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Eisenberg: Seeing Separation In 6 Position Battles

When asked over the weekend if he was starting to see some separation in the position battles that have generated headlines, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh confirmed that, indeed, he was. 

But when asked if he wanted to name names, Harbaugh laughed and offered his version of the old Cold War spy bromide about having to kill us if he told us. 

"Not that I want to comment on [it], but thanks for asking," he said, drawing laughs from the media. 

Since he understandably didn't want to give anything away while the battles are ongoing, I guess it's up to me to do the handicapping. Here goes: 

Gino Gradkowski vs. A.Q. Shipley – Before camp began, Gradkowski was the presumptive favorite to earn the starting center job, since the Ravens had drafted him for the role a year earlier. Then Shipley, acquired in a trade, came in and played so well that the race was judged a jump ball. But Gradkowski has regained his grip on the job. He graded out well in last week's game against the Falcons, according to the Pro Football Focus website, while Shipley struggled and also collected a pair of penalties. 

Josh Bynes vs. Arthur Brown – This was one battle Harbaugh did handicap, praising Bynes for having played well enough to earn the starting "Will" (weak-side) inside linebacker job, although he did add the caveat "for now." Some thought Brown was destined to start after the Ravens traded up to get him in the 2013 draft, and we'll see him in passing situations, where he can use his agility. But Bynes is big, smart and physical, the latest in a long line of undrafted free agent linebackers (Bart Scott, Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe) to rise through the ranks and start for the Ravens. 

Matt Elam vs. James Ihedigbo – Elam is this year's first-round pick and Ihedigbo, 29, has been a backup for most of his career, so this one appears obvious. But I think Ihedigbo will start the season opener opposite Peyton Manning. He is a veteran who has started a Super Bowl (with the Patriots in 2011) and has run with the starters throughout training camp, showing plenty of life. Meanwhile, if you parse what the coaches are saying about Elam, his tackling is solid but he is still learning some of the ropes of pass defense. Elam is destined to hold down the job, but it's Ihedigbo's for now. 

Corey Graham vs. Jimmy Smith – Graham is the incumbent and has done nothing to lose the job of starting cornerback opposite Lardarius Webb. In fact, Graham has been the best cornerback in camp. The Ravens would love to see Smith, a former first-round pick, take ownership of the job, but Graham is intensely proud to have become more than a special teams player and is determined to keep the job. It didn't help Smith's cause when Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan torched him in the first half last week, although in fairness, some of his support was missing. 

Nos. 2 and 3 wide receiver – This isn't a one-on-one battle so much as a free-for-all among a field of (mostly young) players looking for playing time opposite Torrey Smith. Jacoby Jones and Brandon Stokley are at the top of the rotation, but they aren't going to hog all the snaps, so there is playing time available if a playmaker rises up. Rookies Aaron Mellette and Marlon Brown are getting a chance along with usual suspects Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson and David Reed. My money is on Thompson and Mellette to make the roster. 

Matt Furstenberg vs. Visanthe Shiancoe vs. Billy Bajema – After Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark, the No. 3 tight end spot is up for grabs. It's tough to call because it's not clear what the Ravens want out of the job. If they want a rugged blocker they can insert in key spots, Bajema is the best fit. If they want another pass catcher to mix in and serve as insurance against injury, Shiancoe is the most accomplished. Furstenberg has played well in the preseason, contributing several long receptions to work himself into the equation, but he remains a longshot.

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