A few weeks from what should be the start of Training Camp, Baltimore Sports and Life has solicited the thoughts of a number of the many quality sites which cover the Ravens.

Baltimore Sports and Life thanks each of these sites for providing their excellent analysis.

John Eisenberg

Dan Kolko

Tony Lombardi

Bruce Raffel

Kevin Van Valkenburg

Baltimore Sports and Life: “It is my thinking that Yanda was ok (not great) against speed rushers from the outside, and is better suited as a Guard. The Ravens have made clear they want to extend Yanda. If Yanda becomes an unrestricted Free Agent, do you advocate the Ravens extending him at Tackle dollars?”

Eisenberg: “Yanda is better at guard for sure, but beyond that, he is a good, hardnosed offensive lineman and a dependable guy. You build your line around guys like that. I don’t care whether he makes tackle or guard dollars, he won’t be at the top of the scale and he is worth every penny. He would be my top priority among Ravens to re-sign.”

Kolko: “The Ravens will make Yanda their top free agent priority this offseason, and I have a feeling it won’t be too difficult to bring him back. Yanda will get good money, but he’s worth it. He’s a Pro Bowl-caliber right guard and with his physicality and work ethic, he’s exactly the type of offensive lineman the Ravens look for.”

Lombardi: “I think when Alan Faneca signed his big deal with the Jets a few years back the lines began to blur between guard and right tackle money. The Ravens should give Yanda what he’s worth and from my vantage point that number equates to Pro Bowl guard pay. They will need to be careful though and hope that Yanda likes his surroundings in Baltimore and will give a little hometown discount because Ben Grubbs is on deck for a new contract in 2012.”

Raffel: “When you question whether Marshal Yanda should be given a contract similar to what an offensive tackle gets paid as opposed to a guard, it needs to be clarified as to what side of the line are we talking about as far as tackle salaries. If Yanda wants to make left tackle money, then I’m sure the Ravens will kindly thank him for what he’s done and show him the door, as left tackles are the second highest paid position on the football field after QB. If he wants right tackle money, then I say give it to him as he earned it playing there despite being better suited to play inside the tackles, where he hopefully will return in 2011.”

Van Valkenburg: “I would agree that Yanda is probably more naturally suited to play guard, but I would rate him as better than OK at tackle. I feel like this idea that he was just an average right tackle, but an All Pro guard, has sort of taken on a life of its own in the eyes of Baltimore fans. I think he’s developed into really good lineman at either position, and I would have no problem with the Ravens paying him right tackle money. You do lose one of Yanda’s strengths — pulling — by playing him at tackle. I think he’s the best run blocker they have, and that’s especially true in open space. If you’re the Ravens, Yanda and his agent kind of have you over a barrel. You can’t afford to lose him, especially when you don’t have an off-season to get someone else up to speed on all your blocking schemes.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “Most seem to believe that even as a restricted Free Agent, Jared Gaither would not return. If he is an unrestricted Free Agent, the odds of a return seem even lower. Who is the better LT, Gaither or Oher? Are the Ravens a better team with Gaither, vs. Yanda at Tackle, & Chester at Guard, or Yanda at Guard, & Reid at Tackle?”

Eisenberg: “I do believe Gaither is gone either way. Hard to tell who will lose in that scenario, the player or the team. Gaither was a better LT in 2009 than Oher was in 2010, but Gaither doesn’t work as hard, isn’t as dependable and seems more prone to injury. He wants LT money but might never be a starter again. Or he could be a star, depending on his motivation level. Either way, the Ravens feel better with a hard-worker like Oher in place going forward.”

Kolko: “Oher is clearly the better left tackle at this point. He, unlike Gaither, can actually stay on the field. Gaither is far too injury prone, and his work ethic is a serious issue. Ideally, the Ravens could bring Gaither back at a low price and have him compete with Reid for the right tackle job, but that seems unlikely. Some team will take a risk and throw money at Gaither, and he’s probably looking forward to a fresh start.”

Lombardi: “The team’s best O-line is from left to right Gaither-Grubbs-Birk-Yanda-Oher but that’s unlikely to materialize because unless Gaither surprises everyone and stays (agent Drew Rosenhaus included), he is as good as gone. He will not get a long-term deal in Baltimore because quite simply the Ravens don’t trust Gaither. Oher is the blind side tackle while Jah Reid and Ramon Harewood fight it at for the right tackle position. Yanda will be back to where he should be – right guard.”

Raffel: “As much as I’d like to see it otherwise, I see Jared Gaither being the better left tackle between him and Oher. However, it depends on which Jared Gaither we get, be it the one who played real well prior to the 2010 season or the one that lost 20+ pounds without team permission and was hurt all of 2010? If Gaither puts more weight on and stays healthy, I’d love to see him on the left side and Oher on the right. However, the Ravens did not trade up to grab Oher in the 2009 NFL Draft to play RT and I see the team keeping him on Joe Flacco’s “blind side.” If the good Gaither returns w/o an attitude and in shape, he would be a better RT than Jah Reid, at least right now. However, I think Reid will be a quality RT for years to come if he gets the chance, which I believe he will, and sooner than later.”

Van Valkenburg: “If I were the Ravens, I’d want no part of Jared Gaither anymore. At some point, you need to be able to count on a guy, and Gaither’s injury history, his attitude, and his decision to show up at training camp 30 pounds lighter last year without telling anyone show me he can’t be in their long-term plans. While I was certainly one of the people who tried to point out how average Michael Oher was last year, I still think he can be a very good left tackle in the NFL. Let’s keep in mind that he’s played the position one season. And he basically didn’t have an off-season to prepare. He was facing a great player every week, and at some point, it got into his head a bit, and I think that’s why you saw so many false start penalties. He’ll be fine. I’m a little surprised too that so many people are already handing the right tackle spot to Jah Reid if Yanda moves back to guard. If the Ravens let Gaither go and don’t sign a free agent tackle (I think they should take a long look at Jermon Bushrod of the Saints, who played well in 2009 but had an uneven year last year) then I’ll bet you O’Neil Cousins begins the season as the starter. Reid may be a great player one day, but asking him to earn the starting spot right away when he only has two weeks of training camp is too much to expect from a third round pick. As for Chris Chester, I’d get him some reps at center to try and keep Birk fresher and injury free.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “By nearly all accounts, the Ravens will trade or release McGahee once the labor situation is settled. With that assumption, I would think the Ravens could sell McClain on receiving additional carries. Baltimore had also added Jason McKie at FB. Do you see McClain returning? If you do not see McClain returning, are you comfortable with Parmele, and Allen as the backups?”

Eisenberg: “I like the idea of bringing McClain back and giving him more carries, and McClain would also like it, but if he is an UFA, he will have a lot of suitors, driving up his price tag. With a salary cap in place, the Ravens are going to have to make some tough choices, and I think they would rather pay less for a blocking back and hope to get 5/8 carries a game from the younger guys. Not sure that is the best way to go.”

Kolko: “McClain made it very clear at the end of last season that he wants to get the ball more in the future. That seems to be a possibility in Baltimore because McGahee almost certainly won’t return, but the question is if the Ravens will be open to giving McClain the big-money deal that he could probably find elsewhere. My guess is they’re interested in engaging McClain in talks and will see how high his price tag is.”

Lombardi: “I think McClain’s return is about 50-50. He’d welcome the additional carries but that won’t be what persuades him to stay. Money will be the deciding factor. As for being comfortable with Parmele and Allen, let’s not forget about Curtis Steele. That said, I see a veteran free agent being brought in to replace McGahee if he won’t accept a pay cut. Keep in mind Ozzie Newsome was left high and dry back in 2001 when he didn’t have a viable alternative on the roster to Jamal Lewis.”

Raffel: “I also see the Ravens releasing Willis McGahee for financial reasons. I also cannot see the team paying the type of dollars that McClain will command on the open market. I could see the team trying to sign a cheaper FB out of free agency, such as former Browns Lawrence Vickers, who is more of a pure lead blocker that would help Ray Rice. The loss of McGahee means that we would either give a look to Parmele, but my expectation is that the team would prefer for rookie Anthony Allen to earn that position on the depth chart and succeed as a bigger back and complement to Rice.”

