The Baltimore Ravens open training camp on July 25 at the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills, Maryland. Here’s a closer look at a few storylines:
What's the realistic goal for Lamar Jackson as a passer in order for the Ravens to reach the playoffs?
Every pass by Jackson this summer will be dissected, and rightfully so. The progress of Jackson as a passer is critical to the Ravens' success, even though Baltimore will remain a run-first offense (and undoubtedly lead the NFL in rushing attempts). During the spring, Jackson often showed great touch and anticipation on one pass and then followed it up with a throw that sailed off-target. Consistency will be the most popular word used by Jackson and coaches when describing the second-year starter's goals. As far as numbers go, it's reasonable to expect the same trajectory as Michael Vick, whose speed and strong arm is the most comparable to Jackson. In Vick's second season (which, like Jackson, was his first as a full-time starter), he threw 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions, averaging 195.7 yards passing per game. That got the Atlanta Falcons into the playoffs, and that's the type of production that Baltimore needs from Jackson to reach the postseason again.
How far will the Ravens defense drop off after taking so many hits in free agency?
It's easy to sleep on the Baltimore defense after it parted ways with the franchise's all-time sacks leader (Terrell Suggs), last year's leading tackler (C.J. Mosley), a six-time Pro Bowl safety (Eric Weddle) and last year's team sacks leader (Za'Darius Smith). Even defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale described minicamp as a "mourning" period. It's difficult to think the Ravens once again will be the top-ranked defense in the NFL, but it's also hard to imagine Baltimore suffering a free fall. Over the past 20 seasons, Baltimore's defense has ranked in the top 10 an astounding 16 times, including nine years of finishing in the top three. This year's defense should still rank in the top third of the NFL. The best free-agent defensive signing in the AFC North was safety Earl Thomas. Baltimore probably will give up more yards than a year ago, but the Ravens should be more dangerous in generating turnovers with Thomas' ball-hawking skills.
Who will become Jackson's favorite target?
The Ravens invested in upgrading the wide receiver position, drafting Marquise Brown in the first round and Myles Boykin in the third round. But, based on Jackson's first season and offseason workouts, he seems like a quarterback whose natural progression is looking first at the middle of the field before moving his eyes to the outside. That should give plenty of opportunities for tight end Mark Andrews to build upon a promising rookie season. Andrews looks bigger, stronger and more confident. This offseason, he was a red-zone monster for Jackson and let the defense know about it, from talking trash to spinning the ball in the end zone after catching touchdowns. Andrews is primed to double his output from last season (34 receptions for 552 yards and three touchdowns).
Outside of Jackson's arm, what's the biggest concern for Ravens?
The pass rush. Matthew Judon is the most-proven pass-rusher on the roster, and he has never led the team in sacks. The Ravens lost Suggs and Smith in free agency, and they're looking to replace their 15.5 sacks with a rookie third-round pick (Jaylen Ferguson), a couple of veterans looking to re-establish themselves (Shane Ray and Pernell McPhee) and two draft picks hoping to shake off disappointing starts to their careers (Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams). There's a reason to worry whether Baltimore will be able to get pressure on Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger and Baker Mayfield this season. After the Ravens were unable to land Justin Houston in free agency or Brian Burns in the draft, their best asset is Martindale. Known for his creative schemes, Martindale said his pass-rush will be even more multiple because this year's group has different body types and styles. Perhaps the focus should be on how the Ravens will attack quarterbacks, and not who is doing so.
Who will be the surprise starter?
Chris Board would've been a candidate for this before offseason workouts, but last year's top special teams tackler is now considered a favorite for the spot next to Patrick Onwuasor at inside linebacker. This spring, Board took a majority of the reps with the first-team defense and has the edge over Kenny Young for that starting job. So, now the pick for surprise starter is rookie fourth-round pick Ben Powers. The left guard spot is up in the air because Alex Lewis has struggled to remain healthy and James Hurst has been working more at tackle than the interior. There has been positive buzz about Powers this offseason. Owner Steve Bisciotti said the team didn't expect Powers to be sitting there on Day 3, and offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris has been impressed with Powers' instinctive qualities and feel for the game. If Powers can win the job, he would become the fourth starter from Oklahoma, joining Andrews, offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and wide receiver Marquise Brown.
When will Marquise Brown practice?
The Ravens' first-round pick is starting camp on the Non-Football Injury list because he continues to recover from January foot surgery. The expectation originally was for Brown to be ready for the start of camp, but Baltimore is going to proceed with caution. Team officials have given no definitive timetable on his return. Jackson said last week that he had thrown to Brown, but the Oklahoma standout still couldn't run routes. If Brown can return in the next couple of weeks, he'll put himself in a position to play in a majority of the preseason games and be ready for the start of the regular season.