Ravens primed for minicamp

OWINGS MILLS -- The last time the Baltimore Ravens were together as an entire team on the football field, they were trudging out of Heinz Field following a bitter AFC championship game loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since that ultra-physical encounter in January, the Ravens have undergone a fair amount of change.

There have been notable departures such as defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, linebacker Bart Scott, center Jason Brown, cornerback Chris McAlister, strong safety Jim Leonhard and, at least for the moment, veteran kicker Matt Stover.

And the Ravens re-signed All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, promoted linebackers coach Greg Mattison to run the defense, signed six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, a new starting cornerback in former University of Maryland standout Domonique Foxworth as well as kick returner Chris Carr and tight end L.J. Smith.

Not to mention drafting Ole Miss consensus All-American offensive tackle Michael Oher in the first round, gritty Utah pass rusher Paul Kruger in the second round and speedy Nicholls State cornerback-safety Lardarius Webb in the third round.

As the Ravens assemble at their training complex today for a full-team, mandatory minicamp that concludes Sunday, it marks the first time they'll be able to evaluate how all of the moves look on the field.

"They've been doing a little work already, and we've had a chance to see them move around a little bit," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a telephone interview. "Hey, this is just the beginning. There's a lot of work ahead. Yes, I think we've improved our football team from the last time we played the Steelers. I think we've definitely improved our team."

With that thought in mind, here are a few of the topics that bear watching at the Ravens' minicamp:

1. How will Oher adjust to the NFL?

For the 23rd overall pick of the draft, it will be a quick initiation as he's expected to line up with the first-team offense during his first NFL practice due to injuries to veterans.

Oher proved to be a quick study in college, playing for three different offensive coordinators in four years and absorbed several different offensive systems. However, this may border on information overload for the big rookie as he tries to pick up the terminology and assimilate to the increased speed of the game.

The Ravens can't wait to see Oher on the practice field and are still fairly surprised that they were able to land one of the top 15 players on their draft board that deep into the first round.

2. Will the Ravens identify and sign a wide receiver capable of bolstering the passing game?

The Ravens have invited veteran free agents Jerry Porter, D.J. Hackett, Kelley Washington and Tab Perry to try out this weekend.

Porter is the most talented option of the four, enough so that the Jacksonville Jaguars gave him a six-year, $30 million contract that included $10 million in guaranteed money a year ago. However, he's regarded as something of an enigma in league circles as far as his motivation.

Porter also had hamstring surgery a year ago and finished the season on injured reserve due to a groin injury. The Jaguars cut him from the roster following the season after he caught only 11 passes and one touchdown.

Hackett is athletic and considered best suited to the West Coast offense, but has been battling ankle injuries.

Washington offers great size in the red zone as well as desire and skill on special teams. And Perry is primarily a special-teams performer, but is coming off a torn Achilles' tendon that kept him out all of last season.

Meanwhile, team officials will be keeping a close eye on wide receiver Demetrius Williams as he works his way back from Achilles' tendon surgery.

3. How will backup quarterback candidates Troy Smith and John Beck fare?

This is the first of what figures to be a long evaluation to determine who should be the primary backup behind second-year starter Joe Flacco.

A former Heisman Trophy winner, Smith has the experience and knowledge of the offense as well as considerable confidence and huddle presence.

However, a tonsil infection cost him his opportunity to claim a starting job during camp last year and his accuracy could use some improvement. Smith is considered the initial favorite to hold onto the backup job.

A former second-round pick for Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with the Miami Dolphins, Beck struggled mightily as a rookie and didn't leave the bench last season. This change of scenery could help Beck's career prospects a lot after being discarded by Bill Parcells.

The Ravens were fairly high on Beck coming out of BYU two years ago.

4. Who's going to start next to Lewis at inside linebacker?

After an injury-plagued rookie season, former third-round pick Tavares Gooden is a top candidate to replace Scott. However, he'll face stiff competition from free agent discovery Jameel McClain.

McClain registered two safeties as an undrafted rookie last year while Gooden was on injured reserve and underwent sports hernia and hip flexor surgeries.

5. What kind of imprint will Mattison make on the defense?

Although Mattison has said he doesn't plan to make sweeping changes to the Ravens' defensive scheme, which features a lot of blitzes and versatility between the 3-4 and 4-3 sets, he built a very aggressive reputation as a defensive coordinator at Florida, Notre Dame and Michigan.

Look for Mattison to emphasize speed and a lot of pass rushing off the edge, two staples of the Gators' defense. Primarily, though, it's likely to be the same defense headlined by Lewis, free safety Ed Reed, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and massive defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

6. Will the Ravens' gamble at kicker pay off?

Because the Ravens don't want to hold an extra roster spot for a kickoff specialist, they haven't re-signed Stover even though he's one of the most accurate kickers in league history.

So, they'll be weighing the respective merits of last year's kickoff specialist, strong-legged Steve Hauschka, and Florida State rookie Graham Gano, the Lou Groza Award winner as the nation's top kicker. Both have the requisite distance and pedigree, but are unproven at this level and lack experience in high-pressure situations.

7. What's the medical outlook?

A long list of veterans are still on the mend from last season, including: offensive guard Marshal Yanda (knee surgeries), running back Willis McGahee (arthroscopic knee surgery), wide receiver Derrick Mason (shoulder surgery), offensive tackles Adam Terry (arthroscopic knee surgery), Willie Anderson (back, foot) cornerbacks Samari Rolle (groin), Frank Walker (shoulder surgery), Carr (shoulder surgery) and Derrick Martin (labrum surgery), tight end Todd Heap (back) and outside linebacker Antwan Barnes (left pectoral surgery).

None of the injuries are regarded as particularly serious with the exception of Yanda, who's on target to return sometime during training camp.

McGahee recently underwent another cleanup surgery.

"It was a very minor procedure and routine maintenance on his knee," said Drew Rosenhaus, McGahee's agent.

Now that strong safety Dawan Landry has been cleared for practice, the Ravens will be monitoring him as he makes a comeback from a scary spinal cord concussion that sidelined him for the majority of last season.

It will be interesting to see how much progress starting nose guard Kelly Gregg has made since undergoing microfracture knee surgery as well as blocking tight end Quinn Sypniewski, who missed all of last season after tearing knee ligaments last spring.

8. What's the pecking order at running back?

The operative plan is to shift bruising Pro Bowl selection Le'Ron McClain back to a more traditional fullback role.

With McGahee not 100 percent, McClain is likely to get some carries in one-back sets with second-year runner Ray Rice taking the bulk of the tailback work.

The Ravens will also take a long look at sixth-round pick Cedric Peerman, a versatile former University of Virginia standout.

9. Which undrafted rookies are joining the roster besides Gano?

Among the free agents the Ravens have agreed to terms with: wide receiver Eron Riley (Duke), linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (Georgia), defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg (Minnesota), defensive tackle Will Johnson (Michigan), quarterback Drew Willy (Buffalo), wide receiver Isaiah Williams (Maryland), fullback Jason Cook (Ole Miss), offensive lineman Dan Ryan (Western Kentucky) and defensive back Kevin Jones (Kentucky).

10. Who won't be there?

Although it's a mandatory minicamp, Suggs isn't expected to attend.

Since he hasn't signed his one-year, $10.2 million tender, Suggs isn't required to attend under NFL rules governing franchise players. Newsome said that the team remains in talks with Suggs' agent.

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

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