The Ravens are one of two teams in the NFL with an open three man race to take the reigns at starting quarterback, the other being the Miami Dolphins. To date no one has stepped up to take a controlling lead. Kyle Boller, Troy Smith and Joe Flacco have all had their share of highlights and lowlights although lately Smith has taken a slight edge.
Smith is a natural leader and offers intangibles that Boller doesn’t. While Boller has gained the respect of the other players as a solid teammate and a tough competitor, he lacks the charisma and presence in the huddle that Smith brings. Some inside the organization believe that they already know what they’ve got with Boller and they’d like to see Smith step up and not only win the job outright, but hold on to it throughout the season. Ideally the team would like to give Flacco the Carson Palmer rookie treatment and let him soak in a season from the sidelines. That said the team will not hesitate to play Flacco at any point during the season if in fact he gives the Ravens the best chance to win football games.
Flacco isn’t the only Ravens’ rookie drawing praise this summer. The team’s second round pick RB Ray Rice (a pick which on draft day was questioned by many) has been the best player in camp so far. Not only has he shown a great acceleration and change of direction skills, he’s also been a workhorse. With Willis McGahee, Cory Ross, P.J. Daniels and Allen Patrick all slowed by injuries, Rice has had to carry the load. He’s a natural pass catcher and a linebacker’s worst nightmare in open spaces. McGahee has a nagging sore left knee and although the club publicly supports the Pro Bowler’s recovery, quietly some in the organization have questioned his commitment. Others are thankful that the team selected Rice, a kid with great character. The team may carry only three running backs and the third back will be Ross, Patrick or newly acquired RB Alex Haynes. Ross’ size prevents him from contributing on special teams. He is only useful as a return specialist but the team has other and more productive options besides Ross. Patrick is a tough north and south runner with average speed. In his two year career Haynes has 3 carries for 3 yards to go with 3 catches for 14 yards.
You can count P.J. Daniels out. He has a shoulder injury and he’s been injury plagued since the team selected Daniels in the fourth round in 2006. Look for a release/injury settlement for Daniels. You may even see the team in the market for a fullback. The club isn’t thrilled with Justin Green and you may see FB Le’Ron McClain used more as a runner and a receiver during the season. Green isn’t your prototypical fullback so don’t be surprised to see the Ravens combing through the waiver wire/free agent list for one in the near future.
The Ravens lack a big play receiver. Some believe that Demetrius Williams could be that guy but the third year player can’t get on the practice field due to a lingering issue with his Achilles. Derrick Mason is solid but the team’s No. 1 pick from 2005 Mark Clayton, has not lived up to expectations. Some believe that he and Mason are far too much alike and there’s really only room for one possession receiver in Cameron’s offense. The truth be told, the team lacks a No. 1 receiver and their top 3 pass catchers are really no more than No. 2 receivers. The club is hoping that one of their two WR rookies can step up. The Ravens hope that Marcus Smith and/or Justin Harper can become a dependable red zone threat.
Tight end is a big needfor the team. Todd Heap looks better than ever in camp and has taken a huge number of snaps due to the season ending injury to Quinn Sypniewski and the slow-to-heal Daniel Wilcox. Wilcox’ surgically repaired toe has kept him on the sidelines throughout OTA’s and summer camp. Journeymen TE’s Adam Bergen and Adam Walker have been adequate at best. An injury to Heap leaves the team very vulnerable, particularly in an offense like Cam Cameron’s that relies heavily on tight ends. The Ravens are watching the waiver wire closely for competent tight ends. They have to – Heap has failed to finish two of the last four seasons missing a total of 20 games.
The Ravens’ offensive lineis probably the number one concern for the club. While the interior line is young and stout with guards Ben Grubbs and Marshall Yanda together with Jason Brown at center, the tackle situation could be problematic. Adam Terry is probably out for a couple of weeks as he works through the tenderness of a surgically repaired ankle and accompanying scar tissue. Jared Gaither has a high ankle sprain and club officials are concerned about the reps that the young, promising tackle will miss. Mike Kracalik is at best a dependable back-up and Oniel Cousins is young and raw. Newcomer Chad Slaughter has only 7 starts over 6 seasons in the NFL. Chris Chester (C/G), the team’s second round pick in 2006, has been a huge disappointment for the Ravens. Although he possesses good quickness and speed for the position, Chester isn’t very physical and plays slower than he should given his measurables.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens have much fewer concerns. The defensive tackle position is loaded with Trevor Pryce, Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata. Some inside the organization think that Ngata is not only the team’s best defender but also one of the best in the league. Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards are competent backups giving the Ravens the luxury of a nice rotation at the position. Back to Ngata for a second, the team would be wise to extend his deal before his current contract expires.
