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Postcard from camp: Ravens

SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Ross Tucker had to say about the Ravens' camp in Maryland.

The Baltimore Ravens practice on the campus of McDaniel College, formerly known as Western Maryland, in Westminster, an hour northwest of Baltimore. Like a lot of these training camp locations, Westminster is the quintessential small-college town in which the basis for all of the activity around the town revolves around the college. Except for late July through early August that is, when the Ravens take center stage.

Peter King and I were there on the first day of full-team practice and the place was an absolute madhouse, which has its pros and cons of course. The pros are that the atmosphere for practice was festive and energizing, with the Ravens estimating over 10,000 people in attendance and a standing room only crowd that surrounded the field lined up almost ten-deep in some areas. The cons were that it took at least a half hour to go a quarter of the mile up the hill to the practice fields due to the traffic congestion and the parking situation was so overflowed that Peter finally just parked on the side of the street on a portion of the road in which the sidewalk was painted yellow. Alas, he received a nice parting gift of a parking ticket.

1. Haloti Ngata has a great chance to be the best defensive tackle in the league. Ravens defensive tackle Justin Bannan told me that he would absolutely take Ngata over any other interior defensive linemen in the league and said that Ngata has "Hall of Fame potential". That is high praise for a player only going into his fourth year in the league but Ngata is undoubtedly worthy. He is blessed with extraordinary agility and cat-like quickness for a man that weighs 340 pounds and really took the league by storm last season, especially during the playoffs. One player I spoke with compared Ngata's lower-body to a rhinoceros while veteran center Matt Birk said Ngata's natural ability makes him a "next generation" type of player, comparing his physical dominance at the defensive tackle position to his former teammate AdrianPeterson's exceptional traits for a running back.

Ngata, for his part, knows that his reputation is on the rise.

"I think the games at the end of the season really helped to put me on the map because everybody is watching the playoffs at the end of the season since there are only a couple of games left" said Ngata.

And what about the Hall of Fame talk?

"It is really humbling and an honor to even hear somebody say that, especially a teammate like Bannan," said Ngata, "But we already have a couple of Hall of Famers on that defense so I really just try to watch them and do what they do. I would love to get to that point some day."

The scary part for opposing offenses this year is that it sounds like the Ravens are going to turn Ngata loose even more in 2009 than in year's past. Whereas in past years there was a certain number of plays in which he would either be a decoy or take up blockers in order to allow other defenders to get free runs at the quarterback in RexRyan's system, new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison appears poised to allow Ngata to rush the passer every chance he gets.

2. Joe Flacco is a changed man. I came to training camp around this time last year and the difference between Flacco, and the Ravens offense in general, from last year to this year is mind-boggling. Last year's practice, whether it was Flacco, Troy Smith, or Kyle Boller taking snaps, was wrought with mistakes, penalties, and interceptions. This year, Flacco is clearly in command of everything the Ravens are doing offensively whether that means making sure his guys are lined up correctly or throwing a dart into a tight window.

Flacco was impressive in practice throwing the ball to a bunch of receivers that are so green they could be vegetables. Even against the vaunted Ravens defense, Flacco was sharp, a good sign for the Ravens to be sure. Now that Derrick Mason is back in camp, look for Flacco to have significantly better passing numbers this year than he did as a rookie.

3. The Ravens get after it. The tempo and intensity of the practice was outstanding and it is no wonder why the Ravens have been such a physical and intimidating franchise for so long. The morning practice was fully padded and featured some live tackling which is no longer commonplace in the NFL. Even the special teams portion of the practice, which for some teams is usually taught at a pace conducive to learning, was pretty much full go.

The funny thing is that even though there was more brutal contact involved than in other places, the players seemed to be having fun and genuinely enjoying themselves. Whether it is the influence of Ray Lewis or not, the players are highly competitive and almost prefer to get after each other if they are going to be out their in full gear. It beats going through more and more individual drills like hitting the sled. Getting players to enjoy beating the heck out of each other is no small feat for John Harbaugh and perhaps one reason why he was so successful as a rookie head coach. That said, it was the first day, so who knows if the Ravens will be able to keep up the tempo throughout the next couple of weeks of camp.

