By now, the Ravens' 2014 regular-season schedule has been sufficiently dissected. And yet, it surprises me a little bit that I'm still hearing from some fans that think the schedule sets up poorly for the Ravens.
Look, there's no such thing as an ideal schedule. All 32 teams have challenging stretches or difficult matchups. But all-in-all, I think the Ravens got a pretty favorable draw in terms of who they play, and when and where they play them.
I'm not sure it's preferable to be facing the other AFC North teams the first three weeks of the season, but I don't necessarily see it as a bad thing. The Ravens have the opportunity to get an early leg up on their top competitors, playing both the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers at home, and the Cleveland Browns on the road.
The Steelers have a much bigger gripe, opening up at home against the Browns and then having to come to Baltimore to play the Ravens four days later. They lose preparation time to travel, which is why Thursday night games have been such a struggle for road teams. If the Ravens are able to go 2-1 over their first three games, they'd set themselves up pretty well for the rest of the season.
** Here are five things that I do like about the schedule:
1. No team likes Thursday games, primarily because of the quick turn-around and the lack of preparation time. But the Ravens at least have theirs at home and early in the season. The Ravens should be fresh in Week Two and I'm sure they will get a jump on preparing for Pittsburgh late in the preseason.
2. The Ravens will have to wait until Week 11 (Nov. 16) for their bye but I think that could be a good thing. It will allow them to catch their breath and get a little healthier for their stretch run.
3. Because of the bye, the Ravens will have two weeks to prepare for their trip to New Orleans to face the Saints, probably the toughest game on their schedule along with the Week Five tilt in Indianapolis.
4. Last season, the Ravens final three games were against the Detroit Lions, New England Patriots and Bengals. This season, they will finish up against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans and Browns. Those three teams were among the worst in the league last year and while I expect each one to be improved, it still is a much more forgiving finish.
5. The Dec. 28 game against the Browns marks only the third time since 2008 that the Ravens will end the regular season at home. Most seasons the Ravens go into the final week with a lot on the line, so the fact that they'll be facing the Browns, who haven't won in Baltimore since 2007, has to be pretty comforting.
** There's no question that wide receiver LaQuan Williams, who re-signed with the Ravens yesterday, has an uphill battle to make the team. It would be hard to see the team keeping more than five or six receivers, and four of those spots are already filled by Torrey Smith, Steve Smith, Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown.
That will leave Williams, who hasn't played in an NFL game since the 2012 season, battling with Deonte Thompson, Aaron Mellette, Gerrard Sheppard (Towson), Kamar Aiken and a couple of drafted or undrafted rookies for two spots.
But one thing that is in Williams' favor is his ability to play on every special team unit. The Ravens lost several key veteran special teams contributors this offseason, including Corey Graham, Jameel McClain, James Ihedigbo, Ed Dickson and Vonta Leach. My guess is Ravens' officials had that in mind when re-signing Williams. Now, what Williams has to do is have a strong training camp, which he's done in the past, and stay healthy, which he's struggled to do.
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** The Ravens could use the 17th pick to draft a right tackle, which is probably their biggest need. They could opt to take a safety in the first round for the second straight year or they could jump on a replacement for departed defensive lineman Arthur Jones.
It also would be no surprise if they used their first pick on another pass-catching weapon for quarterback Joe Flacco. By now, you've read all those scenarios and seen all the different players connected to the Ravens in the various mock drafts.
What you probably haven't seen is anybody suggest that the Ravens could take a cornerback with their first pick. I don't see it as a likely scenario either, but I have to think that they would at least be tempted if one of the top two corners in the draft – Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert – are still on the board when they pick at 17.
Neither Chykie Brown nor Asa Jackson have been consistent enough to suggest they can adequately replace Graham, a very good slot and No.3 corner. Brown is also a free agent after the season, adding to the Ravens' need to add youth and depth at the position.
** My colleague Mike Preston wrote earlier this week about the possibility of the Ravens trading back in the first round, and I totally could see that happening. Obviously, that will depend on what happens in the first part of the draft.
If a top player at a major position of need – Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan or Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are two examples – is on the board, you'd have to think that the Ravens would stay in that spot and make a pick. If not, it makes sense for them to move back and pick up another draft pick or two.
Even if they move back in the low or mid-20's, there are still so many different directions that they can go in, whether that's wide receiver, tackle, defensive line, middle linebacker, safety, or even cornerback. So, they'd still get a guy they want/need, and yet they'd have another mid-round pick in a draft that is as deep as it's been in years.