Ranking Baltimore Ravens' Top 10 Sleepers to Watch in Camp
All eyes will be on the Baltimore Ravens stars in training camp as we get one step closer to meaningful football. Joe Flacco's command of the offense will be dissected; Ray Rice’s explosiveness will be analyzed; the conditioning of Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata will be put under the microscope. But there are plenty of Ravens who are flying under the radar, and their performances are definitely worth monitoring.
For the rookies, training camp will give us a glimpse of their potential as well as their possible roles in Year 1. For the more experienced players, training camp will be their opportunity to grab significant playing time and take the next step in their development.
Arthur Brown and Kyle Juszczyk, for example, look poised for second-year leaps, and they are definitely players to watch.
No. 1 on this list isn’t even a sleeper in the sense that he’s a well-known player, but he has the chance to have a really good camp and take the first step toward becoming a star in this league.
The players are ranked based on the possible importance of their offseasons to the Ravens. The early candidates are guys who will be interesting to watch but ultimately won't see too much playing time, even in the best-case scenario. The ones who close out the slideshow are being slept on but could turn strong training camps into significant roles for the team (if they don't already have them already).
More than enough people will be talking about Flacco and the rest of the big names. These are the unheralded players whom you should really be watching in training camp and preseason.
10. Keith Wenning
One of the underlying dramas of training camp will be the battle between Tyrod Taylor and Keith Wenning for the backup quarterback spot.
Making the decision between carrying three quarterbacks and choosing between the two will be one of the more intriguing subplots of training camp. Every roster spot is valuable, and the choice could end up having a substantial effect on the makeup of the roster.
For example, carrying a third quarterback could force Baltimore to keep only five receivers, which in turn could mean that Michael Campanaro (whom we’ll get to in a second) doesn’t make the roster because he still needs some coaching. The ramifications could be significant.
Wenning would make a strong case for himself if he shows a solid grasp of the offense in training camp, so his first NFL action with the pads on will be very meaningful.
Furthermore, even if Wenning doesn’t contribute this season, the Ravens are hopeful that he can be the long-term answer as the backup, so his growth will be an important storyline to follow.
9. Michael Campanaro
Like Keith Wenning, Michael Campanaro will be an interesting player to watch because he’s battling for his roster spot.
Recent history has shown us that the Ravens generally value their draft picks highly enough that they usually find their way onto the final roster (or injured reserve at the very least). That Baltimore traded back into the seventh round for Campanaro indicates that the same fate probably awaits him.
But the fact remains that he’s a seventh-round pick, and nothing is guaranteed. There are a number of young receivers fighting for the last few wide receiver spots, and Campanaro can’t afford to turn in a subpar training camp.
Additionally, he will fill a useful role as a slot receiver whenever he’s ready. He can use training camp to show that he’s ready right now and gain some reps in his rookie season.
8. Crockett Gillmore
There aren’t many expectations for Crockett Gillmore this season, but sometimes that just sets the stage for an unexpected surprise (like Marlon Brown last year).
Anything the Ravens get from him this season will be a bonus, but there is a spot in the tight end rotation for Gillmore if he’s ready to grab it.
Dennis Pitta will probably line up most frequently in the slot, meaning tight end No. 2 will need to be an in-line TE.
Owen Daniels is an experienced and proven player who has had success in Gary Kubiak’s offense, but Gillmore brings more to the table in the way of blocking. He also flashed intriguing potential as a receiver on the college All-Star circuit.
Daniels is the better player right now, but Gillmore could turn out to be a better complement to Pitta on the field.
7. Lorenzo Taliaferro
It’s always interesting to watch small-school prospects in their initial introductions to NFL athletes, and Lorenzo Taliaferro is no different. He was drafted because he’s a good fit in the one-cut running scheme. He’s a strong, powerful back who gives the Ravens the punishing short-yardage runner that they’ve lacked in recent years.
Taliaferro’s adjustment could turn out to be very important depending on the length of Ray Rice’s suspension.
The NFL has yet to settle on a punishment for the veteran back, and Bernard Pierce has yet to get on the field after offseason shoulder surgery.
Taliaferro may have to shoulder a much larger workload than initially imagined, and training camp will be a good measuring stick for the state of the Ravens rushing attack with the status of their top two runners currently unclear.
6. DeAngelo Tyson
All the chatter about the young defensive linemen is focused on Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan and even Brent Urban to some degree, but DeAngelo Tyson has just as much claim to Arthur Jones’ vacated defensive end spot as any of them.
Tyson could surprise us by eventually winning the job, but he will certainly be a key figure in the D-line rotation regardless.
As a former seventh-round pick, he’s used to being overlooked, but you’d be wise not to sleep on the Georgia product.
5. Marlon Brown
Torrey Smith and Steve Smith Sr. are rightfully discussed as the leaders of the receiving corps, and there is plenty of optimism surrounding Jacoby Jones and his reunion with Gary Kubiak. But Marlon Brown is the most fascinating receiver on the roster.
He played his way from undrafted rookie to Baltimore’s second-best receiver, and he has the size (6’5”, 214 pounds) to become a matchup nightmare in the red zone—if he’s not one already.
