After suffering through the doldrums of the off-season, we’ve finally reached our destination: football is back! Well, kinda. The first pre-season game isn’t until the 2nd of August, and the first real action isn’t for another month after that, but we’ve hit the first milestone. As of today, rookies are reporting to training camp, followed by the vets in another week. This will be the first time the team throws on full pads since the game we don’t talk about at the end of December of last year. Since then, our guys have gotten a chance to perform in some light positional drills and interact directly with the coaches and training staff, but today marks the first full-contact practice of the league year.
With the addition of the rookie class, as well as a handful of free agent signings, there’s a lot to look forward to over the next few weeks. From position battles to player development, the quest to cut down to a 53 man roster begins today.
Lamar Jackson’s Development
The most obvious player to pay attention to is also the most important. If you’ve read any media about the team over the past 3 months, you’ve heard everything there is to know about Jackson. The first-rounder will soon be leading the team as Joe Flacco is inevitably fazed out. Whether you want him to take the reigns immediately or sit on the bench for a couple seasons, Jackson’s development is crucial to the Ravens. Though the QB is protected during camp and he doesn’t have to worry about getting planted hard by Suggs and company, Lamar will be dealing with a legitimate NFL caliber pass rush for the first time. What will his pocket presence be like? Will he be able to stay calm and work through his reads, or will he be more inclined to scramble when things look a little hairy? One of the biggest knocks on Jackson coming out of college was his accuracy, these drills will be our first chance to see if he’s gotten any better while working with QB coach James Urban. In a perfect scenario, Jackson would look NFL ready from the get-go, leading to a qb controversy throughout the pre-season. Realistically, I think he’ll look a little rough around the edges in the beginning; but if he continues to learn through camp and the preseason he could develop into the player we want him to be rather quickly.
What’s the Offensive Line Looking Like?
The Ravens addressed 2 positions of need when they drafted RT Orlando Brown Jr. and C Bradley Bozeman in the 2018 draft. Brown fell to the 3rd round of the draft due to what was arguably the worst combine performance of all time, and Bozeman wasn’t selected until the 6th round. That’s not to say that they can’t produce immediately, but they’re far from the sure-fire selection of Ronnie Stanley a couple of years back. As of right now, the only positions set in stone are the aforementioned Stanley at left tackle and perennial all-pro Marshal Yanda at right guard. That leaves 3 of the 5 positions still open, and I expect this to be the most important position battle of the year. Expect to see many variations of the offensive line all the way through the pre-season with guys playing out of position until we find what really sticks. Realistically, the left guard battle is between James Hurst and Alex Lewis, but either one could bump to right tackle if Orlando Brown doesn’t look ready. But Jermaine Eluemunor and Nico Siragusa aren’t out of the question either, especially if they can show versatility. Bradley Bozeman and Matt Skura are the leading candidates for the center job, but any of the names mentioned above could get the nod if they show they have the ability to be a quality starter at the spot. I personally believe the right tackle spot is Brown’s to lose, but if his work ethic doesn’t improve from the combine then it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Alex Lewis or James Hurst get the start ahead of him. This unit could be a work in progress even into the beginning of the regular season, but Greg Roman has done a great job thus far with taking a patchwork o-line and making them perform at a high level.
New Look Receiving Corp
Ozzie Newsome said he’d rebuild our receiving corp from the ground up, and he delivered entirely. The only remaining receivers from a year ago are Chris Moore (who showed promise in flashes last season) and Breshad Perriman (no comment). It was a revamp that was entirely necessary, but with a room full of people who have never played together chemistry issues could arise. It should be fun watching the offense come together over the next few months, especially if everyone can get on the same page early on. The projected starters are Michael Crabtree at WR1, John Brown at WR2, and Willie Snead in the slot role/splitting WR2 reps with Brown. After that, there’s a logjam for the WR4, WR5, and possibly WR6 spots. With only 2 or 3 spots open, Grey Cup MVP Devier Posey, Chris Moore, Breshad Perriman, Jaleel Scott, Jordan Lasley, Quincy Adeboyejo, Tim White, Janarion Grant, and Jaelon Acklin will be battling to impress the coaching staff and prove they belong. With such a packed room, each player will be looking to use their unique skillset to stand out. They’ll have to treat each opportunity like it’s their last, and will be looking to make big plays as often as possible. If you want my prediction before I see them take the field, I’d say Chris Moore and Jaleel Scott make the opening day roster, then you can roll a die to see who takes that 6th slot.
Can the Young Linebackers Step Up?
