The Ravens are about to commence a very high-pressure training camp; can they address all of their issues in time?
The Baltimore Ravens had quite the active offseason after defeating the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl in February. On the heels of achieving the most success an NFL team can hope for in a single season, they opted to clean house, relieving their roster of a number of veterans who had come to define their identity.
Gone are two starting inside linebackers (Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe), three starters in the secondary (Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Cary Williams), their top pass-rusher from 2012 (Paul Kruger) and wide receiver Anquan Boldin, among others. Though the Ravens were savvy in finding players, both free agents and rookies, to fill most of these holes, there's no doubt there will be many eyes on the Ravens' training camp this year to see if their relative gamble pays off.
Considering all the veteran faces who have departed, the new faces that have been brought on to replace them and the pressure that comes with being the reigning Super Bowl champion, the Ravens will have a lot of questions to answer in training camp this year. Here are the three biggest.
What Will the Passing Game Look Like Without Anquan Boldin?
Ever since the Ravens traded Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers earlier this year, the question of who his replacement will be has been asked, ad infinitum. This isn't simply beating a dead horse, however—it's a legitimate concern for the Ravens, and we won't truly know what their plans are at No. 2 receiver until training camp is well underway, so the offseason hand-wringing has been mostly warranted.
As it presently stands, the Ravens seem poised to more heavily involve their two tight ends, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, in the passing game, and running back Ray Rice should also see an uptick in targets, as he's proven in the past that he can be an incredibly reliable and effective receiver. Pitta, particularly, seems ready for a breakout year if the reports out of minicamps and OTAs regarding he and quarterback Joe Flacco's good chemistry prove true on the playing field.
Among the traditional receivers in the actual competition for Boldin's empty roster spot, that battle appears ready to be waged between Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss, LaQuan Williams, David Reed and Deonte Thompson.
In the 2012 season, these five receivers played a combined 953 offensive snaps (subscription required), with Jones leading the way with 542. In contrast, Boldin played 1,164 snaps last year; any of these men who take over for him will therefore need to be reliable, understand Baltimore's offense clearly and, most importantly, make plays.
Training camp will be important for all of these receivers. Not only must they stand out in competition with one another, they need to develop the skills that will allow Flacco to trust them with his targets. And if none of them really shine, that could result in the Ravens bringing on a free agent to boost the ranks this year.
Head coach John Harbaugh recently admitted that there are free agents currently on the market that the team is "in love with," and that group could certainly include a receiver, especially since bringing on a veteran at the position hasn't been publicly ruled out by the team.
Surely, the Ravens are hoping one of their home-grown younger receivers—or at least Jones, who has struggled in the past with a heavy receiving load—emerge as the answer. If they get halfway through camp without feeling comfortable, however, then a free agent could join the roster.
Do the Ravens Have Enough Linebackers?
The Ravens were able to add linebackers to take over the roster spots of the players who departed in retirement or free agency, signing veteran Elvis Dumervil to plug in at the outside linebacker spot that belonged to Paul Kruger, drafting Arthur Brown to work on the inside and taking a promising undrafted player, Penn's Brandon Copeland, in order to also move him to the inside.
However, their current roster of linebacking talent may not be enough, especially when injuries are taken into account.
Jameel McClain, who is hoped to be one of the Ravens' two starting inside linebackers this year, still needs medical clearance before he can hit the practice field after suffering a spinal cord contusion last season. Brown is recovering from sports hernia surgery. Starter Terrell Suggs partially tore his Achilles tendon last offseason and his biceps during the regular season, opting not to have surgery on the latter injury. Fellow starter on the outside, Courtney Upshaw, showed up to offseason workouts overweight, drawing the ire of his coaches.
Behind these bigger-name players, the Ravens don't have much proven depth, and it's quite possible that once the roster starts being pared down to reach 53 men, they might find themselves in a bit of trouble if injuries again plague that important part of their defense.
Though many may think that Harbaugh's comments regarding free agents is directed primarily at the wide receiver position, it's also possible he's considering linebackers as well. As the summer progresses and players are cut from rosters, the Ravens may look very intently at the linebacker talent that becomes available.
While their present depth at the position is good, from a numbers standpoint, there's not a lot of experience among them. With that in mind, the linebacker depth chart and rotation is a work in progress until training camp is well underway.
Can the Ravens' Revamped Defense Jell?
As noted many times this offseason, the Ravens did a lot of positive work to mitigate the losses of the many defensive veterans who retired, moved on or were released. For free safety Ed Reed, the Ravens signed free agent Michael Huff. For strong safety Bernard Pollard, they drafted Matt Elam. For outside linebacker Paul Kruger, they signed Elvis Dumervil. They also brought on veteran additions for their defensive line—Chris Canty and Marcus Spears.
Though these players have proven track records—even the rookie Elam—and look to be, at least on paper, upgrades in most positions, nothing will truly be known about how this group will handle actual football games. The best that can be done is to get these new players working together effectively in training camp, lest the Ravens' new-look defense goes the way of the so-called "Dream Team" that the Philadelphia Eagles tried to assemble two years ago.
It's not like Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and the rest of the team's coaching and front-office staff didn't know what they were doing when they chose to shake up the defensive side of the ball. There is clearly confidence that they made the right decisions, both with whom they were willing to part ways as well as those they chose to sign and to draft.
But there will need to be an emphasis on building trust and chemistry between the Ravens' defensive veterans and the new additions so that confusion doesn't result in mistakes once the season begins. After all, these aren't just depth signings—many of these new defenders are going to be starters.
Training camp needs to be more than a time to cement the defensive playbook and simply make sure the new players understand it—they also must cement their commitment to each other and the team and make sure the returning Ravens defenders and the new players understand one another. Without a cohesive defense, there will be chaos.