Franchise Development 3 of 32: the Baltimore Ravens

December 18, 2011; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson (83) is tackled by Baltimore Ravens line backer Ray Lewis (52) following a nine-yard gain during the first quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE

Baltimore nearly made it to the Super Bowl last season and should be hungry to take that last step. They were a dropped TD pass away last season. Are they prepared? Here’s their draft:

235Courtney UpshawLBAlabama
260Kelechi OsemeleTIowa State
384Bernard PierceRBTemple
498Gino GradkowskiGDelaware
4130Christian Thompson FSSouth Carolina State
5169Asa JacksonCBCal Poly-S.L.O.
6198Tommy StreeterWRMiami (Fla.)
7236DeAngelo TysonDEGeorgia

The Ravens are a team with tons of established talent especially on the defensive side of the ball. I think it’s safe to say they’re legendary for their physical style along the lines of the Steelers’ teams of pretty much forever, but the window of opportunity is closing fast. Ray Lewis is 37. Ed Reed turns 34 on 9/11 and has a lingering hip problem. Terrell Suggs is the team’s all-time sack leader and last year’s NFL Defensive MVP. He won’t be playing until the final third of the season at best, having torn his right ACL in a pick-up basketball game in the off-season. Massive Haloti Ngata should continue to be a force along that defensive line, but this team is on the way back downward on that side.

Offensively, Ray Rice is as productive and complete as any back in the league. If the Ravens can get the contract straight, look for another monster season from him. The guy can run, catch and pass protect so he doesn’t have to come off the field on 3rd down and is a great weapon to have. WR Torrey Smith had an understandably up-and-down rookie campaign but showed an explosiveness and deep-threat ability that other teams are going to have to take seriously. Fellow WR Anquan Boldin is an excellent complementary player and one of the league’s best-known and most fearless receivers over the middle of the field.

QB Joe Flacco is the one most under the microscope this year. Yes, he did his part last year. Where was Gisele when Lee Evans dropped the would-be winning TD pass in the AFC Championship game last year? Flacco has rather quietly gotten off to a nice start to his career, but people have been waiting for him to perform at an elite level for the past couple of years now.

No, he’s not being asked to pick up the team and carry it on his shoulders a la AR-12 or Tom Brady, nor will he be asked to be like that this season. However, it would be nice to see him be ABLE to do so if needed. Sometimes Ray Rice doesn’t have holes to run through and the defense won’t quite be what it has been in the past. I see them slipping without Suggs there to generate pressure and with Reed and Lewis being another year older.

Their top draft pick, Courtney Upshaw, has zero chance of performing like an NFL MVP as a rookie but don’t take that as a knock on the young man. He’s got incredible talent, but in Alabama’s system his job was 1) kill the QB 2) if in doubt, see rule number one. Reports so far seem to suggest Upshaw is everything they were looking for and more, but unless your name is Lawrence Taylor, you don’t just come into the league dominating from day one from that position very often. Cleveland may not yet be world-beaters, but they do have a left tackle named Joe Thomas. The Steelers drafted Mike Adams. There’s talent in the division at LT.

Assuming Flacco maintains his steady, competent but something-short-of-spectacular play, their normal potent rushing game, and the challenges they face on defense, they’ve got some bumps in the road before them. The Ravens play in a division with no pushovers now and I think they’ll find more than their share of struggles at times…especially before Terrell Suggs is able to rejoin them.

Considering they were that one dropped pass from making the Super Bowl last season, for this season my verdict on the progress of the Baltimore Ravens is…..

Two steps back. One step for the defensive issues and one for being in a rapidly improving division overall. They’re also a team that could, with Suggs’ return, really hit their stride and peak at exactly the right time – the end of the regular season.

Next up: The Buffalo Bills