Top 5 stories of training camp

Top 5 stories of training camp
August 30, 2013, 8:00 am
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Mellette leaves it all on the field to make Ravens

EARLY BIRD: Waking up with the Ravens on Friday, Aug. 30.

Two-minute topic: What were the biggest stories of Ravens training camp of 2013?

The long grind of training camp is finally over, formally concluded with Thursday night’s 24-21 loss to the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome.

When the Ravens return to practice on Friday, they will immediately dive into preparation for the highly anticipated season opener next Thursday night at Denver. So with the preseason officially over, it’s time to look back at the top five stories of the 2013 training camp:

5. Lardarius Webb is ready to start, and Jimmy Smith is not.

Heading into camp, there were a lot of questions in the secondary, and not just because Ed Reed was gone. Webb was coming back from a torn ACL, and the timetable for his return wasn’t clear. But after returning to the field in limited action, he is on course to start the season opener at one cornerback spot.

On the other side, it appears Corey Graham has held off Jimmy Smith for the starting job in what was expected to be one of the top competitions of camp. Smith is as healthy as he’s been since the Ravens drafted him, but they are still waiting for him to consistently demonstrate first-round form. Smith was picked on by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones in Week 2 of the preseason, and although coach John Harbaugh went out of his way to praise the play of Smith after the Carolina game, he hasn't cracked the starting lineup yet.

4. Daryl Smith shows he is a worthy successor to Ray Lewis

No one is suggesting that Smith is as good as Lewis in his prime, or that Smith can match Lewis’ leadership and charisma, but it’s likely Smith, 31, will be an upgrade over the aging, ailing Lewis of last season.

Smith, a nine-year veteran, had an outstanding camp. He has been physical at the point of attack, has shown good lateral pursuit and has become a key presence in the middle of the Ravens defense.

Stats website Pro Football Focus gave Smith the highest rating among Ravens defensive players through the first three preseason games.

“I really believe [he’s] one of the most underrated defensive players in football over the last eight, nine years,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said earlier in camp. “We feel pretty fortunate that he’s here right now.”

And to think, the Ravens only signed Smith after linebacker Rolando McClain abruptly announced his retirement.

3. The remade defensive front looks impressive

The Ravens made no bones about the fact that they needed to improve defensively after ranking 17th overall last season and 20th against the run. They made decisive moves, signing free agent defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears, drafting big, athletic defensive tackle Brandon Williams, and getting a stroke of luck when a faulty fax machine in Denver led to Elvis Dumervil signing with the Ravens.

Returning defensive lineman Art Jones had an outstanding camp, and maligned nose tackle Terrence Cody, coming off hip and elbow surgeries, also looked much improved. Oh yeah, and there’s also Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata.

With that kind of strength and depth up front, Smith in the middle and Dumervil and a healthy Terrell Suggs coming off the edge, the Ravens defense could be back in its customary top-10 spot.

2. The wide receivers wage an intense battle for jobs

It was always a given that Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones would have jobs. But who would be the No. 3 receiver?

The Ravens said all along that they would give returning players the first chance to earn that job, but no one stepped up to grab it. So the Ravens signed 37-year-old Brandon Stokley.

Undrafted rookie Marlon Brown turned heads with his 6-foot-5 frame, athleticism and hands, and fellow rookie Aaron Mellette also made a strong case for the roster. Deonte Thompson, thought to be a leading candidate for that No. 3 spot, missed almost the entire preseason after injuring his ankle in the preseason opener. The newcomers pushed third-year players Tandon Doss and LaQuan Williams to the roster bubble.

This battle went down to the wire, with Doss (5 catches, 75 yards) Brown (4-79, 50-yard touchdown) and Mellette (4-59) all turning in strong performances against the Rams.

The winners in this fight won’t be known until the 53-man roster is finalized on Saturday.

1. Dennis Pitta suffers a potentially season-ending hip injury.

Durint the first weekend of camp, tight end Dennis Pitta went up for a ball in the end zone, as he’s done hundreds of times, but when he came down he stayed down.  He was carted from the field and later diagnosed with a fractured hip.

With Anquan Boldin gone and major questions at wide receiver, Pitta figured to be a critical part of the Ravens offense. He was often quarterback Joe Flacco’s go-to guy last year, with 61 catches for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. He had three more touchdown catches in the playoffs.

The loss of Pitta was compounded when the Ravens No. 2 tight end, Ed Dickson, suffered a hamstring injury. That sent the Ravens front office scrambling. They signed veteran Visanthe Shiancoe, and then Dallas Clark. Shiancoe had a lengthy audition, but it proved unsuccessful and the Ravens released him. Clark is still working up to speed, and with Dickson missing most of training camp, there are suddenly major concerns at a position that, as of early July, was considered one of the Ravens strengths.