The Ravens’ practice fields at the Under Armour Performance Center will spring to life again next week as 90 players return to the Owings Mills, Md., complex for training camp, and after being shut out of the facility last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, fans will be on hand to watch several workouts.
As many as 1,000 fans will be admitted to each of 12 training camp practices at the facility, and those passes were snatched up within minutes of becoming available last week. There will also be a free practice at M&T Bank Stadium on July 31, and all 37,000 passes for that workout were claimed within a day. Fans, it seems, are especially eager for the chance to watch football once again.
For veterans and younger players alike, the five-week grind of training camp represents opportunity. Starters have a chance to refine technique, polish on-field chemistry with teammates and master new wrinkles in the playbook. Backups have a chance to push for a starting job, while those at the bottom of the depth chart have a chance to impress enough to earn a coveted spot on the 53-man roster, which must be set by Aug. 31.
Ravens veterans report to camp on Tuesday, July 27, with rookies permitted to return a week earlier. The three-game preseason schedule begins on Saturday, Aug. 14, at home against the New Orleans Saints. The Ravens will also play preseason games at Carolina (Aug. 21) and at Washington (Aug. 28) before opening the regular season at the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday, Sept. 13.
Here are five storylines entering training camp for the Ravens, who are coming off a season in which they went 11-5 but suffered an early postseason exit for the third straight year:
1. Does the passing game look different?
It seems Lamar Jackson’s passing is dissected after every camp workout, but the questions about the passing game are broader than any specific Jackson throw.
The Ravens ranked last in the league in passing last season, a fact that head coach John Harbaugh somewhat dismisses, noting that the Ravens throw less than any other team. Still, Harbaugh does acknowledge that the Ravens need to be more efficient with their passing attack, and they believe they’ve added the personnel to accomplish that.
Rashod Bateman will command a lot of the fans’ attention in training camp simply because he is the shiny new toy, the rookie first-round draft pick. Bateman missed a few spring workouts, but when on the field he has looked the part with crisp route-running, fluid athleticism and good hands. Free-agent acquisition Sammy Watkins thrived early in his career under current Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and the connection between Watkins and Jackson seemed to be rapidly developing during the mandatory minicamp in June.
Those two, plus fourth-round rookie Tylan Wallace, join a group headlined by receiver Marquise Brown and tight end Mark Andrews. Will Miles Boykin, who has shined on the training camp practice fields in the past, do so again, and can it carry over to the regular season, which hasn’t really happened yet? Will Devin Duvernay and James Proche assert themselves as can’t-keep-them-off-the-field options? Will the running backs, led by J.K. Dobbins, have a bigger hand in the passing game?
During a conference call with season-ticket holders this summer, Roman said Jackson might operate under center more this year than in the past, when the pistol formation has been the standard. Will the Ravens show much of that this summer, or wait until the games matter to truly unveil that look?
2. How does the offensive line shape up?
For a team that wants to run as much as the Ravens do, success starts up front. And as they painfully learned last year, failure starts up front, too.
The Ravens’ 17-3 divisional-round loss to the Buffalo Bills was marred by bad snaps and lost battles in the trenches, and general manager Eric DeCosta made revamping the offensive line one of the top offseason priorities. It was no coincidence that the Ravens’ first offseason free-agent acquisition was veteran guard Kevin Zeitler.
The Ravens could have new starters at four positions up front, and that’s assuming All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley returns from the ankle injury that cost him the second half of last season.
Harbaugh has said Stanley is on schedule for the regular season, but he’s unlikely to see the field much in training camp. In addition to Zeitler, the Ravens signed veteran tackle Alejandro Villanueva to man the right side of the line, and Villanueva, who has been a left tackle for most of his career, gives the Ravens insurance should Stanley have any setback.
Bradley Bozeman, the starting left guard the past two seasons, moved to center for spring workouts and it would be a surprise if he isn’t the Week 1 starter there. That leaves Bozeman’s former left guard spot open, and Harbaugh predicted a tough training camp battle among Ben Powers, Tyre Phillips, rookie Ben Cleveland and others.
“If you like football and you’re a real student of the game,” Harbaugh said during the June minicamp, “you’ll be watching that left guard battle during training camp.”
3. How do the Ravens replace Matthew Judon and the other edge rushers?
The Ravens let outside linebacker Matthew Judon (team-high six sacks last year) leave as a free agent, with Yannick Ngakoue and Jihad Ward following Judon out the door, leaving the edge rush the team’s biggest question mark.