Van Valkenburg: “While I think he’s a great blocker, I’ve never been a big fan of McClain carrying the ball. His downhill running style worked in 2009, but he’s not quick enough through the hole in my opinion to be a consistently great runner. The Ravens might try to sell McClain on getting additional carries, but is he going to be comfortable getting paid like a blocking fullback instead of a power-running fullback who gets 10 carries a game? I doubt it. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler and a two-time All-Pro selection, remember. Someone is going to throw some money at him. And when they do, I’m afraid the Ravens should let him walk. As for backups, I’m of the opinion that running back is one of the few positions where a rookie can contribute right away. I think I would bring in a veteran to compete with Parmele and Allen, and see how quickly someone like Allen can pick up pass blocking, which he did virtually none of at Georgia Tech.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “After the Week 8 bye, Anquan Boldin had just 26 catches for 319 yards. Why that happened is a question for me as the Ravens head into 2011. My guess of part of the reason Boldin was a non-factor in the 2nd half, was that defenses had a lot of guys in the box to limit Rice, and that the Ravens lacked a deep threat in the receiving core. With both Mason, and Houshmandzadeh on the field next to Boldin, the Baltimore offense was running a lot shorter routes (also because of the lack of blocking up-front). With those shorter routes, it was my sense that Flacco was most comfortable with Mason – the receiver he had the most experience with. With greater familiarity between Flacco and Boldin (and the addition of Torrey Smith as a WR capable of stretching the field), should we expect Boldin’s production to increase in 2011?”

Eisenberg: “I would expect more out of Boldin in 2011, and the Ravens should expect more. They didn’t trade for him to disappear in as many games as he did. But it wasn’t all his fault. I agree that Flacco is much more comfortable throwing to Mason, a habit that hurt the team at times. Flacco needs to spread the ball around more. The key to a new scenario is Smith’s ability to catch a few long balls early in the season and stretch out opposing defenses. That would open up room for Boldin underneath.”

Kolko: “I think a lot of that will depend on how much playing time Smith sees and how effective he is. Smith is a legitimate deep threat; a guy who can stretch the field and whose speed forces defenses to sit back in coverage. If the rookie can push those safeties back off the line of scrimmage, Boldin will have more space underneath, and can rack up the receptions and yards after contact.”

Lombardi: “I think defenses rolled coverage towards Boldin and the Ravens didn’t adjust. He often ran out of the slot which never made much sense to me when you have a crafty route runner like Mason on the field. He should have been in the slot with Boldin on the flank. Overall I think opponents simply adjusted to the Ravens more so than Cam Cameron adjusted to them and that has to change. The presence of Torrey Smith isn’t going to immediately loosen things up. Let’s keep in mind that graduating from a collegiate receiver to the NFL is a big challenge under normal circumstances. Without the benefit of OTA’s and what looks like may be a shortened training camp that challenge grew even steeper.”

Raffel: “As Flacco gets more in sync with Boldin and their chemistry grows, so should his stats, and Joe’s as well. Mason is Joe’s fall-back option and rightly so, as he runs great routes and has glue-like hands. Flacco needs to rely less on Rice and stop checking down too early in the play. Torrey Smith will have to earn Joe’s confidence but I expect him to be given the ball by the offensive play calling. Even a guy like Tandon Doss should start getting the throws that previously went to T.J. Houshmandzadeh.”

Van Valkenburg: “I think it will increase some because of the familiarity thing you talked about, but I wish the Ravens would have found more creative ways to get him the ball. How frequently did they put him in motion? Or line him up on the outside and have him run a deep in route? It seemed like they were content just sticking him in the slot and having him run curls, slants and the occasional post. Flacco was comfortable with Mason because Mason runs comebacks on the sideline that almost never result in an interception. For Boldin to get more balls, Flacco is going to have to be more confident zipping the ball into tight spaces. Mostly though, the Ravens need to fix their run game. Part of the reason Boldin’s numbers were down is because the Ravens offense kept wasting possessions. If they can pick up short yardage third downs, Boldin will have more chances. It’s like a hitter get more at bats. It’s a matter of opportunity.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “As a 4th round pick, Tandon Doss figures to make the team, especially given his Kick Return abilities. Obviously Boldin, Mason, and T.Smith will also be on the roster. How do you handicap the race for the 5th WR between Hardy, Reed, Harper, and M.Smith?”

Eisenberg: “Fourth-round picks do not always make the team, but yes, I guess Doss will, probably more for his receiving potential than his return abilities, as I think someone else will run back kicks. In fact, I think it will be David Reed, who showed explosiveness in that role in 2010. I see Reed making the team partly for his special teams abilities. He is fast and just a good football player, period. Hardy, Harper and Smith will have their work cut out for them. They would make it strictly for their special teams play.”

Kolko: “Reed appears to have the edge because he was such a strong kickoff returner when healthy last year. The coaches like him, and I think he would really have to be outplayed in training camp to get cut. Still, Ozzie Newsome really likes Hardy’s size and potential, and Marcus Smith is a great special teams player. That will be a battle to watch.”

Lombardi: “The Ravens love what David Reed did on special teams in ’10 as well as his productivity on the scout team when facing the Ravens’ No. 1 defense. I see Reed at No. 3 when the season starts and it would not surprise me to see the team keep 6 wide receivers particularly if they can once again go with 2 quarterbacks on the roster. I think the two from this list most in danger are Marcus Smith and Justin Harper.”

Raffel: “Coming out of college, I was a huge Marcus Smith supporter, but he was unable to stay healthy and despite playing real solid on Special Teams, is overlooked as a WR. In order, the balls should go to Boldin, Mason, Rice, Heap, T. Smith, T. Doss. James Hardy’s size will be more in line with the team’s gameplan than David Reed’s speed. Reed will be a factor in the return game but I cannot see him nor Smith and Harper contributing much in the passing attack, and would not be surprised to see both Smith and Harper not make the final roster.”

Van Valkenburg: “I would be surprised if Reed made the roster this year, which is too bad, because he does have some talent. But I’m not sure how he fits in. If he makes it, it will have to be as a kick returner. Marcus Smith is a good special teams player, so that is going to give him an edge. And it’s obvious Hardy was signed for a reason. He has great size, and I think the Ravens are probably trying to get bigger at wide receiver after years of struggling with short guys.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “Flacco has yet to miss a start as an NFL QB, but if Bulger leaves the organization, it is unfathomable to me that the Ravens would go with Tyrod Taylor as the primary back-up in a year with Super Bowl aspirations. If Bulger leaves, who do you pursue as the backup?”

Eisenberg: “The Ravens will not go with Tyrod Taylor as their backup, and they would love to bring Bulger back if he is willing to take a pay cut. But I expect Bulger will go where he might be able to get on the field. I think Bruce Gradkowski would be a good fit as a backup. Although he is coming off a shoulder injury, he has started and won his share of games, exhibited a nice throwing touch, and he is relatively young.”

Kolko: “If Bulger signs elsewhere, the Ravens will need a veteran quarterback who can work with Flacco off the field and provide some stability should the starting QB get injured on the field. There are a number of experienced veterans who will be on the market, including Bruce Gradkowski, Kerry Collins and Seneca Wallace.”

Lombardi: “Actually I think Bulger ends up staying but should he leave Bruce Gradkowski comes to mind. He’s shown that he can be a decent relief pitcher and he has loose ties to the Ravens offensive system from his days in Oakland under then offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. And if system familiarity is important, another guy who comes to mind is Billy Volek who has played in Cam Cameron’s system in the past.”

Raffel: “Hopefully, it won’t matter who the backup will be as it has been the loneliest position in the entire NFL the past three years. I would like to see another veteran signed as insurance and it could end up being any number of veterans that should be looking for a job in 2011, all with game experience. However, as popular as Bulger has been rumored to be as a free agent, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return.”

Van Valkenburg: “I would agree that there is no way Taylor be the primary backup. It will be interesting to see who is interested in Bulger once free agency begins, and how interested he is in being a starter again. I can’t imagine why Arizona wouldn’t want him to be their guy for a year or two, but it’s also hard to know just how much he has left because he didn’t play a snap last year. If he leaves, I actually think they should take a look at Drew Stanton, who played some for the Lions and is a free agent. When Stanton was coming out of the draft in 2007, I know Eric DeCosta [the Ravens director of player personnel] was really high on him and felt like he might be the best quarterback in that draft someday. He looked ok at times during limited action in Detroit, and he won’t cost a ton.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “Jimmy Smith was drafted to give the Ravens a physical shut-down CB. Smith will join a returning Foxworth, and Webb. Foxworth won’t ever aid the running game, but he has good speed, cover skills, and has shown leadership abilities. Webb will be in his 2nd year after the ACL injury, and has flashed some elite ability. Will the Ravens be able to also retain either Josh Wilson, or Chris Carr?”

Eisenberg: “With a salary cap in place in 2011, unlike in 2010, the Ravens will not be able to keep both Carr and Wilson. I think they will end up keeping Carr. He was their most dependable corner in 2010 and he is a smart, athletic and versatile locker room leader. The Ravens like Wilson, but he wants to start, and that won’t happen in Baltimore.”

