Preston: For a Ravens team in transition to be a contender, Joe Flacco needs to lead it

Training camp officially ended Tuesday and the Ravens have made plenty of progress. There is a comfort level built around some major concerns, but still some lingering questions that won’t be answered until the regular season starts.

The Ravens have to feel better about the return of injured players Brent Urban, a defensive end, cornerback Jimmy Smith and guards Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis to the playing field.

Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs came into camp in shape and played well, and quarterback Joe Flacco showed mobility after playing half of last season with a back injury.

Several young players, such as linebackers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young and running back Alex Collins have to step up and make a difference this season, but that won’t be determined until after the Ravens host the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 9.

But after four weeks of practice, there is still one major question that remains: Who is the “alpha dog” who can carry the Ravens to a Super Bowl title or deep into the playoffs?

There is only one answer: Flacco.

The Ravens have the blueprint and the work ethic to get into the postseason, but those two days of practice against the Los Angeles Rams last week are lodged into my head like a nagging headache.

The Rams destroyed the Ravens on Day 1, but the Ravens held their own on Day 2. The Rams have such dominant players, including defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald, cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, running back Todd Gurley and quarterback Jared Goff.

And then you look at the Ravens roster, and except for Suggs and possibly middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, there aren’t any players with such credentials.

That’s a concern.

The Ravens have won two Super Bowl titles, and in each of those two seasons, they were carried by one dominant player. The 2000 team had a great defense, but they also had middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who was the best player in the NFL that season.

The Ravens won again in 2012 with an average team that got hot going into the postseason, and no player was hotter than Flacco. In the playoffs, he completed 73 of 126 passes for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Flacco’s great run gave the Ravens another title, and they rewarded him with a six-year, $120.6 million contract, which at the time made him the league’s highest paid quarterback.

Now, can he do it again?

The 2012 Flacco showed up again in 2014 with Gary Kubiak as his new offensive coordinator, but he has been a no-show for the past couple of years. There have been several reasons for his disappearance, ranging from knee and back injuries to a lack of talent among the supporting offensive staff.

Maybe that has changed. Maybe “Alpha Joe” shows up. In all honesty, who else do the Ravens have? Suggs can take over certain games early in the season, but slows down near the end, and that’s to be expected from a 16-year veteran.

Mosley is a good player, but not great. The Ravens have a lot of good players, such as Yanda, wide receiver Michael Crabtree and nose tackle Brandon Williams, but none of those guys can take over a game.

That leaves only Flacco.

So far, he has performed well in training camp. The mobility and mechanics look good. Every once in a while, he’ll get tired and throw off his back foot or let a pass drift, but he has stayed mostly on point, which might be showing the affect of new quarterbacks coach James Urban.

Flacco is in his 11th season and will be motivated by the team drafting Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson in the first round in April. Because of the structure of his contract, the team could cut Flacco after this season and not be crippled financially in the immediate future.

So, this is the perfect time and situation for the old Flacco to resurface.

The Ravens are in transition. General manager Ozzie Newsome is stepping down at the end of this season and being replaced by Eric DeCosta. The team brought in three new starting receivers in Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV, who aren’t great but an improvement over the trash heap of a year ago.

The Ravens also have a new rookie tight end with excellent potential in Hayden Hurst and Collins, who came into training camp 10 pounds heavier in an attempt to prove that his strong showing in 2017 was no fluke.

On defense, the aggressive, pressure-packed approach by new coordinator Don Martindale has been impressive. Williams has gotten better as a pass rusher, and Matthew Judon could become one of the better strong-side linebackers in the NFL.

If Smith stays healthy and Humphrey plays as well as last season, the Ravens could have their best set of cornerbacks since Chris McAlister and Duane Starks in 2000. The Ravens have a nice crop of rookie free agents to select from in running backs Gus Edwards and Mark Thompson, linebackers Chris Board and Alvin Jones and receiver-kick returner Janarion Grant.

Unlike the Rams, the Ravens have a lot of pieces to put in place. They’ve got time to build and a chance to create good team chemistry. In training camp, it was easy to see that developing.

But if this team is going to hit that peak, one more thing has to happen: The Ravens are going to need that big alpha male.

Right now, it’s a list of one. It’s Joe Flacco.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

 

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