Projecting Baltimore Ravens' Most Heated Roster Battles This Offseason
The Baltimore Ravens emphasize competition throughout their roster. Just because you’re a first-round draft pick or a high-priced free agent, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be handed a starting job. The best players are the ones who play the best—in practice and on the field—and they are the ones who will see the most playing time.
This offseason, there are plenty of positional battles that will go down to the wire, and we’re going to analyze 10 of them here, breaking down the competitors and finishing with predictions from yours truly.
This roster is by no means a finished product, and general manager Ozzie Newsome is certainly going to tinker with the depth chart based on what he sees in the various offseason activities. With the rookie class now in the fold, however, there aren’t many major changes on the horizon. As a result, now is the perfect time to look ahead to the roster spots that are still up for grabs.
A few of these battles will affect the starting lineup—mainly those related to the men in the trenches—but the majority of them are for backup spots which are no less important (after all, depth is vital in the NFL). Everything from the starting-right-tackle battle to the scramble to be the No. 5 wide receiver will be picked apart here, so let’s dive into the matchups.
Backup Quarterback: Tyrod Taylor vs. Keith Wenning
Since 2010, the Ravens have only kept one backup quarterback on the roster, thanks to the impressive durability of Joe Flacco.
Will they carry three QBs this season, or is one of these players going to be sent to the practice squad (Wenning) or released (Taylor)?
Head coach John Harbaugh has been very open about their desire to bring in competition for Taylor as the lone backup, citing his expiring contract as the primary reason (via Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com):
Tyrod’s only got one year left on his contract. We’ve been very happy with Tyrod, and we feel like he has a great future, but we have been a little disappointed how he’s played in games certainly. We feel like he’s a lot better than he’s showed. I know he feels that way too.
Taylor’s impending free agency is a factor here, but Harbaugh touched on his in-game performance and that’s the more pressing issue in my eyes. Taylor has struggled on the field, and he doesn’t possess much upside as a passer.
Wenning, on the other hand, boasts plenty of potential and some enticing physical tools. At 6’3” and 220 pounds, he’s bigger than Taylor and has “really nice touch...and a strong arm,” according to Coach Harbaugh (in his rookie minicamp presser).
Prediction: Wenning Is the No. 2 QB and Only Backup on the Roster
Ideally, the Ravens would like to keep all three on the roster, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense considering Flacco’s aforementioned tendency to suit up for every game—even if it means missing the birth of his child—and the value of that roster spot at other positions.
Wenning may not be ready if he’s thrown into the fire this year, but Taylor hasn’t looked ready in the past, and Wenning clearly has more upside. It’s unlikely that Baltimore risks losing its sixth-round pick by stashing him on the practice squad—where another team is free to sign him to a contract for their 53-man roster—so Wenning stays while Taylor doesn’t make the cut.
No. 2 Tight End: Owen Daniels vs. Crockett Gillmore
Given Owen Daniels’ background—meaning his excellent production and history with Gary Kubiak—this may not seem like a very “heated” roster battle. After all, Crocket Gillmore (my favorite name on the roster) is only a rookie.
But there is a case to be made for Gillmore. Coach Harbaugh can joke all he wants about the blocking abilities of Daniels and Dennis Pitta, but it is a concern.
We know that Pitta is on the field as a receiver first, which places more pressure on the No. 2 TE to be effective in the blocking game. Having an in-line tight end who can’t block is detrimental to your running game (see: Dickson, Ed).
Gillmore is a big body (6’6”, 260 lbs) who takes pride in his blocking, and that may earn him more playing time in a Kubiak-run system that leans on double-TE sets.
Furthermore, Gillmore has demonstrated his soft and reliable hands in his first practices, according to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com, and has a big catch radius and the ability to pick up yards after the catch.
Prediction: Daniels Edges Out Gillmore…for Now
Daniels’ experience gives him the edge, but this battle is closer than you might think, and we may see this position change over the course of the season. Initially, however, Daniels’ familiarity with Kubiak’s offense will make him the more prominent tight end going into Week 1.
No. 2 Running Back: Bernard Pierce vs. Lorenzo Taliaferro
After a dismal season on the ground, the Ravens said they were going to bring in some new blood in the backfield, and it has arrived in the form of fourth-round pick Lorenzo Taliaferro (second on my list of favorite active Ravens names).
The rookie out of Coastal Carolina is a big back (6’2”, 230 lbs) and a downhill runner, so he brings a new facet to the ground game. Furthermore, while he doesn’t possess top-end speed, he is considered a good fit for Kubiak’s one-cut zone-running scheme.
That scheme is also supposed to be a good fit for Pierce, but he won’t get the chance to try it out until training camp since he is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Will the rookie be able to take advantage of Pierce’s lost time to win the No. 2 job?
Prediction: Pierce Retains His Spot as the No. 2, but Taliaferro Has a Role Too
Realistically, if Rice is suspended this will become a time-share based on the situation. Pierce possesses more explosiveness and is a better runner, while Taliaferro is a better receiver and has impressed scouts and coaches throughout the predraft process with his pass protection.
