2017 NFL Preview: Can we count on Ravens to be contenders anymore?

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

The Baltimore Ravens are still a reliable brand name in the NFL. They’re one of the few NFL franchises you expect to contend each year.

The Ravens, with the rock-solid duo of coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome, have been in that select group of consistent, elite franchises for a while. But are the Ravens in that circle of trust anymore?

The Ravens are just 31-33 since winning Super Bowl XLVII. They’ve finished third in the AFC North three times the past four seasons, with one second-place finish. They’ve made the playoffs once in that time. In the NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players” list, the Ravens had just one entry: guard Marshal Yanda (No. 43), who doesn’t play an impact position. Only three teams had fewer top 100 players. That list has its clear faults every year, but it does point out the Ravens lack of blue-chip talent.

We generally assume the Ravens will be in playoff contention. The track record is strong. They’re well coached. There’s still talent, especially in the secondary, although a few poor drafts have hurt depth. The Ravens weren’t far off last season either; the Pittsburgh Steelers scored with nine seconds left on Christmas to beat the Ravens and clinch the division. If Baltimore won that game, they’d have been in the driver’s seat to win the AFC North in Week 17. Had Antonio Brown’s stretch been a little short, maybe the Ravens would be coming off a division title.

It’s hard to ignore the warning signs, though.

Quarterback Joe Flacco is coming off a poor season. Running back Kenneth Dixon has been suspended for the first four games of this season. The Ravens lost right tackle Rick Wagner and fullback Kyle Juszczyk when they signed huge contracts elsewhere. Tight end Dennis Pitta was let go after another hip injury. They lost linebacker and leading tackler Zach Orr to an apparent retirement, until free agent Orr decided on a comeback and started visiting other teams.

There are holes on the roster. The skill-position groups are surprisingly thin, and even though Jeremy Maclin helps, he was cut in June by a Kansas City Chiefs team that isn’t exactly deep at receiver. The dropoff from Wagner to James Hurst (or whoever wins the right tackle job) will be steep. The pass rush wasn’t great last season and is still way too dependent on the great Terrell Suggs continuing to fight off an inevitable decline. He’ll be 35 years old in October.

This is a turning point for the Ravens. You can talk yourself into the Ravens being good again, because that’s the norm. Or perhaps a dip has already started, Flacco won’t be able to carry a talent-thin offense and the Ravens will miss the playoffs again. Even Harbaugh’s job security seems shakier than it ever has been, and perhaps huge changes will occur if there’s a losing season.

The Ravens have been a remarkably stable NFL franchise. We should see this year if they’re still in that group.

John Harbaugh’s Ravens have missed the playoffs three of the past four seasons. (AP)

It’s hard to say it was a great offseason. You expect players to come and go in free agency, but linebacker Zach Orr’s retirement announcement was a blow. Steve Smith retired too, and even though that wasn’t a shock, he will be missed. The Ravens traded defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan and center Jeremy Zuttah. Rick Wagner and Kyle Juszczyk were made the highest-paid right tackle and fullback in the NFL by other teams. There were some positive moves, though. Re-signing nose tackle Brandon Williams was a must. Grabbing safety Tony Jefferson from the Arizona Cardinals was a smart move and adding cornerbacks Brandon Carr (free agent) and Marlon Humphrey (first-round pick) gives the Ravens great secondary depth. The Ravens desperately needed a receiver and Jeremy Maclin fell in their laps in June. Danny Woodhead can be a good contributor if he’s back from ACL surgery at age 32. The Ravens would benefit greatly if second-round pick Tyus Bowser or third-round pick Tim Williams help the pass rush right away. Still, a lot of talent left the building. Grade: D+

The Ravens should have one of the best secondaries in the NFL, and that’s crucial in a passing league. Safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson are both tremendous players. Brandon Carr, Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey are a good trio of cornerbacks. Baltimore had one of the 10 best defenses in the NFL last season and it should be in that range again because of the secondary.

