Baltimore Ravens' Biggest Question Marks Ahead of Training Camp
After winning the Super Bowl in the 2012-13 season, Baltimore fell to 8-8 and missed the postseason last year. Several of the issues that caused their struggles have been corrected this offseason.
However, there are questions remaining heading into training camp. If these questions aren't answered during camp, the Ravens will struggle to get back to the playoffs this season.
Here is a look at the four biggest questions for the Ravens heading into training camp.
Who Starts at Safety?
The Ravens finished a respectable 12th in pass defense in 2013. The secondary could become a weakness, though, if Baltimore doesn't find a suitable replacement for James Ihedigbo.
The veteran Ihedigbo notched 101 tackles, grabbed three interceptions and deflected 11 passes as Baltimore's the starting strong safety. He also received a plus-4.7 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He signed with the Detroit Lions this offseason.
As of now, rookie third-round pick Terrence Brooks figures to enter training camp this summer in a battle with Anthony Levine and Darian Stewart for the vacant starting safety spot.
Stewart signed with the Ravens this offseason after being a backup most of his career with the St. Louis Rams. He has started 19 games over four seasons (six in 2013), which means he's the most experienced safety on the roster.
That leaves Stewart with a great chance to earn a starting spot. According to Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com, Stewart looks like the early favorite to start at free safety based on his performances in OTAs:
The safety has spent the last three months adjusting to the Ravens defense after spending the first four years of his career in St. Louis, and he now looks like the favorite to start alongside Matt Elam on the back end of the defense. Stewart has impressed the coaching staff through the early part of the offseason, and he's developing a strong rapport next to Elam.
If Stewart can't win the job, look for Brooks to win it. In 2013, he recorded 56 tackles and two interceptions in 13 starts for the 2013 BCS champion Florida State Seminoles.
Baltimore drafted him in the third round in hopes that he could become a starting safety for them one day. That could be this year if Stewart doesn't win the job.
Who Will Win Right Tackle Battle?
Michael Oher left in free agency to sign with the Tennessee Titans. That means Baltimore is without their starting right tackle of the past four years.
Their offensive line was bad enough before losing Oher. They allowed 48 sacks in 2013, which was tied for the fourth-most allowed in the NFL in 2013.
Having a hole at right tackle certainly isn't going to help improve this line this year. However, the Ravens didn't spend a draft pick on a tackle in free agency or the draft.
That leaves second-year man Ricky Wagner being projected as the starting right tackle. As a rookie, Wagner registered just 131 offensive snaps in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He's a big unknown.
Even if Wagner can become a decent starter, there's no one behind him that sparks confidence.
As of now, David Mims is the only backup tackle with previous experience, but he's a career backup who's never registered an offensive snap. North Carolina's James Hurst was signed as an undrafted free agent.
Ryan Jensen was moved from guard to right tackle to add more depth to the position. Still, he's never been more than a backup, so it's hard to see him being anything more than that at tackle.
That leaves Wagner as the projected starter with Mims, Hurst and Jensen as his only competition. Still, Wagner manged to impress offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak during OTAs, via BaltimoreRavens.com's Matt Zenitz:
To me, Ricky has been – I don’t want to say he’s a surprise, because I expected him to play well – but I think we put a lot on his plate early walking in here as a starter, new scheme and those types of things. He has responded and hasn’t missed a rep. He plays very hard in what we’re doing, so we just have to keep going. But I’ve been very pleased with Ricky.
It looks as though Baltimore is going with Wagner as their starting tackle for now. That said, right tackle will remain a question until he shows he's capable of being a quality starter.
Is Cornerback Deep Enough?
Like safety, cornerback became a position of need once Baltimore let a key free agent leave.
That was Corey Graham, who started five games and played in all 16 at cornerback last year for Baltimore. He left in free agency to sign with the Buffalo Bills.
That left Asa Jackson, Chykie Brown, Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb as the only cornerbacks with any NFL experience on the roster.
To add to their corner depth, Baltimore went out and signed Aaron Ross and Dominique Franks not long after the NFL draft.
Ross, at 6'1" and weighing 193 pounds, has played in the NFL for seven seasons. He has 11 career interceptions and 41 passes defended. Ross was with the New York Giants last year, but he was placed on the injured reserve list in October due to a back injury.
As for Franks, a 197-pounder standing at 6'0", he has 30 tackles, three interceptions and nine passes defended in four NFL seasons. He played as a reserve corner for the Atlanta Falcons, and he has just four career starts in four seasons.
That means Baltimore has two solid starters in Webb and Smith, but a lot of questions behind them. Do they have enough depth at cornerback to not be a liability this year?
Baltimore needs to figure that at quickly once training camp opens. If they don't, they need to look to trade for someone else.
Can Ray Rice Bounce Back This Year?
Baltimore is likely going to be without their top running back to start the 2014 season. However, they're still awaiting the status of Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, and how long the NFL plans to suspend him for.
This comes from the incident that involved Rice allegedly knocking his then-fiance unconscious at an Atlantic City casino.
According to Sarah Ellison of BaltimoreRavens.com, the team believes Rice will be suspended, but to this point, there has been no ruling handed down from the NFL. Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun believes it could be three games:
But it's certainly not impossible – and some view it as probable – that Rice is suspended for at least the first three games. That would cause him to miss the first matchup between all three AFC North foes: the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 7, the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 11 and the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 21.
Making this worse is that Rice is coming off the worst season of his career. He was plagued with a hip injury and weight issues last year. That led to him rushing for a mere 660 yards and four touchdowns in 15 games.
Prior to last season, Rice rushed for over 1,100 yards in each of the previous four seasons while scoring a combined 39 touchdowns.
Is Rice still capable of being the Ravens' bell-cow back he's been in the past? He's got a lot to overcome to prove that he is.