Training Camp Preview: Five Burning Questions

July 26, 2009 | Luke Jones

With the eve of training camp upon us, the Baltimore Ravens—and their fans—have extremely high expectations entering 2009 after coming ever so close to the Super Bowl last season, falling to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship.

As with any offseason, the Ravens have undergone a number of changes to the roster and coaching staff.  These changes leave behind questions that must be addressed if the Ravens are to build upon last season’s 11-5 record.

Here are five burning questions to ponder as rookies, quarterbacks, and select veterans report to McDaniel College on Monday with the rest of the roster arriving on Wednesday.

1.  Will Derrick Mason show up in Westminster?

It’s been almost two weeks since Mason announced his retirement, and the Ravens are still trying to figure it all out.  Most believe the “retirement” is driven by money, as Mason made it clear he was seeking a new deal earlier in the offseason.  His contract will expire following the season.

The tragic murder of former teammate Steve McNair has also impacted the 35-year-old receiver and further complicates what would otherwise be viewed as a disguised holdout.

Mason is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and may not have been physically ready for the start of training camp anyway.  He wore a red jersey (non-contact) throughout OTAs.  If he does change his mind about retirement, his delayed return could actually be a positive for the health of his shoulder.

If Mason follows through with the retirement, the Ravens will have a difficult time replacing the 80 catches and 1,037 yards he supplied to the passing game.  Mark Clayton would figure to step into Mason’s role as the primary possession receiver with Demetrius Williams stepping into the other starting spot.

To bolster the receiving group, the Ravens signed veteran Drew Bennett on Friday.  The 6-5 wideout will compete with second-year player Marcus Smith and Kelley Washington for the third and fourth spots.

Regardless of how the rest of the receivers play, the coaching staff will not rest easy unless Mason jogs onto the field at McDaniel.

2.  Who will be the successor to Matt Stover?

The Ravens enter uncharted waters this summer with the prospect of not knowing who their kicker will be in Week 1 for the first time in the history of the franchise.

Stover is undoubtedly one of the better kickers in the history of the NFL (462 career field goals), but his declining range and inability to get distance on his kickoffs forced the Ravens to look elsewhere this offseason.

The battle between last season’s kickoff specialist Steve Hauschka and rookie Graham Gano will be one of the most competitive—and important—of the summer.  Hauschka shows more consistency, but the organization loves Gano’s leg strength.  Gano, the 2008 Lou Groza Award winner in college football, made a 60-yard field goal during OTAs.

Ravens fans have been spoiled with the consistency of Stover over the last 13 seasons.  An ineffective kicker can quickly ruin a team’s season, so the organization could turn back to Stover if Hauschka and Gano can’t do the job.

3.  Can Tavares Gooden fill the shoes of former Pro Bowl linebacker Bart Scott?

With Scott now playing for Rex Ryan in New York, the Ravens turn to Gooden to take his spot next to Ray Lewis at inside linebacker.  The third-round pick from last season spent most of 2008 on injured reserve with a hip injury.

Gooden looked good in OTAs, showing great speed and strength and is excited to play next to fellow Hurricane and idol Lewis.  Lewis will count on Gooden to take on blockers with the same ability as Scott, allowing the 34-year-old linebacker to pursue the ball carrier without being blocked.

The biggest concern with Gooden is his health.  In addition to last season’s hip injury, he battled concussion and shoulder issues at the University of Miami.  If Gooden gets hurt, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will look to Jameel McClain, veteran Brendon Ayanbadejo, or rookie Jason Phillips to fill the other inside linebacker spot.

4.  How will Willis McGahee respond to being demoted behind Ray Rice at the start of training camp?

McGahee has said all of the right things regarding the running back situation, but it will be interesting to see what kind of shape he’s in when reporting to camp this week.  After admitting he didn’t show up to training camp in optimum condition last season, McGahee battled knee, eye, and ankle injuries in his most disappointing season as a pro.

Despite the surprising story of Le’Ron McClain and the play of Rice in 2008, this offense would benefit immensely from a McGahee closely resembling the one that rushed for 1,207 yards in 2007.  Knowing he would likely be cut following another disappointing season, McGahee will need to show an urgency in playing for a job next season, whether it’s with Baltimore or another NFL team.

With the coaching staff insisting that McClain will primarily play fullback this season, the opportunities will be there for both Rice and McGahee to receive plenty of carries.

It’s no secret that the coaching staff would like to see Rice emerge as the every-down back, but McGahee’s combination of size and speed—when healthy—will make it impossible to keep him off the field.

5.  Will Joe Flacco take the next step after a successful rookie campaign?

Though everyone is focusing on the wide receiver position, the biggest factor in determining how far the Baltimore offense to go is Flacco.

The young quarterback surprised everyone after being thrown into the starting spot last season, leading the Ravens to their second conference championship appearance.

Despite getting off to a tough start,—one touchdown and seven interceptions in his first five games—Flacco rebounded to post an 80.3 quarterback rating.  In his final 11 games, Flacco threw for 13 touchdowns and only five interceptions as he became more comfortable in Cam Cameron’s offense.

With an entire offseason and training camp to prepare as the starting quarterback, Flacco should have the confidence to offset the adjustments opposing defenses will make in 2009.  With the coaching staff planning to use the tight ends more frequently in the passing game, Flacco will need to improve his ability to throw to the middle of the field.

There’s no question that the wide receiver position will affect Flacco’s development, but the young quarterback can also reciprocate in the development of young receivers such as Clayton and Smith.  Though many will continue to beg for a big-play receiver such as Brandon Marshall or Anquan Boldin, Flacco will have more influence over the passing game than any outside receiver could bring.

If Flacco takes a leap toward becoming an elite quarterback in the NFL, the Ravens become a dangerous Super Bowl contender.

*****

Don’t forget that WNST.net is your source for Ravens training camp coverage.  We’ll be bringing live reports, audio, video, blogs, and Twitter updates throughout the summer at McDaniel College.

You can find me on Facebook or drop me an email at luke@wnst.net.

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