Ravens rookies and quarterbacks are reporting to the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills, Md., this week, with veterans joining them beginning July 28 for a training camp unlike any the NFL has ever seen.
As players and staff navigate COVID tests, maintain social distance in weight rooms and meeting rooms and adjust to other pandemic-altered routines, the Ravens also will be focused on assembling a roster that can once against contend for AFC supremacy.
Coming off a franchise-best 14-2 record and with the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player returning in quarterback Lamar Jackson, expectations justifiably run high. There are plenty of questions, though, as the NFL, like the rest of the sports world, continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
As Ravens training camp gets underway, here are five key questions to consider:
1. What happens if players test positive for COVID-19?
This will be Topic No. 1 in every training camp.
According to an agreement between the players’ union and the league, players will be tested daily for the first two weeks of training camp — and can’t even enter the building until they test negative twice. If the leaguewide positivity rate drops below 5 percent, testing frequency will drop to every other day. Players had pushed for such aggressive testing in a social media blitz last weekend.
NFL.com’s Judy Battista reported that if a player tests positive but has no symptoms, he can return to the facility 10 days after the initial positive test — or if he has two consecutive negative tests within five days of the initial positive test. If a player has a positive test and symptoms, he can return no sooner than 10 days after the symptoms first appeared and 72 hours since he last experienced symptoms.
Coaches like to say the best ability is availability, and a 10-day absence during a compressed training camp would be significant, particularly for players on the roster bubble. Of course, the more concerning thing would be if the virus manifests itself into serious illness for a player or staff member.
According to the NFL Players Association, 59 players had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as of July 21. Some players, such as Los Angeles Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth, have made their positive cases known. (Whitworth explained last week that he and his entire family tested positive after a lunch out with a friend.) This was before any testing had begun at most facilities, so the number is likely to increase as players report to training camps around the league.
2. How will the shortage or lack of preseason games affect the roster-building process?
The players’ union has made clear that it opposes the idea of playing any preseason games, arguing that holding preseason games increases the likelihood of a coronavirus-related delay affecting the regular season.
The league previously announced that the preseason schedule would be reduced from four games to two. The issue is expected to be resolved this week.
If there are no preseason games, general manager Eric DeCosta, head coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens’ braintrust will have to finalize the roster without seeing any rookies play a snap in a game. That will put a premium on practice reps, and it might decrease the chance that an undrafted rookie can seize a roster spot.
Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale last year said that defensive lineman Michael Pierce made the team as an undrafted rookie based on his breakout performance in the 2016 preseason finale at New Orleans. No such opportunities would exist this year for the Ravens’ undrafted rookie class.
It’s still unclear what the final roster numbers will look like. According to the new collective bargaining agreement ratified this spring, rosters were set to increase from 53 to 55 players, with the practice squads increasing by two players, to 12. Further enlarged rosters and/or practice squads are being considered as teams prepare for the possibility of losing multiple players to a COVID quarantine.
3. How quickly can rookies assimilate and be expected to contribute?
Harbaugh said he expects rookie first-round pick Patrick Queen to be a three-down middle linebacker, and Queen is expected to immediately step into a starting role. What about fellow rookie linebacker Malik Harrison? Or second-round running back J.K. Dobbins, third-round slot receiver Devin Duvernay or the other six draft picks?
The Ravens rookies lost out on more than a dozen practice sessions between rookie minicamp, 10 OTA workouts and mandatory minicamp in June. That gives them far less on-field time than usual to adjust to the speed of the NFL game, develop chemistry with Lamar Jackson or understand defensive calls and checks.
That could be most problematic for a player such as third-round draft pick Tyre Phillips. He played tackle throughout his career at Mississippi State, but the Ravens envision him as a potential starter at guard. The first time he played guard, though, was at the Senior Bowl, so he’s had very little on-field time at the position as training camp begins.
The rookies will have their first full-squad workouts as NFL players next week, and Ravens coaches have lamented the lost practice time for this group this spring, when they were limited to virtual meetings and playbook study.
Once they finally hit the field, Martindale said last month, “We’ll find out who’s All-Zoom and who can actually play football.”
Two rookies to watch will be undrafted tight ends Jacob Breeland and Eli Wolf. The Ravens have a void at tight end after the offseason trade of Hayden Hurst, and Harbaugh said he could see one or even both of the undrafted rookies making the team.
4. What does the interior of the offensive line look like?
On the field, the construction of the offensive line is one of the most compelling storylines going into this season. With All-Pro Marshal Yanda retiring and center Matt Skura recovering from a season-ending knee injury in November, the Ravens have a couple of big question marks in front of Jackson and that record-setting run game.
Veteran D.J. Fluker, signed this summer, is probably the favorite to succeed Yanda at right guard, and Skura appears to be well ahead of schedule in his recovery from his November injury. Patrick Mekari played well in Skura’s place last year as an undrafted rookie and figures to be in the equation again. It’s worth noting that Mekari began generating buzz during spring OTAs last year — a series of workouts that this year’s rookies such as Phillips and Ben Bredeson never got.
Bradley Bozeman started all of last season at left guard, though he was a center at Alabama and Harbaugh noted that he could be an option at center if Skura isn’t ready. Moving Bozeman, though, would create a void at left guard. Bredeson started 46 games there at Michigan.
As usual, expect offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris to try multiple combinations this summer to find the most cohesive unit. The loss of preseason games could also be a factor in that analysis.
5. Does the revamped defense look stronger?
With visions of Derrick Henry running over them in the divisional round playoff loss still fresh in their minds, the Ravens made upgrading the defense an offseason priority. They traded for Pro Bowl defensive linemen Calais Campbell, signed veteran Derek Wolfe and drafted two inside linebackers in the first three rounds.
They also know they must improve a pass rush that ranked 21st in the league last year with 37 sacks, and both Campbell and Wolfe are well established in that regard.
It can be hard to evaluate the pass rush in training camp, when defensive players are under orders to not hit the quarterback, but the Ravens will want to see flashes from second-year linebacker Jaylon Ferguson and whether veteran Pernell McPhee looks like he did last year before suffering a torn triceps muscle.
The Ravens’ secondary returns three Pro Bowl players and emerging star Chuck Clark along with veteran Jimmy Smith and slot cornerback Tavon Young, back from a season lost to a neck injury. The Ravens have to feel good about what they’ve built there.
With the addition of Campbell, Wolfe, Queen and Harrison, the Ravens have potentially four new starters in the front seven. Getting them up to speed and in sync with the rest of the defense — on the field and not just in Zoom sessions — will be one of the major goals of the next month.
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