Ravens: Looking at five questions during OTAs

SportsFootballBaltimore RavensTerrell SuggsJoe FlaccoJohn HarbaughRay Rice

From contract negotiations with quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice to a potentially season-ending Achilles injury to star linebacker Terrell Suggs to coach John Harbaugh’s comments on the New England Patriots to mercurial safety Ed Reed’s controversial radio interviews, the Ravens have made plenty of off-the-field news this offseason.

However, the focus turns to on-the-field issues this week as many of the organization’s veterans and rookies are at the Owings Mills facility this week for the three-day organized team activities. They’ll have the voluntary OTAs for the next three weeks before a mandatory veteran minicamp runs from June 12-14.

Here are five on-the-field storylines as OTAs begin:

1. Will the offseason program allow quarterback Joe Flacco to mesh better with an overhauled receiving group?

This seems to be a storyline every year, but it’s certainly appropriate right now as the Ravens have 13 receivers on their roster and only three of them (Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and LaQuan Williams) have caught a pass from Flacco in an NFL regular-season game. Without a true offseason last year because of the lockout, Flacco never had much of a chance to get to know rookies Smith, Williams and Tandon Doss, and the later-acquired veteran Lee Evans, until training camp. This year, Flacco will have much more time to gain familiarity, and he’ll need it with new quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell and so many new receiving faces, led by veteran Jacoby Jones and sixth-round draft pick Tommy Streeter.

2. Who will emerge as the leader to replace Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs?

After losing Grubbs to the New Orleans Saints in free agency and failing to lure Evan Mathis to Baltimore, the Ravens pledged to fill the left guard spot internally. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that reserve tackle Jah Reid, a third-round pick last year, will get every opportunity to earn the job. However since then, the Ravens drafted guard/tackle Kelechi Osemele in the second round and center/guard Gino Gradkowski in the fourth. They also haven’t ruled out signing a veteran guard in free agency. The battle for the left guard spot will undoubtedly be waged well into training camp, but the time to make an impression has already started.

3. With Ray Rice not be expected to be OTAs while his agent negotiates a contract extension, what running back will carry the load?

Unless they sign a veteran running back, like they did late last offseason with the addition of Ricky Williams, Rice’s primary backup will be inexperienced. Anthony Allen, a seventh-round pick last year, got three total carries and was inactive for the team’s final 13 games. Fellow second-year running back Damien Berry spent the season on the practice squad. The rest of the running backs on the roster – third-round pick Bernard Pierce (Temple) and undrafted free agents Bobby Rainey (Western Kentucky) and Brandon Pendergrass (Wake Forest) – are rookies. With Rice unlikely to be around the team facility for a little while, there will be plenty of repetitions to go around.

4. How will the Ravens line up without long-time outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson?

Johnson is now with the San Diego Chargers and Suggs is expected to miss a good part of – if not the entire – 2012 season after tearing his Achilles. As of now, fourth-year linebacker Paul Kruger is the favorite to fill Suggs’ spot with rookie Courtney Upshaw getting every opportunity to start in Johnson’s position.  But Sergio Kindle is in the mix, as is Albert McClellan. Harbaugh and new defensive coordinator Dean Pees have undoubtedly spent many hours over the past few weeks discussing ways to bolster the pass rush without Suggs, the franchise’s all-time sacks leader and the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. How they go about it will be worth keeping an eye on until the start of the season.

5. How much will second-year cornerback Jimmy Smith improve in Year Two?

Not only didn’t the 2011 first-round pick have a regular offseason, but he also didn’t play a defensive snap in the first five games of the season because of a sprained ankle. He came on steadily throughout the year and the Ravens expect big things from him in his sophomore campaign. One of the most interesting position battles in the preseason will be between Smith and Cary Williams at the cornerback spot opposite Lardarius Webb. Because of surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip, Williams likely won’t be full participation until training camp, so that will give Smith plenty of time to shine.   

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