With the 2008 season about to get underway, let's take a look at how I think this season will play out for rookie coach John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens.
Joe Flacco - with Flacco as the starter-by-default, he has a chance to prove himself early. If he plays well in the time before Troy Smith is able to come back, there may not be a need for Smith to play much in 2008. The odds for Flacco to succeed, however, are heavily stacked against him. He must contend with a patchwork OL (though it has been made stronger with the signing of Willie Anderson) as well as a bunch of unproven WR's. There have been comparisons of Flacco's situation around Baltimore to the situation Ben Roethlisberger came into in Pittsburgh, but let's be real. Flacco is more than likely going to struggle. Projection: 7 G, 55%, 1,200 YDS, 6 TD, 8 INT
Troy Smith - after coming down with a severe case of tonsillitis, the former Heismann Award winner has to be feeling a bit nervous about his situation. Once tabbed as the Ravens 2008 starting QB, he is now battling his way back to health while Flacco, the Ravens' future franchise QB, is starting sooner than expected. If Flacco plays well, Smith may never get his chance. I expect Flacco to be mediocre, like most rookie QB's, and I expect Smith to start half of the games this season and be mediocre at best too. By the mid-way mark, the Ravens will have fallen out of playoff contention and the starting gig will be handed back to Flacco permanently. Projection: 8 G, 50%, 1,700 YDS, 7 TD, 12 INT
Willis McGahee - battling a knee injury, McGahee is going to be worked slowly back into the starting role. However, that knee could be a huge cause for concern going forward, as McGahee has been bothered by knee injuries his entire career going back to his days at the University of Miami. It's a good thing that the Ravens drafted Ray Rice, and Rice appears to be ready for an expanded role. I wouldn't be surprised to see McGahee hampered with injuries for most of the season and find himself out of a job come spring. Projection: 10 G, 850 YDS, 6 TD
Ray Rice - the rookie from Rutgers will be given a chance to prove himself now and for the future with McGahee bothered by a knee injury. I think he's up for the task. Rice has good speed and can break tackles. My bet is that he will be the starting RB by the end of the season. Projection: 16 G, 825 YDS, 5 TD
Derrick Mason - the veteran WR had a solid season last year, and was the only Ravens WR who put up anything resembling impressive stats. It's unsure how Mason will fare with Flacco and Smith chucking the rock in '08, but Mason still looks to be the surest target in the passing game. Projection: 16 G, 1,000 YDS, 6 TD
Mark Clayton - he disappeared after an impressive rookie campaign in '06. Here's to hoping Clayton bounces back in '08. I think he just might. The Ravens will be trailing a lot this season, which means that Flacco and Smith will be forced to pass. That means good things for Clayton and the remaining Ravens WR's. Projection: 16 G, 850 YDS, 5 TD
Todd Heap - Heap's biggest obstacle is staying healthy. When healthy, Heap is a top 5 TE in the NFL and a huge boost to the passing attack. If Heap can stay healthy, Flacco might be so bad after all. While I do think Heap is going to miss some time this season, I still think he will be the next best thing to Derrick Mason in the passing game. Projection: 8 G, 500 YDS, 4 TD
The Defense - the Ravens have always prided themselves on being a strong defensive team, but this will be the last year that people put Baltimore and defense in the same sentence. The unit is aging and all signs point to the Ravens going in a new direction in 2009 and beyond. If the likes of Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Chris McAllister and Samari Rolle can stay healthy, they could have a solid year, but chances are injuries are going to take their toll on the Ravens in 2008, causing the defense to crumble into a shadow of its former self. Enjoy #52 trolling the field while you can. Things could look much different next season. Projection: middle to lower end of the rankings for the Ravens defense.
CIN - W - Flacco impresses in his debut and the Ravens are able to run on the Bengals weak defense. The game, however is close and won by a late Stover FG.
@ HOU - L - the Texans are on the rise and the Ravens on their way down.
CLE - L - the Browns offense is too much. Let's just hope the Ravens fans aren't teased into thinking the Ravens have won before the ref's make the team come back onto the field ten minutes after the game was over.
@ PIT - L - this game is ugly, just in time for the season to get ugly.
TEN - L - outside of Vince Young, there's a lot to like about the Titans. We'll see why.
@ IND - L - the Ravens will lose this game so bad they could get 2 losses added to their record.
@ MIA - W - Revenge!
OAK - W - unless the Raiders drastically improve earlier than people expect, the Ravens should win this game at home.
@ CLE - L - the Browns' fans will revel in beating the old Browns once more.
BYE - they might even lose this week too.
@ NYG - L - I don't think the Giants are that good, but they will look good against the Ravens at home.
PHI - L - Ravens lose a close one.
@ CIN - L - When is the last time the Ravens have won in Cincy?
WAS - L - from the looks of the Redskins last night, this game could be called the Toilet Bowl.
PIT - L - the Ravens have had success against the Steelers at home these last few years, but it ends here.
@ DAL - L - maybe we can get Jessica Simpson to suit up in purple.
JAX - L - most fans will be playing with their Christmas presents while this game is played.
Record 3-14. That Indy game is going to count as 2 losses.
In the end, 2008 is going to be about the development of Joe Flacco, Troy Smith, Ray Rice and Mark Clayton. If those guys can become solid contributors in 2008, then the Ravens know who they can build around in the future. I do expect 2008 to be somewhat of a farewell tour of sorts for like likes of Ray Lewis, Chris McAllister and maybe even Ed Reed. I think John Harbaugh was handcuffed with this roster and will lobby for changeover during the next offseason.
If the 2008 Ravens can stay healthy, and the Flacco/Smith combination isn't horrible, then I do think the Ravens could add 4-5 more wins to their expected record. I just don't see this team making a playoff run with their brutal schedule.
At any rate, I am expecited to watch some football. Here's to the 2008 season being better than expected.