AFC North: Marcus Smith

 
  James Lang/US Presswire
  Coach John Harbaugh, who took the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game in his first season, is looking to take the next step.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

WESTMINSTER, Md. -- If the Baltimore Ravens want to take the next step and build off a stellar 2008 season, there is only one place left for this team to go: Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.

The Ravens are coming off a competitive AFC Championship Game loss to the reigning champion Pittsburgh Steelers, so optimism abounds in Baltimore.

Camp Confidential: AFC North
Bengals: Sun., Aug. 2
Steelers: Fri., Aug. 7
Browns: Mon., Aug. 17
Ravens: Sat., Aug. 22
Training camp index

The Ravens feel they finally found their franchise quarterback in Joe Flacco. They have an energetic coach in John Harbaugh who quickly brought the team back to prominence, and the defense was rated second in the NFL last season behind Pittsburgh.

Based on the record-setting turnout in Westminster this summer for training camp, Ravens fans are clearly buying into Baltimore's rosy outlook as a title contender. But for the Ravens to position themselves to make a run, they must first address several key issues.

Key questions

1. Can Baltimore overtake Pittsburgh?

If Baltimore were able to topple Pittsburgh last season, who knows where the Ravens would be right now? Perhaps the Ravens, and not the Steelers, would be entering the season as the defending champs.

But Baltimore was unable to climb "Mount Pittsburgh" in 2008, losing close games in all three attempts. The end result was falling one game shy of the AFC North division title and one touchdown drive short of Baltimore advancing to play the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

Although the Ravens probably wouldn't admit this publicly, much of what they're doing this season is geared toward closing the gap with the Steelers. Baltimore drafted rookie tackle Michael Oher to help nullify Pittsburgh's edge rushers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. The Ravens improved the depth in their secondary, which broke down with injuries during the playoffs, by adding cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr in free agency.

The difference between Baltimore and Pittsburgh wasn't sizable to start. But the Ravens are hoping this is the year the balance of power shifts in their favor.

 
  James Lang/US Presswire
  Coaches have been working with QB Joe Flacco to attack more areas of the field.

2. Will Joe Flacco avoid the sophomore slump?

Much of Baltimore's success will hinge on Flacco proving to be the real deal. So far there is no reason to believe that won't be the case.

The Ravens by no means will become a pass-happy offense this season, but Flacco is being given more responsibility in his second year working with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. In addition to a strong running game, overall balance will make Baltimore harder to defend if Flacco is up to the task.

Flacco had a good preseason debut, completing 9 of 15 passes for 103 yards in a 23-0 victory last week over the Washington Redskins. What stood out most is Flacco connected with six different receivers in limited playing time, which is an important next step in his maturation process.

As a rookie Flacco had the tendency to lock in on his two receivers -- Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton -- on the outside. The pair accounted for nearly half (47 percent) of Flacco's completions. All spring and summer the coaches have been working with Flacco to attack more areas of the field, particularly over the middle, to make the passing game less predictable.

3. Can the defense stay elite?

Since their inception the Ravens have been built on defense. It is also where they allot most of their salary-cap space.

Baltimore has dealt with defections before but rarely has the unit been hit this much in one offseason. Four of the 11 starters will be new this year and the team is replacing longtime defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.

Free-agent pickup Foxworth and linebacker Tavares Gooden will join defensive tackle Kelly Gregg and safety Dawan Landry as starters who weren't contributors for Baltimore's No. 2-rated defense last season. Gregg (knee) and Landry (neck) were starters for the Ravens in the past but are returning from season-ending injuries.

The primary challenge for new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is to add his own wrinkles without changing
too much of Baltimore's identity. When you have players like Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata, the transition certainly becomes a lot easier.

 McGahee
 Rice

Market watch

Many in Baltimore are asking: How much is left in the tank of Willis McGahee?

Once one of the top running backs in the AFC, McGahee has been slowed by injuries the past two years in Baltimore. Now in his seventh season, he is at a crossroads to prove he can get back to his previous form.

McGahee, 27, has opened the door for second-year running back Ray Rice to become the starter this season. But the two have been pushing each other recently in training camp in a scenario that is working out for both players.

Rice appears solid in his quest to keep the starting job, while McGahee also is running harder. McGahee is averaging 6.5 yards per carry in the preseason, after averaging less than four yards per carry in three of the past four seasons.

With last year's leading rusher Le'Ron McClain playing more fullback this season, expect McGahee and Rice to have more opportunities to prove themselves in the running game this year.

 
  AP Photo/Rob Carr
  Tavares Gooden will take over for Bart Scott, who followed former coordinator Rex Ryan to the Jets.

Newcomer to watch

The Ravens have had a penchant for finding talented young linebackers and they hope Gooden is next in line.

