Matt Lund and Judd Bleser contributed to this article.
The Baltimore Ravens embark on their 18th training camp as the defending Super Bowl Champions, and while the bulk of the training camp schedule as well as preseason games lie ahead, there are a handful of new faces – both veteran and rookies entering the NFL – that are looking to win starting spots or steady play time on offense and defense.
As the temperatures stay hot during camp and battles heat up, we’ll take a look at which players could have impact roles in each key positional starting spot and why. Those positions being focused on include, Inside Linebacker, #2 and #3 Wide Receiver, Center, #2 Cornerback and Defensive Tackle/Nose Tackle.
In this article, we’ll discuss the battle at ILB and the number two and three slots at WR.
Matt Lund: A strength for as long as the Ravens have been in Baltimore, this starting position quickly became depleted after Dannell Ellerbe took off for a big pay raise with the Miami Dolphins and Ray Lewis hung up the cleats and called it a career in the NFL after 17 seasons. Couple that with Jameel McClain slowly returning from a serious spinal cord injury last season and the Ravens were left with a huge void in the middle of the defense.
However, the Ravens quickly addressed the need at ILB, drafting speedy linebacker Arthur Brown from Kansas State in the second round of this year’s draft, inking a deal for veteran FA Daryl Smith, previously of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the continued emergence from young players like Albert McClellan and Josh Bynes, and quickly, optimism has grown into what could become one of the more intense and highly watched battles of camp this season.
With so many options now at ILB, it will be easier for the Ravens to continue to slowly progress McClain from his injury and not rush him back. Arthur Brown’s skills can translate into future success at this level with his size, speed and ability to stuff the run.
Right now, however, the name of the game is experience and the veteran presence that head coach John Harbaugh is looking for from his retooled defense.
In that sense, Daryl Smith is the guy I look for to be a starter on this defense at inside linebacker in 2013.
The 10-year veteran played his entire career in Jacksonville, starting 122 games. He has good size at 6’2″, 235 pounds and averaged 60 tackles per season. Injuries limited him to nine games last year and zero starts, but before that was one of the more durable 4-3 outside linebackers in the NFL.
Despite not starting a game last season, he still recorded 74 tackles, more impressive was his 33 assisted tackles to go along with two forced fumbles.
He finds his way to the ball and for a team that has had problems wrapping up and tackling ball carriers the last few seasons, this was an excellent signing for the Ravens. Smith should have no problems being able to play three downs as he is solid in pass protection too. Off the field, his low-key personality and workman like attitude to the job are right up Harbaugh’s alley.
Judd Bleser: Between the cloudy status of Jameel McClain after his spinal injury, the signing of veteran Daryl Smith, and the drafting of second-round pick Arthur Brown, inside linebacker is going to be one of the best position battles to look out for this season.
To me, if McClain is ready to go health-wise, he will have one of the two ILB spots locked up. He has experience in the system and has been a quality starter for several years now. Who his running mate will be, however, will be a fight between the other four aforementioned guys.
Who do I think will take that spot? Arthur Brown. The rookie.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the experience and leadership that Smith will bring to the table, and I think Bynes and McClellan will add solid depth to the position—one that has needed such depth due to injuries the past few seasons—but Brown’s skill set is too unique to keep him off the field.
I can’t remember seeing an athlete carry 240 pounds as naturally as Arthur does. I’ve watched extensive college film on the guy, and let me tell you, he can fly. His sideline-to-sideline ability is unparalleled. He’s a tad on the lean side when you see him in pads, but he hits with authority. Oh, and one more thing. He’s exceptional in pass coverage. He’s a linebacker that can knock pads during run downs and still stay on the field in nickel situations.
I look forward to seeing Brown make flash plays during camp, and I expect him to be atop the depth chart come week one.
#2 and #3 Wide Receiver:
ML: Anquan Boldin is now in San Francisco with the 49ers after being traded this off-season, which means Torrey Smith becomes the team’s #1 target for quarterback Joe Flacco. After Smith, comes a lot of potential, but questions as well.
There are plenty of names, but the player who’ll likely take that 2nd wide receiver spot is Jacoby Jones. Some will say by default because of the lack of experience beyond him, but Jacoby brings a dynamic to the offense in terms of big-play-ability and another deep threat for Flacco and his big arm.
He lacks the strength that Boldin had over the middle of the field, being able to catch passes in traffic and beat defenders down the seam. He’s not that type of receiver and the team will look to Dennis Pitta to fill more of that role.
What you gain in one area, you’ll certainly lose in others, meaning if Jacoby’s role expands (which it likely will) the Ravens will turn their attention elsewhere in the return game, where Jones excelled. A guy like Deonte Thompson comes to mind who does have experience in the return game.
The player who takes the third spot in the wide receiver sweepstakes is even more up in the air, but a lot of interesting candidates are vying for it.
Tandon Doss, the third year player out of Indiana University, hasn’t shown he can consistently make catches enough to see the field for an extended period of time and will be trying to work his way up the ladder in camp. The Ravens seem to really like Deonte Thompson in the return game. I think he fits well there with his explosiveness and could be the eventual replacement for Jacoby Jones.
That leaves someone who hasn’t even played one down in the NFL as my pick to take the #3 slot and his name is Aaron Mellette. Yes, Mellette may be from a small school in Elon and yes, he may be the team’s seventh round draft pick, but I absolutely love his size (6’2″ 217) which the Ravens love as well. Here’s another thing they love about him: his hands.
Scouts raved about Mellette’s soft hands and like the fact that he isn’t afraid of going over the middle of the field. He can make catches in traffic and has shown no problems hauling in low or high passes. Mellette won’t be a “homerun-hitter” in the offense, but he doesn’t need to be. That’s what Torrey Smith is for. But he can be a very good possession receiver who runs routes well.
He’s certainly a long shot being the 7th round pick, but crazier things have happened and they are very high on him.
JB: Before I dive into who I think will take these spots, it’s important to remember one thing: being a second or third receiver does not always mean second or third option. So, before you freak out about our receiver corps without Boldin, remember that guys like Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson will be viable weapons in the passing game.
With that being said, I think it’s pretty easy to say that our second receiver is going to be Jacoby Jones.
When considering the personnel, it’s a natural fit. The only hesitancy I have about Jacoby is that in the passing game, he’s more effective when he’s used less. He’s there when we need big plays through the air, and he’s without a doubt one of the best return men in the game. All I’m saying is this: I don’t want him to take such a big role offensively that he doesn’t have the juice to make explosive plays and returns.
The third receiver spot is arguably the biggest toss up among our position battles. It could go in multiple directions: Tandon Doss? David Reed? Deonte Thompson? The problem is that none of these guys have extensive experience, and that’s putting it gently.
We know that Flacco hand-picked Doss out of Indiana University in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. He’s known to have some of the best hands on the team, but it is yet to translate on Sundays. I don’t have trust in David Reed, either. He’s shown the ability to make big plays, but has ball control issues and seems to be a headache off the field.
That leads me to my dark horse, and the man who I think will take the third receiver spot: Deonte Thompson. The former track and football star at Florida is going to turn some heads this season. He’s the fastest guy on the team—he’s been clocked in the mid 4.2’s in the 40—and the coaching staff seems really high on him.
Knowing how much Flacco likes to drive the ball downfield, Thompson is a great option. I expect him to be our slot man this year, and I can see him having an Antonio Brown-esque (sorry for the Steelers reference) emergence.
Follow Matt Lund on Twitter @MattCLund and Judd Bleser @TheInternsTake