2016 NFL Preview: Ravens aim to rebound, but with an aging core

Shutdown Corner
John Harbaugh is coming off his first losing season as an NFL coach (AP)
John Harbaugh is coming off his first losing season as an NFL coach (AP)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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Some organizations earn unwavering trust. The Baltimore Ravens are one.

The Ravens have not had back-to-back losing seasons this century. Last year was only the fourth losing season Baltimore has had since 1998. And when the Ravens have slipped under .500, they have bounced back strong. The last three times the Ravens were coming off a losing season, they won 10, 13 and 11 games. The organization is rock solid, one of the best in the NFL.

So was the 5-11 record the Ravens put up in 2015 just another speed bump or a sign there are finally some cracks in the foundation?

The Ravens had some fierce injury problems in 2015. They had a team-record 20 players on injured reserve by the end of the season. They made more than 100 roster moves during the season. Among the players who finished the season on injured reserve: quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Justin Forsett, receiver Steve Smith, receiver and first-round pick Breshad Perriman, tackle Eugene Monroe and pass rusher Terrell Suggs. The Ravens ended up with eight Week 1 starters (six from the offense offense) on IR.

It’s almost impossible for a team to overcome all those injuries. It also renders most of 2015 useless, as far as predicting the 2016 Ravens.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Although bad injury luck shouldn’t carry over from one year to the next, age is a concern. The Ravens have a lot of key players who are in their 30s, like outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (32), Flacco (31), Forsett (30), Smith (37), Suggs (33), safety Lardarius Webb (30), guard Marshal Yanda (31) and center Jeremy Zuttah (30). Then this offseason, the Ravens’ two biggest free-agent signings were 35-year-old tight end Ben Watson and 31-year-old safety Eric Weddle. Let’s just say this is a team built to win now.

There are some tremendous players in that group, but there’s always a risk in relying on aging players. The end could come without much warning. It’s especially troubling that so much of the Ravens’ edge pass rush is wrapped up in Dumervil, whose sack total dropped from 17 to 6 last year, and Suggs, who is coming back from a torn Achilles.

But assuming the Ravens’ injured players come back strong (especially Flacco, who tore his ACL) and most of the old vets hold up for another year, the Ravens should be competitive again. That’s just what they do.

Can we expect another double-digit win rebound from the Ravens though? It seems smart to trust the organization and its recent history. But general manager Ozzie Newsome has admitted some recent drafts weren’t good enough, and those misses erode depth. As does losing young standout free agents like outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and offensive linemen Kelechi Osemele in back-to-back years. It’s also a major blow if Perriman never gets over the knee injuries that kept him off the field last year and lingered into this offseason.

There might be one or two good seasons left in this experienced Ravens core. You could do worse than count on the Ravens far exceeding expectations after a bad season. We’ve seen it before.

Eric Weddle and Ben Watson were good signings, age notwithstanding. Weddle is outstanding and Watson had a great season with the New Orleans Saints last year. Receiver Mike Wallace was miscast in Minnesota — I’ll never know why the Vikings paired a one-trick receiver who excels only at deep routes with Teddy Bridgewater, who does everything well except throw deep — but he could rebound with strong-armed Joe Flacco.

Losing Kelechi Osemele and cutting Eugene Monroe hurts the offensive line, though Monroe’s play had slipped because of injuries. The Ravens drafted Ronnie Stanley in the first round to replace Monroe at left tackle. Baltimore had a good draft on paper and did OK in free agency. Grade: B-

Marc Trestman, who is entering his second season as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator, likes to pass the ball. Surprising but true: The Ravens led the NFL in passing attempts last season. Part of that was due to game scripts. The Ravens trailed in a lot of games. But Trestman’s offenses always finish among the league leaders in pass attempts. The good news is the Ravens should be much better in the passing game.

Last season the Ravens were thin at receiver because of injuries, but the benefit was that Kamar Aiken emerged as a reliable target when he was forced into action. Smith is back for a final season, although nobody knows what he’ll be able to do at age 37 coming off a torn Achilles. Perriman dodged an ACL scare and should play this season, and he has the talent to make an impact if healthy. Wallace can fill an important role as a deep threat. Watson, second-year tight end Maxx Williams and Crockett Gillmore give the Ravens a ton of depth at tight end — and there’s even a chance Dennis Pitta can get back on the field too. If the Ravens throw a lot again this season, they have the weapons to make it work.

