2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Baltimore Ravens
July 28, 2015 | Chet
After a middling 2013 season, the Baltimore Ravens finished with a 10-6 record last season, the fifth time in seven season under John Harbaugh that they’ve won double digit games. Just like last offseason, there was a lot of roster turnover as they now have just four remaining players on offense from their Super Bowl trip in 2012. With all of the changes made, can this team remain effective once again in 2015?
2015 Ravens Schedule
By now you know it, but it still needs to be said. Don’t stretch early season schedule analysis too thinly when looking ahead at this season. That said, the Baltimore Ravens slate is a far cry from last season as they trade the AFC and NFC South for the two West divisions. The passing slate has potential potholes all over, especially over the back half of the season. The good news is that Baltimore closes with six of their final nine at home.
The Ravens brought in Gary Kubiak last offseason to help resurrect an offense that was one of the league’s worst in 2013 and he did just that. Even with a low bar to best, the Ravens went from a bottom feeding offense in terms of efficiency to one of the most reliant week to week in 2014.
Baltimore was improved as a whole, but as mentioned earlier, they faced one of the lightest slates in the league last season as they were 2-4 against other AFC playoff teams. Their three highest scoring games came against Tampa Bay, Carolina and New Orleans as they just decimated the NFC South as a whole while posting pedestrian numbers against nearly everyone else.
After that one year infusion of offensive life, Kubiak moved on to coach Denver and the Ravens brought in the recently fired Marc Trestman to run the offense. Trestman has historically had good success year one and then fallen apart after that, so if that holds true, the Ravens will be just fine in their transition, especially since Trestman himself has stated that he’s not changing much of what Kubiak already had them doing.
Cutting through the Forsett Forest
That last bit of information is a key positive for the outlook of Justin Forsett, who resigned with the Ravens in free agency. Forsett was a waiver wire savior who after bouncing around to his fourth team in four seasons, finally became a mainstay in a backfield. After carrying the ball 357 times for 1,692 yards and eight scores over his first six seasons in the league, the 29-year old Forsett carried 235 times for 1,266 yards and added eight touchdowns on the ground last season. It was a nearly unprecedented breakout as just seven other backs in NFL history posted their first 1,000 yard rushing season at age 29 or older. The downside is many had their balloon pop immediately afterwards.
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The decline of those players in a sample that small is nothing to base Forsett’s future performance on, but its perspective on the rarity of Forsett’s 2014 campaign in regards to a player’s career. Forsett has always been a high yards per carry player, but that was largely aided by facing light fronts as a change of pace option. Last season was different, however, as his 2014 was in rarified air as a complete product in terms of volume and yards per attempt, (thanks to Sigmund Bloom for that) as he broke a ton of long runs. 17 percent of Forsett’s 235 carries went for 10 or more yards, the highest in the league of all backs with 100 plus carries.
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His 40 carries of 10 plus yards trailed only DeMarco Murray’s 45 such gains and Murray only had 158 more rushing attempts than Forsett to accumulate that total. Those runs accounted for 62 percent of Forsett’s rushing output, something that can be looked at as a positive and a negative. On the plus, he has big game play ability to access his ceiling, on the negative side; it’s always dicey latching onto backs that rely on breakaway yardage to sustain that mark year to year. Especially when Forsett was just around league average and below in terms of carries that went for two yards or less. There’s potential that if those long runs aren’t sustainable this season that the bust in his rushing style overtakes his ceiling.
Those long runs aided his ceiling, but that ceiling was still just as an RB2 for fantasy because those long runs were also the only way he could find the end zone. Six of Forsett’s eight rushing scores came form 10 yards and out as he struggled to find the paint in short yardage work near the goal line. He converted just one of 10 opportunities inside the 5-yard line into a touchdown, the lowest rate of all 45 backs to have five or more carries from that area of the field. He was just four for 15 in his career prior to last season, so that subpar rate may be sticky even with positive regression.
Forsett had 10 top-24 scoring weeks, but just half of those were top-12 weeks with just two as a top-6 scoring option. His current RB7 price tag is already higher than the return production he gave last season which is worrisome since that ceiling production was also opponent driven. As mentioned about this offense as a whole in the open, Forsett put work in on the NFC South.
The only other times Forsett topped 70 rushing yards outside of the NFC South were against Cleveland (32nd vs the run), Tennessee (31st) and San Diego (26th). Forsett was sensational in 2014, and everyone loves a player that helped them win, but those long runs, strong performances against soft opponents and depth chart deterioration around him is the kind of perfect storm of events that create these types of breakouts.