Additionally, the rookie will get the nod in short-yardage situations, thanks to his bruising pin-ball running style.
Both backs will factor into the Ravens’ plans, as they attempt to get back to their roots—pounding the rock. But Pierce’s experience and more explosive style give him the edge in 2014.
No. 3 Wide Receiver: Jacoby Jones vs. Marlon Brown
The quality of these two receivers shows why there has been so much hubbub about this year’s receiving corps. With the Smiths (Torrey and Steve) entrenched as the primary receivers, Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown will be duking it out to see which one earns a bigger share of the receiver workload.
Jones is a known quantity: a speed demon who intimidates defenses and has a knack for the big play.
Brown is a different kind of beast—literally.
At 6’5” and 205 pounds, Brown uses his frame to outsize defensive backs which helped him reel in a franchise-record seven touchdowns as a rookie.
Brown exhibited solid route-running, a large catch radius and the ability to go up and pull down jump balls, so he definitely has a niche—much like Jones—but which one will receive the most playing time?
Prediction: Jones Keeps the No. 3 Role
Because of their different skill sets, both receivers will receive a decent amount of playing time, but Jones will see the field more because of his speed.
Kubiak’s offense relies on play-action passing to create big plays down the field, and that’s right up Jones’ alley. Furthermore, having his speed opposite Torrey Smith should free up room underneath for Pitta, Daniels and Steve Smith, while allowing Torrey Smith to expand his role in the offense beyond being purely a speedster.
Brown is sure to be engaged in the red zone, but Jones’ speed is a better complement for the rest of the receivers who figure to get on the field.
No. 5 and No. 6 Wide Receivers: Free-for-All
Free-for-all sums this up pretty nicely. For most of the other battles mentioned so far, playing time is the only thing at stake. That’s not the case here, as the “losers” of this competition won’t make the final roster (although the practice squad is an option for some of them).
Additionally, the Ravens may not even keep six receivers, so there is plenty of scrapping going on among the wideouts. The contenders:
Deonte Thompson has speed to burn, but he hasn’t been able to take advantage of the numerous chances he has been given and doesn’t look like a particularly refined receiver entering his third season. He offers some value as a returner, but will that be enough with Jacoby Jones on the roster?
LaQuan Williams has impressed coaches with his special teams ability, but he’s the receiver with the least upside out of the group which doesn’t bode well for his chances.
Aaron Mellette redshirted his rookie season, but he has the size and leaping ability to be a factor in the red zone. Another productive preseason could vault him into the active roster.
Michael Campanaro is a rookie, but he is a unique receiver on this team as a slot weapon in the mold of Wes Welker and Julian Edelman. Campanaro is raw and his route-running needs to improve which makes him a candidate for the practice squad, but the Ravens traded back into the seventh round to draft him so it's unlikely that they would risk losing him.
Prediction: Campanaro and Mellette Get the Nod
Like Marlon Brown last year, one of the undrafted free agents could make a splash and force his way onto the roster, but Campanaro and Mellette have the edge because they are the more talented receivers and they’re also the youngest.
Right Tackle: Ricky Wagner vs. Kelechi Osemele vs. Jah Reid
The biggest surprise of the draft is that the Ravens chose not to add an offensive tackle to the mix to challenge Ricky Wagner for the starting right tackle job. It’s still possible that a veteran free agent is brought in, but at this point, it’s more likely that the front office gives Wagner (and his competition) the chance to earn it on the practice field.
Wagner is the favorite and looked increasingly more comfortable as his rookie year progressed. He’s a solid technician with quick feet which will help him in the zone scheme.
Osemele is the dark horse and would ideally stay at left guard if at all possible. The mauler from Iowa State started at right tackle during his rookie season, however, and would be a solid backup plan if Wagner doesn’t look ready.
Then there’s Jah Reid, who has remained on the roster, thanks to his positional flexibility, but hasn’t been able to hold on to any starting role. Reid seems like a long shot to win the job, but a strong training camp could change that.
Prediction: Wagner Replaces Michael Oher
Obviously, another name could be brought in, but Wagner is the choice based on the roster as currently constructed. He has great size and is strong in the running game which makes him a prime candidate to man the right side of the O-line.
He’ll need to work on his pass protection—especially against speed-rushers—but he should be a reliable presence opposite Eugene Monroe.
(Backup) Nose Tackle: Timmy Jernigan vs. Brandon Williams vs. Terrence Cody
The Ravens have four players who are suited for playing nose tackle, but none of them are better than Haloti Ngata. If Ngata is locked into the position, then this battle is already over (hence the “backup” in parentheses).
But his flexibility and the lack of a proven defensive end to replace Arthur Jones means that these three players could have the opportunity to win a starting job if Ngata moves over to the 5-technique.
Because Ngata is a certain starter, he’s not listed on this slide or the next one (defensive end), but he is a factor in both battles—just keep that in mind.
