It’s difficult to assess Upshaw’s progress considering he missed two weeks of practice with a sprained shoulder, but the rookie has work to do if he’s going to secure the starting rush linebacker spot by the start of the season. The Alabama product still appears stiff trying to shed blocks and would benefit from slimming down more as he’s asked to occasionally drop into pass coverage. Meanwhile, the undersized McClellan has taken full advantage of his opportunity to play with the starting defense and has been solid against the run and better as a pass-rusher than most would have thought.
Upshaw clearly has the higher ceiling, but McClellan has been the more complete player during the preseason, meaning he could begin the year as the starter. The Ravens have begun awarding Upshaw some reps with the starting defense, but he will need to take advantage as his shoulder gets closer to being 100 percent. Harbaugh has also reminded everyone that Upshaw wouldn’t be awarded a starting job on the hype alone. The rookie needs a strong performance against Jacksonville to put himself in better position to earn a spot with the starters.
My gut choice if the season started today: I fully expect Upshaw to become the starter sooner rather than later, but he may have too much ground to make up prior to the start of the regular season. McClellan has been one of the best stories out of camp, and the 2010 practice squad member would be the starting rush linebacker if the season began now.
4. Nose tackle – Terrence Cody and Ma’ake Kemoeatu
Unlike the competition between McClellan and Upshaw, which has been heavily influenced by the latter’s shoulder injury, the battle at nose tackle can be more heavily attributed to the renaissance of the 33-year-old Kemoeatu who was out of football last season. Entering camp at a fit 345 pounds, Kemoeatu has consistently gotten a great push at the line of scrimmage, often finding himself in position to make tackles for a loss in practices. His strong play has pushed the incumbent starter Cody for playing time as the Ravens have also experimented with Cody learning the defensive tackle position manned by Haloti Ngata.
I’ve stated all along my belief that the Ravens are trying to motivate Cody after he wore down during the second half of last season. He’s proven to be an effective space filler, but the Ravens want to see him make more plays as he begins his third professional season. Nothing should be taken away from Kemoeatu after he entered training camp as anything but a lock to make the roster and is now positioning himself to win a starting job. As is the case with McPhee and Jones at the defensive end spot, both big men will be regular contributors on the defensive line.
My gut choice if the season started today: I’ll stick with Cody as the starting nose tackle, but his hold on the job is tenuous. It’s a good problem for the Ravens to have as Kemoeatu has proven to be a solid nose tackle when he’s been able to stay healthy over the course of his 10-year career.
5. Backup running back – Bernard Pierce, Anthony Allen, and Bobby Rainey
Of the five battles mentioned, the rookie Pierce strangely might be in the best position to win his competition despite making little more than a cameo appearance in the second preseason game last Friday. Though his rushing numbers (four carries for one yard) appeared unimpressive in the box score, the rookie showed the ability to pick up yards after contact and good instincts in finding running lanes. On top of that, second-year back Anthony Allen hasn’t shown much running between the tackles and has been woeful as a blocker, whiffing on blocks that led to sacks in each of the first two preseason games. .
Pierce was selected in the third round for a reason, so it comes as no surprise that he would emerge as the favorite to back up starter Ray Rice. However, the Ravens want to see him in more extensive action Thursday to prove that his hamstring is fully healed and he can handle working with the starting offense when spelling Rice. Allen needs to have a productive night to put himself in better position for a spot on the 53-man roster while the rookie free agent Rainey can continue his trek to crack the roster if he continues to show impressive moves in open space and contribute on special teams.
My gut choice if the season started today: Pierce always had the upper hand considering his status as a high draft pick, and Allen has done nothing to help himself over the first two preseason games. The job is clearly Pierce’s if he proves to be healthy, and the Ravens need to see that to ease the temptation to look at the free-agent market for a veteran backup.