By Joe Platania
The season-opening rosters for NFL teams are larger in quantity (53) than those of any other professional sport, which means there is no shortage of preseason storylines.
But considering the changes the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens, who report to the Under Armour Performance Center for training camp July 22, have undergone since the end of the 2012 season, there are even more than usual. In fact, there are so many that they can easily fill an edition of The 15.
The intrigue began early during the offseason with the retirements, free-agent defections and trades of some of the most notable players in team history, not to mention many of the top current players.
How will the Ravens fill the holes? How will they use the current players? We attempt to answer those questions and more.
1. Same Ol' Joe? -- Lots of touchdowns, wins, postseason victories, a championship and a new car for winning the Super Bowl MVP award haven't changed the laconic Joe Flacco from a laid-back sort into a raging prima donna. This camp, with lots of experienced leaders gone, he will get more of a chance to get under center and direct the orchestra by example, for he's unlikely to morph into anything other than what he's consistently been.
2. Who Pounds The Rock? -- There's no doubt that dual-threat running back Ray Rice, the 13th-best player in the league according to the players' NFL Network poll, will get more carries than change-of-pace back Bernard Pierce. But Pierce's number of opportunities may spike this year. In what situations will they come, and will the perennially smiling Rice show any signs of discontent?
3. How To Use Juszczyk? -- Fourth-round draft pick Kyle Juszczyk (pronounced YOOZ-check) comes from Harvard with a billing as a multi-faceted fullback, tight end and H-back. Training camp will provide him with opportunities to show his skills. Can he deal with the camp grind and justify the team's faith in him?
4. Tight End Tandem -- The current NFL environment no longer calls for one pass-catching tight end and a blocking one. The New England template demanded that both be productive downfield. Can Ed Dickson rise to Dennis Pitta's level and give the Ravens a dual threat at that position?
5. A Wide Gap -- The Ravens seemed to be slowly accumulating enough salary-cap room during the offseason to go out and get a veteran possession wide receiver to move the chains as neatly as Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin did in the past. But how deep into camp will another team put someone on the scrap heap? And if that doesn't happen, can Deonte Thompson or Tandon Doss fill that role?
6. McKinnie The Key -- The re-acquisition of veteran left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who will turn 34 in September, gives the Ravens five offensive linemen playing familiar roles. But how effective will McKinnie be in the no-huddle, up-tempo attack, which requires the linemen to be just as quick, sharp, athletic, alert and effective as everyone else on the offense?
7. Deep Trench -- The defensive line corps, perhaps the most underperforming position unit on the team last year, got an infusion of talent this offseason with the free-agent acquisitions of Chris Canty and Marcus Spears. Canty and Haloti Ngata (if healthy) especially have the kind of versatility that line coach Clarence Brooks likes, and Arthur Jones, DeAngelo Tyson and promising rookie nose tackle Brandon Williams offer both quantity and quality.
8. Inside Job -- The Ravens went anywhere and everywhere to try to fill the inside linebacker positions: free agency (Jacksonville's Daryl Smith), their own roster (Josh Bynes, ex-lineman Bryan Hall) and the outside linebacking corps (Albert McClellan). Smith is the Jaguars' all-time leading tackler, so his experience will help, but depth and effectiveness here are important, even if the players don't rise to the level of retired middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
9. Safety First -- One of the Ravens' biggest positions of need this offseason was safety, after they parted ways with free safety Ed Reed and strong safety Bernard Pollard. A promising aspect of the drafting of Matt Elam and the signing of Michael Huff is that both are skilled in playing both free and strong roles. James Ihedigbo, who was a starter for the New England Patriots during Super Bowl XLVI, is part of what could be a deep unit.
10. Man On The Corner -- The Ravens seem to be well-stocked at cornerback, a must in a pass-happy league and a division that features opposing quarterbacks such as Andy Dalton and Ben Roethlisberger. But will Lardarius Webb's knee be fully healthy? Can Jimmy Smith take hold of a starter's job coming off a fine postseason? Will Corey Graham be as clutch as he was in 2012?
11. Return-game Reps -- There is no question that Jacoby Jones' performance as a kick and punt returner in 2012 lifted the Ravens' overall level of play a few notches. He had the finest season any Baltimore return specialist has had since the franchise began. But if he becomes a bigger part of the passing game, and his return chances go down, who will step up in his place to affect field position as drastically?
12. Sophomore Slump For Tucker? -- As a rookie in 2012, Justin Tucker lifted himself from undrafted obscurity and hit 30 of 33 regular-season field goal tries. He won't have much opposition during training camp, though the Ravens may bring in a competitor to take some of the repetition load off Tucker. He is a hard-working, focused kicker, but will some of the edge come off now that he has secured his spot on the team?
13. Caldwell's Concoctions -- Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell will now get an entire training camp and season to put his plan into effect after replacing Cam Cameron in December 2012. What characterized Caldwell's success down the stretch in 2012 was the sequencing and unpredictability of the same plays the team had already run, will he stir more potions into the pot and bring them to the table?
14. Juan Castillo's Role -- During his days on the Philadephia Eagles' staff, Juan Castillo became one of the most highly regarded offensive line coaches in the NFL. But his title with the Ravens -- run-game coordinator -- leaves a lot open to interpretation. How will he work together with Andy Moeller, the team's offensive line coach? Will Castillo's blocking schemes be different? Can he affect the number of carries Rice and Pierce get?
15. Harbaugh's Tighter Rein -- With the absence of several dissenting locker-room voices, head coach John Harbaugh is now in control of the locker room. His five-year track record should be enough to convince the younger players to buy in to whatever he preaches, but whenever the annual spate of adversity arrives, how much, and how quickly, will the players heed his words?
Issue 187: July 2013