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Ravens Five Things

Five things we learned from Ravens 2022 training camp

The Ravens will begin a new phase of preparations for the season when they return to practice Tuesday with no fans in attendance and the final reduction to a 53-man roster looming next week. After three weeks of training camp and two preseason games, most of their plans are set, but a few positional battles and injury questions remain.

Here are five things we learned from Ravens training camp:

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Injuries from last season will create doubt right up until the first snap of Week 1.

We cannot say the health news has been bad to this point. Running back J.K. Dobbins and cornerback Marcus Peters are back practicing after neither played a regular-season snap in 2021. No one suffered a catastrophic injury in camp, though the Ravens certainly did not want two key rookies, starting center Tyler Linderbaum (foot) and defensive tackle Travis Jones (knee), to lose ramp-up time.

But the pains of 2021 — the most injury-marred season any team has endured in the past 20 years, by the measures of Football Outsiders — are not yet behind them. We will not have a clean read on the Ravens’ prospects for 2022 until we see vital players such as Dobbins, Peters and left tackle Ronnie Stanley in game action.

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The Ravens started last season 8-3 and sat atop the AFC standings after 12 weeks, but even when they were winning, they were not whole. With no Dobbins or Gus Edwards, they no longer dominated on the ground. With no Stanley, they could not reliably protect franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson. With no Peters, their turnover differential and pass defense tilted toward the dregs of the league.

They have the tools to solve these problems but only if their star players, each of them irreplaceable at this juncture, are fit. Coach John Harbaugh has spoken optimistically but cautiously about their outlook. Dobbins, for example, has made progress cutting and accelerating in individual drills, but we have no idea if he’ll have the extra twitch that made him special as a rookie in 2020. Stanley played one game last season, but we have not watched him operate on a healthy ankle for almost two years. If he returns to practice in the next week or so, will we see the mobility that made him the best pass blocker in the league in 2019? Will outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, an essential starter because of his versatility, be ready for the opener after tearing his Achilles heel in the season finale? Will Edwards, a powerful backfield partner for Dobbins, help at all this year?

Each of these situations has its own complexities, but the overall point is this: For all the good and not so good we saw in training camp, we have yet to see the real 2022 Ravens, and we might not for a while.

Ravens rookie tight end Isaiah Likely was the breakout star of minicamp and the most consistent highlight machine in training camp.
The Ravens did not find an obvious replacement for Marquise Brown, but they might have found something as good or better in Isaiah Likely.

What’s left to say about the rookie tight end from Coastal Carolina? He was the breakout star of minicamp and the most consistent highlight machine in training camp. On Sunday night, a nation of football fans took notice as he caught eight passes for 100 yards in the first half of the Ravens’ 24-17 preseason win over the Arizona Cardinals. Fox analyst and former NFL tight end Greg Olsen gushed every time Likely broke a tackle or glided into an empty expanse left by the defense.

Olsen saw what the Ravens have witnessed for the last three months: Likely is a natural receiver with speed to outrun linebackers and safeties, hands to snatch contested catches and a feel for finding open space reminiscent of All-Pro teammate Mark Andrews. We don’t want to overstate based on practices and preseason reps against second-string defenders, but it’s difficult to remember a young pass catcher making a better early impression in these parts.

Meanwhile, the Ravens still do not have a clear No. 2 wide receiver to pair with 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman. Third-year candidates Devin Duvernay and James Proche have both delivered stellar practice moments, but they have also missed time with minor injuries, and neither comes with a resume that screams “star NFL receiver!” The same could be said for former Kansas City Chiefs wideout Demarcus Robinson, whom the Ravens added last week.

Can they run the passing offense they want with Jackson throwing to a world-class tight end in Andrews, a largely unproven No. 1 wideout in Bateman and a second tight end, Likely, who was available late in the fourth round of this year’s draft? It’s not the profile most teams aspire to in the pass-crazy modern NFL, but Jackson won a 2019 Most Valuable Player trophy with fewer exciting targets, so who’s to say he can’t make it work? The picture looks much better with Likely in it, not something a lot of analysts would have said on May 1, when the Ravens had just traded Brown and declined to pick a wide receiver in the draft.

Ravens second-year outside linebacker Odafe Oweh’s range is the same as it was a season ago, but he keeps his hands more active and has learned to bend his 6-foot-5, 257-pound frame so blockers cannot get a clean shot at him coming around the edge.
Odafe Oweh looks like the pass rusher who was promised.

If wide receiver was the most concerning position group for the Ravens going into camp, outside linebacker had to rank a close second. The Ravens added a security blanket when they re-upped with veteran edge rusher Justin Houston, who played better than his modest sack production suggested in 2021. They banked a long-term solution with second-round pick David Ojabo, who would have gone about 30 slots higher if he was not recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. But with Bowser still rehabilitating his own torn Achilles, the picture around Oweh looked foggy.

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Rather than add to this uncertainty, the 2021 first-round pick blocked it out with the excellence of one dominant practice performance after another. Did you see how the Cardinals struggled to keep Oweh out of their backfield during his brief run in the second preseason game? That was him every day against the Ravens’ offensive tackles.

We knew Oweh’s remarkable athletic upside coming out of Penn State. We saw him convert promise to production with a string of signature plays in the first half of his rookie season. We also saw him out of position because of overeager reads and worn down by injuries late in the season. After shoulder surgery in late January, would he make a leap in Season 2?

The early returns are beyond promising. Oweh’s range is the same, but he keeps his hands more active and has learned to bend his 6-foot-5, 257-pound frame so blockers cannot get a clean shot at him coming around the edge. He has promised we will see a “different Odafe” once the real games begin. New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has said without reservation Oweh could become a dominant player as soon as this season.

It’s difficult to overstate how big a deal that would be for the Ravens, who have not knocked it out of the park developing pass rushers in recent seasons. Macdonald can scheme up pressure, just like Don “Wink” Martindale did before him. But there’s no substitute for star-level talent at one of the NFL’s premium positions.

The Ravens added significant pieces to their offensive line, such as Morgan Moses (78) at right tackle, to make sure they are not caught short like they were for most of 2021.
The Ravens have more depth but face many of the same old questions on their offensive line.

We have talked again and again about how Jackson’s 2021 season fell apart as he lost faith in his protection. The Ravens are in better shape to offer him peace of mind with durable Morgan Moses at right tackle and Linderbaum, who stepped in seamlessly, at center. They will have more answers to unexpected questions if Patrick Mekari, the ideal super-utility lineman, and Ja’Wuan James, a quality starting tackle when healthy, sit in reserve. But that rosy outlook is based on the assumption that Stanley will again sit at the top of the food chain, resembling the All-Pro who guarded Jackson’s blind side in 2019.

Remove a healthy Stanley from the puzzle and the pieces don’t fit nearly so well. The Ravens would prefer not to make a weekly bet on James, who has played four games since 2018 and has not started at left tackle since high school. They would prefer to have Mekari as an option at tackle instead of starting at center, where he’s played since Linderbaum hurt his foot. They would prefer to have a clear starter at left guard, where Ben Powers’ reliability seems to give him a slight edge over the larger, more agile Tyre Phillips and mammoth second-year contender Ben Cleveland, who could not pass the team’s conditioning test at the start of camp.

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A bit of uncertainty at left guard would not be a big deal on its own, but the Ravens are again facing questions at three of five spots, with the injuries to Linderbaum and Stanley pushing back the time when we will see the entire starting unit function together. There is no position group more dependent on continuity and coordination, so these absences make it less likely the Ravens will fire on all cylinders when the regular season starts in less than three weeks.

The Ravens added significant pieces to make sure they are not caught short like they were for most of 2021. They still don’t know — not hope, but know — their offensive line will be a strength rather than a source of anxiety this time around.

Aside from the talking heads on ESPN and Fox Sports debating whether quarterback Lamar Jackson should take the field without an extension in hand, the Ravens’ franchise player has not given us a lot to talk about this summer.
All the madness around Lamar Jackson’s contract has not affected him as a quarterback.

Aside from the talking heads on ESPN and Fox Sports debating whether Jackson should take the field without an extension in hand, the Ravens’ franchise player has not given us a lot to talk about this summer. He showed up ready to work from the first moment of camp and has served as a reliable center of gravity for every practice. He’s carrying an extra 20 pounds of muscle, most of it visible in his upper body, and we will all be fascinated to see if that diminishes his ability to bend time and space as a runner. But coaches and teammates agree he has never thrown the ball better at this time of year, even if the offense did sputter in the last few practices before the Ravens departed for Arizona.

Jackson’s unresolved extension has not jarred the franchise off-balance in the short term, which is all teammates and Harbaugh could have asked for.

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So we’re back to familiar questions about the player: Will Jackson put behind him the jumpiness he showed against the blitz in the second half of last season? Are his receiving targets and offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s system good enough to help him flourish as a passer? Can he avoid the illnesses and the bad step in Cleveland that cost him five games — his first extended NFL absence — last year? Will all the carries as a runner catch up with him?

It’s not as if the incessant contract speculation will go away if there’s no resolution by Jackson’s Week 1 deadline. But he and the Ravens have to feel some relief that the issues in front of him, for now, are football issues.

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