NFL Preview 2017: Baltimore Ravens

Washington Redskins running back Rob Kelley (20) is tackeld by a group of Baltimore Ravens defenders in the first half of a preseason NFL football game, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017, in Baltimore. (Nick Wass/AP)

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams before kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 7. Today, the Baltimore Ravens.

Head coach: John Harbaugh
Last season’s record: 8-8 (2nd in AFC North)
Playoff result: Failed to make the post-season

Key free agent gains: The Ravens landed the best safety on the open market, Tony Jefferson, who comes over from Arizona on a four-year deal.

Pair him with Eric Weddle, who arrived in Baltimore last off-season, and fellow free agent pickup cornerback Brandon Carr, and you’ve got one of the strongest secondaries in the league — a necessity when you’re facing the Steelers twice a year.

Do-it-all running back Danny Woodhead also joins the Ravens after missing almost the entire 2016 campaign with a torn ACL. He is reportedly dealing with a hamstring injury, though, which has slowed him down this pre-season.

Key free agent losses: Joe Flacco lost one of his finest bodyguards when offensive tackle Ricky Wagner scored a huge deal with the Detroit Lions. Two of Flacco’s targets are also gone: Steve Smith Sr. (retired) and Kamar Aiken (signed with Colts).

Opposing quarterbacks, on the other hand, won’t have to deal with veteran linebacker Elvis Dumervil chasing them down. The veteran pass rusher was released by Baltimore after a career-worst three sacks in eight games before being picked up by San Francisco.

Key draft picks: Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has to be happy about the Ravens’ draft haul, which focused on adding depth on D.

First-round pick Marlon Humphrey arrived with some lofty expectations, but minor injuries have slowed the cornerback (seeing a trend here?) from showing off the physicality and quickness he exhibited during his days at Alabama. He excelled during the team’s final pre-season game on Thursday, though, and has Baltimore buzzing about his potential.

Linebacker Tyus Bowser, meanwhile, has wasted no time getting comfortable on the big stage of the NFL.

There’s plenty of excitement around Bowser, who plays an explosive game that fits in well with Baltimore’s style, but pay close attention to third rounder Tim Williams, too.

The team’s defensive line has been crowded at training camp, but third-round pick Chris Wormley is likely to land a spot at tackle.

X-factor: Joe Flacco. The 10th-year quarterback may or may not be “elite,” depending on who you ask, but the bigger question this off-season has been his health. Flacco’s mysterious off-season ailment turned out to be a back injury, which has fans questioning if he’ll be ready for Week 1 — and wringing their hands about the club’s less-than-stellar backup situation. Coach Harbaugh answered that in a hurry earlier this week:

Flacco struggled with inconsistency last season, posting numbers both promising (he threw for 4,317 yards and completed 64.9 per cent of passes) and troubling (only 20 passing touchdowns, and a too-high 15 interceptions) while prompting this from team owner Steve Bisciotti:

“We need to get more out of Joe,” he said via ESPN’s Jamison Hensley following the 2016 season. “I think Joe would agree with that.”

The defence can — and likely will — carry this team pretty far in the AFC North, but Flacco will need to be at his full health in order for his play to justify his pay.

2017 will be a success if: They get back into the playoffs after two years of missing out.

They say defence wins championships, and Baltimore proved just that in 2012. Now they’re banking on it being true again this season. This team lacks the offensive flair we’ve seen in recent years, so they’ll be leaning extra heavily on a stocked group of defenders that might just turn out to the best in the league.