Last year, the Ravens reported to Owings Mills for the strangest training camp imaginable: coaches in masks, interviews held over Zoom, no preseason games to come.
When practice begins Wednesday at the Under Armour Performance Center, life will be closer to normal. There will be questions about vaccination rates and coronavirus-related policies, of course, but also about the looming season and what stands between the team and the Super Bowl.
As the Ravens’ offseason break nears its end, here are 20 storylines to follow on offense. On Tuesday, the training camp preview will conclude with 16 defensive and special teams storylines.
1. The last images of Lamar Jackson in a meaningful football game were not pretty: the NFL’s 2019 Most Valuable Player sprawled out in the Buffalo cold, Ravens athletic trainers tending to a concussion, a botched snap and severe whiplash forcing Jackson out of the game in an eventual 17-3 playoff loss to the Bills. But despite his workload as a runner — 10.5 carries per game over the past two years — Jackson has been Mr. Available as a starter. He’s missed just two games since taking over in November 2018: one meaningless 2019 game, and another in 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19. Whether he’s vaccinated or not, the Ravens need him to stay out of harm’s way.
2. Jackson said in June that he planned to meet with his receivers in South Florida during the offseason hiatus and “pretty much grind, because the season is here.” If he did, he kept those workouts private, off social media. The Ravens offense’s biggest July summit seemed to be in Scottsdale, Arizona, where wide receivers Marquise “Hollwood” Brown and Rashod Bateman and tight end Mark Andrews, an Arizona native, worked out with Bateman’s trainer.
3. One of the most consequential questions coach John Harbaugh will hear early in camp concerns his reserve quarterbacks. Namely, how many will the Ravens keep? They’ve opened every season since Jackson’s arrival with three on their 53-man roster. Last year, thanks to injuries and the pandemic, they went through four. Now, with former backup Robert Griffin III gone and Trace McSorley’s special teams value fading, two important decisions loom over team officials. First, will McSorley or Tyler Huntley win the backup battle? And could a roster crunch lead the Ravens to cut their QB3 in hopes he clears waivers? Odds are that an athletic quarterback will be available after the roster deadline passes, but he might not be as good a practice squad fit as McSorley or Huntley.
4. Huntley enters camp as the slight favorite for the backup job. Despite a scrapped offseason program, he outperformed McSorley for much of camp last season, and in offseason workouts this spring, he maintained a slight edge. As a runner, Huntley has solid speed and impressive open-field vision. As a passer, he has a loping windup, but he’s shown he can spread the ball downfield and out wide, and do so accurately. (He left Utah in 2020 with the school record for career completion percentage.) McSorley impressed as a rookie in preseason action, but the in-game scrutiny will be greater now, especially if he’s asked to lead the first-team offense. Turnovers could be the decisive factor in the competition.
5. J.K. Dobbins finished his rookie season with 134 carries for 805 yards, joining Alvin Kamara as the only rookies in modern NFL history to average at least 6 yards per carry on at least 100 attempts. But Dobbins’ ascent into the league’s elite won’t be complete until he proves his receiving ability. Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb notwithstanding, all of the top running backs in Pro Football Focus’ 2021 rankings can be reasonably expected to finish with 300-plus receiving yards this season. Dobbins, rated No. 26 overall, had just 18 catches for 120 yards in a run-heavy offense last year. He should build on those numbers, but his hands will help determine his total output. Jackson has rarely targeted running backs in his career, and Dobbins’ high drop rate didn’t encourage him last year.
6. Gus Edwards’ production last season — 144 carries for 723 yards (5 yards per attempt) and a career-high six touchdowns — is all the more impressive because of his situational usage. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he faced eight or more defenders in the box on 34% of his carries last season, the sixth-highest rate in the league. In his 23 runs in short-yardage situations, defined here as third or fourth down with 3 yards or fewer to gain, he moved the chains 95.7% of the time and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. If Edwards can stay healthy and continue to improve as a receiver, he’ll set himself up well for a third contract, one more lucrative than his recent two-year, $10 million extension.
