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There were no changes to the attendance report for Thursday’s practice from a day earlier, but the workout provided plenty of intrigue in terms of competition as the Ravens inch closer to next Thursday’s preseason opener at Tampa Bay.
The Baltimore public relations staff also released the first depth chart of the year, which shouldn’t be analyzed as anything but an estimate of what we’ve seen at training camp. However, it does support some of the following observations a week into full-squad workouts in Owings Mills:
1. The use of a point-based system to track practices has increased the intensity level between the offensive and defensive units and, more specifically, quarterback Joe Flacco and linebacker Terrell Suggs.
As we’ve seen with the explosion of statistically-based analysis in baseball over the last 30 years, NFL front offices and coaches are looking for more and more data to quantify what talent evaluators are seeing on the field over time. As a result, football video operations coordinator Drew Wilkins and defensive quality control coach Matt Weiss devised a point system to not only track the performance of players and units over time but also create more competition for players with a scoreboard tracking practices in Owings Mills.
The details of the system were too complicated for coach John Harbaugh to spell out Wednesday, but it seems more than coincidental to hear more chirping and gamesmanship than ever between the offense and defense — most of it being good-natured ribbing. Flacco and Suggs have been the ringleaders for their sides as the quarterback has become increasingly vocal over the last couple years and the 30-year-old linebacker is no longer in the shadow of Ray Lewis or Ed Reed as a spokesman for the defense.
During 11-on-11 drills on Thursday, the defense began chanting, “We fight!” after a reserve unit made a stop against the second-team offense. Not to stand by quietly, Flacco shouted across the field, “What are you, a little league softball team with that cheer?”
Suggs and Flacco continued jawing at each other with the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year bragging about having more “swag” before the Super Bowl XLVII MVP fired back that he made more money than his defensive contemporary.
If there were any lingering doubts, it’s quite clear who the vocal leaders are in the post-Ray Lewis era.
2. Questions remain over who will be the starting 11 for a revamped Ravens defense, but coordinator Dean Pees is thrilled with the potential versatility at his disposal.
It’s difficult to get a great read on how the Ravens will ultimately line up in their base defense, but Pees will likely view as many as 16 or 17 players as “starters” in his unit. It’s quite a change from last season when injuries all over the defense and deficiencies upfront forced Pees to simplify his play calling.
The addition of Chris Canty as a 5-technique defensive end — a position the Ravens failed to fill last season after the free-agent departure of Cory Redding — has allowed Pees to shift Haloti Ngata to the nose tackle position where he can use his strength and speed to either overpower or blow past centers and guards. The depth chart currently lists Ngata as the starting nose tackle and Canty and Arthur Jones as the starting defensive ends, but the Ravens will also have the likes of Marcus Spears, Pernell McPhee, Terrence Cody, and rookie Brandon Williams to mix and match along the line.
Regardless of whether he’s able to beat out rookie Matt Elam for the starting strong safety spot, James Ihedigbo will be another versatile piece as a dime back who can also play inside the box as an extra linebacker in certain packages.
Perhaps the most intriguing spot to watch will be the outside linebacker position where nearly everyone assumed Suggs and free-agent acquisition Elvis Dumervil would be the starters. The Ravens have listed Courtney Upshaw and Dumervil as co-starters at the strongside linebacker spot, but Upshaw has received extensive time at the starting “Sam” position in practices with Dumervil being used more in sub-packages and as the backup to Suggs at the rush linebacker spot in some 11-on-11 sessions.
Of course, these are very early observations, but Upshaw is superb at setting the edge and has a clear size advantage over Dumervil that might be more advantageous in early-down situations where running players are more likely. Make no mistake, the Ravens are very happy with Dumervil and he’s looked like a monster getting after the quarterback in practices, but he may be used more as a situational player like Paul Kruger than as an every-down linebacker like Suggs on the other side.
3. Tight end Ed Dickson has impressed in the absence of the injured Dennis Pitta, but the collective group of young wide receivers beyond Torrey Smith has been nondescript thus far.
Many forget that Dickson posted a 54-catch, five-touchdown season in 2011 before Pitta emerged later that season and the former was phased into a supporting role. In a contract year and knowing that Pitta is gone for the season, Dickson has certainly looked like a man trying to make a statement in the early days of practice, catching the football consistently and even working a little more in the slot in the way Pitta would.
Meanwhile, the wide receiver position looks as cloudy as it did before camp as no one beyond Smith looks the part of a deserving starter at this very early stage. Jacoby Jones has filled a role similar to what we saw last year as an outside receiver in three-wide sets, making you wonder if the Ravens are inclined to keep him in that limited capacity offensively to preserve him for his return duties. Tandon Doss and Deonte Thompson have received more opportunities than other young wideouts with the starting unit as each has worked primarily out of the slot but also on the outside in some two-wide sets.
In evaluating Doss, Thompson, LaQuan Williams, David Reed, Aaron Mellette, and Tommy Streeter, there has been some good, some bad, and plenty of “meh.”
Perhaps the best way to illustrate my point was the discussion I overheard Thursday between two local media members about which receivers had impressed them the most to this point. One reporter praised two young receivers before the second reporter disagreed and pointed out a series of negative plays from each. The second reporter then offered his thoughts on a couple other receivers that were predictably disputed by the other reporter.
My way-too-early observation of the entire group? The absence of Anquan Boldin sticks out like a sore thumb.
4. In position battles at center, inside linebacker, and strong safety, the coaching staff is giving veterans the early benefit of the doubt.
I still believe Gino Gradkowki has the inside track for the starting center spot, but former Indianapolis Colt A.Q. Shipley has received a large number of reps with the starting offensive line, which could just be a show of respect for his extra experience or a reflection of him pushing the second-year Gradkowski more than anticipated. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell praised both on Thursday and also talked about how important communication would be as the center is responsible for making the blocking calls at line of scrimmage.
Neither Gradkowski nor Shipley are very big, which does make you question if either will hold up as well physically as the retired Matt Birk, who was noticeably bigger at the center spot. As you’d expect, the preseason will loom large in determining who’s snapping the ball to Flacco in Denver on Sept. 5.
At inside linebacker, it’s apparent that Daryl Smith is a heavy favorite to be the starting “Mike” — responsible for making the defensive calls — if Jameel McClain isn’t available at the start of the year. The 31-year-old has been praised for both his leadership and play since arriving on the scene in early June.
Who lines up next to him will be more interesting as the Ravens are clearly making rookie Arthur Brown pay his dues, instead giving most of the first-team reps to Josh Bynes and even Albert McClellan on occasion. Brown may not begin the season as a starter, but at the very least, he’s a good bet to be involved as a nickel linebacker in passing downs to utilize his ability in pass coverage.
Ihedigbo is listed as the current starting strong safety on the depth chart as Elam has worked with the second unit, which is probably the best example of the Ravens deferring to veterans early in camp. It’s difficult to imagine Elam not being the starter Week 1, but Pees loves Ihedigbo’s versatility and both will likely be used creatively in various defensive packages.
Elam has made some good plays in coverage, but his 5-foot-10 frame has been an issue matching up against bigger tight ends on occasion.