Though the Ravens selected wide receiver Mark Clayton near the bottom of the first round (22nd pick), expect big things out of the former Oklahoma star. Two current Raven stars, safety Ed Reed (24th pick) and Todd Heap (31st), were also selected late in Round 1.
When the Ravens signed free agent Tommy Polley to a one-year deal, it signaled the first time a player who competed for a Baltimore-area high school will start for the city’s professional team. Polley, a 1996 graduate of Dunbar High, was widely regarded as the best player the city has ever produced. Polley played at Florida State before spending the past three years with the St. Louis Rams. Polley is just the second product of the local school system to play for the Ravens. Calvin Williams, who also graduated from Dunbar, was a back-up receiver with the Ravens in 1996.
Won’t be easy
The Ravens’ schedule is the sixth-hardest in the league in terms of winning percentage. Baltimore plays five games against teams that won a playoff game last year -- Minnesota, Indianapolis, N.Y. Jets and Pittsburgh (twice) -- but does have the luxury of having five games against teams that finished with at least 10 losses, highlighted by two games against Cleveland.
The Prophecy: “The Ravens clearly have some weaknesses, most notably at wide receiver.”
The Lie: “The Ravens may well repeat last season’s performance, when they were the only team in the NFL to have more rushing yards (2,674) than passing yards (2,255).”
— Athlon Sports Pro Football 2004
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After a disappointing season in which the Ravens fell behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North Division standings and out of the playoffs altogether, the team's front office overhauled its coaching staff and roster. On defense, where the Ravens lacked the punch that had long made them one of the most feared teams in the NFL, the Ravens promoted line coach Rex Ryan to coordinator, replacing Mike Nolan, who left to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
The Ravens' offense, which has seldom matched the production of the high-scoring units coach Brian Billick had as coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, also underwent a major facelift. Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and offensive line coach Jim Colletta were let go.
Jim Fassel, a former NFL Coach of the Year with the New York Giants and an offensive consultant for the Ravens last year, will replace Cavanaugh; former Dolphins offensive coordinator Chris Foerster will coach the offensive line. Rick Neuheisel, the former University of Washington coach, was brought on board to make sure quarterback Kyle Boller fares better than predecessors Tony Banks, Stoney Case, Chris Redman and Jeff Blake.
The Ravens made several roster moves, signing former Pro Bowl cornerback Samari Rolle in addition to adding former St. Louis Rams starter Tommy Polley at outside linebacker. Offensively, underachieving receivers Kevin Johnson and Travis Taylor were let go, and the Ravens added former Tennessee Titan Derrick Mason, who led all NFL receivers with 96 catches in 2004.
"I think our team has a different look than the one we had a year ago," Billick says. "I think we had some areas we needed to improve and I think we addressed them."
Boller, a first-round draft pick in 2003, enters his third season as a starter, and he is embarking on a pivotal stretch in his career. The Ravens' passing offense has not finished higher than 27th in any of the previous three seasons, though Boller's statistics last year - he completed 258-of-464 passes (55.6 percent) for 2,559 yards with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions -- were better than his rookie season.
Baltimore is 14-11 in Boller's last 25 starts, and last year the Ravens averaged a mere 144.5 passing yards per game -- only Chicago (137.0) averaged less -- as injuries to Jamal Lewis and Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap limited the availability of the team's top weapons. The Ravens are hoping Fassel and Neuheisel can mold Boller into a quarterback the Ravens can build around.
Lewis entered last season as the team's biggest strength after rushing for 2,066 yards in 2003, but now he's a question mark. He rushed for just 1,006 yards and seven touchdowns in a season slowed by injuries and a suspension.
Lewis underwent surgery on his right foot, and enters his sixth season in the final year of his contract. The former first-round pick will be the focal point of the running game, but the Ravens have insurance in Chester Taylor, who they signed to a one-year deal after he received an offer sheet from the Cleveland Browns. Re-signing Taylor was a priority because Musa Smith is still recovering from a broken leg, and it's unclear if he'll open training camp at full strength.
After watching the team's passing offense sputter all of last season, the Ravens upgraded their receiving corps by signing Mason, the best free agent on the market. The 31-year-old established himself as a premier receiver, catching 96 passes for 1,168 yards and seven touchdowns for the Titans. Mason's arrival couldn't have come at a better time. The entire Ravens team combined for just 28 passes of 20 yards or more last season; Mason had 12 such receptions alone. He will help take some of the pressure off of Heap, who is emerging as one of the game's top tight ends.
The Ravens selected Mark Clayton, one of the nation's best collegiate receivers last year, with the 22nd pick overall.
It appears Mike Flynn will replace Casey Rabach as the Ravens' starting center. Rabach signed with Washington as a free agent after he helped pave the way for the Ravens to rush for more than 2,000 yards last year. The team also decided to make a long-term commitment to Keydrick Vincent, who started at right guard for the division rival Steelers last season. Vincent became a priority after the Ravens opted not to re-sign Bennie Anderson, who is now in Buffalo.
Vincent and Flynn will team with three returning starters -- left tackle Jonathan Ogden, right tackle Orlando Brown and left guard Edwin Mulitalo -- to form one of the oldest lines in the game.
The Ravens will switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive front, and Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs will be making the move from outside linebacker to defensive end, the position he starred at in college. Suggs had a team-high 10.5 sacks in 2004, and he will need to be equally effective getting to the quarterback from his new spot. The Ravens recorded just 39 sacks last year, a major drop-off from the 47 they posted in 2003.
Suggs will take over for Marques Douglas, who signed a three-year deal with San Francisco. Douglas started 31 games over the past two seasons, including 15 last year, when he recorded 72 tackles and 5.5 sacks.
The two returning starters -- Anthony Weaver and Kelly Gregg -- combined for 99 tackles and 5.5 sacks.
The Ravens selected Dan Cody from Oklahoma, who tied for the Big 12 lead in sacks, in the second round. He'll compete with Dwan Edwards, Maake Kemoeatu and Jarret Johnson for the final spot.
The alignment might be new, but the Ravens' defense will remain centered around Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who continues to be one of the best defenders in the game. Lewis was named first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press for the fourth time.
One of Lewis' running mates, Ed Hartwell, left via free agency, so the Ravens countered by signing Tommy Polley away from the Rams to a one-year deal. Peter Boulware, who has 67.5 career sacks, missed all of last season because of knee and toe injuries, and was released in May. Boulware's departure keeps a starting spot open for Adalius Thomas, who started 16 games last year and recorded eight sacks in the 3-4 alignment.
The Ravens could have their best secondary since 2000. This group is centered around strong safety Ed Reed, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, who recorded a league-high nine interceptions.
The Ravens improved their pass defense, which allowed a league-low 14 TD passes and gave up fewer than 200 yards per game, by signing Rolle, who was released by Tennessee. He's coming off his least productive season, but as long as he remains healthy, Rolle is still one of the better corners in the league. He will no doubt be an upgrade over last year's starter, Gary Baxter, who is now in Cleveland.
Rolle should team with left cornerback Chris McAlister to give the Ravens two top-flight - as well as injury-prone - players who are capable of shutting down the opposition's top receivers. Will Demps is expected to return at free safety after recording career highs in tackles (66), sacks (2.5) and passes defensed (6).
Placekicker Matt Stover has arguably been the Ravens' top offensive threat since the start of the their Super Bowl-winning season of 2000. Stover led the team last year with 117 points to move up to 10th on the league's all-time scoring list with 1,481 points. He made 90.6 percent of his field goals (29-of-32) last year, and he has not missed an extra-point attempt in eight years. Punter Dave Zastudil pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 26 times in 73 attempts last year, a significant improvement over 2003.
Baltimore's busy offseason has it in position to contend for its second division title in the past three years. However, the Ravens were also considered by many as the division's top team entering last season, but injuries, combined with an inconsistent passing game, kept them out of the playoffs. The Ravens appear to be a better team entering this season than the one that just missed making the playoffs last year, which bodes well for a team that believes it's a Super Bowl contender.