Feature photo courtesy of Keith Allison.
With NFL minicamps concluding last week, all 32 teams have entered the quietest period of the offseason. With no formal workouts left on the schedule before training camps open, there’s about a month until the progress from organized team activities and minicamps can continue in preseason practices.
After they fell, 35-31, to the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs last season, the Baltimore Ravens will begin training camp in late July amid questions about whether the team can improve upon last year’s postseason performance.
Rookies, quarterbacks and injured veterans won’t report to practice until July 22, while the rest of the players arrive July 29, but it’s never too early to look into key storylines as Ravens finish the offseason. Here’s an early look at three things to watch for in Baltimore as training camp approaches.
1. Which tight end will fill Owen Daniels, and possibly Dennis Pitta’s, absence?
Against the Cleveland Browns in Week 3, Pitta dislocated his hip for the second straight season. The five-year veteran underwent surgery and doctors have yet to give him permission to resume practicing with the team, should he decide to continue his career.
While Pitta was the unquestioned starter before and during his injuries, the Ravens relied on Daniels to carry the brunt of the offense in the middle of the field. Daniels stepped in to tally 48 catches for 527 yards and four touchdowns, but he signed with the Denver Broncos during free agency.
Such moves left second-year blocker Crockett Gillmore as the top tight end. While he appeared in 15 games as a rookie, Gillmore spent most of his action as an extra blocker on the offensive line.
“I’m a lot stronger in and out of breaks,” Gillmore said on the Ravens’ website of the changes to his approach. “That was a big thing for me. I think I grew so fast that I never really developed the strength to get that quick twitch. Getting that muscle has really helped me run.”
Though the Ravens will look to Gillmore to evolve into a dual-threat, they further mended the loss of Daniels and the uncertainty around Pitta by trading up three spots to nab Maxx Williams in the second round.
Williams posted a standout two years at Minnesota and led the Golden Gophers in receptions (36), yards (569) and receiving touchdowns (8) as a sophomore. Of his 36 catches, 28 resulted in either a touchdown or a first down. The Ravens also selected Nick Boyle in the fifth round after he finished a solid four-year career at Delaware.
Head coach John Harbaugh often defers to veteran players over rookies, regardless of potential, in initial depth charts, so it will be interesting to watch if and when Williams stakes a claim as a starter.
How this young position group plays out, and whether Pitta is able to return in some form, will be imperative for quarterback Joe Flacco to continue last season’s success under a new offensive coordinator.
2. Which young defensive linemen will fill Haloti Ngata’s spot?
When Ngata served his four-game suspension at the end of last season, rookie lineman Timmy Jernigan started in the nine-year veteran’s position for three games, registering 10 tackles and two sacks. Brandon Williams also flourished in his second year in purple and black alongside Ngata.
But the Ravens traded Ngata to the Detroit Lions during the offseason because of his high salary cap number. Now, the team will rely on Jernigan, Williams and a slew of other budding linemen to offset the five-time Pro Bowler’s loss.
The Ravens drafted Kapron Lewis-Moore in the sixth round of the 2013 draft. He suffered a torn ACL in the national championship with Notre Dame and tore his Achilles tendon during offseason workouts last year.
Though rust and repercussions from his injuries could take a toll on his production, Lewis-Moore could emerge as a dark horse candidate to see time in the Ravens’ new-look line. So could Brent Urban, the Ravens’ fourth-round pick last year, who tore his ACL before last season.
“It’s really important that Brent Urban and Kapron Lewis-Moore come on,” Harbaugh said on the team’s website. “The young D-linemen obviously are going to be huge for us. We’ve gotten younger there really quickly.”
The Ravens also took nose tackle Carl Davis with the 90th overall pick in the 2015 draft. The Iowa product notched 36 tackles, including nine for a loss, as a senior. His versatility, combined with how well he acclimates to the speed of the NFL, could give the Ravens’ a fresh defensive interior.
DeAngelo Tyson and Lawrence Guy also established themselves as credible contributors last year. If the Ravens newcomers can stay healthy, their defensive line rotation could quickly erase the doubt surrounding Ngata’s departure.
3. Can the secondary stay healthy?
A rash of injuries throughout the 2015 campaign depleted the Ravens’ secondary. Five cornerbacks and one safety ended the season in Injured Reserve and a total of 12 cornerbacks cycled through the Ravens’ roster.
The biggest loss was Jimmy Smith, who had evolved into a top-tier corner before suffering a season-ending foot injury in Week 8. Entering his fifth year, Smith signed a four-year extension worth $41 million. Along with Lardarius Webb, who was hampered by a back injury for the majority of 2014, Smith could fix the Ravens backfield that served as the team’s most glaring weakness one year ago.
“His best football is still ahead of him,” Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said after Smith signed his new contract. “If he doesn’t get hurt in the Cincinnati game last year, I don’t know where he could have ended up at as a player, but he is definitely trending up.”
The Ravens also return Asa Jackson, Rashaan Melvin and Anthony Levine to the lineup. With another offseason of improvement and less injury-induced pressure to produce, the three corners could emerge as more consistent reserves. Tray Walker, the Ravens’ fourth-round pick from Texas Southern, could also see time alongside the two veteran starters.
Poor health unraveled this unit early in the 2014 season. The Ravens advanced to the second round of the playoffs in spite of the secondary’s shortcomings, but to play deep into January and February, the secondary must be better.
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