Eisenberg: 5 Training Camp Tossups

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The Ravens don't have an abundance of questions to answer when training camp opens next week in Westminster. They've spent their offseason mostly plugging holes, not digging new ones.

But that's not to say there won't be plenty of unsettled situations to monitor at McDaniel College and in the weeks leading up to the regular season. Numerous backup positions are up for grabs, as well as a few starting spots. And Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh surely wouldn't have it any other way. Who wants Camp Comfortable when you're gearing up for a rugged 16-game season?

Here are my top five training camp tossups among situations the Ravens will be monitoring:

  • Shayne Graham vs. Billy Cundiff. This is a big one. One of these veterans will kick for the Ravens in 2010 and, more than likely, have at least one game resting on his foot.

Either is a better candidate than youngsters Steve Hauschka and Graham Gano, who competed in camp to be the Ravens' kicker a year ago. Those two had converted exactly one NFL field goal between them at the time. Graham and Cundiff have converted a combined 274.

Cundiff did a fine job in 2009 as an emergency patch after Hauschka missed one too many kicks, but Graham, 32, is a notch better, the fourth-most-accurate kicker in NFL history. Although he gagged in the playoffs for the Bengals last season, his track record suggests he will earn the job and convert the vast majority of his attempts.
* Tom Zbikowski vs. Ken Hamlin. A very tough call – and a very important one if Ed Reed really isn't ready until "October, November, December," as he suggested was possible in a recent radio interview.

Zbikowski, a 2008 third-round pick, is more familiar with the Ravens defense and filled in ably when Reed missed four games in 2009. Thus it was mildly surprising when the team signed Hamlin, 29, a former Pro Bowler who hits hard and signed a big contract with the Cowboys in 2007 but didn't intercept a pass in his last 24 games in Dallas.

If Hamlin could regain his old form, he would get the nod. But that's a big uncertainty, and Zbikowski is a classic homegrown product, the kind the Ravens want to see flower. I think both will play.
* Jared Gaither vs. Jared Gaither. Is the big guy ready to settle in at right tackle and play hard? The Ravens certainly need for him to do so.Oniel Cousins, Plan B in this case, works hard but doesn't have Gaither's natural gifts.

But Gaither was in the headlines -- and in the training room -- for all the wrong reasons during the offseason, and the organization was 100 percent correct to give his left tackle slot to Michael Oher, who works harder and seemingly is driven to become one of league's top left tackles.

I predict Gaither will have a solid season. Since he's eligible to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, he has incentive to be a good soldier and play hard. There's money on the table.
* Ed Dickson vs. Dennis Pitta. The Ravens set this one up by curiously drafting tight ends in back-to-back rounds in April. Which rookie will back up Todd Heap, get more snaps when Heap is on the sidelines and emerge as the heir apparent? Those questions may not be answered this year. Pitta is the better pass catcher, Dickson the better blocker and athlete, and I'm guessing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will find a use for both.
* Tavares Gooden vs. Dannell Ellerbe. Who will start at inside linebacker next to Ray Lewis? On paper, this is a mismatch. The Ravens have more invested in Gooden, a 2008 third-round pick, than Ellerbe, a 2009 undrafted free agent. But Ellerbe was one of the team's biggest surprises last season, rising through the depth chart to become a late-season starter. He plays with the kind of fire the Ravens like, and I'm guessing we'll see him next to Lewis when the Ravens open the season against the Jets.

John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*

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