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Team Previews: Baltimore Ravens

John McKechnie

John is the 2016 FSWA College Writer of the Year winner. He is a Maryland native and graduate of the University of Georgia. He's been writing for RotoWire since early 2014.

THE SKINNY
Though featuring a group that has the look of a classically dominant Ravens defense, in today's NFL the Ravens will only go as far as their offense takes them. The move to nab Jeremy Maclin in free agency bolsters the team's receiving corps, but there's still some uncertainty in other spots of the offense, including the offensive line (RT, C specifically) and the run game. The talent is in place at the skill positions, but offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg will need to modernize his scheme and Joe Flacco will need to get the most out of his new weapons or else the Ravens could be in for a repeat of a disappointing 2016 season.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

DOUBLING DOWN ON DEFENSE
With Terrell Suggs showing his age, and several other contributors including Elvis Dumervil and Zach Orr no longer on the team, the Ravens aggressively bolstered their defense this offseason, adding Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr in free agency, then continuing to load up on that side of the ball in the draft. Baltimore spent its first four picks on defenders, highlighted by the selection of edge rushers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams. Generating a pass rush was a major issue last season,as the Ravens mustered just 31 sacks, which ranked 25th in the league and 29th in pressure rate, per Pro Football Focus. By adding the above rookie tandem on the edge, Baltimore will be able to get to the quarterback on a more consistent basis in 2017. In adding Jefferson and Carr, the Ravens shored up a secondary that was rife with question marks outside of Eric Weddle and the oft-injured Jimmy Smith. With the line and the secondary seemingly solidified, the main unknown will be how the team's linebacking corps responds without Orr. The run defense was a strength in 2016, as the Ravens allowed just 3.7 YPC, but that was aided by Orr's presence. Still, Baltimore's additions this offseason outweigh the losses and give the squad formidable groups at every level of the defense.

AND MACLIN MAKES THREE
Baltimore waited until late in free agency to address its receiving corps following Steve Smith's retirement and Kamar Aiken's departure, but patience paid off in the form of Jeremy Maclin, who joins the Ravens on something of a "prove it" two-year deal. Maclin's presence gives clarity to a receiving corps that was moving in the direction of having to start an unproven and oft-injured Michael Campanaro as the starting slot receiver. Maclin is one year removed from a 1,000-yard season with Alex Smith as his quarterback, but his lack of production (44/536/2) in 2016 can't go unmentioned. On paper, a receiving trio of Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Maclin is a strong group, but there are questions that'll need to be answered. Can Maclin mesh in a new offense and develop a chemistry with QB Joe Flacco? Will Perriman take the proverbial leap in his first year as a starter?

BACKFIELD HODGEPODGE
Kenneth Dixon's strong push over his last eight games last season made him a trendy upside pick heading into 2017, but a four-game suspension halts that momentum. Dixon's absence means that Baltimore will have to lean on Terrance West and Danny Woodhead for a quarter of the campaign. West was occasionally competent as a lead back last season, but three years into his career, there's a big enough sample size demonstrating that he's likely best suited to be a No. 2 back with most of his usage coming in short-yardage situations. In addition to the near-guarantee of the carries being split between three backs, with no clear No.1, there's the issue of the offense itself. Marty Mornhinweg's extreme pass-first tendency came at the expense of Baltimore's run game. The Ravens ran for more than 150 yards as a team just once after he took over the offense in Week 6, and the team ended the season 28th in the NFL in rushing yards. While a skew toward the passing game is normal in today's NFL, the lack of a run threat allowed teams to key on the pass rather than play the Ravens straight-up last season. Even if there isn't a true standout in the Ravens' backfield, there's enough talent between the three top options to form a competent ground game. However, that won't matter if Mornhinweg doesn't incorporate the run more adeptly.

PIVOTAL PLAYER: Joe Flacco
No team threw more times than Baltimore last year, and Flacco posted a career high in passing yards (4,319). Still, the team's offense ranked 27th in adjusted YPA. Steve Smith is no longer on the roster, but the addition of Jeremy Maclin gives him a well-rounded corps alongside Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman. That said, this will be Breshad Perriman's first year in a starting role and Maclin's first year in Baltimore, so it'll be on Flacco to get everyone on the same page. If Flacco accomplishes that feat and serves as a catalyst for Perriman's breakout and Maclin's resurgence, this offense suddenly becomes one of the best Baltimore has had in years. That's a big if, however, and Flacco's mediocre play over the last two seasons makes it fair to question whether this offense will reach its potential.

BAROMETER

RISING: Mike Wallace
It was unclear how Wallace would fit in Baltimore in 2016, but he showed he still had something left in the tank with 72 grabs on 117 targets for 1,017 yards. He should see even more opportunities as the team's new WR1.

FALLING: Kenneth Dixon
Already facing a four-game suspension, there's no telling just how deep Dixon will be in John Harbaugh's doghouse once he returns. Danny Woodhead's presence also cuts down on Dixon's potential third-down impact.

SLEEPER: Ben Watson
Baltimore enters camp without a clear-cut starter at tight end following Dennis Pitta's hip injury, but Watson is a complete player who can contribute as a blocker and as a pass catcher. If Watson's Achilles injury from 2016 is fully behind him, he should be able to win the starting job outright over unreliable or unproven options such as Crockett Gillmore, Nick Boyle, or Maxx Williams (knee). A repeat of Watson's 2015 in New Orleans is unlikely, but he could be a viable tight end in deeper formats should he lock down the starting job.

KEY JOB BATTLE PRIMARY RUNNING BACK
While the NFL has become a decidedly passing league in recent years, teams still need to establish the run in order to be successful. In Baltimore, the backfield seems to be filled with more question marks than answers. Although his production wasn't eye-popping, Kenneth Dixon ended his rookie season with enough positive momentum to suggest he would be the No.1 back heading into his second season. However, a four-game suspension turned that notion on its head, leaving Terrance West (4.0 YPC in 2016) as the presumptive lead back for the first month of the season. The question is: What happens next? ADP data from MyFantasyLeague.com indicates that most feel Dixon will end up as the more productive of the two backs in the end, but there's another wrinkle involved: Danny Woodhead. The 33-year-old is going as a fringe-Top 100 commodity even in non-PPR formats. Obviously, Woodhead's pass-catching ability (156 Rec in last two full seasons) makes him a valuable asset in PPR formats, but the fact that he's going that much higher than Dixon (ADP: 127) and West (142) in standard formats is telling. Whereas Dixon and West will likely be in a tug-of-war over first and second down snaps, limiting each other's ceilings in the process, Woodhead's standing as Baltimore's passing down back is arguably the only sure thing in the Ravens' backfield. Woodhead's size probably precludes him from seeing much in the way of red zone snaps, but his skill set coupled with Joe Flacco's penchant for checking down to targets close to the line of scrimmage make him the back to target in the Ravens backfield.

KEY ACQUISITIONS:
Jeremy Maclin WR (from Chiefs)
Scooped up after being a surprise cut by Kansas City for salary cap reasons.

Danny Woodhead RB (from Chargers)
A veteran coming off injury but could play key role in the passing game.

Tony Jefferson S (from Cardinals)
Pairs with Eric Weddle to form an elite safety tandem.

MARLON HUMPHREY CB (Rd. 1, No. 16 Alabama)
Physical corner who helps bolster an already strong secondary.

KEY LOSSES:
Steve Smith WR (retired)
Potential Hall of Famer's exit left a chasm in the receiving corps.

Kamar Aiken WR (to Colts)
Departure was a hit to the depth of the wideout corp, but addition of Maclin softens the blow.

Dennis Pitta TE (FA)
Led NFL tight ends in catches in 2016, but let go after re-injuring his hip.

KYLE JUSZCZYK FB (to 49ers)
Versatile weapon added an interesting wrinkle to the offense.

THE INJURY FRONT
Ben Watson, TE What looked like a crowded herd at tight end entering OTAs has thinned out considerably with the losses of Dennis Pitta and Darren Waller, which not only ups Watson's chances at making the roster, but also carving out a prominent role. Still, Watson himself will need to prove he's fully recovered from the torn Achilles that kept him out all of last season because if he's not, he could be a cap casualty thanks to his veteran price tag.

Joe Flacco, QB Flacco played all 16 games last season after having his 2015 campaign cut short due to a torn ACL and it paid off with a career-high in passing yards (4,317); however, he averaged a career-low 6.4 yards per attempt and chucked 15 interceptions. Being a year removed from the injury and getting a full offseason's worth of work in should allow Flacco to hit the ground running once training camp starts and get familiar with his new-look skill position group.

Danny Woodhead, RB A veteran running back on the wrong side of 30 coming off a torn ACL rarely stokes much interest from the fantasy community, but Woodhead finds himself in a unique spot in Baltimore. He showed he was healthy throughout OTAs and quickly established himself as a target underneath for quarterback Joe Flacco. With Dennis Pitta (hip) gone, a healthy Woodhead could be Flacco's primary safety valve this season.