Gooden, a 2008 third-round pick, missed 12 games last season with a hip injury. But with the departure of linebacker Bart Scott to free agency, Gooden is expected to start next to Lewis in Baltimore's linebacking corps.

Lewis is taking Gooden under his wing the same way he's tutored others such as Scott and Adalius Thomas before him. Teammates jokingly have nicknamed Gooden "Baby Ray."

Observation deck

The Ravens traded up to get first-round pick Michael Oher, and the rookie right tackle is immediately fitting in. With the retirement of veteran Willie Anderson, Oher took all the first-team reps during the spring and summer, which is helping his learning curve. With Oher and left tackle Jared Gaither, the Ravens have two quality young tackles who could be building blocks for a long time. ... The receiver position remains a concern as Baltimore made no significant additions in free agency or the NFL draft. The Ravens caught a break with the return of Mason from a brief retirement, but questions of depth remain. Clayton has missed most of camp with a hamstring injury and Marcus Smith is out for the season with a torn ACL. That leaves Demetrius Williams, Justin Harper and Kelley Washington to assist Flacco. ... This season marks the first time in franchise history that Baltimore will not have longtime Raven Matt Stover as its kicker. Stover eventually lost his leg strength for kickoffs so the Ravens are having a two-way battle between Steve Hauschka and Graham Gano for the job. Both kickers had their ups and downs early, but Hauschka seems to have the early advantage with three games remaining in the preseason.

Seven-step drop: Preseason edition

August, 17, 2009
8/17/09
11:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

It's that time again.

Coming off a landmark first year for the AFC North blog, it's time for the "Seven-step drop" to return and make its 2009 debut.

Here are seven notes and observations from Week 1 of the preseason:

 
  James Lang/US Presswire
  Quarterback Joe Flacco hit six different receivers in the Ravens' preseason opener.
  • In a 23-0 victory over the Washington Redskins, Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens completed nine passes to six different players. That shows he is taking the next step in his maturation process as a quarterback. Last year as a rookie, nearly half (47 percent) of Flacco's completions were to receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton. He had the tendency to lock onto those two outside targets at the expense of other receivers, tight ends or running backs. If Flacco continues this trend of spreading the wealth, it would make Baltimore's passing game more difficult to defend this year.
  • Speaking of Baltimore receivers, Marcus Smith's torn ACL all but means Justin Harper needs to step up and keep his momentum going. The former seventh-round pick in 2008 has been arguably the biggest surprise in camp for Baltimore and will see playing time this year as the No. 3 or No. 4 receiver. Smith was expected to compete with Harper and Demetrius Williams for those two slots.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers rookie receiver Mike Wallace made a good first impression in the team's 20-10 exhibition win over the Arizona Cardinals. He caught two receptions for 35 yards and returned a kickoff for another 35 yards. But Wallace was most happy with his routes, which is something he's been working hard on since the NFL draft. Scouts were aware of Wallace's straight-line speed, but he lasted until the third round because his route running wasn't crisp in college. If Wallace gets that part down to go with his natural athleticism, he could make an immediate contribution to Pittsburgh this season.
  • It was not a great start for Pittsburgh's starting offensive line. Although the unit didn't give up any sacks, left tackle Max Starks was among the first to admit there were some blown assignments, particularly in the running game. Second-year tailback Rashard Mendenhall was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage and wasn't given a chance on several runs. Improvement up front will be something to monitor in the second preseason game.
  • Although it's just an exhibition game, reserve receiver Chris Henry recording seven catches for 100 yards against the New Orleans Saints is relatively significant. According to the team, Henry had the best offseason of his career in terms of working out and staying out of trouble. He also hasn't played consistently in the preseason for a very long time, and all of these factors should help him get off to a good start in the regular season. The AFC North blog has Henry rated as the No. 2 under-the-radar sleeper to watch in the division this season.
  • It could be a long year for the offense of the Cleveland Browns. The unit has looked conservative and hasn't done much of anything in training camp. And Saturday in Eric Mangini's debut with the Browns, the offense mirrored that performance by combining for four turnovers and allowing three sacks in a 17-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Both quarterbacks, Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, threw interceptions as Cleveland combined for 191 yards of offense. But after that kind of preseason opener, the Browns' offense now is in a nowhere-to-go-but-up scenario.
  • In the midst of Cleveland's offensive futility, a new candidate for the No. 2 receiver job may have emerged in Josh Cribbs. The return specialist got the start Saturday over more natural candidates such as Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie and Mike Furrey, and Cribbs led the team with two catches for 30 yards. He also ran a reverse for a 29-yard gain. But an interesting wrinkle is that Cribbs is in the middle of a contract dispute and it is still questionable if he will play in the regular season. Would Cribbs hold out if he ends up winning the starting job at receiver?