A youth movement has been injected in Baltimore’s linebacking corp over the past couple of seasons. The additions of Matt Judon, Za’Darius Smith, Tyus Bowser, Tim Willians, and Kenny Young should help ensure the front 7 of the Ravens defense remains a force for the foreseeable future. Terrell Suggs continuing to play at a high level well into his 30s is a phenomenal boost for the team, but perhaps more promising is the emergence of 3rd year player Matt Judon. He exploded onto the scene with 8 sacks in limited action a year ago, and looked the part of a breakout player as the season went on. With more time on the field, Judon could progress into a legitimate force as an edge rusher. While his development will be fun to monitor, the Ravens’ coaches have to be hoping for a similar jump from 2nd year players Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams. Both had underwhelming years a season ago, but with a full year under their belt we could be due for a glimpse of the future of the defense if either one of them can step up like Judon did a year ago. Moving to the inside, Kenny Young could be a huge contributor to the team in year one. He was a tackling machine in college, and he has a real chance at winning the starting role over Bam Bradley, Patrick Onwuasor, and the disappointing Kamalei Correa. Those 4 should get a shot to fight for the starting spot next to CJ Mosley on the opening day roster, expect that battle to last through the preseason.
Baltimore’s Own No-Fly Zone
Before Jimmy Smith went down a year ago, the Ravens boasted one of the most impressive secondaries in the league. Brandon Carr played significantly better than expected (except for when Pees inexplicably left him alone against Antonio Brown all game) and Marlon Humphrey looked like a future superstar. This year, everyone from last season is back, but with a healthy Tavon Young and a rookie in Anthony Averett. Humphrey did more than enough last year to earn the starting nod across from Jimmy Smith, and if Tavon Young looks as good as he did before his injury he could potentially be a top-tier slot corner in the league. With Averett’s speed and chemistry with Humphrey (who he teamed with at Alabama) as well as the return of Maurice Canady, Brandon Carr may be seeing significantly less play time. But that’s not a bad thing; Carr will provide a veteran presence and solid depth if an injury (pray for Jimmy’s tendons nightly) were to happen. The young guys are our future, and if what they’ve shown thus far is any indication of what’s to come, our secondary could be among the best. Seeing their development should be promising, and would make the inevitable departure of Jimmy Smith a lot less painful.
Every year the Ravens seem to find a true diamond in the rough. Whether that be Marlon Brown a few years ago, Zach Orr, or Patrick Ricard, the scouting department does a phenomenal job with undrafted free agents. It’s tough to say who will emerge as a real NFL talent from the group, but it’s pretty safe to say at least one player will make the roster from the group. Kaare Vedvik is a name to watch. He’s a kicker and punter with an insane leg. I’m obviously well aware that Justin Tucker is on the roster and isn’t going anywhere, but it might not be all that farfetched to think Kaare could take over for Sam Koch if he continues to boot the ball the way he has been this off-season. It wasn’t long ago Tucker did the same thing to kick out Billy Cundiff. Obviously, this is a different situation as Sam Koch is still playing at a high level and hasn’t just contributed to my most traumatic memory, but the possibility is there. If punter drama isn’t your forte, maybe direct your attention to Jaelon Acklin, who could use his excellent speed and quickness to steal the final WR roster spot. Maybe it won’t be either of those two, but it’d be shocking if there wasn’t a stud hiding among our 14 undrafted free agents.
I saved the most important for last. The team’s health has been at the forefront of discussion for the last 5 years now. Between Dennis Pitta dislocating his hip twice, Joe Flacco tearing his ACL and hurting his back, Marshal Yanda losing a season, Terrell Suggs missing time, and Jimmy Smith being in a perpetual state of injury-limbo, the team has struggled to stay together. Injuries happen, but they don’t normally happen to the same team so often. The team has great depth at a lot of positions, but perhaps the biggest factor to the Ravens getting back to the playoffs is their overall health. Due to the Hall of Fame game we have an extra week of practice, which of course means 5 extra chances at a major injury. But that extra week is huge for us, we have so many new members on the offense in particular, and now we’ll get a jump on putting it all together. Lamar Jackson gets extra reps, Joe Flacco gets more opportunities to gel with his new receivers, there’s a lot of good that comes out of it. All of those benefits only exist if we can stay healthy. Due to the recent history of the team, it’ll be hard to not wince at every minor bump and bruise on a player. But after so many years of the same issues arising, I’d hope this year is finally the time something changes with our training regime.
If we can stay even moderately healthy, we have a good chance at making it back to the playoffs. We have a talented team with a solid ratio of experience and youth, with a lot to be excited about overall. Position battles will clear up, players will begin to stand out, and our future will unfold before our eyes. Our journey through the 2018 NFL season begins today.