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In many ways July 28, the first day of Ravens training camp seems so long ago. In reality it was but a mere 44 days ago but since then, much has happened for the Baltimore Ravens.
The team commenced camp hoping to answer several questions, among them uncertainties at the positions of offensive line, defensive line and in the secondary. Today we will look at each position as the Ravens entered camp, exited the preseason going into the regular season and what we can expect going forward.
Entering Camp: There was never any doubt who the starter would be when the Ravens commenced activities at McDaniel this summer. Steve McNair’s resume, that fat $11 million signing bonus and Kyle Boller’s struggles over the past 3 seasons assured us all of that. With the acquisition of Steve McNair a newfound sense of optimism gripped the Ravens locker room. Albeit more by example and his cool demeanor, McNair is now the de facto leader of Fassel’s troops.
Camp through the Preseason: Steve McNair gradually grew more comfortable with the offensive scheme as his learning curve continues. His very first drive while productive and described by many as a thing of beauty, was kept alive by Derrick Mason who successfully “defended” on a deep pass well under thrown by McNair. Through five quarters leading into the preseason finale against the Redskins, the first team offense had produced only 10 points. McNair did engineer a nice drive against the Redskins for a score to cap his preseason work. That drive ended with a 15 yard TD strike to Mark Clayton. McNair’s accuracy and ability to hit receivers in stride did help to keep drives alive. He produced only two 3-and-out drives the entire preseason.
Looking ahead: There is reason to believe that Steve McNair will be a difference maker for the Ravens. When scoring more than 21 points since 1999 the Ravens are 39-10 including a 17-5 mark in their last 22 games when doing so (.772). Last year the Ravens averaged only 16.6 and scored 21 on more points only 3 times. Is Steve McNair worth 4.4 points per game and if he is, the Ravens should be dancing coming January – provided of course that the offensive line can keep him healthy and upright.
Grade to date: B and rising
Entering Camp: The composition of the Ravens backfield seemed to be a bit of a mystery. First there was Jamal Lewis who found his services in the open market were not in high demand. Then there was Mike Anderson who reached terms with the Ravens thinking he would be the number 1 guy. And then there was the afterthought of Musa Smith who many believed would not even make the final roster. As a result, the Ravens burned a fourth round pick (compensatory) on P.J. Daniels.
Camp through the Preseason: Without question the surprise of camp has been Musa Smith. He has shown a burst never before seen from the former Georgia Bulldog while wearing purple. If he remains healthy he will leave Ravens fans asking, “Chester who?” Jamal Lewis has looked stronger and more decisive than in 2005 but there is a lingering seed of doubt about his health (hip flexor) and there are concerns that the wear and tear of prior NFL seasons could be catching up to Jamal despite his youth (26). He seems to have adapted well to following H-back Daniel Wilcox or even operating as a single back. Mike Anderson has yet to develop any rhythm and P.J. Daniels has been a bit of a disappointment and may not even be on the team if he had not been a fourth round pick. Surprisingly the Ravens kept 5 halfbacks by keeping Cory Ross on the final 53.
Looking ahead: The Ravens have depth at the position although health is a concern at this point. Jamal Lewis hasn’t been right for close to 2 seasons and Musa Smith has a long history of injuries. Mike Anderson hasn’t been very productive behind a new blocking scheme. P.J. Daniels and Cory Ross cannot be counted on to provide much this season. Watch to see how Jamal Lewis embraces single back formations going forward.
Grade to date: B and slipping
Entering Camp: Uncertainties surrounding Alan Ricard’s health and a desire to move towards a more multi-dimensional fullback eventually sealed Ricard’s fate. Justin Green entered camp as the favorite over the more one-dimensional Ovie Mughelli and the long shot was B.J. Dean.
Camp through the Preseason: While neither Green nor Mughelli has been significantly better than the other, Green’s versatility gives him the edge at this point despite injuring his knee in the preseason finale.
Looking ahead: The Ravens are looking to be less predictable and they don’t want their play calling to be dictated by their personnel packages on the field. That being said, unless there is an injury to H-back Wilcox, the Ravens will be less reliant upon the traditional fullback position in the mold of Alan Ricard and Sam Gash.
Grade to date: C
Entering Camp: The Ravens entered camp with five tight ends, two of which are no longer around, Bobby Blizzard and Rob Abiamiri. Quinn Sypniewski entered camp, taken by the Ravens in the 2006 NFL Draft with the 166th overall pick (5th round compensatory). Sypniewski was said to be a favorite of Ozzie Newsome and was looked upon to replace the departed Darnell Dinkins who moved on to Cleveland.
