After a disappointing 2015 campaign, the Ravens had what was by all accounts a very good draft, and were active in the free agent market. Fans are understandably excited about many of these new players. However, we shouldn’t forget about those players who did perform well at those spots in 2015, and who will certainly need to contribute again this season. Here are four such players…
It amazes me how underappreciated this guy is.
In 2015, Aiken finished with a team-leading 944 yards and five touchdowns. However, 50 of his 75 targets came from a monstrous eight-game stretch, which accounted for 611 yards and three TDs of his total. By the way, that stretch began when quarterback Joe Flacco tore his ACL in Week 10 against the St. Louis Rams. So Aiken was making the likes of Matt Schaub and Jimmy Clausen look good.
This proved that Aiken can be durable, consistent, and a big-time red zone threat. However, Aiken has been instantly overshadowed by Mike Wallace, who has yet to play a single game in purple and black but is still all the talk at the receiver position.
I’m sure he’ll do much better than in Minnesota with Flacco’s cannon arm allowing him to go deep. But as of now, Wallace is unproven as a Raven, Steve Smith is aging, and Breshad Perriman has been invisible due to lingering health issues.
Aiken is the most reliable receiver on the roster.
We’ve all heard about how impressive rookie outside linebacker Matt Judon has been, logging a sack in each of Baltimore’s first three preseason games. But the future of the Ravens pass rush lies with Za’Darius Smith. Smith flashed potential in the final three weeks of 2015 when he notched 3.5 sacks.
However, his skill set doesn’t stop there. In Week 4 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Smith was unable to put pressure on quarterback Michael Vick on a play. Instinctively, he ran back 24 yards to tackle running back Le’Veon Bell on a flat route and force a three-and-out.
Don’t expect him to slow down either. Smith picked up where he left off by forcing the first turnover of this preseason with a strip sack in Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers. Smith was drafted to be Pernell McPhee’s replacement after he signed a lucrative deal with the Chicago Bears. However, he is looking to write a legacy of his own and might be the Ravens’ next great mid-round steal.
The tight end position has been frustrating thus far. After losing Benjamin Watson for the season to an Achilles tear and Dennis Pitta breaking his finger during a bonehead practice fight, one of the team’s deepest position groups has been obliterated within weeks.
Nevertheless, Gillmore has been a bright spot in the group simply given his ability to stay healthy. Gillmore broke out last season with 33 catches for 412 yards and four TDs. Fans will vividly remember his most impressive play, in Week 2 against the Oakland Raiders where he caught a pass on a drag route and carried two defenders on his back into the end zone.
With his yards-after-catch ability and strong hands in the blocking game, Gillmore is a complete player and when healthy, can be a big bruising threat for opposing defenses. He’ll make a heck of a three-headed monster at tight end with Pitta and Maxx Williams once they’re fully recovered from their respective injuries.
There was suspicion that rookie linebacker Kamalei Correa had the potential to start at the Will linebacker spot after shining at the beginning of training camp. But with the relatively quiet preseason the rookie had, this is still Zachary Orr’s job to lose.
Orr embedded himself into the defense in 2015 when he played 13.5 percent of the team’s 1,063 snaps. During that time, Orr had 17 total tackles, including one sack and two tackles for loss.
The Ravens opting not to resign inside linebacker Daryl Smith is a sure sign of their desire to get younger and faster in the middle of the field. After playing effectively as an occasional replacement for D. Smith in passing situations, Orr looks like the solution. He mainly played on special teams in his rookie year in 2014, but his instincts and coverage skills earned him an expanded role on defense, thus adding to Ozzie Newsome’s impressive resume of finding hidden undrafted gems.
submitted by Mitchell Wolfman