During their media availability at the mandatory minicamp this month, both Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil cited cornerback Jimmy Smith's healthy return as one of the primary reasons to be optimistic about the defense despite Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee's departures.
We're still about 3 ½ weeks away from training camp, but if I had to name an X-factor for the 2015 Ravens, a player whose performance will go the longest toward determining whether the team has a successful season, I'd say it's Smith, without hesitation.
How quarterback Joe Flacco meshes with new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman is crucial. The play of the offensive line and the defense's ability to generate a pass rush are vital. But if Smith is healthy and playing like he was early last season, that will ease so many concerns for the Ravens.
They'll have somebody to match up with A.J. Green, Antonio Brown and Dwayne Bowe, the top receivers in the division. They'll have somebody who will make quarterbacks think twice about getting rid of the ball quickly. They'll have somebody who is capable of shutting down one side of the field.
No, Smith isn't unbeatable. Green and Brown are going to make plays on anybody. But it would make it so much easier on defensive coordinator Dean Pees if he could just match Smith up with the opponents' top receiver and not have to worry every play about how they're going to deal with one guy.
Smith looked like he was getting close in minicamp, but the occasional limp or grimace served as a reminder that he's still working his way back from foot surgery. I'd imagine that the Ravens will be very careful with him in training camp because they know how important he is to the team's success.
The Ravens are going to need rookie outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith to pressure the quarterback. That's why they used a fourth-round draft pick on him.
But Smith brings another dimension that was on display in the various workouts, and it's a skill that will be a big help: He gets in passing lanes and gets his hands on a lot of throws. The Ravens quarterbacks learned that the hard way at the mandatory minicamp, when Smith deflected several passes, one of them resulting in an interception.
The 6-foot-4 former basketball standout has a big wingspan and superb athleticism. Ngata would get penetration and get his hands on a few balls per season and Chris Canty is 6-7 and a threat to do the same, but the Ravens really haven't had anybody with the kind of size and athletic ability that Smith possesses. He has a lot of room to grow, but the tools are all there.
Assuming the Ravens' frontline players stay healthy, the team doesn't figure to have too many competitions for starting jobs. But one intriguing roster competition is between second-year pro Lorenzo Taliaferro and rookie Buck Allen to be running back Justin Forsett's primary backup.
If I'm handicapping it, I'd give Taliaferro the edge, and that's not entirely because he looks much leaner and quicker than he did last season.
Both Trestman and head coach John Harbaugh mentioned how well Taliaferro does in pass protection. It's not that Allen can't do it, but Taliaferro does it very well. And that's a big deal to the coaching staff, especially if Forsett is not on the field on every third down.
Bernard Pierce, the primary backup last season, struggled mightily to block and pick up blitzes. That kept him off the field at times. Taliaferro, however, hasn't struggled. This isn't the first time I've said or written this, but I think the second-year back out of Coastal Carolina will have a bigger role on offense than most Ravens fans think.
Maybe I'm just not listening to sports talk radio enough or reading message boards, but it's been refreshing to not have to hear or see the constant chatter all summer about how Flacco is not a leader because he doesn't organize outside throwing sessions with his receivers. Perhaps Flacco silenced that talk for a while after he had arguably the best season of his career last year.
I'm sure the narrative will be alive and well if he struggles this season. Don't get me wrong, I'm not bashing outside throwing sessions. There is a reason why most of the great ones do it. But that Flacco hasn't done it doesn't mean he's not a leader. He does things his way and has an unwavering belief in his routine. His self confidence is what has made him a successful quarterback and a particularly dangerous one in the postseason.
I think he's been in the league enough and had enough success to get the benefit of the doubt in how he prepares for the season and gains chemistry with his receivers.
Speaking of Flacco, Pro Football Focus recently tweeted out an interesting statistic about the Ravens quarterback. Per PFF, Flacco had more yards lost due to dropped passes last year than any quarterback in the NFL. In fact, his total yards lost (472) were 82 yards more than the runner-up.