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Mike Preston: 10 things to watch heading into Ravens training camp and preseason | COMMENTARY

The Ravens concluded offseason training activities and their mandatory minicamp this week, so the roster is basically set for training camp, which begins in late July.

There might be some late additions, such as signing a free-agent pass rusher or another defensive lineman. The biggest possible news would be signing Lamar Jackson to a long-term contract, which might make him the highest paid quarterback in the NFL.

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With little going on, it’s time to look ahead at the 10 biggest storylines heading into the Ravens’ training camp and preseason games:

Lamar Jackson’s progression

Jackson has been the focal point of this team ever since he became the starter in the second half of his rookie season in 2018. There has been a lot of discussion about his superb record during the regular season, his rushing ability and his league Most Valuable Player award in 2019. There has also been criticism of his poor mechanics, which includes an occasional sidearm throwing motion and nervous feet in the pocket. Jackson’s career is beyond all of that now. The bottom line is, can he throw accurately and consistently enough down the field and outside the numbers to beat quality teams in the playoffs when they stack the line of scrimmage? That’s it.

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Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson talks about his preparation for the upcoming season and off-season workouts with teammates.

New concepts in the passing game

The Ravens can help Jackson by improving and developing a more sophisticated passing game and attacking the entire field. During Jackson’s first three seasons in Baltimore, there was speculation that the Ravens were catering to his strengths by throwing short and intermediate passes across the middle, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman was criticized for a weak passing game when he was calling the plays in Buffalo. The Ravens have tried to downplay that, but then spent the offseason working on the passing game, even adding two new coaches in Tee Martin and Keith Williams. If the Ravens can abandon their vanilla approach from a year ago, when they had the worst passing offense in the NFL, and move up to the No. 15-20 range, that could pay major dividends in the postseason. Look for the Ravens to get running backs J.K. Dobbins and Justice Hill more involved in the passing game.

Who’s the left guard?

In offseason practices, the Ravens used three starters at left guard, but the favorite is third-year player Ben Powers, who started at right guard late in the 2020 season. The left guard spot became available because the team is moving former starter Bradley Bozeman to center. Powers has made significant gains in his first two seasons, especially moving down the line of scrimmage. He still plays and runs a little stiff, but so does third-round pick Ben Cleveland. The Ravens, though, like the massive rookie’s run-blocking ability, and that could move him into the starting lineup. Second-year player Tyre Phillips has also taken some reps with the first team, but the Ravens appeared to be more focused on finding players with versatility than developing starters.

"If you like football and you're a real student of the game, you'll be watching that left guard battle during training camp," said Harbaugh.

Ronnie Stanley’s health

If the Ravens want to have a complete and dominant offensive line, they need Stanley to return at left tackle healthy. Days after signing a massive contract extension, he was assisted off the field during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 1 and had two surgeries to repair a severe left ankle injury. Coach John Harbaugh said Stanley appears healthy enough to return once training camp opens, but the Ravens will most likely hold him out of practice for awhile. The true tests come once he starts practicing on a regular basis and when he plays a game or two. That’s when doctors and trainers will see how the ankle responds, and if more treatment is needed. But if the Ravens get Stanley back healthy with guard Kevin Zeitler and tackle Alejandro Villanueva on the right side, this group has a lot of potential. It’s certainly a better pass-blocking unit than what they’ve had in previous seasons.

Pass rush development

We seem to talk about this weakness every year, and there might not be any immediate help. The Ravens are banking more on potential than production. They drafted Penn State outside linebacker Odafe Oweh in the first round in April. He is a specimen, but extremely raw. It might take a year or two to really develop his skill set, so the Ravens have to find a way to get him on the field in certain situations. Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee can provide some pressure, but at 32, he isn’t a consistent threat, and will most likely be on a snap count throughout the season. Tyus Bowser, entering his fifth season, has shown flashes, but appears to be more comfortable in pass coverage, while third-year player Jaylon Ferguson needs to add more than just power to his repertoire of moves. One of the team’s best pass rushers might be inside linebacker Patrick Queen on blitzes. Keep an eye on rookie outside linebacker Daelin Hayes, a fifth-round pick out of Notre Dame. He has a presence about him and is always around the ball.

