Baltimore Storylines Few Are Talking About
The Ravens are not nearly the unknown they were at this time last season. With the development of Joe Flacco and the success of the new coaching staff, the major question marks that signified last year have been all but erased. But others have shown themselves in that span.
The wide receiving corp is the most obvious unknown going into training camp and pre-season. With the retirement of Derrick Mason, the passing game looks to be short on receiving talent.
How the rest of the team can step up and fill in the gap of Mason's departure is probably the biggest storyline going into the season.
Lets take a look at all those other plot lines that most people are not following. Some of them will be crucial to the success of the team throughout the season.
Graham Gano v. Steve Hauschka
When the Ravens decided not to re-sign longtime Ravens kicker Matt Stover, they were not sure who would ultimately take his place. Stover's accuracy never fell off, but had lost a lot of his power. He was not able to kick 50+ yarders and was not effective on kickoffs.
Steve Hauschka was on the roster last year, mostly for those two things. His kickoffs were successful, but he only attempted two long field goals (going 1 for 2).
Ravens front office is apparently not confident in his full-time kicking abilities. Because of this they decided to sign undrafted free agent Graham Gano out of Florida State.
Considered to be the top kicking prospect of the class by many, Gano is coming into camp looking to become Baltimore's next Matt Stover. Coach Harbaugh has been adamant about only keeping one roster spot for the position, so the winner of the competition during training camp and pre-season will probably be the second full-time kicker in Ravens history.
The long-term signing of Linebacker/DE Terrell Suggs means a lot to the future of the Ravens defense. Not only do they have a Pro Bowl outside linebacker, but one end of the line will be occupied for a long time.
But what fans seem to be forgetting about is the other side of that line. Trevor Pryce has been wildly underrated in his time with the Ravens. His constant double teams (and blatant holds) do not translate to show his worth in terms of statistics. But they do, however, help the entire defense immensely.
The problem is that Pryce is getting old. Not to say he can't play anymore, but age is catching up with him in many ways. While he still has bull-like strength, his speed seems to have dipped.
Injuries have nagged him the past few seasons as well. It looks as if this season will be Pryce's last with the team. It is the last year of his contract, and if you follow the Ravens' history of resigning old linebackers, it's easy to think they will not resign him.
Because of these things, management has been looking for his eventual replacement. Antwan Barnes was thought to have been the next great thing, but has not fully embraced the role. He is effective in limited situations, but does not have the full package that Suggs and Pryce possess.
Last year, UDFA Jameel McClain showed his chops at many big moments. With a few forced fumbles and two safeties, he seems to be the hardworking linebacker that the Ravens are constantly growing (think Bart Scott and Adalius Thomas).
If his skills continue to improve, he will become a full-time starter for the defense, much like the two players mentioned.
But the drafting of Paul Kruger in the 2nd round this season is the biggest step towards filling that hole. From all accounts, Kruger is the prototypical Ravens linebacker, with a good all-around game and a nonstop motor.
Watching how these players perform in camp and preseason will go a long way towards understanding how they will ultimately fill the role opposite of Terrell Suggs.
No one really has any idea what is going on at running back in Baltimore! While the coaching staff clearly has a plan for the running game, observers are lost as to what that could be. Last year McGahee and McClain came to camp out of shape.
Ray Rice was the training camp workhorse, taking most of the snaps with the first team offense. Of course he was the least important part of the running game by the end of the year, so what sense does that make?
This season, all three of them are healthy and in good shape. McGahee has spoken about working to get his respect back, McCain has been complimented multiple times by the coaching staff, and Ray Rice is once again ready to carry the load during practice and pre-season.
So who knows what is going to happen?
On top of that, 6th round draft pick Cedric Peerman is coming to camp looking to steal playing time. So now there are four legitimate running backs all vying for top billing.
It seems confusing, but maybe the time before the regular season starts could hold some keys to what to expect. With the departure of FB Lorenzo Neal, surely McClain will retain more of the traditional fullback role of lead blocking. Right?
