When the Ravens convene for their 21st training camp at the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills, Md., later this month, the routine will be the same:
• Approximately 80 players will take the field in full pads -- excluding those still rehabilitating injuries -- striving to implement what they have learned during the spring practice season.
• They will grunt and sweat under hot, humid, mid- to late-summer conditions, all the while toeing the fine line between expending maximum effort and suffering minimum damage.
• Players' fortunes will rise and fall, and some will be deployed in different positions, moves to be perceived as either permanent switches or mere experiments.
• Fans, impatient for a quick return to the postseason after a 5-11 season in 2015, will alternately jeer and cheer the most mundane of plays that take place during the most trivial of drills.
But, what exactly will those fans see?
Any team coming off a subpar season like the Ravens are -- not to mention three straight third-place finishes in the AFC North -- is going to be loaded with questions and storylines, as the most crucial team-building period of the year begins.
These are the five biggest storylines to watch before camp mode ends Aug. 18, with the preseason looming and cut-down dates set for Aug. 30 and Sept. 1:
1. Under Pressure
Upgrading the pass rush was an even more acute priority this offseason, in that the Ravens have surpassed 45 sacks only twice since 2007. Last season alone, five teams equaled or surpassed that total.
All of them make up some of the Ravens' most direct competition in the AFC (Denver, Houston, Kansas City, New England, Pittsburgh).
It is apparent one reason the Ravens made a whopping 11 draft picks is they wanted to improve their youth, speed and depth on the perimeter, especially when it came to pressuring the quarterback. Not wanting to solely count on aging rushers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs, the Ravens loaded up with rookie pocket-pushers Kamalei Correa, Bronson Kaufusi and Matt Judon, a small-college product who led all divisions in quarterback takedowns in 2015.
Along with second-year player Za'Darius Smith, veteran holdovers Lawrence Guy and Brent Urban, and highly touted undrafted rookie Victor Ochi, the Ravens should have enough options to line up all over the defense and keep opposing offensive coordinators guessing.
Getting to the quarterback more quickly should make things easier on another unit that wouldn't have to work as hard. That leads us to ...
2. Secondary Is Primary
In order to shore up their cornerback contingent and avoid giving up the kind of big plays that doomed them in close losses, the Ravens also tapped into the draft to come up with smallish Temple product Tavon Young (5-foot-9, 183 pounds) and 6-foot-1 Maurice Canady, from Virginia.
But the Ravens also turned to the veteran free-agent marketplace for additional help, coming up with ex-Arizona Cardinals reserve Jerraud Powers, who couldn't find much playing time on what was one of the league's most stellar units.
Powers' acquisition should make for a good battle between himself and veteran returnee Shareece Wright, whose play improved during the second half of last season, when the Ravens featured one of the league's best pass defenses.
But questions remain in the back end: will Jimmy Smith finally be fully recovered from his lingering foot injury? Can Kyle Arrington recover from a poor 2015 to be the nickel back again, or will the younger (and cheaper) Young take that spot? Sheldon Price was a little-used reserve last year who was re-signed; does the coaching staff see something in him?
A name to watch: Will Davis. Plucked off the Miami Dolphins' practice squad last year, he played well in limited nickel duty before being lost to a season-ending knee injury in late September after two games.
3. Stretching The Field
All indications are that quarterback Joe Flacco has healed quickly from last year's season-ending knee ligament injury and stretched himself out at a good enough pace to return sometime during training camp.
But assuming Flacco will be fully healthy, will he be able to stretch the field?
The Ravens' organization thinks it has enough weapons to field the most potent offense in team history. They are counting on two key pieces of their receiving corps to help them do just that: deep threats Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman.
They come from opposite ends of the spectrum; Wallace will turn 30 this fall, but has seen his numbers decline for three straight seasons since leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, he has said since leaving quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, he didn't have a big, strong-armed quarterback to throw to him in either Miami or Minnesota.
As for Perriman, the team's biggest mystery man, a second injury scare nearly derailed yet another season, but a knee ligament that was feared to be torn was reportedly repaired with a stem-cell injection. He should be on the field sometime during camp.
The duo's presence might help Flacco, whose yards-per-attempt last year was a mere 6.76 yards, far below his career best of 7.41 in 2010.
4. Continuity On Offense
In 2014, the Ravens set team records for points (409), first downs (345), yards per play (5.7) and total yards (5838). Then-offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was hailed as the savior for a franchise that has had a spotty and inconsistent history on that side of the ball.
But there was one big problem with that performance: Kubiak was not around last season to repeat it, for he was enticed back to the Denver Broncos as their new head coach, a job in which he delivered a Super Bowl 50 championship.
Meanwhile, injuries and a struggle to adapt to new coordinator Marc Trestman's system resulted in the Ravens' franchise-worst run-pass ratio (-313), coming during a season that saw them attempt a record-high number of passes (700, including sacks allowed) and run the ball a record-low number of times (383).
Trestman's return for a second straight season marks the first time since 2012 the Ravens will enter a campaign with the same offensive coordinator for two straight years, Cam Cameron being the most recent coach to fit that description.
Even though Trestman's background has featured schemes that are more pass- than run-heavy, head coach John Harbaugh has surely directed him to utilize what should be an above-average offensive line to get back to a more Ravens-style scheme that features many more running plays and young, versatile backs.
5. A Picture Of Health?
Most pro football observers agree the key parts of any football team are the franchise quarterback, a reliable receiver, a brick-wall-like left tackle, the stud pass rusher and the shutdown corner. The Ravens dealt with injuries at all of those positions last year.
All told, 20 players were placed on season-ending injured reserve last year, including eight of 22 starters. A dozen starters missed a total of 71 man-games, a nightmarish flashback to a 2005 campaign that saw first-stringers miss a total of 67 games between them.
With the largest active-roster size in professional sports (53), football teams feature a lot of moving parts. That's why the Ravens have hired director of performance and recovery Steve Saunders to make those parts move more effortlessly and with a lot more efficiency.
At the start of the team's offseason program in April, Saunders surprised even the most jaded veterans with a running regimen unlike any they had seen before. At its core, the program endeavors to combat fourth-quarter fatigue that can lead to close losses, and -- perhaps more importantly -- late-game losses to injuries.
It is worth noting that Suggs' Achilles tear in Week One and Flacco's knee ligament ailment in November both took place on fourth-quarter plays.
Who plays inside linebacker next to C.J. Mosley?; Lardarius Webb's adjustment to safety and the depth and effectiveness of that unit; steep learning curves for left tackle and first-round pick Ronnie Stanley, as well as Navy product Keenan Reynolds at receiver/returner.
has been covering professional football since 1994
Issue 223: July 2016