Despite painting his breakout as a cautionary tale for 2015, Forsett is one of the toughest players I have pinpointing value on because there are also a wealth of positives in his corner. Forsett was a big winner by first heading back to Baltimore, the Ravens then hiring Trestman and then Trestman keeping the run scheme in place. He was also aided by the fact that Baltimore didn’t use high draft capital on another running back nor add another veteran through free agency. Baltimore’s receiving corps is also led by a 36-year old receiver who has only carried a passing game in doses over the past three years. Forsett is the Ravens best offensive player and their run game is the best part of their offense, he’s going to be heavily involved.
That involvement extends through Trestman and the potential lack of pass game options. Forsett is already a back that has two 40 plus catch seasons and lead backs in Trestman’s offense average 69.9 receptions per season over his past 10 stops.
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This is a coaching narrative I support as it covers various talent levels over a broad stretch. The real apple calling out to owners in that second round is that we really don’t know what his reception ceiling is given the Ravens have so many questions at the receiver position and we know the reception floor is safe for Forsett while healthy. We’ve even seen Joe Flacco have comfort in leaning on a receiving back if necessary throughout his career.
Forsett is a polarizing player, even for those who like him. Initially, I was more than alright with picking up stock of his when he was a third or fourth selection. That cost had perfect harmony between the optimism and pessimism I have around him rolling over his breakout campaign. Now that he’s a second rounder, the negatives such as him not having a high touchdown ceiling and not being reliable against higher end competition with a much worse schedule outlook have been priced out. If I have to coax myself into a second pick, I’m unlikely to make it and I can’t select Forsett as my first running back and he’s priced as one. If that price holds, I will have had to gone with a back already in the first and if I take him and I may also be going running back again in the third in that scenario.
Our Chad Scott broke down fourth rounder Javorious Allen prior to the draft and liked a lot of what he seen. Allen closed his college career at USC with 41 receptions, which was 11th in the country last season on his way to 1,947 yards from scrimmage season. That pass catching ability glows like a neon billboard now that it’s attached to Trestman obviously. Allen will need more of clear line to those targets, however, as Forsett is going to be given the keys to this offense. If the 30-year old back were to go down or regress, Allen would become a trendy waiver claim, but sophomore Lorenzo Taliaferro, who Mr. Scott also covered last year as a favorite, would be the best interior runner on the roster at that point and could turn that role into a committee with Allen.
Being Fooled by Flacco
As mentioned above, I put stock in Trestman as the PPR Running Back Whisperer, but the notion that’s he’s the “QB Whisperer” is another myth based largely on narratives.
Through 17 years as a quarterback coach, offensive coordinator, assistant head coach and head coach, the quarterbacks associated with Trestman have posted just eight top-12 scoring seasons and four of the top five performances there are also tied to elite receiving units manned by current Hall of Famers. Just six quarterbacks linked to Trestman have ever averaged 15 or more points per game and even positive fantasy seasons in terms of points per game from Jay Cutler circle an elite pass catching group. That level of unit is not in Baltimore and makes it troublesome to believe Trestman is really capable of elevating a quarterback in a pedestrian situation like Joe Flacco is in this season.
Flacco himself is coming off of the best statistical season of his career and just barely got near QB1 status. He had five top-12 scoring weeks and threw multiple touchdowns in nine games and for 300 yards in another five, matching career highs in both areas from 2010. 30 percent of his passing touchdowns came against Tampa Bay and Carolina, but when you have a quarterback stack production in favorable matchups and display a high ceiling in those games, that’s encouraging when they are available at streaming pricing.
C.D. Carter highlights Flacco’s ceiling and value in his Equity Scores and while I’m skeptical of that ceiling based on surrounding talent and an overall tab of more challenging opponents, Flacco’s cost at QB19 is more than accommodating for owners building a stable at the position to scoop him up for the early season Oakland and Pittsburgh games and see where the chips fall with someone stepping up from this pass catching unit. In most cases, I will let another owner pursue that scenario bearing fruit.
Ravens Passing Game, Nevermore
Baltimore is entering the season with 36-year old Steve Smith as the leading receiver on their depth chart. Smith appeared to have one foot in the grave exiting Carolina but kept the other one on solid ground in his first season with the Ravens. Smith bounced back with 79 receptions for 1,065 yards and six scores. The overall bottom line was more than enough to meet last season’s investment, but the season still ended on a down note for Smith as he was incredible when the season was fresh yet pedestrian over the final two thirds of the season.
