NFL 2006: Baltimore Ravens

Despite a 6-10 record last year, the Baltimore Ravens and their fans have an air of confidence heading into the 2006 season. And for good reason. Head coach Brian Billick and Ozzie Newsome at headquarters have assembled a team that may be the best since the Super Bowl race in 2001.

Offense: The reason for the incredible optimism begins with the new addition at quarterback. Steve McNair is now aboard the R train after a stellar career with the Tennessee Titans. Many feel McNair is the missing piece in Baltimore’s playoff puzzle. If you stay healthy, you may be. McNair still threw for 3,161 yards and 16 touchdowns during an injury-plagued 2005 season.

Kyle Boller, a disappointment so far in his career, will be relegated to backup duties and will have a chance to learn from McNair. This could be a blessing in disguise for Boller. You can learn from one of the best and gradually regain your confidence.

Jamal Lewis had a fall as a running back last season. He failed to reach the 1,000-yard barrier (906 yards) and had just three touchdowns. Many feel that their time in jail hurt their mental conditioning and attitude. Chester Taylor left, but the Ravens grabbed Mike Anderson (1,014 yards, 12 TD) from the Broncos to provide depth and be a possible replacement if Lewis struggles again. Ovie Mughelli returns as a winger.

Derrick Mason had a great season last year, his first in Baltimore. The veteran caught 86 passes for 1,073 yards and is now reunited with McNair. The duo had their best years together in Tennessee. Mark Clayton (44-471-2) had an excellent rookie season and appears to be even better this year. Depth could be an issue. Clarence Moore, Devard Darling and rookie Demetrius Williams are untested products and one of them should emerge as number three.

Todd Heap (75-855-7) is one of the best tight ends in the game and he just keeps getting better year after year.

Jonathan Ogden anchors the offensive line for the Ravens from his left tackle position. The UCLA product is one of the top three tackles in today’s game, along with Walter Jones and Orlando Pace. Tony Pashos is on the right side, while Edwin Mulitalo and newcomer Keydrick Vincent, a free agent from Pittsburgh, are the guards. Mike Flynn returns to the center. T Adam Terry, G Brian Rimpf and rookie Chris Chester (CG) add depth.

Defense Defense continues to be the strength of the Baltimore club and appears to be even better with a healthy Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

The defensive line is anchored by winger Terrell Suggs, the former rookie of the year. Suggs led the line with eight sacks last season. He collected 68 tackles and intercepted two passes in 2005. Jarret Johnson is a returning starter in the other finishing position, but he will have to fend off the challenge of veteran free agent Trevor Pryce. The former Denver pro had four sacks and 33 tackles last season for the Broncos.

Kelly Gregg and Justin Brannan are returning starters at defensive tackle, but their jobs are not guaranteed. Defensive tackle was a sore spot for Billick, so Oregon racing bomber Haloti Ngata was selected in the first round. He will push for a starting position right away.

Lewis had his worst season for the Ravens and will look to bounce back from an injury-filled season in which he missed 11 games. He is entering his eleventh season in the league and wants to show that the age has not reached him yet. Adalius Thomas had a great year from his outside spot, putting together a team that led nine sacks to accompany 84 tackles. Bart Scott led the team with 92 tackles playing for Lewis, but will now move overseas. Gary Stills was acquired from Kansas City for his depth.

Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle are solid corners, but there’s little else besides them. Free agent Corey Ivey (Rams) and rookie David Pittman are backups. Reed, who just signed a new six-year deal with Baltimore, is one of the best free safety in the NFL. BJ Ward is sitting at a strong safety and Dawan Landry is the best backup.

Special Teams: Mr. Consistency, Matt Stover, returns for season 16, including 11 seasons with the Ravens. Stover had another solid year: 113 points on 30-34 field goals and 23-23 on extra points. Expect the same this season. Kicker Dave Zastudil is gone and the competition is open between Leo Araguz and kicker Aaron Elling. BJ Sams is a reliable kickoff returner (22.7) and punts (12.2).

Outlook: McNair’s addition is huge for Baltimore. He is a leader who plays hurt and has a winning attitude. Those are intangibles that cannot be trained. The pieces are in place for the Ravens to make a serious run in the playoffs and maybe a spot in the Super Bowl, as long as McNair and the rest of the starters can stay healthy. The Ravens are loaded in almost every starting position, but depth is a real problem at wide receiver, defensive line and secondary. If any of the starters fail, it could be a problem.

Prediction: The Ravens play a tough division with Cincinnati and world champion Steelers. Regardless, if McNair, Lewis and Reed can stay healthy, this team has a legitimate shot at winning a division title and the Super Bowl. The Ravens will compete for the division and finish 10-6 or 11-5.