By now, training camps are well under way and there are several stories developing for every team. In many ways training camp is an exciting time. It’s often where the last key pieces are added. Teams will constantly monitor the waiver wire to see who’s available that can fit their system and make an impact. Sometimes this is an undrafted rookie, sometimes it’s a familiar player brought back at a reduced price and sometimes it’s a veteran brought in to cover an injury.
First up for me, a look at the Baltimore Ravens. After failing to reach the playoffs last year they’ll be chomping at the bit for the season to start.
Will old faces thrive in new roles?
Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs are both returning from injury and they face the likelihood of being used in a different role this season. Age and wear and tear have taken their toll on these once dominant stars. In order to keep them fresh the Ravens are expected to reduce the number of snaps each receive. This will more than likely mean that the Ravens’ stalwarts are deployed on impact plays and passing downs in an attempt to get to the quarterback more often.
Both players have been elite pass rushers before injury. In 2014 they combined for 29 sacks. If the Ravens plans to keep the aging pass rushers fresh, they could combine for 18+ sacks. However, Suggs especially seems reluctant to take a reduced role. Time will tell.
One man show or running by Committee?
The Ravens like to run one main back, from Jamal Lewis to Ray Rice. When Rice was suspended in 2014, Justin Forsett finally took advantage of his time atop a depth chart; rushing for 1,266 yards and an impressive average of 5.4 yards a carry.
Last year, Forsett missed six games which coincided with the Ravens ground game stuttering. The Ravens became running back Terrance West’s third team in three years. He’s been unable to come close to the 673 yards he had in his rookie season. However, there were signs of life as last season West ran for180 yards on only 46 attempts after a sub 100 yard season with the Titans in 2014.
Other running backs on the Ravens roster include last year’s fourth round pick Javorius “Buck” Allen and rookie Kenneth Dixon. Allen chipped in with a pretty respectable rookie campaign rushing 514 yards. The real bright spot in Allen’s game was his 353 yards on only 45 receptions.
Going into his second year he could provide a real spark as a third down back. Dixon on the other hand is second all-time in NCAA career touchdowns and was a star at LSU before he fell to the Ravens in the fourth. Projected as a third round pick he has good size and is willing to pound the ball as well as being a decent receiver. I expect him to push for time early and make an immediate impact.
Can Dennis Pitta stay healthy and contribute?
After missing the last two seasons with injury, tight end Dennis Pitta finds himself towards the bottom of the depth chart. If he can come all the way back to his best, Pitta will provide Joe Flacco with another outlet. Pitta was one of Flacco’s favourite targets and if he’s on the field when the Ravens need to produce a key first down I’d bet on Flacco looking his way!
However, Pitta isn’t being counted on too heavily. The team will be hoping that Maxx Williams can blossom after collecting 257 yards and a touchdown last season. I’d expect him to compete with free agent acquisition Benjamin Watson who is coming off a career high 825 yards as a major weapon for Drew Brees and the Saints. Rounding out the mix is Crockett Gillmore who will also look to contribute after chipping in with 412 yards and four touchdowns in 2015.
What’s the ceiling for Ronnie Stanley’s rookie year?
Rookie tackles are traditionally slow to progress, rarely having dominant rookie years. Baltimore will hope that Ronnie Stanley bucks the trend. On draft day 2016, Stanley was picked sixth overall above the tackle many presumed to be a top five player, Laremy Tunsil (Tunsil’s Twitter was hacked and videos appearing to show him using drugs were posted). Mike Mayock thinks Stanley can play at a similar level to the Cowboys’ Tyron Smith. Like many of the top tackles, including Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson, he showed his athleticism by playing basketball at college.
Stanley must have shown something special because he’s now on top of the Raven’s depth chart at left tackle, partly due to Stanley’s own skill level, but also the opportunity to train day in, day out with perennial All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda. “He’s doing well. All positive so far. Up to this point, he’s proven to be up to the challenge,” said John Harbaugh. Ross Tucker recently posted an article on why young linemen struggle. The Ravens would be wise to take Tucker’s advice and ‘limit their exposure early’ by giving assistance from tight ends and running backs.
Can Mike Wallace rediscover his Pittsburgh form?
Wide receiver Mike Wallace was nothing less than dominant in 2010 to 2012. Then he signed with Miami and after a promising 930 yards in 2013 he fell out of favour and saw his numbers drop to 862, before being released. Last year with the Vikings a personality clash with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was said to be one of the factors that saw his receptions drop to 39, equaling the career low from his rookie year.
Now 30-years-old, having been signed by the Ravens, Wallace turned up to training in less than peak condition and promptly failed a conditioning test. Since passing the test he has started to build a nice relationship with Flacco. If the relationship continues to grow and Wallace sees his receptions increase he could become a weapon the league fears once again.
The Ravens were devastated by injury last year. Should they stay healthy, with their old stars and new signings they will be in the hunt for the playoffs come the 2016 season end.