Though they endured a crushing loss in last year's AFC Championship, the Baltimore Ravens once again enter training camp as one of the top contenders in the AFC.
The Raven's don't lack issues, though. Here are the three biggest question facing the Ravens coming into training camp.
1. How will Terrell Suggs be replaced?
Terrell Suggs hurt his Achilles tendon in late April (allegedly playing basketball) and will probably miss a good chunk of the 2012 season. The Ravens face an uphill battle replacing him.
Suggs, the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year, tallied 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles last season. Baltimore drafted defensive end Courtney Upshaw out of Alabama in this year's second round. Upshaw is a great talent but is completely unproven at the NFL level. Paul Kruger, who played sparingly for Baltimore in 2011 but accumulated 5.5 sacks, seems to be the next best replacement.
Both Upshaw and Kruger lack the experience to fill in for Suggs effectively. That brings the question of whether Baltimore should bring in outside help or play with what they have until Suggs returns. Regardless, Baltimore will be counting down the days until Suggs can play again.
2. How will contract negotiations affect Ray Rice?
Baltimore's best offensive player and the most all-around productive back in the league is looking for a long-term contract. Rice will reportedly hold out of training camp if a deal isn't finalized by then.
LeSean McCoy recently signed a contract that will pay him about $9 million per year. Rice hopes to be paid more than that in his long-term deal. If the Ravens have any wits about them, they will give Rice what he wants immediately. Rice is too productive a player and the negotiations are too big a distraction for the Ravens not to get something done soon.
If a contract doesn't get finalized, and if Rice does sit out a large portion of training camp, it will be very interesting to see how the conflict affects the play of Rice and the Ravens as a whole.
3. Can Joe Flacco be a great playoff quarterback?
Until the 2011 playoffs, it always seemed Joe Flacco was the only factor that held the Ravens back from being a championship team. The defense has always been elite. Then the offense stacked up talent in the form of players like Rice, Anquan Boldin, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Baltimore consistently fell short in the playoffs with great teams, and Flacco was always the scapegoat.
Flacco's 2011 playoff campaign put a lot of that talk to rest. Flacco threw five touchdowns to just one interception in three playoff games, with quarterback ratings of 112.7, 97.1, and 95.4 against the Bengals, Texans, and Patriots, respectively. He threw for over 300 yards in the AFC Championship, silencing critics who could blame the loss on him.
The interesting thing to track will be if Flacco can continue that productivity into the 2012 regular season and, especially, the 2012 playoffs. The Ravens will be a playoff team again this year, whether they fight their way out of the AFC North or get a Wild Card spot. But, for the Ravens to finally play for a championship in the Harbaugh-Flacco era, Flacco must play at the same level of the 2011 playoffs, or better.