OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With the Ravens’ ever-important third preseason game coming up on Thursday, a number of key position battles still appear wide open, accompanied with varying degrees of concern as the regular season inches closer.
No competition has garnered more attention during camp than the right tackle position with rookie Jah Reid clearly gaining the early advantage over fourth-year lineman Oniel Cousins before the Ravens shifted the latter to guard last week. Though Reid held up well against Kansas City on Friday night, the Ravens signed veteran tackle Mark LeVoir on Saturday to give the 6-foot-7 rookie some competition and to boost depth on the offensive line.
Surprisingly, LeVoir took most of the reps with the first team on Monday while Reid worked with the second offense. LeVoir made two starts in 2008 and played in 32 games in his three seasons with the New England Patriots.
Whether LeVoir supplants Reid as the leader for the starting position or Reid uses the veteran’s arrival as extra motivation, right tackle will undoubtedly remain an area of concern regardless of who’s lining up against Pittsburgh on Sept. 11.
“I don’t know if it’s narrowed down to any point,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “We’re still evaluating everybody. This is a big game. Ultimately, we’ll go with our best five. We’ll see how that factors in. I wouldn’t say it’s this guy or that guy at this point. We all know Marshal’s played out there. We all know there’s other possibilities. What I will say though is I like what I see.”
On the defensive side of the ball, far healthier competition exists at multiple positions as opposed to the slim-pickings feel of the right tackle position.
Cornerback might be the most interesting battle of all with as many as five players fitting into the starting discussion. Many would have guessed rookie Jimmy Smith would be in the competition after a decorated career at Colorado made him the 27th overall pick, but the emergence of third-year cornerback Cary Williams has surprised even his biggest supporters.
With Domonique Foxworth still working his surgically-repaired knee back to full strength and Chris Carr hampered by a hamstring injury, Williams started against the Chiefs and responded with three pass breakups but did surrender a 4-yard touchdown catch to Terrance Copper right before halftime.
“We’ve got great competition going on,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “We feel like they’re all doing what they’re supposed to do. We got guys in position to make some plays out there. We’ve got some guys making some, we’ve got some guys not finishing some plays — they’re right there.”
Smith drew the task of matching up against Pro Bowl receiver Dwayne Bowe and struggled to find the football despite respectable coverage in most cases. Interestingly enough, Foxworth took Smith’s spot with the first defense over the last two practices while the rookie worked primarily with the second team. The 6-foot-1 Williams remained with the first defense.
Is it a wake-up call for Smith or simply an opportunity to work Foxworth back into the starting lineup?
“Jimmy was in great position early in that ballgame,” Pagano said. “It was good for him to get some live action like that. The speed of the game is one thing that a guy like that comes from college and he’s not used to that and all of a sudden the ball’s on him, where they wouldn’t even dare throw it in college. That’s good to see.”
Regardless of who ends up lining up against Hines Ward and Mike Wallace at M&T Bank Stadium in a few weeks, the Ravens may have their deepest group of corners in quite some time with Smith, Foxworth, Williams, Carr, and Lardarius Webb all seeing time with the first team during training camp.
“The great thing is we have five guys that we trust, and there’s some other young guys that are doing a great job,” Pagano said. “[I] feel good about it.”
The annual competition at the inside linebacker spot next to Ray Lewis has provided little clarity as Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe continue to battle for the starting job. McClain holds the edge in experience after starting 15 games last season, but Ellerbe’s immense potential leaves the Ravens encouraged, if not frustrated.
Ellerbe’s work ethic and maturity have come into question at different points during his brief two-year career despite having the edge in overall talent compared to McClain and Tavares Gooden in years past. However, Pagano sees maturity in the former Georgia linebacker, who started in place of Lewis on Friday as the veteran was excused from the team to deal with a serious family illness. Ellerbe responded with three tackles and a combined sack with Webb.
“Him and [McClain] are both starters in my mind, and they’re pushing each other,” Pagano said. “Whoever ends up starting opposite of Ray is going to do a great job. Dannell has — like a lot of the other young guys like Paul and some of these guys — really matured. You can see him just starting to shine [in] his confidence. He’s big, he’s physical, he’s fast, he can run, he can cover, he can do a lot of things. I feel really good about him.”
And perhaps the safest competition is taking place at the strong safety position with Bernard Pollard, Tom Zbikowski, and Haruki Nakamura all viable candidates. Zbikowski held the early lead during camp, but the addition of the hard-hitting Pollard has opened things up, with most thinking the former Houston Texan has the upper hand.
For now, Pagano is simply observing like the rest of us, wondering how the starting lineup will evolve in less than three weeks. One thing is certain: he likes what he sees on all accounts.
“It’s all going to shake itself out.”