This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Ravens entered 2015 with playoff expectations and left with a 5-11 record, doomed by mounting injuries that exacerbated pre-existing deficiencies. While the coaching staff remains strong, Baltimore will be awfully reliant on aging players, including a few that are recovering from major injuries.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
RELYING ON REHABBING STARS
Last year's squad lost a slew of key contributors to season-ending injuries, including LB Terrell Suggs (Week 1), WR Steve Smith (Week 8), RB Justin Forsett (Week 10), QB Joe Flacco (Week 11) and TE Crockett Gillmore (Week 13). Forsett has had plenty of time to recover from a broken arm, but the other players are trying to bounce back from far more serious issues, which could threaten their Week 1 availability. And there's no guarantee that availability will lead to productivity, especially for the 37-year-old Smith and 33-year-old Suggs, both of whom are recovering from torn Achilles' tendons. The Ravens did seem to acknowledge these limitations with their offseason moves, but the team is still left with an odd mixture of unproven youngsters and past-their-prime former stars. Known for consistency in the past, Baltimore has a wide range of possible outcomes for 2016, with anything from a deep playoff run to ending up with a high draft pick appearing to be within reason. It all starts with Flacco, who will try to avoid the dip in production that plagues most NFL quarterbacks in the season following an ACL injury.
THREE-WAY BACKFIELD BATTLE BREWING
With Justin Forsett and Javorius Allen already set to compete for the starting job, it came as a minor surprise when the Ravens used a fourth-round pick on Kenneth Dixon, one of the more promising runners in the 2016 rookie class. Forsett was a versatile, effective starter the past two seasons, and Allen proved to be a weapon in the passing game after taking over for his injured teammate late in the year. Once considered a possible Day 2 selection, Dixon gives Baltimore yet another running back with a three-down skill set, and he may be the most talented pure runner of the three. While the Ravens thus seem unlikely to deploy a true workhorse out of the gate, someone should eventually emerge as the lead back in a Marc Trestman offense that typically peppers the running backs with targets. The team also figures to have a capable offensive line, with No. 6 overall selection Ronnie Stanley helping make up for the loss of Kelechi Osemele in free agency. Even if the rushing workload is split two or three ways, it won't necessarily preclude one of the Baltimore running backs from emerging as a consistent force.
QUANTITY OVER QUALITY?
Heading into 2016, the Ravens sought to cobble an assortment of potential weapons at the skill positions, perhaps having learned some lessons after watching injuries ruin their offense in two of the past three seasons. But there's no denying that all of the possible contributors face major question marks due to some combination of age, injuries and inexperience. Complicating matters is the knee injury that 2015 first-rounder Breshad Perriman sustained in June. Still, there are several viable candidates to lead the team in receiving, including last season's top dog, Kamar Aiken. Though he may be overlooked in favor of Steve Smith or Mike Wallace, Aiken is the safest bet of the bunch to earn a significant role in Baltimore's offense. Of course, there's even more of a crowd at tight end, where newcomer Ben Watson will join 2015 starter Crockett Gillmore, 2015 second-round selection Maxx Williams and possibly even Dennis Pitta. Moreover, the Ravens have solid depth along the offensive line and in the defensive front seven, but not so much at cornerback, which seems to be a weakness every year.
KEY JOB BATTLE
With 37-year-old Steve Smith uncertain for Week 1 as he recovers from a torn Achilles, the Ravens have quite a few players contending for the right to serve as Joe Flacco's favorite target outside the hashes. Offseason signing Mike Wallace, now five years removed from his last 1,000-yard campaign, hopes to revive his career as a leading deep threat with the help of Flacco's powerful arm. Last year's leading receiver, Kamar Aiken, is more of a possession type, but his production down the stretch in 2015 was too consistent to be overlooked. Then there's 2015 first-round selection Breshad Perriman, a phenomenal athlete who's unfortunately in danger of missing some action due to knee troubles.
The Ravens should have some interesting position battles in training camp, but none of it will really matter unless Flacco bounces back strong from last year's torn ACL. With Ryan Mallett serving as the No. 2 QB, Flacco's health is imperative to the entire offense, which came to a standstill late last season after suffering a run of horrible injury luck.
RISING: Mike Wallace
Although 1,000-yard seasons are probably a thing of the past, Wallace could re-emerge as a deep threat while playing with the strong-armed Joe Flacco. The 29-year-old wideout was a poor fit in both Miami and Minnesota.
FALLING: Steve Smith
As gracefully as he's aged so far, at 37, Smith is no lock to be a key contributor in what will almost certainly be his last NFL season. He's recovering from an Achilles' tear and may not even be ready for Week 1.
SLEEPER: Kenneth Dixon
Despite scoring 87 touchdowns in college, Dixon fell to Baltimore in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He possesses both good size and three-down skills, but will have tough competition for snaps.
THE INJURY FRONT
Joe Flacco, QB - Despite suffering a torn ACL in late November, the long-time Ravens quarterback has repeatedly said that he'll be able to practice when the team begins training camp on July 28. Even with an otherwise unblemished track record of durability, his camp and preseason participation bears watching, as he'll be less than 10 months removed from the injury when Week 1 rolls around.
Steve Smith, WR - Smith was putting up big numbers during a 2015 season that was supposed to be his swan song, but everything came to a halt when he suffered a torn Achilles on Nov. 1. Not wanting to go out in such ugly fashion, the veteran wideout now plans to play one more year. However, the history of wide receivers returning from torn Achilles tendons is far from promising, and Smith has already admitted he has no idea when he'll be ready.
Justin Forsett, RB - Perhaps the least worrisome of Baltimore's many injury concerns on offense, the late-blooming, 30-year-old running back has reportedly made a full recovery from the broken arm that ended his 2015 season in November. The larger concern is increased competition in the backfield, with Javorius Allen and rookie Kenneth Dixon both expected to push for significant roles.
C.J. Mosley, LB - Rarely missing a snap his first two seasons, the 2014 first-round selection compiled 250 tackles, seven sacks, two INTs, two fumbles forced, three fumble recoveries and 15 passes defended. With fellow ILB Daryl Smith no longer around to compete for tackles, Mosley could approach the vaunted 150 threshold.
Eric Weddle, S - Injuries limited him to 13 games last year, ending a streak of five seasons with 88+ tackles. The 31-year-old safety may be a bit past his prime, but he should still be one of the league's more reliable players at his position for at least a couple more years.
Lardarius Webb, CB/S - After struggling in coverage the past couple years, the career-long cornerback is making a full-time switch to free safety. He's only listed at 182 pounds and may spend a lot of time in a centerfield role, but Webb has always been a feisty tackler for his size, with strong ball skills to boot.
Mike Wallace – WR (from Vikings)
Once-viable deep threat looking to revive career with strong-armed QB.
Kenneth Dixon – RB (Rd. 4, No. 134 – Louisiana Tech)
Record-setting college back could push for immediate role.
Ben Watson – TE (from Saints)
2015 breakout star may have serious competition for targets and snaps.
Eric Weddle – S (from Chargers)
Long-time Charger will provide much-needed stability on back end.
KAMALEI CORREA – LB (Rd. 2, No. 42 – Boise State)
Recorded 18 sacks, 27 tackles for loss over final two collegiate seasons.
Daryl Smith – LB (to Buccaneers)
34-year-old had 120-plus tackles all three seasons in Baltimore.
WILL HILL – S (FA)
Started 14 games in 2015 but was released due to a 10-game ban.
Kelechi Osemele – OT/G (to Raiders)
Stud run blocker landed mega-deal after showing versatility in 2015.