Champs of change: Ravens embrace youth and rebuke skepticism

Upheaval at the receiver position gives Chris Moore a chance to break out in his fourth season. Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The New England Patriots overhauled their wide receiver position and lost Rob Gronkowski. The Kansas City Chiefs revamped their struggling defense.

But when it comes to the most change on both sides of the ball for a defending division champion, that crown goes to the Baltimore Ravens. After a strong late-season run to an AFC North title, the Ravens parted ways with two starting wide receivers (Michael Crabtree and John Brown), two top pass-rushers (Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith), the quarterback of the secondary (Eric Weddle) and the leading tackler on the league's top-ranked defense (C.J. Mosley).

The total loss: 17 Pro Bowls, 4,608 snaps and a great measure of respect.

The Cleveland Browns, who haven't won a division title since 1989, are the trendy team in the AFC North. The Ravens apparently are the forgotten one. They aren't considered the favorites to repeat or even finish second-best.

After filling many of its holes with young but unproven talent, Baltimore is projected to finish third, according to the oddsmakers in Las Vegas and ESPN's Pro Football Index.

"I guess if a guy has never played in the National Football League, he's a bad player,” coach John Harbaugh said. "That's the exciting part. It's really fun to see what the next generation is going to do and who they're going to be and who's going to make a name for themselves."

The Ravens could have as many as seven new starters, including three rookies (receiver Marquise Brown, outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson and guard Ben Powers) and a first-year starter (either Kenny Young or Chris Board at weak-side linebacker).

Perhaps this is why the FPI gives Baltimore a 29.9 percent chance to capture the AFC North and a 2.1 percent chance to win the Super Bowl.

"[We] kind of just want to block out that noise," safety Tony Jefferson said. "There's been a lot of talk going on, but that's really for the media to take hold on that. We know, in this building, it's all about us, and we're working on getting better each and every week -- whether it's a workout, whether it's being in meetings, anything of that sort. We're fully confident, we're loaded, and we expect to be the best in the NFL."

Here is a look at the Ravens' top three areas of concern:


The Ravens have one of the youngest receiver groups in the NFL. Of the 13 on the roster, only four have caught an NFL pass (Willie Snead IV, Chris Moore, Seth Roberts and Michael Floyd), and nine are 24 years or younger.

Snead returns as Baltimore's leading receiver, and Moore is considered a breakout candidate by owner Steve Bisciotti. Beyond that, the rest of Lamar Jackson's targets are questions.

The Ravens used the draft to build a supporting cast around Jackson, taking Brown in the first round and Miles Boykin in the third. There are high expectations for these fast receivers but also realistic ones.

"I'd be lying if I said I was counting on either one of our new wide receivers to be Rookie of the Year," Bisciotti said. "I just hope that they stay healthy, they learn from the vets, and they grow, and they contribute enough that their confidence goes through the roof so they are the stars we hope they are in Year 2."

Two of the previous three wide receivers selected by the Ravens in the first round (Travis Taylor and Breshad Perriman) suffered season-ending injuries as rookies. Brown is currently sidelined after undergoing foot surgery in January but is expected to be ready for the start of training camp in late July.


From Ray Lewis to Daryl Smith to Mosley, the Ravens have had an experienced (and usually Pro Bowl) player in the middle of the defense.

After Baltimore was outbid by the New York Jets for Mosley, it was assumed that the team would draft a middle linebacker or sign a veteran one. But the Ravens chose not to use any of their eight picks on the position, and the closest Baltimore got to adding a free agent was bringing in Jon Bostic for a tryout (he later signed with the Washington Redskins).

The Ravens appear set in moving Patrick Onwuasor, a two-year starter at weak-side linebacker, to Mosley's spot. Young, a fourth-round pick from a year ago, and Board, the leading special-teams tackler, are battling to start next to Onwuasor.

The rumblings about the Ravens and Manti Te'o likely won't come to fruition.

"I know there's a lot of talk about the linebacker position," Harbaugh said. "I'm not worried about it one bit. I like the guys we have. The guys we have are going to be more than good enough. They're going to play great, and I think you're going to be talking about a lot of these guys, even these new guys. Whoever rises to the occasion, we’ll be talking about these guys for many years to come."


The Ravens lost 36 percent of last year's sack total in free agency (Suggs and Smith) and were unable to lure Justin Houston, Ezekiel Ansah or Gerald McCoy to Baltimore.

The Ravens' options to fill that void include the NCAA's all-time sacks leader (Ferguson), two underachieving picks stepping up (Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams) and two veteran additions who are looking to turn their careers around (Shane Ray and Pernell McPhee).

Baltimore has one of the best and deepest secondaries in the NFL, but the big question is how the Ravens will get to Ben Roethlisberger, Baker Mayfield, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady this season.

Last week, Bisciotti was asked by a season-ticket holder about all of the losses suffered on defense.

"There's not a lot I can say in May or June that's going to give anybody any hope," he said. "I just know that we have a lot of young players on this team. We have a lot of young guys who typically don't have a chance to play unless some of these veterans move on. It's clearly a shock to our system. We certainly lost a lot of guys. I'm very confident with the guys that are going to replace the players that we lost."