7. Because of injuries and a roster crunch, Justice Hill didn’t get much of a showcase for his athletic ability on offense last season. Good thing he usually made the most of his snaps elsewhere. In his first extensive action on special teams, Hill impressed on both coverage units, most notably stopping back-to-back kickoffs at the 16-yard line in the Week 11 loss to the Tennessee Titans. Hill’s speed makes him difficult to contain as a gunner on punt returns, too. If he can limit his special teams penalties — Hill had four from Week 9 to Week 16 last season — and prove his value as a third-down back, his roster case will be hard to dispute.
8. The only other running backs on the roster are Ty’Son Williams, who spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad, and undrafted rookie Nate McCrary, a Division II Saginaw Valley State product. The Ravens kept four backs on their initial 53-man roster last year, but RB4 will likely open this season on the practice squad.
9. If Sammy Watkins, Brown and Bateman project as the Ravens’ top three options at the position, the most intriguing subplot might be who lines up where. With his strength, size and experience, Watkins is an obvious choice for the so-called X receiver position, asked to line up outside and at the line of scrimmage, typically on the weak side of the formation. But in three-receiver sets, whom will the Ravens prefer in the slot? Bateman was more productive as an outside receiver at Minnesota, and Brown could be a headache for defenses as a presnap decoy when he’s in motion. But Brown doesn’t have great size as a blocker, and his deep speed as a vertical threat helps occupy safeties. However the Ravens’ depth chart shakes out, both will move around the formation.
10. Brown spent his first NFL offseason recovering from Lisfranc (foot) surgery. He spent his second in Zoom meetings, hemmed in by the pandemic. With two healthy feet and a productive third offseason carrying him into camp, this could be Brown’s breakout year. Over his final seven games last season, including the two postseason games, the 2019 first-round pick averaged 2.3 yards per route run, which would’ve ranked among the NFL’s best marks in 2020. Brown has every incentive to improve on a 58-catch, 769-yard campaign. Next offseason, the Ravens will have to decide whether to exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley, a 2018 first-round pick, had the Atlanta Falcons pick up his fifth-year option, worth a fully guaranteed $11.1 million in 2022. Brown’s salary would come in even higher.
11. Bateman missed parts of offseason workouts with muscle soreness and illness, leaving the most pessimistic of Ravens fans to wonder whether the team had drafted the next Breshad Perriman. Bateman’s track record suggests there’s not much to worry about, injury-wise. He played in all 13 games as a true freshman and sophomore at Minnesota, and his only two absences as a junior came after he opted out of the shortened season. During Bateman’s time off before reporting for camp, his social media was abuzz with workout footage. He should be in good shape for Year 1.
12. There might not be a wide receiver who stands to benefit more from the Ravens’ coaching makeover than Miles Boykin, who’s struggled to find his niche in the team’s passing game. In the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Boykin, a 2018 third-round pick, first-year wide receivers coach Tee Martin and pass game specialist Keith Williams have a big, strong and fast pupil — one who doesn’t seem to get open very often in games, and isn’t often targeted when he does (33 targets in 2020). If a roster spot comes down to Boykin and James Proche II, as many expect it will, Boykin’s special teams value could give him the upper hand. But a poor camp, where he excelled last season, would complicate the Ravens’ calculus. They probably won’t take more than six wide receivers into the season.
13. The pandemic robbed Devin Duvernay and Proche of preseason games and joint practices as rookies. Not this year; the Ravens get three games next month, plus two practices with the host Carolina Panthers, all settings for potential statement performances in one of the team’s more interesting roster battles. After the Ravens’ top two or three options, the wide receiver depth chart could go any number of ways. Rookie Tylan Wallace will make the team. So will Duvernay. That doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed heavy workloads. Even under-the-radar receivers like Binjimen Victor and Jaylon Moore shouldn’t be overlooked.
