Join me on AM 1570 WNST or WNST.net this afternoon at 4:20 as we have an excuse to talk Ravens football despite the season still being months away. What’s the biggest question on your mind as we approach the preseason?
It’s a far cry from a Purple Friday in the fall, but we’ll get a small tease of football this weekend as the Ravens begin their mandatory minicamp today at 1 Winning Drive.
The weekend is nothing more than an obligation for most veterans—with the exception of Terrell Suggs who is not expected to attend after again being named the team’s franchise player—but it’s the first chance for the rookies to rub elbows with the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Derrick Mason. It’s always interesting to hear the veterans’ first impressions of the new draft picks and rookie free agents.
As we take the next step toward training camp in Westminster—now less than three months away—, several questions loom large as the Ravens try to improve upon coach John Harbaugh’s surprising first season.
Here are five questions on my mind as we approach the season, in no particular order.
1. How is the depth at quarterback shaping up?
A quarterback controversy is brewing in the Charm City; only for once, it’s not over who will be starting under center—Joe Flacco has finally stabilized the position for the Ravens. The real battle will take place between incumbent backup Troy Smith and newly-signed John Beck, a former second-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2007.
Smith found moderate success running the Ravens’ version of the “Wildcat” formation at times last season, but his size (6-0) makes it difficult to spot receivers, forcing him to move outside the pocket. Beck has strong ties to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron (Miami’s head coach in 2007) and, at 6-2, is a more traditional drop-back passer.
It will be interesting to see Flacco’s progression from his rookie season to year two—a time when many experts believe a quarterback makes his biggest improvement. If Flacco can improve upon his 14 touchdowns and 2,971 yards from a year ago, the Ravens will be as deadly as any team in the AFC.
Keep in mind, Flacco will have a full training camp to prepare as the team’s starting quarterback, something he did not enjoy in his rookie season when he was launched into the starting role after Kyle Boller and Smith went down in late August.
2. Is there another wide receiver out there?
Despite national pundits and fans clamoring for Ozzie Newsome to take a receiver in this year’s draft, the team did not find one to complement Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, and Demetrius Williams.
The Ravens signed rookie free agent Eron Riley, a speedster out of Duke, and will bring in veterans Jerry Porter, Kelley Washington, D.J. Hackett, and Tab Perry to try out this weekend.
Porter is the most notable of the four, playing his best seasons in 2004 (998 yards, 9 TD) and 2005 (942, 5 TD) with the Oakland Raiders. However, his character is a question mark after being suspended in Oakland in 2006 for “conduct detrimental to the team.” He is also a health risk after missing time with the Jaguars last season due to an injured hamstring.
Hackett may provide the next-best threat at receiver (13 catches with the Panthers in 2008) while Washington and Perry would provide a stronger presence on special teams, something sure to catch Harbaugh’s attention.
None of the four will provide the impact that Ravens fans are seeking, but one could step up to take the role of Demetrius Williams if the oft-injured receiver does not return to form in 2009.
3. Who will be the Ravens’ next kicker?
For the first time in the history of the franchise, the Ravens are uncertain who will be the kicker on Opening Day. Matt Stover was not re-signed but is on Ozzie Newsome’s speed dial if the other options do not work out.
Steve Hauschka was the team’s kickoff specialist in 2008 and made one of two field goal attempts. He has a big leg but is largely unproven.
The Ravens signed rookie free agent Graham Gano from Florida State to compete for the job. Gano was 24 of 26 last season with the Seminoles, hitting five of seven from 50+ yards.
While a battle at kicker isn’t going to capture the city’s attention, it is crucial to stabilize the position entering the season. If neither Hauschka nor Gano can handle the job, look for Stover to return for his 14th season with the Ravens.
4. Who starts inside next to Ray Lewis?
With the departure of Bart Scott, the Ravens need to fill his spot at inside linebacker. Scott did the dirty work for the Ravens defense, taking on blockers to keep Lewis free to pursue the ball carrier.
Conventional wisdom points to Tavares Gooden as his replacement, but this may not be a foregone conclusion. The 2008 third-round pick is a health risk after spending most of last season on injured reserve with a hip injury. He also had a history of concussions and shoulder problems at the University of Miami.
If Gooden does not get the nod inside, the sleeper could be Jameel McClain or fifth-round pick Jason Phillips.
5. Who will be returning kicks and punts?
With the departure of Leonhard, the Ravens must find a new punt returner and try to stabilize the kick returner position. It’s clear Yamon Figurs is not a favorite of the current coaching staff and will need to have a strong preseason to stay on the roster.
Newly-acquired defensive back Chris Carr was a good returner for the Titans and would likely be a top candidate for the job. Third-round pick Lardarius Webb also returned kicks at Nicholls St. and will compete for the job.
Tom Zbikowski spent time returning kicks at the end of last season, and sixth-round pick Cedric Peerman also returned kicks at the University of Virginia.
The position is wide open and should be an interesting one to monitor throughout the preseason.