After having four 100-yard games over the opening six, Smith had five games with fewer than 40 yards receiving and just two with more than 70 yards over his final 10 games. Although maintaining viable volume weekly, Smith’s ceiling was negated without splash play production and doesn’t possess the cheap touchdown scoring ability to smooth out that loss. Smith converted just two of 20 red zone targets for scores in 2014 and hasn’t had a season in which he’s converted over 25 percent of his red zone targets since 2011. For his career, Smith has converted just 21.3 percent of his 155 looks near the paint for scores, something that is problematic because out of all active quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts in the red zone that have also have completed less than half of their passes there, Flacco is in some pretty poor company.
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Still, there’s reason to stir the straw on Smith’s asking price. Smith is being selected as the WR37 so far this summer, that pricing has age and declination risk priced in already and C.D. Carter sees Smith as a safe bet to match his cost. Smith has never had an NFL season in his career in which he’s had fewer than 20 percent of the team targets. If the Ravens pass roughly 575 times this season, that’s a floor of 115 targets from a lead receiver in a passing game available as a fourth or fifth receiver on your roster. He’s an ideal target for best ball formats, but I like adding Smith to my rosters as a high volume backup because of the floor of that volume, but also because if he opens the season fresh and electric again to go with that work, he’s the perfect player to use as trade bait in packaging up for teams that end up needy early on.
The Ravens invested high capital into Breshad Perriman with the 26th pick overall this spring. Chad Scott covered the positives and negatives of Perriman as a prospect and by going to Baltimore, Perriman finds himself in one of the most readily available situations for available targets. The Ravens lost 110 targets (20.3 percent) from their offense with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones leaving via free agency and with the investment that the team has put into Perriman and the depth surrounding him, he stands to be the favorite to be the second wide receiver behind Smith.
Kevin Cole compared Perriman’s mixed blend of talent and situation as possibly being this season’s Kelvin Benjamin if his price didn’t go too crazy and it still hasn’t. Perriman is still hovering around the WR45 mark, a spot that offers tremendous upside, but could also be stagnant because we don’t have anything air tight quite yet on him officially claiming the starting X receiver role. He is contending with Marlon Brown, a player that has been consistently ineffective between the twenties and Kamar Aiken, an undrafted player that has played for three teams over his first four seasons. Aiken did produce a bit when Torrey Smith was hobbled, catching nine passes for 116 yards over weeks 13 and 14, but had more than two targets in a game just two other times all season. Trestman offenses have historically had shallow ball distribution as another plus for his coaching narrative is that he consistently funnels the ball to his best players. With just Smith and Forsett at the top of the mountain for touches here, the second wide receiver spot can hold some real value. I believe Perriman wins the job, meaning the time to grab him is now while the cost is suppressed and he can be a bench player on your opening roster. If camp and preseason elevate him up a few rounds, he’s far less enticing as an upside play when you’re counting on it.
If Perriman wins the X role, Brown is all but left for dead in fantasy circles. Aiken has the size and measurables to be an effective big slot option and Baltimore also has Darren Waller, Michael Campanaro and DeAndre Carter to compete with him in that area. As mentioned, I anticipate shallow ball distribution for this offense so whoever claims the third receiver role could have relevance if no one steps up from a crowded tight end position, but no one from that group is draftable in the majority of formats.
The Ravens have 100 targets missing from their tight end unit from 2014 if Dennis Pitta is out for this season and with the loss of Owen Daniels in free agency. Tight ends in this system has really only been relevant for fantasy when the roster doesn’t have a strong WR3 presence, something in question here.
The Ravens selected Maxx Williams in the second round this season and Nick Boyle in the fifth round to go along with last year’s third round pick, Crockett Gillmore. Gillmore added weight this season to get up to 275 pounds and will likely stay as the TE1 on the depth chart, but that added bulk signifies to me that he’s going to be a blocking first option with Williams as the pass catcher, similar to a Brent Celek/Zach Ertz-like situation. Even if Gilmore finds the field more, Williams should still find himself in place to garner a large portion of those available targets. I covered Williams prior to the draft and he’s still a puppy, just turning 21 years old this past April. He’s raw and plays a position that doesn’t translate quickly to the NFL for fantasy return, so it’s best to temper expectations here with Williams. The last time a rookie tight end was a top-12 fantasy asset was Rob Gronkowski in 2010 and the only rookie tight end that has ever received triple digit targets was Jeremy Shockey (128). After him, the next highest in a season since targets have been tracked is 86 by Cam Cleeland in 1998, so there’s still reason to pump the brakes a touch in anticipation of Williams not requiring the requisite build up to relevancy. He’s the TE21 in drafts, which feels about right as he has an opportunity to succeed immediately, but is still a streaming option at best entering the season.