After free agency and the draft, the Ravens will enter training camp with many question marks at positions on both sides of the ball. These positional battles will go a long way in determining how much success they will have and if they can make a return trip to the playoffs.
Here are some of the key positional battles that will shape the Ravens roster:
Middle Linebacker position
Middle Linebacker position
The Ravens are looking for someone to take over for the departed Bart Scott alongside Ray Lewis at the middle linebacker position. The Ravens love Tavares Gooden so much that despite missing all of last year with an injury, they made him the favorite to win the position.
Gooden is referred to as "Baby Ray" because he went to Miami where he played the same position as Lewis. If he can even be half as a good as Lewis then the Ravens will be set for years.
I think Gooden will end up getting the job, but he will be battling the likes of Jameel McClain and rookie Jason Phillips. Antwan Barnes and Prescott Burgess will play more of the outside linebacker position and should not be factors in challenging Gooden.
Gooden has yet to play an NFL snap but the expectations are there that he will more then fill Bart Scott’s shoes. Given the Ravens track record of "discovering" linebackers, I would not be surprised to see Gooden as a perennial pro bowler for years to come.
This job will be a battle between the Ravens' No. 1 draft pick Michael Oher and Adam Terry. Last year, the Ravens acquired Willie Anderson right before the season and that might have been their most important signing.
This looks to be Oher’s to lose. If he can pick up the play book quickly—which was his one major concern- then he will start the season opposite Jared Gaither at right tackle. If he can not then the Ravens will either slide Marshall Yanda to right tackle or give the job to Adam Terry.
The coaching staff is not high on Terry and they would love to put Yanda at guard, so they will give Oher every opportunity to win the job in training camp. IF Oher pans out the Ravens will have one of the best offensive lines in the league, a far cry from two seasons ago.
Matt Stover was the only player that was on the roster since they moved to Cleveland and he has amassed a Hall of Fame career. The Ravens made it known that Stover will not be in their plans for the 2009 season, a decision that disappointed many fans.
Matt Stover has been one of the most clutch kicker of this era and single handily won games for the Ravens. Despite his clutch ability and accuracy, Stover was losing distance on his kicks and it was only a matter of time before he retired. It is sad to see him go but I think it is the right move for the Ravens.
The starting job will be up for grabs between Steven "the kid" Hauschka and Graham Gano. Hauschka was the Ravens kicker last year for field goals of 50 yards and higher. He has a booming leg but lacks consistent accuracy.
Last season at Florida St, Graham Gano won the Lou Groza award for the nation’s best kicker. Bringing in Gano shows that the Ravens coaching staff is not fully confident in Haushcka and it would not surprise me to see Gano win the job.
Matt Stover is a tremendous loss, and they will no longer have an "automatic" three points every time they get into the red zone.
This might be the most key positional battle since it wins and loses games for every team. In the end I think Gano wins the job and will be the Ravens kicker for year’s to come.
There will be a major positional battle at the strong safety position alongside Ed Reed. Dawan Landry is coming off a major injury but is most likely to be awarded the starting safety position this season.
There are still question marks about how Landry will respond from his injury and he will be in a battle with Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura for the starting position. Both Zbikowski and Nakamura got a lot playing time last season and should improve immensely in their second year.
Both Zbikowski and Nakamura are hard hitters and they made some big plays last season. Landry has been a pleasant surprise since getting drafted in the sixth round but many fans were upset to see him given the job over ex-Raven Jim Leonhard.
I think that Landry will win the job but it will be interesting to see how he responds from his neck injury. With him and Reed back there, the Ravens will have two safeties that had major injuries. Don’t be surprised if Tom Zbikowski ends up as the starter half way through the season.
Derrick Mason is the clear cut number 1 receiver for this team but the battle will be through the 2nd through 4th positions. Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams, Kelly Washington and Marcus Smith will all be competing for playing time, but Clayton and Williams seem to have the upper hand.
Both Clayton and Williams have shown signs of brilliance and the Ravens and their fans are both waiting for them to show some consistency.
Washington has NFL experience although he was never a major factor for the Bengals. Smith was injured for the majority of last season but he has good height, speed and a lot of upside. I like Smith and think he could crack his way into the starting lineup.
The "X-factor" at the Wide Receiver position could be Eron Riley. Riley is a free agent out of Duke, and he ran the fastest time in the 40-yard dash any receiver. He has the speed to stretch the field and the Ravens fans love him because of this. If Riley could learn how to run routes properly then he could be a major factor for this team.
As always, Wide Receiver is a major question mark for this team. Many feel they should of upgraded at the position but the Ravens like their current receivers.
It will be interesting to see if these receivers improve from last year and if they can make the Ravens offense more productive.
These are just some of the positional battles that will shape the roster in training camp and during the season. They will go a long way in determining whether this team can make the playoffs in back to back seasons for only the second time in franchise history.