HOT ISSUES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BEST CAMP BATTLE

Wide receiver

Lost in the competition at quarterback are the battles taking place on the other end of the throws.

The only wide-out locked into a starting spot is Travis Taylor, who has made strides but has yet to live up to the expectations of being a top-10 pick. Frank Sanders is the favorite to be the No. 2 receiver, although he is expected to get pushed by another veteran pickup, Marcus Robinson. Sanders is known for producing in the clutch, and Robinson is a fantastic leaper.

After that first tier, it's difficult to name the team's fourth and fifth receivers. Randy Hymes, Ron Johnson and Javin Hunter showed flashes as rookies, and the one who shows the most consistency will earn the most playing time. The Ravens are high on their raw receivers, but they are all a year away from contending for a starting job.

PLAYERS ON THE RISE

Alan Ricard and Ed Reed

Ricard delivers big blows, and Reed delivers big plays.

When running back Jamal Lewis was receiving praise for his surprising comeback from a knee injury in 2002, Ricard was doing the dirty work in his first year as a starting fullback. With Ricard taking on linebackers the way Sam Gash did, it wouldn't be shocking if Lewis broke his own single-season rushing record.

Reed is more noticeable because of his knack for being around the ball, whether playing strong safety or on special teams. As a rookie he led the team with five interceptions and blocked two punts, running one back for a touchdown. His aggressive instincts make him a legitimate Pro Bowl candidate.

BIGGEST CONCERN

Meshing as a team

Lineup uncertainty directly affects chemistry.

The one drawback of a quarterback competition is stunting the growth of the relationship between the receivers and the passer. Training camp is where receivers build their timing with the quarterback. An open battle means the eventual starting quarterback has to share his reps and will have a harder time developing a rhythm with his targets.

The secondary is in flux, too, with Corey Fuller and Gary Baxter alternating between cornerback and free safety in addition to Chris McAlister missing most of the offseason camps. The defensive backfield should gel quicker since McAlister will be logging in a full camp and the coaching staff appears set to keep Fuller at cornerback and move Baxter to safety.

PLAYERS ON THE SPOT

Orlando Brown and Terrell Suggs

Brown is trying to shake the rust off at his old position, and Suggs is looking to establish himself at a new one.

Besides quarterback, the biggest revolving door with the Ravens has been right offensive tackle, where nine players have tried to hold down the job in four seasons. Brown, the last right tackle to start back-to-back seasons for the Ravens, isn't a guarantee to stop the instability there after missing the past three seasons with an eye injury. The challenge for him is to prove he has the vision and footwork needed in pass protection.

Footwork is also the question mark with Suggs, specifically his backpedal. The 10th pick overall in the draft is converting from defensive end to outside linebacker in the Ravens' 3-4 defense, which will require Suggs to drop back in pass coverage about a third of the time on first and second downs. Admittedly a work-in-progress, he wants to shed his hesitancy and a few extra pounds by the end of camp.

DEEPEST POSITION

Linebacker

Depth at linebacker is more quality than quantity.

The starting group of Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Ed Hartwell and Terrell Suggs rank as one of the top units in the league. What's equally impressive is that their backups could start for a lot of teams. Outside linebacker Cornell Brown and inside linebacker Bernardo Harris started 23 games last year and are stout at the point of attack.

The talent then drops off after Bart Scott, an unproven yet talented reserve. Chris Brown, an undrafted rookie out of Hawaii, has caught the eye of the coaching staff and has the edge to be the eighth linebacker.

THINNEST POSITION

Cornerback

If the Ravens pick up a veteran before the season opener, the addition likely would come at cornerback.

With Knight's health status still unknown, the Ravens could be one injury away from starting little-used reserve Alvin Porter. In a pinch, Baxter could move back to cornerback from safety, but that switch could lead to more confusion.

BIGGEST SLEEPERS

Trent Smith and Gerome Sapp

Two of the Ravens' final picks in this year's draft have the best shots at making the final cuts.

Smith, a seventh-round pick, could unseat John Jones at the team's third tight end. Known as a tremendous pass catcher at Oklahoma, he has impressed the coaches with his tenacity in run blocking and cockiness.

Sapp could make the jump from sixth-round pick to being active on game days. The rookie out of Notre Dame has shown a good feel in the secondary, and his ability to play special teams could earn him playing time. If he is active on game days, he would figure into the team's nickel and dime packages.

INJURY WATCH

Ray Lewis and Tom Knight

The concern surrounding Lewis is precautionary, while the worry about Knight is more serious.

Lewis has yet to deliver a major hit since undergoing shoulder surgery eight months ago. His shoulder is fully healed, so the anxiety isn't over the ferocious inside linebacker's tackling ability; it's whether he'll overexert himself and suffer another injury. Ravens officials don't plan to cut his workload, but he'll be limited in hitting sessions like most of the starters.

The pacing of Knight will be slower. The former first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals is slated to be the Ravens' nickel (fifth) defensive back if he can physically hold up. There's no debate about his talent, but Knight is coming off a hamstring injury that sidelined him all of last season and a strained groin from the first minicamp. One option is to place him on the physically-unable-to-perform list, which could keep him off the field for most of training camp and give him the best opportunity to start the season healthy.

THREE BURNING QUESTIONS

As the players have grown, so have the expectations. A season after the NFL's youngest team nearly made the playoffs, the Ravens are feeling the pressure to deliver the finishing punch this time around.

The Ravens start toward that goal Monday when they open training camp at McDaniel College. The Ravens' eighth camp in Westminster will span 23 days and feature 32 practices.

"We're a better team [than last year], there's no question in my mind," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We're a playoff team. That's the benchmark we've set for ourselves."

1. Who will win the competition for starting quarterback?

The bet here is on Chris Redman.

Redman has the advantage of being in the system for three years and has shown more velocity on his throws after undergoing back surgery six months ago. His natural leadership and toughness in the pocket have drawn the confidence of his teammates. Plus, the former third-round pick has an incentive for winning the job since he will be an unrestricted free agent after the season.

But teams don't make a huge investment in a first-round quarterback so he can hold a clipboard. That's why Kyle Boller has been given the chance to compete. If Boller loses out to Redman in camp, the strong-armed rookie out of California could find himself back into the mix during the regular season if Redman struggles.

2. Can the defense again rank among the league's elite?

The Ravens' defense won't break any records, but it should return to the top third of the league.

The defense returns every starter from a group that finished 10th in yards allowed per play and then received the biggest offseason addition of any team in the league -- Ray Lewis. The perennial All-Pro linebacker is back after missing 11 games with a partially separated left shoulder and is setting his sights on reclaiming his title as the league's best defensive player.

Another key boost is the much-needed improvement on pass defense. College sack master Terrell Suggs was drafted in the first round and veteran cornerback Corey Fuller was the first free agent signed, as the Ravens made it a priority to upgrade a unit that allowed offenses to convert 40 percent of their third downs.

3. Will the Ravens reach the playoffs in Modell's last year?

The better question is whether the Ravens will win the AFC North. On paper, the Ravens are in a prime position to move past the Pittsburgh Steelers and capture their first division title.

The Ravens have the ability to grind out wins with the one-two punch of running back Jamal Lewis and a stout defense, a formula that won them a Super Bowl in the 2000 season. Meanwhile, the Steelers are showing signs of faltering with a suspect pass defense and a questionable running game.

There's also the extra motivation for the Ravens to send Art Modell out on top. Modell, who has had 17 playoff teams in 42 NFL seasons, is making his last run as the team's owner.

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