Each season brings new expectations, surprises and disappointments for NFL players, coaches and fans. Ravens Training Camp 2008 is certainly no exception. With that in mind let’s take a look at some of the surprises and disappointments thus far at Ravens Training Camp as they prepare for their first preseason game against the New England Patriots.
Ray Rice: Without question the rookie RB from Rutgers is the star of training camp as of this writing. One could argue and with good cause that Rice’s workload alone equals or surpasses the combined reps provided by Willis McGahee, Corey Ross, P.J. Daniels and Allen Patrick. Rice has shown a great burst in short spaces enabling him to run well inside the tackles while demonstrating the ability to bounce outside when there’s too much congestion. Wrapping up his diminutive frame has been a tall task for Ravens’ defenders. Rice also looks like a natural receiving the football and is dangerous in open spaces given his excellent change-of-direction skills.
Haruki Nakamura:As bad as the Cincinnati Bengals are at finding talented players who can stay out of police line-ups coupled with how cheap they are when it comes to investing money in scouting, you’d think that they might know a little something about this former Bearcat from the University of Cincinnati. But then again, they are the Bengals. Nakamura wasn’t even invited to The Scouting Combine yet Eric DeCosta and his staff had this undersized safety pegged. Coaches have raved about Nakamura’s instincts, some even equating them to those of Ed Reed. Nakamura has had far more interceptions than any other player in camp and some may argue that his play could push Dawan Landry out of a starting position if Landry doesn’t regain his 2006 form.
Antwan Barnes: In 2007 Barnes showed flashes, particularly during the Monday Night game against the Patriots. Barnes is a year older and now much more familiar with the Ravens’ defensive system. That allows him to play faster, think less and allow his athletic prowess take over. Not only is he bigger, he has shown better instincts and has been far too much for most of the team’s offensive linemen to handle consistently particularly when one-on-one with the speedy linebacker. In order for Barnes to stay on the field more, he needs to prove to the coaches that he can handle his coverage assignments and defend against the run. So far, Barnes hasn’t disappointed. He uses his top end speed to chase down ball carriers on the opposite side of the line and he puts his added muscle and compact frame to use to hold his position when runs are directed his way.
In pass coverage he has shown a desire to improve while taking added reps against Todd Heap. The work has paid off. Recently during practice while participating in 7-on-7 drills, Barnes had a very difficult assignment – Ray Rice. Despite no pass rush, Joe Flacco could not find a single receiver open and the coaches blew the play dead after 7-8 seconds. Improvement was expected from Barnes, but it’s doubtful that the club forecasted such a quick learning curve for the second year backer. Barnes has made the most of his added reps given Terrell Suggs’ absence.
Yamon Figurs:Last year at this time Figurs looked like a spindly, confused player whose only asset was speed. Even then due to his lack of familiarity with the Ravens offensive system, he was thinking too much and the uncertainty slowed down his top end speed. This year, Figurs is playing with more confidence, his upper body looks much stronger and he has played fearlessly while running crossing routes with confidence and purpose. His hands have also improved. If Figurs can pick up where he left off in the return game last year and force some mismatches against slower nickel backs when given snaps on offense, he could be a surprise contributor to the Ravens’ fortunes in the coming season. He just needs to carry his practice momentum to the field of play.
Injuries:Injuries are a way of life in NFL camps but that said, the Ravens have lost some valuable reps for players who desperately need them. A case in point is Jared Gaither. Gaither has what some have described as a high ankle sprain. Those injuries have a way of lingering and Gaither is missing reps that he needs to help him protect the QB blind side. Adam Terry is trying to fight through the mental block of playing right tackle v. left tackle. The repetitions could accelerate this process. Unfortunately he’s missing them…Demetrius Williams and Daniel Wilcox have yet to see the practice field and one has to wonder just how effective they will be this season if they don’t get on the field soon in order to get acquainted with Cam Cameron’s system. Ed Reed remains on the PUP List and has yet to practice. Is his injury simply a way to take a look at more players without violating the 80 man roster rule? Ravens fans certainly hope so. Fortunately, none of the injuries suffered during camp appear to be serious or season threatening.
