Today's absurd prediction:
The Ravens become the first team in AFC North history to win the division in consecutive years.
Last year, one of the league's best coaches, Brian Billick, was said to be "on the hot seat." His team needed to improve vastly over the 2005 6-10 disaster. Reversing that to 10-6 would have been enough, but with new QB Steve McNair and a healthy defense, the Ravens became the second-best team in the league with a 13-3 finish. And yet they seem to be the forgotten one of the AFC top four from 2006. Most people on FanNation are picking the Chargers, Patriots, or Colts to be the AFC regular-season champ and Super Bowl winner. Many don't even have the Ravens winning the AFC North, expecting resurgences by Cincinnati or Pittsburgh. I have to wonder why.
A note: before anyone says "the Steelers won consecutive division titles in 2001-02," the division was called the AFC Central in 2001, and included the Jaguars and Titans. So there.
Here's the breakdown for the Baltimore Ravens:
Coaching Changes: C-
Rick Neuheisel steps up to coordinate the offense, after having been QBs coach since 2005. During last year's 9-1 finish, this had been Billick's job, after firing Jim Fassel. The Ravens are now messing with what worked, which is some reason for pause, though it's understandable that Billick wouldn't want to spread himself too thin. It'll be interesting to see how the offense fares after the change. Rex Ryan returns as defensive mastermind.
They took the best interior offensive lineman in the draft at #29 overall, Ben Grubbs. Their next pick was a third-rounder, WR Yamon Figurs, who is a nice fit. An experienced QB like McNair should do well reacting to Figurs' quick breaking ability and getting him the ball. There are some questions about whether his 4.29 40 time reflects his game speed. They selected another lineman, Marshal Yanda, later in the 3rd, a questionable move since they already selected a guard, and Yanda is better suited to play guard in the NFL, even though he also played tackle in college. They took the Heisman Trophy winner, QB Troy Smith, in the fifth round, which helps make up for the lack of glamour in the earlier rounds. They didn't reach for him at all, and he's a reasonable gamble. While a good scrambler, he displays more patience in the pocket than many of his contemporaries, and he's a good low-risk potential replacement for McNair. This won't be a franchise-changing draft class, but none of these players will come in with unreasonable expectations, which is nice.
Player Movement: B+
Two moves overshadow everything else the Ravens have done this offseason: the loss of Adalius Thomas, and the changing of the guard at running back. But the thing about the Ravens is: Thomas was a luxury - their defense is plenty solid without him. This is the team that made stars out of not only Thomas, but also Bart Scott and Ray Lewis, both of whom remain on the team. A new future Pro Bowler might already be on their depth chart, waiting to take advantage of starting on Rex Ryan's phenomenal defense. As for the running back moves, I give them an 11 out of 10. Some say Willis McGahee is overrated, and I disagree. The only person who overrates McGahee is McGahee himself; most people around the league would place him somewhere near the 10th best RB in the league, which he is. And that's a major upgrade over Jamal Lewis, who went from 2,000 yarder to washout faster than I brake for deer in the road. And I've never hit a deer. There were a couple of other losses: G Edwin Mulitalo, who will be replaced in time with Grubbs; DT Aubrayo Franklin, who had no room to start on a line featuring Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Kelly Gregg, and Trevor Pryce; and FB Ovie Mughelli, who is less important now that they have a running back who can create space for himself.
The Ravens are the clearest victims of the NFL's scheduling system. As last year's division winner, they draw the winners of the West and South, San Diego and Indianapolis. And those two games are in consecutive weeks. And the week after that is New England. After that, they travel to opposite ends of the country: at Miami, then at Seattle. They then have to finish the season against a division rival. This will be an exhausted team at the end of the season. Also, they're playing the entire AFC East and NFC West, two divisions that don't have any awful teams. Cleveland is the easiest team on Baltimore's schedule, but considering Cleveland's hatred for their former franchise, these games aren't easy either.
The defense has one of the best starting lineups in the league, 1-11. But depth is a serious concern. Should the Ravens face a slew of injuries, the season could get out of control fast. The changes of personnel on the offensive line could lead to some chemistry issues, at least temporarily. The lack of depth on defense may also translate into sub-par special teams play. An interesting note: the Ravens' kick returns will be handled by two guys named Cor(e)y. It'll be like trying to tackle an 80's teen comedy.
The Record: 11-5
The Ravens are in for a tough season, but they are fighters. This defense should end up in the top 5 again, if not top 2, as long as they stay healthy. The offense will be improved, with McNair having a full offseason to work with the team and a full season under his belt. His chemistry with Mark Clayton and Todd Heap should improve, and he still has long-time companion (not like that) Derrick Mason as a reliable-despite-age target. The schedule is the main reason they'll fall off a bit from last year, but the division will still be theirs.