Who Are The Undrafted Diamonds In Ravens' Rough?
NOTEBOOK: COMPUTER SAYS 9-7; FANTASY FESTIVAL IN NYC
By Joe Platania
Through the shimmering heat and humidity, they always seem to be there.
Each year, they emerge from behind the cacti like scorpions, ready to strike without warning and ruthlessly take what many feel isn't rightfully theirs from one of the bigger animals also trying to fight for its own survival.
"They" are the handful of undrafted rookie free agents -- in the Ravens' training camp, there are almost two dozen of them -- that manage to get themselves noticed by the coaching staff, media and fans by their sheer hustle and their determination to land one of the 1,800 prized Week One roster spots in the National Football League.
Those spots cover all 32 teams, but for now, they harbor a dream of being Ravens.
Here are those that have so far done the best job of opening eyes and showing that their talent isn't merely a mirage. Their jersey numbers are in parentheses:
LB NIGEL CARR (42)
Getting lots of reps at the Mike (middle) linebacker position, the 6-foot-2, 247-pounder from Alabama State is, at least in the beginning, carving out a Ray Lewis-esque career path.
Carr used to play at Florida State, but transferred to the Southwest Athletic Conference school in time to help it win its first SWAC division title in seven years.
"He is playing well," head coach John Harbaugh said. "The guy runs around and hits everything he sees. He's got a chance.”
At the position Carr is playing, communication is a big key, and outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said he liked what he saw -- and heard -- from Carr.
"Nigel is one of those guys that absolutely has a burning passion for this game," Monachino said."He is attentive to detail in everything he does. He's an over-communicator, which is huge. At that position, to be a mute is a problem as a Mike linebacker.
"... I think that Nigel, right now, is feeling training camp just like all the rest of our guys are. … When we start to shorten it a little bit or take a little bit of the contact out of it, I think he will get better and better every day.”
WR DEONTE THOMPSON (83)
Just like any rookie, Thompson is going to have to prove his worth on special teams if he is to make the squad, even though his downfield receiving skills have earned him notice.
A University of Florida product, Thompson does have former college quarterback John Brantley in town throwing to him at times, but his own speed is what has been his calling card, having run track events early during his Gators career. Thompson averaged a robust 14 yards per catch while in Gainesville.
In high school, the 6-foot, 205-pounder was the nation's third-ranked receiving prospect coming out of the fertile Belle Glades (Fla.) recruiting area. But his raw speed has been refined to the point that his presence gives the Ravens more options at "X" (split end) than they have had during recent history.
K JUSTIN TUCKER (6)
Field goals aside, Tucker will have to show he can get good kickoff distance if he is to stand a chance against incumbent and touchback machine Billy Cundiff, in whom the Ravens have tied up quite a bit of money and a commitment through 2015. In college, Tucker averaged 64 airborne yards per kickoff, and he did rather well during a training-camp kickoff period.
When it comes to field goals, Tucker has length, strength and range that can match Cundiff. For some reason, the ball makes a deeper-sounding thud when it comes off his foot and shows good consistency when in the air.
Tucker made 83 percent of his kicks at the University of Texas and, should the situation call for it, can be relied upon as a rugby-style punter, a technique that has given NFL returners fits.
G/T JACK CORNELL (69)
The Illinois product's stock seemed to go up overnight when majority owner Steve Bisciotti called a local radio talk show and mentioned that general manager Ozzie Newsome seemed impressed with the 6-foot-6, 320-pounder.
Cornell has been used mainly at right tackle, backing up Kelechi Osemele after Michael Oher was moved back to the left side. Cornell has also gotten a few looks at left guard as well, even though the firestorm surrounding that position seems to have died down with veteran Bobbie Williams' weight loss and subsequent quicker play.
At Illinois, the system in which Cornell played employed strong- and weak-side positional schemes, not the left and right that are more commonly used. Cornell was also quite a proficient wrestler, just as Ray Lewis and ex-Ravens such as Kelly Gregg and Tony Siragusa were.
RB BOBBY RAINEY (34)
It's sort of hard to believe this low-to-the-ground, powerful back -- like Ray Rice -- is 5-foot-8, but this product of Western Kentucky -- the school where legendary coach Jack Harbaugh won a Division I-AA national championship -- gained nearly 7,000 all-purpose yards and is 11th on the NCAA's all-time list.
Rainey has an uphill fight to supplant Bernard Pierce and Anthony Allen in the team's running back rotation, but if he lays the lumber to people on special teams -- as Denver's Terrell Davis did early during his career -- he'll have a good shot to make it.
“Bobby has opened eyes," head coach John Harbaugh said. "Bobby Rainey is a really good player. It just holds true year in and year out, [that] the guys who are most productive in college, often and most times, are the most productive guys in the NFL.
"And here is guy that people wanted to say didn’t have this or that, but he did have [a lot of] yards in college. He is putting yards up out here.”
JOEY P'S TRIVIA TIME: Today's question:
Even though this year's Ravens schedule is tied with St. Louis for the fourth toughest in the league -- based on 2011 win percentages by this year's opponents -- there is solace in that 13 of the 16 games are taking place in the Eastern time zone.
How many times in Ravens history have there been more Eastern time zone games during a single season?
The answer will be revealed at the bottom of Wednesday's post-practice entry.
PREDICTION MACHINE: One reason the 2011 Ravens season was so special was that it ended with the team getting a rare first-round bye and home playoff game.
But according to the annual PredictionMachine.com preview, the 2012 campaign will end up like most others in recent Baltimore history.
PredictionMachine.com reflects the results of a computer program that plays each game of the coming regular season 50,000 times before the season actually begins.
This year, it feels that the Ravens will win nine games -- just one fewer than most of the consensus predictions -- and earn the fifth playoff seed in the AFC.
That would put Baltimore on the road again, playing fourth-seeded San Diego in a venue where the Ravens don't have many good memories. The Prediction Machine has the Chargers winning that wild-card game, 21-20.
Each game also features a win percentage for each team, reflecting on the true chances each team has to win that game. The Ravens' highest win chances, all in the 70-75 percent range, are in their home games against Cleveland, Oakland and Denver.
Of particular note is the Week Two matchup between the Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles in the latter's home opener. The Machine gives the Ravens a season-low 32 percent chance of winning; it has the Eagles taking it, 21-15, and going on to win the first Super Bowl in that team's history.
The predicted matchup is the Eagles against the New England Patriots with the NFC champions taking it all, 28-26.
WORLD OF FANTASY: The way the NFL likes to insert itself into such events as the schedule release and the annual scouting combine -- making them high-profile television events -- might seem a bit Big Brother-esque.
But the league is well aware of how much fans love the game, and it can't be blamed for feeding into that addiction, which is a perfect word to describe fantasy football.
The league is now sanctioning its own Fantasy Draft Week, which in reality lasts just three days (Aug. 22-24). It's an event that will be held at the Best Buy Theater in New York, dedicated to helping the fantasy player prepare for the season ahead.
Plenty of big-name guests will appear at the event, but since the list is so fluid, an updated version of it can be found on nfl.com/fantasydraftweek.
Tickets to the event are free, but fans can only get them by logging on to 1iota.com.
There are also details at that site on how fans can host their league's fantasy draft in New York during Fantasy Draft Week, which would be quite a treat for leagues that have, during recent years, gone all out for their drafts.
Personally, we've heard about fantasy players that have rented Las Vegas or Atlantic City hotel rooms for their drafts, complete with champagne and showgirls brought in to lend "atmosphere" to their drafts.
Posted Aug. 1, 2012