Defending champion Ravens enter camp with new cast
Owings Mills, Md. • The parade, the lavish ring ceremony and the trip to the White House are only a memory now.
The Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens aren't going to relive last season at training camp this summer. The first full-squad practice Thursday will mark the beginning of a renewed quest for greatness, making the Ravens vastly similar to each of the other 31 NFL teams.
"To me, it feels like we're working to get a Super Bowl, because there are a lot of new people, a lot of new faces," offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie said. "The chemistry has to grow with all the new people and everything. Different people have to play different roles this year, as far as stepping up and becoming leaders."
This team has undergone a vast makeover in the months since Baltimore defeated San Francisco 34-31 in the Super Bowl.
The retirement of linebacker Ray Lewis, the trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin and the loss of free agents Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Cary Williams, Bernard Pollard and Vonta Leach means Ravens will defending their title with an altered cast of characters.
Five things to know as the Ravens open camp:
Man In the Middle
For the first time, the Ravens won't have Lewis in the middle of their defense. His retirement means someone else will have to play middle linebacker and perhaps provide leadership for the unit. Jameel McClain is the leading choice, but he's coming off a neck injury and might not be ready to go at full strength. Either way, the Ravens will probably give rookie Arthur Brown a strong look as a potential starter in their 3-4 alignment. Josh Bynes, Albert McClellan and former Jacksonville Jaguars standout Daryl Smith will be given plenty of opportunity to impress.
Secondary to None
The loss of Reed, Pollard and Williams means the Ravens will enter training camp with a revamped secondary. Free agent Michael Huff should fill the void at one of the safety spots, and top draft pick Matt Elam will quickly be blended into the mix. Cornerback Lardarius Webb, who tore his ACL early last season, will probably see limited action in training camp but hopes to ultimately reclaim his starting spot. Jimmy Smith, who finally lived up to his potential in the Super Bowl, will also be considered as a potential starter along with Corey Graham. Cornerbacks Chykie Brown, Mark Anthony and Asa Jackson are also expected to receive playing time. "I'm looking forward to seeing how that competition will play out," coach John Harbaugh said. "You talk about the starting positions, and it will be interesting who wins. Who is the Top 2? Who is the Top 3? Absolutely, I get that. But, they are all going to play, and they are all going to have to play like starters."
Here's the Catch
General manager Ozzie Newsome did a fine job filling plenty of the holes, but he has yet to come up with a suitable replacement for Boldin. Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are deep threats, but Baltimore needs a receiver capable of mixing it up in the middle on third-and-6. At this point, Harbaugh hopes the answer is someone already on the roster. LaQuan Williams, Tommy Streeter, Aaron Mellette, David Reed, Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson all have a decent shot at making the team. None of them are as good as Boldin, however, so Newsome could end up making a belated move.
Center of Attention
The retirement of center Matt Birk left Gino Gradkowski as the heir apparent, but he saw little playing time as a rookie last year. That's why the Ravens got A.Q. Shipley in a trade with Indianapolis. Shipley started five games for the Colts last season and will compete for the starting job.
There's no reason to believe a new $120.1 contract will take the competitive edge off quarterback Joe Flacco, but now that he's reached elite status, the pressure is on for him to play that way. Although Ray Rice is one of the NFL's best running backs, the Ravens relied heavily on the pass last season and will almost certainly do so again in 2013. Thus, the Super Bowl MVP must be just as a good as last year, even though he won't have Boldin to depend upon and will be taking his snaps from a different center.