Baltimore Ravens: 4 Sleepers Guaranteed to Surprise in Training Camp
There's only two weeks left until the Baltimore Ravens report to training camp, and a lot seems to be uncertain with this team right now.
From Ray Rice's contract issues to Ed Reed's bizarre comments to the press to speculation about whether Terrell Suggs will play this year, there's a lot of things for Ravens fans to worry about now.
There's also good things going on now. Even in the incredibly dull time before training camp, there's been several new faces who are preparing themselves for strong seasons. With the next-man-up mentality that's so prevalent with the Ravens, some of these sleepers could be in line for larger roles than expected next season.
These are the players whom I think are likely to surprise in training camp.
It's not often that an undrafted rookie turns a lot of heads in training camp. So when it happens, especially to a team with some holes at wide receivers like the Ravens, it's kind of a big deal.
This is exactly what happened with Deonte Thompson, an undrafted wideout from Florida. Thompson showed his speed in an 11-on-11 drill where he blew past the defense to score a long touchdown.
Thompson's speed is not a surprise since his best 40-yard dash time is 4.23 seconds. However, in addition to being blazingly fast, Thompson has shown that he's gotten open during OTAs.
This is important because, honestly, it's very hard to gain much knowledge during OTAs or minicamps where players aren't even wearing pads.
Thompson will still find it hard to get on the field, especially as Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are entrenched as the starters. However, Thompson could get as high as third-string receiver since Tandon Doss disappointed last season, and Jacoby Jones has been known for dropping the ball.
Also, expect to see Thompson enter the discussion for kick and punt returner—a place which would utilize his speed very well.
In the face of Terrell Suggs' Achilles injury, lots of attention has gone to Courtney Upshaw. He does deserve this attention since he's suddenly being forced into a starting role as a rookie, something that was not planned when the Ravens drafted him.
However, there's another Ravens linebacker gearing up for his first year as a starter. That would be Paul Kruger, who will likely slide into Suggs' spot as the Will linebacker.
Instead, Upshaw will likely replace Jarret Johnson as the Sam linebacker.
Kruger has been solid throughout his three-year NFL career. 2011 was his best season yet, as he played in all 16 games, totaling 15 tackles and 5.5 sacks.
He understands the Ravens' mantra of next-man-up, and he's been working hard to prove he's worthy of starting.
The departure of Ben Grubbs in the offseason indicated that the Ravens' offensive line was in for some big changes this season. The Ravens only confirmed that by drafting Kelechi Osemele and Gino Gradkowski. Although young, both linemen look like they could be eventual starters in the league maybe even as early as this season.
Well, the competition has changed a little now as veteran Bobby Williams is now on the Ravens roster. Both he and Bryant McKinnie, last year's starting left tackle, offer experience, although both players could be nearing the end of their NFL careers. The same can be said for Matt Birk, who contemplated retirement before this season.
Don't count out either of these young linemen contributing this season, particularly Osemele. Although he played at tackle in college, Osemele could transition into becoming the guard who replaces Grubbs.
Osemele's bid to start was briefly derailed by a quadriceps injury. Although he will likely be healthy for training camp, he will have some lost ground to make up from his injury. If he can do so, Osemele could start at guard or even back at tackle next season.
Ray Rice's holdout has been troubling to say the least for Ravens fans. Even though The Baltimore Sun notes quote Rice as saying "optimistic" about signing a new deal, it's possible he could miss most or all of training camp if a deal isn't reached on time. That brings up the possibility that Rice could be rusty going into the season, meaning his backup will have an important role in the Ravens offense.
The question here is who's going to be Rice's backup? Anthony Allen and Damien Berry, two backups from last season, are back. There's also two rookies in the fold, undrafted Bobby Rainey and third-round pick Bernard Pierce.
It's a wide open competition right now, but Pierce might have the most potential out of the four running backs. Allen had only eight rushing yards on three attempts last season while Berry did not record any stats.
Pierce meanwhile had a great season last year as he was the center point of the Temple Owls run-heavy offense. He had 1,481 rushing yards while putting up 27 rushing touchdowns for the seventh-best rushing offense in the league.
With Rice's contract drama, the Ravens knew that they would need a successor and drafting Pierce was a move that showed an eye to the future. It's hard to picture a Ravens team without Rice, but if that happens, they should be in capable hands with Pierce in the backfield.