Thu, 22 Oct 2020

Eisenberg: It's Not Sexy, But Depth Is a Huge Factor in 2020

Baltimore Ravens
12 Aug 2020, 05:25 GMT+10

John Eisenberg

I've been doing this long enough to know that columns about a football team's depth tend not to go viral.

Fans of the Ravens would rather read about the latest magic from the league MVP quarterback, adjustments to the record-setting rushing offense or how the team's new defensive pieces meld together.

They understand depth is important, but their eyes still start glazing over when they spot the d-word. It just isn't a sexy subject.

So I understand I risk losing you when I tell you I'm writing about depth today. But you might want to keep reading this time because it's going to be a huge factor throughout the NFL in 2020.

Injuries are going to happen, as always, and now, with the coronavirus pandemic, there's another way for players to be sidelined. They're as vulnerable as the rest of society, even with strict protocols in place.

Which teams are best able to handle increased subtraction? The answer to that question might spell the difference between winning and losing.

League officials and the players' union were concerned enough to negotiate significantly expanded practice squads; teams can carry 16 players this year, as opposed to 10 a year ago, and they have more latitude as far as when and how they can bring up guys. Rules for reinstating players from injured reserve also are loosened.

The effective result is a much larger and more fluid roster. It's up to Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta and other roster-builders across the league to make the most of it and gather as much capable depth as possible at as many positions as possible.

You're going to see a lot more transaction news this year as teams constantly adjust their rosters - a trickier-than-usual business for sure with in-person tryouts difficult due to safety concerns.

DeCosta and his front office always put effort into bolstering the lower end of the roster, but I'm sure they're focused on it like never before in 2020. And my guess is they feel good overall about where they stand with their depth; the Ravens' roster is widely viewed as one of the NFL's best, and they didn't have any marquee players opt out.

The loss of veteran offensive tackle Andre Smith, who did opt out, illustrates the fragility of the situation. He wasn't going to start, but he offered experienced depth at a vital position. That's gold this year. Now the coaches have to figure out who'll play if Ronnie Stanley or Orlando Brown Jr. can't.

But there isn't a ton of such uncertainty with the Ravens, who are deep at many positions.

With their projected four-headed monster of Mark Ingram II, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill and rookie J.K. Dobbins, they're as stocked as any team at running back. They're also deep enough at tight end with Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle that they traded Hayden Hurst. The wide receiver depth chart includes a handful of recent Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks.

It remains to be seen who plays in the interior of the offensive line, but a passel of candidates includes more recent draft picks and a veteran starter, D.J. Fluker. Offensive Line Coach Joe D'Alessandris isn't complaining.

No one wants to think about Lamar Jackson missing games, but there's an experienced former starter, Robert Griffin III, backing him up.

On the other side of the ball, they're so deep at cornerback that Jimmy Smith no longer starts and recent draft picks could face a numbers crunch. Smith could land at safety, where Earl Thomas III and Chuck Clark start, Anthony Levine Sr. is a jack of all trades, DeShon Elliott is a playmaker when healthy and rookie Geno Stone has promise.

The front seven of the defense now features a blend of veterans and younger players after an offseason of change, and given how Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale likes to move guys in and out, depth is pretty much a given.

It doesn't mean DeCosta can relax. The combination of injuries and the virus are like a tall ocean wave sitting ominously offshore; it might stay out to sea but also could come crashing in. Spoils await those best prepared.

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