- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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NFL Nation's Jamison Hensley examines the three biggest issues facing the Baltimore Ravens heading into training camp.
Filling in for Ray Rice's expected absence: The Ravens are coming off the worst rushing season in franchise history and likely will have to revive the ground game without having Rice for a period of time. He is expected to be suspended by the NFL for his off-the-field incident this offseason. After not signing a high-profile free agent such as LeGarrette Blount, the Ravens are left with no experienced starters in the backfield beyond Rice. Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro have combined for eight career starts. Pierce is the favorite to take over the starting job, but he was limited this entire offseason after having shoulder surgery. Forsett, the primary backup this spring, had a total of six carries last season. And Taliaferro is a fourth-round rookie from Coastal Carolina. Defenses could see a heavy dose of Pierce if he's healthy, or the Ravens could go with a running back by committee. Even when Rice returns, he has to prove he can be a productive runner again after averaging a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry last season. The Ravens believe they can turn around their running attack with the hiring of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who has built successful ground games in the past with his zone-blocking scheme.
Sorting out secondary competition: Two of the biggest questions on defense involve position battles in the secondary -- free safety and nickelback. The competition at free safety didn't unfold as expected this spring. It was presumed that Terrence Brooks was the front-runner for the job after the Ravens selected him in the third round. Instead, Brooks hasn't seen time with the first or second teams this offseason, and Darian Stewart has taken most of the reps at free safety. When the Ravens signed Stewart in free agency, he was considered a fallback option. He had six starts last season for the St. Louis Rams. Now, it looks as if free safety is Stewart's job to lose. At nickelback, Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown were fighting for the job all offseason. But it was presumed the Ravens would add a veteran when neither stood out this offseason. The Ravens, in fact, brought in two free agents, Aaron Ross and Dominique Franks, to make it a four-player race for the No. 3 corner spot behind starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. If Ross and Stewart end up winning the open jobs, they can thank secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo, who previously coached them in the NFL.
Preparing Rick Wagner to start at right tackle: The Ravens were expected to draft an offensive tackle. They didn't. There was speculation the Ravens might sign free agent Eric Winston, who has ties with Kubiak. But again, the Ravens didn't make a move. By standing pat, the team has given a major vote of confidence to Wagner. A fifth-round pick from a year ago, he has been penciled in to replace Michael Oher, who signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency. As a rookie last year, Wagner struggled when he had to replace an injured Oher in the season opener. Wagner improved throughout his rookie year as the team's No. 6 offensive lineman, playing when the team wanted an extra blocker on the field (12 percent of the offensive snaps). The Ravens realized Wagner needs a lot of snaps to gain confidence in his technique, and they've been giving him plenty of reps during offseason practices. If Wagner doesn't live up to expectations when the hitting begins in training camp, the Ravens have other options. They could move left guard Kelechi Osemele to right tackle, give Ryan Jensen more snaps at that position or sign Winston. At this point, the Ravens are banking on Wagner as their season-opening starter at right tackle.