Ravens' roster bubble about to pop

OWINGS MILLS -- As the Baltimore Ravens conclude the preseason tonight against the Atlanta Falcons, another harsh reality of potential finality will accompany the players onto the field. Two days after the game, multiple athletes' dream of a burgeoning NFL career will be halted or at least temporarily derailed.

The Ravens have until Saturday afternoon to cut 22 players to get down to a league roster limit of 53 players.

For several players on the verge of either making the team or being asked to turn in their playbooks, this is a pivotal last chance to prove they deserve to be a part of the team.

"I'm sure there's some anxiety because guys want to be here and they've worked hard," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "There are a lot of guys who have earned the right to be a part of this team, but you can only keep so many guys.

"There's going to be a lot of competitiveness, and it's going to be a big night for a lot of these guys. There are some battles being waged."

Former Pro Bowl special-teams ace Gary Stills is fighting for one of the final roster spots. One of the top wedge-busters in the league, Stills is entering his 10th season.

The 34-year-old is hoping the Ravens will indulge in the luxury of carrying two special-teams stars as they signed former Chicago Bears special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo to a $4.9 million contract during free agency.

"To me, the chemistry is always the same and, whatever some guys are going through, they're doing a good job at hiding it," Stills said. "There's a sense of urgency on some guys' part, but they do a good job of just playing football. It's always in the back of your mind, but that's where it needs to be.

"These guys aren't walking around moping with a bad spirit and bringing guys down and tampering with the chemistry of the squad. Whatever the numbers game may be, that's fine."

Other linebackers considered to be on the bubble include undrafted rookie Jameel McClain, a rugged, converted defensive end from Syracuse, and Robert McCune, one of the strongest players on the team.

McClain is drawing heavy consideration to make the team.

The Ravens are expected to carry five safeties, including injured Pro Bowl selection Ed Reed, starter Dawan Landry and newcomers Jim Leonhard, Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura.

Cornerback is a much more complicated issue.

Because Derrick Martin is sidelined for the second game in a row after aggravating a right shoulder that underwent offseason surgery, he's a potential injured reserve candidate. That could open the door for either David Pittman or Ronnie Prude to make the team.

"I ain't going to say it's a showcase, but you had better show the coaches you know what you're doing," said Pittman, whose development has been slow since being drafted in the third round. "You want to show them that you can play the game."

The acquisition of defensive lineman Marques Douglas via a trade locks him up as the fifth member of a rotation that includes Trevor Pryce, Kelly Gregg, Haloti Ngata and Justin Bannan. Will Baltimore hold a sixth spot for big defensive tackle J'Vonne Parker since Gregg and Ngata have battled knee injuries all month?

At wide receiver, rookie seventh-round pick Justin Harper is competing with Ernie Wheelwright and Patrick Carter. Harper has the requisite size and athleticism at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, but the Virginia Tech product has caught just one pass for 18 yards while Wheelwright, a 6-5, 215-pound undrafted free agent, has caught five passes for 37 yards.

It's unclear if the Ravens will wait for rookie fourth-round pick Marcus Smith to heal up from a separated shoulder or place him on injured reserve, a pending decision that could affect the other receiver candidates.

"I want to show them that I can be more physical because one of the knocks on me was that I need to be a more physical guy," Harper said "I've got to show them that I can play big and I deserve to be a part of this organization. They picked me, so I need to show them that they made a good decision."

Several reserve offensive linemen are in danger of losing their jobs, including Adrien Clarke, Adam Kraus and Joe Reitz.

Rookie draft picks Oniel Cousins and David Hale haven't impressed so far, but it's hard to believe that the team would ditch the investment of third and fourth-round selections.

Center-guard Chris Chester has struggled, too, but the former second-round pick is the most experienced interior swing player.

At tight end, the Ravens have flexibility due to Edgar Jones' ability to also play linebacker. That could possibly cancel out the roster bid of Adam Bergen, who has had a strong preseason with nine receptions for 51 yards, if Baltimore decides to just keep three tight ends. Keith Heinrich is a long shot.

The Ravens may need to carry an extra quarterback because of the uncertain status of Kyle Boller (right shoulder) and Troy Smith (illness).

At running back, Baltimore faces a tough decision.

With starter Willis McGahee sidelined following arthroscopic left knee surgery and hoping to return for the season opener, team officials are pondering whether to keep a third running back behind rookie Ray Rice.

Cory Ross, who had his moments last year, has had a quiet month with 20 yards on seven carries. A seventh-round pick from Oklahoma, Patrick has gained just nine yards on two carries.

"You can't control it, so you can't get upset about it or emotional," Ross said. "You just focus on what you need to do to try to make the team. This could be a big night for me, and I want to be on top of my game."

FIVE SITUATIONS TO WATCH

1. Quarterback

Will rookie first-round draft pick Joe Flacco have to play the entire game tonight as the Baltimore Ravens conclude the preseason against the Atlanta Falcons? Kyle Boller has been ruled out due to a serious shoulder injury, and former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith didn't practice this week after missing a scheduled start last week due to a nasty illness. If Smith does somehow recover in time to play, it's likely to just be for a limited amount of snaps. Will Flacco unexpectedly claim this job or will Smith salvage his bid at the last minute?

2. Roster battle

Several players are fighting to earn one of the final roster spots, including some familiar names returning from last year's 5-11 squad, along with multiple rookies. Among the players on the bubble: defensive tackle J'Vonne Parker, cornerbacks David Pittman, Ronnie Prude and Anwar Phillips, wide receivers Justin Harper, Ernie Wheelwright and Patrick Carter, running backs Cory Ross, Allen Patrick and Alex Haynes, linebackers Gary Stills, Robert McCune and Jameel McClain, offensive linemen David Hale, Adrien Clarke, Adam Kraus and Joe Reitz and tight ends Adam Bergen and Keith Heinrich. The Ravens have until Saturday to trim the roster to a league limit of 53 players.

3. Returning players

How will defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (right knee), offensive tackle Jared Gaither (sprained right ankle) and wide receiver Demetrius Williams (left Achilles' tendon) fare in their first preseason action as they attempt to tune up for the regular season?

4. Cornerbacks

Veteran backups Frank Walker and Corey Ivy have been picked on repeatedly for the past few games. Will that troubling trend continue against Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan?

5. Newcomer

Will Marques Douglas immediately reprise his old block-busting form in his second stint with the Ravens after being acquired for two draft picks Wednesday in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Douglas is a hard-nosed favorite of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.


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