With only a week to go until the first practices for the Ravens’ quarterbacks, rookies, and select veterans, it’s time to consider what players flying beneath the radar could play a major part in the 2009 season.
Undoubtedly, injuries will occur, and the coaching staff will look to the next man waiting to step into a larger role. One can simply look back to last season to see how critical it is to have these types of players.
Fullback Le’Ron McClain, safety Jim Leonhard (now with the New York Jets), and guard Chris Chester were little more than afterthoughts entering training camp but went on to make major contributions to an 11-5 season that ended with the Ravens coming up short in the AFC Championship.
Who are this season’s players currently flying under the radar that could be key contributors this season?
Here are five names to keep an eye on this summer:
1. Chris Carr
Though this free-agent signing lacked the local appeal of Domonique Foxworth (Maryland and Western Tech) or the pedigree of Matt Birk (six Pro Bowl selections), Carr will play a critical role with special teams and the secondary.
The fifth-year defensive back provides exceptional return ability, an area in which the Ravens struggled outside of the departed Leonhard. In his three seasons in Oakland, Carr became the Raiders’ all-time kick return leader with 4,841 yards (24.1 avg). In 2008, his only season with the Tennessee Titans, Carr ranked fourth in the NFL with a 28.1 kickoff return average.
In addition to his return skills, Carr will provide more depth in the secondary, a plus considering the Ravens’ projected starters, Fabian Washington and Fabian Washington, lack the experience of last year’s Week 1 starters Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister. Along with Rolle and Frank Walker, Carr can provide starting experience should Washington or Foxworth falter.
Carr recorded 31 tackles and one interception in 2008.
2. Marcus Smith
With the sudden retirement of No. 1 receiver Derrick Mason and no major acquisitions imminent, the coaching staff will look to Smith to emerge in the passing game. The 2008 fourth-round selection saw playing time in six games but did not record a reception during his rookie season.
Smith has good size—6-1 and 215 pounds—but will need to show more consistent hands to give the passing game a boost. His experience playing running back at the University of New Mexico gives him more ability to run after the catch than most receivers, and his blocking ability is a strength. He was also a solid contributor on special teams in 2008.
The coaching staff became more impressed with Smith’s efforts toward the end of OTAs this offseason.
Regardless of whether Mason returns in 2009 or follows through with his retirement, Smith will need to provide another option for Joe Flacco and the passing game. With Mason, Mark Clayton, and Demetrius Williams all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents following the season, Smith has a distinct opportunity to secure a future role in the Ravens’ offense with a strong 2009 campaign.
After showing much promise in his rookie season in 2007, Barnes’ sophomore campaign was largely quiet, recording only five tackles from scrimmage and no sacks in 13 games. The former Florida International standout missed the entire postseason with a shoulder injury.
Even before the injury, Barnes was receiving less playing time than the surprising rookie free agent Jameel McClain. With McClain shifting to inside linebacker this offseason, Barnes will have the opportunity to contribute more in new coordinator Greg Mattison’s defense, especially as a rush end in passing situations.
With the Ravens’ selection of defensive end-linebacker Paul Kruger in the second round of this April’s draft, Barnes will need to show more versatility to fit into the team’s long-term plans. Barnes has shown a good motor and an ability to rush the passer but has been slow to learn the other skills needed in a 3-4 outside linebacker. Despite his one-dimensional play on defense, Barnes has demonstrated strong special teams play, recording nine special teams stops in 2009.
After signing Washington after a tryout during OTAs, the Ravens hope the veteran can bring some depth to a thin receiving group.
Drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round of the 2003 draft, Washington has never realized the potential he showed at the University of Tennessee when he caught 70 passes for 1,080 yards and seven touchdowns as a 22-year-old freshman (he spent four years playing minor league baseball before enrolling at Knoxville). A neck injury in 2002 hurt his draft status, and he has never shown consistent playmaking ability at the professional level.
Washington spent four years in Cincinnati and the last two with the New England Patriots, recording 73 catches, 896 yards, and nine touchdowns in his career. His best season came in 2004 when he caught 31 balls for 378 yards and three touchdowns.
Largely forgotten as a receiver during his time in New England (only one reception in 24 games), Washington was applauded for his strong special teams play.
Much like Smith, the 6-3 Washington will have the opportunity to provide another receiving option for Flacco, especially with the unknown status of Mason.
A complete unknown when the Ravens signed the defensive tackle in October of last season, the massive McKinney was a strong contributor in short-yardage and goal-line packages, recording 19 tackles in 11 regular season games with the Ravens. A fourth-year player originally signed by the San Diego Chargers, McKinney also played in all three postseason games, making three stops.
The Ravens have created a tradition of finding low-profile players who pay big dividends on the defensive line, including the likes of Lional Dalton, Kelly Gregg, and Justin Bannan. McKinney can add his name to that list with another strong showing in 2009.
With Gregg, Bannan, and Trevor Pryce all 30 or older, McKinney brings youth and more size (6-2 and 324 pounds) to the Ravens’ defensive line rotation.
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