Ravens feeling fine, but there's plenty of cause for concern

Backup quarterback, wide receiver and tight end are all question marks

August 07, 2011|Kevin Cowherd

Getting ready for an NFL season is serious business, but there have been enough light moments at Ravens training camp to reaffirm that these guys are human beings, not the grim robots the league would like them to be.

Let's face it: we've seen things happen at this camp that we've never seen before.

We've seen Ray Rice break into the Pointer Sisters classic "I'm So Excited" — complete with a falsetto that would shatter a picture window — when asked how he felt about the Ravens signing fullback Vonta Leach.

We've seen Chuck Pagano get so caught up in an interception by one of his cornerbacks that the new defensive coordinator whooped and cheered and ran after the DB down the sideline like a dog chasing a kid on a bicycle.

(Of course, that was back when kids actually rode bikes. Now they stay inside and play video games. And gain weight.)

We've seen an ice cream truck roll up to the Ravens complex at the end of practice, courtesy of owner Steve Bisciotti, and 90 big, tough football players — some of them rich enough to buy their own Breyers factory — light up like it was Christmas morning.

But underneath the laughs, the Ravens have some significant concerns to address before the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 11.

Ask yourself this: are the Ravens a better team now than they were last year?

Right now, the answer is no.

Right now they have too many holes to fill. And too much veteran leadership has walked out the door, further weakening a team desperate to beat the Steelers and get to the Super Bowl before Ray Lewis and Ed Reed become grandfathers.

The biggest concern, of course, is at backup quarterback. There's no way you can have a rookie like Tyrod Taylor backing up Joe Flacco and feel comfortable going into the new season.

Even if Taylor wasn't a sixth-round draft choice out of Virginia Tech, a team like the Ravens, with a legitimate shot to win a championship, needs an experienced backup at a position where players go down all the time.

After quarterback, you have to worry about center, and how Matt Birk will hold up. Birk, the Harvard man, the cerebral heart of the offensive line, is the ultimate warrior. But he's also 36, with a knee that has all the consistency of cottage cheese.

Me, I'd also be concerned about tight end. Todd Heap is gone. He was only the Ravens' career leader in receiving touchdowns and second all time in receptions and receiving yards, as well as a steadying presence in the locker room.

Understand, I'm not necessarily saying getting rid of Heap was a bad move. He was only 31, but an injury-prone "old" 31 from all the punishment he took in his 11 years in the league. And, yes, the Ravens are high on Ed Dickson, whom they took in the third round of the 2010 draft.

But Dickson still has a lot to prove. You don't pencil him into the starting lineup and clap your hands and think: No worries there.

Finally, I think the Ravens have to go out and get another wide receiver, especially now that Derrick Mason has signed with the New York Jets.

Right now Anquan Boldin and rookie Torrey Smith are the projected starters, with James Hardy and rookie Tandon Doss as the backups.

But is it realistic to ask Smith, the Maryland kid who missed out on so many OTAs and minicamps during the lockout, to step in immediately and be a legitimate threat? Even if he was the team's second-round draft choice (58th overall) in this year's draft?

And if Smith can't step right in and make big catches all over the field, won't opposing defenses have a field day double-teaming Boldin and putting even more pressure on Flacco and the offense?

That's why losing Mason, their all-time leader in catches and receiving yards, was such a blow to the Ravens. The speculation was that the Ravens wanted to re-sign him at a reduced salary, but it's too late for that now. Now the talk is that they might turn to former Jets receiver Jerricho Cotchery for help at wide-out.

Cotchery caught 41 passes for 433 yards and two touchdowns last season. But he chafed at being the team's No. 3 receiver and he's also coming off back surgery in February, which is why the Jets were willing to let him walk and sign Mason.

But there's no doubt that losing Mason will be a bigger blow to the Ravens than losing Cotchery will be to the Jets.

It was interesting to see Flacco take a good-natured shot at Mason on Saturday after the team's open practice at M&T Bank Stadium.

"Derrick is a great locker-room guy," Flacco told The Baltimore Sun. "He can be a little bit of a diva sometimes, but that's all good and fun with him for the most part."

Gee, that's hard to imagine: a wide receiver in the NFL with diva-like tendencies.

But it says here that the Ravens will miss Mason, nonetheless. And they better get on the stick and replace him.

They better fill some of the other holes on their roster, too.

That first game against the Steelers is right around the corner.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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