- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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WESTMINSTER, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens opened training this week with a newfound energy and a sense of redemption. Despite a wealth of talent -- particularly on defense -- the Ravens went 5-11 and were one of the biggest disappointments of the 2007 season.
Longtime Ravens coach Brian Billick was shown the door after last season, and rookie head coach John Harbaugh was brought in to instill life into this veteran, star-laden team. Harbaugh is making his imprint early by running an intense, fast-paced camp this summer.
The Ravens are an interesting team that is in transition in many ways. They have a mix of youthful players and a new coaching staff on offense, while the defense has a ton of experience and its coaching staff remains intact, led by savvy defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
Baltimore won 13 games two years ago, and the Ravens believe they can have a winning season again if key players stay healthy this year. Still, many questions remain.
1. Who will win the quarterback battle in Baltimore?
This is by far the most interesting and important position battle in the AFC North because it will have a major impact on the success of the team. It's a race among three players as Kyle Boller, Troy Smith and rookie Joe Flacco all have different levels of experience and skills. The winner of this job not only must run a demanding offense run by Cam Cameron, but would also have to find a way to mesh their skills within the scheme.
Smith is the favorite to win the job because of a good spring and the fact he finished last season as the starter. Boller's starting experience could help, but he would have to play really well during the preseason. Flacco is third in the competition right now and would have the longest way to go between now and September.
Baltimore joins the Miami Dolphins as the only two teams in the NFL with a three-way quarterback race this summer.
"It is unique,'' Harbaugh said. "I don't know how often it has happened. That would probably be an interesting study. It's fun. It's fun watching those three guys battle it out."
Not much was decided in the first week of training camp. The Ravens say they will take their time to make a decision, and even hinted that it could lead all the way to Week 1 of the regular season against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Competition picked up as the first week went on. The first practice saw a lot of poor decision-making and mental errors. But by the third practice, Smith, Boller and Flacco all elevated their games.
Another interesting note is that all the quarterbacks get along well and there doesn't appear to be any animosity. Their politeness (perhaps overly polite) has made some in Baltimore wonder if either quarterback wants the job bad enough.
"Make no mistake about it: Every one of those three guys wants the job,'' Harbaugh ensured. "It's not really a nice-guy contest. We're all nice guys, but it's a quarterback contest."
2. What's the deal with Terrell Suggs?
Although technically he is not considered a contract holdout, linebacker/defensive end Suggs is making a significant statement by not showing up to training camp on time this week.
Suggs received a one-year franchise tender worth $8.5 million this offseason with hopes that both sides could reach a long-term agreement before the July 15 deadline. But after a series of negotiations, including strong talks the final few days leading up to the deadline, nothing came to fruition.
Baltimore had most of the leverage in these negotiations because of the option to keep the tag on Suggs. But one of the few power plays Suggs can make is not signing the tender and sitting out of training camp, which is what he is doing. The Ravens cannot penalize Suggs for missing camp because, without his signature, he is not legally under contract.
It is unknown when Suggs will report, but the issue will be resolved before the regular season for the simple fact that are no other options for either side until Suggs becomes a free agent again in 2009.
3. Will Harbaugh's way work in Baltimore?
Harbaugh's first training camp already has earned the label of "Camp Hardball" in Baltimore. The practices this summer will be long, up-tempo and physical.
In many ways, Harbaugh is the anti-Billick. The son of a coach, Harbaugh is old school and believes in stringent practices, while at the same time developing a good rapport with his players. Billick ran extremely light practices and developed a reputation of being close-minded on many football issues.
Upon his arrival this offseason, Harbaugh made it a point to work closely with team leaders such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, with the intent that it would have a trickle-down effect into the team's locker room.
So far it has. The entire team appears to be on board with Harbaugh's fresh approach.
Tight end continues to be a position of concern. Starter Todd Heap is the only proven commodity at the position, but he's had a history of injuries.
Baltimore suffered a significant blow when the team lost key reserve Quinn Sypniewski (knee) for the year. Daniel Wilcox is currently the backup, but he also was injured and played in just five games last season.
The Ravens signed a new player this week in Aaron Walker. He's a big target at 6-foot-6, 270 pounds, and has five years experience in the NFL but still seems a bit raw. Do not be surprised if the Ravens look for another tight end once other teams begin making roster cuts.
Newcomer to watch
Gaither describes himself as a well-rounded left tackle with power and pretty good feet. Any player trying to fill the left tackle spot after Ogden would be tough, but Gaither believes he is ready.
"He's given me a lot of advice,'' Gaither said of Ogden. "He says just to stay focused. I'm young and I have a lot of time ahead of me, God willing. So he said just to stay focused and stay on top of my game."
Watch out for rookie second-round pick Ray Rice out of Rutgers. He has shown some good quickness and shiftiness early in camp and could be a solid option to provide a change of pace for starting running back Willis McGahee. Rice also has been working on fielding punts for special teams. Baltimore is hoping to get something out of oft-injured linebacker Dan Cody this year. He's played in only two games in four seasons, but with Suggs missing camp, this is a golden opportunity for Cody to show the coaching staff what he can do when healthy. Tom Zbikowski fits right in with the Ravens' style of defense. The former boxer is no-nonsense and hard-nosed. He's fighting for a backup safety spot behind Reed and Dawan Landry and should be an immediate contributor on special teams.
James Walker covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
Troy Smith is the early favorite in the Ravens' three-way QB derby, which will likely extend to the precipice of the regular season, writes James Walker.