When Ravens players were surveyed recently about which teammate they’d like to switch places with, quarterback Lamar Jackson was a popular answer. He is the quarterback, after all, they told the team website. He touches the ball every play, is showered with attention and can command a potentially record-breaking contract extension.
Not to mention the job security. When training camp opens in late July, Jackson will again be cemented as the Ravens’ starter, a rare privilege in the NFL, where playing time is often won and lost in August.
That will be the case in Owings Mills, too. Some players, however, have more to gain and lose than others. Here are five Ravens contributors with the most at stake at training camp:
Cornerback Tavon Young
After his second straight season-ending injury — and third in five NFL seasons — the narrative around Young’s career is fraught with caveats: He’s a playmaking slot cornerback, but can he be trusted to stay healthy? Even if he looks great in camp, how long until his knees or something else give him trouble?
All Young can do is focus on the rehabilitation that had him back on the field for individual workouts at the Ravens’ mandatory minicamp in June. Because if Young finds his way to the injured reserve for a third straight season, after a neck injury in 2019 and an ACL tear in 2020, he won’t be in the team’s plans for long. The Ravens would take on just $3.3 million in dead money if they released him after this season; the lucrative contract extension he signed in 2019 only runs through 2022.
But general manager Eric DeCosta made him the NFL’s highest-paid nickelback for a reason. Young has shown the fearlessness to mix it up with tight ends, the savvy to blitz from the slot, the lateral quickness to cover middle-of-the-field routes and the speed to track big-play threats. If he looks like he did last August and September, he’ll be tough to unseat inside, even with the Ravens’ depth at the position.
Outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson
With a breakthrough camp, Ferguson could supplant Pernell McPhee as the Ravens’ top weak-side outside linebacker, or at least emerge as someone capable of starter-level snaps there. Ferguson, drafted No. 85 overall in 2019, was maybe the team’s most disappointing second-year player last season, finishing with just one tackle for loss after Week 10. He was a healthy scratch for four of the Ravens’ final six games, including both playoff games.
Now Ferguson has a clear path to more playing time. Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue and Jihad Ward are out of the picture after offseason departures. Odafe Oweh faces a potentially steep learning curve. Pernell McPhee is 32 and not far removed from a 2019 season-ending injury. And Ravens coaches have praised Ferguson’s offseason growth, with outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins saying in June that he’s “really checking all the boxes right now for us.”
“Sack Daddy” will have to drive his own hype in camp. After two seasons in Baltimore, Ferguson’s nickname seems to invite more ridicule than it does approval. Even with the Ravens’ reputation for cultivating outside linebackers, some more slowly than others, Ferguson could be feeling the squeeze soon. Oweh is a high-floor run defender and high-ceiling pass rusher. Hayes, who for now projects more as a strong-side presence, had a strong offseason. And if the Ravens need another Ngakoue-esque weapon for a potential playoff run, they won’t hesitate to acquire one, either this year or next.
Wide receiver Devin Duvernay
Even with the Ravens’ heavy investment in the wide receiver position, even with the trio of teammates seemingly slotted ahead of him — Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman — Duvernay could position himself to be an especially active contributor in 2021. Or, just as easily, he could watch his playing time shrink.
Duvernay’s most secure roles are also the most fragile, through no fault of his own. He was one of the NFL’s best returners last year, a speed demon on kickoffs and a sure-handed midseason revelation on punts. If Duvernay can secure every return in the Ravens’ three preseason games and stay healthy through camp, he’ll be the unquestioned incumbent. If he mishandles a few opportunities, his job security on special teams will be in doubt, especially with fellow receiver James Proche II’s track record as a punt returner.
On offense, the third-round pick showed flashes as a rookie — mostly on quick hitters, rarely downfield. After a more traditional offseason, Duvernay might be closer to a regular role than expected. If, say, injuries sideline Watkins, as they have throughout his career, the Ravens would need another wideout to step up; they used three-wide receiver sets on over half of their plays last season. The next man up won’t get a Brown-level workload, but Duvernay will likely be a busy man anyway.
Offensive lineman Tyre Phillips
Like Young, Phillips knows what it’s like to have a starting job, only to lose it to injury. Unlike Young, Phillips can’t be penciled in as a start-him-if-he’s-healthy player.
As a rookie last season, the third-round pick started the Ravens’ first four games at right guard, missed Week 5 with a shoulder injury, returned to start in Week 6, hurt his ankle in Week 7 and didn’t come back until Week 11. When he rejoined the offensive line, it was as a right tackle, splitting time with D.J. Fluker while the Ravens reeled from Ronnie Stanley’s season-ending ankle injury.
Phillips started both playoff games, but his struggles in a divisional-round loss to the Buffalo Bills seemed to clarify the Ravens’ offseason priorities. They went out and found a replacement for Orlando Brown Jr. (free agent Alejandro Villanueva), then another contender at guard (third-round pick Ben Cleveland). With Villanueva seemingly entrenched as his starting right tackle, coach John Harbaugh has left open the door for Phillips to compete for the newly vacant left guard position.
Ravens coaches may have to strike a delicate balance with Phillips in camp: Give him enough time to battle with Cleveland, Ben Powers and others for the job inside, but don’t wait too long to prepare him for a swing tackle role if he’s not going to start. A year ago, the Ravens saw Phillips’ future at guard. Now, after Stanley’s injury and reserve Andre Smith’s year away from football, the team has to consider all its options.
Guard Ben Powers
After Stanley and Phillips were sidelined, Powers helped stabilize the Ravens’ line over the second half of last season, starting seven games and another two in the playoffs. But Powers didn’t become the team’s top option at right guard until late November, and by the time the draft ended, it was clear the Ravens weren’t content. Kevin Zeitler had been signed to take over at right guard, and Cleveland had been taken to battle for the left guard spot.
If the biggest question facing Powers is whether he can reclaim his starting job, a close second is, what happens if he doesn’t? His job prospects are relatively narrow. Unlike Phillips and Patrick Mekari, or even new addition Michael Schofield, Powers doesn’t have the skill set to handle extensive action at tackle. And he struggled with his snaps when the Ravens tried him at center in training camp last year.