Kolko: “My guess is that one of these two guys returns, and I think Carr is the more likely option. The veteran has loved playing in Baltimore, and at the end of the 2010 season, he said he truly hoped to return to the Ravens in 2011. He’s a team player, a great guy to have in the locker room, and has shown the ability to play a number of spots in the secondary, both inside and outside.”

Lombardi: “I think Wilson or Carr will return but not both. Wilson is the better pure corner but Carr provides some flexibility in that he could play safety in a pinch. Wilson has local ties and is tight with Foxworth while Carr has a history with Chuck Pagano and in many ways he’s the reason Carr came to Baltimore to begin with. One of these corners will stick but it’s 50-50 as to which one it will be.”

Raffel: “While many people favor re-signing both, I can’t see that happening and even though the local Maryland product (Wilson) is more popular, Carr has been the most consistent corner by far over the past two seasons. Foxworth and Carr should start the season, with Jimmy Smith earning his place in there shortly. Webb was repeatedly targeted in 2010 and burned way too often. Josh Wilson was physically manhandled by the bigger WR’s last year. My list in order of value, with the rookie Jimmy Smith at the top goes like this: Smith, Foxworth, Carr, Webb, Chykie Brown, Wilson.”

Van Valkenburg: “I think the Ravens have to try and re-sign Chris Carr, who played really well last year. I’m curious to see what kind of offers he gets, and whether he’ll give the Ravens a chance to match. Wilson is a bit more of a question mark. He has great speed, and he’s physical when it comes to tackling, but he gets pushed by bigger receivers.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “I’m very high on a pair of 2010 Draft picks (Terrence Cody, and Ed Dickson) both emerging in the near-term. Your thoughts on them?”

Eisenberg: “Both guys have potential but it is too soon to call them successful picks. Cody barely got on the field as a rookie because of an injury and conditioning issues. He looks like he is ready to go for his second year, but let’s see if he progresses. Dickson had his moments as a fill-in but didn’t really step up when Todd Heap was injured. I like Dickson’s potential because he is so athletic, but he needs to learn how to get open.”

Kolko: “Dickson has potential, but will be stuck behind Todd Heap again this year. He’ll be asked to do a bit more in two-TE sets, but won’t contribute a ton on offense until Heap leaves through free agency/retires. The coaches love the progress Cody made last season, and feel he could be a breakout performer in 2011, assuming he keeps up his conditioning. I happen to agree with them.”

Lombardi: “I think Cody fits in very well with the Ravens and his biggest value could be that he frees up the sleeker Haloti Ngata to be an even bigger disrupter in 2011. As for Dickson, it’s hard not to think back to 2001 when the rookie Todd Heap played along with Shannon Sharpe. Heap began to blossom in his sophomore season and I think Dickson will do the same as Heap’s understudy. The former Duck is a unique player and I think he can be effective flanked outside the offensive line. I liken him to the Saints’ Marques Colston. He carries his pads well and his game speed is on par with his in-shorts clocked speed. Cam Cameron needs to find ways to take advantage of Dickson’s physical gifts.”

Raffel: NA.

Van Valkenburg: “Dickson, I think, has a chance to be a very good pass-catching tight end. I really think they need to work him into things more this year, because the odds of Todd Heap playing another year injury free are virtually nil. He’s not a very good blocker, but he can run away from linebackers in a way that Heap cannot. As for Cody, supposedly he’s going to show up in great shape this year. I don’t think he’s ever going to be an every-down player the way that Haloti Ngata is, but he can definitely emerge as a contributor this year and a starter in 2012 when Kelly Gregg’s contract runs out. Cody made a few mental mistakes when he saw action last year. In particular, he overran a play that led to a long gain by the Carolina Panthers, and that kicked off the whole thing where Harbaugh told a radio caller to “go root for another team” when the caller advocated firing defensive line coach Clarence Brooks. But that’s what rookies do. I think we’ll see him take reps away from Gregg this year.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “The Ravens were tied for 27th in the league with just 27 sacks on the year. The drafting of Smith gives Baltimore a CB they can leave out on an Island, allowing more pressure to be brought from the Front 7. Sergio Kindle has told the San Antonio Express-News that he received clearance to play in March. Obviously after missing all of last year, Kindle never began the transition to OLB from DE. If Training Camp is delayed, should the Ravens plan on using Kindle as a 3rd down pass-rusher only? Would you consider it a ‘bonus’ if Kindle can contribute at all?”

Eisenberg: “Absolutely, it will be a complete bonus if Kindle can contribute. Since a serious brain injury is much harder to predict than a knee or shoulder, there’s no telling whether he will ever be able to play elite-caliber football again. If he can, the Ravens will basically have themselves another rookie in 2011. I wouldn’t count on it.”

Kolko: “Anything – anything at all – that the Ravens get from Kindle going forward is a bonus, be it as a pass rushing specialist, special teams performer, or otherwise. They haven’t written Kindle into their plans because they have no assurances he’ll be healthy. Even if Kindle can prove he can handle an NFL workload after fracturing his skull about a year ago, they Ravens will take things very slowly with him.”

Lombardi: “I expect Kindle to be a situational pass rusher and play the Sam linebacker in certain sub packages based upon down and distance. The Ravens view him as a 2011 bonus draft pick and they’re excited to get him on the field.”

Raffel: “If Kindle can play and contribute, it will be like getting another 2nd round draft pick this season. If Paul Kruger can learn to play with his hand in the dirt, that will be an added bonus. I’d like to see the team get a veteran pass rushing DE in free agency but the pickings are slim for a bigger 3-4 DE out there, with most of the available talent more suited for a 4-3 scheme. In order for the Ravens to advance further in 2011, their sack total has to increase significantly.”

Van Valkenburg: “I think it would be a mistake to count on Kindle to contribute. I have nothing to support this, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say he starts the year on the PUP list. Who has he received clearance? I bet it’s not from the Ravens yet, because if he has some sort of brain injury and they cleared him to play, they’re going to be the ones who have answer for it, not some doctor in Texas. If I were the Ravens, I’d want to do everything I could to make sure he was medically sound before I let him take full speed snaps in a game. I’m a little surprised at how quickly people seem to be penciling him in the line-up and expecting he’ll contribute. I think making the roster after seven games on the PUP is a more realistic goal.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “What are your current thoughts on some other players in the Front 7 – Jarret Johnson? Paul Kruger? Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe?”

Eisenberg: “Johnson is underrated and probably has another year or two of good football left. Kruger has accomplished little and needs to do something to keep his career going. McClain seems energized by having become a starter in 2010 and might be on the cusp of taking a major step forward. Ellerbe regressed in 2010 and needs to show up in better shape.”

Kolko: “Johnson, when healthy, is one of the most underrated players in the league. Kruger made strides last year as a down defensive end, and could see more playing time if he continues to develop. McClain is solid on the inside, but hasn’t shown enough true athleticism to earn the job next to Ray Lewis full-time. Ellerbe is great against the run and has the potential be a very strong player, but he needs to work harder mid-week and earn his way back into the coaches’ good graces.”

Lombardi: “Jarret Johnson is a leader who will respond positively to two consecutive somewhat subpar seasons; Kruger needs to step up and earn the coaches’ respect in practice so that he can see the field more; McClain has worked hard this offseason and I think the battle between him and Ellerbe for the slot beside Ray Lewis will be one of the more interesting camp battles when camp finally gets going.”

Raffel: “(see previous Kruger comment) Jarret Johnson is a solid yet unspectacular veteran, but his performance in 2010 was not as good as it was in 2009. Both McClain and Ellerbe have looked good, but Jameel really turned it on in 2010 and started 15 games for a reason. Expect him to line up next to Ray Lewis in 2011 and between Ellerbe and Tavares Gooden, those two will fight it out for the next spot on the depth chart and with it, playing time.”

Van Valkenburg: “Johnson needs to get healthy. He was clearly playing through injuries last year, and it showed. Kruger needs reps, but I’m not sure where he’s going to get them if Corey Redding comes back. McClain is probably the most frustrating player for me to watch, because I think he has really bad instincts. Ellerbe is obviously talented, but needs to prove to the coaching staff he’s mature enough to handle more responsibility.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “The three primary issues of criticism for Flacco’s play are his limitations over the middle of the field, his propensity for checking down, and that he does not get rid of the ball quick enough. All of those critiques might be fair, and I myself have regularly spoken about the need for Flacco to improve against the Cover 2 zones over the middle. That said, I think there is often not enough focus on all of the positives Flacco brings to the table. For the 2nd consecutive year, he threw for 3,600+ yards. He had a QB Rating of 93.6%, and had 25 TD’s against just 10 picks. He has also now won 4 playoff games (all on the road). If he is not in that elite group of P. Manning, Brady, Brees, Rivers, Rodgers and Roethlisberger; I would argue he is at the top of that next tier. Do you agree?”

