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NFL camp preview: New-look Ravens begin title defense

The SportsXchange

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- After their Super Bowl victory was followed by a massive turnover, the Baltimore Ravens report to camp Wednesday and in their first practice Thursday a key issue may be that all the names are correct on the backs of jerseys.

Among the names they will not see that had a big impact last season are linebacker Ray Lewis (retired), center Matt Birk (retired), wide receiver Anquan Boldin (traded, 49ers), strong safety Bernard Pollard (cut), fullback Vonta Leach (free agent). ...

Deep breath. ...

And, free safety Ed Reed (free agent, Texans), cornerback Cary Williams (free agent, Eagles) and linebackers Dannell Ellerbe (free agent, Dolphins) and Paul Kruger (free agent, Browns).

After all that, the Ravens insist they are improved, especially in terms of team speed. One key addition is veteran defensive back Michael Huff, whose versatility, speed and experience are expected to ease the loss of Reed.

The most intense focus as they begin camp will be to solidify the inside linebacker group that was led for so long by Lewis and whomever lined up next to him, which was Ellerbe last season.

The top candidates are former Jacksonville Jaguars starter Daryl Smith and rookie second-round draft pick Arthur Brown. The Ravens would have more stability there if inside linebacker Jameel McClain is cleared from a spinal cord contusion suffered last December against the Washington Redskins. McClain is upbeat about his medical outlook, but hasn't gotten doctors to clear him yet.

The Ravens need someone to emerge from the pack of wide receivers to replace Boldin.

Jacoby Jones, a Pro Bowl kick returner and part-time receiver last season, is in line to start opposite speedster Torrey Smith. Smith could be the new No. 1 wideout, but he'll need help. Jones failed his conditioning test Monday and was declared active/non-football injury, but he is expected to be able to pass and practice soon.

The Ravens are plugging in three new starters in the secondary to replace Reed, Pollard and Williams. They'll look to Huff at free safety, rookie Matt Elam at strong safety and either Jimmy Smith or Corey Graham opposite cornerback Lardarius Webb, who's coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

The Ravens are especially relying on Huff, who moves in for Reed, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year who went to the Houston Texans on a three-year, $15 million contract. Huff doesn't have Reed's 61 interceptions as the NFL's active career leader. However, he is younger and faster.

And the Ravens hope Huff's versatility pays dividends for them this fall after signing him to a three-year, $8 million contract.

"It's great," said Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin when asked about Huff's positional flexibility and cover skills. "He has great range. He has really good speed. We all know he has played corner in the past. He has played safety, so he gives us a lot of flexibility matchup-wise.

"He can cover, he can blitz, he can play in the back. We will use that to the best of our ability to try to confuse quarterbacks and try not to line him up in the same place all the time."

Cut by the Raiders prior to free agency when they were unwilling to pay him a total of $8 million this season, Huff is a once-heralded first-round draft pick who hasn't emerged as a dominant player in the NFL like Reed.

Huff was selected seventh overall by the Raiders out of Texas during the 2006 NFL draft. He has recorded 453 career tackles, 11 interceptions, 5.5 sacks, 57 pass deflections and four forced fumbles.

Huff looks at replacing Reed as an honor, eschewing comparisons.

"I think we know we have big shoes to fill," Huff said. "Obviously, Ed is one of the greatest, if not the greatest ever, to play the game. There's only one Ed, and there's only one Michael Huff. So, I'm just going to go out there and play my game."
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