The process of breaking down the prospective 53-man roster for the 2014 Baltimore Ravens has already begun.
To continue the practice, let’s take a look at some of the key positional battles as training camp approaches, and which players have the advantage in each race.
Training camp promises to provide a slew of unpredictable competitions at almost every position.
Who will come out on top?
Third Receiver (Jacoby Jones vs Marlon Brown) – An underrated battle to keep an eye on. With the addition of veteran Steve Smith, the top two on Baltimore’s wide receiver depth chart is the former Carolina Panthers, as well as fellow Smith, Torrey.
In three-receiver sets, who else touches the field? As a rookie, Marlon Brown wildly exceeded expectations, catching 49 passes for seven touchdowns and emerging as a reliable red zone threat by season’s end.
His competition, veteran Jacoby Jones, entered last season with the reputation of a special teamer with raw and inconsistent receiving skills, but he looked much more aggressive and confident in his receiving game in 2013, and his rapport with quarterback Joe Flacco was obvious.
Both had fairly even roles in Baltimore’s pass attack last year, and either wouldn’t be too bad of a third option.
Advantage: Jones (a very close edge)
Right Tackle (Ricky Wagner vs Ryan Jensen vs the field) – A few weeks ago, Jensen wasn’t even considered an option, as he was a swing guard/center for the team last season. But now, Jensen has entered the race at right tackle, battling the current favorite, Ricky Wagner.
Based on merit after playing sparingly as a rookie, Wagner has the edge over Jensen, who can’t be properly evaluated until he finally takes a preseason or regular season snap with the team, neither of which he accomplished last season.
Odds are – whether the addition is a viable starting option or just insurance – the Ravens will also add a veteran tackle before or during training camp.
Free Safety (Terrence Brooks vs Darian Stewart) – Normally a third round selection would face an uphill battle to win a starting job against an experienced veteran. But in this case, pure talent should prevail.
Stewart does provide value to the team as a diverse safety, but Brooks is the reliable, athletic coverage option the Ravens desperately needed after a full season of Matt Elam and James Ihedigbo on the back end.
Nose Tackle (Brandon Williams vs Timmy Jernigan) – Baltimore’s front seven depth is abundant and nose tackle is far from an exception. After using a third round pick on small school defender Williams in 2013, the Ravens went back to the middle of the trenches to snag Jernigan in the second round this year.
Jernigan may not be a true zero/one technique nose tackle, but that’s where he’ll play most, and with improved consistency, could be a force for Baltimore. But as of now, Williams is the more developed player, whose playing time was criminally low last season (93 snaps) as his rare combination of strength and athleticism makes him the complete package at the position.
That wasn’t more apparent than when the Ravens played the Steelers in Pittsburgh last season, and Williams’ uncontested strength was on display. Expect a much bigger role for Williams, someone worthy of a promotion.
Nickel Cornerback (Chykie Brown vs Asa Jackson) – Is “neither” an option? No? Well, I guess one has to have the advantage then. Ideally, the Ravens would benefit from a veteran addition at cornerback to spice up the competition behind starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb.
But for the time being, the battle for the third/nickel corner role will be a race between two inexperienced defenders in Brown and Jackson.
The younger player, Jackson, has been known more for his multiple suspensions than on-field play through two seasons, as he has yet to record a defensive snap.
Brown, meanwhile, had a minimal role in 2013, but was a mainstay in Baltimore’s secondary during the playoff run leading up to the Super Bowl in 2012. He took on a large role in all three pre-Super Bowl games, and while he never stood out per se, he held his own against Denver’s pass attack, the toughest assignment he’s faced in his young NFL career.
The sample size is larger for Brown, so if the battle indeed comes down to these two contenders, it’s easier to buy into Brown with less of the unknown factor that Jackson brings.
Backup Quarterback (Keith Wenning vs Tyrod Taylor) – For a detailed breakdown of why Wenning should ultimately win the job, check here. Long story short, Taylor has had three years to prove himself as a viable backup and hasn’t. Worrying about the backup quarterback position is far from a priority for Baltimore’s coaching staff, but the intrigue of starting the process of immersing Wenning in the offense will prevail by the beginning of the season, and he’ll be the backup for Week 1.
Keep an eye on the battle for the punter job between Sam Koch and undrafted rookie Richie Leone. No prediction on who wins that battle as of now, though, as dissecting the punter situation hasn’t been high on the list of priorities to address…yet.