Training camp is approaching fast, with veteran players reporting to Owings Mills on July 26. Let’s take a look at the biggest storylines we will be watching for this year at training camp this year.
Every team will have some sort of position battle in their own training camp. For the Ravens, competitions for starting spots are taking place on both sides of the ball, and all in key positions. The spots up for grabs for the Ravens in training camp this year are center, right tackle, tight end, second starting cornerback, five technique defensive end and inside linebacker.
After trading away Jeremy Zuttah, the Ravens need to find a replacement at center. Unproven second year man Matt Skura as well as John Urschel look to be the two favorites to win the job. Urschel has much more NFL experience than Skura, but has only started seven games at center in his career. Skura played center during his career at Duke, and was drafted to play that position in the NFL. Ryan Jensen is a sleeper to watch in this battle as well. Check out Baltimore Beatdown’s Kyle J. Andrew’s breakdown of the battle here. However, a wrench would be thrown into the whole situation if the Ravens sign Nick Mangold.
Alex Lewis is the key in the right tackle position battle. Lewis played tackle in college at Nebraska, but was shifted inside to guard in his rookie season as Ricky Wagner and Ronnie Stanley occupied the tackle spots. If the Ravens shift Lewis out to tackle, then the position battle becomes for the left guard spot which Lewis played last year. Assuming Lewis remains a guard, the contenders to be the starting right tackle are the following: James Hurst, De’Ondre Wesley, Stephane Nembot and rookie Jermaine Eluemunor. Hurst is the favorite of the group, given that he has the most experience (granted, none of it has been positive experience). Wesley and Nembot have each shown flashes of potential in their time with Baltimore, but have never been able to see much time on the field, and that’s including the pre-season. Eluemunor is intriguing due to his potential, but he is a very raw prospect that needs to develop. He may be the future at the position, but he is not ready right now.
If Lewis ends up playing right tackle, then left guard becomes the spot up for grabs. That battle will be between whichever of Urschel or Jensen doesn’t win the center job (or both if Skura wins), rookie Nico Siragusa, Wesley and Eluemunor.
Tight end may not be the biggest battle, but it is a notable one. The Ravens have very limited depth at the position now, after it once looked to be a strength of the team. Crockett Gillmore, Ben Watson and Maxx Williams look to the be top contenders, while I believe Nick Boyle will be converted into an H-back role. I am not confident that Watson will still be a Raven at the end of training camp however. With cheaper options at the tight end position that can put up similar production, Watson’s days in Baltimore may be numbered.
Switching over to defense, the starting cornerback spot across from Jimmy Smith will be fought for between Brandon Carr and first round pick Marlon Humphrey. Carr brings much more experience than Humphrey, and on top of that, Carr brings a trait that has been hard to find in the Ravens secondary recently: availability. The sky is the limit for Humphrey, but he may not be ready to start just yet. However, all reports from Owings Mills have been that Humphrey is impressing the Ravens coaching staff. If the rookie continues to do so in training camp, then he may unseat Carr as the projected starter.
The five technique defensive end spot left by Lawrence Guy will be battled for by Chris Wormley, Brent Urban and Bronson Kaufusi. Check out a full analysis of that position battle here.
Finally, the Ravens will need to find someone to fill Zach Orr’s former inside linebacker spot. The pre-training camp favorite appears to be Kamalei Correa, but the former Boise State Bronco will not go unchallenged. Patrick Onwuasor, and Albert McClellan will go up against Correa for the starting job. It is also worth noting that the Ravens seem split on whether or not to re-sign Zach Orr, and if they do bring back Orr, then he will more than likely get his spot back.
How will Joe Flacco perform two years removed from his knee surgery?
Joe Flacco’s performance in 2016 was far from his best. However, Flacco was coming off of a major injury suffered in the 2015 season. His down year could very well be pinned on a continued recovery from the injury. Historically, quarterbacks coming off similar injuries have not been at their best in the first year back, but improved in year two, as the recovery process is fully completed, or at least the player is as close to fully healed as they will be (note: I’m not a doctor). That’s exactly the situation Flacco is in now. The offense is reliant on Flacco returning to a high level of play, and training camp may be the first indication of whether or not he can do so. Flacco will hopefully be at 100% health this year, and in 2017, he has no excuses as a result of my next storyline to watch.
New toys on offense
The Ravens had one of its most active offseasons ever, and that included adding players at offensive skill positions. The Ravens signed Jeremy Maclin and well as Danny Woodhead to help boost the offense.
Last year, Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg utilized running backs on check downs often. Woodhead is one of the best receiving backs in the NFL, and has made a name for himself catching check down passes. His style of play fits the Ravens offensive system well, and gives Flacco another option in the passing game.
The Ravens desperately needed to add a wide receiver with the injuries suffered at tight end and the retirement of Steve Smith Sr. Surprisingly, the Kansas City Chiefs cut former Pro-Bowl receiver Jeremy Maclin, and the Ravens were able to scoop him up. Reports have indicated that Maclin will be used in the slot, while Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman will line up on the outside. It will be intriguing to watch how this trio fits together on the field. It is clear, however, that Flacco has three playmaking receivers to throw to. Now it’s time to see how he will use them.
While the Ravens added a few toys on the offensive side of the ball, this offseason was really dedicated to the defense, and getting it return to the elite level that is typically associated with the Ravens. The biggest acquisitions were made in the secondary. The Ravens signed the best safety on the market, Tony Jefferson, to pair with Eric Weddle, landed Brandon Carr to (possibly) line up across from Jimmy Smith, and the first four picks of the draft all addressed the defense, the first of which being cornerback Marlon Humphrey. The Ravens were able to bring in a lot of talent to help on the back end, and training camp will give us one of the first opportunities to see it all put together.
No matter if the Ravens choose Humphrey or Carr to start alongside Smith, that starting corner duo will be among the best in the NFL. Weddle was graded as the top safety in the NFL in 2016 by Pro Football Focus, while Jefferson came in fifth. Having two top five safeties according to Pro Football Focus proves that Ravens safety duo is one of, if not the best in the NFL. With a strong cornerback and safety duo, it will be hard to throw the ball against this Ravens secondary.
I am truly excited to see the Ravens take the field for training camp, and I am even more excited to track these storylines throughout the remainder of the summer. This team has a lot of potential, and it’s almost time to see how it will come together.