Through the first three weeks of organized team activities at the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills, the Ravens have begun to build the foundation for the 2021 NFL season — or apply the first layer of paint, as offensive coordinator Greg Roman said in a recent conference call with season-ticket holders.
The Ravens saw quality turnout; close to 70 players were working out at each of the three practices open to the media. Several other players who have yet to be medically cleared to return to the sessions, such as tight end Nick Boyle and cornerback Tavon Young, have been present, watching from the sideline and engaging with teammates.
The beginning of mandatory minicamp serves as an opportunity to add another coating of paint. The Ravens aren’t dealing with any holdouts, as the Green Bay Packers are with star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, that puts the attendance of any players in doubt. This means that veterans such as defensive linemen Brandon Williams, Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and cornerback Marcus Peters, all of whom were absent from the three open practices, should be on the field for the sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Here are three questions as the Ravens begin mandatory minicamp and draw closer to training camp in late July.
1. How much more progress can the offense make before training camp?
The Ravens have generally had their starting offense present at OTAs, save for left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who continues to rehabilitate from his season-ending ankle injury, and fullback Patrick Ricard, who underwent hip surgery in the offseason.
The workouts have been key for an offensive line that will have different faces at four spots and is still in search of a starter at left guard. In the practices open to media, there have been flashes of some of the new aspects of the offense that Roman revealed on his conference call, such as more plays being run from under center and the increased involvement of running backs in the passing game.
There’s only so much that can be parsed from team drills in which defenders are encouraged not to make plays on the ball so they can avoid contact. A more definitive statement on the offense can be made when training camp arrives, especially once the first-team unit gets work in preseason games. Nonetheless, the minicamp will still be crucial for quarterback Lamar Jackson to get his timing down with a new-look offensive line and pass-catchers such as Sammy Watkins and first-round draft choice Rashod Bateman.
2. What does the defense look like with the return of multiple starters?
The absence of Campbell, Williams and Wolfe, coupled with a few injuries at the start of OTAs, left the defensive line thin early on. It did, however, present more reps for young players such as Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington Jr., whom the team will count on to round out its defensive line rotation in their sophomore seasons.
Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale affectionately referred to his starting defensive line as the “Monstars” last season, and rightfully so. The trio was one of the more formidable fronts in the league when healthy. However, injuries and coronavirus-related absences kept them from playing at full strength in 2020; each player missed at least two games, and injuries sidelined them for parts of other contests. At full strength, their presence gives the Ravens defense one of the stoutest run-stuffing groups in the NFL and presents Martindale more flexibility in his aggressive play-calls.
Peters’ return again gives the Ravens one of the league’s best pairings at cornerback as he teams with Marlon Humphrey. Tavon Young remains sidelined, and in recent seasons, Humphrey has shifted inside to the nickel spot while Jimmy Smith manned the outside full-time. Before the 2020 season, Martindale envisioned using Smith in a hybrid role, but that plan was mainly nixed once Young was lost to a torn ACL in Week 2. Even as the defense awaits Young’s return, the Ravens have more options in the secondary after drafting Brandon Stephens and Shaun Wade.
3. Which rookies continue to stand out?
With about a month’s worth of practices under their belt, the Ravens’ 2021 draft class is already significantly further ahead of last year’s group at this time. And with only a few practices left until training camp, this is the final chance for rookies, drafted and undrafted, to make an impression on the coaching staff before training camp.
Across the board, there’s value in these workouts for the newest Ravens. Wide receivers Bateman and Tylan Wallace have looked comfortable in the pass-centric team drills and figure to be heavily involved in a passing game aiming to make significant strides. Wade and Stephens have gotten their fair share of repetitions in coverage and the coaching staff continues to move them around the field.
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Ben Cleveland remains in the mix to start at left guard, and outside linebackers Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes are expected to be consistent parts of the pass-rush rotation. Even a player like Ben Mason, who might not be a part of the short-term plan once Ricard comes back into the fold, will have to prove himself in a crowded tight end room.