Camp through the Preseason: Blizzard and Abiamiri were never anything more than camp fodder. Sypniewski has shown better pass catching skills than the Ravens originally expected. Some discussion has been given to building a bigger Sypniewski with the hope that he could become a serviceable offensive tackle. He has the frame to take on more weight. Wilcox has adapted well to the H-back role and this consummate team player is willing and seemingly able to accept any role handed to him. Todd Heap has developed a great rapport with Steve McNair.
Looking ahead: Sypniewski will be used at times in short yardage and goal line situations. Wilcox will continue to provide competent play from several positions on the field and Todd Heap could have a career year given McNair’s history of utilizing the tight end position. McNair’s calm demeanor while enveloped in chaos enables him to find his tight end in traffic when others might be looking to bail out of the pocket.
Grade to date: B+
Entering Camp: The starters were firmly entrenched – Mason as the No. 1 and Clayton as the No. 2. Devard Darling looked to shake off two forgettable seasons marred by nagging injuries and Clarence Moore hoped to overcome a groin injury and lingering doubts about his toughness. Demetrius Williams, unable to participate in OTA’s hoped to pick up where he left off during rookie camp.
Camp through the Preseason: Nothing has changed as far as the starters are concerned. Mason quickly re-established an impressive rapport with McNair and Clayton is beginning to develop one. The third receiver position is a bit of a mystery and Brian Billick has suggested that the winner of the heavily competed for spot will be unveiled on Sunday against the Bucs. Demetrius Williams and Devard Darling are the early favorites while Moore trails a bit given his late start in camp and his ineffectiveness inside the hash marks.
Looking ahead: Mason and Clayton will prove to be a formidable tandem. The bet here is that Darling, given his reps with the first unit when either Clayton or Mason sat out during camp and the preseason, will be the No. 3 receiver come 1:00 PM on Sunday although he will be pushed extremely hard by Demetrius Williams, one of the preseason’s biggest surprises. Moore is a red zone threat and a deep threat who will command extra attention if he can prove that he can hold on to the ball. This is the best corps of receivers in Ravens history and they look to improve under the enthusiastic and watchful guidance of receivers coach Mike Johnson.
Grade to date: B +
Entering camp: The biggest of question marks heading into camp at McDaniel was clearly the offensive line. Would Jason Brown push Mike Flynn? Who might emerge as the right tackle, Tony Pashos or Adam Terry? Could Brian Rimpf or possibly rookie Chris Chester push Keydrick Vincent? Could this group overcome their collective struggles in 2005 and protect the franchise’s newest and biggest investment, Steve McNair?
Camp through Preseason: Surprisingly and somewhat disappointingly, the center position was never really open to competition. The job was handed to Mike Flynn but in Flynn’s defense, he has performed decently but certainly not well enough to shut down the competition with Jason Brown. That decision is a bit of a mystery. Brian Rimpf went down relatively early in camp with a severe hamstring injury and never really had a chance to push Vincent. Jonathan Ogden’s absence from the first couple of weeks of camp to due his father’s passing forced Adam Terry to the left side and that probably cost Terry an opportunity to win the starting RT position. That now belongs to Pashos. Mulitalo’s offseason conditioning has produced results on the field and he looks much better than in 2005.
Looking ahead: The offensive line is squarely under the looking glass of management, coaches and fans alike. Don’t be surprised to see Jason Brown bump Keydrick Vincent aside if his struggles continue and look for Adam Terry to get more practice repetitions at right tackle should we see more efforts from Pashos like his performance against the Vikings. The team’s success could ride on the effectiveness of this unit. The coaches will be watching closely as well.
Grade to date: C-
Entering camp: The defensive line was the focus of some offseason criticism plus they needed to overcome the losses of Maake Kemoeatu and Anthony Weaver. The Ravens addressed both the criticism and the losses with the additions of free agents Trevor Pryce and Justin Bannan as well as the acquisition of first round DT Haloti Ngata.
Camp through Preseason: Pryce has not been a factor at all and there are some who believe he’ll turn the volume up once the regular season starts. Bannan is a prototypical Raven with a non-stop motor. Aubrayo Franklin has played well as has Dwan Edwards and they will help the Ravens rotational system on the defensive line. Kelly Gregg has been his usual steady self. Haloti Ngata impressed his teammates early in camp, hurt his knee a bit in the Redskins scrimmage and has since appeared to be sluggish and slow off the ball. Terrell Suggs was quiet early in camp and in preseason games but started to come on against Minnesota. Dan Cody although listed as a LB played mostly with his hand in the dirt. He worked hard but never really asserted himself.
Looking ahead: If Pryce and Ngata perform as expected and with the maturation of Dan Cody, this unit should be much improved over last season. But so far Pryce and Ngata haven’t measured up to the glowing accolades and praise of their teammates. The bet here is that both will assert themselves as will Dan Cody but that assertion might not materialize until the Ravens reach the season’s quarter pole and if so, let’s hope that it isn’t too late.
