COMMENTARY | For the Baltimore Ravens, there will be no shortage of competitions during this year's training camp. On both sides of the ball, the team has a plethora of training camp battles for both starting and backup jobs.
On offense, the competition for the second starting wide receiver position and the battle for the starting center job will be the headliners. On defense, the myriad of new defensive linemen, including Chris Canty, Marcus Spears and Brandon Williams, will battle with the incumbents for playing time along Baltimore's three-man defensive front.
But no defensive positional battle is more intriguing than at inside linebacker, where both starting jobs in the middle of Baltimore's 3-4 defense are far from determined as the beginning of training camp awaits.
The Ravens will have to replace both starters from last season, Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe, and will do so with news faces. During the offseason, the Ravens used their second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft on former Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown.
In June, the Ravens signed veteran linebacker Daryl Smith, formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The two newcomers will compete with Jameel McClain and Josh Bynes. Of the four, it appears to be a three-man race of Brown, Smith and McClain, however an injury to any of the three would quickly put Bynes on a fast track to a starting job.
Of the three top competitors for the two open spots, which two players have the best chance to win a starting job?
Brown and Smith, right now, have the edge heading into training camp. What gives Brown an easy route to a starting job is not only the fact that he is the most versatile of the three linebackers, but he fits in the defense best on the weak side. Taking over on the weak side, Brown would assume the role that Ellerbe had last season.
The Ravens used Ellerbe primarily as a player who could cover the middle of the field and shoot gaps on blitzing plays. Brown's speed and field awareness gives him the best chance to have success as a weak-side linebacker, and barring any struggles learning the playbook, he should be a starter when the Ravens travel to Denver for the season opener.
The battle for the strong side linebacker job will likely be between Smith and McClain, and Smith has the inside track to winning the competition, mainly because of McClain's looming health issues.
McClain missed the final three games of the regular season and the 2012 playoffs due to a season-ending neck injury, and was placed on the active PUP list on Monday. McClain can be activated from the list at any time, but while he is on the list, he can't practice. For a competition in which every rep will count during training camp, any practice missed by McClain gives Smith a leg up on the competition.
Smith is also recovering from a hernia injury he suffered last season, but since he wasn't placed on the PUP list, he is likely a full go for the start of training camp.
What also gives the edge to Smith is that, when both him and McClain are healthy, he is the superior linebacker, providing value particularly in pass defense.
The battle at inside linebacker is one of the main story lines to follow during Baltimore's training camp, and the two linebackers who emerge from the competition will have plenty of eyes on them this season as they anchor the middle of the Ravens defense.
Kyle Casey is a sports writer living in Baltimore, Md. He maintains his own football site, End Zone Report, and is the editor of Cat Crave.
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