Thursday will feel familiar as the Ravens begin the preseason against the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers.
With Joe Flacco and other veterans not expected to play, the game will resemble the end of last season with backup quarterback Ryan Mallett and other young players factoring heavily into the action immediately. Of course, the Ravens don’t mind that reality as much right now with the start of the regular season still a month away.
“It’s going to be the young guys,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be the guys that need to play in this game that we want to find out about. Anybody that has a health issue or anything like that is not even going to be thinking about playing. It’s just going to be one of those kinds of camp games that we learn about our young guys.”
Coming off a 5-11 season and their worst campaign in nearly a decade, the Ravens are feeling more urgency in this year’s preseason for obvious reasons. Wins and losses in the summer may not have a strong bearing on how a team will fare in the regular season, but a 1-3 preseason last year was a reflection of how little depth the Ravens had in 2015, a weakness that was painfully exposed as injuries piled up.
With the likes of Steve Smith, Terrell Suggs, and Elvis Dumervil still working their way back to full health, the Ravens want to see young players seize opportunities and make names for themselves on a roster clearly in transition. As much as the discussion has centered around older players on this roster, young play-makers must emerge to help facilitate Baltimore’s return to contender status in 2016 and beyond.
“I can’t wait to see how this shakes out on Thursday, but also for the next three weeks seeing who the guys are,” Harbaugh said. “I’m looking for the guys to make plays. Who is going to make the plays? That’s it. We have a bunch of guys with potential who are definitely talented enough to do it.
“The best guy is going to make it. The roster is way too tight for anybody to be a project right now; it’s going to be [about] guys making plays.”
Thursday marks the seventh time these teams have met in the preseason with the Ravens holding the 4-2 edge over the Panthers. Baltimore has compiled a 20-12 record in preseason games under Harbaugh.
Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report
The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Thursday night’s game against Carolina.
Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will remain in question. Of course, this list does not consider any veteran players — like Flacco — who will be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference.
Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:
OUT: WR Steve Smith (Achilles), LB Terrell Suggs (Achilles), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), WR Breshad Perriman (knee), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot), WR Chris Moore (foot), TE Crockett Gillmore (hamstring), DE Bronson Kaufusi (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: TE Dennis Pitta (finger/hip), WR Chris Matthews (“soft tissue” injury), CB Maurice Canady (undisclosed)
QUESTIONABLE: DT Timmy Jernigan (ribs), OT Ronnie Stanley (“soft tissue” injury), WR Michael Campanaro (unspecified strains), TE Maxx Williams (undisclosed)
PROBABLE: QB Joe Flacco (knee), RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), TE Daniel Brown (jaw), CB Jimmy Smith (foot)
Five players to watch Thursday night
RB Terrance West
Much focus has been placed on the number of absences in the first two weeks of training camp, but West has arguably been the early star of the summer, looking lighter and more explosive than he did last season when he rushed for 180 yards on 46 carries in six games with the Ravens. Coaches have been pleased with West’s work ethic as he’s shown improved field vision and is better in pass protection. His performance to this point has likely dismissed pre-camp predictions that he would be on the roster bubble, but carrying over that success to preseason games would put West in the conversation to start.
LB Kamalei Correa
The rookie second-round pick has brought athleticism and an edge to a group of Ravens linebackers that’s been practicing without Suggs and Dumervil. Until recently, he looked like the clear favorite to start at the weak-side inside linebacker spot next to C.J. Mosley, but third-year linebacker Zach Orr is also competing for the job and has taken more starter reps over the last few practices. Regardless of how that battle shakes out, Correa will see plenty of action inside and as an edge defender in sub packages. If his practice performance translates to the preseason, his No. 51 will be called frequently on Thursday.
OT Alex Lewis
With first-round pick Ronnie Stanley’s status for Thursday in question after he suffered a minor injury last weekend, the Ravens may start Lewis at left tackle after selecting him in the fourth round of April’s draft. Baltimore appears comfortable with Stanley handling the job as a rookie, but it’s clear that an upgrade is needed from top reserve James Hurst, who has been practicing more extensively at guard in recent practices. If Lewis can hold up to some reasonable degree against a tough Carolina front, the Ravens would feel a lot better about the prospects of him being Stanley’s primary backup in 2016.
LB Za’Darius Smith
He hasn’t received a ton of press, but Smith could be one of the biggest keys for the Ravens defense in 2016. With Suggs turning 34 in October and coming off an Achilles injury and Dumervil better suited for a situational role, the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Smith becoming an impact player would quell the many concerns about the pass rush. He’s primarily been working at Suggs’ rush linebacker spot, but he has improved at setting the edge, making you wonder if he could step into a hybrid role with responsibilities formerly held by Courtney Upshaw and Pernell McPhee. This defense would be a lot better if he can.
WR Jeremy Butler
Butler is rarely mentioned while other young receivers are frequently discussed, but he has stacked quality practices after catching 31 passes for 363 yards in eight games last year. Though more of a possession receiver, the 6-foot-2 Butler makes catches in traffic and has managed to stay on the field while the likes of Michael Campanaro, Chris Moore, Chris Matthews, and Breshad Perriman have missed time with injuries. Butler may lack the upside of some of the aforementioned names, but there’s something to be said about being able to stay on the field and produce when jobs are clearly up for grabs.