COMMENTARY | With so many Baltimore Ravens' stars gone, the Ravens will have to lean on some young players and unsung veterans this season. Fortunately, a string of strong drafts and several free agents should help fill those voids, but the Ravens will still need a few players to step up with career years to have a chance at repeating in 2013. Deonte Thompson, Michael Huff and Bernard Pierce look primed for big seasons and should play a big role in helping the Ravens get back to the playoffs.
Pierce seems to be the most obvious candidate. After a strong rookie year that saw the running back run for 4.9 yards per carry, Pierce seemingly only needs more carries to break out. He should get that this season, as well as the additional success brought about by an improved offensive line.
Replacing Anquan Boldin will be no easy task, but an elite running game could be just what the Ravens need to do just that. The combo of Pierce and Ray Rice should be the strongest the Ravens have ever had, and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell will use that duo well. Both Rice and Pierce should easily garner at least 150 carries, and don't be surprised if Pierce uses them better than Rice.
After all, Pierce gained more yards per carry, more yards after contact per carry and more broken tackles than Rice in 2012. Just imagine what he can do with a full workload. As long as the Ravens use Pierce well in 2013, he should get that workload and excellent production along with it.
As important as the running game will be in replacing Anquan Boldin, the Ravens will still need to find a receiver to pick up some of the slack. That guy should be second-year man Deonte Thompson.
Mike Preston of The Baltimore Sun reports that Thompson seemingly has the inside track for the job, and he only needs a good camp to seal the deal.
That should be no problem for the speedy Thompson, whose speed and body control helped him make numerous big plays in training camp and the preseason in 2012. Although Thompson didn't get on the field much during the regular season, he made every snap count, catching five balls on just six targets. Right away, Thompson asserted himself as a jump ball target, using his strong hands and excellent athleticism to reel in contested passes.
While Thompson has already shown some ability, his upside is what has Ravens' staff and fans salivating. He easily runs a sub-4.4 40-yard dash, and his hands and body control are big pluses too. With improved route-running and more opportunities, Thompson should become a major contributor this season.
One final reason for optimism is the matchup problems that the Ravens' offense could pose if Thompson becomes a big contributor. Just imagine defenses trying to match up with Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Deonte Thompson, all sub-4.4 guys. Joe Flacco's deep passes will never have seemed more of an option with those three speedsters stretching the field. Expect Thompson to find the field for just that reason, catching both bombs and shorter passes alike en route to a breakout year.
On the other side of the ball, Michael Huff looks to be in line for his best season as a pro. That Huff found success in Oakland is a minor miracle considering the franchise's struggles, yet Huff was a fixture on an Oakland defense that relied on his versatility greatly. Throughout his time in Oakland, Huff played both safety and cornerback, being forced to perform as a back-end zone defender as well as a man-to-man cover corner. He played well in every role thrust upon him, despite minimal pass-rush support.
Now with the Ravens, Huff is primed to break out in a way he never has before. Despite earning an All-Pro selection in 2010, Huff has never been named to a Pro Bowl. This season, Huff will be in the spotlight as Ed Reed's replacement, which should help Huff get the exposure he needs.
Further, Huff will be allowed to play more of a centerfielder role, a role he's thrived in in the past. Huff is at his best with the action in front of him, which allows him to use his instincts and considerable speed to make plays all over the field.
Finally, with Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs terrorizing pass rushers, Huff will benefit from the best pass rush he's ever played with. Pressure is a defensive back's best friend, and the Ravens figure to provide plenty of it. With quarterbacks lofting up risky passes and Huff's comfort level with the Ravens' scheme, the former Raider figures to have a career year in 2013.
Huff, Thompson and Pierce are just three guys who should help keep the Ravens in contention. With so much young talent on both sides of the ball, the Ravens are in great position to surprise some people, and these three guys should be a big reason as to why.
Shawn Brubaker lives in Washington, DC. He has been a Baltimore Ravens featured columnist for Bleacher Report for two years and has been published in a variety of other publications.
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