COMMENTARY | Early returns on the Baltimore Ravens' offseason purge have been less than positive. In fact, the team has looked downright awful on offense. Since the Ravens rarely play their top starters in the fourth preseason game, Thursday's game against the Carolina Panthers could be the last season preview for Ravens fans.
With that in mind, here's a look at five players to keep an eye on during the game.
His game-saving defensive stand in the Super Bowl is rapidly becoming a distant memory as Jimmy Smith continues to struggle mightily in the preseason.
Smith's problem isn't that he can't cover. He is regularly draped all over his man, as he was every time he gave up a reception in Week 2 against the Falcons. His problem is his ball skills, which may qualify as the worst ball skills among all NFL cornerbacks.
Jimmy Smith simply does not play the ball when it's in the air. He will be stride for stride with a receiver downfield, yet will give up the reception anyway because he simply never saw the ball coming. That won't work in a conference with deep threats like A.J. Green and Josh Gordon.
Smith should draw an easy assignment this week against the Panthers' mediocre group of receivers. He has a lot to prove, but showing that he can at least cover a marginal receiver should at least help keep him on the roster. Look especially at Smith's head: Someone needs to teach him to turn it towards the ball or Smith will cement his bust status.
The most interesting man in purple recently has been rookie wide receiver Aaron Mellette, a big, physical target with a knack for making tough catches. His good work in practice has gotten noticed, as Mellette has started taking some reps with the first team. How he's used on Thursday will gave a great indication as to whether Mellette is really a contender for early reps in the Ravens offense.
So far, Mellette has only seen preseason action late in games, catching a pair of touchdowns against inferior competition. The starters' struggles, though, may give Mellette his best chance of the season to see significant reps.
Look for two things from Mellette.
First, just observe the timing of his reps. Taking first-team reps in practice and doing so in a game are two very different things. We'll get an idea of what the Ravens really think about him just from when he gets on to the field.
Second, Mellette needs to prove to be a more versatile threat than he's shown so far. He has had a flair for the dramatic deep catch, but he hasn't been targeted often yet. Does this indicate a struggle to get open, or was it just the flow of the game? Mellette needs to prove to be a reliable, consistent target capable of catching balls at all levels of the field to see consistent playing time.
On a team with real questions at receiver, Mellette's solid play has been one of the few bright spots. Whether it actually means something, though, will be found out on Thursday.
Another receiving target to watch would be Dallas Clark, the Ravens' latest addition who will attempt to become the Ravens' most reliable threat over the middle of the field. Right now, though, no one really knows what Clark has left in the tank.
Clark will probably be used in a similar role to the one Pitta held in 2011, when he was the more reliable but less explosive sidekick to Ed Dickson. Expect to see Clark run plenty of short comebacks and flats, especially on third down. Those are the routes that Pitta made his living early in his career, and Clark could do the same.
If Clark can fill that role competently, then the Ravens passing attack should benefit greatly. A couple short passes to Clark could open things up down the field, where Joe Flacco and the offense have struggled to connect so far.
Few expected that the Ravens center competition would be particularly open-ended, yet here we are in Week 3 of the preseason with no starter named. Gino Gradkowski has a chance to finally secure the job, though, with a strong performance against the Panthers.
Last week saw A.Q. Shipley struggle mightily with both penalties and blocking in a starting role. There's little doubt that Gradkowski moved ahead in the competition last week, and this week is his best opportunity to end the competition.
The Panthers actually have a pretty solid group of tackles, with Dwan Edwards and Star Lotulelei both possessing solid strength and explosiveness which should give Gradkowski all he can handle physically. Winning those matchups on a regular basis would be the proof the Ravens coaches need that Gradkowski can handle the physical rigors of the game. That would be enough to cement him as the starter.
Hard to believe, but it's Josh Bynes, not Arthur Brown sitting atop the Ravens' depth chart at inside linebacker. That makes Brown an interesting guy to watch going forward as he attempts to dethrone Bynes and earn a spot that should be his sooner or later.
That Bynes is currently starting is a testament to the Ravens' desire to use a big inside linebacker to free up blockers for his teammates, something that Bynes does reasonably well. His style is similar to the injured Jameel McClain's, so the Ravens probably like the idea of using Bynes in a similar role.
Unfortunately, Bynes is a pretty mediocre player who doesn't shed blocks well and is a liability in coverage. He may fill holes, but Bynes certainly won't make many impact plays. Brown, however, will.
Brown has already displayed excellent instincts and range, something that draftniks already knew he possessed. Perhaps no linebacker on the Ravens has more playmaking ability than Brown, who has immediately shown a knack for blowing up plays in the backfield.
The Ravens are proving more hesitant than ever, though, to hand starting jobs to rookies. Brown, Matt Elam and Brandon Williams all look to be coming off the bench at the beginning of their careers, while no other rookies are likely to even be in the rotation. Brown will have to earn that starting job.
So far, Brown has outplayed Bynes, but he's done it against second-team competition. Look for him to play with his hair on fire as he attempts to break into the first team. Especially keep an eye on him in comparison with Bynes, the player standing between Brown and a starting role.
Shawn Brubaker is a graduate of the Catholic University of America. He was a Baltimore Ravens featured columnist for Bleacher Report for two years and is currently a co-host of Ravens Central Radio.
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