It may not be Week 1 of the regular season, but in my opinion it really doesn’t matter.
Football season is here in Baltimore, as the Ravens take on the Carolina Panthers tonight at 8 PM on WBAL and ESPN( apparently not MASN if you’ve had your head stuck in the ground).
Over the next four games, the Ravens will do their best to evaluate the guys they have in camp right now in game situations and see who deserves to survive the roster cuts when the team has to be trimmed down to 53 come Week 1 against the New York Jets on Monday Night Football.
This is the first instance we’ll see how well the Ravens did in the off-season of evaluating their draft picks-from Terrence Cody to David Reed, and how well they did in finding key free agent rookies like Prince Miller, and finally, evaluating their free agent signings that will be starting for the Ravens, such as Anquan Boldin, Donte Stallworth or Cody Redding.
I don’t care if it is a preseason game or if we only see the starters for one quarter, let alone a series, but it will be interesting to see if the Ravens come out on all cylinders or if they come out flat having not played football against another opponent in seven months.
Here are ten points, not necessarily players, but just things to keep an eye out on in the game and hope that they run smoothly for the Ravens in their evaluation process.
1. Newly Added WRs Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth
With the Ravens first team offense only playing sparingly in this game, we as Ravens fans would love to see the new toys in Cam Cameron’s arsenal. We could see them for a series or a two, or a quarter but with all the improvements made to the offense in the off-season and all the hype surrounding the unit in training camp, time is short to see how good the Ravens’ passing game can be with Joe Flacco at the helm. I would love to see the first play of the game, the Ravens going to their new addition in Boldin, the Pro-Bowl caliber WR they got in the off-season for third and fourth round picks in April’s draft, for a first down and to see the video of Jonathan Ogden up on the JumboTron to “Move Those Chains! Move those Chains!”
Boldin, the NFL’s career leader in receiving yards per game, should have a field day early if the Ravens choose to do so, as the Panthers will be without starting corner Chris Gamble, who is sitting out with an injured knee.
And we have talked about the versatility of Donte Stallworth. He can be used in the slot, on the outside, and in a position where the Ravens can use his burning speed to their advantage. This is also the first time since 2008 that Stallworth will be playing since his year-long suspension that kept him out of the NFL for the 2009 campaign.
And while he probably will be sidelined along with the rest of the first-team unit, Stallworth could also see some playing time maybe late in the game as he is in a thick battle with current Ravens WR Mark Clayton for the third WR on the team on an already crowded wide receiver corps, combined with Demetrius Williams, David Reed, Justin Harper, Eron Riley and Marcus Smith.
But let this be clear. Donte Stallworth is making this team.
2. The Corners
The biggest storyline so far this season; the corner backs may be the biggest concern of the team. With Domonique Foxworth out for the season with a torn ACL, and with Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb coming back from their own season ending knee injuries, it’s going to be on corners on the roster other than the walking wounded to get the job done. We are probably going to see a lot of Travis Fisher, a five-year starter for the Rams and Lions.
If the Ravens are smart, they will keep Webb and Washington away from the playing field, given the lack of importance of the game, and the harsh weather conditions that came into Baltimore this morning and probably affected the field. Chris Carr and K.J. Gerard are both hurt, so it’s still a toss-up to see if they make an appearance, especially with Carr’s return skills being an asset to this team.
Two guys to keep an eye on: Prince Miller, the former Georgia Bulldog, who could follow the likes of former teammate Dannell Ellerbe to make the team as a rookie free agent, and Cary Williams, who needs to prove he still belongs on this team after being suspended the first two games of the season for violating the NFL’s Conduct Policy.
3. Oniel Cousins, Ravens RT
With all the controversy with Jared Gaither in training camp, from a new contract, to foot and back injuries, and losing 30 pounds, Gaither has become one of the bigger concerns on this team. Cousins actually started the first game of his three-year NFL career against Detroit last year, and the former UTEP tackle saw the starting lineup for two more games later in 2009 when Gaither was hurt. Cousins has often been knocked for playing smart at times, but Cousins could continue to improve if he sees more playing time.
4. Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, TE
Heap is the starter here in Baltimore for now, but one of these two could be the tight ends of the future for the Ravens. Both have great hands, and Dickson helps his cause even more by being an even better blocker than Pitta. Pitta runs fine and crisp routes, and is more of an H-back kind of player. These two may be the only players who catch passes from Flacco, Marc Bulger, and Troy Smith.
5. Marc Bulger
The starters will be out quickly, and with Flacco taking a seat, Marc Bulger is going to be the next man up. The Ravens put a lot of faith in Bulger in case Flacco should get hurt, and it will be interesting to not only see how he does in a better team with Baltimore, but with the reserves. Are we going to get a revived Marc Bulger, or the one who has struggled the last couple of years without a supporting cast around him in St. Louis?
Also, with the recent trade of John Beck to the Redskins, this means that the Ravens have to have some sort of confidence in Troy Smith as a quarterback on this team, whether it’s as the third or backup QB is yet to be determined. It will be interesting to see if Troy will take this sign of confidence to heart, and show himself a better quarterback to not only the Ravens, but to other NFL teams out there.
6. Tom Zbikowski and Ken Hamlin
Ed Reed is most likely going to start the season on PUP, or will at least miss games due to the surgery he had on his hip in the off-season. Zbikowski played well in Reed’s absences last year, actually recording several more interceptions than on his record last season due to a few timely penalties.
Ken Hamlin, once one of the highest paid safeties in the NFL, will likely back up Zbikowski but still provides great play from the position. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have him on this team as an insurance policy, and for a guy who has spent his entire career in the NFC, I will be anxious to see this guy on an American Football Conference team for once.
7. Who will eventually start next to Ray Lewis in the middle?
This involves three guys, including Dannell Ellerbe, Tavares Gooden, and Jameel McClain. Ellerbe, who fought his way onto the team last year, has actually begun to have a falling out with the coaching staff and could be playing and acting his way OFF the team.
Gooden hasn’t been able to stay healthy his whole career, and we have yet to see his full potential coming out of Miami a few years back. The next Ray Lewis huh? Not yet?
And finally, Jameel McClain has excelled the last couple of seasons playing inside and outside, and with the injuries to Sergio Kindle and the question marks surrounding several of the other OLB on the team, McClain may see time at both positions. And the good thing is, he has excelled at both positions. I think if McClain sees full time duty, he is going to be a solid player on the Ravens defense as he has shown the last couple seasons.
8. The kicking game-Shayne Graham vs. Billy Cundiff
Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said earlier in camp that each kicker would rotate after every opportunity, and Rosburg also said that real judging of how each of these kickers perform would be done in game-situations. Here we are!
It’s either the Pro-Bowl caliber kicker in Graham who could become of the league’s highest paid kickers versus the incumbent who stabilized the position last winter. Let the competition begin, and trust me, whichever one doesn’t make this team will be kicking for another team in 2010.
9. Willis McGahee, RB
The blogs are heating up today with talks that McGahee could be on the move and a decent value to another NFL team out there looking for a running back. His contract would make it difficult to move, but if he continues to play superbly, on top of the Ravens continuing want to have a shutdown corner, maybe McGahee could be running out of Baltimore instead of running behind Le’Ron McClain.
10. Ed from Park Heights brought this one up during our show, and I hadn’t thought of it until he drew it to our attention:
But I don’t want to see them. So technically, what we are looking for are healthy players. With the injuries to Gaither, Foxworth, Ngata, Chris Carr, Derrick Mason, Matt Birk, Ed Reed, Fabian Washington, Lardarius Webb, and Sergio Kindle, this team cannot become the Baltimore version of the “Walking Wounded”.
I want a healthy Ravens team to finish the game tonight at M&T Bank Stadium against the Panthers, and if wins are scarce this year, let’s save them for the games that count.
But WNST and WNST.net will still follow this game as much as a regular season game! WNST-We Never Stop Talking Baltimore Sports!