Last year at this time, the fear was that a team coming off of a 5-11 season and hanging its hopes on an inexperienced quarterback would be floundering at the bottom of the AFC North. Of course, that quarterback looked like it was going to be Troy Smith, but after he came down with an extreme case of tonsillitis in the preseason, it was rookie Joe Flacco who was thrust into the huddle. But a funny thing happened on the way to the cellar the Ravens started winning. They went 11-5, nearly making it all the way to the Super Bowl, ultimately falling just one game short, losing 23-14 to the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
This year, the biggest changes aren't in the skill positions, but rather with the Baltimore defense, which led all D/STs in fantasy scoring last season. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan is gone, having left to take the New York Jets' head-coaching job, and he took Bart Scott, Jim Leonhard and Marques Douglas with him. Greg Mattison, the team's former linebackers coach, takes the helm, and while he still has Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to work with, they're both a year older and there are plenty of holes to fill.
Baltimore won last year by keeping its opponents off the scoreboard (15.2 points allowed per game), with Cam Cameron's offense -- which focused on a power-running attack and short, safe passes -- doing just enough damage to keep the Ravens ahead. If, as we fear, the defense isn't able to be quite as effective in 2009, the offense might have to open things up a bit more in order to win. We're not quite sure that Flacco will be up to the task, even with Derrick Mason returning to the team after a brief three-week retirement in July. The loss of blocking-fullback superstar Lorenzo Neal and a revamped offensive line don't help Flacco's case.
It looks to us that we may distinctly remember this season as having a bleak December for the Ravens.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: It probably speaks volumes to how set the offense seems to be that the greatest battle might well be between kickers Steven Hauschka and undrafted free-agent Graham Gano to replace veteran Matt Stover. Neither one should be too high up on your draft lists, regardless of which one comes out ahead in the battle.
At running back, Willis McGahee seems resigned to play second-fiddle to Ray Rice as McGahee continues his recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery. Meanwhile, 2008 surprise Le'Ron McClain will spend most of his time taking over Neal's lead-blocking role, though he should keep a lot of fantasy value from the goal-line carries he's sure to get.
The most intriguing offensive showdown might be for the No. 2 spot behind Flacco, a competition between Troy Smith and former Dolphin and Cam Cameron favorite, John Beck. Beck is familiar with Cameron's system from his time in Miami and has the stronger arm, but Smith is better suited for Baltimore's spin on the Wildcat offense, the "Suggs package," in which both Smith and Flacco take the field in a two-quarterback attack. However, Flacco's job is quite safe, so the fantasy impact here is also minimal.
Defensively, Tavares Gooden and Jameel McClain will square off mano a mano for the right to stand alongside Ray Lewis at inside linebacker, replacing Bart Scott. Having a solid player in this position helps free up Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Reed to pressure the opposing quarterback, and if neither player can step up and fill those big shoes, the whole defense will suffer as a result.
Fitting in: Tight end L.J. Smith joins the Ravens after a couple of injury-riddled seasons with the Eagles. He'll have to take a number to visit the trainer in Baltimore, with Todd Heap (frequent hamstring, ankle and back injuries) and Quinn Sypniewski (torn left knee ligament) amongst the Ravens' walking wounded over the past few seasons. Still, if he can stay the healthiest of the trio, he might be able to provide Flacco with a receiving option over the middle.
With Mason retiring and then unretiring this summer, he returns to the No. 1 wideout role, meaning Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williamssettle into the No. 2 and 3 roles. Thus, newly acquired Kelley Washington will battle it out with Marcus Smith to see who gets first shot at filling in at wide receiver when either Clayton or Williams most assuredly goes down with an injury.
On the line: Six-time Pro Bowler Matt Birk comes over from Minnesota to anchor this offensive line after Jason Brown was not re-signed in the offseason. Right tackle Willie Anderson retired in the offseason, which was all the more reason for the Ravens to tab Michael Oher out of the University of Mississippi in the first round of the draft.
Birk and Oher will join a trio of third-year pros, Jared Gaither, Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda on an offensive line charged with protecting Flacco and opening up holes for Rice, McGahee and Le'Ron McClain. It may take some time for the new pieces to jell with the old, but the talent most certainly is there to not only match last season's performance as the NFL's fourth-best rushing offense, but also to improve upon it, as well as bringing the sack total down to fewer than two per game.
The bottom line
In the end, it all comes down to Flacco. He was asked to throw the ball only 428 times last season and did well to keep the interceptions to a mere one per 36 attempts. Compare that to Ben Roethlisberger (one per 31) or Tony Romo (one per 32). If his line gives him more time and his confidence improves while retaining that level of accuracy, the Ravens won't need to ask their defense to do all the work. The wins will come from the offensive side of the ball. And that would be a very welcome change in Baltimore.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.