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Ravens training camp preview: Justin Tucker is established on special teams. Can James Proche get there?

If there’s going to be an NFL season this year, it’ll have to start in training camp.

After an offseason upended by the coronavirus pandemic, Ravens veterans reported to Owings Mills on Tuesday for the start of camp. But uncertainty looms over the lead-up to their Sept. 13 season opener.

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The NFL and the Ravens still have to figure it all out. But as practice nears, The Baltimore Sun will take a position-by-position look at the Ravens’ roster. Today, the team’s special teams situation is analyzed.

Who’s back

K Justin Tucker: The NFL’s most accurate kicker ever (90.8% field-goal accuracy) is returning for his ninth year in Baltimore. A five-time All-Pro selection, Tucker made 28 of 29 field-goal attempts last season, not missing from under 40 yards, and hit 57 of 59 extra-point attempts.

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P Sam Koch: The Ravens’ longest-tenured player signed a two-year extension in March that bumped back the end of his contract to 2022. Koch, 37, punted just 40 times last season, the fewest in the league among starters, and had a net average of 39.8 yards, which ranked 25th.

LS Morgan Cox: Players and coaches chose the long snapper, who’s entering the final year of his contract, to represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl last season. Cox, 34, has played in 150 games over 10 years with the Ravens.

KR Justice Hill: The running back led the Ravens with 12 kickoff returns for 227 yards last year, but his average (18.9 yards per attempt) was the second-lowest on the team.

KR Chris Moore: The wide receiver is better known for the unheralded work he does on special teams, but he topped the Ravens in kickoff return average last season (20.3 yards on four attempts).

Who’s new

PR James Proche: The rookie wide receiver’s reliable hands should give him the inside track at punt returner. Proche averaged 9.6 yards per return last season at Southern Methodist, and his production increased every year.

P Dom Maggio: The former Boys’ Latin standout earned second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors last season at Wake Forest, where he averaged 46.8 yards per punt.

LS Nick Moore: The former XFL long snapper joined the Ravens in March. Moore signed with the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia before being waived last season.

What to watch

If Lamar Jackson is unavailable this season, the Ravens could turn to Robert Griffin III at quarterback. If defensive end Derek Wolfe’s out, there’s Justin Madubuike.

But at kicker, punter and long snapper, it’s a regular-season depth chart of one. There is no replacing Tucker, Koch or Cox, at least not without outside help. And there has been no season like 2020 could be, with players’ week-to-week availability hinging on the safety of their own personal bubble.

Could the Ravens take extreme measures to isolate someone like Tucker, a paragon of stability at an otherwise turbulent position? In a conference call last month, special teams coordinator Chris Horton wouldn’t rule anything out.

“I think we’re going to do our best to protect all of these guys, because every position is valuable to kind of what we do and to our success,” Horton said. “We don’t want to be losing any players to COVID-19. So our jobs as coaches is going to be kind of, ‘OK, what’s the best way to do that?’ And making sure that our players are safe and that we are safe as coaches as well. I haven’t given much thought to it, but it’s something that we’re going to be thinking about.”

Offseason changes give the Ravens some flexibility. They could keep a kicker, punter or both on their practice squad, which will expand to 16 players amid the coronavirus pandemic. But the Ravens’ “Wolfpack” has set a high standard in Baltimore.

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X-factor

In a somewhat disappointing special teams season, the Ravens were decidedly mediocre on returns last year. According to Football Outsiders, they had the NFL’s 14th-most efficient punt return unit, a steep drop-off from their second-place finish in 2018, and ranked 21st on kickoff returns.

With wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas opting out of the 2020 season, the punt return job is Proche’s to lose. The identity of the Ravens’ next kick returner is harder to pin down. Hill? Moore? Maybe Willie Snead IV?

However training camp shakes out, the burden won’t fall on just the returners. The Ravens have the athletic blockers needed to create holes, but running lanes seemed few and far between last season. With how strong the team’s defense is expected to be in 2020, punt return production could take on added importance.

“I think if we’re talking about one thing that we think we all need to improve on, as coaches, just talking about it, is in our return game,” Horton said last month. “We did a lot of studying this offseason, and that’s one area that we feel like we can be better in. Whether it’s how we’re coaching it [or] how our players are responding to that coaching, that’s something we’ve felt like we could be much better [at].”

Roster projection

Barring injury or infection, this isn’t a hard position to forecast. The Ravens will enter 2020 with Tucker, Koch and Cox together once more. Proche is the heavy favorite at punt returner, and Hill could have the edge on kickoffs.

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