Tonight's season opener at New Meadowlands Stadium is the first true opportunity to gauge how much better the Ravens might be in 2010. Preseason games are poor barometers of what a team will do in the regular season.
That said, here's where I think the Ravens have improved – and where I think they've slipped – going into the Jets game.
Wide receiver: Obviously, the passing game is the most improved area of the team. Anquan Boldin is the threat Joe Flacco lacked in the red zone last season. Derrick Mason appears to be as reliable as ever in his 14th NFL season. And T.J. Houshmandzadeh gives the Ravens a bookend to Boldin if they want to go big on the goal line. Losing Mark Clayton subtracted some deep speed, but Clayton didn't make as many plays downfield as he probably should have.
Bottom line: Big improvement.
Tight end: The Ravens expect big things from Todd Heap, but the arrival of Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta give them options they haven't had under John Harbaugh. Dickson, in particular, looks like he can be a game-changer sooner rather than later. He's big, quick and tough. Again, this bodes well for red zone options. If Heap gets hurt, they Ravens still have talent at the position.
Bottom line: Improved depth, increased skill level.
Quarterback: Flacco understands what's expected of him this year. His third season will dictate what kind of career he's going to have in Baltimore.
Bottom line: Good to go.
Running back: Retaining Willis McGahee to back up Ray Rice was huge. Rice was a do-it-all back in 2009, and there's no reason to think he won't take another step forward this season.
Bottom line: Good to go.
Offensive line: The mystery of Jared Gaither remains unsolved. When he comes back, assuming he does, how will he play? The alternatives give me pause. Oniel Cousins hasn't shown in a game why offensive coordinator Cam Cameron loves the guy. Tony Moll is good in an emergency role, but you don't want him starting 16 games. Moving Marshal Yanda to right tackle weakens the run game, because Yanda is an outstanding pulling guard. Then there's a potential issue at center, where veteran Matt Birk is in his 13th season. Birk missed much of camp with an injury and at 34 may need occasional relief. Chris Chester is the backup at center and Yanda's backup at right guard. So things are fluid in the line right now. Depth may become an issue.
Bottom line: Tenuous. Now that the Ravens have improved the receiving corps, can they protect Flacco?Special teams: Presumably, the kicking competition is over and Billy Cundiff will hold the job. Poor kicking was critical early in the season in 2009. The Ravens should avoid that malaise this time. They also should be better in the return game. Tom Zbikowski likely gets first shot at punt returns, something he did at Notre Dame with distinction. If the Ravens want to spare him the punishment, they'll probably turn to Chris Carr later in the season. As for kickoffs, Jalen Parmele showed his stuff last season and looks as explosive as Lardarius Webb did.
Bottom line: If Cundiff delivers, it's a huge jump.
Defensive line: Cory Redding replaces Dwan Edwards and looked strong in preseason. He is not the pass rusher that Trevor Pryce is, but Pryce returns to give the team a nice rotation at end. Having Terrence Cody plug the middle is another plus, if he can stay healthy.
Bottom line: Moderately improved.
Linebacker: The best news is Terrell Suggs showed up in good shape and didn't miss a practice in training camp. He should menace quarterbacks again after an off year in 2009. If teams have to double Suggs, it means someone else gets a matchup advantage. Another positive is that Jarret Johnson is healthy again. He played with two bad shoulders last year. He doesn't always get noticed, but he always does his job. The only question at linebacker is third-year player and first-time starter Jameel McClain, who beat out Dannell Ellerbe and Tavares Gooden. McClain is a good pass rusher and run stopper. He's still unproven in coverage, though.
Bottom line: Big improvement, especially in the pass rush.
Secondary: Losing Domonique Foxworth was a major blow for the secondary and the team. For the short term, it looks like Fabian Washington and Carr will start at the corners and Josh Wilson will play in the slot. When Wilson settles in, he'll probably start ahead of Carr. Webb, who practiced all week, might be the best cover corner on the team. The sooner he gets back, the better. With Ed Reed on PUP, the Ravens lose their best playmaker on defense, but Zbikowski is more than solid as his replacement. Zibby won't hurt the defense.
Bottom line: Fragile. The Ravens can't afford any more injuries in the secondary. Whether they can hold up against the elite quarterbacks is another question. That's for another week.
Final thought: The Ravens went 1-6 in the regular season against teams that made the 2009 playoffs, beating only San Diego. That dreary record has to turn around quickly, starting tonight.