Earlier this week, Aaron Wilson took a look at some of the key battles to watch as the Ravens take the field for training camp in Owings Mills. While kicker, defensive end, left guard, etc. are sure to grab the headlines, there are several other less-talked-about competitions for Ravens fans to keep an eye on.
Jacoby Jones vs. Asa Jackson vs. David Reed
Jones has been a strong kick and punt return over his career but only returned punts last year. Jackson averaged 25.8 yards per kick return last year in college. Reed again boasted a strong average of nearly 30 yards an attempt but had problems hanging onto the ball as well as staying healthy. He’s coming off an ACL injury that will need to be monitored.
Ladarius Webb vs. Jacoby Jones vs. Asa Jackson
Webb is the incumbent; he averaged 10 yards per return last year with one score. He also just received a shiny new 50 million dollar extension in the offseason to continue to make wide receivers’ lives difficult. One would imagine they’d want to keep their investment away from return duties. Jones averaged 10.6 yards per return last year with the Texans including one score. Jackson averaged 18 yards per return last year but only had eight attempts. He averaged 14.7 yards per return over his college career.
Third Tight End
Davon Drew vs. Matt Balasavage vs. Bruce Figgins vs. veteran free agent
Drew has great size and good athleticism for the TE position. He’s been around the team since he was drafted in the 5th round in ’09 (aside from the short stint he had with the Dolphins that same year). The Ravens thought enough of him to sign him to the active roster last year when there was threat he’d be signed off the practice squad. The Ravens also haven’t brought in any veteran free agent TE’s to this point. From the outside looking in it seems it’s Drew’s job to lose.
Undrafted free agent TE’s Balasavage and Figgins are both blocking specialists. Figgins offers some versatility having played fullback last year at Georgia after spending his first three years at TE. Balsavage helped open holes for Ravens 3rd round pick Bernard Pierce as he punched in an impressive 27 TD’s this past season at Temple.
It’s up to Drew to realize his potential while also showing that he can be an adequate blocker because his competition’s only angle is blocking. If Drew falters early you could see the Ravens look for
Backup NT/D-Line depth
Bryan Hall vs. DeAngelo Tyson vs. Maake Kemoeatu vs. Nicolas Jean-Baptiste vs. Ishmaa’ily Kitchen
Haloti Ngata, Terrance Cody, Arthur Jones, Pernell Mcphee and Ryan Mcbean look to be the core of the unit this year. That leaves two, possibly three spots available.
Hall is a practice squad holdover who flashed some real ability in preseason last year. He also – by all accounts – has been a regular at offseason conditioning.
Tyson is a rookie from Georgia whose game fits the Ravens well as a space eater/run stopper. He offers some versatility, being able to play the nose and the five technique but in the pro game is much better suited as a five technique.
Kemoeatu is on the comeback trail; his previous reserve role with the Ravens led to a lucrative contract with Carolina Panthers back in 2006. Six years and couple injuries later he’s back in Baltimore trying to earn a reserve role – we’ll have to wait and see one, just how healthy he is, and two, how much he has left in the tank.
Jean-Baptiste is a massive undrafted free agent out of Baylor, a legit pro nose tackle from a size standpoint who shows solid athleticism but struggles with consistency using his hands and playing with proper leverage. He couldn’t find a better coach to try to clean those issues up then Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks. Kitchen is a very similar player but may have a slightly better initial burst.
Working in these players’ favor is the fact that Mcbean will be suspended for the first three games of this season. That could lead the Ravens to possibly keep an extra defensive lineman to start the year and release them to activate Mcbean. If it’s Baptiste or Kitchen they could be transitioned onto the practice squad.
Other things to watch for….
The battle for the sixth cornerback spot
Webb, Smith and Williams will see the lion’s share of the snaps as they did last season. Free agent Corey Graham was brought in to boost the special teams but will be given an opportunity to nail down a spot at corner as well. Asa Jackson is a talented player and also adds the dual threat of being a return threat, which should keep him safe. It comes down to Danny Gorrer and Chykie Brown. Gorrer played very well when called upon last year, while Brown is more physically gifted and was just drafted in 2011. My money is on Gorrer but it will be interesting to see how it will play out.
The Pseudo-third QB spot…
Curtis Painter was brought in to compete in training camp but it’s hard to envision a scenario where he beats out another position player to become the third QB on the active roster. If undrafted free agents John Brantley or Chester Stewart come even close to matching Painter’s training camp and preseason performance it makes the decision that much easier. Brantley more so because he’s the more talented pocket passer of the group, and possesses solid size and arm strength while also showing nice touch on the throws that require it. He could be a nice developmental project to stash on the practice squad while he adjusts to the nuances of the pro game.
Who is this year’s Laquan Williams?
What undrafted free agent is gonna impress so much that he beats the odds and makes the team? I’ve got two candidates to watch…
Deonte Thompson -The former Florida receiver turned heads in mini camp with his speed. He has a solid frame and can absolutely fly. He has special teams experience as a returner and in coverage. He never lived up to his potential at Florida, and the impression he’s made has been without pads on, but he has some natural ability and base to work from as a developmental WR. He’d probably have to beat out late round pick Tommy Streeter to make the team and he’d need to clearly outperform him in camp to do so.
Nigel Carr – Another guy who has opened eyes in the offseason. He’s a natural athlete at linebacker that has shown upside. He’s been critiqued for taking bad angles in coverage and not playing up to his potential. One future niche for him could be in nickel situations where the current nickel backers Ray Lewis and Brendan Ayenbadejo are 37 and 35 years old, respectively. If he can improve on those issues he has a solid chance at making the roster.