The road to success in the NFL begins each year with the hard work and wide-open possibilities of training camp. As teams around the league gear up for the 2015 campaign, NFL Media reporters will be checking in from all 32 camps around the league. For our next stop, Albert Breer visits the Baltimore Ravens.
Where is NFL Media?
The Ravens' palatial home facility -- referred to around here as "The Castle" -- where Baltimore is hosting its third training camp, after bringing it home from its long-time remote site down the road at Westminster College five years ago. Because of limitations in parking and overall space, the Ravens can't accommodate the five-figure crowds they used to attract, so this is a pretty quiet setting.
1) I went over this philosophy in a story in the spring, and it holds here: This is a place where training camp is still training camp. The way the Ravens see it, the 2011 death of old-school two-a-days is no reason to scale back on work, so on Thursday (as will be the case on lots of other days) Baltimore staged a three-hour practice. And the coaches have devised a scoring system, too, to pit the offense vs. the defense on a constant basis, to keep the competitive level at its highest. A byproduct of all of this is forcing players to stay focused and locked in athletically for a longer period of time, which, the belief goes, should prepare them for games. It also tests them, and Harbaugh explained to me that he believes the players should want to get as much work in as possible. Really, that's part of the mold of what he and Ozzie Newsome are looking for. "We work hard. We work hard," he said. "We work smart. I think we're really creative. And we do the important things, I think. But everybody thinks they do that, you know?"
2) There's a belief here that a two-and-a-half-year retooling process is coming to an end, and maybe the last piece of the bumps were felt in Foxboro in the AFC Divisional round, where the Ravens twice held two-touchdown leads over the eventual champions. In particular, growth is expected along the lines of scrimmage. Health-permitting, the offensive line will return intact from last year, which would be a first in the 20-year history of the franchise. And the defensive line has a fleet of young studs led by Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan that should be able to make up for the loss of Haloti Ngata. Add that up, and it fits into what the Ravens always strive to be: A team that's most comfortable dragging games into a dark alley and winning them there.
3) If there is one overarching question, it'd have to be at the skill positions. Tailback Justin Forsett had more than twice as many yards last year than he did in any of his previous five seasons, and turns 30 in October; Steve Smith is 36; Dennis Pitta is still struggling with a bum hip; and Torrey Smith is gone to the Niners. Add it all up, and new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman has his work cut out for him, and quarterback Joe Flacco will likely have to make up some of the difference. Assuming Smith (Steve, not Torrey) and Forsett perform, the key here will likely be breakthroughs from the young vets like Jeremy Butler and Lorenzo Taliaferro and progress from a draft class that includes five skills players, including three drafted in first 125 picks.
Maxx Williams, TE: Some clubs viewed the former Minnesota star as draftable in the first round in April, and the Ravens certainly showed their affinity for him by trading up to leapfrog the Steelers and take him with the 55th overall pick. Williams isn't a "wow" player from an athletic standpoint, but the Ravens see a guy who's very functionally athletic; he plays faster than he times. And he just turned 21, so there's plenty of room left to grow. If Pitta's hip issues persist, opportunity should be there for Williams.
Buck Allen, RB: Allen came on late in his career at USC and didn't carry the name recognition of some others in a very solid 2015 running back class, but the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder has turned heads early with the Ravens. He caught 41 balls as a fourth-year junior at SC, and is adept in pass pro, which should help him get on the field early as, at least, a piece behind Forsett.
"We were very close to getting where we wanted to be, and you look back on that game, there are things we could've done differently. We wanna make sure we capitalize on those moments this year. The championship is the standard."
» The Ravens run game bounced back in a big way last year with Gary Kubiak at the controls. Don't look for much to change schematically, in the run game, under Trestman. Baltimore and Forsett thrived on Kubiak's outside-zone staples last year, and there'll be more of that this year.
» While we're there, tailback is one position that could morph into a legit strength. Forsett's reliable, Allen's intriguing, and the second-year pro Taliaferro may have showed more progress than any of them in the spring, flashing much improved quickness to his game.
» Take this for what it's worth, but there are signs the light is coming on for former first-round pick Matt Elam. A breakthrough there would be enormous for a very talented, but fairly young defense.