In 2017, Patrick Ricard was the Ravens' most unexpected preseason star, an undrafted player from Maine who proved he could play offense, defense, and special teams. He earned a roster spot and became a Pro Bowl fullback two years later.
In 2018 it was Robert Griffin III, who spent 2017 out of the NFL. Playing solidly during a five-game preseason, Griffin won a job and has been the team's backup quarterback ever since.
In 2020, there won't be a preseason star for the Ravens because there won't be a preseason. It's not a perfect situation, but all 32 teams face the same challenge. The Ravens will make important lineup and roster decisions based largely on practice reps, without seeing how rookies and other players react to game action before Week 1.
College teams do this every year, but it's new territory for the NFL. As the Ravens ramp up toward padded practices, Head Coach John Harbaugh said the padded sessions will be more physical than they have been in recent years.
"We will hit more in practice," Harbaugh said, "We won't hit as much overall, because we won't have those preseason games. That's where most of those live reps come. So, it won't be overall as much hitting, so to speak, but we'll have more in practice than we normally do."
The starting job at right guard won't be won during the preseason. It will be won on the practice field, making every rep crucial for those competing to start like D.J. Fluker, Ben Powers, Tyre Phillips, and Ben Bredeson.
Practices will also be critical for rookie inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison, both trying to prove they will be ready to start Week 1. Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington Jr. are expected to be part of the defensive line rotation as rookies, so they'll need to look good in practice as well.
Queen was hoping he'd have a few preseason games to help him prepare for NFL game speed. That's not going to happen, but he's not shying away from the challenge. Queen proved he was a fast learner at LSU last year, when in one season as a starter he became one of the country's top linebackers on a team that won the national championship.
Queen does not sound like he's feeling the pressure of being the Ravens' top pick. But without the benefit of a preseason, he knows practice reps will be critical.
"The vets already are ahead of everything, and you are playing catch-up," Queen said. "It's tough, but at the same time you have to come in to work. Being at LSU, we were prepared for that – battled-tested and just ready to get acclimated with whatever situation occurs. So, that's what my main focus is right now; just to get acclimated with everything. Try to get to know my teammates. Try to become that person that everybody wants me to be."
Established veterans are more likely adjust quickly to the pace and physicality of this month's practices, even players who are new to the Ravens system like defensive end Calais Campbell. If you think Campbell is cool with preseason being cancelled, you are correct.
"I don't need any preseason games," Campbell said. "I'll be ready to go Week 1 – no doubts in my mind. This is football. It's the same game I've been playing since I was six years old. It's a new playbook, a new terminology, but there's only so much you can do. I pretty much have the playbook down. I think a couple more days and I'll feel real, real good about it. It's just trying to really get a feel for my teammates and how I can add value in different places."
However, Harbaugh is planning more game situation drills in practice to prepare younger players for the regular season games. But without preseason games, younger players will not have the opportunity to shine in preseason games like rookies of the past. That will make it tougher for undrafted rookies to make the 53-man roster, even though at least one undrafted rookie has made the Ravens' Week 1 roster for 16 straight years.
"Those guys have been put in a tough spot," Harbaugh said. "The toughest spot is the 320 players (around the NFL) who got released before they ever got any kind of a chance. You feel worse for those guys. At least the guys who are here have an opportunity."
The Ravens have won four straight regular season openers, evidence that they have a handle on how to prepare for the season. However, all teams are facing a new challenge this month, being forced to prepare for the regular season a little differently.
"There's nothing like a game," Harbaugh said. "There will be a lot more questions that will be answered in the real games than ever before."