As the Ravens begin their 15th training camp at McDaniel College in Westminster, expectations are as high as they’ve ever been for a team with serious Super Bowl aspirations in 2010.
From the acquisition of impact receiver Anquan Boldin to the continued maturity of quarterback Joe Flacco, prognosticators across the country have earmarked the Ravens as serious contenders to raise the Lombardi Trophy at Cowboys Stadium in early February.
Despite the loud optimism for this Ravens team, many questions remain unanswered, as is the case with any of the 32 teams in late July.
In honor of this year’s 10th anniversary of the Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV victory, I pose 10 questions as the men in purple report to McDaniel College this week:
1. What’s the deal with Ed Reed?
Reed’s name has created buzz throughout the offseason dating back to his uncertainty of whether he would return following the Ravens’ playoff loss in Indianapolis. Since then, the All-Pro safety has declared his intention to return, but when we’ll see him on the field is anyone’s guess.
After undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip, Reed declared himself at only “35 percent” as late as last week in comments to various media outlets. Speculation persists that Reed will begin the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list and miss the first six weeks of the regular season.
In addition to his health, Reed’s relationship with the organization is on shaky ground after the veteran safety expressed his displeasure with the team’s amount of support during his recovery. Reed also shared his desire for a new contract several weeks ago when he spoke to Drew Forrester on The Morning Reaction and has repeated the sentiment several times since.
Regardless of Reed’s shaky standing with the team, his uncertain health with the hip and lingering nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder may force the Ravens to turn to newly-acquired veteran Ken Hamlin or third-year safety Tom Zbikowski to fill Reed’s void in the defensive backfield.
His health will be monitored closely over the next four weeks, as has been the case during the last two summers at McDaniel College.
2. Will Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb be ready to go on September 13th?
Reed’s status will grab the headlines, but the health of Washington and Webb could prove equally critical as the two corners—both recovering from ACL injuries—will compete for the starting job opposite Domonique Foxworth in the Baltimore secondary.
Washington appears to be further along in his recovery, but both are candidates to begin training camp on the active-PUP list (eligible to come off the list at any point during camp). In the meantime, Chris Carr will receive reps as the other starting corner.
Slow recoveries for either Washington or Webb would open the door for new acquisitions Travis Fisher and Walt Harris to compete with Cary Williams (suspended for the first two regular season games) and Marcus Paschal for the final cornerback spots on the 53-man roster.
3. Is Joe Flacco ready to take the next step into stardom in his third season?
Entering his third season as starting quarterback and fully recovered from leg injuries that hampered him last season, Flacco is expected to take the next step in developing into one of the finer quarterbacks in the league.
The offseason acquisitions of Boldin and Donte’ Stallworth and the re-signing of veteran Derrick Mason give Flacco a plethora of weapons in the passing game in addition to the dependability of Ray Rice coming out of the backfield.
Flacco was criticized last season for checking down so often and avoiding the middle of the field, but the excuse of not having sufficient weapons will no longer be in play.
In order for the offense to grow, he will be expected to do even more in the passing game.
4. How quickly can Sergio Kindle recover from his accident in Austin?
While the details surrounding the accident remain sketchy, Kindle’s injury on Thursday night creates a nightmarish start to his NFL career with the Ravens, as the young linebacker will miss all of training camp with a fractured skull.
Kindle was expected to back up linebacker Jarret Johnson and provide a legitimate pass rushing threat on third down for the Baltimore defense, so the Ravens can only hope he makes a speedy recovery and eventually contributes to a pass rush that struggled to pressure the quarterback in 2009.
Unfortunately, it sounds more like a matter of if—not when—he can return to contribute before season’s end. It’s a major blow to the Baltimore defense but paves the way for Antwan Barnes, Jameel McClain, and Paul Kruger to become bigger factors in passing situations.
5. How prepared is Terrell Suggs to rebound from a disappointing 2009 campaign?
It was no secret that the organization was unhappy with Terrell Suggs’ 2009 campaign after he signed a $62.5 million contract last July. The linebacker arrived in Westminster out of shape and injured his heel on the third day of full-team workouts, sidelining him for the duration of training camp.
This translated into a sluggish season for the talented linebacker, which included a career-low 4.5 sacks and an MCL injury due to a low block from former Browns quarterback Brady Quinn.