Eisenberg: “Flacco is not quite at the top of the second tier below those superstars. He has done some good things, as you point out, but he needs to take the next step. That involves taking more control of the offense, making better reads, throwing better on the run and being more consistent – fewer “blackout” stretches like those he suffered through too often in 2010.”

Kolko: “He’s near the top of the so-called “second tier”, but in reality, that means nothing. For Flacco to truly take the next step, he has to win the big games, plain and simple. He’s racked up impressive statistics, and certainly has the potential to be a top quarterback in this league, but to firmly establish himself as one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, Flacco has to make key plays in crunch time and earn the tough wins against quality teams.”

Lombardi: “2011 is a big year for Joe. He’ll bring a chip on his shoulder to the field and try to silence his critics. I think he will and he’ll start to knock on the door of that elite group. Until then I’d rank him a bit behind his 2008 draft classmate Matt Ryan.”

Raffel: “Absolutely he deserves to be in that next tier and we do not even need him to be one of the best in the league to win a Super Bowl with this team. If he ends the 2011 firmly in the top ten across all consensus standards, that should be good enough. Right now, he is on the fence of the top 9 or 10 QBs in the league but needs to get around 8th, which would put him in serious All-Pro company.”

Van Valkenburg: “I think it’s fair to say he’s in the next tier, but I also think the idea of debating tiers is sort of pointless, when you think about it. It’s a way for journalists and fans to fill up the hours and hours of time in between games. In the end, no one crosses and invisible threshold and suddenly gets to call themselves ELITE. You don’t need to be an “elite” quarterback to win a championship in the NFL, but you do have to consistently play well under pressure, and that’s what I’d like to see Flacco do a little more of this year. It’s not necessarily about leading game-winning drives all the time, because that’s not all on him. But for me, it’s about hitting on a big third-down throw in the second quarter that keeps a drive going and helps put a team away. Or it’s about converting more red zone chances. Or better recognizing where the blitz is coming from. I think he’s going to get even better, but I still think there are going to be some growing pains too.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “Coach Harbaugh has stated Flacco will have further input into the offense this year, and greater ability to audible at the line, and call his own plays. It appears the Ravens want Flacco to improve his leadership abilities. Once the CBA is addressed, should the Ravens pursue an extension with Flacco now, or wait until after the season?”

Eisenberg: “Steve Bisciotti has said that he is going to wait until after the season to pursue an extension. I see no reason to change that scenario. Flacco doesn’t like it, but it’s good to keep him motivated, then pay him if and when he delivers.”

Kolko: “Given the short window they’ll have before the 2011 season gets underway, the Ravens will have bigger priorities than working out an extension for Flacco. They need to worry about shaping their roster for this season before dealing with a guy who’s under contract through the next two years. Flacco’s extension will come, I just don’t think it will come right away.”

Lombardi: “There is no need to extend him now. That chip on Joe’s shoulder gives him some needed edginess and its existence is at least in part due to the lack of an extension. It’s time for Joe to step up. If he does, then an extension is in order. If he doesn’t step up, he’ll have a fifth year to determine the value of his extension. Let’s keep in mind that Philip Rivers and Eli Manning both waited until the final years of their rookie deals before landing new contracts.”

Raffel: “I think they will wait until after the season or at least well into it, as they will have so many financial decisions and free agents after 2011 to allot their cash towards. Flacco will stay a Raven, no question about it, but with the Lockout ending and the frenzy of free agency and training camp then the regular season, it will have to be on the back burner as a 2012 priority.”

Van Valkenburg: “While I believe he’s their quarterback of the future, I would still wait and work out an extension after the season. Maybe the end up paying him more as a result, because maybe he has an incredible season, but he’s going to get a ton of money either way. They have too many other financial concerns right now that need to be addressed first. He seems a little annoyed they haven’t locked him up yet, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He still has something to prove in the eyes of a lot of people. Like it or not, it’s the toughest position in sports. If he gets them to the Super Bowl, he can almost name his price.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “When Greg Mattison left the Ravens to become the Defensive Coordinator for the University of Michigan, Baltimore promoted Chuck Pagano from within to replace Mattison. I was fairly ambivalent on the hire. I like that the players believe Pagano will be more aggressive, and that Pagano got to work with both Ryan and Mattison. On the other-hand, this team is built to win now. The move might prove to be great, but I do question if going to another 1st time Coordinator makes sense with the current roster. Your thoughts on the hire?”

