xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

The four most interesting position battles at Ravens 2020 training camp

NFL preseason games annually serve as golden opportunities for players to state their case for a spot on a 53-man roster. It’s where undrafted rookie gems are unearthed and others separate themselves from their peers.

But the elimination of the preseason this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic removes what is often the best chance for bubble players to impress coaches. Decision-makers will now gauge their roster on the padded practices that will take place over the next three weeks, starting Monday.

Advertisement

“The decisions will be made once we put the pads on,” coach John Harbaugh said days after veterans reported to Owings Mills. “We start competing along those lines, and you can see how well it transfers to just execution and play-by-play situations.

“Having the [preseason] games would be a plus, it would help us make that evaluation, but we can make the evaluation based on what we have and that’s just what we’ll have to do. I’m looking forward to seeing those guys in action.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

The Ravens have a core of Pro Bowl stars, and several returning starters on both sides of the ball, but they are still looking to fill a few holes in what they otherwise believe to be a championship-level roster. Here are four position battles to watch as the Ravens begin padded practices at training camp:

Interior offensive line

There’s an open competition for the right guard position that retired Marshal Yanda manned for over a decade, as well as the two other spots along the interior offensive line. The candidates include returning incumbents, a key free-agent acquisition and multiple rookies.

Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman said they plan to play multiple players across the line and hope the dust clears as they progress into padded practices.

D.J. Fluker, whom the team signed in May, is the most experienced candidate and might be the favorite to start at right guard. The 29-year-old has started 88 games over his seven-year career and has familiarity with offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris, who coached Fluker during his first three seasons with the then-San Diego Chargers. Fluker also reshaped his body in the offseason, which head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders took note of upon Fluker’s arrival.

Advertisement

Bradley Bozeman started all 16 regular-season games last season at left guard and with the ability to also play center, he should find a starting role in one of the three interior line spots. Fourth-round pick Ben Bredeson, an All-American at Michigan last season, could vie for a starting role, along with third-round pick Tyre Phillips, who’s making the transition from left tackle. The rookies will also compete with Ben Powers, who was inactive for most of his rookie year last season but impressed in the team’s regular-season finale.

The Ravens on Sunday announced that Matt Skura has passed his physical and is expected to be on the field for the start of padded practice, capping a remarkable comeback from his serious knee injury. Skura’s poised to step back into his starting role at center, while Patrick Mekari can return to a backup role or play in one of the guard spots.

Third tight end

On most teams, the third tight end spot might be an afterthought. But the frequency in which Roman uses multi-tight end personnel groupings magnifies what would otherwise be a reserve role.

The Ravens had high hopes for undrafted rookie Jacob Breeland, but he’ll miss the season as he continues to rehab from a knee injury that ended his senior season at Oregon last year.

The team signed Jerell Adams to add more competition, but the front-runners for the final tight end spot are second-year player Charles Scarff and undrafted rookie Eli Wolf.

Scarff has the luxury of knowing the playbook, as he spent last season on the team’s practice squad, but Wolf has the physical profile to play his way onto the 53-man roster.

“When he catches the ball, he has run-after-catch ability, whether it’s making somebody miss or it’s dipping his shoulder and kind of running through somebody,” said Todd Hartley, Wolf’s tight ends coach at Georgia. “He does that. He has that area of his game, so you know if you just get it to him, he’ll have a chance to turn a first down into an explosive play or even a touchdown just because he has that ability.”

Kick returner/punt returner

The Ravens don’t have many candidates to lead their return game and they could ultimately look to a rookie as their returner to open the season.

After De’Anthony Thomas opted out of the 2020 season, rookie receiver James Proche got the inside track to handle return duties. Harbaugh said it’s Proche’s “role to win” and special teams coordinator Chris Horton confirmed that Proche could be relied upon to return kicks and punts.

The team last week signed veteran running back Kenjon Barner, who has experience with return duties but also muffed four punts last season. In the lead-up to padded practice, receivers Willie Snead IV and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown have had their opportunities, but it’s unlikely the team wants a key offensive piece fielding punts in Week 1.

The big question is whether the team feels comfortable allowing Proche to field punts in the season-opener without seeing him in live action. They experimented with Brown in the team’s preseason finale last year. Brown, playing in just his second game after Lisfranc surgery, muffed two punts and the team didn’t place him back in that spot in the regular season.

Running back

This might not be a “battle,” per se, but with the abundance of talent at the position, it will be interesting to see how Roman rations carries.

Even as the oldest running back in the NFL projected to start in Week 1, Mark Ingram has the confidence of Ravens coaches who believe he has productive football ahead. And after rehabbing his injured calf, Ingram believes it too. Last year, Gus Edwards often spelled Ingram and was one of the most efficient runners in the league. Second-year back Justice Hill struggled to find his role in the offense early but developed later on as a steady receiving option out of the backfield.

Advertisement

The arrival of rookie J.K. Dobbins could cut into caries for each of the returning backs, but that’s a “good problem” that Roman will have to solve during training camp and likely over the duration of the regular season.

Advertisement

The Ravens didn’t play a single down last season with multiple running backs on the field, and Harbaugh said multi-running back personnel groupings likely won’t be one of the offense’s innovations this year, so the pecking order of this crowded backfield will be a notable development to monitor.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement