To get you fully prepared for the unofficial start of the 2012 NFL season, we’re ranking every team from worst to first in the weeks leading up to the opening of training camps.
Every day, we’ll be previewing two teams, one from each conference, analyzing them from top to bottom and giving you all you need to know to be an informed fan. What’s the major storyline heading into camp?
What’s the key training camp battle to watch? Who’s the young guy to watch? Is there any hope?
Today’s two teams: The Baltimore Ravens and the New Orleans Saints.
No. 8: Baltimore Ravens
Training Camp Site: Under Armour Performance Center, Owings Mills, Md.
Training Camp Start Date: July 25
BetOnline.com Preseason Super Bowl Odds: 14-1
What I Like About You: The Ravens were a Lee Evans reception from the Super Bowl a year ago, Joe Flacco and Ray Rice are in big contract years, and the defense has a lot to prove with Terrell Suggs out for (at least the start of) the year.
What I Don’t Like About You: No Suggs — the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year— is a massive blow. Additionally, unsung producer Jarret Johnson, the other OLB, departed for San Diego in free agency. There are questions along the offensive line, too.
The Burning Question: Will the defense survive without Suggs and Johnson? You don’t just replace a guy like Suggs, but the Ravens are going to try their damndest to get some sort of production from his fill-ins. All eyes will be on rookie Courtney Upshaw, but he’ll more than likely be the one taking over Johnson’s old spot at left outside linebacker. The guy filling in for Suggs will be fourth-year veteran Paul Kruger. Never a starter, Kruger’s had some pass rushing success from the defensive end position in spot duty. Can he do at least a somewhat admirable job of filling in for one of the league’s most unstoppable pass rushers? We’ll have to wait and see.
Key Training Camp Battle to Watch: second cornerback: Jimmy Smith vs. Cary Williams vs. Corey Graham: Smith got burned a few times early on in his rookie season but showed flashes of greatness. Williams, meanwhile, played well above expectations a season ago, and could be the surprise starter on opening day. Graham’s a great special teams guy but could be an outside possibility, too.
The New Veteran in Town: Jacoby Jones, wide receiver/returner: Ed Reed is too valuable to be returning punts and Lardarius Webb is too talented a cornerback to be returning every kickoff. Insert Jacoby Jones, a guy who (ironically) fumbled a return in the Ravens-Texans playoff game a year ago. As a third receiver-type and return man, Jones is a game breaker. His addition to the lineup won’t get a lot of press, but may help immensely in the special teams portion of the game.
The Young Gun To Watch: Terrence Cody, defensive tackle: Entering his third year now, Cody’s ready to make the leap into the next caliber of defensive linemen. Lining up inside and next to Haloti Ngata, he’s a run-stuffing machine who’s only gotten better and better in his first two years. Now fully healthy and with his weight under control, he’s going to be a breakout player in 2012. There’s lots of excitement over the strides he’s made and how he looks this offseason. Now, he just needs to deliver the goods when the season starts.
Schrager Prediction: The Ravens have won playoff games each of the last three seasons, with last year’s AFC Championship Game serving as a crushing finale to end what looked like a Super Bowl-bound season. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin only have so many years left, but there’s a really bright group of young talent on the roster. This team will be competitive for years to come, but I just don’t know if the Ravens can get past the Suggs injury and progress further than they did a year ago. As has become the norm in Maryland, the Ravens will likely win 10 or 11 games and come up just short of the Super Bowl again next January.
Final Prediction: Second place, AFC North
No. 7: New Orleans Saints
Training Camp site: New Orleans Saints Training Facility, Metairie, La.
Training Camp Start Date: July 24
Preseason BetOnline.com Super Bowl Odds: 12-1
What I Like About You: Drew Brees. Drew Brees. Drew Brees. The man’s back, the man’s motivated and the man’s getting paid. The Saints — and their quarterback — are going to have a chip on their shoulder this year. Watch out.
What I Don’t Like About You: Sean Payton’s in the Bahamas, Jon Vilma’s out for the year, Carl Nicks is in Tampa and the world thinks the Saints are a bunch of head-hunting villains. So much for America’s feel-good story. This will be the uncomfortable storyline that will hover from above and lurk from below all season.
Burning Question: Can the Saints win without Sean Payton calling the shots? Sure they can. Drew Brees is the real master of the Saints offense, not Payton. Though I’m sure it won’t be exactly the same, the fact that Pete Carmichael is still in the film room, Aaron Kromer’s still coaching the line and Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, and Marques Colston are still catching passes. Payton is considered an offensive wunderkind and the wizard behind the Saints offense, but Brees is the man that makes the magic happen. I have no doubt he’ll be able to thrive without his head coach in his headset.
Training Camp Battle to Watch: defensive end: Cam Jordan vs. Junior Galette vs. Martez Wilson vs. Turk McBride: Jordan’s the expected starter, but in Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive scheme, converted linebacker and former high school superstar Martez Wilson could actually be the guy to watch, here. A quick and nifty pass rusher, he may fit Spags’ athletic, attacking philosophy more than Jordan. Galette and McBride will both make the team as backups, but could put their names in the cap if they have breakout training camp sessions. McBride’s been around the league for quite a bit now; perhaps he gels lining up against fellow veteran pass rusher Will Smith.
The New Veteran in Town: Ben Grubbs, guard: No one’s going to replace what Carl Nicks brought to the Saints last season (I’m arguably the biggest Carl Nicks fan in America), but Grubbs is a hell of a fallback plan. A Pro Bowl player with the Ravens, Grubbs is a mauler with surprisingly quick foot speed and great in-game intelligence. Grubbs isn’t Nicks, but few guys are. He’s right up there in that second tier.
The Young Gun to Watch: Mark Ingram, running back: It’s amazing to see what the Saints offense was able to do last season considering much of it was without the services of their first round pick and the only running back selected in the first round of last year’s draft. Ingram is a punishing runner, both hard to bring down and tremendous within the tackles. Heel and toe injuries kept him from being full strength in 2011, but he’s healthy now. A full offseason to learn the playbook only helps, too. Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles make for a tremendous 1-2. Add Ingram in there, with Jed Collins doing the road paving up front, and you have one of the most dynamic and diverse backfields in the league.
Schrager Prediction: I’ve read a lot about the Falcons being the favorites in the NFC South this year, everyone’s all sorts of juiced up about the Panthers in Year 2 of the Cam Newton era and the Buccaneers were everyone’s biggest “winners” this offseason. Well, the division’s kings are still the mighty Saints. Sean Payton, Jon Vilma and Carl Nicks can be elsewhere, but as long as Drew Brees is under center, they’re the team to beat in the NFC South. New Orleans can win it all this year, but I see them coming up short in the playoffs. Either way, they’re my pick to win what could be the most competitive division in football.