Baltimore Ravens Training Camp: 8 Early Storylines to Watch
The fate of the Baltimore Ravens’ bounce-back season will rest on the conclusions of the key storylines discussed in this slideshow. The last phase of the offseason will contain the final chapter of the major position battles and facilitate the whittling down of the 90-man roster to a 53-man squad.
That entire process will be dictated by the events of training camp—how well players are performing, how well they complement each other and the flashes of potential or growth shown by the young guns.
On the offensive side of the ball, we’ll get a glimpse into how efficient and effective Gary Kubiak’s offense will look, and we should (hopefully) learn the fate of Ray Rice. Defensively, the state of the pass rush and the secondary will be two critical areas to watch.
For the team as a whole, training camp will serve as an early litmus test evaluating the newest Ravens, whether general manager Ozzie Newsome has done enough and whether there is still more for him to do before Week 1.
The Ravens are in the dog days of the NFL offseason, with only training camp and the preseason standing between them and the start of the 2014 regular season. All eyes are focused firmly on the start of their season, and these are the key storylines to monitor until that point.
It’s a phrase that was created to grab headlines, but the “quarterback drama” in Baltimore is hardly newsworthy—at least not outside the Ravens organization. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not an important plot line.
Not to be overly dramatic, but the battle of the backups could alter the makeup of the roster and potentially affect the state of the Ravens quarterbacks for the next few seasons.
The Ravens are faced with the question of whether or not they can rely on a rookie (and a sixth-round pick at that) to be Joe Flacco’s only backup. If they can’t, they’ll have to risk losing Keith Wenning by stashing him on the practice squad or use up another roster spot to carry three quarterbacks for the season.
That roster spot could go to a player at another position with a greater chance of contributing (e.g., an extra receiver, defensive back or offensive lineman).
It may not decide a game in the regular season, but there are surprisingly far-reaching consequences for how the QB2 competition plays out.
Is the New Offense Operating Smoothly?
This is perhaps the sexiest storyline of training camp.
After his team put forth a putrid season-long offensive display in 2013, Ozzie Newsome made a concerted effort to improve on that side of the ball by changing some of the moving parts on the field and the men who create the offense.
The early results have been promising, based on Newsome’s comments via Kevin Byrne of BaltimoreRavens.com:
We’ll be better on offense. I really like Gary’s (Kubiak) schemes. It’s very precise. It’s physical. I think we’ll run the ball better, we’ll keep the ball more and we’ll have big plays. You can tell the players, especially guys like Joe [Flacco], like it—and they can see that we have a good chance to be a lot better.
The true test will come in training camp, when the pads are put on for real and when the defense can hit as hard as it likes.
There will be no postseason for the Ravens if the offense isn’t significantly better in every respect than the 2013 version.
How Good Do Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil Look?
Baltimore’s pass rush boils down to two players: Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. As a result, their performance (and more importantly, their conditioning) must be monitored during training camp.
Both players faded down the stretch of 2013, and that can’t happen again this season if the Ravens defense is going to be the top-five unit that head coach John Harbaugh desires.
According to Clifton Brown of CSN Baltimore, both players expressed frustration about their drought over the second half of the season and are eager to return with a vengeance.
We know they’re capable of terrorizing opposing quarterbacks—they did so for the first 10 games of last season—but we need to see them back in that form in training camp to have the same lofty expectations for the Baltimore pass rush in 2014.
Can the Bulk Up Front Cover for the Weak Links in the Secondary?
The defensive front is filled with physically imposing players who are sure to make their presence felt each and every Sunday. There are no real holes in the front-seven, and there should be enough quality depth to keep everyone fresh and maintain control of the trenches over the course of a game.
The same cannot be said for the secondary, where question marks persist at the free safety and nickelback positions.
That’s not to be critical or pessimistic about Darian Stewart, Aaron Ross or Dominique Franks. After all, both Corey Graham and James Ihedigbo were just special teams players when they came to Baltimore, and they left with the hefty paydays commanded by quality defensive starters.
But the secondary is definitely the weak link in the defense with regards to depth—at least at this point. Both starting corners are excellent, and Matt Elam looks poised to excel in his sophomore season. Beyond those three, however, there are no proven commodities.
Hopefully all of the free agents brought in by Ozzie Newsome pan out, but it seems that the front-seven will be trying to cover up the shortcomings of the men playing behind it. Training camp will give us a sneak peek as to whether that is actually the case, and to what extent the secondary will be a liability this season.
In a one-on-one interview with Kevin Byrne (Ravens Senior VP of Public Relations), Ozzie Newsome revealed that his goals for the offseason included pursuing extension talks with upcoming free agents. Torrey Smith, Haloti Ngata, Jimmy Smith and Justin Tucker were the candidates mentioned by Baltimore's GM.
With Haloti Ngata, it’s a matter of attempting to scale back his hefty cap number and making sure he follows in the footsteps of Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis and retires in purple and black.
For the other three, it’s a matter of attempting to corner the market and preventing young, homegrown talent from hitting the free-agent market, where Newsome has proven repeatedly that he is unwilling to overpay.
Those conversations are sure to continue throughout training camp, and monitoring the success of them will be an interesting sideshow to the on-field activities.
Will Baltimore Benefit from Any Unexpected Contributions?
For most players, you know what you’re going to get. There are, of course, best- and worst-case scenarios that are possible (the 2013 ground game, for example), but the coaching staff has a fairly good handle on what to expect from the players.
There are always surprises, however, and it will be fascinating to find out whether there are any hidden gems on the roster.
It may be a youngster like wide receiver Jeremy Butler, who is hoping to follow in Marlon Brown’s footsteps and prove too valuable to cut despite his status as an undrafted free agent.
On the contrary, it could be a veteran that just needed a change of scenery to revitalize (or jump-start) his career, like safety Darian Stewart.
Most expectations are fairly realistic, but it’s always exciting to see someone come out of nowhere and earn an unexpected spot in the rotation or thrive as a starter.
How Long Is Ray Rice’s Suspension?
Baltimore is still waiting to hear how many games they’ll have to be without starting running back Ray Rice.
It could turn out to be a very significant verdict.
The Ravens open the season with three consecutive division games. Given all the turnover on offense (both personnel-wise and philosophically), the Ravens will need to be completely comfortable with their new-look offense to escape that three-game stretch with a winning record.
On one hand, the opposition doesn’t know what to expect, and the element of surprise could help the Ravens. On the other hand, it sure would be nice to have their best and most versatile running back on the field with them for those critical divisional games.
Does Ozzie Newsome Need to Make More Upgrades?
Ozzie Newsome is one of the best GMs in the NFL, mostly because he always knows exactly what his team needs. He attempted to address those needs over the offseason through free agency, the draft and the trade market, but training camp will be the first chance to truly evaluate his moves.
Are the receiver corps and offensive line good enough, or will they still suffocate the offense? Do the veteran cornerbacks earn a starting job, or are more reinforcements necessary to shore up the secondary?
You can’t make sweeping judgments from training camp, but it is a good indicator of the strengths and weaknesses of the team, and it will be one of Newsome’s last chances to assess his club and put the finishing touches on this roster.