This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
Five seasons ago, the Ravens rode a veteran defense and hot Joe Flacco all the way to a Super Bowl victory and four-year hangover. Since winning the Harbaugh Bowl and making their quarterback the league’s highest-paid player, the team has made a home of mediocrity, settling for five to 10 wins each year. After starting last season 3-0, the Ravens found a way to lose the next four games. With two games to play they were 8-6 and contending for a playoff spot. They finished 8-8. For the Ravens, 2017 isn’t just about getting to the playoffs. It’s about not getting fired — at least for their coach.
After the 2008 season, the Ravens fired Super Bowl-winning head coach Brian Billick primarily because his teams were inconsistent and he had failed to develop former first-round quarterback Kyle Boller. To replace him, they hired a guy who’d spent 19 of the previous 20 years coordinating special teams as a glorified Billy Riggins. Years later, the guy who replaced Billick is a Super Bowl-winning head coach who has inconsistent teams and a former first-round quarterback who never really developed. Sometimes when you flee Baghdad to escape Death, you meet him in Samarra.
A player’s coach through and through — because he’s not an offensive or a defensive genius — John Harbaugh went 54-26 in his first five years as a head coach, capping it all off with an improbable postseason run and Super Bowl victory over his younger brother, then-49ers HC Jim Harbaugh. Like an instinctive poker player and the hero in an overrated Kenny Rogers song, he seemingly had a knack for knowing when to go all in. After a Week 14 loss in 2012 that dropped the team to a respectable 9-4 record, Harbaugh summoned the gumption to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron (who had been with the team since Harbaugh’s first year) and install quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell as the play-caller. Less than two months later, the Ravens were world champions. Harbaugh basically was the anti-Bill Belichick: A coach who could win through sheer charisma.
But since winning the Super Bowl the Ravens have accrued a 31-33 record. Only once in the last four years have they had a winning season. Why have they struggled? Maybe it has something to do with the constant rollover in their coaching staff. They’ve had literally five offensive coordinators in the last five years:
- 2012: Cameron & Caldwell
- 2013: Caldwell
- 2014: Gary Kubiak
- 2015: Marc Trestman
- 2016: Trestman & Marty Mornhinweg
If Harbaugh were an offensive coach, turnover at the coordinator position likely wouldn’t be a big deal — but it’s a big deal. Each coaching change requires the offensive players to learn a new system or new wrinkles. Cameron and Caldwell ran vertical offenses while Kubiak, Trestman, and Mornhinweg are West Coast disciples. There’s been little continuity on the offense for the last half-decade.
As a result, it’s hard to know how predictive the team’s past tendencies are. Still, we can guess. Mornhinweg has been with the team first as the quarterbacks coach and then as the interim (now official) OC for two seasons. In both of those years the Ravens have led the league in pass attempts. In pass/run ratio they’ve been top-five. Assuming play-calling duties in Week 6 after Trestman’s dismissal, Mornhinweg pushed the team even more toward the pass and away from the run:
- Weeks 1-5: 239.2 passing yards per game (YPG), 99.0 rushing YPG
- Week 6-17: 264.0 passing YPG, 88.0 rushing YPG
For the last decade — with the exception of the 2011 Eagles ‘Dream Team’ (Michael Vick) and the 2013-14 ground-and-pound Rex Ryan Jets (Geno Smith) — Mornhinweg has emphasized his quarterbacks with top-10 pass/run ratios.
Additionally, over the last two years the Ravens have been a top-10 team in neutral pace. In fact, in Harbaugh’s nine years not once has the Ravens offense not been top-10 in neutral pace. As it turns out — aside from his two seasons on Ryan’s “slow is sexy” Jets — a Mornhinweg offense also hasn’t been outside of the top 10.
Of course, there’s one wrinkle: In February the Ravens hired Greg Roman to serve as the team’s assistant head coach, senior offensive assistant, and tight ends coach. In four seasons with Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers (2011-14) and one full season with Ryan’s Bills (2015) — he was dismissed from the Bills after Week 2 in 2016 — Roman has coordinated offenses that were top-10 in rush attempts and bottom-four in pass attempts. In 2015 the Bills were second in rush attempts, first in yards and touchdowns rushing, first in rushing average — and 31st in passing attempts. Roman is basically the anti-Mornhinweg, and he was ostensibly brought on to help add some balance to the offense.
