Examining Ravens’ roster battles entering final days of training camp

August 26, 2020 | Luke Jones

Trying to project the Ravens’ 53-man roster is always challenging, but an abbreviated training camp and the absence of preseason games leave more guesswork than ever, even when sizing up a championship-caliber roster.

John Harbaugh and his coaching staff are evaluating players at practice every day, of course, but preseason games always provided that live setting in which unproven players might shine brighter or unfortunately show they’re not quite ready for NFL competition. We all recall Michael Pierce shining in the 2016 preseason finale to win a 53-man roster spot as an undrafted rookie, but Willie Henry went from being a projected starter at the start of camp to playing deep into the final exhibition game against Washington last summer, an indication that he would be waived on final cut-down day.

Teams must trim their final roster to 53 players by 4 p.m. on Sept. 5, meaning time is short for individuals on the bubble to prove they belong on a team with serious Super Bowl aspirations in 2020.

Below is a look at several positions with interesting competitions and roster battles:

Offensive line

Virtually all of the focus has been on replacing the retired Marshal Yanda at the right guard position, but veteran newcomer D.J. Fluker entered the summer as the favorite and theren’s been no real indication of him being seriously challenged to this point. That said, it wasn’t until the third preseason game last year when Bradley Bozeman seized the starting left guard job from Jermaine Eluemunor and never looked back while the latter was traded shortly thereafter.

The more interesting battle might be for the reserve swing tackle job after the Ravens released veteran James Hurst in March. Harbaugh has mentioned the 26-year-old Will Holden — now with his seventh organization after being selected in the fifth round of the 2017 draft out of Vanderbilt — as a candidate for the important reserve role, but the Ravens have also toyed with flipping Orlando Brown Jr. to the left side if something were to happen to Ronnie Stanley and moving Fluker out to right tackle, the position he played at the beginning of his NFL career.

Those evaluations could impact the number of interior linemen kept on the roster with third-round rookie Tyre Phillips and fourth-round rookie Ben Bredeson considered locks due to their draft standing alone. Many thought 2019 fourth-round pick Ben Powers might be Yanda’s replacement, but the Oklahoma product hasn’t really stood out, making one question if his roster spot is secured.

Uncertainty remains at the center position with veteran starter Matt Skura still working his way back to full strength from last November’s serious knee injury. Patrick Mekari is a roster lock, but he could be the Week 1 starter if the Ravens don’t deem Skura ready to go by then.

Safety

The surprising release of seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas changed the complexion of this group with 2018 sixth-round pick DeShon Elliott sliding into the projected starting role next to Chuck Clark, but Thomas’ departure could create an opportunity for another safety to grab a spot.

Baltimore was pleased to come away with Iowa product Geno Stone in April’s draft, but a seventh-round pick is never guaranteed a roster spot. The Ravens could also value the experience of special-teams contributor Jordan Richards, who entered camp firmly on the bubble.

With some extra salary cap space created by terminating Thomas’ contract for “personal conduct that has adversely affected” the team, the Ravens adding a veteran safety at some point shouldn’t be dismissed either.

Tight end

We’ve gained little clarity in the competition for the No. 3 job behind Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle, especially with rookie free agent Jake Breeland out for the season and fellow undrafted rookie Eli Wolf missing substantial practice time due to injury. Veteran Jerell Adams and 2019 practice-squad member Charles Scarff have had their moments in practice despite not showing the consistency you’d prefer to see.

It’s also worth noting that Pro Bowl hybrid fullback Patrick Ricard has worked exclusively on the offensive side of the ball and has been mentioned more than once as an option at tight end. Given the importance of the position in Greg Roman’s offense, the Ravens would surely love to have another viable option to back up Andrews and Boyle with the possibility of an outside addition remaining. However, using that roster spot elsewhere with Ricard being used as a tight end more frequently is plausible, even if still unlikely.

Inside linebacker

Rookie first-round pick Patrick Queen and veteran L.J. Fort remain the projected starters and 2020 third-round pick Malik Harrison is a roster lock, but both Chris Board and Otaro Alaka have impressed during camp as they compete for roster spots.

Board has been a regular special-teams contributor these last two years, but he seems to have regained some of his traction from last summer as a potential defensive contributor in sub packages. Meanwhile, Alaka has flashed the same explosiveness and promise he showed as an undrafted rookie last year.

Making room for one of them shouldn’t be a problem, but the amount of dime package the Ravens play would make it quite difficult to justify keeping five inside linebackers on the 53-man roster.

Quarterback

The lack of a normal spring and organized team activities figured to make the quarterback picture elementary, but undrafted rookie Tyler Huntley has been one of the surprises of camp pushing Trace McSorley for the No. 3 job behind NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and veteran backup Robert Griffin III.

A University of Utah product with the athleticism to play in Baltimore’s run-first offense, Huntley has made a number of high-quality throws, including an impressive 55-yard touchdown to Marquise Brown earlier this week. It’s difficult to gauge where Huntley is in terms of grasping the offense, but he’s flashed promise in his limited practice reps.

Meanwhile, McSorley hasn’t taken a step forward in his second training camp from a performance standpoint, struggling with accuracy and not pushing the ball down the field with much conviction. You’d expect the 2019 sixth-round pick from Penn State to have the edge in his grasp of the offense due to being in the organization for a year, which helps in his quest for the job.

With concerns about a COVID-19 outbreak in mind, you’d assume the Ravens prefer keeping both in the organization, which is why Eric DeCosta will need to anticipate how other teams perceive both in the absence of a preseason schedule. Remember Baltimore was concerned about not being able to get McSorley to the practice squad last year, which partially explained why he stuck on the 53-man roster as a healthy scratch for all but one game.

Even though he’s performed better to this point in camp, Huntley being an undrafted rookie could make him less likely to be claimed off waivers than McSorley, who flashed some in last year’s preseason games. That may prove to be the difference in the decision, but we’ll see how the next 10 days play out.

Return specialist

This competition remains very tough to gauge without those live-game opportunities provided in the preseason, but rookie wide receiver James Proche remains the favorite almost by default.

Other viable candidates like wide receiver Chris Moore and running backs Justice Hill and Kenjon Barner have been sidelined with injuries during camp while fellow rookie wide receiver Devin Duvernay is no more proven than Proche at the next level. Proche looks comfortable fielding kicks, but doing that in a controlled practice environment isn’t close to simulating a game situation.