The Ravens’ pass defense has some questions. The pass rush is no sure thing with Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs getting older, though Za’Darius Smith and 2016 rookie Kamalei Correa are good prospects and can help now (Correa is also getting a look at inside linebacker, where the Ravens have a hole next to C.J. Mosley). Last year the Ravens set a team record for fewest interceptions in a season. Although the pass defense got better late in the year, Baltimore allowed a lofty 99.6 rating last season, sixth-worst in the NFL. Eric Weddle will help, and Lardarius Webb might be better off after moving from cornerback to safety, but there are still concerns about Baltimore’s cornerback situation and the pass defense as a whole.

Everyone knows why and how Joe Flacco ended up with his massive contract. He helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl and the team couldn’t let him go after that. Flacco is a prototypical good-but-not-great quarterback but he’s paid like an MVP. His cap hit goes from $22.55 million this year all the way up to $28.25 million in 2020. The Ravens can’t even think about cutting him for a few years, so Flacco will be the Ravens’ quarterback into his mid-30s. Baltimore could do worse. It’ll be important to see him come back smoothly from his ACL surgery.

The Ravens are putting Ronnie Stanley in a crucial spot. After the Ravens cut Eugene Monroe (his play slipped, but I’m still dubious that the move was for “100 percent” football reasons), Stanley became the left tackle by default. He’ll be protecting a quarterback coming off ACL surgery. It wasn’t too long ago that left tackles were considered the safest top-10 picks, but the struggles of Greg Robinson, Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher and others have chipped away at that theory. There’s no reason to believe Stanley won’t succeed, but it’s still a gamble.

Cosell: “I think what [Eric Weddle] really brings is versatility. To be utilized and deployed in a lot of different ways, and I think that’s the key with Weddle. Of course he fought some injuries last year, didn’t play particularly well and he is getting up there [in age]. But the key for Weddle is he can do a lot of things. But the safety spot opposite him is up for grabs.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Ravens and the rest of the AFC North.]

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “‘Next man up’ became the Ravens mantra in 2015. Kamar Aiken, who had successfully spelled a hobbled Torrey Smith the season before, climbed the depth chart to be the top option for Baltimore’s beleaguered receiving corps. Producing a 75-944-5 stat line, Aiken closed out the year as fantasy’s 30th-ranked receiver.

“The bulk of that production came over the last eight weeks of the season, after Steve Smith was ruled out. Between Weeks 10 and 17 Aiken drew a whopping 80 targets and averaged nearly 10 fantasy points per contest. With Smith and Breshad Perriman’s availability both in question and Mike Wallace’s rapport with Joe Flacco yet to be established, Aiken is easily the team’s most reliable weapon. Currently the 50th WR being selected, he’s a solid value in the double-digit rounds of 12-team redrafts.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

John Harbaugh never had a losing season as a head coach before 2015. In 2008, Harbaugh was hired to take over a 5-11 team and led it to an 11-5 record with a spot in the AFC championship game. Only 24 coaches in NFL history (minimum 100 games) have a winning percentage that can match Harbaugh’s .602. Of the 24, 14 are already in the Hall of Fame, three are active (Bill Belichick, Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton) and Belichick is a lock to make it into Canton. If Harbaugh can’t turn the Ravens back around this season, not many other coaches could either.

WHAT CAN WE EXPECT IN STEVE SMITH’S LAST SEASON?

You knew that Smith wasn’t going out on an Achilles tendon injury. He said 2015 was his last season, but a great player like Smith needs a better ending than that. So Smith is returning for another attempt at a farewell season, but there’s more uncertainty this time.

As much as we like to believe the tale that great, tough players can defy time, that’s not true. Smith has been a remarkable player but he’s 37 and coming off an injury that’s tough on any player regardless of age. However, Smith was fantastic last season before the injury. He had 46 catches and 670 yards in seven games. If Smith can get fully healthy, he can be a productive receiver even if he doesn’t match those per-game numbers again. It’s tough to bet against Smith, but it would be remarkable if he returned and had one final 1,000-yard season.

You can’t count the Ravens out. There are still great players on the roster, even if many are on the back nine of their careers. Even though the Ravens won just five games last season, it’s clear injuries played a big role. Even though Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are tough, would you be that surprised if the Ravens won the AFC North?

It’s a little scary relying on so many older players (though the Ravens do have some good young pieces too, especially on the defensive line). If many of the older vets decline, the Ravens will not only struggle this season but then will have to start a bit of a rebuild. The franchise hasn’t been in that mode for a long time, and any rebuild would likely be a short one, but it would still be a strange situation for the Ravens.

I might look back and regret underestimating the Ravens. This ranking puts them in the 8-8 range, and that feels like a good hedge. The Ravens won’t be as bad as last year because they won’t suffer as many injuries, though we also can’t assume every veteran will play exactly as he did before last year’s injury. Let’s pick an 8-8 finish and be prepared for the Ravens to exceed that, like they usually do.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
18. Washington Redskins
17. Buffalo Bills

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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