*We are less than one week from the start of training camp, and BaltimoreRavens.com thinks there is going to be a massive turnout of fans to McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., this year. *
As such, we've compiled a list of 10 things those fans should watch when practices are taking place. These are football-oriented notes, and Tuesday, BaltimoreRavens.com will have 10 things to watch or do off the field.
If you want to see how Flacco is commanding the Ravens' offense in his second year, one only has to look as far as the huddle. During the first few practices last season, the rookie Flacco still seemed like he was trying to grasp Cam Cameron's system and its verbiage. In fact, he didn't regularly take reps with the first string until Kyle Boller (shoulder) and Troy Smith (illness) both went down.
Following his 11-5 campaign, Flacco is much more in tune to his role on offense. It will most definitely show during the first day of camp, when he takes the field with a mix of rookies and selected veterans. But pay attention to the way he commands the unit when he is joined by the entire team. Flacco is crisp, confident and – as his nickname attests – cool as a sophomore.
Much has been made of Rice playing with the starters in Organized Team Activities (OTAs) ahead of Willis McGahee. While Ravens fans should not yet read too much into that, it does show that coaches believe Rice can be an every-down back. Fans will notice the diminutive Rice's added bulk, especially around his upper body, to take a full-season's worth of pounding.
- The returner battle.
Chris Carr and Yamon Figurs have been injured during the offseason, so it was Lardarius Webb, Mark Clayton, Rice, Matt Lawrence and even Demetrius Williams rotating in as returners on kickoffs and punts. Now, with Carr and Figurs both expecting to return healthy, the real competition can begin. Special teams practices are normally not very well-attended, but seeing how cleanly each candidate fields the kicks and accelerates upfield firsthand should be worth it.
- A new look next to Ray.
For the past few years, Ray Lewis' No. 52 jersey lined up next to Bart Scott's No. 57. But now that Scott is a New York Jet, a new player ascends to the starting role. As of now, it looks like that will be Tavares Gooden, whose speed sideline to sideline should impress those in attendance. But don't count out the development of former undrafted free agent Jameel McClain, whom the Ravens believe is becoming a solid player. He will get lots of playing time when Lewis takes a break.
- Mattison's defensive demeanor.
The Ravens are not expecting much of a change under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who succeeds Rex Ryan. The players hold Mattison in high regard, much like they did with Ryan. The main difference may be in the way each coach runs their practice. While Ryan was more freewheeling and light-hearted on the field, Mattison can be all-business.
- The receiver/defensive back battles.
The one-on-one matchup of a receiver and defensive back is easily the drill that gets the most "oohs" and "aahs." Usually taking place just before the first half of practice is over, this session almost always has a few eye-popping plays, whether that is an amazing catch or a tough interception or batted ball. A great seat to see all the action is in the back end zone on the practice field near the stands.
- The offensive/defensive line battles.
But, if you have binoculars, the big-boy battle that pits offensive and defensive linemen against each other is also interesting. This year should be even more fascinating with the addition of rookie right tackle Michael Oher. The sheer power and speed of these behemoths always provides a show – and sometimes even a skirmish when two get locked up a little too long.
- Kicking competition.
The Ravens have made no secret about the fact that the kicking position is far from decided. Steve Hauschka and Graham Gano will have a lot riding on each boot, both in practice and in preseason games. Baltimore special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg has filmed and closely scrutinized each attempt this offseason, something fans will have the chance to do in Westminster.
- Injury updates.
The Ravens missed many key players by the end of their 2008 campaign, and this will mark one the first time fans can lay their eyes on guys like defensive tackle Kelly Gregg (knee), Dawan Landry (spinal cord contusion), Williams (ankle) and Gooden (hip) in a while.
- Harbaugh in Year 2.
Just as Flacco and Rice are entering their second season, John Harbaugh is marking his second as the head coach of an NFL franchise. His tough and team-first mentality permeates the halls of the Ravens' headquarters in Owings Mills, Md., but as the hot, humid days of training camp wear on, how will the team respond? Harbaugh deftly adjusted his schedule in the final weeks of camp and could do the same this year.