The countdown to training camp has begun, with the commencement of the 2014 campaign just weeks away for the Baltimore Ravens.
After an unordinary 8-8, playoff-less season for the team, turning the page and officially starting full practices for a new season allows team and fans alike to finally turn over a new leaf and shift all eyes and discussion to the 2014 season.
Last year’s season was full of disappointments, and all signs point to the Ravens rebounding this year with an improved roster, and, hopefully, an improved win total.
But, even if the team is improved from a year ago, there’s no guarantee every player will live up to expectations in training camp.
Every position has plenty of candidates to be surprises or disappointment during the training camp and preseason.
Who are some candidates?
Surprise: Keith Wenning – One not-so-heated but still notable positional battle during training camp is at backup quarterback, where the rookie Wenning will battle the incumbent Tyrod Taylor, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
At best, Taylor sticks around one more year with the team before Wenning takes over, but it’s likely that the Ravens keep just two QBs, and Wenning has the talent to make himself a worthy backup in year one.
Disappointment: Joe Flacco – After a year in which he posted a career-high interception total of 22, there’s a good chance Flacco progresses back to the minimal-turnover quarterback he was during his first five NFL seasons.
But even if he does get back on track, it won’t come without a steep learning curve, as Flacco is still undergoing a change in offensive system, which doesn’t promise to yield positive results from day one. Flacco had the luxury of stability at offensive coordinator early in his career, but is now on his third in less than two calendar years. Learning Gary Kubiak’s offense well enough to execute it smoothly and reliably – both for Flacco and the rest of the team – may not happen until closer to the end of camp, or even into the regular season. Ravens fans would be wise to temper expectations while watching the preseason games.
Surprise: Kyle Juszczyk – One of the biggest beneficiaries of the arrival of Kubiak to the offense is Juszczyk, who is the perfect fit for the new scheme.
Juszczyk was limited to special teams as a rookie, but expect him to be a viable pass-catching option out of the backfield this year, being Kubiak’s Baltimore version of James Casey.
Disappointment: Bernard Pierce – With Ray Rice’s early-season suspension looming, the workload in the running game is expected to be directed toward Pierce, who is looking to rebound from a 2013 season in which he averaged just 2.9 yards per carry, a far cry from his 4.9 average in 2012.
Pierce is the most talented runner after Rice on the roster, but offseason rotator cuff surgery combined with the fact he has played much of his first two NFL seasons banged up and not at full speed mean that uncertainty looms as to whether or not he’ll be ready to handle the increased role.
Surprise: Jacoby Jones – As the 2013 regular season progressed, so did Jones as a receiver. His second season with Flacco provided improved chemistry between the two, and reuniting Jones with Kubiak should bring positive results to the offense.
Jones posted two of his three highest career reception totals during his final two years in Houston, and his role on offense could steadily increase.
Disappointment: Marlon Brown – This all comes down to expectations. As an undrafted rookie, Brown vastly exceeded expectations in 2013, catching 49 passes for seven touchdowns – virtually unheard of stats for a first-year, undrafted player.
In year two, while Brown may continue his progression, it may not be a safe bet to expect him to recreate his production from year one. He was on the field for 821 snaps as a rookie, but the addition of Steve Smith and Kubiak’s use of multiple tight ends and the run game may not provide Brown with as many opportunities this time around.
Surprise: Owen Daniels – On just a one-year deal, Daniels is viewed as just a stopgap while rookie Crockett Gillmore develops. That may be the case, but even so, Daniels still has a chance to be a valuable piece to the offense in 2014.
Daniels offers more blocking value than Dennis Pitta, and as a middle-of-the-field option, expect Daniels to be an improvement in the reliability department over Ed Dickson.
Disappointment: Dennis Pitta – He just re-upped with the team for five years, and coming off a full offseason to heal from his almost season-ending 2013 hip injury, Pitta should be closer to his 2012 form, when he averaged 11.0 yards per catch on 61 receptions.
But will he ever fully reach that form again? Pitta averaged just 8.5 yards per catch in four games with the team last season, and at 29 years old, he isn’t exactly the young, budding tight end he was a few years back.
Having Pitta back improves the offense, but by how much?
Surprise: Ricky Wagner – So far, so good for Wagner, who has yet to face any real competition for the starting right tackle job. While that may change during training camp with a veteran addition or two, for now, it’s Wagner’s job to lose.
Wagner played admirably in limited chances last season, and he is a capable player if called upon to be a starter. At the very least, he won’t be worse than Michael Oher at the position if he does indeed win the starting job.
Disappointment: Ryan Jensen – If Wagner wins the starting right tackle job, that takes away an opportunity from Jensen, whose NFL ceiling appears to be a versatile backup offensive lineman. With limited opportunities for playing time, Jensen will battle it out with backups such as John Urschel, Jah Reid and Gino Gradkowski, among others. Any additions to the offensive line may put Jensen’s role and/or roster spot in jeopardy.
Defensive surprises and disappointments coming soon…