With the first preseason game upon us, this will be the first opportunity to see the new Baltimore Ravens in action. Whether a big free agent addition like Eric Weddle, a smaller signing like Jerraud Powers, a highly touted rookie like Ronnie Stanley, or an undrafted free agent fighting for a roster spot like Victor Ochi, the team has many newcomers who will be active in their first game for the Ravens.
With changes and additions, expected internal growth, and players returning from injury in just about every unit on the team, I thought it would be nice to ask each writer which position group they were most excited to see in action.
Dennis Pitta and Crockett Gillmore have been banged up early in camp, yet, TE is still the deepest position on the team. Ben Watson is a steady, versatile player while Maxx Williams has the perfect skill set to showcase Flacco’s arm strength on post/fade/corner routes. But I am most excited to see Pitta extending drives on third down and Gillmore running over safeties downfield.
The Quarterback position is the most important position in not just football, but in any sport. The Ravens actually have a decent set of quarterbacks heading into the season led by starter Joe Flacco. With Flacco's strong arm, underrated mobility and his will to win, the Ravens have a solid starter at the helm. His backups have always been the question mark, but Ryan Mallet looks to be a fine #2. Mallett showed to be a solid insurance policy for the team in 2015 after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers with only two weeks to prepare. Mallett has a lot of tools to be a potential starter in the NFL, but his play and off the field troubles has landed him in an uphill battle as a starting QB. As a backup he works well with the Ravens and this offense as he works his way back to being his next opportunity to compete for a starting job. Flacco's progression post ACL surgery and with the knee brace will be key to monitor as the preseason begins and as we head even closer to the start of the regular season.
The Ravens organization is fundamentally committed to running the rock, and seems set up to have success doing so in 2016, at least on paper. Veteran Justin Forsett should enter the season as the starter, but if the buzz surrounding both Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon is legitimate, that may be subject to change. If the offensive line is able to return to 2014 form, this group has the talent to put up some big numbers in the coming season.
Tavon Young and Jerraud Powers are two newcomers with loads of hype. Each has received praise for shutting down receivers and creating turnovers. Powers picked off a pass almost every time he stepped on the field in minicamp, and Young has been spectacular thus far in training camp. They will help a Ravens secondary desperate for turnovers, and improve the teams talent level defending slot receivers. Jimmy Smith will look to emerge this year as an elite corner this year, in the same tier as Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman, something he is has shown in the past that he is more than capable of doing. This group will be key to the Ravens turnaround from last season.
Safety has presented a unique problem for Ozzie Newsome with the increased importance of the position over the past decade. With Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard leaving town following the 2012 championship, the team has been unsuccessful filling the void, both through the draft with Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks, and free agency with Darien Stewart, Kendrick Lewis, and Michael Huff all underwhelming. Will Hill and James Ihedigbo have provided decent play on the back end, but both were limited thumpers who were not great against the pass. The hope is that the Ravens biggest free agent addition since 2013 will finally shore up the unit, and converted cornerback Lardarius Webb will help increase the forced turnovers and decrease the communication gaffes on the back end. In addition, hopefully they can mentor and advance the development of the young safeties, Brooks and Elam, to get their careers on track before the inevitable dropoff from the veteran duo in the near future.
With the offensive line, I'm looking at rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley as everyone else is in two areas: Pass protection and whether or not he can stay healthy. I think Stanley will end up being a pretty good player, I just worry about the lack of depth at left tackle behind him. The Ravens don't have a proven commodity or even a reliable one back there (not many NFL teams do) but it is concerning in this case as QB Joe Flacco is recovering from a torn ACL and MCL. Stanley is the key, as he needs to be strong at tackle for the rebuilt left side of the line to keep up with the strong right side.
Mike Wallace was looked upon as the biggest x-factor on this team, but at this point, with the positive reports coming in, it would not be unwise to assume he'll emerge as a contributor. Wallace excites me the most. The x-factor title is now shared by Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman. If they are healthy enough to simply contribute... Look out. And we haven’t even mentioned the best Ravens receiver from last year. This will be one of the better offenses in the league. Flacco has never had close to this many weapons. Health is the only thing standing in the way.
Which unit most excites you to see in action tomorrow night?