Ravens still have questions on offense

The Ravens have plenty of talent, but there remain questions on offense.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:47 AM ET
By Jamison Hensley | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

The new Ravens owner, Steve Bisciotti, represents one of the few changes for the defending AFC North champions, who bring back their starting offense and defense nearly intact.

It's one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, featuring eight returning Pro Bowl players and including the league's offensive and defensive Players of the Year in RB Jamal Lewis and LB Ray Lewis, respectively.

Like their Super Bowl championship run in 2000, the formula for success will be a conservative, ball-control offense and an attacking, ball-hawking defense.

This philosophy might have to undergo change by midseason (read Nov. 1), when Jamal Lewis is scheduled to stand trial on federal drug conspiracy charges. His legal issues have cast a shadow of uncertainty over his future as well as the Ravens' championship hopes.

Quarterbacks: For the first time in head coach Brian Billick's six-year tenure with the Ravens, a quarterback will start consecutive season openers. Kyle Boller, the NFL's second-lowest rated starter last season, has a strong arm that allows him to make special throws, but the Ravens know it is more important for him to make the right decisions, especially in a run-oriented attack. Kordell Stewart will serve as the backup until Anthony Wright recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, which is expected to force him to miss the first two months. Stewart has the same accuracy troubles as Boller but can create more with his feet. Josh Harris, a sixth-round pick, will be groomed as the long-term backup to Boller. Grade: C-plus.

Running backs: An assortment of eight-man fronts and run blitzes couldn't stop Jamal Lewis, who recorded the second-highest single-season rushing total in NFL history last year (2,066 yards). He has a rare blend of size and speed, running through linebackers and away from defensive backs. What could stop Lewis is his Nov. 1 court date. If Lewis is lost for any part of the season, the Ravens will turn to Musa Smith, who has a similar power-running style but lacks Lewis' breakaway speed. Chester Taylor is an underappreciated third-down back who caught 20 passes last season. FB Alan Ricard was a Pro Bowl alternate for his stout lead blocking. Grade: A-minus.

Receivers: Though the Ravens failed to land Terrell Owens, they did improve the weakest position on the team by trading for Kevin Johnson. He has the best set of hands of any receiver on the team in the Billick era along with the most proven track record. Starting alongside him is Travis Taylor, who has never lived up to the billing of a top-10 pick and still struggles with consistency. Devard Darling, a third-round pick, is the Ravens' most polished rookie and should produce right away as the team's No. 3 receiver. The Ravens' best big-play target remains Todd Heap. The Pro Bowl tight end creates mismatches because he is too quick for linebackers and too big for defensive backs. The Ravens use more two-TE formations than most teams because of Terry Jones, one of the best straight-line blockers on the edge. Grade: C-plus.

Offensive linemen: This is a big, powerful group that physically wears down defensive fronts in the running game despite being repeatedly outmanned. The left side remains the strength with the freakish physical ability of OLT Jonathan Ogden and a mauling run blocker in OLG Edwin Mulitalo. C Mike Flynn is an underrated center and is athletic enough to get to the second level on running plays. With Flynn out 6-8 weeks due to a broken collarbone, Casey Rabach will start in the middle. The right side of OG Bennie Anderson and OT Orlando Brown is pure bulk and fits into the run-dominated scheme. Ethan Brooks is limited as a backup tackle. Grade: B.

Defensive linemen: Stocky NT Kelly Gregg, a former practice-squad player, gets the most of his ability and rarely gets budged because of his excellent use of leverage. DE Anthony Weaver is the Ravens' most athletic lineman and used his quickness to record five sacks, tops among linemen. DE Marques Douglas, who could miss the first two weeks of the regular season with a dislocated elbow, is a high-motor player who can be disruptive in streaks. Another blue-collar lineman, Jarret Johnson, would replace Douglas in the starting lineup. NT Maake Kemoeatu has developed a better understanding of the game and will figure more into the team's rotation. Dwan Edwards, a second-round pick, is expected to have more of an impact in the second half of the season. Grade: B.

Linebackers: Ray Lewis remains the top player at his position, and perhaps in the game. Known for his uncanny ability to chase down running backs all over the field, Lewis doesn't gain as much notoriety for his preparation, breaking down game tape in such detail that he can anticipate plays by picking up tendencies. OLB Peter Boulware's rehabilitation of his knee is progressing slowly, and he could miss a chunk of the first month. Adalius Thomas, a starter last season who has battled inconsistency, will fill in for Boulware. The development of Terrell Suggs from college DE to pro OLB has been positive. Still, Suggs excels at rushing the passer, surprising offensive tackles with his deceptive power. The sleeper of this group is OLB Roderick Green, a fifth-round pick who could make an immediate impact as a situational pass rusher. Grade: A-minus.

Defensive backs: LCB Chris McAlister finally developed into a consistent shutdown defender and took some of the league's best receivers out of games last season. On the other side, Gary Baxter is equally as physical but lacks McAlister's recovery speed. SS Ed Reed is a playmaker who has stunning instincts for just being in his third season. FS Will Demps is the secondary's weak link because he hesitates too often. Deion Sanders, who is 37 years old and has been out of the NFL since 2000, will likely take over at nickel back. The Ravens hope his once-considerable skills haven't deteriorated too much. Providing depth are Corey Fuller, whose speed has declined quickly, and Chad Williams, who has a knack for finding the ball and repeatedly makes an impact as the dime back. Grade: B-plus.

Special teams: What PK Matt Stover lacks in leg strength, he makes up for in accuracy. With a career success rate of 82 percent, Stover is nearly automatic inside the 40-yard line. P Dave Zastudil has not lived up to expectations as a 2002 fourth-round pick but has placed 52 punts inside the 20-yard line in two years. RS Lamont Brightful has struggled with confidence and consistency in fielding punts. Kickoff specialist Wade Richey is a solid weapon, recording 14 touchbacks last season, which was second-best in the NFL. Grade: B.

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Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter