OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It was only hours after the 134-day lockout ended before we learned just how much the Ravens would lean on youth to continue their postseason success of the last three seasons.
Projecting to be roughly $14 million over the new $120 million salary cap after an uncapped year, general manager Ozzie Newsome said goodbye to four key veterans and watched a number of others depart via free agency. In a matter of days, the Ravens were young — and cheaper.
The loss of offseason training and organized team activities (OTAs) further complicated that realization, but after nearly three weeks of training camp and one preseason game under their belts, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron sees no reasons why the bar shouldn’t be high for rookies such as right tackle Jah Reid and receivers Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss (even with the veteran acquisition of Lee Evans to boost the receiver position). After all, there are no redshirts in the National Football League, where players are expected to contribute at a high level from day one.
“There are no four-year scholarships,” Camerson said. “There are a lot of different things that go through these guys’ minds. We’re trying to get [them] ready to play and help us win games and help them do their job. They have a job to do.
“We’ve got to get past some of that other stuff, and let’s just start getting our job done,” Cameron said. “Let’s start working together and let’s start getting ready to go win football games. Let’s simply this thing a little bit.”
With Reid apparently in the lead to become the starting right tackle and second-year tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta trying to replace the annual contributions of Todd Heap, the learning curve for many has been accelerated for a team with veterans envisioning a Super Bowl run in 2011.
However, the overall health of the offensive line has been a concern as right guard Marshal Yanda has been sidelined for three straight practices with back spasms, the second starting lineman to miss time after veteran Matt Birk underwent arthroscopic knee surgery two weeks ago. Yanda’s back is not a major concern, according to Cameron. Left guard Ben Grubbs missed Monday’s practice in what appeared to be a day off.
As a result, the Ravens went with a starting offensive line of Michael Oher, Justin Boren, Bryan Mattison, Oniel Cousins, and Reid — not exactly a group that inspires confidence.
“We’re not going to put guys out there for any other reason if they can make plays and finish plays and help us win,” Cameron said. “We have four critical games prior to the bye. We’re not looking to ‘develop’ any players during the season. We’re looking to put the guys out there that can help us win and develop.”
On the defensive side of the football, new coordinator Chuck Pagano faces similar challenges in trying to boost a pass rush that collected a franchise-low 27 sacks a year ago and to sort through a deep group of cornerbacks consisting of veterans and talented newcomers. Linebackers Sergio Kindle and Paul Kruger as well as rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee have drawn positive early reviews from Pagano, but the cornerback battle has become even more intriguing in the first few weeks of camp.
As Domonique Foxworth continues to work his way back to full strength and Chris Carr (who limped off the field Monday with an apparent hamstring injury) and Lardarius Webb struggled in Philadelphia on Thursday night, the Ravens have used third-year defensive back Cary Williams and rookie Jimmy Smith as the starting corners over the last two days of practice. While it remains to be seen whether Williams can hold off the others for a starting role, the continued improvement of Smith comes as no surprise given his rare combination of size and speed.
“He’s making great progress,” said Pagano, who loves the size of the 6-foot-1 Williams and 6-foot-2 Smith lining up at the corner spots. “Jimmy’s a really, really bright guy. He’s got a lot going on; he’s got savvy. Nothing really bothers Jimmy. He’s a cool cucumber, and he’s learning everything.”
After receiving a limited number of plays against the Eagles in the preseason opener, Smith is expected to receive a far greater workload against the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday night.