That said, Roman is ‘only’ the tight ends coach. Mornhinweg is running the offense. On top of that, soon after being hired Roman explicitly said that the team was not “going to try to be ground and pound.” The team will likely attempt to shift some more action to the running game — it would be uncommon for a team to lead the league in pass attempts three years in a row — but the impact of Roman should be minimal.
Regardless of whether it makes sense to emphasize Flacco as many times per game as possible, that’s probably what Mornhinweg and the 2017 Ravens are going to do. Flacco is, after all, once again the highest-paid player in the league. Also, “Mornhinweg” sounds like the name of a character from the Harry Potter series — he’d be some lower-level official in the Ministry of Magic — but that’s probably not relevant.
Avert your eyes:
- QB: Joe Flacco
- RB: Terrance West/Kenneth Dixon –> West/Danny Woodhead
- FB: Kyle Juszczyk –> Lorenzo Taliaferro
- WR: Steve Smith Sr. –> Jeremy Maclin
- WR: Mike Wallace
- WR: Kamar Aiken/Breshad Perriman –> Breshad Perriman
- TE: Dennis Pitta –> Ben Watson/Crockett Gillmore
- LT: Ronnie Stanley
- LG: Alex Lewis/Marshal Yanda –> Alex Lewis
- C: Jeremy Zuttah –> Ryan Jensen
- RG: Marshal Yanda/Vlad Ducasse –> Marshal Yanda
- RT: Ricky Wagner –> James Hurst
I don’t highlight fullbacks, but Juszczyk’s departure to the 49ers is notable. Last year he led the backfield with a 40.83 percent snap rate and 49 targets. Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 fullback last year with his 86.0 grade, Juicy isn’t likely to be adequately replaced by the fourth-string running back-turned-fullback Taliaferro — although many of his targets could go to Woodhead.
No longer piling on late-career stats to aid his Canton case, Smiff is finally retired (probably). Many of his 8.3 targets per game (TPG) seem destined for Maclin. One year removed from turning 127 targets into a 75-944-5 campaign, Aiken did little last season before joining the Colts as a free agent. To say he might be missed is not necessarily to pay him a compliment. Then again, he probably won’t be missed.
For a line that shifted players around a lot because of injuries — Stanley, Lewis, and Yanda all missed multiple games — the unit was fairly cohesive last year. Even though it ranked only 20th with 3.79 adjusted line yards per carry, it was eighth with a 5.2 percent adjusted sack rate (Football Outsiders). Zuttah was a league-average center about to be cut for salary savings before he was traded to the 49ers, so his loss isn’t devastating, but Wagner’s loss is significant: He was a top-10 pass-blocking tackle last year with his PFF grade of 86.9, and the Lions in the offseason made him the second-highest paid right tackle in the league. Given the lack of weekly continuity the line had last year, losing two starters is detrimental, especially since Jensen is yet to play one NFL game as a center and Hurst has a poor 2016 PFF grade of 52.5.
General Manager Ozzie Newsome has been with the team since 1995 (when it was in Cleveland and known by another name). He’s widely respected and has constructed two Super Bowl-winning teams. He’s shrewd when it comes to drafting for value and acquiring veterans. That said, gone are two linemen who played over 80 percent of the offensive snaps and several pass catchers who accounted for 345 targets on last year’s team. That turnover could cause some early-season problems.
Defensively, the Ravens are nothing like the championship team of 2012 — Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees’ first year running the group — but last year they were top-10 in yards, points, and takeaways. Specifically, the defense was fifth in rushing yards and touchdowns and first in interceptions. The defense wasn’t elite, but it wasn’t the reason the Ravens didn’t make the playoffs. This year, though, the unit could struggle:
- DE: Timmy Jernigan –> Brent Urban/Bronson Kaufusi/Carl Davis
- NT: Brandon Williams
- DE: Lawrence Guy –> Chris Wormley/Willie Henry/Michael Pierce
- OLB: Terrell Suggs
- MLB: Zach Orr –> Kamalei Correa/Patrick Onwuasor/Albert McClellan
- MLB: C.J. Mosely
- OLB: Albert McClellan –> Albert McClellan/Za’Darius Smith
- CB: Jimmy Smith
- CB: Shareece Wright/Tavon Young –> Brandon Carr
- SCB: Tavon Young/Jerraud Powers –> Lardarius Webb
- FS: Lardarius Webb –> Tony Jefferson
- SS: Eric Weddle
The stalwarts are still in place, but Jernigan is with the Eagles; Guy, with the Patriots; Orr, sort of retired; Wright, with the Bills; Young, out for the year (knee); Powers, retired. In some instances, the Ravens have no solid idea who will replace those players. McClellan might move from outside to inside linebacker. Webb might man the slot after playing free safety last year. With this defense, so much is unknown.
