On Thursday, I blogged about a conversation I had with ESPN’s Matt Williamson, a former NFL scout, about Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense. He said the Ravens are a “smidge” behind the Steelers in the AFC North because Pittsburgh has an elite quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. But he believes Flacco is on the right track entering his fourth season, and that the Ravens will be contenders again in 2011.
“I think they’re really, really strong. They’re posed for another playoff run,” Williamson said in a lengthy phone interview on Wednesday. “In all phases, it needs to be recognized how good they are.”
And though he feels the Ravens defense -- which finished third in points allowed and 10th in total defense in 2010 -- is overrated, Williamson said the defense “isn’t far off” from being one of the best in the league.
“Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs are great players. Ray Lewis isn’t far off and is still very effective,” Williamson said. “But defensively, I don’t think they’re elite. I think people kind of see the colors, see Ray out there and think, ‘OK, this is one of the best defenses in the league.’ I don’t think that’s the case.”
After breaking down the team on film for ESPN’s Scouts Inc., Williamson said that the Ravens’ lack of a pass rush from players without the surname Suggs “held them back” last season and that they have been weak at cornerback in recent years. However, Williamson feels that help is on the way in the form of first-round draft pick Jimmy Smith, who is his early pick to be the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2011.
“I’m not sure he’ll get the stats to actually earn the honor, but I think he’s got a tremendous chance to be the best defensive rookie in all of football next year,” Williamson said of Smith, a cornerback out of Colorado. “He’s a top-10 talent on the perfect team for him. He should allow them to blitz more. He can play physical against big receivers. He can run with the more fluid guys. He’s in a great environment for them to keep him out of trouble. He’s going to be a huge addition to that team.”
He expects the Ravens to add a pass rusher in free agency if they can’t count on contributions from Sergio Kindle, the team’s 2010 second-round pick who didn’t set foot on the field in his rookie year. While the addition of Smith and the potential return of Kindle would be a boost for the Ravens defense, age is a concern. Ray Lewis is 36. Ed Reed turns 33 this year. Kelly Gregg will turn 35. Cory Redding and Jarret Johnson will be in their 30s.
Williamson said that fans worrying about Lewis and Reed is understandable because it’s difficult to predict when Father Time will tackle the two future Hall-of-Famers, but he feels they are wily enough to be effective even if they lose a step or two.
“Reed’s injury issues worry me and he has already mentioned retirement in his young career, so that’s a little bit frightening,” Williamson said. “I think Ray, athletically, took a step back last year. Will he take another one? Who knows? That’s an awful hard thing to predict from a scouting perspective because you watch him on tape and you say, ‘Boy, these are still two really good players, especially Reed.’
“Is next year going to be the year they hit the cliff? I don’t know. I think with their instincts -- some of these players are so reliant on physical gifts, that when those gifts deteriorate, so does the player -- but these two guys are … going to make up for that slight lack of quickness and that slight lack of speed with extremely sharp minds.”
So that means the Ravens, whom Williamson believes are all around one of the NFL’s top organizations, better jump through the championship window in the next season or two while again stars such as Lewis and Reed -- and Derrick Mason and Matt Birk -- are still able to hold it open with their old man strength.