Training camp is finally almost here. They allow tackling there and everything. Around the League will count down the top 30 position battles to watch throughout the preseason.
Odds are good that the Ravens will have a top-10 defense in 2012. The unit has ranked in among the league's 10 best units in 12 of the last 13 seasons, including in each of the last nine. The core of the starting front seven is known, with Terrence Cody starting at nose tackle and Haloti Ngata playing defensive tackle in a base three-man line that will frequently increase to a four-man line as situations call for it. Behind them will be inside linebackers Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain, who had 84 tackles last season, his first as a full-time starter.
What will be determined, or at least finalized, during training camp is who starts alongside Ngata and Cody on the line, and which linebackers will bookend Lewis and McClain.
The Ravens lost defensive end Cory Redding, who followed former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano to the Indianapolis Colts. Pernell McPhee and Arthur Jones, a pair of recent fifth-round picks, will compete for Redding's old job. In addition to losing Redding to one Pagano, the Ravens lost starting outside linebacker Jarrett Johnson to the other Pagano brother (John) with the San Diego Chargers. Combined with the offseason Achilles injury to reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, the Ravens are down to Paul Kruger, 2012 second-round pick Courtney Upshaw and 2010 second-round pick Sergio Kindle at outside linebacker.
Projected Winner(s): McPhee's six sacks and 16.5 hurries (per Football Outsiders Almanac 2012) were second-most on the Ravens last season. Though he's 20-30 pounds lighter than Redding and Jones, his pass-rushing ability gives him a solid edge with Suggs not expected to be ready for the start of the season. The more experienced Kruger is a good bet to start at one of the outside linebacker spots. A converted defensive end, Kruger came off the bench to post 5.5 sacks in just over 31 percent of the defensive snaps last season.
Until Suggs returns from his Achilles injury, Upshaw will likely start opposite Kruger. Upshaw had just 16.5 sacks in a four-year career at Alabama, but he has the versatility to play multiple positions and, more so than McPhee, allows the Ravens to remain flexible with their fronts.