Training camp is now in full swing as the 2012 defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens are set to defend their crown.
As the season swiftly approaches, expectations and questions about this organization have arisen with all of the turnover on the roster… especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Despite the skepticism of some, it seems as if the Ravens have reloaded for another potential playoff run.
Looking at the offensive side of the ball, there are three players who could have a significant impact as potential X-factors… and none of them is quarterback Joe Flacco:
1. Dennis Pitta
The departure of former Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers came as a shock to those following the team. Giving up the most reliable target on the offensive side of the ball for a sixth round pick is enough to raise a few eyebrows and question the front office as to why they made this move. With quarterback Joe Flacco inking one of the largest contracts in NFL history this offseason, one would have to think there will be a newly found emphasis on moving the ball through the air. Enter tight end and best friend of Flacco Dennis Pitta. The former BYU Cougar is playing the the 2013 on a one-year deal worth $2.023 million. Given the success No. 88 had last season, some would think he is poised to have his best season yet as he is not only coming off of career highs in receptions (61), yards (669) and touchdowns (7), but he is looking to snag top tight end money. He also played a significant role during the postseason catching three touchdown passes and amassing 163 yards receiving. In a market that saw former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez collect a five-year deal worth $40 million dollars, anything is possible for the 28-year-old. There will be a significant amount of pressure on Pitta to be the primary target for this offense and will most likely garner more attention after last season’s successful campaign. Still, given the rapport he has with Joe, if he can keep the drops to a minimum, expect Dennis to take big strides in becoming a top 5 tight end.
2. Gino Gradkowski
While former Ravens center Matt Birk wasn’t the same caliber of player that he was during his tenure with the Minnesota Vikings, the six-time Pro Bowl quarterback of the offensive line helped anchor what was the most cohesive unit throughout the entire postseason run. It is not the way he would have liked to earn the job, but former Delaware Blue Hens center Gino Gradkowski appears to be at the forefront of the center positional battle. While Gradkowski has seen limited game action, he is a football savvy player that has a work ethic that Ravens head coach John Harbaugh appreciates. Gino wants to earn this spot, especially with two centers being added to the roster during the offseason — A.Q. Shipley, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts and rookie Ryan Jensen from Colorado State-Pueblo. The knocks on Gino are his size and his ability to stand his ground against NFL caliber defensive lineman. Anyone that watches football knows that whenever a quarterback sees a pass rush coming at him from up the middle, it is significantly more terrifying and worrisome on the signal caller. We’ll see what kind of work the 24-year-old has put in to prove he is the right man for the job.
3. Bernard Pierce
Okay, we all know that Ravens running back Ray Rice is still king at this position, but his counterpart Bernard Pierce has been more than capable spelling the Rutgers product. 23-year-old showed an exposiveness that this offense needed from it’s No. 2 running back as Pierce was the north-south type of runner that lowed for a nice change of pace in the backfield. While the Temple alum isn’t great coming out of the backfield in the screen game, he is more than willing to lower his head and gain yards after the first hit. Considering how little emphasis the Ravens put on the fullback position last year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more formations featuring both Rice and Pierce or just one or the other. The 23-year-old will not, I repeat, WILL NOT be the feature back of this offense, but he will give Rice some rest. After all, No. 27 has yet to have a major injury as he enters his sixth season in the league… better preserve him while he is still in his twenties.