I have been covering the Ravens since the 2003 season. Never have I witnessed the enthusiasm nor felt the contagious electricity that hovered over Ravens’ headquarters like I did this weekend during the team’s mandatory mini-camp.
There is a buzz in the air.
The team feels it.
They live it and breathe it.
By his own admission Ray Lewis said, “The energy is freakin’ incredible!”
Yet he is quick to remind the media and his teammates not to get carried away and to maintain focus. The pieces are there yet there is work to be done – a lot of work! After all, it is only early May and there are many teams not named the Cleveland Browns or St. Louis Rams that have their collective sights set on Super Bowl XLV.
That said it was hard not to get intoxicated by the buzz, one that even gripped media members who pride themselves on objectivity.
Cam Cameron eloquently put things in perspective for all observers after practice on Saturday, tempering the enthusiasm of the media over the rookie tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta who both look impressive.
“You can get fooled at this time of year because there’s no threat of contact.”
Great point, but with that in mind one can only report what they see.
And here’s what my eyes and ears observed and heard…
QUARTERBACK: It all starts with Joe Flacco. During the offseason the Ravens worked diligently to provide Flacco with the weapons needed to push the team deeper into the playoffs. But Flacco is the switch that triggers it all and he’ll need to improve his game as well. To that end, it would help if Flacco starts the season healthy because ’09 was marred by injuries. Over the weekend Flacco moved well, particularly when stepping up in the pocket and away from the pass rush, a sign that his hip, ankle and quad injuries are likely behind him. His throws were crisp and on target, with some noticeable improvement on his long tosses. Flacco is not lacking in arm strength yet too often in the past, his receivers have had to wait for underthrown deep balls. That wasn’t the case this weekend. Another good sign – Flacco threw the ball confidently in the middle of the field and didn’t seem to lean too much on his “go to” sideline routes.
Troy Smith is clearly the No. 2 guy on the depth chart and based upon this weekend, deservedly so. Smith struggled a bit on the quick three step drops when throwing the X slant. A few of those throw were batted down. But when taking deeper drops, Smith threw confidently although his accuracy could use improvement. In his defense, Smith is often throwing to newer and/or less accomplished players. Familiarity improves timing which in turn improves accuracy. Smith had some pop in his throws, particularly on 25-30 yard posts to the left hash mark.
John Beck, in much the same way struggles like Smith with less accomplished skill position players. That aside Beck’s tosses by far packed the weakest punch of the three QB’s. The lack of velocity was very noticeable in the driving winds that swept through the practice field on Saturday as his passes often fluttered. Neither Flacco nor Smith seemed to be affected as much.
WILDCAT: The Ravens showed a slight variation to their Wildcat sub package. Willis McGahee took the direct snap and ran out of it with Ray Rice flanked out to his left and Flacco flanked right. McGahee ran the ball from this formation. In a very similar formation with the “2’s” Jalen Parmele took the direct snap and handed it to UDFA RB Curtis Steele who took the inside handoff to the right, pitch it back to Troy Smith on a reverse who then delivered a shot down field to Demetrius Williams. On Sunday the “1’s” employed the same trickery with McGahee, Rice, Flacco and Boldin.
RUNNING BACK: Without contact it is difficult to gauge the successes and failures of the running backs during mini-camps. All of the backs appear to be in very good shape. You know what you’ll get with Rice, McGahee and McClain. The left-handed Rice was featured on a few halfback option plays over the weekend. Jalen Parmele seems to be a bit lighter and quicker while newcomer Curtis Steele (UDFA from Memphis) chipped in with a very determined effort. But there’s a danger in being lured in by newcomers like Steele. As a UDFA he is fighting for his career. Marquee veterans are playing at a more moderate pace and the end result of these practices can be misleading. That said, Steele looks like a decent find by the scouting department and he could push Matt Lawrence for a roster spot if he can contribute to special teams. Lawrence is recovering from a ’09 knee injury and was an observer for most of the weekend.
