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

The seven storylines that will shape Ravens training camp

When the Ravens take the field Monday morning for their first full-team practice in over eight months, everything will look a little different. A return to normalcy, this is not.

First, it’ll be mid-August; in nonpandemic times, training camp starts in late July. No fans will surround the fields of the Under Armour Performance Center, just socially distanced reporters. Coaches will bark out orders through masks or gaiters. They’ll oversee 80 players, not 90, after an NFL-mandated roster trimming. And the opening practice will last just 90 minutes.

Advertisement

If the Ravens’ path to Super Bowl glory starts here, then so be it. So much of what they must do on a football field — the huddling, the grappling, the respiratory-droplet swapping — is what the country has been told to avoid amid the coronavirus. This will all take some getting used to.

“If you look at things that are going on in our world right now, in our country, in terms of the new normal, in terms of the way we live and deal with this stuff — whether it’s grocery shopping or how we get gas and all of that — you have to figure it out and find a way to do things a little bit differently,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said last month. “It’s been challenging, but it’s been kind of fun, in a lot of ways.”

Advertisement

After weeks of meetings and walk-throughs, the stakes will rise Monday with the first of 17 Ravens practices. Every drill, every repetition, will take on more importance this year; there are no preseason games to put on tape before roster cuts are due Sept. 5. The best players in Owings Mills will likely stay in Owings Mills.

This camp, like the offseason that preceded it, is unlike any other. The Ravens have holes to address and depth charts to sort, but the biggest question facing their talented roster might be whether COVID-19 touches it. With Week 1 less than a month away, here are the seven story lines that will shape training camp.

Pandemic planning

Before the Ravens enter their team facility, they wait in line for their daily checkup. There’s a COVID-19 symptoms questionnaire, a nasal swab to test for the virus, and a temperature check. Then players enters a socially distanced building where coaches wear masks and proximity trackers buzz and glass partitions separate lockers.

The Ravens have had nearly three weeks of this new normal, and few issues have arisen. Only one player, undrafted safety Nigel Warrior, has missed time on the reserve/COVID-19 list. But the season will present a number of logistical questions that the team’s staff and front office, at least publicly, have not resolved.

Among them: Will the uncertainty of the pandemic affect the team’s roster-building plans? Will any players be isolated during the season to protect them from possible infection? What happens if a Ravens coach contracts the virus? How will COVID-19 affect in-season trades and free-agent signings?

“All the different areas of this building have been touched by this whole process,” Ravens head team physician Dr. Andrew Tucker said in a conference call Wednesday. “It’s an extraordinary, extraordinary effort to get us where we are today, which is on track for hopefully a game in about a month.

"I tell people, 'I think we're going to start. I hope we're going to finish.' "

In good shape?

In a contact sport like football, injuries are unavoidable. With the pandemic locking some players out of gyms during the league’s virtual offseason, injuries might be especially prevalent this month. Despite the NFL’s ramp-up protocols, some Ravens are bound to get hurt over the 14 padded practices allotted through Sept. 6.

Harbaugh acknowledged in June that “there’s going to be some acclimation for the players.” When they reported to camp, there were playbooks to learn and weights to lift. But head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders said earlier this month that “everybody” he’d seen was in good shape. Not every team organized virtual workouts during the offseason, but the Ravens did.

The hope in Baltimore and across the league is that there’s no repeat of 2011, when a work stoppage canceled organized team activities and minicamp and the number of injuries ultimately rose by 25%. Achilles tendon injuries, in particular, more than doubled.

“Soft-tissue injuries are always a concern,” Saunders said. “But again, I think during that time [in 2011], even with gyms, there was a longer time where guys didn’t run, they didn’t lift, they didn’t have somebody with them to prepare — and I think that the soft-tissue injuries come from your body not being ready for those activities. …

“You never know what can happen. Certainly, I think we’re positioned well to try and avoid those things, but we still have a long road until the first game.”

Advertisement

MVP’s next step

The narrative around the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player probably won’t budge for a while.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson is coming off a historic season in which he led the Ravens to their second straight AFC North title and captured the football world’s imagination. He also doesn’t have any postseason wins. In his first year as a full-time starter, Jackson led the NFL in passing touchdowns and set the single-season rushing record for a quarterback. He also doesn’t have any postseason wins.

Interrogations of Jackson’s playoff shortcomings, both real and imagined, are unavoidable. So are questions about how he can improve in 2020. Jackson didn’t have many weaknesses in 2019. He can still get better.

One focus this camp: deep passing. According to Pro Football Focus, Jackson graded out as a middle-of-the-pack quarterback on balls thrown at least 20 yards downfield last season (40.0% accuracy, 119.7 passer rating). With deep threats Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Miles Boykin expected to step up this season, Jackson should have more opportunities to punish defenses not just over the middle but also out wide and over the top.

“I felt like last year, he made a gigantic step in every phase of his game,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Wednesday of Jackson. “And I feel like this year, there’s an opportunity to make some steps — as he does, as any player does — constantly striving for improvement.

“I think his knowledge of the game will improve. Game management, I think he’s got an instinctive feel for that. But I feel like he’ll continue to improve in those areas. … We’re always trying to improve accuracy on all different kinds of throws. Consistency, and then decision-making, which if we can get 2 to 5% better in those areas, it’ll be pretty impressive.”

Advertisement

Catching up

The Ravens had the NFL’s most efficient passing offense last season, according to Football Outsiders. They also had one of the league’s least productive wide receiver groups.

