The Baltimore Ravens are going in to the second season of a revamped attitude away from the Brian Billick style of doing things and more toward the John Harbaugh way.
There are very few players on the roster that can feel they are threatened for a roster spot and competition, but most are in the defensive backfield, receiving corps, and backup running back.
In the defensive backfield, I think the starters are questioned. Fabian Washington and free-agent acquisition Domonique Foxworth should start, while the nickel-back battle will take place between third-round pick Lardarius Webb and free-agent signee Chris Carr.
Also, Frank Walker should be backing up a cornerback spot. That leaves a whole host of players to fight for two spots on special teams and defense.
Veterans Evan Oglesby and Derrick Martin have been on the Ravens in years past, but are in a battle with K.J. Gerard for the last couple roster spots. Martin and Oglesby should have the leg up on Gerard because they’ve been in the NFL for four other years and are pretty solid players, but Gerard has been competing.
I think the veterans will win as the NFL is more of a mental grind than a physical grind.
The starters at receiver are also set with Derrick Mason and former first-round pick Mark Clayton, who is currently nursing a partially torn hamstring. Demetrius Williams should be penciled in for the third wide receiver in the equation leaving a spot for fourth and fifth options. Marcus Smith is now out of contention in the competition after tearing his ACL in Thursday’s preseason opener against the Redskins. I’m looking for Kelley Washington and Justin Harper to cement their spots on the roster and Yamon Figurs to earn a place on special teams.
For third string running back Jalen Parmele is in competition with Cedric Peerman and Matt Lawrence. Parmele and Peerman will squeeze out Lawrence.
I think the player with the absolute highest expectations on the Ravens' squad will be Tavares Gooden. Gooden has the onus of replacing Bart Scott and helping Ray Lewis in the middle of the field. I think the expectations will be high for him because he was a third-round pick that Lewis has taken under his wing the last two seasons.
Also, Joe Flacco in his second season will be looking to build on an improbable rookie year. Flacco will be in total control of the offense putting expectations on him to turn the Ravens in to a more balanced team than they have been in years. I think Cam Cameron will cut Flacco loose this season and his numbers will be Pro Bowl-caliber.
On the coaching staff, Harbaugh must prove that his way is the right way to go. Even though Baltimore had successes last season, there may still people around the league that have their doubts about Harbaugh’s approach. Cameron is trying to rebuild his resume to earn another head coaching position some day and Greg Mattison is looking to show he was the proper choice to be named defensive coordinator of the Ravens after the departure of Rex Ryan.
Players that have less to prove are the obvious ones. Lewis, Mason and Ed Reed all are accomplished pros that have been to the Pro Bowl and playoffs several times. New addition Matt Birk also has very little to prove, but he should help the Ravens young offensive line develop at a more rapid pace.
There’s no question Baltimore exceeded expectations winning 11 games in 2008 which will make the 2009 season interesting. In my opinion, the expectation is for the Ravens to repeat the feat of winning at least 10 games this season. Last season, I believe, expectations were quite low.
Season two for Harbaugh’s plan would be considered a failure if Baltimore doesn’t make the playoffs and possibly win the AFC North because of last year’s successes. With an easier schedule, I’m looking for the Ravens to meet, or even exceed expectations and win 10 to 12 games.
For the first few games of the season, pressure will be squarely on Mattison to prove he can carry on the tradition of excellent defensive coordinators with exceptional defensive schemes. Willis McGahee is fighting for his starter’s job with Ray Rice and must prove he is in game shape and can handle 30 carries on game day.
The 2009-2010 Ravens will be a fun team to watch, hopefully, with a lot of players and coaches having a lot to prove to fans, ownership and other teams around the league.