Healthy Ravens present settled picture as they break training camp

As markers in an NFL season go, it’s among the least significant. The Ravens greeted the moment in shorts and T-shirts, moving through plays at half-speed.

Twenty-seven days after they reported for work, the team broke training camp on a temperate Tuesday afternoon in Owings Mills.


That phrase doesn’t carry the same meaning it did when they trained in Westminster.

But the atmosphere will be different when the players return to practice Thursday morning — no stands packed with shouting admirers, no lines of children begging for autographs, no reporters noting every dropped pass and skirmish between teammates.

With the Ravens wanting to get more out of their pass rush, nose tackle Michael Pierce is moving to a backup role behind Brandon Williams. But that doesn't mean he won't play a large role this season.

The Ravens welcomed as many as 2,000 fans a day to watch practice, by far the most to view camp since the team last trained in Westminster in 2010. The change was facilitated by a sweeping renovation of the team’s training facility and represented an early plank in efforts to rebuild enthusiasm in the Baltimore fan base.

“It’s nice to have fans here, because it’s fun,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after the final open practice. “That’s the bottom line. It’s fun. The players enjoy it. We have tons of kids out here.”

The Ravens will begin the next phase of their preseason with an unusually healthy roster, growing optimism about an offense that dragged them down in recent seasons and a collection of young players who’ve shown they might help immediately.

Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson remains an exciting work in progress, and the team still has to answer questions about its depth along the offensive line and in the linebacker corps.


Because the Ravens began camp a week early to prepare for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, they feel they’ve been at this awhile.

“It seems like we’ve had a full preseason already, for some reason,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “And in reality, we have three [games] left.”

Despite looming changes in the general manager’s chair and, eventually, at quarterback, the Ravens have enjoyed a camp relatively light on intrigue.

Few starting positions appear up for grabs, and the roster is notably healthier than it was at the same point in recent seasons.

If the Ravens had to play Sunday, it’s possible all of their projected starters would be available. Only right guard Marshal Yanda, who came off the physically-unable-to-perform list at the start of last week as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery, and safety Tony Jefferson, who missed a string of practices because of a strained hamstring, would likely be listed as questionable.

Quarterback Joe Flacco’s renewed vigor has been one of the key stories of camp after he missed the entire 2017 preseason because of a back injury. Though Flacco started in Week 1, the injury seemed to hamper him throughout the first half as he stumbled through one of his worst statistical stretches.

He has been a different player this summer, throwing every pass required of an NFL quarterback and even running with a bounce not seen from him in several years. On Monday, the 33-year-old rolled to his right and uncorked a bomb that traveled 55 yards down the field, and all the way across it, into the arms of a streaking Chris Moore.

With Flacco moving and throwing better than he has in several years, the Ravens seem convinced they’ll finally hit opponents with a dynamic passing game in 2018. Their three new starting receivers — veteran Michael Crabtree, deep threat John Brown and slot specialist Willie Snead IV — have earned strong reviews, as has rookie tight end Hayden Hurst.

The starting offense rolled down the field for a touchdown in the one series it played against the Los Angeles Rams last week, with Flacco completing five of seven passes for 71 yards.

“I think it builds confidence. As a team and an offense, I definitely think you can come out here and see that we’re doing a good job,” Flacco said Tuesday. “Those are all really important things that should carry over to game time. Besides that, I don’t think you really read into it too much.”

Flacco’s form isn’t the only positive story on the medical front.

Cornerback Jimmy Smith, one of the most indispensable players on the defense, returned to game action last week, less than eight months after he tore his Achilles tendon.

Yanda, the team’s best and most experienced offensive lineman, has said he’s eager for Week 1 after he missed 14 games last season because of a broken ankle.

The health news has been so good that Harbaugh has joked he’s reluctant to discuss it, lest he jinx the situation.

Training camp is also a favorite time for assessing rookies, and in Jackson, the Ravens have one of the most popular and scrutinized first-year players in the NFL.

Jackson’s story has remained largely the same since he began offseason workouts. He’s thrilling to watch when he twists and jukes past defenders or throws a strike on the dead run. But he’s confounding when he sends routine mid-range passes wobbling into no man’s land.

With Flacco performing well, talk of Jackson pushing for the starting job in 2018 has quieted, though it was never a live subject within the team.

The Ravens still have to decide whether they trust Jackson to serve as Flacco’s primary backup this season or if they’ll hold on to Robert Griffin III as veteran insurance.

Among the rookies, Hurst, right tackle Orlando Brown and weak-side linebacker Kenny Young seem more likely than Jackson to play significant roles in the Sept. 9 season opener against the Buffalo Bills.

Though James Hurst remains a slight favorite to start beside Yanda on the right side of the offensive line, Brown has played well enough that he has a real shot to win the job this season. The second-generation Raven faced questions about his conditioning after his underwhelming performance at the NFL scouting combine. But he said he’s gone from 338 pounds to 350 while decreasing his body fat from 23 percent to 19.

Young, meanwhile, has pushed incumbent Patrick Onwuasor for playing time in the middle of a defense that features most of the same players from 2017.

Aside from those position battles, few major roster questions remain as the Ravens prepare to travel to Indianapolis for two joint practices and a Monday night preseason game against the Colts.

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