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As end of training camp nears, Ravens have decisions to make and a roster to admire

When the Ravens reported to Owings Mills in late July, stepping into an unknown of nasal swabs, socially distanced workouts and preseason-free football, coach John Harbaugh must have had a notion of what a successful training camp would look like.

When camp ended Friday afternoon, the Ravens’ reality probably wasn’t too far off. With the NFL’s deadline for roster cuts fast approaching, the team is healthy, its stars are ascendant, and its championship credentials are only slightly wrinkled.

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No one would call the Ravens’ last five weeks idyllic. They terminated the contract of Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas III for “personal conduct that has adversely affected” the team after a confrontation with safety Chuck Clark. Their superstar quarterback missed a couple of practices with a mystery injury. The police shooting of Jacob Blake cast a pall over camp, forcing another reckoning with social justice issues.

But few teams will enter Week 1 with the depth and talent of the Ravens’ 53-man roster, however it’s assembled. General manager Eric DeCosta has until Saturday afternoon to figure out whether he wants to keep a third tight end; the Chicago Bears have to decide who’s starting at quarterback.

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“I feel we’re right on schedule with everyone coming together,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said Thursday, his groin injury fully healed. “Our offense is flying around, moving around great. Our defense is making plays out there on the field. I just can’t wait until the real games come.”

A canceled preseason might have hurt the Ravens’ readiness, but not their health. Only one player, undrafted rookie safety Nigel Warrior, was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list during camp, and he was cleared to return to team activities before the start of practice in mid-August.

Wide receiver Antoine Wesley (shoulder) and cornerback Iman Marshall (knee), the only two Ravens placed on injured reserve this camp, were potential reserves. Defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (knee), a promising rookie reserve, and wide receiver Chris Moore (finger), a veteran on the roster bubble, could miss the season opener against the Cleveland Browns. But other than Thomas, who was released Aug. 23, every player who entered camp projected to start is expected to be available for Week 1.

“You can build a football team as long as everybody is on the same playing field, no matter, really, what the organization is,” Harbaugh said early in camp. “The main thing is being able to keep the players safe enough and healthy to prepare them enough where they can protect themselves on the field, where they can execute the techniques and the game in a way to protect themselves.”

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Ravens coaches and officials already know, for the most part, who will take the field Sept. 13 inside a mostly empty M&T Bank Stadium. They return six Pro Bowl players on offense and two on special teams. They’ll line up another four on defense. A strong rookie class, led by inside linebacker Patrick Queen and running back J.K. Dobbins, has impressed.

With practice squads expanded this year to 16 players, four of whom can be protected each week, the Ravens will have more flexibility than ever. DeCosta’s most pressing roster decisions ahead of Saturday’s 4 p.m. deadline are at the margins.

Will Trace McSorley or Tyler Huntley make the 53-man roster as a third quarterback? Or could the team try to sneak one or both onto its practice squad? Harbaugh has said the Ravens plan to enter the season with three quarterbacks, but if they see greater needs elsewhere, teams might be reluctant to take a chance on McSorley, who struggled early in camp, and Huntley, who went undrafted.

Do the Ravens plan to place any other players on IR, if only for the short term? If center Matt Skura (knee) or Madubuike won’t be ready to play for a few more weeks, the Ravens could include them on their initial 53-man roster, then place them on IR, freeing up a roster spot. Under new rules for this season, teams can return an unlimited number of players to their active roster after an IR designation, and do so after just three weeks.

And how will the Ravens handle their depth at tight end? With Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard seemingly moving to a full-time role on offense, he could effectively serve as the third tight end behind Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle. The team could also go with Jerell Adams, who’s appeared in just one game over the past two seasons but, unlike undrafted rookie Eli Wolf, has remained healthy throughout camp.

Other variables will shape the team’s initial 53-man roster, from the front office’s view of second-year guard Ben Powers to the staff’s appraisals of its less heralded rookies to potential transactions elsewhere.

“It’s an ongoing process, for sure, to pick the team,” Harbaugh said Wednesday. “And as you know, the roster cuts are coming up here by Saturday, and we’ll have some difficult decisions to make. Some of that carries over to the practice squad.

“But Eric has to really think through, [with] his staff, in terms of strategic moves you make, in terms of where guys are at with their contracts and other teams possibly claiming players or not claiming players. Those are all things that come into Eric’s thinking on that. So we’ll just have to see how it goes. And we like our guys. As coaches, we really love our players, and we’re excited to coach them, and we’ll see what direction it goes.”

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