In a league where competition is constant and roster turnover is high from year to year, the Ravens are taking every step they deem necessary to fill the holes on their team and take the next step for 2009. After a few departures in the offseason, many starting spots are up for grabs and there are some strong talents ready to claim them. B/R now takes a look at what position battles Ravens fans will likely have their eyes on heading into Training Camp.
No player’s absence will be felt more for the Ravens than inside linebacker Bart Scott’s, who joined his former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan in New York this offseason. Luckily, the Ravens believe they have two able replacements ready to step up and make their marks.
Tavares Gooden was selected in the third round of the 2008 Draft out of Miami. Jameel McClain went undrafted that same year, ultimately signing with Baltimore. Gooden showed flashes before a hip injury put him on injured reserve last season, while McClain played in every game and even established a new franchise record for safeties in a season, recording two in 2008.
Both players are young, fast and hungry for playing time. Gooden has so far seen more time with the starting defense and appears to be the early favorite.
Defensive leader and fellow linebacker Ray Lewis remarked he even had to slow Gooden down during practice, and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison compared him to a stallion ready to break out. Both linebackers will likely see their roles increase in 2009, regardless of who is named the starter.
No. 3 Wide Receiver
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome raised some eyebrows when he didn’t select a wide receiver in the 2009 draft. Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton are the clear-cut starters, but the position was viewed as a question mark after them.
Newsome affirmed his confidence in his current corps, particularly Demetrius Williams, and noted there was not a receiver available at any given point that Newsome felt was worth the draft pick. He did point out, however, his penchant to constantly tinker with the team throughout the offseason.
“The job is never done as far as I’m concerned,” Newsome said. “If the opportunity presents itself, and it’s the right thing for us to do, that fits into the structure of our football team that allows us to continue to build and keep some of our good, young talent, we’ve got to look at that.”
Newsome proved his point when he invited a veteran wideouts Kelley Washington, Jerry Porter and Tab Perry to compete for a spot at the team’s mini-camp two weeks ago. Washington clearly stood out and was signed just in time for Organized Team Activities (OTAs). He split time with the starting offense with Williams and second-year receiver Marcus Smith.
Williams has shown promise in his first three seasons, but has been slowed by injuries, missing 16 games over the last two years. Smith was mostly quiet in his rookie year, but has come on strong in the OTAs.
The Ravens also have Justin Harper, Ernie Wheelwright and Edward Williams competing for roster spots, but Demetrius Williams, Washington and Smith seem to be the ones stuck in the log jam for the third receiver spot. Whoever wins will have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders, especially with the talk in the offseason of Baltimore trading for Arizona Cardinals wider receiver Anquan Boldin.
What was once a trouble spot for the Ravens has now become one of the deepest positions on the team. After cutting ties with starter Chris McAlister after two injury-riddled seasons, the Ravens brought in Domonique Foxworth to take his place.
Fabian Washington filled in admirably for McAlister in 2008, and after Samari Rolle was released it appeared Foxworth and Washington would be the starters. But that theory was shot once Rolle was re-signed.
Rolle and Washington have both been slowed by injuries during OTAs, as well as Frank Walker and newly-signed Chris Carr. This has opened the door for Anwar Phillips and Derrick Martin during last week’s passing camp.
Rolle, Foxworth, Washington and Carr are practically all givens to make the roster, though what order on the depth chart remains to be seen. Foxworth and Rolle would be the given favorites to start, but Rolle has been fighting injuries the past few years.
Then again, so has Washington. Regardless, the Ravens have a lot of talented players at the position. Now all they have to do is stay heathy.
The recent signing of free agent quarterback John Beck created an interesting and unique quarterback dynamic for the Ravens. He and current backup Troy Smith shared a similar road to this point. Both entered 2008 with legitimate shots at become the starter until outside circumstances forced them back to the sidelines.
Beck, who was drafted by the Miami Dolphins when Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was the head coach there, did not see playing time last year once the Dolphins brought in Chad Pennington. Smith’s changes were just as promising until he developed a serious tonsil infection that spread to his lung, which opened the door for rookie Joe Flacco.
Unlike Beck, however, Smith did see action on the field once he recovered in certain game situations. ‘The Suggs Package’ as it was deemed by the media,’ was a variation on the Wildcat offense that Smith is ideally suited for with his speed and elusive nature of play.
Beck, meanwhile, is more of a traditional passer who is familiar with Cameron’s offense. When he was brought on, initial reports suggested he would be competing with Smith for the no. two backup role. Cameron refuted that, saying there is always competition and that the Suggs Package was definitely there to stay.
Because of Smith’s role in the Suggs Package, he will likely see more time on the field than Beck, but if Flacco is sidelined, Beck may be the go-to guy to take over under center. But Smith is a competitive player, and wants to prove he can be starter in this league.
NFL rules state that the no. 3 quarterback can dress on game day but only play if the starter is injured and cannot return. That might be the one stipulation that relegates Beck to third-string, to ensure Smith can enter the game in certain game situations. Regardless, the Ravens are confident in both players and they will likely push one another heading into Training Camp.
In one of the more controversial personnel moves of the offseason, Matt Stover was not retained at kicker after 13 years of stability. The 41-year-old still had the accuracy, but his age was beginning to show on distance, and with his contract running out, the Ravens decided to get younger at the position.
Steve Hauschka handled many of the kickoff duties last season, and even drilled a 54-yard field goal at Houston last year. Graham Gano, on the other hand, is a well-regarded prospect out of Florida State who signed with the team as an undrafted free agent.
Ravens special teams coordinator believes both are talented, but not quite ready to play in the NFL. But as Rosburg pointed out, they don’t have to play until September.
Both kickers had high and low moments during mini-camp, and the Ravens have not ruled out bringing back Stover should they feel they need to. Regardless of who wins this competition, they will be under a certain amount of scrutiny for replacing one of the most beloved Ravens of all time.
Head coach John Harbaugh was a special teams coach in Philadelphia and knows the importance of a good return game. Yamon Figurs had a promising 2007 campaign but was a non-factor in 2008.
Tom Zbikowski and Jim Leonhard also returned punts last year, but with Leonhard departed for New York, the Ravens will look for a spark on special teams. Chris Carr returned kicks in Tennessee and will likely push for that role. The Ravens’ 2009 third-round draft choice Lardarius Webb was a returner while playing for Nicholls State and could contribute as well.
Given their track record, the Ravens will no doubt have the best players possible on the field opening day against the Kansas City Chiefs. Who those players specifically are will be determined, but the battles for those spots will likely play a huge role in the fortunes of the Ravens’ season.