The defending champions, the Baltimore Ravens have some questions after a complete roster overhaul, but surprisingly few camp battles. The starters at most positions are set in stone, while most of the rest are pretty stable. Only a couple of spots are in question.
Let's take a look at those spots, including who's involved in those battles and projected winners.
Wide Receiver: Jacoby Jones vs. Deonte Thompson vs. Tandon Doss
The Ravens need a receiver to start opposite Torrey Smith, and they have three very different players vying for that opportunity.
Jacoby Jones is a fast, shifty receiver with good size and a flair for the dramatic. Take a look at his biggest plays last season: he gets open downfield, adjusts to the pass and maintains excellent focus. Once he gets ahold of the ball, he finds a way to get into the end zone.
Deonte Thompson has some similarities to Jones in that he's fast, has good size and can make big plays. Where Thompson differentiates himself is his route running: Thompson is one of the best route-runners on the Ravens. Unfortunately, Thompson is still raw in terms of catching with his hands.
Take a look at Thompson's biggest play last season. He shows great body control to make the deep catch and keep it in bounds. His body control is key to his route running as well, but it makes him an excellent jump-ball target.
Finally, Tandon Doss is a big, possession receiver with strong hands and some savvy. Unfortunately, he and Joe Flacco were completely out of sync last year. At his best, though, Doss excels at playing simple football: catching the ball with his hands and getting upfield. His only touchdown last year came on a decisively run screen pass. Look at how Doss catches the ball with his hands and quickly gets up field.
While Thompson has the best skill set of the group, Jones has the most experience, making him the favorite. All three should see snaps, and expect Thompson to take the starting role someday.
Cornerback: Corey Graham vs. Jimmy Smith
The constancy of the nickel defense in the NFL guarantees that both Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith will see plenty of playing time, but this competition is interesting for a different reason. The result of this competition will be an affirmation of Jimmy Smith's career. Become a solid starter; shed his bust status. Fail to do so and Smith will be labeled a career disappointment.
Certainly, based on physical tools, Smith is the superior player. Bigger, faster and stronger, Smith has the ability to play against any receiver.
One can get a good idea of both Smith's strengths and weaknesses from his deciding coverage on Michael Crabtree on the final offensive play for the 49ers. At his best, Smith can take on contact, stay step for step with a wide receiver and maintain balance enough to shadow him completely. This play shows that ability against an up-and-coming wide receiver.
Of course, plenty of NFL observers still consider that play defensive pass interference. Even though this particular play was legal, it shows the thin line that Smith walks. His physical play is often penalized, as Smith still didn't show a good handle on when to be physical and when not to be last year, to the tune of seven penalties called against him.
Further, notice Smith's head. He doesn't look up to play the ball; he plays Crabtree the whole time. That's a major problem that needs to be addressed, or else Smith will lose jump-ball battles more often than not.
Graham is pretty much the opposite of Smith. He's much smarter, having been flagged just once last year. He has much better ball skills, as you can see from this interception where he breaks off his coverage at the last second to reel in the tipped ball.
He's also a better technician than Smith. Watch that interception again to see how Graham threw off his man's route just enough to slow him down. That's something Smith has the physical skill set to do, but he has yet to do it consistently well.
Where Graham falters is his physical ability. He can't match up with top-tier receivers the way Smith can, as he's neither very big nor very fast. Faster players can get behind Graham pretty easily and catch a deep ball.
Graham was the better player last year, and he should be the starter until Smith proves otherwise. Until Smith learns how to play the ball in the air and how to play physically within the confines of the rules, he doesn't belong on the field on an every-down basis.
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