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Preston: Looking ahead to Ravens' top training camp storylines by position

It’s that time of the year when most NFL executives are playing golf or laying on the beach. It’s dark around the league as far as business, a time for relaxation before training camps open.

With the Ravens set to have their first practice July 25, it’s unlikely they will make any deals before then. They will probably play one or two preseason games before committing to signing any additional players.

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The Ravens don’t have any true superstars on the roster, with the possible exceptions of safety Earl Thomas and guard Marshal Yanda, after parting with Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, Joe Flacco and C.J. Mosley this offseason.

Regardless, this is one of the most anticipated training camps in team history with a lot of storylines, the biggest one being second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, who led the team to the playoffs for the first time in four years in 2018.

It’s appropriate that the team lacks big-name players because coach John Harbaugh seems to prefer it that way. But the Ravens have a list of young players who could have breakout seasons, such as left tackle Ronnie Stanley, tight end Mark Andrews, linebackers Matthew Judon, Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young, and cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young.

But the focus of this team for the next two seasons will be on Jackson, because as he goes, so goes the franchise. The Ravens have already made several adjustments to help him, such as drafting two rookie receivers in Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Miles Boykin, and they’ve added a short- to mid-range passing game to an offense that was dominantly run-oriented last season.

The Ravens aren’t expecting Jackson to become the next Dan Marino, but they want him to show modest improvement. They’ve taken him back to QB 101 class to work on fundamentals and mechanics. In organized team activities and minicamp, Jackson showed improvement during individual drills but struggled at times in team situations, such as 7-on-7 periods and scrimmages.

The Ravens need to stop coddling Jackson. Former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron made that mistake with Flacco and it carried over during Flacco’s time in Baltimore.

The Ravens did the same last season with Jackson, but it’s time to move in a new direction in 2019. He is a former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round draft pick. The Ravens don’t need to play nice anymore.

Besides Jackson, here are the other storylines heading into training camp.

Receiver

Both missed time in the various offseason camps because of injuries, with Brown sitting out entirely as he recovers from a Lisfranc (foot) injury. The Ravens will operate a lot out of the two tight-end set with Andrews and Hayden Hurst, but they still need Brown as a long-ball threat. Boykin could be a possession receiver on third-down situations or a target inside the red zone.

The Ravens like fourth-year receiver Chris Moore, but he can no longer survive on his potential. It’s time to step up. Two rookie receivers to watch are Sean Modster from Boise State and Antoine Wesley from Texas Tech. Both were undrafted free-agent signings.

The Ravens need wide receiver Marquise Brown, center, to be a long-ball threat.
The Ravens need wide receiver Marquise Brown, center, to be a long-ball threat. (Gail Burton / AP)
Running back

This position has some intrigue with veteran Mark Ingram going against second-year player Gus Edwards for the starting position. Regardless of who starts, both will get ample playing time during the season.

If the Ravens are going to play true smashmouth football, they will need two physical runners, even though Edwards slimmed down by about 15 pounds from last season.

Rookie Justice Hill, a fourth-round pick from Oklahoma State, showed he can catch the ball and be a threat in passing situations out of the backfield, but he has to prove he can pass block, which Harbaugh emphasizes.

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If Hill can do that, the Ravens will probably part ways with fourth-year running back Kenneth Dixon.

Ravens running back Mark Ingram will battle second-year player Gus Edwards for the starting job.
Ravens running back Mark Ingram will battle second-year player Gus Edwards for the starting job. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)
Offensive line

The Ravens have four of five positions filled on the offensive line, but there are still questions about center Matt Skura’s abilities, and the Ravens need a starting left guard.

Basically, they have a hole in the middle. All three left guard candidates — James Hurst, Jermaine Eluemunor and rookie Ben Powers — are slow, and former starter Alex Lewis can’t stay healthy for an extended period of time.

With that said, Yanda, a right guard, is still one of the best in the league, while Stanley seems primed for a breakout year. Right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. worked hard during the offseason, but his lack of quickness and speed might create problems.

Ravens center Matt Skura is a question mark on the offensive line.
Ravens center Matt Skura is a question mark on the offensive line. (Xavier Plater / Baltimore Sun)
Defensive line

Hopefully, tackle Michael Pierce didn’t eat his way out of the NFL. By the end of last season, he was the best lineman on the team but wasn’t allowed to participate in a recent minicamp because he was overweight.

Maybe linemen Brandon Williams, Patrick Ricard and Willie Henry will work with Pierce to get him ready for training camp. Sometimes dramatic weight loss also leads to a decrease in power and strength.

I still like rookie Daylon Mack, a fifth-round pick out of Texas A&M. I don’t know if he can play, but he has the wide body and big legs to be the perfect nose tackle.

From left, Ravens defensive tackle Willie Henry, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and defensive tackle Michael Pierce (97) jog during warmups shortly before Pierce was removed from the field during minicamp at the Ravens' training facility June 11.
From left, Ravens defensive tackle Willie Henry, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and defensive tackle Michael Pierce (97) jog during warmups shortly before Pierce was removed from the field during minicamp at the Ravens' training facility June 11. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)
Linebacker

There is a lot of suspense here because of the departures of Suggs and Mosley.

Onwuasor has used this entire offseason to beef up and replace Mosley at inside linebacker. He has already established himself as a team leader, but now has to prove he can be as cerebral as Mosley.

Second-year player Kenny Young showed a lot of promise last season in both coverage and rushing the passer. He appears to be the right fit both mentally and physically on the weak side.

Judon, in his fourth season, has to be one of the players to take charge of this defense. He has all the physical talent to be a complete, dominant player in this league as both a run stopper and pass rusher. In a recent minicamp, he seemed eager to replace Suggs as a leader.

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The key to this defense will be trying to find pass rushers. Third-year players, such as outside linebackers Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser, have to take the next step and become more consistent. The Ravens brought in outside linebackers Pernell McPhee and Shane Ray to address the pass rush, but neither was overly impressive in OTAs or minicamp.

Rookie Jaylon Ferguson, a third-round pick out of Louisiana Tech, might be the answer in the future, but appears to be a year or two away.

Patrick Onwuasor has already established himself as a team leader, but now has to prove he can be as cerebral as former Raven C.J.Mosley.
Patrick Onwuasor has already established himself as a team leader, but now has to prove he can be as cerebral as former Raven C.J.Mosley. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)
Secondary

This is the strongest unit on the team, but keep an eye on Thomas because he missed most of last season with a broken leg. He’ll get tested early in the preseason, as well as the regular season.

He brings a physical approach to this defense that has been missing since 2012. He might end up being the biggest free-agent acquisition by any NFL team during the offseason.

Ravens safety Earl Thomas will be tested early in the preseason, as well as the regular season.
Ravens safety Earl Thomas will be tested early in the preseason, as well as the regular season. (Xavier Plater / Baltimore Sun)
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