Around The League 7/17

What can your goals entering training camp be when you're coming off back-to-back Super Bowl victories and three titles in four years? Patriots coach Bill Belichick is renowned for his ability to challenge his team early in training camp and motivate his players to prepare for the upcoming season. It remains to be seen what message he will attempt to use to light a fire under his team, but Belichick isn't without concerns as training camp approaches.

His No. 1 obstacle is overcoming the loss of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, and creating stability with the re-organized coaching staff. That staff will have the league's best talent to work with, but that likely will not include two long-time Patriots stars in free agent cornerback Ty Law and linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who is expected to sit out the season following a stroke.
Of course, Belichick and the Patriots front office had a very strong offseason in which they brought in a slew of talented players to add depth and help soften the blow if Law and/or Bruschi are not with the team this season.

Where Belichick saw a hole, he seemed to add five players to help fill it. That's a luxury rebuilding teams like San Francisco don't have.
New 49ers coach Mike Nolan has to figure out who is part of the future and who is in the starting lineup, much less who the backups and the backups' backups will be. He has a rookie quarterback in Alex Smith who, if he begins the season as a starter, will play behind a very questionable offensive line. And it's not certain who he would hand off to -- underachiever Kevan Barlow or rookie Frank Gore -- or who he would throw to.

San Francisco's defense has more proven playmakers, but is switching to a 3-4 scheme and has precious little depth.
Nolan would love to have Belichick's problems -- essentially fine-tuning a well-oiled machine -- but in the parity-driven NFL, it doesn't take much to climb from cellar dweller to playoff contender.

Just ask the Chargers, who just 12 months ago were ready to jettison quarterback Drew Brees and coach Marty Schottenheimer's job was hanging by a thread. Entering training camp this time around, Brees is coming off a Pro Bowl appearance and Schottenheimer's team is a trendy pick to give the Patriots a run for their money in the AFC.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

With high expectations, here are the main goals the Ravens have entering training camp:
1. Boost Kyle Boller's development. If the Ravens want to make an extended playoff run, they need decidedly marked improvement from their starting quarterback. His second season provided incremental progress and resulted in pedestrian numbers from his completion percentage (55.6) to his yards per game (160) to his passer rating (70.9).

The Ravens have talked about changing Boller's mindset from not losing games to winning them. They have changed offensive coordinators, hiring Jim Fassel to do away with Matt Cavanaugh's stagnant game plans. And they have changed their starting receivers, adding breakaway threats in Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton and parting with underachievers such as Travis Taylor and Kevin Johnson.

Boller's play is key to the Ravens converting from a one-dimensional running attack to a more balanced offense. Defenses only had to respect the run last season because the Ravens failed to stretch them downfield. Of Boller's 258 completions, 158 went for nine yards or less. The Ravens have stressed improving Boller's accuracy especially in the intermediate routes where Mason and Clayton should make most of their catches.

2. Gain comfort level with new defense. Defense has been the backbone of the Ravens for the past six seasons despite switching from the 4-3 alignment to the 3-4 in 2002. Now, the Ravens are undergoing another change with new coordinator Rex Ryan moving more toward the 46 defense, the same scheme made famous by his father nearly two decades ago.

The 46 defense is characterized as a high risk, high reward strategy, where a mistake can quickly turn into a touchdown. By crowding eight defenders near the line of scrimmage, this defense should better keep blockers from getting to middle linebacker Ray Lewis but it is more susceptible to the deep pass. That's why the Ravens have to make sure they know their new responsibilities in this defense.

The Ravens, though, believe they will reach the quarterback more often than offenses will reach the end zone. Limiting points has been the trademark of the Ravens, who have ranked sixth or better in scoring defense in five of the past six seasons.

3. Get Jamal Lewis and Todd Heap ready for the regular season. The Ravens are taking a cautious approach with two of their top offensive stars, both of whom are coming off offseason surgeries. But the Ravens believe by bringing Lewis and Heap along slowly in training camp that it will keep them on course to play in the regular-season opener.

Lewis, the franchise's all-time leading rusher, had ankle surgery before serving four months in federal prison. He pleaded guilty in October to using a cell phone to try to set up a cocaine deal in 2000.

Lewis said he has been able to run for the past couple of months but there is some questions about his football conditioning. Because of his house arrest in Atlanta, he was unable to attend any minicamps and will report to training camp a couple of days late. The Ravens will probably keep him limited in practice for the first week of camp.

The situation is more serious for Heap, a two-time Pro Bowl tight end. After undergoing ankle and shoulder surgeries, he likely will miss a majority of camp and at least the first two preseason games. The Ravens remain optimistic he will be available for the regular season opener.