Speaking of contracts, Terrell Suggs continues to enjoy his summer off. Don’t expect Suggs to report any sooner than the week leading into the third preseason game. The Ravens break camp on August 15. The guess here is that he’ll show up sometime after the Ravens host the Vikings on August 16. Word is that Suggs wants to be the highest paid defender in football. That suggests that he’s the best and there are some within the organization that don’t think he’s even the best defender on the Ravens squad.
Ray Lewis wants a new dealbut don’t expect one before the future Hall of Famer officially becomes a free agent in March. The sides were very far apart during discussions before camp opened. There is probably not a huge market for a linebacker who will be 34 in ’09, particularly not one who is seeking a significant 8 digit signing bonus. Look for the team to let Lewis test the market and then ask for the right to match anything offered. The club hopes that Lewis will be a career-long Raven but at the same time they want to avoid bidding against themselves.
One linebacker who probably won’t be a career-long Raven is Bart Scott. Rookie Tavares Gooden has been compared to Scott and is expected to succeed the ’06 Pro Bowler in 2009. Since his infamous sack of Ben Roethlisberger in 2006, Scott has only 4 sacks to his credit covering 22 games. Look for the Ravens to go with their less expensive younger linebackers next season to fill the expected future void left by Scott…Dan Cody seems to be a cursed player and cannot stay healthy. Cody has shown flashes of a very competent pass rusher but the flashes are interrupted all too often by bad legs. He’s now dealing with a foot injury. Some Ravens’ insiders think that anything from Cody this season would be a pleasant surprise but at the same time none are holding their breath. And that’s really a shame for a player who has been so committed to returning to the field despite the mental anguish triggered by four injury-marred years.
In 2007 the Ravens’ secondarywas ravaged by injuries. This offseason the club created depth in the defensive backfield to prevent a reoccurrence. Don’t be surprised if the Ravens keep 5 safeties on their 53 man roster. Besides incumbents Ed Reed and Dawan Landry, rookies Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski have been impressive, particularly Nakamura who has made several interceptions. Head coach John Harbaugh said that “the ball finds Haruki and that’s a good quality if you’re a safety.” The coaches like free agent acquisition Jim Leonhard as well.
At corner the team traded for Fabian Washington and some expect him to move ahead of Samari Rolle on the depth chart and into a starting position. He won't start the opener however, when the Ravens host the Bengals on September 7. The league has suspended Washington for that game stemming from a violation of the NFL's conduct policy.
Chris McAlister is working his way back into shape after a late season knee injury. Newcomer Frank Walker has struggled some in camp at corner but the coaches seem to like him as a nickel. Corey Ivy has outplayed Walker so far and so has Derrick Martin. Disappointing former third round pick David Pittman and Ronnie Prude are long shots to make the team. Pittman can’t stay healthy and has been labeled by some as soft while Prude uses his hands too much beyond 5 yards.
Incumbent and ageless Matt Stoverreturns as the team’s dependable kicker. The roster is probably too deep to include a kickoff specialist despite Stover’s inadequacies in that department. Return specialist Yamon Figurs has improved his game as a receiver. Adding that to his strong finish in ’07 makes him a near lock to be among the final 53. Figurs has added some muscle and was once a very good gunner on punt teams at Kansas State. Sam Koch and Matt Katula are the team’s other specialists.
Edgar, Allen and Poe were once proud Ravens mascots. Looks like “The Turk” paid a visit to Edgar and Allen. They have been cut from the mascot squad and replaced by live flying Ravens, Rise and Conquer (much to the chagrin of PETA). Poe has changed his number from 103 to 0.
Tony Lombardi covers the Baltimore Ravens for Profootball24x7.com