Six Important Questions That Will Be Answered in Ravens' Preseason Opener
Football is back, folks.
We finally get to see the Ravens in action as they look to rebound from last season's 8-8 finish, falling just short of a playoff berth. They open the preseason against the beltway rival Washington Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium tonight at 7:30 p.m.
After months of making changes to the roster and strategy, we will finally start to get answers to six important questions:
1) Can Ryan Mallett squelch concerns about his ability to back up injured Joe Flacco?
"This is another opportunity for Mallett to put more distance between a rocky start to training camp," wrote ESPN's Jamison Hensley. "On the first day of camp, the Ravens first brought up the possibility of adding controversial quarterback Colin Kaepernick. A day later, Mallett threw at least five interceptions in a mistake-filled practice that made headlines in the football world. Since that time, Mallett has improved while filling in for Joe Flacco (back injury) with the first-team offense."
Mallett is expected to play "pretty extensively" tonight, according to Head Coach John Harbaugh. Last year, Mallett played a full half in the preseason opener with Flacco sitting to avoid any risk to his surgically repaired knee. The Ravens re-signed Mallett to a one-year deal reportedly worth $2 million during the offseason. He offers similar tools to Flacco, so the offense doesn't change much when the backup gets on the field. Mallett was impressive when he led the team to an upset win over the Steelers in 2015.
2) Will Ryan Jensen silence those crying for a Nick Mangold signing?
"He brings the size and physicality that should work better in Roman's downhill blocking schemes, but Jensen has only nine career starts under his belt, prompting many to continue clamoring for a Nick Mangold signing," wrote WNST's Luke Jones. "General Manager Ozzie Newsome spent most of his few remaining cap dollars on new right tackle Austin Howard, so Jensen needs to show he can do the job."
Jensen finds himself atop the depth chart at the center position after Newsome traded veteran Jeremy Zuttah this offseason and top competitor John Urschel retired a few hours before training camp began. The Ravens had Mangold in for a visit in April, but didn't sign him and he still sits on the open market.
3) Will the Ravens get back to their old-school running ways?
"What the Ravens do have is a chance to see where their new-look run game stands," wrote Hensley. "The Ravens are looking to turn around a once-proud ground attack that has become one of the worst in the league the last two seasons. … Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti expressed disappointment in the team's running game at the end of the season, and team officials have repeatedly talked about a stronger commitment to it. Baltimore has overhauled the run scheme with new senior offensive assistant Greg Roman, and the Ravens have gone through the paces of practicing it the entire offseason. The Ravens will finally see where the run game stands in the preseason."
The Ravens produced the league's fifth-best running attack over the first five years of Harbaugh's tenure in Baltimore, per Hensley. That translated to a playoff run in each of those years. By contrast, the team has ranked No. 27 in rushing yards the last four years, leading to just one playoff berth. Terrance West is the starter, with veteran Danny Woodhead likely playing a large role as a pass catcher. The final spot will be up for grabs between Buck Allen, Bobby Rainey and undrafted rookie Taquan "Smoke" Mizzell.
4) Which undrafted rookie will carry his impressive start to camp into games?
Earlier this week, we looked at a host of impressive undrafted rookies, including wide receivers Quincy Adeboyejo and Tim White, defensive lineman Patrick Ricard, cornerback Jaylen Hill, fullback Ricky Ortiz and Mizzell. The next step is to perform under the lights of a preseason game.
"Every summer, each NFL team has players that flash regularly in practice, but struggle to stand out once the preseason begins," wrote The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec. "That's why evaluators and coaches often shrug when asked about a newcomer standing out in practice, and suggest reserving judgment until the action goes live. Die-hard Ravens fans might remember wide receiver Justin Harper, a seventh-round draft pick out of Virginia Tech in 2008, the same draft that produced Joe Flacco and Ray Rice. Harper looked unstoppable at times in training camp practices, but it never carried over to games. He didn't catch a pass in his brief NFL career. Other ex-Ravens receivers such as Deonte Thompson and Tandon Doss foreshadowed breakthroughs with their play in training camp. Yet, the games told a different story."