NOTES
--Linebacker Mike Smith became the first member of the Ravens' 2005 draft class to sign his contract as the seventh-round pick agreed to a three-year pact worth more than $950,000.

The former Texas Tech standout was an All-Big 12 Conference honorable-mention selection last season and was drafted with the 234th overall selection. The 6-foot-1, 234-pound native of Lubbock, Tex., registered 314 career tackles, 261/2 for losses, seven sacks and two interceptions in 45 starts for the Red Raiders.

Smith is expected to compete for a spot on special teams, or possibly wind up on the practice squad.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Kyle Boller. Backups -- Anthony Wright, Derek Anderson.
This could be the season when the Ravens find out whether Boller is a franchise quarterback or a mediocre one. The former first-round pick made improvements in every major quarterback category from his 2003 rookie season but not significant ones. Boller has solid tools (arm strength and scrambling ability) yet hasn't shown the ability to take over the offense. His biggest obstacle remains accuracy. After having three seasons to evaluate a quarterback, teams often know whether they can commit to a quarterback long term or need to go in another direction. Behind Boller is Wright, who has proven to be a reliable backup. When Boller went down in midseason two years ago, Wright quarterbacked the Ravens to their only division title. After shoulder surgery sidelined him for most of last season, Wright has resumed his role as the No. 2 quarterback. The third quarterback is Anderson, a raw rookie out of Oregon State. If he doesn't progress in camp, the strong-armed prospect could be placed on the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Jamal Lewis, FB Alan Ricard. Backups -- RB Chester Taylor, RB Musa Smith, FB Justin Green, FB Ovie Mughelli.

The Ravens will get a more motivated Lewis than last season, when his 1,006 rushing yards was half of his amount gained in 2003 (2,066 yards). Lewis will be more focused after spending four months in federal prison and two months in a halfway house, the result of a plea bargain on federal drug charges. Lewis' biggest obstacle heading into training camp is recovering from offseason ankle surgery. He could be limited for the first week of camp. As insurance, the Ravens matched the Cleveland Browns' one-year, $3 million offer sheet on Taylor. He is a versatile back who produced two 100-yard games while filling in for Lewis last season. The other backup, Smith, had a season-ending leg injury and has yet to live up to expectations for being a third-round pick. Ricard has moved into the top tier of fullbacks, consistently providing lead blocks on linebackers. Green and Mughelli will battle for the backup fullback job.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Todd Heap. Backups - Terry Jones, Darnell Dinkins, Daniel Wilcox, Trent Smith.

The biggest injury concern heading into training camp is Heap, who is scheduled to miss at least two preseason games after undergoing offseason surgeries on his ankle and shoulder. The two-time Pro Bowl performer missed 10 games last season with an ankle injury and caught just 27 passes. His recovery is critical to the passing game because he is the one target on the Ravens who can create mismatch problems with his height and speed. New coordinator Jim Fassel will gear the passing game around Heap like he did with Jeremy Shockey in New York. Heap's backup, Jones, is mainly used as a blocker at the point of attack. Dinkins is another tenacious blocker who is considered one of the team's best special teams players. Wilcox and Smith are looking to land the final tight end spot on the roster.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton. Backups -- Clarence Moore, Devard Darling, Randy Hymes.

This is the position where the Ravens upgraded the most since the end of last season. The Ravens parted ways with Travis Taylor and Kevin Johnson and added Mason and Clayton. Mason has averaged 86 catches and 1,153 yards over the past four seasons, leading the Tennessee Titans in each of those years. And his career-best 96 catches last season nearly matched the Ravens entire receiving corps (121). Clayton, the team's first-round pick, is similar to Mason in size (5-10, 195 pounds) and style. Both receivers like to catch passes underneath and generate big plays with their ability to run after the catch. The Ravens will use Moore when they go to three wide. Moore, a sixth-round pick in 2004, was the biggest surprise on the Ravens. He has height (6-6) and tremendous leaping ability. What he has to improve on is his toughness in going over the middle. The fourth receiver will either be Darling or Hymes. Darling was a disappointment as a third-round pick last season but has intriguing speed. Hymes isn't as fast but he always seems to make plays when in the lineup.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Jonathan Ogden, LG Edwin Mulitalo, C Mike Flynn, RG Keydrick Vincent, RT Orlando Brown. Backups -- T Adam Terry, C Jason Brown, G Brian Rimpf, T Tony Pashos.

