For most of the key players on the roster for the Baltimore Ravens, the four preseason games this month will be nothing more than a way to get in playing shape, get on the same page with teammates and prepare for the regular season.
The case for many others, though, is much different. The preseason offers players a chance to skyrocket their status on a team, whether it may mean going from the roster bubble to the final 53-man squad, or going from the bottom of the depth chart to a considerable role once the regular season begins.
This year’s preseason offers plenty of current Ravens the chance to showcase their skill set with the hopes of earning a larger and more defined role with the team.
Which Ravens have plenty to gain in the preseason?
On the eve of the first preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers, the Ravens still have no clarity when it comes to the cornerback position. Not even just depth; starter Lardarius Webb is dealing with an ongoing back injury. If Webb heals before the season, however, the Ravens will still have to deal with the mess that is the depth behind Webb and Jimmy Smith.
Finding a nickel corner to replace Corey Graham is crucial, and if that wasn’t hard enough, the depth behind whoever the nickel corner may be doesn’t look too pretty at the moment. A mid-preseason veteran addition or two could take place to bolster the cornerback depth, but as of now, the third corner job is still Asa Jackson’s and Chykie Brown’s for the taking.
So far, it doesn’t appear that either has had an outstanding training camp by any means, but in terms of meeting expectations, it sounds like Jackson has done a better job in doing so.
Brown entered training camp with the leg up, having the valuable in-game NFL experience that Jackson still doesn’t have (zero career regular season defensive snaps). But in the preseason – especially with Webb’s injury – Jackson should get plenty of reps, even some against the first-team offenses. Experience is just as valuable as talent at this point in Jackson’s career, and for a player who does have some intriguing traits as a physical and athletic corner, four games of extended playing time could put Jackson in position to win the nickel cornerback job.
Entering training camp, the presence of veteran Aaron Ross – now out for the season – made Jackson’s role with the team – and even roster spot – uncertain. Now with a still spotty cornerback corp and only a month until the regular season kicks off, Jackson’s roster spot appears to be safe. It’s now just a matter of how much of a role he can prove to be capable of handling.
The Ravens may never expect Urschel to start for the team during his time in Baltimore, but he can still make his mark on the roster, particularly when it comes to the roster hopes of fellow interior linemen. A two-year starter at right guard in college, Urschel comes in as a versatile lineman who also figures to be used as a backup center to Jeremy Zuttah at some point.
The Ravens typically target linemen who can play multiple positions in the draft and Urschel isn’t an exception. In the preseason, Urschel may get reps at both center and guard in order for the team to determine how valuable he can be.
If Urschel can prove his worth, it may make things more difficult for his fellow interior linemen, particularly Gino Gradkowski and A.Q. Shipley. Gradkowski is absolutely NOT going to start in Baltimore, but may be worth keeping on the roster one more year to see if there is any improvement.
Shipley, on the other hand, is in the same boat as Urschel: a lineman who can play both center and guard. Starting the second half of the 2013 season at left guard in place of Kelechi Osemele, Shipley failed to impress or improve as the season progressed.
Looking toward the future, the Ravens may be better off going with their newest Penn State lineman – Urschel – instead of the veteran Nittany Lion, Shipley. This year’s preseason offers Urschel a chance to prove he can be relied on in his first season as a backup at all three interior positions.
If not, the Ravens still have depth at guard and center (Ryan Jensen included), preventing Urschel from being a necessity for the 2014 season. As a fifth-round pick, it’s unlikely the Ravens could slip Urschel to the practice squad, making an impressive preseason from Urschel even more important to the offensive line.
One thing is for certain this season: you can expect a bigger role from the tight ends in Baltimore’s offense. Atop the team’s list of tight ends is Dennis Pitta, although finding more of an in-line player for the frequent two-tight-end sets will be crucial in order to complete the offense.
The other two tight ends on the roster who figure to earn playing time in the regular season are Owen Daniels and Crockett Gillmore. As a veteran of Kubiak’s system and a talented tight end, Daniels appears to be the favorite to earn considerable playing time.
An adequate blocker and valuable underneath target, Daniels is still a good tight end when healthy, but that’s often not the case. Daniels has not played a full 16-game season since 2008 and is coming off a broken leg that ended his 2013 season after just five games.
He’ll turn 32 during the season. With his injury history, will there be chances for Gillmore to make an impact in his first year?
Even if Daniels were to stay healthy and play all 16 games, Gillmore would probably still earn occasional snaps as a blocker and red zone target, but Gillmore may need to take on a bigger role at different points throughout the year. The preseason will be a valuable time for him to develop, particularly as a blocker.
In college, Gillmore was a violent and physical blocker when he could fully gain a hold of the defender. But oftentimes his immense length (6’6, 33 3/4″ arms) worked to his disadvantage, causing him to have struggles with leverage and positioning.
The Ravens will need blocking capability from Gillmore in order to get the most out of their third-round investment. These four upcoming tune-up games will give Gillmore a chance to not only prove himself as a blocker, but show the coaches he can be depended on as a consistent staple in the offense if moved to #2 on the depth chart during his first NFL season.