyone’s level of performance. Below is a look at each of the three main position groups in Flacco’s tool chest for 2016.
Joe Flacco is known for his strong arm and as a good down-field passer. Bill Belichick confirmed this when he was quoted as calling Flacco “one of the best deep ball passers in the league.” Red-shirt rookie Breshad Perriman joins Wallace as an outside deep threat. Perriman is an athletic specimen whose pro day performance catapulted him into the first round of last year’s draft. He turned in a 4.24 40 at 6’2″ 212 lbs. He’s more than just a straight line runner, tough, with quick twitch suddenness and demonstrated propensity to attack the ball in the air (a trait former Raven Torry Smith was criticized for lacking). Perriman is making strong progress in recovering from his 2015 injury.
These two may not see the field together all the time, but when they do, they should force the defense into a two-deep zone, creating space underneath. Joining these deep threats is Steve Smith, Sr. The 36 year-old veteran defied odds last year by producing at a career best pace before an Achilles injury cut his season short. Although Smith had intended on 2015 being his final campaign, he didn’t want to go out by way of injury and is returning for a 16th season. We can’t expect Smith to return unaffected by this injury, but he won’t need to carry as big of a load. Although Smith has historically lined up outside, the presence of Wallace and Perriman should allow Smith to see some time in the slot where he would draw more favorable matchups against nickel corners or linebackers. His veteran savvy should allow him to win those matchups regularly. A lesser-known player to keep an eye on is Mike Campanaro.
Ravens fans rave about Campanaro’s potential but remain cautious with their optimism. Campanaro missed 12 games in each of his first two seasons and needs a healthy 2016 season to prove he can be a long term asset in the league. His skill set makes him ideal for slot receiver duties, which he could share with Smith to save wear-and-tear on both of their bodies. Rounding out the receiver group is journeyman Kamar Aiken. Aiken bounced around the league his first three seasons without catching a single pass. He’s found a fit in Baltimore, where he exploded onto the scene last year with 75 catches for 944 yards in the wake of all the injuries. Aiken is one of the players who simply needed an opportunity to demonstrate his ability. He received that opportunity last year and proved he deserves a significant role moving forward.
The Ravens also boast exceptional depth at tight end. The top three include veteran newcomer Ben Watson, 2015 second rounder Maxx Williams, and 2014 third rounder Crockett Gillmore. Watson wrestled the starting job from Josh Hill last season and enjoyed a career year with 74 catches for 825 yards and six scores. It’s extremely unlikely he’ll repeat this production with the Ravens, as the Saints’ offense is notoriously tight-end-friendly. Regardless, he provides yet another pass catching weapon for Flacco, and he brings a veteran presence to this particular position group. Williams and Gillmore both excel as blockers in addition to being skilled receivers. Williams was the first tight end selected in the 2015 draft and possesses nice upside. Gillmore actually beat out Williams for the starting job last season but was unable to finish the season, landing on the injured reserved list in December. As mentioned above, the infusion of speed at wide receiver should create space for these tight ends to flourish in the middle of the field. With these three starting caliber players at the position, it wouldn’t surprise to see Trestman cook up more double tight end packages to find more playing time for each.
The final drawer in Flacco’s tool chest holds an assortment of running backs. Despite an assortment of recognizable names, this group has a murky outlook. Justin Forsett is the presumed starter. He had a breakout campaign with the Ravens in 2014 and a solid start to 2015 before breaking his arm. Fortunately, this season-ending injury shouldn’t affect him in 2016 like a rehabbed knee or ankle would, for example. Fourth round rookie Javorius Allen stepped up in Forsett’s absence, starting six games and reaching 100 yards from scrimmage in three. He should come into camp as the primary backup and has shown enough to be relied upon if needed. Terrance West is another intriguing name in this backfield. As a rookie with Cleveland in 2014, he started six games and showed promise. However, he quickly fell out of favor in Cleveland and was traded to Tennessee before the start of the 2015 regular season. Tennessee released him mid-season, and the Ravens scooped him up. Talent is not an issue for West, but motivation and decision making seem to be. West grew up in Baltimore, and there is hope that coming home will help him overcome these maturity issues. If so, he could be a useful asset for this running back group. Reports indicate that Baltimore is close to signing Trent Richardson to a veteran contract. If he signs, he’ll compete with Lorenzo Taliaferro and Terrence Magee for a final roster spot.
Legendary general manager Ozzie Newsome has compiled an impressive assortment of tools for Flacco’s disposal in 2016. If Trestman was able to coax a top-15 finish out of the 2015 Ravens offense, reaching top-10 status is certainly within reach for 2016. Even in a tough division, Baltimore should be relevant in December and has the talent to compete for a playoff spot.