With four starters at least 30 years old, this is an aging unit. Ogden slipped from his pedestal as the game's top offensive lineman after injuries limited him from playing at 100 percent all season. It'll be interesting to see whether Ogden returns to his old dominant self or he is headed for a similar decline. Mulitalo also struggled last season and wasn't as effective at run blocking as previous years. With Casey Rabach going to the Washington Redskins as a free agent, Flynn regains his starting center job. He has average skills but lacks Rabach's athleticism. Another change was at right guard, where Vincent replaces Bennie Anderson. Vincent is more athletic than Anderson, which will allow the Ravens to pull on outside runs. Brown figures to start at right tackle but will be pressed by Terry, the team's second-round pick. Brown is a mauling run blocker while Terry is stronger in pass protection. Brown, Rimpf and Pashos are all inexperienced backups who have combined for seven games played.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Kelly Gregg, RE Anthony Weaver, NT Maake Kemoeatu. Backups - DE Jarret Johnson, DE Dwan Edwards, NT Aubrayo Franklin.

This is an unheralded group that has been overpowered by elite offensive lines. Weaver is the most well-rounded lineman who is tough against the run and can rush the passer. Gregg is a run stopper who holds his own with good leverage. The Ravens have moved Gregg from nose tackle to defensive end in order to start Kemoeatu. Although the Ravens want a stronger work ethic from Kemoeatu, they believe he gives them the proper size and toughness inside. Johnson is the top backup who uses his hands well. Edwards could have his role expanded slightly after being limited as a rookie last season. Franklin slowly keeps improving each season.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- LOLB Adalius Thomas, LILB Tommy Polley, MLB Ray Lewis, ROLB Terrell Suggs. Backups - OLB Dan Cody, OLB/ILB Bart Scott, ILB Jim Nelson, OLB Roderick Green.

The Ravens' primary reason for switching to the 46 defense is to give Lewis the ability to roam sideline to sideline. His recent shoulder problems have affected his strength and his ability to shed blockers. So by stacking the line, the Ravens are hoping Lewis will have more freedom to chase down running backs. The biggest downgrade on the team was at weak-side linebacker, where the Ravens replaced Ed Hartwell with Tommy Polley. Although he has more speed than Hartwell, Polley is substantially weaker against the run. Thomas had arguably the most consistent season of any Ravens linebacker last season in replacing Peter Boulware. He has tremendous athletic ability and has a knack for making timely plays. The switch to the 46 also means Suggs will play more as a defensive end than a linebacker. The Ravens want him to concentrate on collapsing the left side of the offense rather than backpedaling. Suggs has 22 1/2 sacks in his first two seasons. By cutting Boulware, the Ravens have made a commitment to Cody as the other rush end in passing situations. Considered a first-round talent, Cody fell to the Ravens in the second round because he has a history of depression. Scott, Nelson and Green all should contribute on special teams.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Chris McAlister, RCB Samari Rolle, FS Ed Reed, SS Will Demps. Backups -- CB Dale Carter, CB Deion Sanders, S Chad Williams.

Reed and McAlister are two of the best in the NFL at their position. Relying on his great instincts, Reed was the league's defensive player of the year after leading the NFL with nine interceptions. Always around the ball, Reed also made two sacks and forced three fumbles. McAlister is a premier cover corner who could elevate his game further with more focus. He teams with Samari Rolle to form a strong cornerback tandem. Rolle replaces Gary Baxter, who bolted from an agreement in principle with the Ravens and signed with the Cleveland Browns. Baxter has more size but Rolle has more quickness and is more apt at creating turnovers. In the 46 defense, the Ravens will move Demps into the box. Demps is an above average tackler who sometimes is a step slow in coverage. The Ravens will split the nickel back job between veterans Carter and Sanders. The dime back job will be handled by Williams, who is an unheralded playmaker.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Matt Stover, P Dave Zastudil, RS B.J. Sams, LS Joe Maese, Kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd.

Stover enters his 16th season as one of the more dependable placekickers in the league. He converted on 29 of 32 field goals and missed just once from inside 44 yards. Zastudil has failed to live up to the billing of a fourth-round pick. He averaged just 40.4 yards on his punts. His 26 kicks inside the 20-yard line were his biggest contribution. Sams, an undrafted rookie free agent last year, made an impact by returning two punt returns for touchdowns. The key for him this season is to avoid another late season fade. Maese has become the most dependable long snapper in the franchise's short history. And Lloyd, an undrafted rookie out of Minnesota, will be given a chance to win the kickoff specialist job after the Ravens chose not to re-sign a struggling Wade Richey.


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