What to watch: Ravens vs. Redskins

August, 13, 2009
8/13/09
4:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Coming off an appearance in the AFC Championship Game, the Baltimore Ravens will make their 2009 preseason debut Thursday night hosting the Washington Redskins.

 
  Getty Images
  Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco make their preseason debuts Thursday night.

Here are some things to look for:

  • Thursday will be the debut of Baltimore's defense under the leadership of new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Former coordinator Rex Ryan is now the head coach of the New York Jets, leaving many to wonder how similar or different Mattison's scheme will be in terms of schematics and aggressiveness.
  • With starting receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton both out, it will be difficult to get a true gage on quarterback Joe Flacco entering his second season. But it will be interesting to see Flacco on the field again for the first time this year and where he's progressed.
  • How will tailback Ray Rice look in his second season? A possible starter, Rice needs to have a good preseason to solidify his position as the lead threat in Baltimore's three-headed monster. Rice packed on some muscle and worked with the first team most of this offseason.
  • Linebacker Tavares Gooden will start his first game in place of the departed Bart Scott. Gooden has been getting good reviews in summer and spring workouts and is expected to play a major role in the defense next to Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis.
  • With Mason and Clayton out, this is a golden opportunity for young receivers such as Demetrius Williams, Justin Harper and Marcus Smith to step forward. A receiver or two from this bunch is expected to provide depth in a reserve role this season. It's no better time than the present for one of these young receivers to start making plays in a game situation.

Morning take: Derrick Mason injured

August, 12, 2009
8/12/09
7:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:

  • Baltimore Ravens starting receiver Derrick Mason dislocated his finger and could miss Thursday's preseason opener against the Washington Redskins.

Morning take: Mason could join fellow starter Mark Clayton (hamstring) on the sidelines against Washington. That would leave young receivers such as Demetrius Williams, Justin Harper and Marcus Smith to get a lot of quality reps.

  • The starters for the Pittsburgh Steelers are expected to get a couple of series Thursday in their preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals.

Morning take: Teams use the exhibition season for different reasons. But for veteran club like Pittsburgh, this summer should be mostly about staying healthy.

  • In his return following a season-ending elbow injury, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer also is expected to play one or two series Friday against the New Orleans Saints.

Morning take: It's probably best not to rush Palmer. The offensive line needs to step up and make sure their quarterback gets out of his first game back unscathed.

  • The depth chart of the Cleveland Browns lists co-starters Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson at quarterback.

Morning take: Realizing the potential frenzy it would cause to give one quarterback the edge, coach Eric Mangini decided to list both as starters. Smart move.

Ravens minicamp wrapup

May, 10, 2009
5/10/09
2:05
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens completed their 2009 full-squad minicamp Sunday.

There were plenty of story lines to discuss throughout the weekend. Here are some final notes and observations:

  • Veteran receiver Derrick Mason is not sure if he will be ready by training camp. Mason had shoulder surgery this offseason to repair his labrum and scapula. He participated in some drills early in minicamp but took it light for a majority of the weekend.

"I guarantee I'll be ready by the first game, that's all I can say," Mason said. "Everything else, we will play it by ear."

  • The Ravens plan to sign at least one of their three tryout receivers, and don't be surprised if that player is Kelley Washington. In a battle between Washington, Tab Perry and Jerry Porter, Washington made the most plays throughout and showed energy and enthusiasm, which is important when trying to impress a coaching staff. Plus, Washington has the ability to help Baltimore on special teams.
  • The competition between kickers Steve Hauschka and Graham Gano remains nip-and-tuck. Both kickers made and missed kicks this weekend, so neither player separated themselves as the early favorite. On a windy afternoon Sunday, Hauschka missed a simulated game-winner short and to the left. It appears both kickers have good legs but still have some work to do.

"Both those guys, it's going to be a heck of a battle," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "They looked good. They were able to make field goals, in at least a practice-pressure situation. That's the bottom line."

  • If I had to pick a player who surprised me the most this weekend, I would have to say inside linebacker Tavares Gooden. The Ravens didn't see much from the former third-round pick in 2008 because of injuries. But Gooden looked really active and athletic this weekend. He also flies to the football, which is important with Baltimore's defense. Receiver Marcus Smith also is a potential sleeper who flashed some ability this weekend.
  • Sorry, Ravens fans. I'm getting a lot of e-mail requests for Michael Oher and Jared Gaither performance updates, which I understand because they are the first-round pick and starting left tackle, respectively. But as I mentioned last week, linemen are the most difficult players to evaluate in non-contact drills. Both players looked in solid shape. But other than that, it wouldn't be accurate to gauge how either player is blocking without pads. That's just a personal preference. Gaither missed Sunday's final practice with migraines. Oher said he did benefit from his reps with the first team.

"I learned a lot," Oher said Sunday. "I am very comfortable at right tackle. I learned that you have to have your technique down in the NFL."

