Five storylines heading into Ravens training camp

After three straight seasons of no playoffs, 2018 sets up as pivotal year for the Ravens.

General manager Ozzie Newsome, the greatest constant in franchise history, is on his way out. Coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco could join him, depending on how they perform this season. Fan interest has also reached a tenuous point, as evidenced by the thousands of empty seats at home games in 2017 and the declining market for season ticket licenses.

Are we looking at the continuation of an era that began when Harbaugh and Flacco arrived in 2008? Or a drastic turn toward a less certain future?

Against that backdrop, here are five stories to watch as the team begins training camp this week:

How aggressively will the Ravens move to play Lamar Jackson?

This is clearly the No. 1 question on the minds of Ravens fans and of football fans everywhere when they turn their attention to Baltimore.

When the Ravens traded back into the first round to snag the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, they showed they’re ready to look ahead to a radically different, potentially more exciting, offensive future. It was a message fans embraced hungrily after years of griping about the team’s stagnant attack.

But how quickly will that future arrive?

Jackson came exactly as advertised during offseason workouts — eye-poppingly fast and fluid on the move and periodically amateurish when attempting NFL throws. We heard about the excitement he created among veteran teammates but also the caution coaches expressed as they monitored his development. His most encouraging performance came on the last day of minicamp, when he took the first-team snaps and threw better than he had all spring.

Harbaugh has made it clear he plans to use Jackson this season, whether in special packages of plays tailored to his skills or in tandem with Flacco.

It’s conceivable that if he handles the work seamlessly, he’ll be the team’s projected starter for 2019. It’s also possible he’ll struggle enough to become a two- or three-year project.

Regardless, Jackson will give us a reason to watch Ravens preseason games. He’s the most intriguing offensive prospect the team has drafted in a long time, maybe ever.

How will Flacco respond to the challenge of Jackson’s presence?

We haven’t had a quarterback controversy in this town since Flacco suited up for his first game as a rookie. That decade of stability at the game’s most important position is unusual, and it’s been a good thing for the franchise overall.

But Flacco has been a below-average quarterback the past three seasons, partially because knee and back injuries chipped away at his previously unmatched durability.

He played better as his back felt healthier after the bye week last season. And he looked downright spry in workouts this spring, moving and throwing better than he had since his last vintage season in 2014.

Flacco has always handled his face-of-the-team role with dignity, and he continued to do so as the questions about Jackson flowed. He’ll play teacher if that’s what the team asks.

But will that become more difficult if the offense struggles again and the calls for Jackson to start grow louder? Conversely, how will the narrative around Flacco change if he really is healthier and plays his best football in four years? Could he stay in Baltimore past this season and stall Jackson’s development, even if the rookie is the franchise player of the future?

Again, regardless of which outcome you’re rooting for, we have not seen this interesting a quarterback scenario in at least a decade.

Whichever guy plays quarterback, can the new receiving corps help him out?

Flacco’s struggles aside, no position group has dispirited fans more than the Ravens’ receivers in recent years. Last season brought another round of despair, with free-agent signee Jeremy Maclin struggling to fit in and 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman stamping himself an official bust. No Raven finished in the league’s top 30 in catches, receiving yards or receiving touchdowns last season.

That led Newsome to promise and deliver a near-complete overhaul. The Ravens allowed Mike Wallace to depart in free agency and cut Maclin and Danny Woodhead, the team’s top receiver out of the backfield.

In their place, they signed former Oakland Raiders star Michael Crabtree, injury-plagued deep threat John Brown and slot specialist Willie Snead IV.

The stout, sure-handed Snead looked like a potential favorite target for Flacco during minicamp, and Crabtree was the most talented receiver on the field, as you might expect.

But the fact remains that none of these guys would project as a No. 1 receiver on an elite NFL offense, and they could all go down as fleeting solutions if the passing attack falters again.

Perriman is also still around, though the Ravens could opt to cut or trade him before they owe him a $650,000 bonus on the third day of training camp. He struggled to catch the ball consistently again in offseason workouts, and even if he sticks on the roster, any significant production from him would be a surprise.

Can the defense go from very good to great?

The Ravens will bring back almost their entire defense from 2017, and that’s mostly a good thing given the wealth of solid players on all three levels.

But the defense did not consistently dominate and, perhaps more importantly, faltered when it needed a stop against the Cincinnati Bengals with a playoff berth on the line in the season finale. On top of that, the Ravens rely heavily on 35-year-old linebacker Terrell Suggs, 33-year-old safety Eric Weddle and injury-prone cornerback Jimmy Smith.

They’ll try to do better this season with popular linebackers coach Don “Wink” Martindale moving up to replace Dean Pees at coordinator.

Suggs made the Pro Bowl last year and appears to be in tremendous shape. But 16 years into his career, the Ravens have yet to find a young pass rusher to serve as his heir apparent.

Third-year linebacker Matthew Judon might be the closest, but right now, he’s more valuable for his versatility.

Up front, we saw how the run defense faltered when defensive tackle Brandon Williams was hurt last season. So the Ravens need a healthy Williams along with continued development from third-year defensive tackle Willie Henry.

They also need a long-term starter next to linebacker C.J. Mosley in the middle.

On the back end, they’ll look for Marlon Humphrey to develop into a star cornerback and Tony Jefferson to deliver steadier production as a run-stuffing safety.

Smith’s recovery from a torn Achilles tendon will be a key point of uncertainty headed into camp. And Mosley’s contract status also looms as a potential issue. He’s the heart of the defense, and it’s a bit surprising the Ravens have not already signed him to long-term deal.

Will any rookies besides Jackson command our attention?

It’s easy to forget that tight end Hayden Hurst was actually the team’s first pick in April after the Ravens traded down twice in the first round, eschewing a wide receiver in the process.

The Ravens have a mixed record drafting tight ends, but Hurst looked the part in offseason workouts, moving like a big wide receiver and catching most of the balls thrown his way. He seems like an unusually mature rookie, given that he’s already coped with the unexpected demise of his pro baseball career. So he could help this year, even if he wasn’t projected as a future superstar by most draft analysts.

Fellow tight end Mark Andrews could also see the field a fair amount as a pure pass catcher. The Ravens would like to see him push incumbent Maxx Williams.

Right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. could force his way into immediate playing time, depending on how the offensive line shakes out beyond left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right guard Marshal Yanda. Brown will have to answer questions about his fitness, but he brings impressive size and college pedigree.

Fourth-round pick Kenny Young could be the complement to Mosley at linebacker after a productive career at UCLA.

Because fans are so eager for receiving talent, they’ll watch fourth-round pick Jaleel Scott and fifth-round pick Jordan Lasley with hopeful eyes. Scott made some spectacular catches in minicamp and could be an appealing red-zone target.

Finally, it will be interesting to see if sixth-round pick Bradley Bozeman makes any noise in the battle at center. Matt Skura is probably the favorite to replace Ryan Jensen, and Alex Lewis played some downs at center during minicamp. But the Ravens don’t have an obvious long-term starter at the position.

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