The Ravens always seem to find players who emerge — only once in the last nine years have they had a defense outside the top 12 in points allowed — but eventually even mountains crumble to the sea. This defense has suffered major roster erosion in the last six months. There are many camp battles and developments to track. When the season starts, be sure to keep an eye on our NFL Matchups Dashboard as well as our NFL News feed to see how these units take shape.
The thought of writing more than a paragraph about any of these players makes my head hurt. While many of them provide value at their current average draft positions (ADPs) in DRAFT best ball leagues, they’re not exciting to analyze, write about, or even roster. They’re all discounted, but few of them seem to have league-winning upside. That’s why’re they’re discounted. At the same time, a few of them might have something close to league-winning upside.
Joe Flacco, QB
Sometimes I want to pull a Robin Williams, hug Joe as tight as I can, and tell him it’s not his fault. It’s hard for a guy to pretend to be elite when he’s had five OCs in five years. He opened his career with promise. Only nine other quarterbacks have more yards passing than his 17,633 in the first half-decade of action, during which he had at least one playoff victory each season. In his first five years the Ravens had a top-12 scoring offense four times. Since then, they’ve had a top-12 offense (and Flacco has been a top-18 fantasy passer) only once.
Because of the offense’s pace, passing volume, and play-calling, Flacco last year was seventh, 11th, and 13th in passing yards (4,317), air yards (2,327), and completion percentage (64.9). If Mornhinweg keeps the pace and passing rates high and Flacco improves upon his career-low 3.0 percent touchdown rate from last season, then Flacco actually has some low-end QB1 potential. Surprisingly, he was eighth in the league last year with a 37.0 percent completion rate when pressured.
That said, Flacco was amazingly inefficient last year, finishing 28th and 31st with 0.35 fantasy points per dropback and 3.5 air yards per attempt. That latter mark is especially notable given that Flacco was eighth in the league with 77 attempts of more than 20 yards. A supposedly good long-ball passer, Flacco didn’t look like it last year when he was 30th with a 23.4 percent completion rate on deep throws. His Production Premium (PlayerProfiler’s situation-adjusted efficiency metric) of -13.0 was good/bad for 28th.
If you want to use Flacco as a contrarian option this season, consider rostering him when favored at home, where (during his three years in the West Coast offense) he has averaged 20.08 DraftKings points per game (PPG) with a +4.57 Plus/Minus, 60.0 percent Consistency Rating, and low 2.3 percent ownership rate in large-field guaranteed prize pools (per our Trends tool). This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across GPPs of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. It’s possible the sharp players could be on Flacco at strategic points this season, especially when he’s a home favorite. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Ravens each week. And if you want to construct Ravens stacks, do it with our Lineup Builder.
Right now Flacco’s DRAFT ADP is 149.3. If you wanted to use him as a No. 2 quarterback pivot play to other quarterbacks going a few rounds before him, I wouldn’t argue. But I would unfollow you on Twitter. Flacco is currently +4,000 in the prop markets to have the most passing yards this season. He’s passed for more than 4,000 yards just once in his career. No, thank you. He’s likelier to lead the league in interceptions (+1,200) — literally.
I can’t believe I just wrote that much about Flacco.
Terrance West, RB
For a guy who finished last season as the No. 22 fantasy running back while getting 1,010 scrimmage yards and catching 34 passes, West is getting no respect at his 135.2 DRAFT ADP — especially considering that his main competition for carries (the second-year Dixon) is suspended for the first month of the season. Even though he averaged an uninspiring career-high 4.0 yards per carry (YPC) last season, there are signs that he could be the true lead back in Baltimore.
- This offseason he was a restricted free agent, and the Ravens could’ve let him go. Instead they tendered him at the third-round level, giving him $1.797 million.
- In March, Harbaugh said West was the No. 1 back on the team.
- In April, the team opted not to draft a running back.
- In June, Harbaugh said that West has “looked good” and “improved” in the offseason, and Roman said that he was “looking forward to seeing [West] toting the rock this year.”
When Dixon returns it’s possible that he could steal snaps from West, but it’s also possible that West will have cemented his role as the early-down back.