To this point, the Ravens have eschewed free-agent signings, so the job falls to Tyus Bowser — re-signed to a four-year, $22 million deal this summer — Jaylon Ferguson and rookies Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes, among others.
This could be a make-or-break year for Ferguson. Coaches have said all the right things about his conditioning and preparation this spring, but he has yet to deliver on his “Sack Daddy” moniker with the Ravens. Ferguson, who broke Terrell Suggs’ NCAA career sacks record while at Louisiana Tech, has totaled 4.5 sacks in two seasons in the NFL and struggled to earn a significant role on last year’s team. Ferguson was a game day inactive in four of the final six games, including both in the postseason.
With those other edge rushers gone, and with veteran Pernell McPhee most likely a rotational player on a limited snap count at this point in his career, Ferguson’s time is now.
Oweh, the Ravens second first-round pick this year, is a physical specimen with much upside, and the Ravens have downplayed the fact that he had no sacks for Penn State last season. Given his athleticism and his speed, the 6-foot-5, 251-pounder figures to be in the mix right away, and Hayes could have an impact as well.
It’s often hard to evaluate the pass rush in training camp, when players are told to avoid the quarterbacks, but the edge rushers will have a chance to shine in one-on-one drills against offensive linemen, in joint practices against the Carolina Panthers Aug. 18-19, and in three preseason games — something last year’s rookies never got.
4. How quickly will injured players return?
Harbaugh has said the Ravens will be cautious with All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley as he recovers from his ankle injury, but the Ravens have several other key contributors who are also on the mend from significant injuries.
A month ago, Harbaugh suggested that all the injured players were on pace to return for training camp, though he said the team would “probably err on the side of caution with those guys in the first couple of days, even if they are ready. … I expect them all to be back and playing.”
Slot cornerback Tavon Young played two games last year before suffering a torn ACL, this after missing the entire 2017 and 2019 seasons with injuries. Young took part in individual drills during spring workouts, and the Ravens’ deep secondary would benefit from his return, though rookie Shaun Wade and others figure to work in the slot as well. Cornerback Iman Marshall, who suffered a torn ACL during training camp a year ago, is also expected to return, but after missing 29 of 32 games in two seasons, the 2019 fourth-round pick faces an uphill battle to make the team.
Tight end Nick Boyle is working back from a major knee injury sustained in Week 10 at New England. Boyle’s absence has potentially opened a door for the Ravens to keep an additional tight end, given the Ravens’ reliance on that position. Josh Oliver, Eric Tomlinson and Eli Wolf are among the candidates there.
Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard sat out spring workouts after offseason hip surgery but is expected to be back for camp. The Ravens drafted Michigan fullback/tight end Ben Mason, who figures to work in that role as well. In fact, assuming Ricard is healthy, the Ravens are going to have to decide whether to keep two fullbacks on the 53-man roster in an era when many teams have none.
5. Which long-shots surprise?
It never fails: An undrafted rookie or other practice-squad hopeful makes a couple of eye-popping plays early in training camp, and the buzz around that player begins. The underdog story is always a good one, even if, as often happens, it never quite translates to the stadium.
By the nature of camp practices, it is often the receivers and defensive backs that shine in these situations. It’s harder for an interior defensive lineman to come up with a highlight reel play, though Michael Pierce did exactly that in his preseason finale as an undrafted rookie at New Orleans, a game that might have earned him a roster spot.
This year, wide receiver and cornerback might be the deepest positions on the team entering camp, so barring injury, it will be difficult for anyone to climb the depth chart there. But it won’t be for lack of trying. A few players who flashed in spring workouts and could generate buzz this summer are wide receiver Jaylon Moore, cornerback Khalil Dorsey and cornerback Chris Westry.
Last year, the Ravens did not keep any undrafted rookies on the original 53-man roster for the first time in 17 years. This year, with so many young players already on the roster, they signed a smaller-than-usual group of undrafted rookies to reach their 90-player training camp limit, and one of those signees — defensive tackle Xavier Kelly — suffered a season-ending Achilles injury early in OTAs. So the battle for an undrafted player to make the team is probably even more steep than usual.
Among that group, contenders could be safety Ar’Darius Washington, an undersized ballhawk at 5-foot-8, and tackle Adrian Ealy, since depth is a question there. It’s also probably worth keeping an eye on inside linebacker Barrington Wade, given the Ravens’ long history of mining undrafted talent at that position.
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