OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco plays in his first regular-season game since a season-ending knee injury last November. But this isn't the only return in the Sept. 11 season opener against the Buffalo Bills at M&T Bank Stadium.
Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor plays in Baltimore for the first time since leaving the Ravens in free agency a year ago. Taylor, a sixth-round pick by Baltimore in 2011, was a little-used backup to Flacco for four seasons.
In his first season as a starter, Taylor responded by throwing 20 touchdowns and six interceptions for a 99.4 rating. This season, he is looking to end the Bills' 16-year playoff drought.
Here are six players to watch courtesy of ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley:
OFFENSE: THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH FOR BILLS
QB Tyrod Taylor: Ravens fans surely didn't miss the news of Taylor signing a five-year, $92 million extension with Buffalo last month, but the key element of the deal is what effectively is a $27.5 million option for the Bills next spring. If Taylor's performance declines this season or the Bills want to rip up the deal and re-do it, they could cut Taylor before his option bonus is due and owe him virtually nothing. The Bills worked that insurance into the deal because Taylor, who started 14 games last season after never starting a game over four seasons in Baltimore, still needs to prove himself. He posted the NFL's seventh-best quarterback rating (99.4) last season, but the Bills lost all five games in which he threw 30 or more passes. Taylor will take care of the football and poses problems as a runner, but if he can make the Ravens respect him all afternoon as a passer, it will be a step forward that the Bills want to see.
RB LeSean McCoy: This will be McCoy's first meeting with the Ravens since Week 2 of the 2012 season, when Baltimore held him to 81 yards on 25 carries (3.2 yards per carry). Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, now the Bills' assistant defensive backs coach, were patrolling Baltimore's defense that year, so McCoy will pose a new challenge for C.J. Mosley and the Ravens' defense. McCoy turned 28 this summer -- often an age when running backs begin to decline -- but he's shown no signs of losing his trademark elusiveness or burst. His stat line in his final preseason performance Aug. 20 -- 58 total yards, all receiving -- are a reminder that he's just as dangerous catching passes out of the backfield as he is taking handoffs from Taylor.
WR Sammy Watkins: The Ravens will get their first taste of Watkins, the fourth overall pick in 2014 who has battled injuries throughout his first two seasons but has shown flashes of dominance. Watkins, who stands 6-foot-1, is a long strider who has the speed to get past cornerbacks as well as the height and body control to make effortless catches over defensive backs down the field. If teams shade a safety to his side of the field, as many defenses did last season, the Bills will take advantage of Watkins' exceptional catching ability over the middle of the field and try to have him gain yards after the catch. McCoy is explosive, but Watkins likely will be Baltimore's No. 1 priority Sunday.
DEFENSE: THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH FOR BILLS
S Corey Graham: He isn't considered one of the Bills' top defensive talents, but Graham is worth highlighting in this space because he played two seasons (2012-13) for Baltimore before signing a four-year deal with Buffalo prior to the 2014 season. Graham was used as a sub-package defensive back by the Ravens, but his role morphed as the Bills shifted from defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in 2014 to Ryan and coordinator Dennis Thurman (both former Ravens assistants) last season. At 31, Graham has made a late-career move to safety. Even as a veteran, there was a learning curve for Graham, and he had some breakdowns in coverage last season. The Bills are hoping he settles into the position better this fall.
OLB Lorenzo Alexander: Expect Alexander to get some attention on the television broadcast because he's the replacement for Manny Lawson, whom the team surprisingly released during final cuts. Lawson missed the first two preseason games as he recovered from a torn pectoral muscle, allowing Alexander to get first-team reps at outside linebacker. He impressed coaches enough to unseat Lawson, who also was the subject of an investigation by the NFL for a potential personal-conduct policy violation. Alexander, 33, has played mostly special teams -- including seven seasons down I-95 in Washington -- so he'll be under the microscope as a full-time starter until first-round pick Shaq Lawson returns from the PUP list at midseason.
OLB Jerry Hughes: The Ravens might turn to a pair of rookies on the left side of their offensive line, which brings Hughes' name into the conversation. With Mario Williams gone, Hughes is the Bills' best pass-rusher -- even though he's coming off a down season, statistically speaking, in which he posted 5.0 sacks after totaling 10.0 in each of the prior two years. The Bills used Hughes against opponents' right tackles this preseason, but it will be worth watching whether Ryan switches it up and tries to get Hughes some one-on-one opportunities against Ravens rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley.