The dead zone – the period of time between the final mandatory mini-camp practice and the first full-team workout in training camp can be a painfully long five weeks for an organization.
Sure, many of the coaches and personnel execs are vacationing, unwinding, relaxing and resting their minds before the grind that begins for the Ravens on Thursday, July 30. But when they hear of arrests or PED or substance abuse violations around the league during the dead zone period, they may be quietly hoping for training camp to start sooner than later.
2015’s dead zone has been much quieter than 2014’s when Ravens’ mug shots seemed to surface faster than their Instagram photos. Now that the team collectively has almost reached the start of the 2015 season and the 6+ month journey to Super Bowl 50, it’s time to get down to business.
But the business of training camp varies among players. The young players and/or free agents will do all they can to show up on film in a positive way. They will play like their hair is on fire while the veterans with secure roles on the team will get in their work, get into football shape and do their best to avoid injuries. The dichotomy in preparation can produce misleading results during camp.
Players like Randy Hymes, Justin Harper, Demetrius Williams, Ronnie Prude and John Simon seemed like sure-fire keepers during fake games. Yet the coaches sift through the mirage that is training camp and the preseason with trained vision to project these players into roles on the team.
That said, each camp produces a few surprises and here are some possibilities.
Jeremy Zuttah was a welcomed addition to offensive line coach Juan Castillo’s unit last season – a clear upgrade over Gino Gradkowski. Yet Zuttah wasn’t exactly the end-all, be-all at center. He was rather average and working next to one of the best guard tandems in the NFL, you might expect better than the 17th best Center according to Pro Football Focus.
When considering Zuttah’s struggles at times and the steady improvement of John Urschel as a rookie, it would not be shocking to see the Penn State mathematician usurp Zuttah’s starting role. Something to keep in mind…the Ravens could save $2.1M under the cap in 2016 should Urschel prove to be Zuttah’s equal or better.
One of the more noticeable players during the 2014 training camp was defensive end Brent Urban. He was disruptive and menacing prior to suffering an ACL tear. If he can pick up where he left off, expect the former Virginia Cavalier to capture more and more of the snaps previously earmarked for Chris Canty as the season progresses.
Kamar Aiken came on strong late during the 2014 campaign and during OTA’s, in some ways, he reminded this observer of a poor man’s Anquan Boldin. He’s tough, fearless and willing to do the little things to make an offense better. He needs to develop better consistency catching the ball.
If he lacks sure-handedness during camp, the guy knocking on Aiken’s door for snaps and a position on the roster is Jeremy Butler. It’s unlikely that Aiken will lose a spot on the final 53 because he is a solid special teams contributor. But Butler was stellar during OTA’s and if that continues it will be hard to keep him out of wide receivers coach Bobby Engram’s unit.
Butler is a glider and a solid route runner who has shown in practice the ability to make contested catches. If he can do the same when the threat of contact is introduced the Ravens just might have themselves an eBay version of Reggie Wayne.
Last season the Ravens were tied for second with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL racking up 49 sacks (Buffalo led with 54). Perhaps the most impressive thing about that statistic is that it was achieved despite a lackluster secondary. With the additions to the defensive backfield and the healthy returns of Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and Asa Jackson, that should only serve to help the pass rushers.
Don’t be surprised if the Ravens eclipse 50 as they focus upon Super Bowl 50.
Now, more about that secondary…
Many eyes will be focused upon the Ravens secondary during camp and the preseason. After all they were the 2014 season’s Achilles heel and improvement is critical to the team’s ambitious goals.
While many other clubs are captured by the attention of splashy free agents, Ozzie Newsome looks for value in the form of complementary players. Kendrick Lewis appears to be a very solid match for Will Hill to help bolster the safety positions. Hill while an adequate cover guy has looked like a leader during OTA’s and is a proven physical player inside the hash marks.
Lewis covers ground and while he’s not the ball hawk that Ed Reed is (who is?) he will influence the decision making of opposing QB’s and that split second of hesitation causes plays to break down.
Perhaps one of the most understated acquisitions of this offseason, not only for the Ravens but league-wide, is nickel corner Kyle Arrington. The former Patriot provides quality depth and versatility to DB coach Chris Hewitt’s unit. If you liked Corey Graham, you’ll love Arrington.
The Maryland native should feel right at home, again.