Timmy Jernigan, this year’s second-round pick (scouting report can be found here), has plenty of talent and athleticism, but his size is a concern. He only weighs 298 pounds, which is 30 pounds lighter than any of the other nose tackles on the roster, and that gives you an idea for how freakish an athlete Ngata is.
At Florida State, Jernigan manhandled opponents, but he may not be strong enough to do the same at the next level.
Another option is Brandon Williams who made the transition from Division II football to the NFL look fairly easy. Williams was effective in limited snaps in his rookie year, and strength is certainly not a concern for him.
He has enough upper body strength to anchor at the point of attack, but he’ll need to show noticeable improvement to convince the coaching staff that he’s up to the challenge.
Then there’s Terrence Cody. He never developed into the dominant physical specimen he appeared to be at Alabama, but he was battling through injury last year and is still a behemoth (6'4", 349 lbs). Cody has struggled to stand up to double-teams so far and provides nothing in the way of a pass rush, but he may be the best option on running downs, thanks to his ability to clog the middle.
Prediction: Brandon Williams Is the Best of the Bunch
We’re not quite sure if this makes Williams the starter or the primary backup just yet, but he’s the most complete non-Ngata nose tackle on the roster. He has the strength to hold up against the run and the hands and quickness to be a factor as a pass-rusher.
(Backup) Defensive End: DeAngelo Tyson vs. Kapron Lewis-Moore
Like nose tackle, this is a race for the backup job if Ngata becomes a full-time end. The more likely answer, however, is that Ngata moves around a fair bit this year, so this battle could be an important one.
DeAngelo Tyson has been a steal as a seventh-round pick who has become a meaningful contributor along the defensive line. He’s been a reliable depth piece, but now he’ll have the chance to prove he’s something more.
His primary competition is Kapron Lewis-Moore, a highly regarded prospect before tearing his ACL in the national championship game. Lewis-Moore is an unknown commodity since he redshirted his first NFL season, but he was a very effective defensive end at Notre Dame and could replace Arthur Jones in the starting lineup if he’s fully healthy.
Prediction: Lewis-Moore Comes Out of Nowhere
Tyson is a very reliable backup, but taking on the starting role may be too much for him. Lewis-Moore was a leader for a very talented Notre Dame defense, and he has the strength and quickness to thrive as a 3-4 end in this Ravens scheme.
Inside Linebackers: Daryl Smith vs. C.J. Mosley vs. Arthur Brown
This is a glorious problem to have: three inside linebackers who are all very talented, very athletic and excel in coverage.
Arthur Brown was a one-dimensional player in his rookie year—too small to shed blocks and be a factor in the running game. As a result, he was limited to the Ravens’ nickel packages, but he played very well in them.
Prior to the draft, Coach Harbaugh revealed to Garrett Downing of the team's website that he expected Brown would win a starting job. That instantly got more challenging after the first round of the draft.
C.J. Mosley was considered a sure thing in this draft with durability concerns being the only worry. He’s excellent in coverage and does a great job against the run too.
And then there’s the wily veteran who just signed a four-year contract to stay in Baltimore. Even if his starting job is safe right now, he’ll have to be terrific to stave off the dynamic duo in future seasons.
Prediction: Mosley and Smith Lock Up the Starting Roles
This is the hardest one to predict until we see Brown on the field. Based on what we saw last season, Mosley and Smith are the heavy favorites because of Brown’s struggles against the run.
After a year of technical refinement and an offseason of bulking up, Brown could very well be much better against the run this year. If that’s the case, his athleticism and instincts could cause him to win a starting role.
The safe bet is that Brown still isn’t quite ready to take on lead blockers and hold up against the run, but he could certainly make it a very interesting position battle with a strong training camp.
No. 3 Cornerback: Chykie Brown vs. Asa Jackson
After last season, we may have a debate on our hands when it comes to labeling Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith as No. 1 and No. 2. Regardless, starting cornerback is a strength for this Ravens defense. After that? Not so much.
Without Corey Graham to play the dependable third option, Chykie Brown or Asa Jackson will be thrust into the spotlight, and neither of them has much experience.
Brown has improved by leaps and bounds over the years, and he’s fared quite well in some limited game action. But he has had trouble turning his head and locating the ball which can lead to penalties and big plays.
Asa Jackson looks like more of a ball hawk, but he hasn’t had any experience on defense, so that would be a big risk.
Just like with the right tackle position, a veteran free agent (e.g. Jabari Greer, Terrell Thomas) might be the choice here, but for our purposes, we’re just going off the current roster.
Prediction: Brown’s Experience Wins Out
Ultimately, Jackson may actually be the better player, but Brown’s experience and knowledge of the system should give him a leg up in this competition.
Either way, one of these players will need to play very well to prevent the Ravens from looking for a more reliable option.
Note: All heights and weights are from the Ravens' official roster page.
Shehan Peiris is B/R's Lead Featured Columnist covering the Baltimore Ravens and a co-host of Ravens Central Radio, a weekly podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network that focuses on all things Ravens-related. For the latest Ravens news, draft analysis and links to episodes of Ravens Central Radio, follow me on Twitter:
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