TIGHT END: Todd Heap has said that this is the best he’s felt in years and if this mini-camp is any indication, that isn’t just lip service. Heap seemed quicker off the snap, gained better separation from defenders and his change of direction didn’t appear as lumbering as in the past few years. Rookies Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta were impressive. Dickson is a bit of a tweener in the mold of New Orleans’ Marques Colston. He doesn’t possess that prototypical tight end body yet isn’t as fast as a wide receiver. But he does present mismatches down the field because he towers over safeties and can separate from linebackers. Pitta was featured in motion – a bit like an H-back and he seems to possess an understanding of defenses locating the soft spots in zone coverages. Clearly it’s very early but you can see why the Ravens selected both players because they offer different skill sets. The bet here is that Heap’s heir apparent is Pitta with Dickson taking on a less traditional role, particularly in a Ravens offense. It will be interesting to see how Cam Cameron employs both…Lost in the shuffle in 2009 fifth round selection Davon Drew. To his credit, Drew is in much better shape this year yet it will be interesting to see how many snaps Drew gets given that for all intents and purposes the Ravens currently have three rookie tight ends on their roster.
WIDE RECEIVER: Anquan Boldin comes as advertised. If this camp is any indication, he’ll be used more downfield than he was in Arizona. Some may recall that Boldin was once a quarterback and judging from the way he tosses the ball around, don’t rule out the possibility of this Pro Bowl receiver throwing a pass or three this season…Donte Stallworth showcased the straight ahead speed we’ve heard about. He accelerates effortlessly and will stretch defenses. He does seem to slow down quite a bit going into his breaks. While that is to be expected, the deceleration is rather noticeable and it allows defensive backs to make up some ground and close the separation Stallworth’s speed initially created. He showed very soft hands throughout the weekend and is a better than advertised pass catcher…Derrick Mason delivered more of the same we’ve come to expect from him…Mark Clayton was an observer having just undergone a cleanup procedures on his shoulder. For a guy whose NFL career is in doubt, you’d think that he would have had this corrective surgery done a while ago to assure his availability for this mandatory mini-camp. Instead he spent part of his offseason doing charity work in Africa – hard to fault him for giving of his time but it does bring into question his level of commitment to football…Demetrius Williams moved well but was perhaps the most inconsistent receiver among the group with his hands. On whole the group was very sure-handed but relatively speaking, Williams was among the leaders in dropped passes…Justin Harper is a player who has shown an ability to get open in the past but an inability to hold on to the football, was much more reliable as a pass catcher. Word is he’s worked hard and is one of the most well-liked players on the roster…Marcus Smith, sporting Troy Smith’s old No. 11 was an observer most the weekend still recovering from last summer’s knee injury…Rookie David Reed has nice ball skills and adjusts to throws very well…Fans who hold out hope for Eron Riley should probably invest their emotions elsewhere. Even his practice squad spot is in doubt. Again, it’s early but the bet here is that Rodelin Anthony, UDFA from UNLV stands a better chance of being assigned to the practice squad.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The biggest story of this mini-camp was the move of Jared Gaither to right tackle and Michael Oher to left tackle. The move led to trade speculation which only intensified on Saturday when Gaither didn’t show up for practice and spent the morning in the training room. Many believe that the “injury” is nothing more than gamesmanship on the part of agent Drew Rosenhaus who has orchestrated similar stunts with clients in the past, including new Raven Anquan Boldin when Boldin was in Arizona. Most believe that Gaither is going nowhere – at least not this year. This is obviously a story that will be followed closely. A few of the names that I heard kicked around as part of a Buffalo Bills trade for Gaither are Donte Whitner, Ashton Youboty and Leodis McKelvin…Filling in for Gaither at right tackle was Oniel Cousins. Fans shudder to think of Cousins as the team’s starting right tackle yet the coaching staff seems genuinely impressed with Cousins’ progression…Ben Grubbs, Matt Birk and Marshal Yanda are all entrenched in their familiar positions. Swingman Chris Chester has put on some weight seeking balance between quickness and strength at the point of attack…Rookie Ramon Harewood is a big prospect/project who shows nice footwork and unusual nimbleness for his size. His challenge will be adjusting to the speed and talent of the NFL coming from small Moorehouse College. He is a perfect candidate for a mysterious training camp injury that sidelines him for the season (see Tony Pashos rookie year).
DEFENSIVE LINE: Because this is a non-contact camp it’s difficult to assess defensive performances. When defending the pass, the rush quits when approaching the quarterback yet the quarterback continues to finish the play and that places an unfair burden on the defensive backfield. While defending the run would be tacklers touch the running backs yet the ball carriers accelerate through the line of scrimmage anyway and into the secondary giving the observer the impression that the offensive line is dominating. But with that in mind, here are a few observations of the defensive front.
