Ravens: Camp set to begin with questions facing champs

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh looks on during a practice at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills June 11.
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh looks on during a practice at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills June 11. (ap file photo, Carroll County Times)

The one word that probably best describes the Ravens at this point: Potential.
The offense, even without wide receiver Anquan Boldin, appears to have the potential to be among the league's most explosive with Joe Flacco another year further along in his development, Flacco now having a full year with Jim Caldwell as offensive coordinator and proven weapons like tight end Dennis Pitta, wide receiver Torrey Smith and running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce back to complement Flacco.
Baltimore's defense is without several of its primary contributors from last year, including two of the best players in franchise history, but many believe the Ravens' new-look unit has the potential to be significantly better in all areas than the one that ranked just 17th in the NFL in total defense last season.
And as a team, it seems like most on a national level view Baltimore, even with all of the roster turnover this offseason, as the favorite in the AFC North and a team with the talent to challenge for a second consecutive Super Bowl.
But training camp and the preseason will provide a much better gauge of just how good this Ravens team can be.
Baltimore has talent. It has potential. But it's also a team with several sizeable question marks, ones that these next several weeks will go a long way in answering.
Rookies, quarterbacks and injured veterans report to training camp today. All remaining veterans report Wednesday. And the Ravens' first full-squad practice is scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh was asked about the progress of the Ravens' defense following the conclusion of Baltimore's mandatory minicamp last month, but his answer would have been appropriate for the Ravens' offense, too.
"We will find out where we are at," Harbaugh said. "I'm really happy with where we are at in terms of what we have accomplished and how we look out there, but we will find out when the pads come on more specifically."
The majority of question marks surround the Ravens' defense.
Baltimore did revamp a defensive line that was a consistent area of concern last season, did replace last year's top sacker Paul Kruger with arguably an even better pass rusher in Elvis Dumervil, did add a productive veteran in Michael Huff to fill Ed Reed's vacated spot at free safety, and did add some talented defensive players through the draft who appear to have a chance to be significant contributors as rookies this season.
The Ravens should also be aided by having a healthier Terrell Suggs. Suggs was limited last season by a surgically-repaired Achilles tendon, but he's just two seasons removed from winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and was noticeably trimmer and more explosive at minicamp last month than he was last year. A healthy Suggs paired with Dumervil could make for a formidable pass rushing combination.
But Baltimore's inside linebacker remains murky.
Top cornerback Lardarius Webb is expected to be back for the first game of the regular season, but will he be limited at all by his surgically repaired left knee?
Also at cornerback, what becomes of former Jimmy Smith, who has yet to live up to expectations as a former first-round pick, but earned high praise from Ravens coaches this offseason for his play and improved work ethic?
Cornerback is considered one of the deepest and most talented position groups on Baltimore's roster with Webb, Smith, Corey Graham and emerging third-year player Chykie Brown.
But Webb's health will be key. It will also be interesting to see how Smith fares during the next several weeks. Same for Graham, who played so well when pressed into action last season, but is he a viable starter?
Training camp will also be telling for safety Matt Elam, inside linebacker Arthur Brown and nose tackle Brandon Williams, the Ravens' top three picks in the NFL draft this year. All three will be given the chance to challenge for starting roles.
Elam was commended by teammates and coaches for his play during organized team activities and minicamp, and he enters training camp as the favorite to land the starting safety job next to Huff.
Brown was limited for most of the offseason after undergoing sports hernia surgery, but he was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year last year and many believe he has a chance, like free-agent signee Daryl Smith, to be a productive starter for the Ravens, something that will be needed even more if Jameel McClain isn't able to play this season because of the spinal cord injury he sustained in December.
The 6-foot-1, 335-pound Williams is a strong, physically imposing player who Baltimore assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said in April "looked like a legitimate 3-4 nose tackle" at the Senior Bowl in January. He'll push former second round pick Terrence Cody, among others, for playing time at nose tackle with the Ravens, a position Cody struggled mightily at last year.
"We've got the potential to be a great defense," Graham said last month. "If everything comes together and we continue to work as hard as we possibly can, with all the different guys we've got on D-line - the rotation we could possibly have up there, the new guys at linebacker and the speed we've got on the defensive backs, it can be an unbelievable defense out there. We see it. We definitely see it."
The biggest question mark offensively is at wide receiver.
First of all, how does Torrey Smith handle the increased responsibility and attention that comes along with being the unquestioned top receiver in the passing game? But even more so, what is the receiver rotation going to be aside from Smith?
Wide receivers coach Jim Hostler said last month that Jacoby Jones is currently Baltimore's No. 2 wide receiver, but Jones, Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson and David Reed will all be competing for playing time during training camp and the preseason.
Doss, in particular, fared well during OTAs and minicamp.
But, once again, the battle for playing time at wide receiver is just one of several storylines to watch during the next several weeks. The Ravens appear to have the pieces in place to challenge for another Super Bowl, but these next several weeks will give a better indication.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun