Top Issues Facing the Ravens as Training Camp Starts this week

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The 2015 NFL season is at our fingertips as Training Camp opens this week. For the Baltimore Ravens, rookies reported last Wednesday July 22. Veterans report this Wednesday, July 29. From there, Training Camp will officially be underway and the Ravens will look to build off a successful 2014 campaign that was ended in the divisional round at the hands of the New England Patriots, who went on to win SuperBowl 49.

The Ravens have already had a busy offseason. Last season’s offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak took a head coaching job with the Denver Broncos, and the Ravens responded by hiring ex-Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman as the new offensive coordinator. Baltimore lost several key contributors from last season, including tight end Owen Daniels (Broncos), wide receiver Torrey Smith (49ers), safety Darian Stewart (Broncos), and longtime Raven Haloti Ngata (Lions).

With limited salary cap space, the Ravens didn’t make a huge splash, but they did a great job finding players at good prices to replace the holes left on their roster. In the draft, Baltimore took more of an offensive approach, contrary to years past. At times they stuck to their “best player available” mentality and at other times they filled holes in certain positions. General Manager Ozzie Newsome also worked out long term deals with cornerback Jimmy Smith and punter Sam Koch, who were set to be free agents after this season.

As usual, the Ravens front office did a great job of managing their football team over the offseason despite the hurdles they had to overcome. Many believe that there isn’t a better front office in the NFL than that of the Ravens, and Ozzie Newsome and his team proved them right again this offseason. As training camp approaches, however, there are still some issues that are worth keeping an eye on.

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The Ravens running game bounced back in 2014 after a disastrous 2013 campaign featuring the 23rd ranked offensive line that resulted in the Ravens rushing for an average 3.1 yard-per-carry, according to Pro-Football Reference. Last season, the Ravens offensive line improved to the third best O-Line in the NFL and running back Justin Forsett rushed for 1,266 yards, the first time Frosett has ever crossed the 1000 yard rushing mark. Forsett had his best season as a pro and was rewarded with a new 3 year contract with Baltimore. Despite the departure of Ray Rice following his domestic violence dispute, the Ravens running game held up just fine.

A big part of the credit for the running game resurgence should go to Gary Kubiak, who’s offensive scheme features stretch-zone run schemes that have proven to be very successful in his previous coaching years in Denver and Houston. Marc Trestman’s system is very similar and Trestman loves to feature his running backs in both passing and running situations, so the transition to this new system should not be a big issue for the Ravens running game.

Despite how successful the Ravens were with their running game last season, there is still some uncertainty there. As mentioned, Justin Forsett had his first 1000 yard season and proved to be the Ravens #1 back going forward. However, Forsett turns 30 in October and aside from his rushing totals last season, his next best yardage mark is 619 yards from his 2009 rookie season. As good as he was last season, there is no guarantee that Forsett will be able to reproduce those kind of stats this season. Behind Forsett on the depth chart is second year man Lorenzo Taliaferro and Javorius “Buck” Allen, who Baltimore took in the fourth round of this year’s draft out of USC. Taliaferro rushed for 292 yards last season before being placed on injured reserve with a foot injury. He will compete with Allen over the number two job, but as of now it is unclear who will get the most carries behind Forsett.

The Ravens have all five offensive line starters returning along with Forsett, so the biggest things to watch for will be the transition to Trestman’s system as well as how much of an impact Taliaferro and Allen will have on this offense.

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The area on the team with the most uncertainty surrounding it is the passing game. 36 year old Steve Smith Sr. returns to be the number one receiver and provides solid leadership along with the aggressiveness the Ravens need on offense. Behind him, however, is where the questions lie. The Ravens would like first round rookie wideout Bershad Perriman (Central Florida) to take the place of deep threat Torrey Smith, but the rookie transition to the NFL does not always go smoothly. Baltimore cannot expect Perriman to jump right in and take the reigns right away; his adjustment to the pros will take some time.

