Ravens offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris is like every coach (and capitalist): He prefers open competition. “I think that’s how football should be,” he said last month at the team’s mandatory minicamp.
But some of the Ravens’ competitions are less open than others. At kicker, nothing short of an act of Congress would bump Justin Tucker from atop the depth chart. Marshal Yanda is all but immovable as the Ravens’ right guard. Safety Earl Thomas was not signed to be a backup. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is, well, the face of the franchise.
As training camp gets underway Thursday with the Ravens’ first full-team practice, there will be some drama at every position, whether for first-team snaps or for shots at the 53-man roster. Yes, Hayden Hurst’s snaps at tight end will be scrutinized. Of course, the team needs to establish depth at wide receiver and sort out its depth chart at cornerback.
But the most uncertain, most interesting, most significant roster fights are elsewhere.
Perhaps the most wide open of the Ravens’ training camp battles might culminate with a no-fuss return to the status quo.
James Hurst, who took over at left guard in December after returning from a back injury but struggled at times, must defend his incumbency against Jermaine Eluemunor and Ben Powers. Former starter Alex Lewis, if healthy and fit, might also re-emerge.
At the end of mandatory minicamp, Harbaugh acknowledged that Hurst would be considered the favorite at the position. But “for now,” he said, “we don’t have a leader.”
“Give everyone the chance,” D’Alessandris said. "Between now and our opener, we don’t know what’s going to happen per player. So let’s let each day take its course, and let’s see how each player plays. Usually, the cream surfaces to the top at the very end.”
Hurst has valuable starting experience across the line and, assuming his nerve root issue is no longer limiting, should be stronger physically. Eluemunor took first-team repetitions in minicamp and could raise his game with a better-conditioned body. Powers is physical and smart but must prove himself in run sets. Lewis’ ability, meanwhile, is a question mark after he missed the Ravens’ offseason practices while rehabilitating a shoulder surgery.
When Za’Darius Smith left in free agency, the Ravens had an in-house replacement ready. The Green Bay Packers’ big-money signing split starts last year with Matthew Judon, who will feel at home as the Ravens’ top strong-side outside linebacker.
On the other end of the line is where it gets murky. Terrell Suggs had become synonymous with the rush linebacker position in Baltimore; he started 47 of the Ravens’ past 48 games and 213 overall before joining the Arizona Cardinals. Typically lining up away from tight ends, Suggs was free to attack offensive tackles on-on-one, often to devastating effect.
No one on the depth chart has his combination of pass-rush savvy and strength. Training camp practices and preseason games should reveal who comes closest, but the eventual starter might also reflect a philosophical preference.
Tim Williams has struggled to see the field regularly in his two years with the Ravens, but the former third-round pick was a productive pass rusher in limited action last season. If he proves strong enough to set the edge in run defense, Williams could seize the job and give the defense a second dynamic edge rusher.
Tyus Bowser, a second-round pick in 2017, has contributed more than Williams, but mainly on special teams. He flashed his playmaking ability and athleticism during minicamp a year ago but has been mostly anonymous in pads. Third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson looks the part of a future rush linebacker — at a well-built 275 pounds, he’s 10 pounds heavier than Suggs — but first-year struggles are expected, even for a sack artist as prolific as him.
Next to Patrick Onwuasor, now the Ravens’ top middle linebacker, there’s seemingly a two-horse race at weak-side linebacker: Kenny Young versus Chris Board.
The second-year players entered the NFL with polar-opposite pedigrees: Young was a three-year starter and fourth-round pick who starred for UCLA inside the iconic Rose Bowl; Board went undrafted after moving from safety to linebacker at Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse North Dakota State, home of the Fargodome.
But on paper, they are more alike than not. Young is 6-foot-1, 234 pounds, while Board is 6-2, 229 pounds. Young finished with 40 tackles as a rookie, most of which came when C.J. Mosley was out. Board had 12 tackles — all on special teams, the most on the team. Young saw 369 defensive snaps; Board played 356 on special teams. Even during offseason practices, both saw time with the first-team defense.
“I think Chris Board is playing like a starter,” Harbaugh said at the end of minicamp. “I also think Kenny Young is playing like a starter. Those guys are playing really, really fast.”
The label of starter could prove inconsequential, as they’re likely to share playing time to some degree. But Young has a head start, and Onwuasor’s familiarity with him could prove decisive.
Last season’s churn could begin anew. Three players returned at least seven punts for the Ravens in 2018, with the last by far their best: Free-agent pickup Cyrus Jones finished fourth in the NFL in yards per punt return (13.2) and scored his first career touchdown.
But Jones’ ball control was not always airtight, a pet peeve of Harbaugh’s, and the former Gilman star was not present for any of the organized team activities or minicamp practices open to reporters. Harbaugh said Jones was dealing with a health problem and had not been cleared to practice. “It’s not for me to describe it exactly,” he added.
If Jones remains limited or struggles through training camp, the door will be flung open for old and new faces. First-year special teams coordinator Chris Horton said at minicamp that running back Tyler Ervin, wide receiver Willie Snead IV and even cornerback Tavon Young could contend for punt return duties.
Of the three, Ervin is by far the most experienced. Snead has returned just one punt in his NFL career, while Young’s last punt return in a game setting came in high school. (He did get practice reps as a returner early in his Ravens career, as Horton pointed out.) Ervin returned 56 punts for 496 yards (8.9-yard average) in three years with the Houston Texans, with a long of 57 yards. He had two fumbles in 25 games, losing one on a muffed catch.