Coming off a Super Bowl season, Baltimore's offense was a cruel joke in 2013. The running game averaged just 3.1 yards per carry, ranking dead-last in the NFL. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce had a combined 366 carries, only three of which gained 20-plus yards. Quarterback Joe Flacco threw 22 interceptions, the highest total in the AFC, and he passed for a career-low 6.4 yards per attempt. He was also sacked 48 times, the second-highest total in the league.
It was ugly, almost always. The nicest thing we can say about the Ravens last season from a fantasy perspective is that kicker Justin Tucker had a really, really good year — or at least it was going well until he posted a zero in Week 16, when you needed him most.
We can't claim that Baltimore has remained idle this offseason, however. Gary Kubiak was hired as the new OC, bringing with him a playbook that relies on West Coast principles, bootlegs, play-action, and a zone-blocking running scheme. The Ravens also re-signed tackle Eugene Monroe, a critical move, and traded for versatile-if-not-dominant center Jeremy Zuttah, a former collegiate teammate of Rice. The team also added a pair of ancient pass-catchers, Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, plus a bunch of young defensive talent via draft. So we can't say Ozzie Newsome isn't trying.
Still, when you scan the names of the offensive skill players on this team's depth chart, you'll find a pile of fourth and fifth-tier fantasy assets. A few of them are returning from significant injuries. And Flacco, Rice, Pierce and Smith were recently terrible.
There's no good place to begin this preview, so let's just start with the worst: Baltimore's running game. It was abysmal last season. Rice was lousy before he suffered his September hip injury, and he was equally lousy thereafter. He ran for just 660 yards on 214 carries (3.1 YPC), delivering just one performance with 75 or more rushing yards — and that was against Chicago's miserable run defense, playing in a monsoon. He caught 58 passes on the year, but somehow gained just 321 yards on all those receptions.
Rice is now healthier, which certainly helps — he's a member of the "best shape of my life" club, like everyone else — and his new coordinator is a ground-game fetishist. The setup here isn't awful. But Rice is also facing the likelihood of suspension (perhaps 4-6 games) for a despicable offseason incident, caught on tape. There's no way I'd spend a top-100 pick on a guy who was bad and injured last season, and who's likely to appear in maybe 10 or 12 games. But the Yahoo community seems to feel differently, selecting Ray at ADP 89.2, ahead of Ben Tate, Joique, S-Jax, Stevan Ridley, Lamar Miller and various others.
What I'm saying is, I won't fight you for Rice. He's all yours. I'm much more interested in Pierce at his current average draft position (128.7), although he was a bust last season as well (2.9), plus he's returning from shoulder surgery. Still, he looks like the early-down back to begin the season, and he impressed two years ago as a rookie (4.9) while taking a big share of the backfield touches during the playoffs. Pierce can't be dismissed by fantasy owners, and he carries a no-risk price tag. Justin Forsett figures to open the regular season as this team's passing-down RB, with Coastal Carolina rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro fighting for scraps. (Taliaferro, by the way, has legal issues of his own that have yet to be resolved.)
With the Ravens expected to run early and often in 2014, it seems unlikely that Flacco will approach last year's 614 pass attempts. I suppose that can be taken as bad news, fantasy-wise, but the man just gave us by far his worst season, despite all that throwing. He was sloppy, inefficient and turnover-prone, completing less than 60 percent of his pass attempts. He also finished with fewer than 20 TD passes for the first time since his rookie campaign. Flacco was uncommonly poor on deep attempts in 2013, per PFF, going 17-for-88 on throws that targeted a receiver 20-plus yards downfield, tossing eight picks and one touchdown pass. The prior year, deep bombs were actually a strength of Flacco's, as he connected on a league-high 11 TDs with zero picks. You'd think that with an elite downfield threat like Torrey Smith at his disposal, vertical strikes would be a deadly weapon for this team — and perhaps under Kubiak, they will be again. Here's some offseason hype, via the team's website:
“The things we like to do moving around, the zone-pass schemes that we like to run, I think fit to a lot of his strengths,” Kubiak said. “We just need to continue to get better with them.”
“I knew [his arm] was good, but I had no idea just how good it was,” Kubiak said. “The big ball is always in play with Joe. … This league is about making big plays. It’s hard [when you go] three or four yards a pop to do it. You have to make some big plays, and Joe gives you the ability to do that.”
Of course Flacco doesn't exactly have a history of fantasy stardom, so you're not drafting him in standard-size leagues. He's a bye-week QB for most of you, if the matchup works. We're all still waiting for Flacco's first 4,000-yard season, or his first with more than 25 TD passes. The best stretch of his career, to his credit, was during the playoffs two seasons ago, when he averaged 285 passing yards per game and threw 11 TD passes with no interceptions. So give him some consideration in a postseason draft; do not mess with him in a standard regular season 10 or 12-team league.
You shouldn't need me to tell you that Steve Smith is not a receiver of interest in fantasy leagues, not at this stage in his career. Smith failed to deliver 70 receiving yards in any game last season, and that was as a No. 1 wideout — he saw six or more targets in 12 different weeks, reaching double-digits four times. Torrey is the Smith to own on this team, following a year in which he established career highs in catches (65) and receiving yards (1,128). He's only 25, he has outstanding deep speed, and the Ravens used him as much more than simply a go-route runner last season. I'll take Torrey at his ADP all day (64.5, WR26). Marlon Brown is likely to begin the season as Baltimore's No. 3 receiver, and he's coming off a promising rookie year (49-524-7). At 6-foot-5, he's definitely the right size for a red-zone/jump-ball threat. If I thought this passing game was capable of producing multiple draft-worthy wideouts, then Brown would be in play. Alas, that seems unlikely.
Dennis Pitta returns to the receiving corps after a year derailed by injury (hip), and you can expect him to finish no worse than second on this team in targets, assuming a healthy season. Kubiak has been a friend to the tight end position over the years, plus Flacco and Pitta have excellent rapport. If you're looking for a bargain tight end in a league of any size, this is your guy. He isn't half as buzzy as Ertz or Reed or Ladarius, but he already has a top-8 positional finish on his resume. Baltimore will run with multiple tight ends fairly often, so Owen Daniels should can his moments without poaching stats from Pitta.
The Ravens invested early and often in defense during the draft, snagging LB CJ Mosley, DT Timmy Jernigan and S Terrence Brooks in the first three rounds. It's not difficult to imagine this D/ST emerging as a top-12 unit in 2014, although it wasn't anything special last season. Mosley, Daryl Smith and Terrell Suggs are in the IDP conversation, though not as must-draft assets.
2013 Baltimore Ravens team stats: 20.0 PPG (NFL rank 25), 244.6 pass YPG (19), 19 pass TDs (25), 83.0 rush YPG (30), 26.4 rush attempts per game (18), 38.7 pass attempts per game (8)