The Baltimore Ravens officially opened their training camp on July 24, looking to improve on a 12-4 season and an AFC Championship game appearance.

The Ravens welcomed back 19 of 22 starters from last season, including star running back Ray Rice, who recently inked a 5-year, $40 million contract extension.

Now that Rice is back on board, the Ravens will focus on completing a deal with fifth-year quarterback Joe Flacco, who will enter the season in the final year of his rookie contract. But while Flacco’s agent is conducting daily talks with the Ravens’ front office, Flacco told reporters he’s not worried about getting his deal.

“I’m not worried about it, especially when you’re out here and however hot it was today, that’s the last thing on your mind,” Flacco told reporters after a practice session. “I was glad for Ray Rice. That is a big thing for our organization, to get this done. Ray’s a great back and it’s great to see that happen. I’m not worried about it. I haven’t been worried about it, and I’m not worried about it. It’ll happen one day and whenever it happens, I’ll be excited.”

Flacco said he’s more focused on getting his offense ready for the season. The Ravens ranked 12th in points scored last season, and Flacco believes they can become a top-five unit, but it all starts with him.

“We’ve got to go out there and I think we’ve got to attack and just become a little more accurate, a little bit more precise in everything that we do,” he said. “And I think I start that. I think it’s my job to get everybody on the same page so that when we go out there, there’s no errors, and we’re hitting on all cylinders. If something goes wrong, it’s because something crazy happened. I think if we can all get on the same page and we can all see the defense the same way, we’re going to be tough to stop. My job is to get everybody on the same page and execute.”

Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ receivers
Flacco has been working hard this summer with his receivers to perfect the timing and rhythm of their passing routes. The receivers have also worked out on their own to do a better job holding onto passes, after the Ravens were a dropped pass away from trip to the Super Bowl last postseason.

“You know, that’s the No. 1 job for a receiver – to catch the ball,” said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who noted that his team ranked seventh in the NFL with 31 dropped passes in 2011. “You can talk about speed, size and separation all you want. But, the bottom line is, can you catch? If you can’t catch, in my mind you can’t play receiver.”

Those receivers made some impressive catches during the first week of camp. Veteran Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin has always been consistent, but entering his second year, LaQuan Williams has surprised onlookers with a few spectacular catches.

Williams, who attended Poly Tech High School in Baltimore before studying at the University of Maryland, is fighting for the third receiver position behind Boldin and fellow University of Maryland alum Torrey Smith.

Battle in the trenches
Interestingly, the biggest position battle on offense is “in the trenches” at the right tackle position. Starting right tackle Michael Oher has been moved to the left side after normal starting left tackle Bryant McKinnie was a no-show during the first week of camp. Coach Harbaugh told reporters that McKinnie’s absence is due to “personal reasons” that he won’t share with the media, and said he’s not sure when McKinnie will be ready to return to action.

In the meantime, Oher, whose life story was portrayed in the movie “The Blind Side,” will play left tackle, leaving a void at the right tackle position. Candidates to fill the position include rookie lineman Kelechi Osemele, second-year tackle Jah Reid and third-year tackle Ramon Harewood, but all three of them missed practice last week due to minor injuries.

Defensive battles at camp
There’s also a couple of positions up for grabs on the defensive side of the ball. The Ravens lost two starters to free agency this summer: outside linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive end Corey Redding.

Redding’s position could be filled by either third-year lineman Arthur Jones or second-year lineman Pernell McPhee. Jones is better at stopping the run, while McPhee is a better pass-rush specialist, so both players may end up splitting the duties throughout the course of the season.

Johnson’s old spot may go to rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw or third-year linebacker Sergio Kindle. Both players are excellent at attacking the quarterback, but they’ll both have to improve their skills against stopping the run: Johnson was one of the best run-stoppers for the team throughout his nine-year tenure with the Ravens.

Another defensive spot up for grabs is the cornerback position. Fourth-year cornerback Lardarious Webb led the team last season with five interceptions, and position is secure, but it’s still uncertain who will be the second starting corner.

Five-year cornerback Cary Williams started all 16 games opposite of Webb last season for the Ravens, recording 79 tackles and nearly 20 pass deflections. But the Ravens took cornerback Jimmy Smith in the first round of the 2011 draft in the hopes he could become an elite starter in the league. Smith suffered an injury at the start of last season, but recovered and played well later in the season, recording three interceptions. It will be a tight race between Smith and Williams for the remainder of training camp.

Ray Lewis gets better with age
Ravens legendary linebacker Ray Lewis returned for his 17th season in Baltimore. Lewis, the only remaining member of the Ravens’ Super Bowl championship team of 2001, told reporters that he lost weight and weighs less than he has in his career.

“Yeah, this is definitely the lightest I’ve been since I’ve probably walked into Baltimore,” said Lewis, who was listed at 240 pounds last season. Lewis said he has to play lighter to keep up with today’s pass-oriented game.

“There ain’t no more 250 or 260-pound fullbacks you have offenses running the ball 25, 30, 40-plus times,” he said. “The game is changing to where it’s all based on matchups now. So you just change with the game.”

At 37-years-old, Lewis has recorded 2,586 career tackles, 300 more than any other active player in the NFL. Yet the veteran said he still feels as fresh a rookie.

“Me being back here 17 years, honestly, feels like Year 1 again,” Lewis said. “Every year I embark on something new. Here we go, starting all over again.”

Ravens Ready to Survive without T-Sizzle
Ravens fans were heartbroken when news broke that reigning Defensive MVP Terrell Suggs had torn his Achilles tendon while training this offseason. But Suggs recently told the media that he had a successful surgery to repair the tear, and is currently rehabbing in hopes of returning to action sometime this season.

Until he returns, the Ravens will lean on four-year outside linebacker Paul Kruger to take up some of the duties for which Suggs is usually responsible. Kruger was used mostly as a pass-rush specialist for Baltimore last season, recording five and a half sacks last year. This season, he’ll be expected to contribute in the pass coverage scheme as well, often dropping back to cover tight ends and slot receivers who run shallow routes.

“I’m definitely comfortable confident and ready to go,” Kruger told reporters. “I’ve been working hard this whole offseason, and I’m getting to the point where I’m comfortable and I am completely aware of everything I have to do.”

“My goal is not to be Terrell Suggs,” he added. “I mean, you’re talking about the best defensive player in the league. I’m here to do the best I can for this defense, fill the position and be effective at it. And I think I’m on the right path to do it.”

Perry Green

AFRO Sports Editor