You still need to score points in the NFL, and I’m not sure who scores for the Ravens. Their running game was a mess last season, and Kenneth Dixon’s suspension doesn’t help. Dennis Pitta was by far the Ravens’ most reliable tight end, and he’s gone. Jeremy Maclin has had a good career, but he’s coming off an injury-plagued 536-yard season. The Ravens offense was poor last season, didn’t get much help for Joe Flacco this offseason and now will be relying on someone like Breshad Perriman or Crockett Gillmore to break out.

It’s fair to blame the talent around Joe Flacco. It’s also reasonable to assume Flacco was still recovering from a torn ACL suffered late in the 2015 season. But Flacco clearly wasn’t very good in 2016. He threw only 20 touchdowns on 672 attempts, the lowest percentage of his career. He averaged 6.4 yards per attempt, tied for the lowest of his career. The Ravens offense had a few ugly games, and Flacco was part of that. Since the offense lost more talent than it acquired, Baltimore is relying heavily on Flacco playing better.

The Ravens have a bunch of third- and fourth-year players they could use a breakout from, but receiver Breshad Perriman is the most important one on that list. Perriman was a first-round pick in 2015 but knee issues set him back. He didn’t play in 2015 and had just 499 yards last season. The talent is still there, but the Ravens signing Jeremy Maclin (and their reported interest in Eric Decker) says a lot about their trust level with Perriman. Perriman needs to produce soon or the Ravens will completely move on. And the Ravens could definitely use a talented, young No. 1 receiver. Perriman was drafted to fill that role, but time is running out.

From Yahoo Sports’ Liz Loza: “Last season, Steve Smith and Kamar Aiken combined for over 10 targets per game. Together they also lined up in the slot nearly 50 percent of the time. Their absence opens up a massive opportunity for Jeremy Maclin, who dominated the slot during his time in Kansas City. Boasting overlapping skill sets, Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman are field stretchers that’ll bracket the outside.” [Check out Yahoo’s Pressing Questions for more on the Ravens’ fantasy outlook.]

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The Ravens led the NFL with 679 passing attempts last season. In 2015, Baltimore’s 676 passing attempts were tops in the NFL. The Ravens would surely like more offensive balance, but it’s hard to see where it comes from. The running backs aren’t special, especially with Kenneth Dixon out four games due to a suspension, and the offensive line lost two starters including one of the better right tackles in the game. If the Ravens had an MVP-level quarterback and a great set of receivers, another 670 or so passing attempts would make sense. But that’s not the case, and Baltimore should not be leading the NFL in passing attempts again. Then again, the lack of a running game might not give them much choice.

IS NOSE TACKLE BRANDON WILLIAMS WORTH $52 MILLION?

The short answer: Yes. Williams signed a five-year, $52 million deal as he was set to become a free agent, and it was a smart investment. Williams is a load at 340 pounds, and he was the main reason Baltimore’s defense was fourth in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt allowed. Williams hasn’t offered much as a pass rusher, with just 4.5 sacks in four seasons, but that’s not his job. He stuffs the middle and allows the Ravens linebackers to make plenty of clean tackles.

The Ravens’ defense is very good, and that will keep them in most games. If Joe Flacco can bounce back, the Ravens should be right back in playoff contention, especially since they have an all-time great kicker in Justin Tucker to finish those close games. There’s a good reason this franchise has been so consistent. And don’t forget, the Ravens were really close to beating the Steelers, who everyone seems very excited about, for the AFC North title last season.

As good as the defense is, the pass rush is just OK and might really struggle if Terrell Suggs doesn’t have another productive season left. And even if the defense is good, the offense probably won’t be. There’s just not enough skill-position talent for the Ravens to find an effective run-pass balance or for Joe Flacco to throw 30-plus touchdowns. You could see a lot of 10-9 type losses and as crazy as it sounds, perhaps some calls for Harbaugh to get fired.

In Las Vegas, most sports books have the Ravens at either 8.5 or 9 wins. I don’t see them finishing over that mark. I like their secondary, especially their safeties, but I’m not sure where the offensive improvement comes from. It was a bad offense last year, then it lost some key parts and didn’t do much to replace them. I think the Ravens miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!