But Did They Get Better?


April 28, 2009|By MIKE PRESTON

The draft experts are weighing in, and the grades for the Ravens are all over the place.

It's amusing to see these reports, because no one can determine how the draft will turn out for at least a year and maybe even two or three. The real question is whether the Ravens are a better team now than at the end of last season.

The answer is yes. You can't predict whether that will translate into more victories than a year ago because the NFL is so unpredictable, but with four months left before the 2009 season, the Ravens should be a contender again.

The Ravens filled a major need during the draft by selecting Mississippi offensive tackle Michael Oher in the first round. He isn't the speedy, impact receiver many fans wanted, but he should improve the passing game if he beats out veteran Willie Anderson for the starting job on the right side.

If he plays as well as expected, Oher's presence would allow tight end Todd Heap and running backs Willis McGahee or Ray Rice to become more involved as receivers than as the blockers they had to be a year ago. In second-round pick Paul Kruger of Utah, the Ravens might have found a pass rusher who can spell end Trevor Pryce or bring pressure opposite outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Kruger won't start right away, but a fresh pair of legs always comes in handy late in the season.

But the improvement of this team didn't come just through the draft. The Ravens upgraded their secondary with the addition of cornerback Domonique Foxworth through free agency and also by re-signing cornerback Samari Rolle after they had cut him. In Rolle, the Ravens return a proven, well-respected cornerback who is familiar with the system, who can also teach Foxworth. The addition of tight end L.J. Smith from the Philadelphia Eagles gives the Ravens proven depth behind the injury-prone Heap.

The most important thing that should make the Ravens better in 2009 is the coaching staff returns for a second season. The coaches now have a system in place, and they know the players instead of learning as the season goes on. The strong showing by the Ravens last season was directly related to the coaching staff, and it will be interesting to see what offensive coordinator Cam Cameron can devise next season.

He no longer has to spoon-feed quarterback Joe Flacco and can open up the passing game as soon as the season starts. Flacco can pick up where he left off last season, which was trying to find a way to beat the Steelers, who confused Flacco by dropping seven or eight players into coverage in the AFC championship game.

Defensively, the Ravens lost some quality players, such as inside linebacker Bart Scott and cornerback Chris McAlister, but McAlister had not played up to expectations during the previous two seasons because of knee injuries. The Ravens can't replace Scott, but they have some fine young talent in Tavares Gooden, Jameel McClain and Prescott Burgess.

The Ravens have some other holes as well. They didn't get the deep, vertical-threat receiver they needed, but there wasn't a great one remaining when the Ravens chose at No. 57 overall in the second round. Once the Cleveland Browns selected Ohio State receiver Brian Robiskie at No. 36 and then took Georgia's Mohamed Massaquoi at No. 50, there weren't any receivers left that were better than those on the Ravens' roster.

It's hard to question the Ravens' choices in the first two rounds, but there are questions about the team's final four picks Sunday. It appeared as though the Ravens were more interested in selecting overachievers than in good, athletic players.

"I've been thinking about this. Some teams draft size and speed, and we do," Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said in comparing this year's rookie class with last year's. "Some teams draft based off the combine and all-star games. I think what we do is, quite honestly, we pay attention to all that stuff, but these guys are tough.

"This was a draft about toughness, mental toughness. Most of these guys have had some sort of adversity that they've overcome in some way, shape or form. But also physical toughness. We have a tough team. We're in a tough division. We've got tough coaches, and we demand a lot from our players. I think these guys are going to come in here, and we got tougher at every position across the board, and that's going to help us this year in the fall."

We'll soon find out. We'll also find out whether Greg Mattison can be as effective as Rex Ryan as the Ravens' new defensive coordinator and whether the Ravens can find a full-time punt and kickoff returner.

But if the Ravens really want to be as good as last season, I would like to see Matt Stover become the kicker again. That might be the final piece of the puzzle before the season begins, but at least the Ravens already have most of the pieces in place.

Listen to Mike Preston from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays on Fox Sports (1370 AM).

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