Tight end and fullback
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14. Even if it costs him targets, a successful expansion of the Ravens’ passing game — more sideline shots, more downfield completions, more running back involvement — would simplify Mark Andrews’ life over the middle. The Bills limited him to just four catches for 28 yards in their playoff win, blanketing him with combination coverages that tested Jackson’s patience in the pocket and willingness to target receivers outside the numbers. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Andrews is a much-improved blocker and standout receiver, too big for most safeties and too quick for most linebackers. The more attention other Ravens attract in the secondary, the cleaner Jackson’s throwing lanes to his trusted target will be.
15. Ben Mason could be among the Ravens’ most scrutinized fifth-round picks in the franchise’s training camp history. He’s technically a tight end, though he caught just three passes in his Michigan career. His skill-set most closely resembles that of fullback Patrick Ricard, a Pro Bowl selection at a position that some teams don’t bother to use. (Ricard himself played in 39% of the team’s offensive snaps last year.) And the Ravens haven’t yet given Mason the green light to do what he does best: Knock defenders back and clear a path. The Ravens are loath to cut draft picks, and Mason could ultimately succeed Ricard, who’s entering the final year of his contract. But this wasn’t considered an especially deep draft, and Mason was technically their final pick.
16. If Nick Boyle (knee) is ready to go by Week 1, Josh Oliver’s roster chances could get a boost. The Ravens already have two accomplished blockers at the position in Ricard and Boyle, and potentially a third in Mason. Andrews, though, is their only established “modern” tight end, someone who could conceivably line up in the slot on passing downs. Oliver, acquired in a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason, stood out in offseason workouts. Next up for the former third-round pick: making it through camp unscathed. He hurt his hamstring as a rookie in August 2019, then broke his foot a year later.
17. A year ago, the Ravens entered camp with two sure things at tackle. Now Ronnie Stanley’s coming back from a season-ending ankle injury, and Orlando Brown Jr. is in Kansas City, traded to the Chiefs for draft capital. His likely replacement is Alejandro Villanueva, who almost never played right tackle over his six seasons starting for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Villanueva’s top challenger could be Tyre Phillips, who played left tackle at Mississippi State, started his rookie season at guard, and ultimately struggled at both right guard and right tackle. Or maybe it’s Andre Smith, who opted out of the 2020 season and turns 35 in January. Until Ja’Wuan James (Achilles) is available — and that could be a long while — the Ravens’ depth will be a concern.
18. In 2019, Harbaugh quipped early in camp that Bradley Bozeman “thinks it’s a competition” at center with incumbent Matt Skura, “so maybe he’ll make it a battle.” Skura ultimately won the job, leading Bozeman to take over at left guard. Just how far has the former Alabama center come in the two years since? In May, Harbaugh announced that Bozeman, a two-year starter at left guard, would be the team’s new starting center, later remarking how “natural” Bozeman looks at the position. As long as his snaps are on target, Bozeman’s transition should be a smooth one.
19. Harbaugh was so eager to draft guard Ben Cleveland that he pushed general manager Eric DeCosta to trade up for him in the third round. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman called Cleveland the best run blocker in the draft. Still, even if the mammoth rookie wins the left guard battle, Year 1 expectations should be tempered. According to The Athletic, only eight third-round picks over the previous five drafts took “significant snaps” at guard as a rookie, and only four took more than 750. Overall, those rookie starters graded out as below-average run blockers and pass blockers on Pro Football Focus.
20. The Ravens’ offensive line is only as strong as its weakest link, but the team should enter its preseason slate with no shortage of experienced, capable reserves, especially inside. Patrick Mekari can step in anywhere he’s needed. Ben Powers has starting experience at right guard and could win the job at left guard. Trystan Colon held his own at center in limited action as an undrafted rookie. Ben Bredeson is a 2020 fourth-round pick who’ll need to step up this summer. Michael Schofield could help out at guard or tackle, and fellow veteran addition Greg Mancz could do the same at center.