Brown’s production was a huge bonus last year, but he needs to build on that and continue growing into a dependable receiver. He has all the tools and the versatility to get the job done.
The Georgia alumnus could have a huge impact on the ceiling of the Ravens passing attack. If he makes the second-year leap that most NFL players do, he could easily supplant Jacoby Jones as the No. 3 receiver and bring physicality to the receiving corps.
His growth (or lack thereof) will also give us a good idea of his viability as a long-term starter for the Ravens offense.
4. Kyle Juszczyk
The biggest beneficiary of the Gary Kubiak hiring was Kyle Juszczyk. Thanks to his pass-catching abilities and diverse skill set, he has the chance to be a crucial part of the offense. But we’ve only seen him on the field with the offense for four snaps, so training camp will be our first glimpse of Juszczyk as the Swiss Army knife.
His receiving skills aren’t in question, but he’ll need to prove his mettle as a lead blocker, and that’s what everyone will be watching closely.
His run-blocking will dictate his level of involvement in the offense as well as being a prerequisite for a rejuvenated ground game.
Juszczyk isn’t going to single-handedly make or break the offense, but he has the capability to drastically improve or decrease its effectiveness. And it all starts in camp when the pads are finally worn.
3. Pernell McPhee
Pernell McPhee is relatively low in the outside linebacker pecking order, but that’s mostly to do with the talent ahead of him. Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw will dominate the snaps at the position, but there is definitely space for McPhee if he can regain the pass-rushing form from his rookie season.
Based on his comments to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com, McPhee isn’t short on confidence or ambition:
My individual goal is to hopefully lead the team in sacks. That’s going to be hard to do when you have Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw and Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata on the field. It’s going to be hard, but that’s my personal expectation. I want to get at least seven or eight sacks this year.
While it’s unlikely that he does lead the team in sacks, he has the talent and athleticism to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He’s spent most of the offseason working on his footwork, and the results have been promising—according to McPhee at least:
I’ve got some serious footwork—it’s stupid. It’s going to be hard for people to block me one-on-one all the way from the right tackle to the left tackle—even the centers and the guards. People look at the film. It’s not every play, but the majority of this offseason has been ridiculous. Some of them, it’s like, ‘Did he even touch ‘Phee?’
The Mississippi State product is definitely worth keeping an eye on. His contributions would be a huge boost to the pass rush this season, but he’s also the only young pass-rusher on the team with legitimate one-on-one talents. A strong training camp could have major consequences for the Ravens, immediately and in the long run.
2. Arthur Brown
Arthur Brown has become the forgotten man in the Ravens defense after Baltimore drafted C.J. Mosley in the first round this year. That makes sense considering Mosley’s immense talents and the fact that the rookie will probably start alongside Daryl Smith from Week 1.
But the fact that Ozzie Newsome drafted Mosley doesn’t mean that the team has given up on Arthur Brown.
And it shouldn’t, because he has the talent to become one of the best inside linebackers in the game.
The first step to that lofty goal is getting stronger, and Brown has done an admirable job this offseason by adding seven pounds of muscle to his frame.
This should help him defend the run and shed blockers, and we’ve already seen his speed and coverage skills on the field.
Brown isn’t in line to start this season, but training camp will give us a great idea of how much playing time he will receive in 2014 as well as how he is developing for the future.
1. Torrey Smith
Torrey Smith isn’t really a sleeper per se, but he is being overlooked a little with all the offensive talk centering on Joe Flacco, Gary Kubiak, Ray Rice, Steve Smith Sr. and Dennis Pitta.
Yes, Kubiak values the tight end position more than most of his counterparts, but it’s not like his offense forgets about the receivers. And his offense certainly doesn’t forget about his primary receiver.
So am I cheating to a degree to rank Smith as the No. 1 sleeper on this list? Probably, but he’s surprisingly flying under the radar. There are two very important reasons why your eyes should be drawn to reports and comments about him during training camp.
The first and most obvious reason is because of his contract status. He’s a free agent after this season, and the Ravens are trying to lock him up to a long-term deal right now so that he doesn’t hit the open market.
His training camp performance isn’t going to affect the numbers too dramatically, but it could make the front office lean one way or the other when it comes to signing that extension before the season starts.
Reason No. 2 to keep an eye on him is that his impressive work ethic is well-documented and he has made a relatively big leap in each of his NFL offseasons. That is mostly to do with the fact that he’s a young receiver, but Smith works tremendously hard to shed the “one-trick pony” label that has been forced upon him. Training camp will be our first chance to determine what (if any) elements of the game he has added or refined.
The X receiver has historically been a huge part of Kubiak’s offense (Andre Johnson received more than twice the number of targets going to the No. 2 receiver in his last four 16-game seasons in Houston), and that will continue to be the case in Baltimore (although to a lesser degree than in Houston).
The Ravens may have substantially improved their receiving corps, but the biggest improvement can come from Smith if he’s able to develop his ability to track the ball in the air and hone his route running.
Given his importance to the offense and his room for maturation, all eyes should be on Smith come training camp.