Grade to date: C +
Entering camp: Linebacker hasn’t been a problem for the Ravens in a long, long time…not since the early days of Teddy ball at Memorial Stadium. With the return of Ray Lewis and the stable presences of Bart Scott and Adalius Thomas, this position was hardly a concern. The Ravens churn out linebackers the way the Atlanta Braves produce pitching prospects.
Camp through Preseason: AD and Bart Scott appear to be in top form. Jarrett Johnson has filled in admirably at WLB and Mike Smith has been fire and brimstone when subbing for Ray Lewis. Gary Stills in spot duty also shows great athleticism off the edge as a pass rushing LB. Ray Lewis however, hasn’t really answered the question, “Is he back?” It could be that Ray is anxious to reassert himself as a defensive force in the NFL and that could be the cause of what looks like a steady dose of over pursuing plays.
Looking ahead: You can count on very solid to great play from this group and the difference between the two will be Ray Lewis. Let’s make one thing perfectly clear – he is not the old Ray Lewis! More troubling than Ray’s correctable overzealousness is his poor tackling. It could be that Ray is saving his weakening shoulders for the regular season. It’s certainly something to look for and he’ll be tested immediately by Cadillac Williams.
Grade to date: B
Entering camp: It’s difficult to find a more accomplished trio of DB’s than Reed, Rolle and McAlister. The trouble for the Ravens upon entering camp was one of depth and of course the hole at strong safety.
Camp through Preseason: Ed Reed is rejuvenated, Rolle is moving well although there are some concerns about his tackling, and McAlister seems more focused than he’s been in a long time. Dawan Landry has been a surprise with his ability to grasp the defense after extra hours in the classroom. Corey Ivy has been a surprise as well bringing more accomplished cover skills than originally anticipated. Ivy looks like he’ll be the nickel. Gerome Sapp provides depth as does undrafted free agent Ronnie Prude at corner. Derrick Martin shows flashes of brilliance but needs to be more consistent. B.J. Ward could have been an impact player but recurring migraines forced him on to IR. David Pittman has been a disappointment. He was originally expected to be the nickel back. Evan Oglesby made a push towards the end of the preseason and made the club and is now listed on the depth charts ahead of Prude and Martin. A disturbing trend is the cushion the corners have provided in the preseason, particularly when down and distance might suggest tighter coverage.
Looking ahead: Tough to call this one because so much can break down if Landry doesn’t support the pass well. That being said, last year Will Demps had a very poor season even before his injury and the Ravens defensive athleticism (AD in particular) helped to cover the team’s lack of secondary depth, particularly at safety. This unit will be battle tested when they face Carson Palmer and the Bengals. The Ravens have had difficulty in the past with slot receivers. Expect them to be a bit better in 2006.
Grade to date: C+
Entering camp: Matt Stover and Matt Katula were locks entering camp. The punting situation was up for grabs as was the kickoff specialist position.
Camp through Preseason: Sam Koch took an early lead in the punting competition over Leo Araguz but then fell back as the two were neck and neck through most of camp and into the preseason. That changed in Minnesota when Koch regained his early camp form, perhaps emerging from a dead leg period. His ability to kick off also saved a roster spot. Maybe Cory Ross should take fellow Cornhusker Sam Koch to dinner.
Looking ahead: Special teams players commented during camp that they liked Frank Gansz, Jr.’s more simplified approach to special teams. Gansz is a fiery competitor on the field and he has some special teams studs such as AD, Gary Stills, Corey Ivy, Gerome Sapp, Musa Smith and Mike Smith to work with. This should help the Ravens improve in this third and equally important facet of football.
Grade to date: C + and rising
Entering camp: Many eyes were set upon Brian Billick. Would he make the changes that Steve Bisciotti suggested? Would he allow Jim Fassel to run the offense in full? Would he devote equal amounts of time to the entire team? How would he handle the pressure?
Camp through Preseason: The differences in Billick have been subtle but certainly noticeable. While not curt with the media he is certainly less chatty and perhaps more guarded with his choice of words (with the exception of that red zone snafu with Mike Preston). The offense is clearly Jim Fassel’s and Billick even ran the quarterback position during some defensive drills.
Looking ahead: Will any of this make a difference if the Ravens get off to a slow start? Will Billick lose the team if the road woes continue? Will Steve Bisciotti hold true to his word that he will not fire Billick during the season even if the team continues to perform poorly?
Billick has done all that’s been asked of him – he’s made the necessary changes. The unknown is whether the team has bought in. Judging from the early vibe of the team, they have bought in – so far. A fast start will cement that feeling. The Ravens need to be at 3-3 going into the bye week. If not, the season could crumble quickly should the negative vibe in the locker room resurface.
The bet here is that the Ravens will go into the break 3-3 and they’ll stay in the hunt.