Dan Cody: When he has been able to participate in practice, Cody looks like a force off the edge as a pass rusher. He is strong, relentless and seems to have polished up his swim move to ward off blockers. But yet again for the fourth consecutive season, Cody can’t stay on the field. This time he is fighting through a sprained foot. He finished his college career playing in 42 games and making 117 tackles and 25 sacks. His injuries beg the question, “What has Cody done differently as a pro that prevents him from taking the field?” It’s possible that he may never take another snap for the Baltimore Ravens.
Willis McGahee: McGahee arrived in Baltimore on the heels of a trail of broken glass that runs from One Winning Drive to Buffalo. Despite a putrid offense in 2007, McGahee managed to gain over 1,200 yards. With the arrival of the tailback friendly Cam Cameron offense, one would have thought that McGahee would be eager to learn the new system. Unfortunately McGahee’s eagerness is on par with an elementary student on the eve of a new school year. He has been mostly a bystander in camp and was hardly the most available player during OTA’s. McGahee is the Ravens’ resident Allen Iverson and takes to practice the way a vampire takes to sunlight. Many questioned the Ravens selection of Ray Rice with their second pick. Given Rice’s work ethic and apparent skills coupled with McGahee’s uninspired presence, no one is questioning the selection now. Maybe the Ravens should practice at night.
Mark Clayton: Clayton disappeared in 2007 due to a couple of nagging injuries, some off-the-field issues and a slumping offense. With 3 seasons under his belt, a new system and the outside the lines problems behind him, many expected Clayton to really step it up this year. So far in camp, there has been minor evidence that he could return to 2006 form but then the positive strides are quickly erased with a poor read or a dropped pass. Granted the Cameron system is new but Clayton needs to develop some consistency.
Chris Chester:Another disappointing Sooner, Chester seems to lack determination and appears almost content just to be on a NFL roster. Many thought the Ravens reached for Chester in 2006 when they made him a second round selection. So far he’s done nothing to dispel that notion as a pro despite opportunities to do so. Marshal Yanda and Jason Brown are vastly superior to Chester despite being 3rd and 4th round selections respectively. Simply put, Chester just hasn’t improved since he was drafted and that selection is yet another second round choice that the Ravens may soon regret unless Chester surprises us all and finally turns the light bulb on for good.
EARLY SEASON PREDICTIONS
Despite Kyle Boller being named the starter for the preseason opener, Troy Smith will get that call on September 7…Even if for some unexpected reason Smith doesn’t start, he’ll still see snaps at QB in a role similar to the “Slash” role of Kordell Stewart’s in the late 90’s in Pittsburgh…Willis McGahee will get off to a slow start in ’08. He’s missing too many valuable practice reps and it will be hard for Cam Cameron to trust him early on unless he surprises everyone and masters the playbook sooner than later…Fabian Washington will start over Samari Rolle after September 7…Todd Heap will have a career season…The Ravens will pick up a journeyman tight end and possibly a fullback and an offensive tackle as teams trim their rosters…If the Ravens don’t pick up another OT, Chad Slaughter’s number of starts this season could surpass the number of starts he’s had in his career – seven.
If Dawan Landry misses any time due to injury, he could lose his starter’s status for the balance of the season…CB Derrick Martin will make the team. CB’s Ronnie Prude and David Pittman will not…Tavares Gooden will open some eyes later in the season. For the moment Gooden is playing slower than he should, as he grows more familiar with Rex Ryan’s defense...Terrell Suggs will report to camp on or about August 25. John Harbaugh will welcome Suggs back with open arms publicly and say that he understands the business of the NFL. Rex Ryan will proclaim Suggs one of the top defenders in the game. Ozzie Newsome will wince in agony once he does. Surely Suggs’ agent Gary Wichard will be watching.
Tony Lombardi covers the Baltimore Ravens for Profootball24x7.com.
Photo by Sabina Moran.