Most eyes were on Terrence Cody and perhaps the most impressive thing about Cody is his athleticism despite his girth. He has a quick initial step and pursues well. Trevor Pryce didn’t provide much to talk about. He’s a savvy veteran who knows how to pace himself and extend the season now that he’s a 35 year old player. He does seem to be a bit thicker than in years past…Cory Redding moves well and looks to be one of the guys who will be on the field at tackle on third down…Antwan Barnes also surprisingly lined up as a tackle on third down. When doing so, Terrell Suggs often motioned pre-snap from the defensive right side to the middle of the line as part of an obvious attempt to create confusion amongst the offensive line and gain a favorable mismatch…Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg are both nursing injuries…Paul Kruger did not appear to be much of a factor. Last year at this time he appeared quick off the ball and was a menacing presence in the offensive backfield. This year his highly touted added muscle mass seems to have slowed him a bit. This will be something to watch when the defense gets to take off the gloves in training camp…Edgar Jones always seems to show up well during camps but either disappears, gets moved to offense or doesn’t get a chance during games. This weekend was no different as he once again performed well in practice.
LINEBACKER: Ray Lewis ran around like he’s stuck on 29 years old. He is playing at 252 at the moment, a bit bigger than this time last year but by no means is that an indictment on his conditioning. Lewis is like a Chevy Truck…Terrell Suggs re-commitment is apparent. He’s in better shape and quicker off the snap. If this camp is any indication, he also appears determined to reclaim that luster lost in 2009…Sergio Kindle is very quick off the edge but needs work developing his pass rushing moves. He may have gotten by in college on athleticism. He’ll need more than that in the NFL. He along with Kruger should become D-line coach Mike McCrary’s prized pupils…Dannell Ellerbe, Tavares Gooden and Jameel McClain all alternated alongside Ray Lewis with the 1’s…Jason Phillips manned the middle with the 2’s while Prescott Burgess rotated between the 1’s and 2’s stepping in for the recovering Jarret Johnson with the 1’s.
SECONDARY: Most eyes were on the players rotating at corner. Despite practice conditions favoring the offense, Domonique Foxworth played well. Opposite him Chris Carr and Cary Williams rotated with the 1’s. At least in this camp Williams was the more impressive of the two and closed nicely on one deep post intended for Boldin. Boldin got his hands on the ball but Williams went up and eventually stripped the ball from the Ravens No. 1 WR…UDFA Prince Miller despite his 5’8” stature plays aggressively and he’ll be a player to watch closely in camp…Veteran CB Travis Fisher, a former second round pick by the Rams in 2002 competed well and has a chance to make the team…Tom Zbikowski filled in for Ed Reed with the 1’s alongside Dawan Landry.
It’s tough to really gauge the special teams without pads and with very limited action. Billy Cundiff did clank a 29 yard FGA off the right upright on Sunday. Jerry Rosburg mentioned that the team spent a decent amount of time scouting potential impact players in the return game, particularly with Lardarius Webb expected to be out for a bit. David Reed and Prince Miller were mentioned as potential punt return guys. Should he make the team, expect Parmele to be the favorite to return kicks.
OTHER NOTES & OBSERVATIONS
Coaches on both sides of the ball were quick to point out the mentoring program that is naturally developing on the team. Jarret Johnson who once was mentored by Adalius Thomas has been helping Sergio Kindle; Ngata and Gregg have been working with Cody…Coaches also made mention that these practices were among the best that they’ve ever seen at this stage of the season, particularly Cameron…Al Saunders was running all over the field supporting the offense, coaching up and offering encouragement to receivers and tight ends while in the secondary. He was repeatedly reinforced the value of downfield blocking after the catch…The Ravens have apparently ramped up the defensive playbook, perhaps as part of an effort to create more pressure on the quarterback. Even film study rat Ray Lewis said that the new additions have his head spinning at the moment…The team practiced their red zone offense accompanied by speakers pumping in recorded crowd noise. We may see more of this with the league’s announcement that home teams can now create ways to encourage fans to disrupt their opponents…Boston College UDFA linebacker Mike McLaughlin lined up as a fullback and is listed on the team’s roster as such.