Matt Birk is back on the practice field today after being removed from PUP List. Filling in during his absence was a bulked up Chris Chester. Don’t be surprised to see Chester get an unusually high number of snaps during preseason games. The Ravens want to find out if Chester can become a quality center in the NFL or if they’ll have to invest in a free agent or draft pick for a center in 2011.
Asked recently about the complexities of the center position, Birk said that given how the speed of the game has increased during his career, it has effectively made the field smaller. Defenders now can line up on one side of the center yet with their speed and quickness they can create pressure on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. Consequently the line calls from the center position have become more mentally challenging. Birk added this quip to the tail end of the discussion:
“Then again, maybe I’ve taken too many hits to the head and I’m just dumber.”
Chris Carr has looked sharp during camp and has shown to be a solid cover corner. His confidence improved sharply following the bye week in 2009 and it continued through the playoffs. The offseason has done little to change that.
Carr’s backfield mates Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are ahead of the recovery curve from torn ACL’s. Washington is already back on the field and he’ll get the green light to go against the Jets on Opening Day barring any setbacks. Word is that Webb will be ready to begin practice in about 3 weeks and if he tracks the way Washington has in the healing process, he could be back on the field by Week 2 or 3. That means that he’s unlikely to hit the PUP list and that could threaten marginally important roster spots like a No. 3 quarterback.
Speaking of quarterbacks, there are some observers who believe that Marc Bulger has been the team’s best quarterback in camp so far. Clearly that’s a debatable topic yet Bulger’s embracing of the offense, his mastery of the subtleties of the position and his camp productivity represent dividends on the team’s investment in the former Pro Bowl QB.
Insiders weren’t too pleased about Flacco’s short-lived whining about bringing Bulger in. They prefer instead that Flacco learn from the veteran’s experiences and incorporate those subtleties into his own game. This is added value in the Bulger signing. Such experiences aren’t available when all quarterbacks are of the same age and share similar game experiences.
Back to corners for a moment, veterans Travis Fisher and Walt Harris have done very little so far to justify their roster spots. Fisher no longer possesses the speed that he once had and is almost always a step behind. Harris hasn’t seen the field much and that led to the end of his career as a Raven today to make room for newly signed CB Chris Hawkins. Neither Fisher nor Harris has made a single memorable impactful play during camp. Frank Walker would actually be an upgrade.
One insider said that as athletes who have had prior calf issues age, that suddenness and burst are very difficult to recapture and if speed was a big part of an athlete’s game, then the end is right around the corner. That said, the Ravens aren’t asking for these players to be full-timers. They just need depth.
Depth is certainly something that marks the position of tight end for the Ravens. Todd Heap looks healthier than he’s been in years and rookies Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta hardly look like freshmen. Both are heady players and Pitta has been impressive in his ability to execute from many different positions on the field. Cam Cameron is moving him around in the slot, backfield and as an H-back. Dickson is most impressive in the way he carries his pads. Some players have great clock speed in t-shirts and shorts but slow when they are loaded up with equipment. That’s not the case with Dickson. Some believe that if anything were to happen to Heap, either of these players would be able to step in and immediately pick up the slack. Surprisingly as these two rookies compete for snaps, they are the best of friends.
A favorite of many in the organization, Justin Harper has shown dramatically improved hands during this training camp. His challenges will come when the preseason games arrive. Last year Harper found ways to create separation but struggled to hold on to the football during the summer games. Interestingly, while Harper has made some impressive grabs during practice, there are some who believe that he had a better camp last year particularly in areas outside of ball catching.
A receiver who has really stepped up at McDaniel College this summer is Mark Clayton. He’s healthier this year and isn’t battling the hamstring issues that have so often inhibited his play. At this point he is the clear No. 3 receiver ahead of Donte Stallworth who has also had a very good camp. That said, the mix of Stallworth with Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason would appear to be more complementary. The issue with Clayton and Mason together is that both players have very similar styles and build.
The offensive line has had its fair share of drama thanks to Jared Gaither’s enigmatic ways and those ways just might cause him to lose his left tackle position. He simply isn’t dependable and a team needs that from the blindside position. Gaither has been in and out of practice, suffering from back spasms that the team feels are tied to his weight loss and loss of fluids during camp. This drama won’t go away any time soon.
To fill in for Gaither, the Ravens move Michael Oher to left tackle and they’ve plugged in Joe Reitz and Ramon Harewood at right tackle. Now that Oniel Cousins has returned to practice he’s also in the mix.
Reitz has been referred to as a poor man’s Joe Staley and the former tight end and Western Michigan basketball player has shown improvement. With another year of practice squad eligibility remaining, that appears to be his likely destination.
The coaching staff has been impressed with Harewood and at this point in his career they believe he’s further along in his development than Cousins was as a rookie. Harewood will likely follow a similar path to Tony Pashos. He’ll come down with some mysterious injury and head to IR. It’s doubtful that the team will be able to cut Harewood and successfully reclaim him for the practice squad. One insider said not to be surprised if Harewood is the team’s starting right tackle in 2012.