Although West is thought of as a scrub, last year he was a top-15 back as both a runner and receiver in PFF’s ratings. Despite being 22nd in the league in carries (193), he was 12th in breakaway runs (10), 13th in evaded tackles (59), and 14th in yards after contact (304). Most impressively, he was first in the league with 6.6 YPC against stacked fronts — and it’s not as if Flacco was keeping defenses from not stacking the box last year.
Dixon is currently being selected in DRAFT best ball leagues at an ADP of 131.2; West, 135.2.
That’s ridiculous. There’s a chance West isn’t the lead back by Week 6, but he also has 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown upside as an early-down/short-yardage grinder. That potential is rare at his ADP.
Kenneth Dixon, RB
Regardless of everything I just wrote, if there’s a Jay Ajayi this season — a cheap second-year breakout runner who entered the NFL as a super productive three-down mid-round pick from a non-Power Five conference — it’s Dixon. (Side note: There’s probably not an Ajayi this season.) As a physical specimen and college producer, Dixon’s basically an Ajayi doppelgänger. In the final eight games of the season he actually out-snapped West 220 to 205 and outscored him 11.81 DraftKings PPG to 11.38. Seventh at the position with a 32.3 percent juke rate (PlayerProfiler), Dixon had an encouraging campaign: He was 10th with 1.5 yards after contact per touch and 19th with 0.40 fantasy points per snap.
The problem with Dixon is that he’s suspended for the first four games of the season because of performance-enhancing drugs. When he returns, he might not have a role. He wouldn’t be the first fourth-round Ravens running back to show promise as a rookie and then do nothing as a sophomore. Does anyone remember Taliaferro or Javorius Allen? They’re basically the 2017 Dixons of 2015 and 2016. That he’s being drafted ahead of West is ridiculous.
Update (7/25): Dixon will miss the entire season due to a meniscus injury.
Danny Woodhead, RB
In writing about the Top 100 NFL players early in July, I said this about Woodhead:
Too cheap at his current ADP of 82.9, Woody is now on a Ravens team that last year gave 156 targets to six running backs far less talented. He’s missed 27 of his last 64 possible games, but in his two healthy seasons with the Chargers he averaged 102 carries and 97 targets for 1,062.5 yards, 78 receptions, and 8.5 touchdowns per year. Amazingly, he has 100-carry, 100-target, 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown upside.
His ADP is now 70.9. He’s still probably too cheap. In DFS, he will be a weekly stacking partner with Flacco in GPP lineups. In his five seasons as an established pass-catching threat in the Ravens offense, Ray Rice averaged 88.6 targets per season. That total seems more than reasonable for Woodhead. In 2015 (Woody’s last healthy season), he was fifth and 11th at the position with 1.2 fantasy points per opportunity and 6.1 yards per touch.
Jeremy Maclin, WR
Maclin might be entering the Hines Ward stage of his career: At one point he had 1,200-yard, 10-touchdown potential, but now he’s more of a 1,000-yard, six-touchdown guy. While he’s not as bad as he looked last season (when he played with a groin tear), the truth is Maclin’s never been anything close to an elite receiver. With the exception of last year, he’s never had fewer than 850 yards and five touchdowns since his rookie season, but he’s also surpassed 1,000 yards only twice:
- 2014: With Chip Kelly’s Eagles, who led the league with 1,127 offensive plays
- 2015: With Andy Reid’s Chiefs, who lacked another NFL-caliber wide receiver
In the absence of top-10 volume or receiving teammates who don’t warrant targets, Maclin has been good but not great.
Playing 39.8 percent of his snaps last year in the slot, Maclin is likely to man the middle of the field while Wallace and Perriman play outside. That’s good for Maclin: The departed Smith and Pitta, who caught many passes in the middle of the field, have left behind 222 targets. Additionally, last year Flacco was easily his best when throwing in the middle of the field, based on adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A):
- Left: 0-15 yards, 3.92 AY/A; 15-plus yards, 6.95 AY/A
- Center: 0-15 yards, 8.66 AY/A; 15-plus yards, 12.18 AY/A
- Right: 0-15 yards, 5.39 AY/A; 15-plus yards, 0.59 AY/A
On top of that, although he’s not a prodigious scorer, six of his touchdowns in 2015 came from the slot.
Perhaps the biggest factor Maclin has in his favor is his familiarity with Mornhinweg’s system. For the first four years of his career, Maclin played in Mornhinweg’s offense in Philadelphia. As a result, he might have a smoother transition to his new team than we normally would expect from an aging veteran. At the same time, when in Philly he didn’t play as many snaps in the slot — and he was much younger and (probably) more athletic.
