Training Camp Battles: Baltimore Ravens

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Training Camp Battles: Baltimore Ravens
(Photo by Ned Dishman/Getty Images)
Faced with more questions than answers, the Ravens entered the 2008 regular season with rookie quarterback Joe Flacco under center. Flacco, under the watchful eye of rookie head coach John Harbaugh, was learning the offense from new Ravens’ offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

If everything went according to plan last preseason, Flacco never would have seen the field.

Kyle Boller was considered the front-runner to start at quarterback before he injured his shoulder against the Vikings during the second preseason game, finishing the year on injured reserve. Troy Smith missed the majority of training camp battling a severe case of tonsillitis and a blood clot in his lung. Both were on the depth chart ahead of Flacco.

Flacco helped lead the “rebuilding” Ravens to the AFC Championship game.

Heading into training camp this season, the Ravens are hoping to find similar results at several positions:

 

Running Back: Ray Rice vs. Willis McGahee

2008: The Ravens fielded the fourth-best rushing attack in the NFL, featuring the three-headed monster of Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee, and rookie Ray Rice. But McGahee reported to training camp overweight and out of shape, and finished the season with only 671 yards on 107 attempts, both career lows.

McClain was named to the Pro Bowl with 10 touchdowns and 902 yards rushing. Rice added 454 rushing yards and was fourth on the team with 33 receptions for 273 yards.

2009: McClain will return to the starting fullback spot following the departure of Lorenzo Neal to the Oakland Raiders via free agency. Ray Rice has spent the offseason adding bulk to his 5-foot-8 frame, and several reports indicate he will have every opportunity to take the starting job from Willis McGahee.

Cam Cameron likes the fact Rice can catch the ball out of the backfield, which adds an additional dimension to the offense. But McGahee has already stated his intentions of taking back the starting spot during training camp.

Prediction: Rice will win the starting job because of the versatility he brings to the offense. He will, however, split significant time with McGahee. Because Rice is a smaller back, the Ravens will seek to spare him the pounding of a grueling NFL season.

Le’Ron McClain will certainly see less carries this season.

 

Linebacker: Tavares Gooden vs. Jameel McClain

2008: Bart Scott recorded 82 tackles. Rookie Tavares Gooden only played in four games last season before being placed on injured reserve with a hip injury. Jameel McClain was the only rookie free agent to make the Ravens’ squad in 2008, recording 17 special teams tackles and setting a franchise record with two safeties. He also recorded eight tackles and 2.5 sacks.

2009: Scott followed former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to the New York Jets, signing a six-year, $48 million dollar deal. The Ravens really like Gooden’s energy and athleticism. Jameel McClain was used primarily in pass rushing situations last season, but showed the ability to expand and grow.

Prediction: Tavares Gooden will edge out Jameel McClain. Although Jameel McClain has more NFL experience than Gooden, Gooden is still a more polished player. Jameel McClain is still very raw, but given time, will develop into an excellent NFL linebacker.

This season, expect to see him excel on special teams, play in pass rushing situations, and spot start when necessary.

 

Wide Receiver: Marcus Smith vs. Kelley Washington

2008: Derrick Mason was the team’s only consistent receiver, totaling 1,037 yards on 80 receptions despite playing much of the year with a dislocated shoulder.

Former first-round pick Mark Clayton caught 41 passes for 695 yards. Demetrius Williams spent the final 12 games on injured reserve.

2009: The shocking retirement of Mason has left the team in a bind. Clayton has been named the first receiver heading into camp, which makes Williams the logical No. 2.

The Ravens have attempted to bolster the receiving core by signing Kelley Washington and Drew Bennett in the offseason, but Bennett has recently announced his retirement.

Prediction: Marcus Smith will beat out Washington. Smith is a physical receiver with some upside and toughness. Washington was only able to haul in a single catch for three yards in the pass-happy New England offense last season, and Smith has already spent a year in the Ravens’ system.

The Ravens may still make a play for another receiver, such as Denver's Brandon Marshall, if the price is right. Head coach John Harbaugh is still cautiously optimistic Mason will return for the 2009 season.

 

Right Tackle: Michael Oher vs. Adam Terry

2008: The right tackle position was patchwork at best, with Willie Anderson spending the most time there.

2009: The Ravens traded up in the Draft to select Michael Oher with the 23rd overall pick. Anderson retired, essentially leaving Oher to battle it out with the oft-injured Adam Terry. Oher was projected by several draft experts to be a top-15 pick, but some question his ability to learn and absorb an NFL offense.

Prediction: Assuming Oher signs his contract, the right tackle position is his to lose.

 

Kicker: Steve Hauschka vs. Graham Gano

2008: Matt Stover went 27-for-33 on field goal attempts. Within 40 yards, the 41-year-old Stover is still among the best in the game in terms of accuracy, converting 22 of 23 attempts. But beyond 40 yards,  Stover struggled mightily, converting only 5 of 10.

Kickoff specialist Steve Hauschka went 1-for-2 from 50-plus yards, hitting a 54-yard field goal against Houston in Week 10.

2009: Harbaugh doesn’t like using two roster spots on kickers, so when Stover’s contract expired, the team chose not to resign the 20-year veteran. Hauschka and Gano both have big legs, but both are unproven at the NFL level.

Prediction: Out of these two, Gano gets the nod. While Hauschka spent time with the Ravens last season, Gano won the Lou Groza Award as the best kicker in the NCAA, converting 24 of 26 field goals and hitting 33 of 34 extra point attempts at Florida State.

During OTAs, Gano also hit a pair of 60-yard field goals, and adds value to the roster as a backup punter. Of course, if neither Hauschka or Gano can hit field goals consistently, GM Ozzie Newsome can always place a call to Stover, who has indicated he’d like to play at least one more year.

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