5) What will the next generation of pass rushers show us?
The Ravens used their second- and third-round picks on outside linebackers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, respectively. Matt Judon is also making some noise as he competes to win a starting job. Reports out of camp have been impressive, and now it's time to do it against another team.
"Third-round rush linebacker Tim Williams has made some of the Ravens offensive tackles look foolish during pass-rush drills in camp," wrote Zrebiec. "Now, Williams will get an opportunity to show what he can do in a game. Expect the Ravens to let the former Alabama standout play a lot in the preseason as he acclimates himself to the NFL."
Added Jones: "Used as a situational pass rusher as a rookie, Judon has received most of the summer reps as the starting strong-side outside linebacker, a spot shared by Albert McClellan and Elvis Dumervil last season. In order to be more effective in pass coverage, the 2016 fifth-round pick dropped weight and is strikingly leaner while still showing enough strength to set the edge and rush the passer. Judon ranked third on the team with four sacks in 2016, but Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees would prefer to see him double that total as the Ravens try to turn the heat up on a pass rush that was underwhelming a year ago."
6) Can Michael Campanaro remind fans and coaches why he shouldn't be forgotten amidst all the hype of the undrafted rookie wide receivers?
A day after White made highlight-reel catches and flips in the open practice at M&T Bank Stadium, Campanaro was activated off the physically unable to perform list (toe). He doesn't have any wiggle room as White and Adeboyejo push for spots on the 53-man roster.
"On Michael Campanaro's first day … the Ravens welcomed him by putting him in the slot with the first offense," wrote The Sun's Edward Lee. "With 11 other wide receivers on the Ravens' roster and a similar glut of players wanting to return kicks and punts, Campanaro knows there is a crowded battle for one of 53 spots on the team's active roster, which will be finalized Sept. 2. And the 26-year-old Clarksville native and River Hill graduate has been limited to 11 games in the past three years mainly because of injuries, including a herniated disc in his back and a strained calf."
Very Unofficial and Speculative Injury Report
NFL teams aren't required to produce injury reports for preseason games, but if you want some speculative and unofficial guesses, Jones is here to provide them. Here's what he's got:
OUT: QB Joe Flacco (back), OT Austin Howard (shoulder), WR Breshad Perriman (hamstring), WR Kenny Bell (hamstring), CB Sheldon Price (undisclosed), CB Maurice Canady (knee), RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), OL Nico Siragusa (knee), CB Tavon Young (knee)
DOUBTFUL: OL Alex Lewis (undisclosed), CB Marlon Humphrey (undisclosed)
QUESTIONABLE: G Marshal Yanda (shoulder), WR Chris Matthews (undisclosed), CB Brandon Boykin (undisclosed)
Ozzie Just Being Ozzie Again With Jeremy Zuttah
Five months after trading center Jeremy Zuttah to San Francisco, the 49ers cut the nine-year veteran. Reports indicate that Daniel Kilgore was winning the battle for the starting job, so the 49ers cut Zuttah to clear $3.5 million in cap space.
"That was a tough decision," 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters. "He's done a lot of good things in this league. We wanted to give him chance to go somewhere else."
The Ravens swapped sixth-round picks with the 49ers as part of the trade for the 31-year-old Pro Bowler, moving up 12 spots in the 2017 NFL Draft. Baltimore used that pick (No. 186) on safety Chuck Clark.
Moving up 12 spots is a small gain, but a gain none the less, and it's small things like this for which Newsome gets praised.
"Ozzie must be smiling with this update," wrote Baltimore Beatdown's Kyle P. Barber. "He shed $5.8 million in cap before free agency and received a better draft pick (Ravens jumped 12 spots in the sixth round), all the while not losing anything they didn't already plan to cut."
Since Zuttah was traded, the Ravens depth at center has thinned after the retirement of Urschel, and NFL.com's Kevin Patra wonders if the Ravens would be interested in bringing Zuttah back to provide more support.
"[I]t's conceivable Zuttah could return to the team with which he started 16 games and earned a Pro Bowl bid in 2016 -- if Ozzie Newsome can do some salary-cap maneuvering," wrote Patra.