Heading into the first practice of training camp, BaltimoreRavens.com will offer previews of those positions that feature a tough competition, focusing on who will be fighting for playing time. Today, the special teamers take the spotlight.
The Ravens' 2009 training camp will mark an odd time for the franchise – one where there is a completely open battle for the kicker and returner positions.
For 13 years, Matt Stover was the main leg in Baltimore, 19 if you count his tenure with the previous incarnation of the Cleveland Browns. But with Stover's release this offseason, there is an unfamiliar void that the young **Steve Hauschka** and **Graham Gano** are attempting to fill.
Although both prospects kicked well during offseason minicamps, they are also unproven at the professional level.
Hauschka – the Ravens' kickoff specialist last season – actually has some game experience, but he is 1-for-1 on career field goal attempts. The NC State product must prove that he is not all foot and has the mental strength to focus on field goals.
"I think I've got all the potential in the world, but the main thing was to know that I was going to have a chance here all offseason to get better every day and then assess where we're at day one, first game of the season," he said. "That's what I was most excited about was that they have the confidence in me to give me a chance throughout the whole offseason to show them what I can do."
Gano – who is coming off a year when he won the Lou Groza Award as the best kicker in the NCAA – provides value because he can be a backup punter. He even nailed a few 60-yard field goals during Organized Team Activities (OTAs).
"I feel like I've hit the ball well, but I still have a long way to go with my consistency," Gano said. "I'm making a lot of them, but unless they look perfect every time, I'm not happy. I want them all to look the same."
Meanwhile, Stover still owns the credentials to make him a reliable alternative if neither candidate answers the call.
Sure, Stover's number is still in general manager **Ozzie Newsome’s** rolodex. It will take a lot of missed kicks during training camp for him to dial it, however.
Here is a breakdown at how the current crop of kickers and potential returners stacks up:
2008:Hauschka was stellar as a kickoff artist, booting eight of his 32 attempts into the end zone and garnering three touchbacks. The former practice squadder also connected on a 54-yard field goal during a Week 10 matchup with the Houston Texans. Hauschka missed a 53-yarder two weeks later.
Forecast:Hauschka was solid overall in the offseason, working diligently with special teams coordinator **Jerry Rosburg** to improve his foot placement where he strikes the ball. This competition will likely last until the final preseason contest, so Hauschka will have to simply make his field goal tries count in live action.
2008:The accolades piled up for Gano in a stellar senior season at Florida State. The Groza winner finished first in the FBS for field goals made, percentage of field goals converted and 50-yard field goals made. And, he was one of only two kickers in college to make over 90 percent of his field goal attempts in 2008.
Forecast:Like Hauschka, Gano has had his ups and downs during the offseason. He came in looking rusty, but after some professional coaching, the rookie really upped his game. Most impressive were a pair of 60-yard field goals that would have been good from 64 yards. Gano needs to do that in training camp, as well.
As for the primary returner, the Ravens have a few new choices – along with the incumbent Yamon Figurs and Ray Rice.
Here is a look at who is in the running for Baltimore's return specialist in 2009:
2008:The former third-round draft pick opened the 2008 campaign as the Ravens' top return man, but was in and out of the lineup with a knee injury. He averaged 21.0 yards on 29 kickoff returns and returned 23 punts for an average of 6.0 yards.
Forecast:Figurs has been limited after breaking a bone in his foot that required surgery. As such, he's been held out of practices as he recovers. He said that he will be 100 percent by the time training camp rolls around. He must break some big returns in the preseason to make the active roster, considering he hasn't been able to stand out among the receiving corps thus far in his career.
2008:With the Tennessee Titans, Carr was steady and productive as a returner. He finished 12th in the NFL with a 10.1-yard average on punt returns and an impressive 28.1-yard average on kickoffs, the league's fourth-best.
Forecast:Even though a shoulder injury has basically kept him out of all offseason practices, Carr will likely get the bulk of return chances. The Ravens signed him as a free agent to provide depth at cornerback, but his return skills were especially coveted.
2008:Webb showed that he could do it all at Nicholls State, leading the team in all-purpose yards (661) his final year in college. The defensive back returned 16 kickoffs for 472 yards and one touchdown and 10 punts for 152 yards and a score.
Forecast:The rookie is an interesting prospect. He turned heads towards the end of OTAs as he got more and more work with the special teams. Webb seems to be comfortable fielding kicks and has excellent acceleration once the ball is secure. He could be a wild-card.
2008:Zbikowski only had two chances to return a kickoff as a rookie, but he took advantage of them by amassing a total of 48 yards. Then in the playoffs, he had three kickoff returns for a 22.7-yard average, including a long of 31 yards. The Notre Dame product was a talented punt returner in college, as well.
Forecast: Zbikowski is slated to receive more snaps on defense, which may limit the reps he would get at returner. Unless something unexpected happens, Zbikowski should only serve as a backup returner – if that – on the depth chart.
2008:The diminutive running back was a pleasant surprise in the Ravens' potent rushing attack, but when Figurs went down, Rice stepped up. He returned seven kickoffs and amassed 161 yards, good for a 23.0-yard average.
Forecast:Similarly to Zbikowski,* *Rice could be the starting running back in the regular-season opener, so returns is all but ruled out for the second-year player.
2008:Lawrence spent the majority of the 2008 campaign on Baltimore's practice squad.
Forecast:The UMass product has been a fill-in at returner and knows that special teams is his ticket to the active roster at this point in his young career. Lawrence needs to show up on film with a few big plays in the preseason if he wants to get noticed.