Going into an NFL season, there are always positional battles, as every year, teams, contending or not, have questions to be answered. The Baltimore Ravens, who finally have the legitimate franchise quarterback they have been searching for, are no exception. Despite the team having many strengths, there are four positional battles that could play a huge role in the Ravens 2009 success.
Right tackle - Michael Oher vs. Willie Anderson: This will be an interesting contest because it will pit the glorified rookie (Oher) and the 34-year old veteran (Anderson) against each other. Last year, the Ravens signed Anderson just before the season started, and Anderson took over the right tackle position. He didn't have a Pro Bowl caliber season, but did an admirable job filling in, especially considering how late he signed, as he missed some mini camp practices. However, the Ravens seem to be getting younger offensively, as all three running backs are in their 20's, QB Joe Flacco is 24, and the Ravens also have two young tight ends in Quinn Sypniewski and Davon Drew, along with one of the youngest offensive lines in the NFL.
It will be interesting to see how Oher fares against top notch defensive lineman like Albert Haynesworth, Brian Orakpo, Julius Peppers, and John Abraham in the preseason. If Oher can limit those guys, consider the job his. But if he struggles, Anderson will likely keep his starting spot, at least to start the season. Not only does Anderson have some stiff competition, he has to battle his own age.
I believe Oher will grab the spot. He's a hard worker, and has youth on his side. Meanwhile, Anderson struggled overtaking a mediocre Adam Terry for the right tackle starting spot in 2008, and battling Oher will certainly be a greater challenge. Oher is a physical specimen (6'5", 309), can pass-block incredibly well, and I think he'll ultimately end up with the starting job.
Backup quarterback - Troy Smith vs. John Beck: The Ravens got the quarterback they've been needing for years when they selected Joe Flacco 18th overall in the 2008 Draft. However, going into that season, the projected starter was either former Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith or veteran Kyle Boller. Neither was sharp during the 2008 preseason: Smith was highly inaccurate, and Boller didn't make the correct reads. It looked as if the Ravens were again doomed at the quarterback position. That was until Boller went down with an injury, Smith got sick, and the rookie Flacco rose to the occasion, carrying the Ravens to an 11 win season and an AFC Championship Game appearance.
For once, the Ravens have some stability under center. However, the backup for Flacco remains an issue. The likely guy is Troy Smith, who was effective in limited opportunities. But, the Ravens felt the need to add a guy who can give Smith some competition for a backup job, signing former Miami Dolphins quarterback John Beck. Beck is a guy who had a solid career in college, throwing for 10,157 yards, 74 touchdowns, 29 interceptions, and compiled a 21-14 record as a starter for the Brigham Young Cougars. However, he hasn't yet panned out in the NFL, as he has thrown for only 559 yards and has a 62.0 rating.
The 27-year old has a super arm, but that has yet to translate. Beck was actually drafted in 2007 by Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who is considered one of the top quarterback developers in the NFL, as shown through the progress Flacco made last year. Due to familiarity with the system, and athletic ability, I believe Smith will remain the backup quarterback and John will be the No. 3, but Cameron does a great job developing arms, and it'll be interesting to see what kind of fight Beck puts up.
Right inside linebacker - Tavares Gooden vs. Prescott Burgess vs. Jameel McClain: This, to me, is the most intriguing position battle. The Ravens lost a key player over the offseason in Bart Scott, the linebacker who left to sign a six year, $48M deal with the New York Jets. The Ravens decided to address the position late in the draft, selecting TCU's Jason Phillips with the first pick (137th overall) of the fifth round to fill the void left by Scott. However, it's highly unlikely the Ravens want to throw Phillips into the fire right away - especially with the Ravens complex blitzing schemes.
The battle right now appears to be between second year Miami alum Tavares Gooden, 2007 6th round draft pick Prescott Burgess, and 2008 undrafted free agent signing Jameel McClain. Gooden is a player Ravens fans and coaches are intrigued by, because despite some worrisome injury troubles, he has talent: In 2007 for the University of Miami, he compiled 100 tackles and one sack. If he can stay healthy, Gooden can easily man that spot, and under the tutelage of fellow Hurricane alum Ray Lewis, can thrive. Burgess is an interesting guy to follow. He specialized as a pass rushing linebacker at Michigan, and was picked by the Ravens in the 6th round of the 2007 Draft.However, since then, Ravens fans have forgotten about Prescott. He totaled five tackles on Special Teams as a rookie, but didn't play at all during the 2008 season, but now has the chance to start.
Jameel McClain was a huge steal in the undrafted free agent period last year. Last season, he started all 16 games on Special Teams, compiling 16 tackles. The thing to like about McClain is his attitude. At 5'11", he's not the biggest linebacker, but is very hard working, competitive, and has a knack for making plays.
Right now, I give the edge to either Gooden or McClain. If Gooden can stay healthy, it's likely the Ravens want to put him in there beside future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. However, if he gets injured again, I want McClain, a guy who was a huge surprise last year, in there.
Kicker - Steven Hauschka vs. Graham Gano: Since 1996, we've seen some Ravens come and go. One constant on the team was Matt Stover. The kicker has done great things for the Ravens, such as making 83.7 percent of field goals over an 18-year NFL career. However, to take care of other needs, team GM Ozzie Newsome decided to let Stover walk and spend money on re-signings like Ray Lewis and free agent acquisitions like Matt Birk, Chris Carr, and Domonique Foxworth.
The Ravens got tremendous contributions from backup kicker Steven Hauschka last year. He not only made a 53-yard field goal in his first attempt, but also helped the team on kickoffs. However, the Ravens didn't want to let a kicker who has two career field goal attempts - and only one successful - waltz into the regular season without any competition, and signed Florida State kicker Graham Gano as an undrafted free agent. The signing is a true steal. Gano, the No. 1 ranked kicker in the 2008 Draft, didn't even get picked after making 24-of-26 field goals in his last year of college. It is very possible Gano goes into the season as a starter. He showed the range during the College Football Challenge, making 60 yarders with ease. If it was up to me, I'd give Gano the spot. He has shown the range, and the 24-of-26 line shows his accuracy.
These four battles could be vital to the Ravens 2009 success. All four positions have legitimate contenders, all are open questions. By the end of the preseason, those questions will be answered.