OWINGS MILLS — Blocking sleds recoiling from contact, the thud of kickers booting field goals and the familiar cadence of coaches exhorting players have returned.
It’s the familiar sounds of an NFL training camp.
As the Baltimore Ravens’ rookies, quarterbacks and injured veterans from last season hit the field today at team headquarters for the first practice of camp with the first full-team practice scheduled for Thursday, several jobs are at stake.
One season removed from reaching the AFC championship game and losing to the New England Patriots, the defending AFC North champions are officially back at work.
"Yeah, it goes by pretty quick," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It’s unbelievable. It feels like we just got done and now we’re back at training camp. It feels like we just got done and now we’re back at training camp.
"It’s going to be an exciting year. I can’t wait. I’m excited to get out there and really start getting after it and make our way toward another successful year."
In order for that to happen, the Ravens will need several things to happen:
· Bolster the third-ranked defense’s pass rush with new starting outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Courtney Upshaw after NFL Defensive Player of the Year outside linebacker Terrell Suggs partially tore his Achilles tendon in April and gritty run-stopper Jarret Johnson signed a $19 million contract with the San Diego Chargers. Suggs could miss at least the majority of the season, so Kruger and Upshaw will be two of the most scrutinized players on the roster.
· Solidify an aging offensive line that lost Pro Bowl offensive guard Ben Grubbs when he signed a $36 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. Besides needing strong seasons from two 35-year-old starters in center Matt Birk and left guard Bobbie Williams, the Ravens also need offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie to get in optimum shape.
· Get a full season out of All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis after he missed four games last season with a toe injury. Seemingly ageless at 37, Lewis has dropped 15 pounds to get down to 240 pounds to maintain his trademark quickness.
· Have mercurial star free safety Ed Reed back up his stated intentions of reporting to camp after contemplating retirement during the offseason and suggesting he might hold out before recently declaring that he plans to play this year as he enters the final year of his contract. The Ravens also need Reed to avoid the lingering neck and shoulder injuries that plagued him last season and affected his tackling.
· Continue the upward trend of improvement on offense through a more consistent season from Flacco, who had the lowest completion percentage and quarterback rating of his career last season. Flacco nearly propelled the Ravens to a Super Bowl berth, outshining Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. However, a dropped Lee Evans pass in the end zone blocked the Ravens’ bid for a Super Bowl.
"We are on schedule," coach John Harbaugh said when the Ravens concluded their offseason schedule. "I like where we are right now. We just have to keep building."
A big part of that process will involve determining the winners of seven key competitions.
Here’s a look at what’s at stake:
The Ravens invested a five-year, $14.7 million contract into Billy Cundiff after his breakthrough Pro Bowl season two years ago.
His rocky season last year ended when he flubbed a rushed 32-yard chip shot wide left against the Patriots that could have sent the game into overtime.
Unable to obtain a veteran willing to battle Cundiff, the Ravens held onto him after he connected on just 28 of 37 field goals last year as he misfired on five of six kicks 50 yards or higher.
The Ravens signed rookie free agent Justin Tucker out of the University of Texas following a successful minicamp audition.
Tucker has a strong leg, a lot of confidence in himself and made 40 of 48 career field goals for the Longhorns, including a game-winning field goal over Texas A&M.
Tucker was accurate on a series of 55-yard kicks during offseason practices, but lacks experience.
Cundiff, 32, is game-tested and regarded as the favorite to hold onto his job.
However, he can make himself vulnerable if he struggles during the preseason. The Ravens want to test Cundiff’s mental resolve as much as possible during camp to see if he’s truly gotten over the biggest miss of his career.
Cary Williams started every game last season, but underwent surgery in February on his right hip to repair a torn labrum.
Although Williams said he’s made a sound recovery and expects to have no restrictions at practice this week, his status is complicated by the presence of former first-round cornerback Jimmy Smith.
Smith is a big, fast defensive back with the tools to become a shutdown cornerback.
Whether it’s the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Williams or the 6-2, 205-pound Smith lining up opposite $50 million cornerback Lardarius Webb, the Ravens should have a strong tandem for their secondary.
Williams recorded 78 tackles, 18 pass deflections and two forced fumbles last season while Smith had two interceptions in the regular season and another in the playoffs against New England.
Smith has dropped weight to upgrade his speed. He’s expected to provide a huge challenge to Williams as he vies to hold onto his job.
Regardless of who’s the regular starter, both figure to see plenty of action in today’s pass-centric NFL.
3. Defensive end
Arthur Jones gets first crack at the left defensive end vacancy created by Cory Redding signing with the Indianapolis Colts during the offseason.
Jones lined up with the starters during offseason practices partially due to the progress he’s made since being picked in the fifth round three years ago and also due to Pernell McPhee being sidelined with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery.
Jones is a burly defensive lineman well-suited at 313 pounds to stuffing the run.
He has significantly improved his conditioning, cutting down his body fat and building more strength in the weight room.
With six sacks as a rookie, McPhee is the Ravens’ top returning pass rusher with Suggs out indefinitely.
At 280 pounds, McPhee’s game is defined by a quick first step and a relentless style.
It’s considered likely that Jones and McPhee will wind up splitting the position.
Jones is the leader heading into camp after a strong offseason.
McPhee has made a sound recovery from his injury.
4. Left offensive guard
A former Cincinnati Bengals starter, Williams gets first crack at replacing Grubbs after signing a $2.9 million contract in June.
He was immediately plugged in with the starters at minicamp.
Rookie second-round draft pick Kelechi Osemele is Williams’ primary challenger followed by Jah Reid and Gino Gradkowski.
Williams provides a mauling blocking presence at 6-4, 345 pounds, but missed time last season due to an NFL suspension and a broken ankle.
The biggest question mark with Williams is age. His 36th birthday is in September.
5. Third wide receiver
The Ravens signed Jacoby Jones to a two-year, $6.5 million contract to be their return specialist and add speed to the receiving corps.
Jones is a speedy former Houston Texans starter who caught 31 passes for 512 yards and two touchdowns last season, averaging 16.5 yards per reception.
For his career, he has 127 catches for 1,741 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The drawback with Jones is his inconsistent hands, something that’s been dogged him throughout his career and has been on display since joining the Ravens.
Jones’ superior size, speed and experience are expected to trump Tandon Doss’ crisp routes and sure hands and LaQuan Williams’ playmaking ability.
The caveat: He has to catch the ball consistently.
6. Backup running back
Who will emerge as a change of pace to Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice after the retirement of Ricky Williams?
Anthony Allen is the only one of the candidates who’s carried the football in an NFL game, but only had three rushes for eight yards as a rookie last year.
Allen has a straightforward, tackle-breaking game, but lacks ideal explosiveness and moves.
Rookie third-round pick Bernard Pierce is regarded as the most suited of the backups to achieve full-time status if anything happens to Rice.
He’s a bullish zone one-cut runner who scored 27 touchdowns last season for Temple.
Damien Berry trails Allen and Pierce, but is a slashing runner with a decent burst.
7. Backup quarterback
A former sixth-round draft pick from Virginia Tech, Tyrod Taylor is a mobile, elusive former Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year who also has a strong arm.
He’s undersized, though.
The Ravens signed Curtis Painter, who started half of the Indianapolis Colts’ games last season and threw six touchdowns with nine interceptions. He didn’t win any of his starts last year.
Harbaugh has reiterated more than once that Taylor holds the edge to back up Flacco.