Eisenberg: “I had no problems with the hire, primarily because the players were so in favor of it. They play better when they really like the guy they’re playing for – just ask them about Rex Ryan. That wasn’t the case with Mattison. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Greg, they just didn’t really relate to him. But they know and love the fiery Pagano, and I think that alone could lead to better defense.”

Kolko: “Pagano is a strong hire. He knows his personnel and the system that’s currently in place, and won’t make many dramatic changes to the defensive scheme, which will be key given the extended lockout. He’s very well-liked by his players and will implement a slightly more aggressive style, which will be appreciated by the guys in the locker room. He’ll be a good fit.”

Lombardi: “Pagano’s familiarity with the personnel couple with the veteran leadership makes this a non-issue. Plus Pagano’s DNA is more in tune with the team’s defensive DNA. This will be a good fit.”

Raffel: “Pagano is more of a “players” coach than Mattison was and will play hard for the guy who will unleash them on the opposition. He has a bigger fire and is more passionate, to which the players will respond better to. No way Pagano rushes three on 3rd and long like the Ravens did all too many times to everyone’s frustration last year.”

Van Valkenburg: “I don’t think the fact that Pagano is a first time defensive coordinator will factor into things that much. I’ve said this a bunch about Cameron, and it’s true of Pagano — even if they wanted to make an outside hire, the labor situation make it almost impossible. If another defensive coordinator came in and tried to put in a whole new scheme, and he had only training camp to do it, it would be a disaster. The Ravens had to do what they did, and hope that a philosophical tweak will be enough.”

Baltimore Sports and Life: “How do you rate Coach Harbaugh and his Offensive and Defensive Coordinators as compared to Coach Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Coordinators?”

Eisenberg: “The Steelers’ Dick LeBeau is a legendary defensive coordinator, one of the best ever, so he rates ahead of Pagano. I don’t see a measurable difference between the Ravens’ Cam Cameron and the Steelers’ Bruce Arians. And Harbaugh and Tomlin are both strong. They bring different things to the table but they both have winning records.”

Kolko: “It’s tough to compare the two staffs given that Tomlin and Co. have made it to two Super Bowls (and won one), and Harbaugh’s group has yet to reach that level. Tomlin is a great motivator and in-game coach and has a legendary defensive coordinator by his side in Dick LeBeau. The Ravens have done some nice things under Harbaugh and Cam Cameron and have been in contention for a title each of the last three years, but they still have work to do to reach Tomlin’s level.”

Lombardi: “I think it’s a clean sweep for Pittsburgh. That team knows how to win better than the Ravens. They play through the fourth quarter better than the Ravens and they don’t play scared the way the Ravens do at times. At least some of that has to come from the head coach and coordinators.”

Raffel: “As well as Harbaugh has done in his first three years, he just is not near the level of a Tomlin as much as it hurts to say it. I thought Tomlin out-coached Harbaugh in games last year and Jim knows it is true. He needs to reign in his coordinators to put in place “his” gameplan and manage it better. No one in Pittsburgh is thrilled with their OC, Bruce Arians, but their DC is one of the best ever, combining with Tomlin to be the better coaching staff….right now.”

Van Valkenburg: “As far as assistants, it’s kind of an unfair fight in favor of Pittsburgh. Dick LeBeau is one of the all-time great defensive coordinators, someone you’d almost consider the bard of the zone blitz. Bruce Arians made some questionable calls in the Super Bowl, I thought, but overall I think he’s a pretty good assistant. He clearly knew what play to call against the Ravens when it was 3rd-and-26. (Cam Cameron would have called an end-around Donte Stallworth.) The head coach question is a bit tougher. I think Tomlin is an exceptional coach,and I’d probably give him the edge over Harbaugh. While both are very organized, very professional, and very smart, I think Tomlin’s players revere him, whereas I think Harbaugh’s players respect him. Tomlin’s teams seem to almost always have the Ravens number, and until that changes, he has to be considered the superior coach.”

Chris Stoner
Chris Stoner


Chris Stoner founded Baltimore Sports and Life in 2009. He has appeared as a radio guest with 1090 WBAL, 105.7 The Fan, CBS 1300, Q1370, WOYK 1350, WKAV 1400, and WNST 1570. He has also been interviewed by The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Business Journal, and PressBox (TV). As Owner, his responsibilities include serving as the Managing Editor, Publicist, & Sales Director.