With the start of the season right around the corner, the Baltimore Ravens report to training camp this week. But just like every other team in the NFL, the Super Bowl champions have a lot to figure out before they take the field in September. Here’s a look at five questions on everyone’s mind as the Ravens prepare to start the 2013 season.
1. What can we expect from Gino Gradkowski?
With the retirement of six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, the Baltimore Ravens looked to their 2012 4th round draft pick out of Delaware to replace him. Gradkowski has played in 19 games in his young NFL career, but has yet to start a game, leaving many to question whether or not he will be a reliable starter for the Ravens. According to reports in the Baltimore Sun, quarterback Joe Flacco is very pleased with Gradkowski so far.
“I knew I loved taking the snap from Matt because I could basically stand straight up because he was so high” Flacco said of Birk. “I was a little bit worried about Gino at first because I didn’t think he was going to be like that, but he’s been great.”
Flacco shouldn’t have to worry too much about the difference between Gradkowski and Birk. The two practically have the same build. Birk is about an inch taller and ten pounds heavier. And what better way to replace a player than by working beside him for a year? The Ravens did not bring in a rookie and just throw him into the mix. Gradkowski practiced alongside Birk last season and got to see first hand how Birk and Flacco connected. Gradkowski should have a smooth transition into the starting position this upcoming season.
2. Will Matt Elam and Arthur Brown be able to fill the Ed Reed/Ray Lewis void?
Losing players like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis is never a positive thing. But the Ravens organization had to do whatever they could to replace the beloved defenders in Baltimore.
Matt Elam was selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft to replace Ed Reed. The rookie safety out of the University of Florida has gained a lot of respect throughout the SEC and the NCAA for his style of play. He plays with high energy and is not afraid to throw his body around on the field. While the departure of Ed Reed was tough on Baltimore, Ravens fans should feel comfortable with Elam in the backfield as Reed’s replacement.
Ray Lewis has been the face of Baltimore and the heart and soul of the Ravens for the past 17 years. But the Ravens have done it yet again: they have found a great “replacement” for an irreplaceable player. The word “replacement” has to be used loosely when talking about Ray Lewis. But Arthur Brown has been selected to take his place at linebacker.
Brown brings a lot to the table that resemble a young Ray Lewis, especially his athleticism and ability to go from one side of the field to the other in a matter of seconds. There is no reason for Brown to feel as though he has to bring what Lewis brought to the field every week, and Brown understands that.
“He’s still a part of this team,” Brown said about Lewis in a press conference following Ravens’ minicamp. “He’s had a major impact on so many of the guys this year. So really, I’m just an addition, looking to fulfill my role and be an impact player.”
3. Will Justin Tucker be able to repeat his performance from last year?
Who knew that Ravens’ kicker Justin Tucker would make such an impact when he came to Baltimore last season? The undrafted rookie from the University of Texas had an outstanding debut season last year, going 30 for 33 on field goal attempts.
Tucker stated on the Baltimore Ravens’ website, “It’s not unrealistic to say that I can have a perfect regular season kicking field foals and extra points.” It is very possible that Tucker could have a perfect season. But don’t be surprised if he misses one or two.
Tucker’s confidence is what has gotten him to this point. The Ravens have struggled to find a dependable replacement after the departure of Matt Stover in 2009. Tucker came into Baltimore thinking that he could be the next great kicker for the Ravens. His “I’ve got nothing to lose” attitude has taken him a long way so far. As long as Tucker maintains his confidence, comfortability with team, and stays healthy, it’s safe to say we will be seeing big things from him this season.
4. Are the expectations for Jacoby Jones too high?
As the world watched Jacoby Jones go from touchdown dances in the end zone at the Super Bowl to dancing in the ballroom at ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, Ravens fans were looking for his transition back to football and see more of his celebration dances on the field. But the first reports out of Baltimore are not looking too good for the Ravens’ fans.
Jones failed his first conditioning test before training camp.
Head coach John Harbaugh fully expects Jones to complete the test and pass on his second attempt. If all goes accordingly, Jones will be on the field with the team for the official start of training camp.
Jones is expected to be the number two receiver behind Torrey Smith, in addition to his role as return specialist. And to put it simply: the expectations for Jones this season are not too high. Jones had a memorable season last year and he will not let this test phase him negatively. If anything, it will be a wake up call. There’s a good chance Ravens fans will be seeing a hefty amount of celebration dances in the end zone this upcoming season.
5. Jim Caldwell’s offensive scheme: will it work?
When the Baltimore Ravens hired offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell to replace Cam Cameron last December, he decided not to change the offensive system that late in the season. But now that Caldwell has a full season with his team, he can start fresh.
One thing Caldwell will do is spread the offense. This will give Flacco more options on the field. Another is making the tempo of the whole game faster, especially concerning Flacco. He’ll take more risks with the quarterback and let him make some of the decisions based on what he sees out on the field. The no-huddle offense will also be put into effect more this season.
But the biggest question with Caldwell’s offense is the installment of rookie fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Or should I say rookie tight end Kyle Juszczyk? Juszczyk primarily played tight end during his four years at Harvard. Talk about versatility. With the installment of Juszczyk on the Ravens’ offense, Caldwell has more flexibility. This just adds to the seemingly endless options for Caldwell this season.