The Ravens don't have a quarterback competition this year in training camp, but the team's quarterback depth is hardly the given it has been in previous seasons.
Joe Flacco's primary backup, Tyrod Taylor, is in the last year of his rookie contract, and the team invested a draft pick this year on Ball State product Keith Wenning, who currently runs the third-string offense.
No one involved is thinking about the team's 53-man roster construction before August even begins, but Taylor's uncertain future could force the Ravens to break form and sacrifice roster flexibility elsewhere to carry a third quarterback. And they won't be making that decision based on Wenning's potential alone.
"[Wenning is] going to have to be good enough," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We're not going to keep a guy [who] can't help us play, so it starts with him being good enough to help us as a backup quarterback. Then we decide who the best 53 players are and how he compares to the other positions."
Flacco's durability and Taylor's development have meant the Ravens didn't need a third quarterback. Flacco hasn't missed a game because of injury in his career, and since Taylor was drafted in 2011, the Ravens have primarily carried just that pair on the active roster. They haven't had an established veteran backup since Marc Bulger made $3.8 million without throwing a pass in 2010.
Now, with Flacco taking up significant salary cap room, an expensive backup quarterback is a luxury the Ravens can't afford.
Taylor, who is in the fourth year of his rookie contract, has made just one career start — Week 17 in 2012 against the Cincinnati Bengals— but has taken steps every year to become a competent backup.
Through a handful of practices during training camp, he was the clear No. 2 quarterback, ability-wise, ahead of Wenning, and has shown himself to be compatible with new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's scheme.
Taylor has taken advantage of the quick-hit passing game to get rid of the ball quickly — an issue he had in past years, when he would hesitate and instead opted to move the ball with his feet. He's also shown better trajectory on those passes, getting the ball into the flat on a line instead of floating passes.
"Ty has been doing a good job, working extremely hard," Kubiak said. "I'm impressed with Ty. He's throwing the ball well out of the pocket, and he can move around."
While the Ravens haven't drafted a quarterback since Taylor, the team has had plenty of quarterbacks behind Taylor in camp — including Caleb Hanie and Curtis Painter in recent years — so Taylor said he hasn't given much thought to Wenning being drafted.
Before the draft, general manager Ozzie Newsome said selecting a quarterback was a priority because any substantial playing time for Taylor this fall would make him an attractive option to a quarterback-needy team when he hits free agency.
So the Ravens turned to Wenning, a four-year starter at Ball State who threw for over 11,000 yards with 92 touchdowns and 42 interceptions in 49 career games. Wenning is taking snaps with the third-team in camp, and said he's getting "better and better" each day.
"It's big with mental reps," Wenning said. "When Joe is going with the ones, or Tyrod is in there, I'm on the side going through my reads, going through what the play is, going through my progression, so I'm getting mental reps. I might not be doing it in action, but I'm not missing a rep on the sideline."
Those mental exercises help with what Kubiak said was the biggest challenge for Wenning, who he called "very talented."
"It's a huge system change for Keith, verbiage-wise," Kubiak said. "That's the toughest part. But the talent's there, so we're trying to catch him up."
Because Flacco and Taylor are ahead of him, Wenning's opportunities in camp are limited. He said he's a "little bit" cognizant of the fact that he only has limited reps to impress the coaching staff, but doesn't put additional pressure on himself to perform when he's on the field.
Wenning will likely get the opportunity to show he's worthy of a roster spot during preseason games as well. Last year, Hanie played the entire fourth preseason game, and Painter played a majority of the last exhibition game in 2012.
There's no clear precedent across the league about the optimal number of quarterbacks to carry into the regular season. Last year, 14 teams had just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster coming out of training camp, while 15 took three quarterbacks into Week 1 and three teams carried four. Seven of the 12 playoff teams brought only two quarterbacks into Week 1.
The Ravens, however, value draft picks more than most teams. They've cut just three of their 39 draft picks after a single training camp in the last five years, with others not ready to contribute stashed in the depths of the roster to save them from the waiver wire.
The Ravens have to choose whether the draft pick equity already invested in Wenning is more valuable than the roster spot, or whether they feel comfortable exposing Wenning to waivers in hopes of stashing him on the practice squad for the year.
Wenning said his standing on the team come Week 1 hasn't been discussed at such an early juncture.
"Right now, I don't think we're thinking about that too much," Wenning said. "We're just trying to go out each day during camp and get better, so it's really up in the air. It could be three, it could be two. I'm just trying to do my best and do it every day."
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