With the 2013 season officially in the books the Eye on Football staff is looking ahead to the offseason for all 32 NFL teams. Next up: The Baltimore Ravens.
For the first time in the John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco era, the Ravens didn't make the playoffs. It had become something of a foregone conclusion; since arriving in 2008, Baltimore never won fewer than nine games, and always ended up in the postseason, including two trips to the AFC Championship Game.
But it never came together in 2013; the offense never gelled, Flacco never found that hot streak, and the defense wasn't in any position to do the heavy lifting. At the midway point, Baltimore was 3-5. They finished 5-3, but back-to-back losses to the Patriots and Bengals to end the season doomed their fates and for the first time in six years they enter the offseason with plenty of questions about where it all went wrong and why.
But if history is any guide, general manager Ozzie Newsome will do what he does and Harbaugh and Flacco will have the Ravens right back in the AFC North mix in 2014.
What went right
On offense, the answer was: "very little." Guard Marshal Yanda graded out well, according to ProFootballFocus.com, as did midseason acquisition left tackle Eugene Monroe (although Monroe didn't always pass the eyeball test -- he had his issues -- the Ravens are interested in bringing back the soon-to-be free agent).
Wideout Torrey Smith was very good, continuing his ascension as one of the league's best young deep threats. He finished 2013 with 65 catches for 1,128 yards and four touchdowns. His numbers would have been better if the Ravens had any other offensive options, something the team will have to address this offseason.
Defensively, Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs were there usual dominant selves, and Arthur Jones made himself a lot of money with his performance. Offseason acquisition Elvis Dumervil was also very good, and Daryl Smith made the seamless transition from street free agent to inside linebacker.
And then there's the team's best player: kicker
What went wrong
Flacco was inconsistent, ranking 35th in Football Outsiders' value-per-play metric, which was one spot behind Matt Schaub. But unlike Schaub, who had plenty of playmakers and a running game to lean on, Flacco began the season without his favorite target, Dennis Pitta, who suffered a hip injury over the summer, leaving Smith as Baltimore's only legitimate downfield threat.
Then there's the running game. Ray Rice was on the wrong side of awful (he averaged 3.1 yards per carry and just 4 touchdowns), and that was before he was arrested in February on simple assault-domestic violence charges.
How bad was it? Rice was the NFL's least productive running back, according to Football Outsiders, just ahead of ... Bernard Pierce, the Ravens' other back. (And ahead of Pierce? Trent Richardson. Yikes.)
On defense, linebacker Jameel McClain often appeared overmatched, and rookies Matt Elam and Arthur Brown didn't blossom as fast as hoped (though we can't imagine the Ravens are concerned about either; they're young and this is all part of the process). The secondary also had issues; safety Michael Huff was released after a few weeks, and cornerback Lardarius Webb wasn't quite himself after returning from a knee injury in 2012. But safety James Ihedigbo was a pleasant surprise, as was Corey Graham.
It's kicker Justin Tucker and it's not even close. He converted 38 of 41 field goal attempts, was 10-of-11 from 40-49 yards and 6-of-7 from 50-plus, including a game-winning 61-yarder against the Lions in Week 15 that knocked Detroit out of the playoffs and kept Baltimore's slim hopes alive.
Here's Tucker's reaction to nailing the 61-yarder:
And here's the Lions' sideline:
.GIFs via MarcusD
In his two-year career, Tucker is 68-of-74, a 92 percent success rate, which is only slightly better than his 91 percent success rate from beyond 50 yards.
Ray Rice. An offseason ago, he was considered one of the league's best running backs and by December he was one of the worst. It was a precipitous fall that was a combination of things: A suspect offensive line, a less-than-100-percent Rice, and not much else in the way of offense.
Whatever the reasons, Rice has to improve in 2014 or he'll be looking for work. Baltimore signed him to a 5-year, $40 million extension after the 2012 season but in today's NFL, running backs are easy to replace, especially if they're overpaid underachievers.
What's happened since the end of the season
Rice's arrest was the biggest story. Newsome admitted that the video evidence "doesn't look good," adding "It's very concerning. Up until we get all of the facts, we'll allow the process to run its course. As coach Harbaugh said, we'll let the facts determine what the consequences will be."
But Newsome said there may be more to the story than we know.
“Right now I feel very good about his side of the story, but I also feel very good about what he has done since that to help himself to not allow himself to get in a situation like that again,” the GM said.
The Ravens also extended Suggs' contract through 2018.
Impending free agents
As mentioned above, the Ravens would like to keep Monroe, though it sounds like they're willing to part ways with former first-rounder Oher. Pitta is also a priority. The two sides are reportedly discussing numbers but if that falls through don't be surprised if the Ravens use the franchise tag.
Jones might be too expensive to remain in Baltimore but Smith, 31, should be back anchoring the middle of the defense.
Free agency gameplan
Pitta is at the top of the to-do list. It's easy to blame Flacco for the offense's failings in 2013 but show me a team with holes along the offensive line, no running game to speak of, and only one established downfield threat and I'll show you a quarterback who would be lucky to win six games. A healthy Pitta not only gives Flacco his favorite target, but it opens things up for Smith.
In late December, CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora reported that the team wanted to keep Monroe.
"The Ravens parted with a fourth and fifth round pick to land Monroe -- a steep price for a 'rental' and especially steep for a team that prizes draft picks as the Ravens do -- and with right tackle Michael Oher's future very much in doubt with the team, the team will attempt to secure Monroe long-term when then season ends, sources said."
If the Ravens are truly interested in keeping Monroe, they could have competition from the Dolphins, who are also reportedly interested in the left tackle.
The team has roughly $16 million in cap space after renegotiating Suggs' contract, and according to the Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson, they could try to lower Ngata's team-high $16 million cap figure.
Depending on what happens with Monroe could determine how the Ravens approach the draft, particularly the 17th pick. If Monroe is back, the focus could turn to one of a deep and talented wide receivers in the '14 draft class.
According to the latest NFLDraftScout.com/CBSSports.com mock draft, the Ravens will take USC WR Marqise Lee (Rob Rang), Texas A&M WR Mike Evans (Dane Brugler), Alabama LT Cyrus Kouandjio (Pete Prisco) or Alabama ILB C.J. Mosley (Pat Kirwan).
Ridiculously premature prediction for 2014
If the Ravens can fix their running game, get a healthy Pitta for the entire season, and find a playmaker to line up opposite Smith, the offense should be fine. Same holds for the defense, which always manages to land on its feet. Put another way: this team is never far from the playoff conversation and it's reasonable to expect them to challenge for the AFC North title in 2014.
Predicted record: 10-6