  • Many "30 and over" veterans also received the day off from Sunday. Players such as linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed and defensive end Trevor Pryce didn't participate in the final session. New center Matt Birk, who is 32, practiced anyway.

Ravens Day 1 minicamp notes

May, 8, 2009
5/08/09
5:35
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens completed their first day of veteran minicamp Friday to kick off the 2009 season.

Here are some notes and observations:

  • Similar to last year, the Ravens are still running high-energy, up-tempo practices. Everything is fast: the players, the drills, even the way Baltimore gets in and out of its drills. There is little wasted motion in what this team does on the practice field, which is impressive (and fun) to watch. It's a method head coach John Harbaugh learned with the Philadelphia Eagles and he has carried it over to the Ravens. The increased efficiency and tempo served the team well in 2008.
  • Second-year player Tavares Gooden played with the first-team defense, and it looks like he will get the first chance to replace Bart Scott at inside linebacker. Gooden is coming off an injury-riddled rookie campaign but showed fluid movement and good quickness on the first day.
  • Not to gauge too much on one day, but of the tryout receivers I thought Kelley Washington stood out the most Friday. In a group consisting of Washington, Tab Perry and Jerry Porter, none of them did anything spectacular. But Washington's made a couple of plays and his effort level was consistently where it needed to be.
  • Another receiver, Marcus Smith, flashed some ability Friday. He beat starting cornerback Domonique Foxworth twice on a pair of beautiful deep balls thrown by starting quarterback Joe Flacco. On one catch, he outran the coverage, and on the second he out-jumped Foxworth. Flacco also connected with Smith several times in the afternoon session and seems to be developing good chemistry early with the second-year receiver.
  • Pro Bowl linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs was not present because he has yet to sign his franchise tender. You can read more about that here. Another absentee was receiver D.J. Hackett, who was expected to be one of the veteran tryouts but decided not to participate at the last minute. Offensive linemen Willie Anderson (knee) and Ben Grubbs (ankle) did not participate because they were recovering from injuries. Anderson's injury opened the door for rookie first-round pick Michael Oher to work with the starters.
  • Defensive tackle Kelly Gregg made it through the first day of practices without any ill effects from microfracture knee surgery. He practiced some with the first team and said that he feels good about his recovery.
  • As far as the backup quarterback competition goes, Troy Smith is getting second-team reps while John Beck is playing with the third team. It's too early to tell who will take an early lead. Both players had good throws and bad throws Friday, but Beck looks like he is picking up Baltimore's offense very quickly. He ran a similar system with the Miami Dolphins when Cam Cameron was head coach.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

One of the most asked questions in Baltimore is why the Ravens passed up receivers with every draft pick last weekend? Behind starters Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason, there is very little proven talent at that position.

Are the Ravens happy with their current talent? Does Baltimore have a fallback plan?

We check in with ESPN.com's Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. to get the answers to these questions.

 
  Al Bello/Getty Images
  Mark Clayton has shown flashes, but has not yet proved he can be a reliable option at receiver.

James Walker: Matt, the Ravens have an obvious need for receiver depth. Why do you think they passed on the position entirely during the draft?

Matt Williamson: That is surprising, there's no question about that. I really commend them for going up and getting [former Mississippi offensive tackle] Michael Oher. I don't think he should have been there that late at No. 23. He's a potential star right tackle, and I think they will groom him to be a great player. But I still think they ignored their biggest need. Their receivers are just OK. Mason still plays at a pretty high level, and he's tough and plays through pain. Clayton has shown glimpses, but to say he's somebody they can count on to be a solid contributor might be a little far-fetched. But I think quarterback Joe Flacco in his second year does have the ability to make those around him better as he progresses.

James Walker: What about the depth behind Clayton and Mason? Any chance these players could stand out for Baltimore next season?

Matt Williamson: Demetrius Williams I think has a chance to be a decent player, at least a solid No. 3 that they didn't have last year. But who's to say one of those guys won't get hurt again? Now they're in the same situation. There still isn't much depth there. They drafted Marcus Smith last year, and I haven't seen anything out of him to think that he's going to be starting material or someone you want on the field. I think they like Smith a little bit, but to project him as anything more than a No. 4 receiver at this point is a little bit of a reach.

James Walker: Since we agree this is strange for Baltimore to ignore the position, any chance general manager Ozzie Newsome has a last-minute trick up his sleeve?

Matt Williamson: It couldn't be Braylon Edwards or Chad [Ocho Cinco] because they're both in the division. It would have to be Anquan Boldin if anything. I tend to think Ozzie does have something planned, because they are one of the top front offices in the league, and they have to realize that they're close. Ozzie is about as good as it gets, and it seems like there has to be another shoe to drop. There should be something else out there for them to address that need, because it seems like they're ignoring it.

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