With the Ravens kicking off heir pre-season against the Saints, there are several things to keep an eye on. Most of the starters will only play a couple of series, so this first game will serve as an opportunity for guys on the fringe to make their case to be a part of the 53 man roster. That being said, here are five things to watch for on Thursday night.
The Running Backs: Lorenzo Taliaferro vs. Buck Allen
Justin Forsett is the clear-cut number one option going into the season, and for good reason. However, the battle is for the primary back-up position. This will be an intense battle between second year pro Lorenzo Taliaferro and rookie Javorius "Buck" Allen. Both seem to be very good options going into the season. Taliaferro has shown up to camp leaner and quicker, according to many sources, and appears to take the next leap in his NFL career. He has the experience from last year, but Allen has been heavily talked about during training camp, namely for his ability to cut on a dime and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. The fourth round pick out of USC is dangerous not only as a runner, but could be a vital weapon in Marc Trestman's offense, which uses the running back to catch passes out of the backfield quite frequently, as evidenced by Matt Forte.
The Wide Receivers: Who will step up in the crowded competition?
The Ravens essentially have 12 guys competing for 6-7 spots. The past two years, the Ravens have started the regular season with seven receivers on the 53 man roster. Most expect them to do the same this season. So assuming the Ravens continue that trend, there are 1-2 spots left to be finalized, depending on health and injury concerns.
Steve Smith is certainly a lock, as he is the leader of this group and the team's #1 receiver. First round pick Breshad Perriman will also be a lock, despite the mysterious knee injury that has held him out of practice for two weeks. Kamar Aiken is listed as the #2 receiver right now after having a strong training camp thus far and is looking like he may have a breakout season in 2015. Marlon Brown has been having back issues, but he will most likely be on the 53 man roster, as he is a prime red zone target. Michael Campanaro, if he can stay healthy, will also likely make the cuts due to his ability to play the slot receiver and he could also be a guy that returns kicks and/or punts.
The remaining two spots will be up for grabs between several young and talented, but unproven, players. Jeremy Butler, Darren Waller, DeAndre Carter, Trent Steeman, Aldrick Robinson, Tom Nelson, and Daniel Brown will contend for the final spots. The top three contenders will be Jeremy Butler, Darren Waller, and DeAndre Carter. I think these three guys will be the major ones to watch for on Thursday night.
Special Teams: Who will return kicks and punts?
As previously mentioned in another post, the Ravens have an open competition for the jobs of kick and punt returner. Michael Campanaro, Asa Jackson, and DeAndre Carter are the primary contenders to win the job, but as many as seven or eight guys have taken their turns. Campanaro seems to be the early favorite, but I have a feeling that several guys will take their turns at it on Thursday and throughout the preseason. Keep an eye out for Campanaro, as showing an ability to be a returner will solidify his spot on the roster.
The Secondary: How will Lardarius Webb perform? Who makes plays?
The Ravens made moves this offseason to shore up the secondary, their weakest link last season. They went out and added Kendrick Lewis from the Texans and Kyle Arrington from the Patriots. I think the guy to watch on Thursday will be Lardarius Webb. Webb missed a lot of time last season and struggled once he came back. The Ravens hope that he will be able to bounce back this season and perform well as the #2 corner opposite Jimmy Smith and allow Arrington to be the slot corner. However, he has struggled in training camp so far. Webb may not be on the field for many reps on Thursday, but it'll be interesting to see how he performs.
The other guy to watch is Rashaan Melvin. Melvin was kind of thrown into the fire last year, being thrust into a starting position in the playoffs against the Steelers and Patriots. Word out of camp is that Melvin has held his own thus far. It should be interesting to see if he plays well enough to earn more playing time, and how his experience from last year serves him.
The Quarterbacks: How will Matt Schaub perform? Does Bryn Renner get any reps?
It's not often that the backup QB is a major topic of training camp. However, that has been the case of Matt Schaub. After stints with the Texans and Raiders, the Ravens let go of Keith Wenning and brought in the veteran Schaub to back up Joe Flacco. Schaub has not fared well in practice, throwing several interceptions and many passes that had little chance of being completed. Many Ravens fans will be watching Schaub on Thursday night and if the incompletions and interceptions continue to stack up for Schaub, I have a feeling that fans will be calling for Renner.
Baltimore Beatdown's own Yitzi Weiss wrote a great profile piece on Renner and he is a guy I think people should watch for on Thursday. If he gets some reps and performs well, while Schaub struggles, it may be the beginnings of a position battle. I will go ahead and say that I believe Schaub will remain the #2 QB due to his experience and familiarity within the system, but depending on how Renner plays in the pre-season, he may give Schaub a run for his money.
I'm excited for the Ravens pre-season opener against the Saints. It is really interesting to watch several of these guys who are playing for roster spots play their hearts out in hopes of surviving the next round of cuts. So tune in next Thursday evening to see who makes a name for themselves. It will definitely be interesting.