Advertisement

Willie Snead IV’s output fell off somewhat after a strong 2018. Seth Roberts, now with the Carolina Panthers, finished with a career low in receiving yards. Brown gutted his way through his rookie year with a foot injury. Boykin couldn’t translate his training camp success to the regular season. Chris Moore and Jaleel Scott got few snaps on offense. In all, Ravens wide receivers combined for 115 catches for 1,419 yards last season, both NFL lows.

Even if Jackson doesn’t throw for 36 touchdowns this season, he’ll have a more dynamic supporting cast out wide. Brown is fully healthy and primed for a breakout season. Boykin will be more comfortable and confident in his second year. Snead is lighter and playing for a new contract. The competition beyond them — Scott, Moore, and rookies Devin Duvernay and James Proche — should help round out the depth chart.

Against the Ravens’ top-flight secondary, this receiving corps might not look great throughout camp. Nobody outside Baltimore expects it to be elite. But the group can be good, and that would make the offense great.

“We definitely are an offense that wants to attack the defense where they’re weakest,” Roman said. “We’re really excited about our wide receivers group. Marquise [Brown] and Miles [Boykin] were rookies last year. We’ve got some young guys this year coming in that are kind of learning the offense and working their way through things right now. We’ve got some veteran presence with Willie Snead, Chris Moore. So really, as a group, we’re very excited about them.”

Sharing the load

Almost four months after the Ravens added maybe the draft’s top running back prospect to the NFL’s best rushing attack, the team’s four-back pecking order is still anyone’s guess.

Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram II is the heavy favorite to start in Week 1; Roman on Wednesday said the 30-year-old “still maximizes runs as good, if not better, than anybody that I see in the league.” After that, the Ravens’ depth chart is in flux.

J.K. Dobbins, a second-round pick who played in a similar offense at Ohio State, is a hard-nosed runner with breakaway speed and decent route-running ability. But as a rookie, he’ll have to prove his knowledge of the playbook and his competency in pass protection. And he won’t have much time to get ready.

Gus Edwards finished third in the NFL in yards per carry last season and has added to his game in every year, though his receiving skill set is still limited. Justice Hill has the opposite problem: He showed his ability as an option out of the backfield late last season but must improve as a between-the-tackles runner.

However the snaps shake out in camp and this season, the Ravens will run the ball a lot. Their 596 carries last year — Jackson himself had 176 — easily led the NFL.

“We put emphasis on running the ball,” Ingram said this month. “So being able to have our backfield … I think it’s an elite backfield [with] guys who I think can start anywhere in this league and play anywhere in this league. We’ll be competing. We’ll be working and we’ll be working together to have the best rushing attack again.”

Replacing a legend

When Tom Brady left New England this offseason, the Patriots waited to sign Cam Newton. When Houston traded away DeAndre Hopkins, the Texans traded for Brandin Cooks. When Marshal Yanda retired after 13 season in Baltimore, the Ravens — well, they’ve tried just about everything.

If the Ravens’ offensive line enters the season with a huge question mark over right guard, it won’t be because general manager Eric DeCosta sat on his hands this offseason. After drafting a potential Yanda replacement in guard Ben Powers last year, the Ravens took two more in April: Mississippi State’s Tyre Phillips and Michigan’s Ben Bredeson. A couple of weeks later, they signed D.J. Fluker, who’d started 23 games over the past two seasons for the Seattle Seahawks.

The Ravens don’t expect another Hall of Fame-level player to emerge at the position this year. Yanda, who was so good and so smart that Harbaugh took to calling him a “force multiplier,” didn’t even make the Pro Bowl until his fourth season.

But with two Pro Bowl tackles in Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. and a handful of dependable, interchangeable interior linemen in Bradley Bozeman, Matt Skura (when healthy) and Patrick Mekari, the Ravens can’t afford to have one weak link sink the unit. The line was one of the NFL’s best last year, and it showed every week.

“I think we have to really do a good job of sorting that [guard competition] out,” Harbaugh said last month. “We are going to play those guys all around. We have to move them around. … We are going to have to really be flexible. To be good, we are going to have to do a great job of how we organize our practices with those guys to see how it shakes out and make sure we are fair by everybody.”

Young guns

Of the 80 players on the Ravens’ roster, nearly a third are first-year players: 10 draft picks, 15 undrafted rookies. There’s intrigue in both groups.

The limelight will shine brightest on first-round pick Patrick Queen, an inside linebacker who could become the youngest Ravens defensive player to start in franchise history. The transition from camp to Week 1 won’t be easy. The pandemic denied Queen a preseason to measure himself against, and his first start at age 21 could come against a Cleveland Browns team that ran over the Ravens in Baltimore last season.

At least he’ll have another buzzed-about prospect to compare notes with. Malik Harrison, a third-round pick and All-American at Ohio State, will compete with Queen and returning starter L.J. Fort for snaps at inside linebacker. Otaro Alaka, Chris Board and rookie Kristian Welch, all young players themselves, will also be in the mix.

Queen and Harrison are “exactly what we expected,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said Wednesday. “They’re young and they’re making some mistakes, but for the most part, they’re great.”

Advertisement

The Ravens’ eight other draft picks — defensive linemen Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington, safety Geno Stone, Dobbins, Duvernay, Phillips, Bredeson and Proche — could all see the field in varying roles this season. None are anywhere near the roster bubble.

But there’s keen interest in the team’s undrafted crop, too. An undrafted rookie has made the Ravens’ initial 53-man roster for 16 straight years. This class faces even more of an uphill battle than usual: no offseason activities in Owings Mills, no preseason games, just three weeks of practice in which they can strive for a roster spot.

“It’s certainly tougher,” Harbaugh said. “There’s no question. Those guys have been put in a tough spot.”

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement