The Baltimore Ravens are coming off of a surprising 2008 campaign in which a rookie coach and quarterback led the team to within one game of the Super Bowl. However, Baltimore had a rough off-season, losing defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard among others.
Also, Derrick Mason and Willie Anderson abruptly retired. The Ravens did address a need when they selected offensive tackle Michael Oher 23rd overall and, once he arrives in training camp, will run with the first team offense.
1st Position Battle: Inside Linebacker
Ray Lewis is the unquestioned starter at one of the inside linebacker, but the spot taken up by Scott last season is open for competition.
The favorite: Tavares Gooden.
Gooden was a third-round selection in the 2008 NFL Draft and had his season cut short with a hip injury, but is ready for 2009. Gooden was flying to the ball in the team’s OTAs. He also had the privilege of being roommates with Lewis last season. Another advantage that Gooden had is he was playing with the starters during minicamps.
The underdog: Jameel McClain/Prescott Burgess
McClain came on strong last season after making the team as an undrafted free agent out of Syracuse. He recorded two safeties during the 2008 campaign along with helping out on special teams. McClain is a bit undersized, but he’s quick. He has a chance to beat Gooden out for the second inside linebacker spot in the Ravens 3-4 defensive scheme.
Burgess, a 2007 draft selection by Baltimore, sat out all of last season with a broken wrist. The Ravens usually like to see production from players in their third year so Burgess might have his last chance this season. He is definitely an underdog to take this spot from Gooden, but I expect him to contribute on special teams.
The long shot: Brendon Ayanbadejo
Naming Ayanbadejo as a long shot certainly isn’t questioning his ability to start in the NFL, rather because of his importance to Baltimore. Ayanbadejo is mostly known as a special teams ace and not an inside linebacker.
He could play the position, but it may bring wear and tear to his body and make playing special teams harder. I like Ayanbadejo and wouldn’t want him to risk injury by playing three downs of football the majority of the season.
2nd Position Battle: Kicker
Matt Stover has been the only kicker the Baltimore Ravens franchise has known since they moved to Baltimore, but his contract expired at the end of the season and the Ravens say they want to move in another direction. Stover is 37, but can still make clutch kicks.
The favorite: Steve Hauschka
Hauschka got some playing time with Baltimore last season mostly handling kickoff duties and long field goal attempts. He has one long make to his name, nailing a 54-yard field goal last season. His experience in the NFL should push him closer to claiming a roster spot.
The underdog: Graham Gano
Gano is an undrafted free agent out of Florida State University. He was absolutely fantastic during his senior year in college, but struggled in OTAs. Gano will make the team if Hauschka proves he cannot handle kicking for Baltimore.
The long shot: Matt Stover
Stover could still be re-signed by the Ravens. If Head Coach John Harbaugh and General Manager Ozzie Newsome are dissatisfied, Stover may have a chance. He is going to be in shape and ready to go if the Ravens do call.
These two battles will be the ones to watch. The other minor battle that will be going on is the one between Willis McGahee and Ray Rice for the right to start at running back.
Ultimately, both backs will play, so this is more about which back gets more carries during the game.
I think the inside linebacker position will be settled by the third game of the preseason. Gooden should win barring injury. He is so athletic and has good film study skills. Also, Gooden bulked up in the off-season to improve his durability. Watch for him to claim the inside linebacker job and never give it up.
As for kicker, I truly believe the Ravens will bring Stover back and Hauschka will be the kickoff specialist. This position battle will probably drag on until the very end and Gano or Hauschka won’t win. In my opinion, the Ravens will once again use two roster spots on kickers.