Harbaugh voiced his displeasure with Suggs’ absence through much of the OTA schedule, so it will be interesting to see what kind of shape the linebacker is in when he reports to McDaniel College this week. A healthy, motivated Suggs is needed if the Ravens hope to pressure the quarterback and help mask would could be a depleted secondary to begin the season.
With Kindle’s unfortunate accident, it becomes even more crucial for Suggs to return to his previous Pro Bowl form.
6. Can Michael Oher and Jared Gaither pull off the flip-flop at offensive tackle?
There’s little doubt that Oher can handle the left tackle spot after filling in for an injured Gaither last season, but questions remain over the health and mental state of the new right tackle.
It’s no secret that Gaither wants a new contract, as the tackle delayed signing his restricted free agent tender until early June. Gaither also battled a foot injury through much of the OTA schedule, missing valuable reps as he makes the transition to right tackle—a position he hasn’t played since his days at the University of Maryland.
Should Gaither struggle to adjust to right tackle, it may force the Ravens to shuffle around other players into the right tackle spot or force them to abandon the switch and return Oher to the right side of the offensive line.
7. Will Shayne Graham (or Billy Cundiff) be able to silence the memories of Matt Stover?
The Ravens inked former Bengals kicker Graham to a one-year contract in hopes of finally silencing fans who clamored for Matt Stover last season as the Ravens struggled in the kicking game with Steve Hauschka.
Cundiff returns after being signed mid-season to replace Hauschka, but most believe Graham has the inside track for the job despite missing two critical kicks against the New York Jets in a playoff loss last season.
We’ll inevitably be tracking every kick from the fields of McDaniel College as we did last season with Hauschka and Graham Gano, but the kickers’ performance in the four preseason games will hold the most weight in determining who’s kicking for the Ravens in September. Unlike last summer, however, both Graham and Cundiff bring more experience to the table, providing more confidence that special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg can choose a viable solution in the kicking game.
8. How much longer will Troy Smith be a Raven after the acquisition of Marc Bulger to back up Flacco?
Several players, including Flacco and Reed, have voiced their support for Smith as the backup, but the fact remains Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens have invested $3.8 million in Bulger to be the backup behind Flacco.
While Smith has said all the right things to this point, he has to see the writing on the wall as he’s now relegated to No. 3 quarterback duties. The problem for Smith is none of the other 31 teams have shown a strong interest in acquiring his services after he expressed a strong desire to start for another team at the end of last season.
As of now, Smith will compete with John Beck for the third spot, but it remains very possible that Smith finds himself on another roster before training camp ends.
Needless to say, the Ravens don’t want an unneeded distraction in the locker room, but it appears Smith’s supporters will continue to sing his praises, likely contributing to his departure at some point.
9. Can “Mount” Cody help form a brick wall in the middle of the Baltimore defense?
The 350-pound rookie will need to keep his weight at a manageable level, but the coaching staff was thrilled with his athleticism and strength during OTAs. Coupled with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, it’s no secret Newsome envisioned a brick wall in the middle of the Ravens defense reminiscent of the tandem of Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams.
Cody will begin his rookie season backing up Kelly Gregg, but if the big man is as good as advertised and maintain his conditioning, it won’t be long before Ngata and Cody form a 700-pound monster on the inside—that will also keep blockers away from Ray Lewis.
With Kindle’s rookie season now in serious doubt, Cody becomes the most likely (and needed) draft pick to make a serious impact in 2010.
10. Will the aging Ravens defense continue to fight off Father Time?
While three defensive starters over the age of 30 may not sound like a big deal, it is when two of them are Ray Lewis (35) and Reed (31). The other starter Kelly Gregg (33) will battle Cody for playing time while Trevor Pryce (35) remains a key member of the defensive line rotation.
Reed’s health issues are well-documented (see question 1) and may not have much time left despite his desire for a new contract.
Lewis continues to be an enigma at the inside linebacker position where even the greatest of all time typically retire by their early 30s. He lacks the speed he had in the prime of his career, but his cerebral approach and leadership are invaluable to the Baltimore defense.
Newsome has drafted young talent to supplement the veterans on the defensive side of the ball, but injuries to these key veterans likely prevents this unit from being great as it has been for so many years.
Of course, the Ravens are banking on having a more explosive offense, so simply having a good—not great—defense might be enough to take Baltimore deep into the playoffs. If the defense’s elder statesmen can fight off Father Time for one more season, they’ll have a chance to play for a ring in early February.