It’s no secret the Ravens are a different team. Starters that must be replaced include Carry Williams, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe, Vonta Leach, and Anquan Boldin. Paul Kruger is also gone but he was more of a role player that rotated starts with rookie Courtney UpShaw.
The following are my projections for the most heated roster battles.
Torrey Smith is the only receiver guaranteed a starting spot. Jacoby Jones is a veteran but struggled in Houston when given a larger workload. Therefore, Jones will be competing with Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, Tommy Streeter, David Reed, and LaQuan Williams. So far, Thompson has made the most of offseason workouts. According to reports, he displays great hands and improved route running ability to go along with his blazing speed.
When the Ravens face the Broncos on Sept. 5, Jacoby Jones will start across from Torrey Smith. He is experienced and made plays when given the opportunity last season. The third receiver will be Danton Doss with Deonte Thompson winning the fourth receiver spot on the depth chart. Doss’s skill set translates well to the slot receiver position. His hands, physicality, and ability to get upfield after the catch will make him a nice weapon for Flacco.
I am a huge Jimmy Smith fan. Smith has too much potential to be the Ravens nickel corner. If he can put everything together, he will be starting opposite Lardarius Webb. Corey Graham would then be the team’s nickel corner. Successfully defending two passes to Michael Crabtree towards the end of the Super Bowl will be positive plays for Smith to build upon.
Chykie Brown could be a sleeper to receive playing time this season. He showed promise last season and played frequently towards the end of the season.
John Harbaugh and the Ravens have a lot of options at inside linebacker. Jameel McClain will likely start. Therefore, the competition really comes down to Arthur Brown and Darryl Smith. Brown was a second round selection in the 2013 draft and is projected to be a defensive rookie of the year candidate. But Smith brings experience and proven ability at inside linebacker. In the beginning of the season, I think Smith will start on running downs and Brown will play on passing downs. Brown has excellent coverage ability and when paired with McClain, they could make up a great duo in pass coverage.
Bryan Hall could also receive playing time pending the training camp competition. Hall played along the defensive line last season but is making the switch to inside linebacker. Hall could play in certain blitz packages but for the most part, will be a special teams player.
After a solid 2011 season, many thought Mount Cody would break out in 2012. But Cody struggled. He was consistently pushed around and made little impact against teams with great running games. Ozzie Newsome has made an effort to improve the middle of the defense through the draft and free agency. Brandon Williams was drafted in the third round and Marcus Spears and Chris Canty were signed in free agency. Spears and Canty won’t play nose tackle but they will improve the middle of the defense.
I think Brandon Williams will win the starting job. Cody had hip surgery which could explain his poor play in 2012. If Cody can get healthy and play like he did in 2011, the Ravens will have a great rotation at nose tackle.
Replacing Matt Birk will be difficult. Birk was a great leader and will be replaced by either Gino Gradkowski or AQ Shipley. Gradkowski was drafted out of Delaware in the fourth round of the 2012 draft. Gradkowski was projected to be the starter once Birk retired but Shipley played very well for the Colts last season. He played so well that he earned a plus 6.9 rating from Pro Football Focus.
Gradkowski is the early favorite but Shipley is a solid veteran that could start should Gradkowski struggle.