Mike Preston hands out this season's final grades for the Ravens

The Ravens made gradual improvement in 2017.

They won nine games compared with eight a year ago. Instead of being eliminated from the playoffs in Game 15 as in 2016, they went down to the last game before being knocked out by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh was right about one thing. Early in December when the Ravens were 8-6, he said, “The reports of our demise, I guess, were greatly exaggerated.”

They were, but only by a month before the Ravens took their annual fall.

But in all seriousness, the Ravens have a good base of solid players. As usual, though, they need a playmaker or two on both sides of the ball. It would be nice to add a top receiver or tight end, or maybe a dynamic defensive end who can rush or a safety who can play the deep middle.

The Ravens aren’t that far off.

Maybe this year they don’t go after an overachieving draft pick who is a “safe” selection because of a choirboy reputation or a free-agent receiver whose best days are behind him.

But before we put 2017 behind us, here are final grades for the season:

Quarterbacks: Joe Flacco struggled through the first half of the season with a back injury but played better in the second as his health improved. He had better movement and seemed more confident. Flacco, though, continues to be hampered by poor mechanics, inaccuracy and a low football IQ. His career has been on a gradual decline since 2014, but that’s to be expected after 10 years in the NFL. The Ravens need to give him another weapon at receiver. Grade: C-

Running backs: Alex Collins was the great discovery of the NFL season. He proved to be the Ravens top offensive weapon and became more involved in the game plan as a receiver instead of just a runner. He could run inside with power and break outside, but seemed to slow down a bit at the end of the season. Buck Allen was a great complement to Collins and got a lot of tough yards inside. The Ravens might consider using Allen next season more as a slot receiver. Terrance West was the starter early in the season but lost out to Collins after a calf injury. He’ll be a free agent in the offseason, and the former Towson University star will likely have to catch on with another team because the Ravens have great depth at this position. Grade: B

Receivers: Mike Wallace had a solid second half, and Chris Moore and Michael Campanaro made a few plays when they finally got opportunities late in the season. But this team lacked a legitimate No. 1 receiver, as Wallace would be a No. 2 on most teams. Jeremy Maclin, a free agent from Kansas City, was a bust and never seemed interested in making plays over the middle. Breshad Perriman, a first-round draft pick in 2015, couldn't catch and then couldn’t get off the bench. Tight end Benjamin Watson was fine as an underneath target, but the rest of the tight ends were just blockers in the run offense. Bottom line: These guys dropped too many passes. Grade: D

Offensive line: This group overachieved because the Ravens developed a good scheme of being able to use angles and combination blocks. The line would have been even more impressive if it hadn’t lost starting guards Alex Lewis and Marshal Yanda early in the season to injuries. Ryan Jensen stepped up and did a better job at center than most expected. Matt Skura and James Hurst were decent replacements at guard, but they cost the Ravens at times. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley had a solid year but did not show the major improvement expected for a No. 1 pick in his second season. Right tackle Austin Howard could run-block but struggled with speed rushers. Grade: B-

Defensive line: Consistency just wasn't there with this group despite all the depth that the team bragged about over the summer. When Brandon Williams missed games early, the Ravens couldn't stop the run. Williams' return stabilized things, but run defense became a problem again late in the year. It might be time for the Ravens to look at their offseason training and conditioning program. Tackle Michael Pierce had a solid season but disappeared at times. Tackles/ends Carl Davis and Willie Henry were just as inconsistent, but Henry has a strong motor. He might develop into the line’s best pass rusher next season. The Ravens basically got very little pressure on the QBs from this group all season. Grade: C+

Linebackers: Terrell Suggs had 11 sacks, which is incredible for a 35-year-old in the NFL, but he fades every year down the stretch when his team needs him to step up. Second-year player and outside linebacker Matthew Judon had a breakout year especially since he was playing on the strong side instead of just coming in on passing situations. But there were times when both he and Za’Darius Smith couldn’t hold the edge, and that hurt especially against a team such as the Pittsburgh Steelers. C.J. Mosley played well against the run but still struggled in pass coverage. He doesn’t deliver the big play in crunch time, which he needs to do to take his game to another level. This was a learning season for rookie outside linebackers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, but they don’t get that luxury next season. Grade: C

Secondary: The Ravens’ play at cornerback was stronger than it has been in the last five years. Overall, though, this secondary continues to struggle in zone defense. These guys get lost. The loss of cornerback Jimmy Smith (Achilles tendon) hurt the Ravens, but no group should give up 500 passing yards, as the Ravens did against Pittsburgh. The future looks bright at cornerback especially with rookie Marlon Humphrey, but neither safety, Eric Weddle nor Tony Jefferson, is good at pass coverage. In fact, Steelers tight end Jesse James is still running free across the middle. Grade: C

Special teams: When the two best players on the team are kickers, it tells you something about your team. Justin Tucker and Sam Koch were the team's most reliable players all season, the best kicking duo in the NFL. The Ravens finished first in kickoff-return and fifth in punt-return average. Their coverage teams were also solid, but the Ravens allowed too much pressure on punts and field goals. Despite using a lot of young players, coordinator Jerry Rosburg had this group ready to play every week. Some team in the NFL needs to give him a head coaching job. Grade: A-

Coaching: Harbaugh got his team through early-season struggles that included a lot of injuries and problems on offense. He almost got the Ravens into the playoffs, but the slow start in the season finale against Cincinnati has to fall on his shoulders. That has been a recurring problem for Harbaugh during his tenure in Baltimore. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s unit played better in the second half of the season, but he still needs to rely more on gut instincts instead of trying to outsmart opponents. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who is retiring, has to share some of the blame for the team's defensive collapses the past couple of years, and it’s good that the Ravens will have a new voice calling plays. Rosburg is the most prepared coach on staff. Grade: C

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