The rest of the wideouts who appear to have the best chance of making the team are Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown, Jeremy Butler, Michael Campanaro and sixth round rookie Darren Waller (Georgia Tech). Aiken was a nice surprise last season, catching 24 balls for 267 yards and 3 touchdowns. Behind Perriman, he could provide the next best deep threat, although he isn’t a burner. The same can be said for third year man Marlon Brown, who has proven to be more of a slot receiver who can catch short to intermediate passes on the sidelines and in the middle of the field. Michael Campanaro has battled numerous injuries and slightly tore his quad during OTA’s. The Ravens think Campanaro can be a solid slot receiver and even win the kick/punt return jobs, but Campanaro’s health is crucial this training camp, and if he suffers another significant injury during camp he may be in trouble of losing his job. Darren Waller’s best attribute may be his size, as he stands at six feet six inches. Jeremy Butler spent his rookie season on injured reserve, and in OTA’s coaches and members of the media were impressed with Butler, so he could be a player to watch.

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The tight end position is also a concern for the Baltimore. The Ravens have already placed Dennis Pitta on  the Physically Unable to Perform list due to his hip issues. Pitta has only played in seven games over the last two seasons, and he will be missing the first six games of the 2015 regular season. There is still no guarantee that Pitta will play at all this season and there is speculation that retirement is the best option if his hip is not ready to go after week six.

Without Pitta, Crockett Gilmore appears to be the favorite to open the season as Baltimore’s starting tight end. Gilmore proved to be a great blocker last season, but during OTA’s coaches were impressed with his improvements to his receiving game. Baltimore drafted two tight ends in the draft, Minnesota’s Maxx Williams in the second round and Delaware’s Nick Boyle in the fifth round. Williams was said to be the best tight end in the draft, with both blocking and catching abilities. Boyle is a big frame at 268 pounds and will likely get many blocking opportunities. Again, the transition to the NFL can be difficult for rookies, so the Ravens will need to be patient if they do not see a lot of production right away.

The current wide receivers and tight ends on the Ravens roster combine for a young group, but there is tons of potential there. The big numbers may not come right away, but Joe Flacco certainty has plenty of options to throw to. The key will be how quickly the rookies make the adjustment to the pros and who steps up as the big play-makers with Torrey Smith’s departure and the aging of Steve Smith Sr.

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The Ravens secondary undoubtedly their biggest issue last season. Several injuries and inconsistent play led to the Ravens picking up players off the street to start games and proved costly in the divisional game against the Patriots when they couldn’t defend two separate 14 point leads. Injuries were especially harmful to the cornerbacks. Lardarius Webb didnt play up to his standards until late November due to a back injury, and Jimmy Smith missed eight games with a Lisfranc injury. Both of these players staying healthy is probably the most important thing to watch for during camp. Behind them, the Ravens brought in cornerback Kyle Arrington after he was released by the Patriots. Arrington is a great slot cornerback and should beat out Asa Jackson, who has had problems staying healthy. Rashaan Melvin will also likely make the team because of his unexpected positive performance last season.

Safety play last season was decent, but still needs improvement. The best performer of the group last season was Will Hill, who is the favorite for the starting strong safety job. Matt Elam is more of a strong safety, but has played snaps at free safety. Elam struggled immensely last year, especially with his tackling. This will be Elam’s third season and it is crucial that he improves due to the fact that he is Baltimore’s 2013 first round pick. The starting free safety will likely be Kendrick Lewis, who the Ravens signed in free agency. Lewis is more of a ball-hawk and had two interceptions last year, so look for Lewis and Hill to start, along with Elam getting plenty of opportunities to improve.

It may take some time for Kendrick Lewis to develop chemistry with his new teammates and Jimmy Smith to recover from his injury, but if all players stay healthy this season the secondary’s performance should improve. There is no guarantee that everyone will stay healthy because of their previous track records, but it will be hard for this secondary to be as bad as it was last season.

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The Baltimore Ravens are poised to have another successful season. Yes, there are issues on the roster that will need to be looked at. Remember that Ozzie Newsome has added pieces from free agency during training camp before, so if the coaching staff and front office feels that its necessary I have no doubt that Ozzie will work his magic some more. With a solid core of veterans, many talented young players, and John Harbaugh leading the pack, the Ravens will make yet another splash in 2015.

 

Thanks for reading!

Jake

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