This upcoming 2014 NFL season, a wide variety of relatively unheralded sophomore and third-year players will inherit or take over key roles for even the best teams in the NFL. Whether it's an already-established starter that will now be assuming more responsibility, or a green, untested player that will now look to become a reliable backup, every roster depth chart has a few big question marks.
In this series, I've been breaking down "who" I think those players are, "where" they play, "why" they'll potentially play a key role in 2014, and "how" they'll succeed in that.
On tap today, we have the Baltimore Ravens.
LB Arthur Brown
Who: Brown was a second-round pick by the Ravens in 2013 out of Kansas State. He played in a subpackage role in fifteen games and finished with 15 tackles, a half-sack, and a forced fumble.
Where: Weakside inside linebacker
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Why: Brown is in a tough competition with rookie C.J. Mosely for the starting spot, and that's motivated him even more to become an every-down player after mostly coming on in nickel packages last year.
"Absolutely, Arthur is playing better now than at any point last year," linebackers coach Ted Monachino told Aaron Wilson recently. "As a cover linebacker, [he] still can be dominant down-in and down-out, but as a run-game linebacker, he's playing very well. What you see out of him is the result of a lot of great preparation in the offseason."
Brown has gained seven pounds this offseason to get up to 232, still on the light side for an inside linebacker, but that added bulk will help him on run downs.
How: Brown needs to remain a factor in the passing game and his speed helps him in that area, but being sturdy enough to stay in on run downs means he'll have to make sure to keep his weight on while not sacrificing any speed. "I've got to maintain this weight," Brown told Wilson. "It feels good, I feel fast at this weight. That's very important. A key part of my game is my speed. I worked on my physical strength and added some muscle mass. It's been very beneficial. I feel like I've done a lot to improve my body to get ready for this season. I feel like the strengths of my game are explosiveness, speed and being a sideline-to-sideline defender who has great instincts to get to the football."
SS Matt Elam
Who: Elam was the Ravens' first-round pick in 2013, 32nd overall, out of Florida. He took over the starting job as a rookie in Week 1 and logged 77 tackles and an interception.
Where: Strong safety
Why: Elam, like most first-year safeties, took his lumps early on as he acclimated to the speed of the NFL game and the quality of pro quarterbacks, but made strides as the year went on. He comes into his second season as the presumptive starter and will be looking to become a leader of the defensive backs group. "Matt is going to have a huge year this year - I'll say it now," cornerback Jimmy Smith said recently. "He's going to be lightening back there. ... He's making all the calls; he's commanding the defense. Sky is the limit for that guy."
How: Understanding offensive schemes and route combinations is such a big part of the safety position, and that's part of the reason young players can struggle there. With another season under his belt and better understanding of what's happening in front of him, as Smith notes above, the sky is the limit for Elam.
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OLB Courtney Upshaw
Who: Upshaw was the 35th overall pick of the 2012 draft by the Ravens. He played his college ball at Alabama, where he racked up 141 tackles, 36.5 tackles for losses, 17.5 sacks and six forced fumbles while winning two national championships.
Where: Upshaw has played at a number of spots on the Ravens' defense -- both outside linebacker positions, defensive end, and even a little defensive tackle on nickel downs. His main role, though, is as a strongside outside linebacker.
Why: Due to Upshaw's role, people get frustrated because he hasn't achieved the sack production they might've hoped for, but that doesn't mean he's not a valuable player in the system. At 6'2, 272 pounds, he's known as a 'force' player, setting the edge on the defense and forcing running backs back inside.
"Sometimes, when he sets the edge on a tight end, the ball may cut back immediately, and guys don't see that," defensive coordinator Dean Pees told Aaron Wilson recently. "You see the cutback, you see the play, but you don't really know why the guy cut back. Well, he cut back because Courtney has the tight end knocked about 2 yards back in the backfield."
Head coach John Harbaugh echoed that sentiment. "I love the way he sets the edge. He's physical. He's one of our smartest players. He calls out a lot of defensive signals and gets us lined up, in much of the same way Jarret Johnson did when he was here. He's a solid pass rusher, and he's a premier run defender."
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How: Upshaw will continue to be a premier run defender and that's nothing to scoff at in the AFC North. He may never reach the status of a premier pass rusher, but it won't be for a lack of effort -- he knows that's the part of his game that would elevate him to star status, so he's been working hard at it this offseason.
Who: Pierce was a third-round pick out of Temple back in 2012, and has become a nice complementary piece to Ray Rice in his two seasons in the league. The Ravens' run game was in shambles in 2013, but with Pierce leading the way to start, John Harbaugh and company are looking to jump start that part of their offense.
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Where: Starting running back, at least for the first two weeks.
Why: With Ray Rice suspended for the first two weeks of the season, the Ravens will lean on Pierce to carry the run game. They'll hope for the back that they saw in 2012, when Pierce gained 532 yards on 108 carries. Pierce is a big back with a nice one-cut-and-go style and is surprisingly slippery. In my opinion, he should be a very nice fit for the new Gary Kubiak zone blocking scheme that the team is implementing.
How: The Kubiak ZBS requires a certain discipline to run correctly, so if Pierce is willing to do what the scheme calls for instead of going off script and improvising when receiving the handoff, he should be just fine. It would be very interesting to see if Pierce gives Rice a run for his money for the starting job by going off in the first two weeks.
WR Marlon Brown
Who: Brown was an undrafted free agent out of Georgia that signed with the Ravens in 2013. He caught most evaluators off guard by becoming an immediate contributor -- posting 49 catches for 524 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie. That touchdown total tied San Diego's Keenan Allen as tops among NFL rookie receivers.
Why: Brown was Mr. Reliable last year, dropping only one pass the whole year. Reports out of camp are not as rosy, as it's been noted he's shown a propensity for drops. "I was big on not dropping a ball anymore. Just practice catching, hands placement, everything," he said of last season. "I'm still young, so I'm trying to improve on everything in my game. I just go back and watch the film, and I see things that I'm doing right, and I see things that I'm doing wrong. I work hard on all my weaknesses."
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How: The big thing for Brown will be consistency. Without it, he won't see the field often enough to make a difference. "At the end of the day, I just want to be a guy who is consistent, who is reliable, who you can count on every day, not just on certain days," Brown said. "I just want to keep being consistent every day."
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