In his four prior seasons with Mornhinweg, Maclin averaged 106 targets per year for 64.5 receptions, 863.3 yards, and 6.5 touchdowns in 14.8 games. We shouldn’t expect much more than that from him this year.
Mike Wallace, WR
Over the last half-decade, Flacco’s been at his best (in AY/A) when throwing the ball not to Steve Smith (8.1), Torrey Smith (8.0), or Anquan Boldin (7.7) but to Wallace (8.2). For as much of a target hog as Smiff was in his three years in Baltimore, last year Wallace actually out-targeted him on a per-game basis (7.3 to 7.2), leading the team with 1,017 yards receiving (and 1,048 yards from scrimmage). Some people act as if Wallace has been burnt toast ever since he left the Steelers, but in his four post-Pittsburgh seasons he’s averaged 111 targets per year for 62.8 receptions, 820.5 yards, and 5.3 touchdowns in 16 games — and that includes a 2015 campaign for the Vikings, who were last in the league in pass attempts. Wallace is still a contributor.
Even though Wallace drastically trails Maclin in DRAFT ADP (116.5 vs. 82.5), the two have had comparably productive careers. Excluding their best and worst campaigns (which are outlier-ish), Wallace barely trails Maclin as a per-game producer:
- Maclin: 7.4 targets, 4.7 receptions, 62.0 scrimmage yards, 0.46 touchdowns
- Wallace: 7.1 targets, 4.1 receptions, 60.9 scrimmage yards, 0.43 touchdowns
It’s hard to say that Maclin is undoubtedly the better fantasy player for this offense this year — especially since Wallace has missed two games in his eight-year career while Maclin has missed 28. Of the two receivers, most people probably favor Maclin to lead the team in targets this year; in that bet I’d take the underdog Wallace.
Per PFF, Wallace was 2016’s best wide receiver on slant routes, and he was No. 1 on the team with 1.74 yards per route run.
Breshad Perriman, WR
Perriman wasn’t technically a rookie last year — he lost his entire rookie season to a leg injury in 2015 — but Perriman was very much still a first-year guy. As such, he wasn’t a bad performer. In fact, with his size, receiving yardage, and draft pedigree, Perriman was comparable as a first-year receiver to Dez Bryant, David Boston, Braylon Edwards, Koren Robinson, Michael Westbrook, and Michael Floyd — each of whom has had at least one 1,000-yard season. (He was also comparable to DeVante Parker as well as some guys who didn’t develop.) Although Perriman has been a disappointment to this point in his career, his first year of action wasn’t truly disappointing.
The arrival of Maclin and Woodhead in Baltimore isn’t great for Perriman’s fantasy prospects — those two could combine for at least 200 targets — but the Ravens are without players who accounted for 345 targets last year. Maclin and Woody could still eat while leaving a larger slice of the pie for Perriman. A big (6’2″ and 212 lbs.) and fast (4.25-second 40) boom-or-bust field stretcher, Perriman is a rosterable flyer at his 160.7 DRAFT ADP. His value will soar if Maclin or Wallace suffers an injury.
Ben Watson, TE
Pitta’s hip has forced him into a de facto early retirement, Watson is a 36-year-old jogger trying to recover from an Achilles tendon tear suffered last year, Gillmore is more of a blocker than receiver (when he’s healthy), Williams is recovering from a rare type of knee surgery, Nick Boyle is a slow underachiever from a small school, and Darren Waller is suspended for the season because he violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Other than that, this unit looks #good. Of the cohort, Watson is the front dad runner.
In the futures market the Ravens currently have a 2017 win total of 9.0 games with an even over and -130 under. They’re also +120 to make the playoffs and -150 not to. The Ravens have had a ton of rollover on both sides of the ball this offseason and haven’t had more than eight wins in three of the last four years. Per Warren Sharp writing for Rotoworld, the Ravens have the season’s 10th-hardest schedule. I wouldn’t bet on Baltimore winning more than nine games or making the postseason.
The Ravens are currently +4,000 to win the Super Bowl, +2,000 to win the AFC, and +175 to win the AFC North. I’m staying away from those lines.
In the four years since the Ravens won the Super Bowl, they’ve tended to underperform weekly Vegas expectations. They have losing campaigns against the spread in each of the last four seasons, and when favored they’ve been a sad 15-22-1.
Quoth the writer, “Nevermore.”
The odds were better than even that I wouldn’t get through this piece without making a Raven reference. You’re welcome.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Ravens Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.
Ian Hartitz contributed research to this article.