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Ravens training camp primer

Burning questions

Will Joe Flacco become one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks? The franchise quarterback has put up impressive numbers (6,584 passing yards and 35 touchdown passes in two seasons). Now, he must consistently take over games. It wasn't until the third season as a starter that Philip Rivers, a former pupil of Cam Cameron's, had his breakthrough season (more than 4,000 passing yards and 34 touchdown passes).

When will Ed Reed return to the field? No one, including Reed, knows how long the hip injury will sideline him. The enigmatic safety said he could be ready for the season opener or be out until December. The best guess here is Reed will miss the season opener but will be back before November.

Is this the year when the Ravens' offense becomes better than the defense? It has been more than a decade since anyone has been able to even think this. But the offense is ready to have a breakthrough season, one that could place it among the top five in the NFL. In addition to having a comfort level with Cameron's system, the Ravens have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, two new playmakers in the passing game (wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth) and two young stars nearing their prime (Flacco and running back Ray Rice).

Position battles

Kicker: Shayne Graham vs. Billy Cundiff. Graham, top left, is considered the front-runner, but the NFL's fourth-most-accurate kicker must prove he has mentally moved past last season's playoffs (he missed short field-goal attempts in the Cincinnati Bengals' loss to the New York Jets). Cundiff never received a strong vote of confidence from the Ravens after making 15 of 20 field-goal tries last season (including 3-for-3 in the playoffs). This is a much more intriguing competition than last summer's between Steve Hauschka and Graham Gano.

Free safety: Ken Hamlin vs. Tom Zbikowski. If Ed Reed misses the start of the regular season because of his hip injury, the Ravens must decide whether to replace him with a former Pro Bowl safety (Hamlin, top left) or a former third-round pick who made four starts last season (Zbikowski). It seems that the Ravens would favor Hamlin because they signed him late in the offseason for a reason. Zbikowski, who is a valuable special teams player, made two interceptions filling in for Reed last season.

Inside linebacker: Dannell Ellerbe vs.Tavares Gooden. Ellerbe, top left, replaced an injured Gooden late last season, and the undrafted rookie never relinquished the job. The Ravens haven't officially named Ellerbe the starter for this season, but the team is probably using that to push him. A team official said Ellerbe has a chance to be better than Bart Scott, another undrafted rookie linebacker who played for the Ravens.

Key additions

WR Anquan Boldin. He has 24 touchdown catches during the past three seasons. That's just six fewer than the Ravens' entire wide receiver group had in that same period.

NT Terrence Cody. He became the Ravens' highest draft pick in camp after the other second-round pick, Sergio Kindle, was ruled out with a fractured skull. Although he didn't endear himself to coaches by failing the conditioning test, Cody could quickly develop into a top-notch space-eater in the middle of the defense.

QB Marc Bulger. One NFL scout said Bulger still has starter talent and should be considered the best backup in the NFL at this point.

Key losses

DE Dwan Edwards. He bolted for the Buffalo Bills after steadily improving every year with the Ravens. Edwards leaves with two sacks in 56 games.

WR Kelley Washington. One of the biggest surprises on last year's team, Washington remains a free agent as training camps open around the NFL.

DT Justin Bannan. He deserved a starting job in the league as well as the $10.5 million in guaranteed money he got from the Denver Broncos.

Three players to watch

LB Terrell Suggs. He pocketed a $23 million option bonus in March after recording a career-low 41/2 sacks. Suggs needs to give the Ravens a return on their investment this season.

OT Michael Oher. He is the new starting left tackle after playing on the right side as a rookie. But everyone knew it was just a matter of time before Oher started protecting Flacco's "blind side."

LB Ray Lewis.The Ravens need a healthy Pro Bowl linebacker coming out of training camp. The defense has been ranked No. 3 or higher in seven of the nine seasons in which Lewis played more than half the games.

Biggest concerns

Offense: Jared Gaither. The offensive tackle missed nearly all the offseason workouts because of a foot injury that coincidentally flared up the day he was moved from left tackle to right tackle. His availability is the biggest question on offense because the depth here is unproven. But Gaither needs a strong effort personally because he could become a free agent next season.

Defense: Cornerbacks. Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb, two of the team's top three corners, are on the physically-unable-to-perform list to open training camp. Washington, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in November, is expected to be ready for the regular season. Webb, who tore his ACL a month later, might be able to come back by the end of the preseason. Still, nothing is certain. If both are sidelined to open the regular season, teams will try to spread out the likes of Domonique Foxworth, Chris Carr and Walt Harris.

Special teams: Matt Katula. It doesn't matter if the Ravens upgrade at kicker if they can't count on their long snapper. Last year, tendinitis in Katula's elbow led to the worst season of his career. The six-year veteran said he is healthy again, but he has to show that in the preseason.

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

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