Through one preseason game and most of training camp, there is still plenty of unsettled business en route to the Baltimore Ravens cutting the roster down to 53 players by August 30.
Along with finding the right 53 players comes finding the right roles for the lucky ones to still be Ravens when the calendar turns to September.
Thursday’s preseason opener did offer some clarity at some key positions, and there are some things we know with less than a month until the regular season.
There’s also plenty that we don’t know.
WHAT WE KNOW
The cornerback depth is terrible, but Asa Jackson stands above the rest in the second tier.
Going into to the first preseason game, it was a near consensus that Baltimore’s depth and talent at cornerback was average-to-below average. The performances by the cornerbacks on Thursday did nothing to change that.
Third-year nickel candidate Asa Jackson stood out in a Lardarius Webb-less secondary, and his strong performance only further solidified his already strong case to be the team’s third corner.
To roughly quote Brad Pitt in Moneyball:
“There’s Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s Asa Jackson, and then there’s another 50 feet of crap, and then there’s the rest of the Ravens cornerbacks.”
Jackson’s toughest competition for the nickel corner job is fourth-year player Chykie Brown, whose consistently poor training camp and disappointing first outing of the preseason has made it clear he has done nothing to seize the opportunity he once had, when the nickel corner candidacy was in his favor.
He looked lost and out of place on multiple plays, two concerns that shouldn’t be the case for a four-year veteran.
After Brown, there’s the likes of Dominique Franks, Tramain Jacobs and Deji Olatoye. The latter was easily the worst of the three against the San Francisco 49ers, while Jacobs looks like a potential roster candidate, as does Franks.
Starting right tackle is still Ricky Wagner’s to lose.
If you’ve been here before, you won’t need another seal of approval for Ricky Wagner as the team’s starting right tackle.
Bringing in a veteran to compete with Wagner would have made sense if he had early-camp struggles, but he didn’t, and he further strengthened his case with a strong 41-snap 2014 debut against the 49ers.
Wagner had a few miscommunications as a run blocker – one notable play in which Steve Smith Sr. saved Wagner after a whiff – but overall, he fared well, particularly as a pass blocker.
His strength proved to be adequate, as he handled outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks on several plays in pass protection, and he looked quite comfortable as the starter.
Jah Reid relieved Wagner, but at this point, it’d be a major surprise to see Wagner let the starting job slip away.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
How will the team handle the poor cornerback situation?
As mentioned above, Baltimore’s depth at cornerback isn’t a pretty sight at the moment. The fact that Webb’s lingering back issue has kept him sidelined worsens the situation, as well as Jackson’s injury on Sunday.
If the Ravens roll with what they have, it’s risky business. Sure, Brown could turn it around and become the nickel corner, and Jacobs and Franks could prove to be roster-worthy contributors and members of the final 53-man roster.
But to expect that to happen, as well as for Webb to be 100% and in full form by the end of the preseason, is a bit Pollyanna-ish.
Now almost midway through August, the free agent market at cornerback is pretty sparse. There are veterans such as Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson – both once very good players but now in the twilight of their respective careers – but that’s about it.
Perhaps the Ravens could make a low-level trade (maybe a player swap?) before the regular season, or simply just wait until final cuts and poach a roster-caliber corner away from a team with an abundance at the position.
Regardless of the route the Ravens take for improvement, it’s safe to say some competition at cornerback would be a logical move.
How the offensive line would fare if any starter suffers an injury.
Part of Baltimore’s offensive line dilemma last season was that the depth simply wasn’t there, and when players like A.Q. Shipley were called upon, the results weren’t pretty.
That could be the same case this season. The starting five looked about as good as they could for a first preseason game, and on the opening drive, the run-blocking by all five linemen was better than anything Baltimore’s offensive line produced in 2013.
The rest of the offensive line, though, didn’t provide anything to write home about.
On the left side, backup tackle James Hurst and backup guard Ryan Jensen were two of the team’s worst performers on Thursday night, both for different reasons.
Hurst’s strength – or lack thereof – was a major red flag, as was the case when he was an undrafted prospect out of North Carolina. Jensen struggled with leverage – although his strength also wasn’t anything impressive, either – and was a liability when it came to interior pressure.
Backup center Gino Gradkowski didn’t look as bad as he did last season, while Shipley and Reid looked just average. Another expected roster player – fifth-round pick John Urschel – didn’t enter the game until the final minutes as the third-string right guard.
If Baltimore’s starting offensive line stays healthy all year, it could be one of the strong points of the offense. But if any starter goes down, the drop-off between starter and backup at all five positions is quite steep.
How the Ravens will use Terrence Brooks.
Outside of first-round pick C.J. Mosley, it once appeared that third-rounder Terrence Brooks could be the team’s second-biggest rookie contributor. Several weeks into camp and with one preseason game in the books, Brooks still hasn’t done anything to validate that opinion.
Entering training camp with veteran Darian Stewart as almost his only competition at free safety, it would have been a conservative bet to say that Brooks would become the starter by preseason’s end.
But against the 49ers, Stewart took the field alongside Matt Elam as a starter, and the two were relieved by Brooks, Jeromy Miles, Brynden Trawick and Omar Brown. Based on playing time and usage, it’s clear that as of now Brooks is viewed as equal to his fellow backups, and not a clear-cut favorite over his counterparts.
Brooks had a relatively quiet night, totaling 20 snaps and being used near the line of scrimmage, something he did often at Florida State.
The lack of depth at cornerback has even allowed him to work with that unit, which might be a smart way to get him on the field this season.
He’ll certainly get some safety reps with the team this season, but whether those reps come as a starter or backup is still uncertain.
He showed very good coverage ability in college, though, – which makes him a prime starting free safety candidate long-term next to Elam – so perhaps he could be used to help aid the lack of depth at cornerback.
The amount of playing time Brooks gets, and with which defensive units, throughout the remainder of the preseason is a situation worth monitoring.