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The Ravens have concluded what many league observers deemed a productive offseason. They turned the wide receiver position from a weakness into a strength, injected youth into their defensive front, brought in a name kicker and added a pair of rookie tight ends. They put in motion the playbook processes they hope will culminate with a better pass rush and more potent and varied offense.
It was such a positive offseason that the Ravens are going to be a popular pick to win the AFC North. But questions persist. Hey, this is the NFL, the nation's nonstop sports obsession. There are always issues to explore, topics to debate. The Ravens are not excused. Here are the top seven questions to mull while the team slides through the lull before training camp opens in late July:
Is it true Ed Reed is coming back?
The All-Pro safety declared himself a 50-50 proposition in January, then had hip surgery, a positive sign he still wants to play. Most recently, he was reportedly rehabbing in Colorado, another good sign. But we have never heard from Reed – and nor has the team much, it seems. Is he going to be present and ready to play at his customary level? What about his neck injury? If he's all good, the secondary is a whole lot better. If he's not up to par, well, he's the Ravens' best player. You do the math.
Who will win the kicking competition?
Billy Cundiff performed well as an emergency patch last season, but Shayne Graham, the fourth-most accurate kicker in league history, is an upgrade – provided he isn't haunted by his last game with the Bengals, a playoff loss in which he blew two easy boots. These two veterans will go at it throughout camp and the preseason. It should be a good show.
Is Joe Flacco ready to take the next step?
If the Ravens are going to go deep into the playoffs, their third-year quarterback needs to grow beyond relying on short passes to Derrick Mason and dump-offs to Ray Rice. He is healthy, strong-armed, and reportedly becoming more vocal and authoritative. He should have enough weaponry between newcomers Anquan Boldin, Donte' Stallworth, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta and holdovers Todd Heap, Mark Clayton, Mason and Rice. The time is right for him to take the step and become a bigger playmaker.
Will we see the old Terrell Suggs?
The three-time Pro Bowl defensive end had an admittedly disappointing 2009 after signing his big contract, reporting in less-than-stellar shape and registering just 4.5 sacks. The team wants to bring a better pass rush in 2010, and Suggs should be the key to that. He looked in shape and energized early in the offseason, but tailed off late in terms of participation. It will be interesting, and crucial, to see if he returns to being one of the best Ravens or just a guy getting paid a lot.
Can the Ravens get their penalty bug under control?
This one has flown under the radar during the offseason, generating little conversation, but it was a huge issue last season, as the Ravens were among the league leaders in penalties and constantly set themselves back. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said then that it was a problem that needed to be addressed in the offseason, when habits and techniques are taught and honed. Well, how's that going?
Will the team have two effective cornerbacks?
Domonique Foxworth is healthy and performed better down the stretch in 2009, but he was shaky at times in his first year with the team. Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington are coming back from serious knee injuries, leaving their statuses in question. The team passed on taking a corner in the first round of the draft. They're gambling here.
Is Jared Gaither healthy and ready to go?
Between trade rumors, a position switch, a sore foot and a personal call-to-practice from Harbaugh, the big guy has certainly been in the news. But he's still a Raven, and if he's ready to go at right tackle, the offensive line is that much better.
John Eisenberg 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.