Ravens coach John Harbaugh says it every year. The organization wants competition for all 53 roster spots. Team officials want established veterans to be pushed for starting jobs and rookies to be pushed for reserve roles.
It’s a given that certain players, like quarterback Joe Flacco, wide receiver Steve Smith and linebacker Terrell Suggs, will start as long as they’re healthy. But Harbaugh promotes a mentality that nothing is given to anybody and each player is going to have to earn his spot.
When the Ravens start training camp in about three weeks, much will be said and written about the various roster competitions. There will be talk about the backup running back job, the last couple of wide receiver spots, the tight end situation, the plethora of candidates for the defensive line rotation and the roles in the defensive backfield.
However, the reality is that unless there are a slew of significant injuries to front-line players – and a few health issues are unavoidable in training camp – most of the competitions are going to be for backup jobs and back-end roster spots.
That’s what happens when you essentially return nine of 11 starters on both offense and defense. That doesn’t mean that one of the returning starters can’t be unseated in training camp, but it does mean that there shouldn’t be a ton of drama when it comes to who is on the field in the first quarter when the Ravens start the regular season on Sept. 13 against the Denver Broncos.
Flacco, who hasn’t missed a start in his career, will lead the offense, and he’ll be working behind an offensive line that is expected to feature the same alignment that was in place for much of last season. That, of course, will depend on right tackle Rick Wagner and center Jeremy Zuttah successfully returning from surgeries and both seem to be on track to doing just that.
There figures to be a competition between Lorenzo Taliaferro and Buck Allen – fourth-round picks from the past two drafts – for the backup running back job, but the starting backfield is set with Justin Forsett running behind fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
That leaves just two offensive spots where there are questions about the starters. At wide receiver, Smith will certainly man one spot. But opposite him, it could be rookie Breshad Perriman or third-year pro Marlon Brown or Kamar Aiken. The reality is two of those three players will probably be on the field with Smith more often than not, and several receivers will get rotated in or out.
There will be some ambiguity at tight end because it’s too early to know if Dennis Pitta will play or if rookie Maxx Williams will be ready to take on a big role. However, second-year player Crockett Gillmore remains the likely candidate to start because he’s the closest thing that the Ravens have to a two-way tight end after he spent the offseason working on his quickness and receiving skills.
On defense, there are even fewer questions. Suggs will be at rush linebacker with Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw rotating in and out on the strong side. Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley, who rarely come off the field, are entrenched in the middle.
Along the defensive line, Brandon Williams will occupy nose tackle, while second-year defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, a productive starter last season when Haloti Ngata was serving his suspension, is expected to be the full-time starter with Ngata now in Detroit. If there’s any spot in question on the defensive front, it’s at defensive end, but Chris Canty is back and is the presumed favorite to start for a third straight year. He, however, will have to hold off a host of young defensive linemen, including Brent Urban, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Lawrence Guy and possibly even rookie Carl Davis, for the spot
At cornerback, Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb will start on the outside if they’re healthy and offseason acquisition Kyle Arrington will likely be the No.3 corner, leaving Rashaan Melvin, Asa Jackson and Tray Walker competing for snaps as the fourth or fifth corners.
Free agent signing Kendrick Lewis will start at one of the safety spots and while there’s been talk of a competition between Will Hill and Matt Elam at the other spot, Hill enters training camp as the clear favorite.
So what does that leave in terms of wide-open competitions for starting jobs? Not a whole lot unless you’re fired up about the Ravens’ quest to find a replacement for return man Jacoby Jones.
Again, there will be injuries and there will be surprises. Harbaugh and the coaching staff are certainly not going to be bound by who has started in the past. Performance will dictate most of the decisions.
But when you look at the Ravens’ roster and depth chart now, it’s tough to find too many starting roles at stake.