After a yearlong wait, the Ravens will put their eight-game preseason winning streak on the line Thursday night when they face the Chicago Bears in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
Just kidding. The focus of the Ravens’ first test of the preseason will be on a first-round draft pick who probably won’t even start.
With quarterback Robert Griffin III ahead of rookie Lamar Jackson on the team’s unofficial depth chart, and with starters on both teams expected to sit out the game in favor of repetitions for second- and third-stringers, expect to see a lot of sideline shots during NBC’s broadcast.
There, you’ll find Jackson, watching and waiting. There, you’ll also probably find Ray Lewis, smiling next to Brian Urlacher, joking with Randy Moss, trading biggest-hit stories with Brian Dawkins, a class of Pro Football Hall of Famers counting down the hours until their induction Saturday.
There will be plenty else worthy of scrutiny. After two weeks of training camp, the Ravens have so far avoided serious injuries, in large part because they’ve avoided serious contact. With five preseason games before the Ravens must make 53-man-roster cuts, on-the-bubble players have a lot of runway to make an impression, good or bad, by the NFL’s Sept. 1 deadline day.
Here are three questions at the forefront of the Ravens’ preseason opener.
1. How much will Jackson play, and how much does it matter?
Coach John Harbaugh knows which quarterbacks will play Thursday. He’s just not saying publicly.
“We have that set,” he said Friday. “I never really talk about that. We just go do it. But we have the quarterback rotation set, and then we’ll organize the rest of it in the next day or two. They’ll be some guys who won’t play in that game. Probably, you might guess the guys who haven’t practiced as much that first week.”
Joe Flacco practiced Tuesday, the final workout ahead of Wednesday’s walk-through, but the Hall of Fame Game is not normally the kind of venue to find starting quarterbacks playing. Even Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, a relatively green starter and an Ohio native, “probably” won’t play in Canton, Chicago running back Jordan Howard told the NFL Network on Tuesday.
With Josh Woodrum No. 4 on the quarterback depth chart, Harbaugh has a tough but ultimately pretty meaningless decision on whom to start under center. It likely will be Griffin, who has started 40 games over his NFL career and shown a solid command of the offense throughout Ravens training camp, even in his first year with the franchise.
A reserve role for Jackson wouldn’t inconvenience his development. He could see more reps Thursday than Griffin or Woodrum, and how long he plays might not even matter as much as whom he plays against. Say he enters the game early in the second quarter and plays through the third. Depending on the Bears’ substitution patterns, Jackson could see a mix of first-, second- and third-string talent, all trying to execute a defense that should be about as exotic as, well, Northeast Ohio. To be sure, there are steeper learning curves in professional football.
Evaluations of his performance, of course, will reflect personal expectations. Pessimists will see success as a reflection of the quality of play, an indictment of Bears players who won’t even see the field this September. Optimists will see a setback as just another learning opportunity for Jackson, who needs time to grasp the speed of NFL defenses before he realizes how to unlock them with his mesmerizing dual-threat ability.
2. Which underperforming Ravens need to help their case?
The Ravens wouldn’t have picked up wide receiver Breshad Perriman’s $649,000 roster bonus for this season if team officials didn’t think he could help the team.
But over three seasons, here's all the former first-round draft pick has produced: 27 games, four starts, 43 catches, 576 yards, three touchdowns and too many oh-what-could’ve-beens for fans to count.
General manager Ozzie Newsome said in March that Perriman “knows it's his opportunity to make or break being a part of the Ravens," and perhaps a game away from the Baltimore area will help. The 24-year-old has had solid days and anonymous ones at the Under Armour Performance Center, but even some of his noteworthy catches have been met with Bronx cheers from fans on hand.
The Ravens’ positional depth could hurt Perriman’s chances, just as it could affect the bids of Kamalei Correa and Bronson Kaufusi. The second and third picks in a largely high-performing 2016 draft class have yet to find their place on the defense.
After two underwhelming seasons, Correa moved back to his more natural outside linebacker post this offseason, while Kaufusi, drafted as a five-technique defensive end, has seen some time at outside linebacker as well this camp. Their biggest obstacle: Other youngsters such as Za'Darius Smith, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams are waiting in the wings at the position.
Elsewhere, keep an eye on tight end Maxx Williams, especially if rookies Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews are limited, as well as cornerback Maurice Canady. Harbaugh has had kind words for all.
3. What will kickoffs look like under the NFL’s new rules?
With kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox, coordinator Jerry Rosburg has one of the more sure-handed (and sure-footed) special teams batteries in the NFL.
That has left two major curiosities for Rosburg to address throughout training camp: the emergence of undrafted rookie Kaare Vedvik and his expectations for what kickoffs will look like in 2018.
In May, the NFL approved changes to address safety concerns over what has been one of the game’s most dangerous plays. Among the new rules: Kickoff team members are no longer allowed to get a running start in the kicker's run-up to the tee. Eight of the return team's 11 players must set up in a 15-yard zone near midfield. Blocking is not allowed within 15 yards from the spot of the kickoff, and two-man wedge blocks are banned.
Rosburg said last week that it’s still too early to know how kickoffs will be managed by officials or approached by coaches.
“I think the timing and spacing of this play is still yet to be discovered,” he said. “When you get in a preseason game where it’s competitive, where the other team is running down as fast as they can, the timing and spacing of the play is going to be interesting. That will determine how teams attack and how teams defend. We’ll see what happens. It’ll be interesting. I know this is going to be an exciting play, and I’m anxious to get going and see how it works.”