On Monday morning, the Ravens will return to training camp for a week of practice that should feel more like normal. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is back in action, the pads are on in Owings Mills, and a preseason game against the New Orleans Saints awaits Saturday night.
The team is still a week away from its first roster cut-down, from 90 players to 85, and two weeks away from the start of closed practices. But what Ravens coach John Harbaugh has seen so far, he’s liked: no catastrophic injuries, no offense-versus-defense brawls, no bad weather. “The guys have been into it,” he said Saturday. “They’ve been working hard. They’re having fun.”
Still, much is unknown about the team the Ravens will bring to Las Vegas for their season opener next month. Here are four answers the first week and a half of practice have provided — and four questions that still need to be answered.
Question: Does the passing game look different?
Ask again in a week or so. After testing positive for the coronavirus, Jackson missed the Ravens’ first eight practices and was limited in his ninth Saturday, not getting the repetitions a first-string quarterback usually gets in camp. His workload should increase this week, and the shape of the team’s passing game — especially downfield and outside the numbers — should come into focus.
Still, it might take a while to know how good it looks. The Ravens are missing two starters along their offensive line, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right guard Kevin Zeitler, and their pass rush hasn’t exactly been charitable. Out wide, with receivers Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Rashod Bateman sidelined by minor injuries, the Ravens have struggled at times to get open on deep throws.
Answer: The Ravens’ pass rush shouldn’t be a glaring weakness.
It’s too early to conclude that it’ll be a strength, but the Ravens’ defensive front has overwhelmed the offensive line enough times to raise hopes in Baltimore. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s blitz schemes gave the Jackson-less offense headaches throughout camp, and the Ravens’ top cornerbacks, Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, have been locked in, buying time for the pass rush to get home.
The group has impressive balance, if not a Pro Bowl-level sack artist. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Justin Madubuike should lead the push inside. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen is a dangerous blitzer. And on the edge, the Ravens have a rapidly improving young duo in Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes, a productive veteran in Justin Houston and a more refined Tyus Bowser. Martindale values versatility, and few of those pass rushers are locked in to any one spot. That’s tough on any offense.
Question: How does the Ravens’ quarterback depth chart shake out?
There is no easy calculus here. If the Ravens keep just one quarterback behind Jackson, they’d give themselves more roster flexibility elsewhere, be it for a special teams player or a developmental piece. They’d also risk losing Trace McSorley or Tyler Huntley to another team, with no guarantee that they could find a reasonable practice squad facsimile on the waiver wire.
Jackson’s own health situation could force the Ravens’ hand. If team officials believe Jackson’s significantly more likely to miss time this season because he’s not vaccinated, they’d likely want more than one reserve quarterback on the 53-man roster. The preseason should produce a clear winner in the McSorley-Huntley showdown, but this might not be the year to return to a two-quarterback allotment.
Answer: The 2020 draft class is stepping up.
The 10-man class, headlined by Queen and running back J.K. Dobbins, earned high marks after the draft. Then the season started, and hype collided with reality. Pro Football Focus rated the Ravens’ 2020 class as the seventh-least productive rookie group. NFL.com gave it a B-minus and rated it No. 19 overall.
After a full offseason of work, the team’s second-year players look more like the prospects they were billed as. Queen has made strides in coverage and with his processing. Dobbins has been the shiftiest player on the field and shown good hands. Madubuike has dominated at times. Wide receivers James Proche II and Devin Duvernay have leveled up on offense. Inside linebacker Malik Harrison and defensive tackle Broderick Washington should play more regularly. Even safety Geno Stone, whom the team cut and then re-signed last year, has been productive as a box defender.
Question: Will the offensive line be ready by Week 1?
The line’s top-performing starter in camp has been center Bradley Bozeman, who, through no fault of his own, sends waves of deep-seated anguish coursing through Baltimore on the rare occasions when he delivers an errant shotgun or pistol snap. Right tackle Alejandro Villanueva looked comfortable in offseason workouts but has struggled at times in camp with his transition from left tackle. Zeitler, absent since a minor foot injury Tuesday, has been solid at right guard.
The biggest concern is on the other side. The hope is that Stanley, recovering from a serious ankle injury, will be ready to play in the Ravens’ Aug. 28 preseason finale. Tyre Phillips looks better suited inside, but injuries and a lack of suitable alternatives have kept him in the rotation out wide. Rookie Ben Cleveland has emerged as the slight favorite over Ben Powers at left guard, but his pass protection needs improvement; the third-round pick might be no more prepared than Phillips was last year. A healthy Nick Boyle would help the unit, too, but the tight end is still recovering from a recent clean-up operation on his injured knee.
Answer: Odafe Oweh’s good enough to start
In offseason workouts, the first-round pick looked like he’d be good enough to contribute immediately. Big, strong and smart, Oweh had the tools to be a “highly effective” run defender, according to Eric DeCosta. The Ravens general manager has compared him to a more athletic Courtney Upshaw, a second-round pick in 2012 who started by Week 2 of his rookie season in Baltimore.
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Given the Ravens’ strength-in-numbers approach at edge rusher — Matthew Judon played just over half of the team’s defensive snaps last season — the question of who will start opposite Bowser doesn’t matter much. Pernell McPhee has turned in another solid camp, and Ravens coaches like to reward veterans with starts. But no one at practice has shown as much pass-rush juice as Oweh, who looks increasingly comfortable in coverage, too. By September, he’ll be hard to keep off the field.
Question: Will either of the Ravens’ 2019 third-round picks make the cut?
This was supposed to be a turn-the-corner year for wide receiver Miles Boykin and outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson. Boykin had a new pair of coaches who could help unlock his athletic potential and a new crop of teammates who would push him at wideouts. Ferguson had a clearer path to more playing time after the departure of edge rushers Yannick Ngakoue, Jihad Ward and Judon.
But progress has been hard to come by. Boykin left practice Monday with a hamstring injury and hasn’t returned. His camp to that point had been unremarkable, other than a couple of bad drops. Ferguson hasn’t translated the mental gains his coaches have raved about into on-field production. He’s stronger as a run defender and has helped out in coverage, but his creativity as a pass rusher is limited. And with the signing of Houston, his roster spot’s in real danger. Boykin’s health will determine his outlook.
Answer: James Proche II is good enough to make the cut as a receiver.
If the second-year receiver disappears in the preseason or is sidelined in camp, he’ll fall back to the bubble. But after racking up receptions against the Ravens’ second- and third-string cornerbacks every day of camp, there’s little to suggest he’ll suddenly stop producing against reserves on other, less talented defenses.
For now, it doesn’t seem to matter that wide receiver Devin Duvernay has the inside track to reclaim his punt return job, which he took from Proche late last season. With Brown and Bateman out, Proche has been far and away the Ravens’ best slot receiver, creating space over the middle and making tough catches in the end zone. His chemistry this week with Jackson, who tends to trust more familiar targets, will be interesting to monitor.