It's time for training camp and the start of fierce competition at various positions. Today, the specialists take the spotlight.
With one of the best special teams coordinators of the past few years helming the Ravens, one can be sure a large emphasis will be placed on special teams in Baltimore.
Head coach John Harbaugh joined the Ravens in January after a 10-year stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. For nine of those years, he led their special teams units to consistently rank among the NFL's best before moving to secondary coach in 2007.
One of Harbaugh's first moves in assembling his staff was hiring former Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, another top mind in the business.
The idea in Baltimore of football being a game of simply offense and defense is no more. According to Harbaugh and Rosburg, there are three sides to the pigskin.
"I certainly think there's emphasis in terms of practice time, there's emphasis in terms of staff involvement, there's going to be emphasis in terms of player personnel," said Rosburg. "It's a great opportunity for us to be good on special teams because the boss knows it."
Over the course of six seasons (2000-05) with the Eagles, Harbaugh's teams were cumulatively rated No. 1 in the league. In addition, three of his assistants were selected to become coordinators under his tutelage.
Rosburg also sports impressive credentials. Coaching the Browns from 2001-06, he boasted a squad that ranked fourth in punt return average (10.3 yards per punt) and sixth in opponent kickoff return average (20.8). In 2007, his Falcons earned a number of top 10 rankings.
Now, their stamp can be seen up and down the roster.
Following April's draft, director of college scouting Eric DeCosta admitted that he was actively looking for players that could contribute on special teams, which brought players such as wideout Marcus Smith and linebacker Tavares Gooden into the fold.
Through free agency, two-time Pro Bowl special teamer Brendon Ayanbadejo and cornerback Frank Walker, a tenacious gunner, were added.
"A lot of times there's a notion that the guy's a special teams player because he can't do anything else," Rosburg said of Ayanbadejo. "This particular man is a highly-skilled athlete, and the knowledge that he brings to the game is really valuable."
These weapons will combine with Gary Stills, another special teams Pro Bowler, and cornerback Corey Ivy to create a juggernaut of a coverage team, not to mention explosive return man Yamon Figurs fielding punts and kickoffs.
In the kicking game, the Ravens feature stalwart 19-year veteran Matt "Automatic" Stover and the strong-legged Sam Koch, with rookie free agent Piotr Czech attempting to latch on as a kickoff specialist.
For Rosburg, there are never enough special teamers on the roster.
"I'll take every special teams player I can get," he happily stated.
With Harbaugh and Rosburg teaming up, along with assistant Marwan Maalouf, the special teams focus has already shown up in practice, where large portions of each session are devoted to that aspect of the game.
Here is a look at the specialists on the Ravens' roster:
2007:Stover moved into fourth place on the NFL's all-time scoring list with 1,822 points, finishing the season with 107 points (his fifth-consecutive 100-point year). The seasoned pro converted all 26 PATs and was 27-of-32 on field goals.
Forecast:Stover is a lock because of his accuracy within 40 yards –he is the third-most accurate kicker in NFL history with an 83.8 percent success rate. Stay tuned for his 19th campaign in 2008.
2007:As a senior at tiny Wagner, he played in all 11 games, booting 64 punts for a career-high 40.2 yards, including a 70-yarder. He also hit 16 of 19 field goals, with a long of 56 yards.
Forecast:Czech is looking to make the roster as a kickoff specialist because of his ability to punch the ball into the end zone for touchbacks. During minicamps, the 6-foot-5, 210-pounder showed promise, consistently hitting his mark while kicking off.
2007:The former sixth-round draft pick punted 78 times for 3,397 yards and a career-high 43.6-yard average, including a career-long of 64 yards. He also placed six kicks inside the 20-yard line and added one special teams tackle.
Forecast:With no other punters on the roster, Koch's job is safe.
2007:After being selected in the third round of the 2007 draft, Figurs went on to earn a spot on the All-Rookie Team, playing in 14 games and averaging 24.7 yards per kickoff return. That included a 94-yard touchdown, which was the third-longest in franchise history. He also took a punt 75 yards for a score against the Arizona Cardinals, becoming the first Raven to return a punt and a kickoff to the end zone in the same season.
Forecast:Expect the wideout to be used as solely a special teams weapon, and not a receiver. During offseason minicamps, he rarely took the field on offense.
2007:Katula saw action in all 16 games. In addition to his stellar long-snapping, Katula posted seven solo special teams tackles.
Forecast:As with Koch, there are no other long snappers on the roster, so expect the Wisconsin alumnus to stick around for his fourth season.