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"I'm really looking forward to getting back to kind of my regular routine and regular preparation to get ready for the season," said Campbell.

Nickel back competition

The Ravens have several candidates to play nickel, but are adopting a wait-and-see approach because of previous injuries to cornerback Tavon Young. If Young is 100% and stays healthy through training camp and the preseason, he is the likely starter. Young doesn’t have great size, but has enough athleticism and skill to cover almost any slot receiver. In offseason practices, second-year cornerback Khali Dorsey got most of the work with the first team, but fourth-year player Anthony Averett might get some playing time there as well, depending on Young’s recovery. Veteran Jimmy Smith is also an option, but he appears more likely to be matched up against tight ends because of his size. Starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey could play over the slot if necessary.

Speed in the secondary

The Ravens have failed to stop the Chiefs offense recently because they couldn’t get consistent pressure on quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but they also couldn’t handle Kansas City’s speedy receivers. It’s questionable if the pass rush will materialize, but there is also a concern about having ample speed in the secondary. Humphrey and Marcus Peters are outstanding cornerbacks, but the Ravens have to be able to cover the vertical and crossing routes. Rookie Shaun Wade was one of the fastest defenders in the country last season at Ohio State, which is part of the reason the Ravens made him a fifth-round pick. The Ravens also took cornerback Brandon Stephens out of SMU in the third round, and he can play safety as well. The Ravens need a center fielder on the backend because starting safeties DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark are better at going forward than backward. It will be interesting to see where the Ravens play Wade and Stephens in training camp.

Receivers stepping up?

There will be plenty of competition among the receivers, and Harbaugh is likely to keep six, possibly seven. It’s a versatile group, complete with speed. Jackson will have two big targets on the outside in rookie Rashod Bateman and veteran Sammy Watkins, but Watkins could be interchangeable outside or in the slot with speedy third-year player Marquise Brown. In his brief time on the field with the Ravens, Bateman has shown good explosion, and Watkins was developing chemistry with Jackson as time went on in practice. Watkins, Brown and Bateman are penciled into the lineup. Miles Boykin and Devin Duvernay will play important roles because Boykin is the best blocking receiver on the team and also a gunner on the punt coverage teams. Duvernay returns kickoffs, but also can play in the slot or carry the ball out of the backfield if necessary. The sixth spot will be extremely competitive among rookie Tylan Wallace, James Proche II, Jaylon Moore, Deon Cain and Devin Gray. This group will be the most fun to watch in the preseason.

"I feel like this year, it'll be a really tough decision to figure out who's going to make it," said Humphrey about the Ravens wide receiver group.

Inside linebackers in pass coverage

The Ravens have said that new linebackers coach Rob Ryan is one of the best around, and we will soon find out. Except for veteran L.J. Fort, the Ravens struggled to cover running backs and tight ends last season, and it has been a recurring problem through the years. Even in offseasons practices, middle linebacker Patrick Queen seemed a step slow or out of position. The same is true of weakside linebacker Malik Harrison. With a year in the system and an offseason in the weight room, the Ravens have to get more from Queen and Harrison, as well as fellow inside linebacker Chris Board. Last season, there wasn’t a lot of film to study on Queen and Harrison as the regular-season approached, but opposing teams have had an entire offseason to study their weaknesses. Their lack of pass coverage ability won’t go unnoticed.

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Age on the defensive line

This group is one of the most talented on the team, but also one of the oldest, with starting ends Calais Campbell, 34, Derek Wolfe, 31, and tackle Brandon Williams, 32, all over 30. All three have shown a strong work ethic in the past, but Harbaugh still might have to nurse them through training camp and monitor their reps. The team has good, young backups in Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington Jr., but even Justin Ellis, one of the top reserves, is 30. With 17 games this season, it might be tough keeping them all healthy, which is why former general manager Ozzie Newsome always kept a surplus of defensive linemen.

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