Next week the Ravens are off to Westminster, sorry make that the castle in Owings Mills. Anyway, training camp opens next week with John Harbaugh’s Mighty Men aiming for a 5th straight trip to the playoffs and the second Super Bowl appearance in the teams 17 year history.
Lets take a look at 4 key areas as the Purple and Black get ready to head off to summer camp, no canoes or camp-fire songs please.
O-Line — They lost a Pro Bowl caliber guard with Ben Grubbs now cashing checks in New Orleans. Three of the 5 possible starters are battling Father Time. Center Matt Birk is 36 and entering his 15th season, former Bengal Bobbie Williams is 35 and is in his 13th season, and it’s season 11 for left tackle Bryant McKinnie. It’s not only a question of how these 3 can match-up with younger and faster but also the injury factor.
The right side of the line is set with Pro Bowl guard Marshall Yanda and tackle Michael Oher. Four young guys provide depth and rookies Kelechi Osemele, Gino Gradkowski and lightly seasoned Ramon Harewood and Jah Reid could become starters if performance or injuries do in the senior citizens.
FRONT 7— No Suggs, Jarrett Johnson, Cory Redding or Chuck Pagano, this is not addition by subtraction. With Suggs expected to miss most of the season don’t try to give this a positive spin. Suggs was the leagues Defensive Player of the Year and one of the games best pass rushers in a game that has gone pass crazy.
Johnson and Redding were rock solid veterans seldom out of position and leaders in the locker room. Pagano was loved by the defense for his Rex Ryan attacking style, new coordinator Dean Pees has been part of the staff and won’t re-invent the game but there will still be some first year transition with the new defensive boss.
Please, let’s not bury a defense that was 3rd in the NFL last year and still has Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and talented young cornerbacks lead by Lardarious Webb, but for the first time in my memory the secondary looks stronger than the front 7 coming into the season. Suggs can’t be replaced but young players like Paul Kruger, Pernell McPhee and rookie Courtney Upshaw get a chance to be key contributors.
Special Teams/Kicker— Tom Zibikowski and Haruki Nakamura weren’t key figures in the defense but the former Ravens could play special teams. Rookies and veterans like Corey Graham and Sean Consodine will need to step up. Publicly the Ravens have been supportive of kicker Billy Cundiff but it’ll be interesting to see if he’s the guy on opening day. The snap-hook in New England was just part of his story last year. Cundiff ranked 26th in the NFL in field goal percentage, as a Raven he’s 1-7 from 50 yards or more. Cundiff was terrific and earned his Pro Bowl honors in 2010 but in 2 of the 3 years since Matt Stover left, field goal kicking his cost the Ravens dearly.
Ray Rice’s Backup— First it was Willis McGahee and then Ricky Williams both established veterans with impressive resumes. Unless Ozzie makes a late addition youth will be served here this season. Top contenders are Anthony Allen who has 3 career carries and rookie 3rd round pick Bernard Pierce who was a star at Temple.
The Ravens like both of these guys, it’ll be interesting to watch them develop in the pre-season.