It was pretty strange to see longtime Minnesota Vikings center Birk in a purple uniform with out seeing the Vikings horns on the side. Stranger still to see him wearing No. 77 after 11 years wearing No. 78. Knowing Birk a bit, I suspected that he declined to purchase his old number from veteran swing tackle Adam Terry because he is, let's just say, fiscally conservative.

"Actually, I just wanted a clean slate," said the six-time Pro Bowler, "New team, new city, new number. It's a fresh start."

Birk is probably not the same player athletically that he was a couple of years ago but he more than makes up for that with his football acumen and veteran craftiness. His leadership and knowledge of the game could make him the ideal complement to Flacco as his career progresses over the next couple of seasons. With pressure packages becoming more and more a part of defenses in the NFL on an annual basis, Birk is the calming influence in the middle not only for Flacco but also for all of the youth that flanks him on both sides of the line.

First-round pick Michael Oher is being counted on to man the right tackle spot and the Ravens have thrust him onto the first unit from Day 1. He raised some eyebrows in his first one on one pass protection drill against the Ravens top rusher, Terrell Suggs. Oher punched him with his inside hand and it knocked Suggs to the ground. Suggs is so well respected that there was a palpable silence after the play. But the veterans definitely took notice.

Oher, for his part, didn't want the word to get out about his impressive opening play.

"No, no, no, don't say anything about that," said Oher, "I don't want him to start to turn up the heat on me."

Like fellow first-round tackles Jason and Andre Smith (Rams and Bengals, respectively), Oher is making the transition from left tackle to right tackle. And like those two, Oher admitted that the adjustment is taking some getting used to, especially as it relates to his hand placement and footwork. The good news is that he has picked up the offense thus far pretty quickly and his aggressive and physical temperament fits the Ravens mold and should play well in the AFC North.

The Ravens are expecting big things this season from second-year running back Ray Rice, especially catching passes out of the backfield, and he showed why during the first padded practice. Rice shook free from a linebacker while running an option route and then made a spectacular one-hand catch in stride, pulling the ball into his chest and continuing to run down field with it as if nothing unique had happened at all. It would have been a highlight-film quality play by a wide receiver which means it is a spectacular one for a running back.

Rice continues to do everything that the Ravens have asked of him and he could supplant incumbent Willis McGahee as the starter. Rice has tremendous power in his lower body and has impressed Ravens coaches with his attention to detail and professionalism. McGahee has been a solid player in Baltimore but has been in and out of the lineup with injuries and doesn't show the same hunger at this juncture of his career. The bottom line is that Rice is an ascending player while the lethal combination of nagging injuries and poor work habits may mean McGahee's production will take a hit in 2009.

• Mason coming back to the team was not a big surprise although at least one veteran player did not think he would return. The fact that he returned to the team earlier than even the most hopeful Raven observer expected is a boon for the franchise.

Ed Reed is making wearing a red jersey a habit. For the second year in a row, Reed is a non-contact player as they attempt to manage his nerve impingement. He should be fine for the season but it is an injury that won't go away any time soon, if ever.

Jared Gaither looks the part of an elite left tackle and plays the part at times as well. He may never be physical enough to become an intimidating performer but from a pass protection standpoint he is more than good enough.

• Third-round pick LaDarius Webb from Nicholls St. is another rookie to keep your eye on as he made a number of plays during the morning practice that we saw. Unfortunately for him, the Ravens are embarrassingly deep at cornerback so playing time anytime soon could be hard to come by.

• New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is going to be aggressive but you may not see quite as much in the way of exotic blitzes. Every coordinator is different and Mattison isn't expected to be quite as much of a risk-taker as his predecessor, Ryan.

• We may see Todd Heap put up the numbers this season from the tight end position that we had grown accustomed to a couple of years ago. He feels completely healthy for the first time in a while, Flacco is in his second season, and the Ravens have another threat at the tight end position in L.J. Smith, which could allow for some favorable match-ups for Heap should Smith return to form and become a real threat. Heap spent so much time pass-protecting last season to ensure that Flacco was protected and his numbers suffered as a result.

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