But at the same time, he is a top-notch short yardage back and it would be foolish not to utilize that. From what is known about Peerman, he runs a similar style to Ray Rice. He has a small, strong stature and a knack of avoiding big hits.
There is seemingly no way they will insert the rookie over a successful 2nd year guy with the same type of style. Do not forget McGahee is in a contract year too. What does that mean to his playing time?
There is no obvious route the Ravens will take, especially with last year's 'running back by committee' success. Watching the position will be fun nonetheless.
Cornerbacks (and Return Game)
There is only one guy at this position that will be familiar to Ravens fans this season. Samari Rolle was released by the team this offseason, only to resign for a smaller contract.
His presence will be a rock in the midst of what will be a transition period for Baltimore cornerbacks. Fabian Washington is returning as well, but injuries prevented him from being a full-time defender until the end of last season.
Most people can not say they are familiar with him or his style yet. The rest of the players at that position are all new to the team.
Dominique Foxworth was one of the big free agent pickups of the offseason. His three year deal sets him in position to be the No. 2 CB (behind Fabian Washington). But the position is unclear beyond that.
Nickel, Dime, and Quarter formations are growing more popular in the NFL, and being deep at CB is as important as having a strong 1-2.
Samari Rolle should be the best option at nickel, but it is unclear whether that will be the case. Chris Carr was another free agent pickup. His successful career as a nickel, along with his speed, means he will probably be fighting for playing time with Rolle.
Third Round Draft pick Ladarius Webb has the athletic ability to play at safety as well as cornerback. Its unclear where these five players will fit into the defensive scheme.
What might ultimately decide their positions, though, is the return game. Management (and fans) are very close to giving up on the Yamon Figurs experiment.
His unbelievable speed has not translated to a good return game, and his time with the team seems to be short. But Chris Carr, Ladarius Webb, and safeties Nakamura and Zhibikowski all have return experience.
Carr, especially, has proven return success at the NFL level and is the obvious choice to replace Figurs. But the kick and punt returner would probably be relieved of a lot of his defensive duty.
Seeing who eventually becomes the main return man will factor into their playing time in the secondary.
While it will be hard to judge who is earning cornerback playing time during training camp and preseason, the return game is another story. It is likely that the main special teams return man will emerge in that span.
Keeping an eye on that position might go a long way into predicting the look of the cornerback position.
Todd Heap is fan favorite in Baltimore. This much is true for a few reasons: 1) he was the best receiver on this team for a while 2) he sacrifices his body to make plays and 3) he's a former draft pick that is great around the community.
While all of these things are true, it has not stopped the new offensive coaching staff from changing his role with the offense. Where once he was a main receiving target, he was used mostly for blocking last season.
His position, Tight End, is at a turning point in Ravens history. Never have they been unclear as to who is the best player at the position until this year.
Heap seems like the obvious choice for No. 1, but three other players have emerged as contenders. Former Eagle LJ Smith is probably the most mobile of any of them.
Though he has been criticized for his work ethic in Philadelphia, he has been a solid receiving tight end for much of his career. His receiving talent might end up overshadowing Heap's this season.
The return of a healthy Quinn Sypniewski is the return of the most effective blocker in the bunch. His huge frame and good footwork make for a great all-around blocker, but his skills as a receiver are unknown.
He was decent when filling in for Heap two season ago, but that was a long time ago on a different offense. Quinn is the big x-factor at the position, and might be the best all-around TE on the team. If he is, Cam Cameron will surely make room for him to be on the field (despite the two bigger names already mentioned).
Added to the three capable players named, 5th Round Pick Davon Drew will certainly compete for playing time. The athletic former QB has the prototypical TE frame, the talent, and the college success to back it up.
It is unknown whether he is still a raw talent or he is ready to contribute to this offense immediately.
Like mentioned, the Ravens have a shortage of big-play receivers going into the preseason. Couple that with rumors stating that Cam Cameron will be emptying the backfield a lot this season and you get a situation where multiple tight ends might be needed.
The four major candidates are either coming back from injuries or new to the team. It will be interesting to see how they look leading up to the regular season. I believe a lot of playing time will be dictated by how they look in the offense at camp and in preseason.