By Robert Weintraub
In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. So far we've featured the Falcons and Cardinals.
Missing the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl isn't a new phenomenon (indeed, five other teams have done it since 2001, when Baltimore last won). Spending the postseason in a collective man cave was rare for the Ravens, makers of five straight playoffs before 2012. Blame Joe Flacco's contract, injuries or the retirement of Ray Lewis -- whatever the reasons, the powerful Baltimore battleship sprung multiple leaks. The offseason plugged a few, but some glaring ones are still open to the sea. How Baltimore's new additions fill in and how the team papers over the remaining gaps will determine whether it plays January football.
Biggest Offseason Move: Signing Steve Smith
Adding Steve to go with Torrey of House Smith to form the Cough Drop Receiving Corps was crucial. The Ravens simply had to add a proven pass catcher to prevent Flacco from needing a prescription for Zoloft. Eric Decker, Julian Edelman and Hakeem Nicks either wanted too much cash or weren't a great fit for what the team likes to do.
Instead, they fell into a once-great, still-very good receiver with a penchant for making tough catches on the perimeter and being more bad-ass than Liam Neeson in Taken. In other words, Smith should provide what the dearly missed Anquan Boldin gave the Ravens in 2012 and not merely in production. Baltimore had a worse than bad offense last season -- it was as dull as dishwater. A defense sans squirrel dancing was bad enough, but the offense was unbearable to watch, the personnel often listless. Smith will help in the passing game and brings an unquenchable competitive fire that promises to spark the other dudes in the huddle.
He's also nursing a grudge. Smith was dumped by Carolina after dropping to 64 receptions last year, but his catch percentage actually went up. Smith has never been an elite route-runner and, at 35, isn't going to sprint past anyone. Few can match his ability to outfight defenders for balls in the air, however. Add his very particular skillset to his anger over being dissed by the Panthers, and Baltimore should be the recipient of a last hurrah. If nothing else, plan on the Ravens force-feeding Smith in Week 4, when they travel to Charlotte to punish Panthers GM Dave Gettleman for his presumption.
Biggest Offseason Gamble: Leaving right tackle unaddressed
The first move the Ravens made after the final whistle of 2013 was to lock down Eugene Monroe at left tackle, to the tune of five years and $37.5 million. For the cash he's pulling down, perhaps Monroe can play on both sides. Right now, the starter opposite Monroe is Ricky Wagner, who has been on the field for all of 131 snaps. No one is calling for Michael Oher to return, but addressing the position in the draft, instead of adding to an already well-stocked defense, might have been the more prudent move.
Of course, there is plenty of time (too much!) between now and opening Sunday, leaving room for a veteran addition. Eric Winston is the name most bandied about in Baltimore. Late of the O-line desperate Cardinals, Winston is hardly a long-term solution, but he wasn't terrible last season: According to Football Outsiders, he had far more snaps per blown blocks (42.8) than Breno Giacomini (26.7), for example, who signed a rich contract with the Jets, or than the man he would replace, Oher (26.0). As president of the NFLPA, Winston would be on the spot to answer Wagner's questions about pension accrual and the like.
Another possibility is Tennessee tackle Michael Roos, who may be odd man out with Oher and first-round draft choice Taylor Lewan in Nashville. Roos would probably have to be cut for the Ravens to snag him, however, as they've unloaded much of their spare draft choice ammo on Monroe and new center Jeremy Zuttah. Guard Kelechi Osemele is fully healthy after back surgery, and he impressed in OTAs. If pressed, Baltimore could move Osemele outside to tackle.
Or maybe, just maybe, Wagner will rise to the occasion. More likely, the line will struggle once again, though not as badly as it did in 2013.
Biggest 2014 Question: Can the Ravens get by with just two proven corners?
Attention fanboys and miners: The Ravens are in search of some of that adamantine stuff that keeps Wolverine off the PUP list so it can be administered, stat, to cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. The two starters need to stay healthy, because behind them is nothing but wishful thinking, especially after nickelback Corey Graham signed with Buffalo.
Webb has already missed a season with a torn knee ligament, and Smith, who fell in the 2011 draft to character concerns, was bounced (with a pair of teammates) from a nightclub for imbibing too much. In other words, neither is the safest bet to suit up for all 16 games. Backing them up at present are Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson, who combined for 419 snaps last season (Graham had precisely 500 more than that by himself).
Brown saw some action when Webb went down in 2012, so he would seem to have the inside track on the third corner spot, but the position is wide open for either an undrafted rookie signing, like Middle Tennessee State's Sammy Seamster, a long and fleet athlete who flew under the radar in Conference USA, or a veteran camp cut come August. Whoever is out there, enemy teams are sure to come at the Ravens with heavy doses of three- and four-wide sets, probing for weakness.
Ray Rice will likely be suspended by the NFL for his off-the-field actions, and upon return will find himself struggling for playing time. Bernard Pierce will finally spend more hours in the huddle than in the X-ray facility, and when healthy, he is choice. Justin Forsett is on hand to catch Rice's passes out of the backfield, and the small but blazing scatback will provide the jolt Rice was unable to muster last season. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro will be the backfield punishment (and not just of taxi cabs), while perhaps singing an aria or two. Rice's poor play raised plenty of eyebrows last year, and his rocky offseason has only made his situation less tenable. His leverage with the team has been that the Ravens needed him. In 2014, that won't be the case.
* * *
Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.