With the Orioles in last place and owning the second-worst record in baseball, Baltimoreans are obviously looking ahead to the Ravens reporting for training camp on July 27—only seven weeks away.
The team holds another passing camp this week, as we continue to focus on several key positions.
As we look ahead to 2009, key departures include linebacker Bart Scott (New York Jets), center Jason Brown (St. Louis), safety Jim Leonhard (Jets), cornerback Chris McAlister (unsigned), offensive tackle Willie Anderson (retired), Lorenzo Neal (Raiders), tight end Dan Wilcox (unsigned) and defensive end Marques Douglas (Jets).
In addition to selecting six players in this year’s draft, the Ravens have added cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth (Atlanta) and Chris Carr (Tennessee), center Matt Birk (Minnesota), tight end L.J. Smith (Philadelphia), quarterback John Beck (Miami) and receiver Kelley Washington (New England).
With so many new veterans and rookies in the fold, training camp in Westminster, Md. figures to host several key positional battles as the Ravens prepare for their opener against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 13.
The following is a look at five key positional battles—in no particular order—to watch during training camp at McDaniel College.
1. Inside Linebacker
The departure of Scott leaves a gaping hold next to Ray Lewis at the other inside linebacker position. Scott did the dirty, physical work of taking on blockers, leaving the veteran Lewis free to pursue the ball carrier. The younger Scott was also stronger in pass coverage than Lewis.
Second-year player Tavares Gooden looks like the safe bet for Scott’s replacement in the starting defense, but this may not be a foregone conclusion.
The 2008 third-round pick is a health risk after spending most of last season on injured reserve with a hip injury. He also had a history of concussions and shoulder problems at the University of Miami.
At the team’s earlier minicamps, Gooden appeared bigger and faster, a good sign for coordinator Greg Mattison’s defense. He has reportedly been spending time at Lewis’ home, watching film and gaining wisdom from the 34-year-old linebacker.
If Gooden does not get the nod on the inside, another option could be second-year linebacker Jameel McClain. The undrafted free agent from Syracuse emerged last year to grab a spot in training camp and worked his way up the depth chart, earning significant playing time as the season progressed.
McClain finished the season with 16 tackles and 2.5 sacks and was a strong contributor on special teams. His biggest challenge will be adjusting to the inside after playing outside linebacker last season and defensive end in college.
Fifth-round draft pick Jason Phillips (TCU) is a gritty and physical linebacker, but he would be a long shot to grab the starting spot as a rookie. The organization could also look to Brendon Ayanbadejo, but his value on special teams would be hard to sacrifice with other options at inside linebacker.
2. Backup Quarterback
A quarterback controversy is brewing in the Charm City; only for once, it’s not over who will be starting under center—Joe Flacco has finally stabilized the position for the Ravens. The real battle will take place between incumbent backup Troy Smith and newly-signed John Beck, a former second-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2007.
Smith found moderate success running the Ravens’ version of the Wildcat formation—the “Suggs” package—at times last season, but his size (6’0″) makes it difficult for him to spot receivers in the pocket, forcing him to move outside. The 6’2″ Beck is a more traditional drop back passer.
Beck has strong ties to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron (Miami’s head coach in 2007) and would figure to have a strong grasp on the playbook, improving his chances to overtake Smith for the backup spot.
The Ravens will once again try to use Smith’s athleticism, so he figures to be the No. 2 quarterback (the No. 3 can only enter the game if the starter and backup are injured). However, a long-term injury to Flacco might cause the coaching staff to play the more traditional quarterback Beck.
Smith oozes with confidence, but he failed to grab hold of the starting job last preseason before suffering a tonsil infection, opening the door for Flacco to become the team’s starter in his rookie season. This factor might weigh on coach John Harbaugh’s mind as he decides who will back up the talented Flacco.
3. Kick/Punt Returner
With the departure of Leonhard to the Jets, the Ravens must find a new punt returner and try to stabilize the kick return position.
Newly-signed defensive back Chris Carr had a good season with the Titans and would likely be the top candidate for the job. He averaged 28.1 yards per kick return (fourth in the NFL) and 10.1 yards on punt returns.
If injuries in the secondary would force Carr into the starting lineup, several in-house candidates are presently on the roster.
Yamon Figurs began last season as the primary kick and punt returner, but it’s clear he is not a favorite of the current coaching staff. Figurs appeared hesitant in returning kicks and struggles holding onto the ball at times. He is currently recovering from foot surgery and will need to have a strong preseason to stay on the roster.
Rookie cornerback Lardarius Webb, a third-round pick, returned kicks at Nicholls St. and will compete for the job.
Tom Zbikowski returned kicks at the end of last season but did not provide much of an impact.
Sixth-round pick and rookie running back Cedric Peerman also returned kicks at the University of Virginia, but the team would figure to allow Peerman to focus his efforts competing at the running back position.
Carr would figure to have the upper hand, but strong training camp performances would certainly blur the competition a great deal.
For the first time in the history of the franchise, the Ravens are uncertain who will be their kicker on Opening Day. Matt Stover was not re-signed but is on general manager Ozzie Newsome’s speed dial if the other options do not work out. Harbaugh continues to speak with the veteran kicker regularly.
Steve Hauschka was the team’s kickoff specialist in 2008 and made one of two field goal attempts. He has a big leg, but trying a long field goal before the half is quite different than kicking a game-winning 42-yarder when the pressure is on late in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens signed rookie free agent Graham Gano from Florida State to compete for the job. Gano won the Lou Groza Award in 2008, awarded to college football’s best kicker. He made 24 of 26 attempts last season with the Seminoles, hitting five of seven from 50 or more yards.
While a battle at kicker isn’t going to capture the city’s attention, it is crucial to stabilize the position entering the season. If neither Hauschka nor Gano can win the job in the preseason, look for Stover to return for his 14th season with the Ravens.
5. Right Tackle
This position would have been the featured battle of training camp had veteran Willie Anderson not announced his retirement several weeks ago.
First-round pick (23rd overall) Michael Oher of Ole Miss is a tremendous talent at 6-5 and 309 pounds. His story was well-chronicled prior to the draft, and the Ravens appeared to snatch up another highly-talented player in the later stages of the first round.
Oher has performed well in OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and has picked up the offense quickly, according to the coaching staff.
With veteran tackle Adam Terry continuing to battle an ankle injury, the job appears to be Oher’s to lose. Terry would be the ideal backup for both Oher and left tackle Jared Gaither since he has experience playing both positions in the NFL.