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Defensive position battles to watch for Ravens at start of OTAs

Posted on 25 May 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are holding their first organized team activities this week and with them come plenty of questions as on-field preparations begin for the 2016 season.

Few conclusions can be drawn from the voluntary workouts that will be conducted without a number of veterans, but the practices will provide an early look at some players returning from injuries as well as rookies competing with established NFL talent for the first time. Thursday’s workout will be open to media to conclude the first week.

Coming off their worst season in nearly a decade, the Ravens have plenty of jobs up for grabs on both sides of the ball.

After examining the offensive battles on Tuesday, below is a look at the top defensive competitions:

1. Inside linebacker

The candidates: Zach Orr, Arthur Brown, Albert McClellan

The reality: It remains to be seen whether Ozzie Newsome will add a veteran after cutting Daryl Smith, but Orr saw 142 defensive snaps and replaced Smith on passing downs late in the 2015 season. Brown is a 2013 second-round pick, but he’s been a non-factor in three seasons and has a ton to prove this summer. A special-teams ace, McClellan provides depth but probably isn’t a serious contender to start.

2. Cornerback

The candidates: Shareece Wright, Jerraud Powers, Will Davis, Kyle Arrington, Tavon Young

The reality: We know Jimmy Smith will start at one cornerback spot, but how the Ravens will line up at the other outside spot and in the nickel remains to be seen. Wright is the early favorite to start in the base defense after receiving $4.76 million guaranteed, but Powers brings extensive starting experience to Baltimore and can play outside and inside. Davis and Young are interesting names to watch this summer.

3. Defensive end

The candidates: Lawrence Guy, Bronson Kaufusi, Brent Urban

The reality: The Ravens don’t appear too concerned over replacing veteran Chris Canty as Guy has been solid when asked to fill in over the last two seasons. However, Kaufusi brings potential as this year’s third-round pick out of Brigham Young. This could be a make-or-break year for Urban, who finally got on the field in the second half of last season but has battled too many injuries going back to college.

4. Outside linebacker

The candidates: Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Za’Darius Smith, Kamalei Correa, Matt Judon

The reality: We know Suggs and Dumervil own pedigrees as Pro Bowl talents, but how will that ultimately translate in 2016? It’s tough to say whether Suggs can still be an every-down rush linebacker coming off his second Achilles injury in four years, and we know Dumervil’s rush ability was optimized sharing snaps with Courtney Upshaw in 2013 and 2014. Smith is the favorite to take Upshaw’s early-down Sam linebacker role, but Correa and Judon offer intriguing upside as rookie pass rushers.

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Thirteen Ravens thoughts counting down to OTAs

Posted on 20 May 2016 by Luke Jones

With organized team activities set to begin next week, I’ve offered 13 Ravens-related thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Ozzie Newsome was pleased with last month’s draft, but a key to 2016 will be the number of rookies making an immediate impact instead of merely serving as inventory for the future. That answer could be the difference in getting back to the playoffs or not after a down season.

2. The free-agent signing of Jerraud Powers last week brought a much-needed veteran to the cornerback mix, but I still can’t help but look at that group with concern — particularly on the outside — unless the pass rush is dramatically better, especially with Jimmy Smith coming off another foot procedure.

3. Inside linebacker reminds me of right tackle in 2014 and tight end last season before Rick Wagner and Crockett Gillmore emerged. My early money is on Zach Orr starting. I can’t buy Arthur Brown being the guy after he didn’t even play down the stretch of a lost 2015 season.

4. I’m curious to know how Lardarius Webb is preparing physically to move to safety after seven seasons a cornerback. It’s no secret that Eric Weddle isn’t the biggest guy, but Webb was listed at just 182 pounds last year. Who is going to cover the big, athletic tight ends?

5. Like anyone, I have questions about Steve Smith returning from a torn Achilles tendon at age 37, but I’m intrigued to see what he has in store for us. The Ravens can’t just assume greatness, but I won’t be surprised if he still provides plenty in his final season.

6. There’s merit to the medical marijuana cause Eugene Monroe is championing, but his scheduled appearance on a panel in Las Vegas in the middle of the first week of OTAs isn’t the best look for a player at a position where a 2016 first-round pick is breathing down his neck.

7. We probably won’t see him until next month’s mandatory minicamp, but I’m very curious to hear from Terrell Suggs. Where is he physically after tearing his Achilles tendon in the 2015 opener? Perhaps more importantly, where is he mentally entering his 14th season?

8. It wasn’t surprising to hear Kenneth Dixon say he tries to emulate Marshall Faulk as a running back. Watching his college highlights reminds you of Faulk or Ricky Watters as a receiver. The Ravens would love for him to be even a respectable fraction of either of those former greats.

9. Much focus will be on second-round rookie Kamalei Correa, but the Ravens need Za’Darius Smith to be able to step into Courtney Upshaw’s old role to allow Elvis Dumervil to be a situational rusher. Their willingness to let Upshaw go for peanuts in free agency reflects their confidence in Smith.

10. The Ravens having competition at wide receiver is nothing new, but there is better talent at the top of the depth chart this year. Marlon Brown already being let go reflects that reality when he was competing for the No. 3 wideout job only a year ago.

11. We’re all rooting for Dennis Pitta to stay healthy, but it’s fair to ask if he’s even one of Baltimore’s best three tight ends now. He’s played a total of seven games in three seasons and will be 31. Is he still explosive enough after two major hip injuries?

12. The fourth-round selection of Michigan defensive tackle Willie Henry reiterated how forgotten Carl Davis was by the end of his rookie season. The 2015 third-rounder provided the biggest impact of any rookie early on before hitting the wall and seeing just 17 defensive snaps over the final six games.

13. John Harbaugh deserves the chance to tell his story regarding players illegally wearing pads during rookie camp, but the current collective bargaining agreement has been in place since 2011. Even if they sincerely didn’t know the rules, it’s hard to imagine the Ravens hadn’t thought of doing this before.

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Ravens-related thoughts from league meetings

Posted on 24 March 2016 by Luke Jones

Even with an active start to free agency in which they’ve addressed the safety, wide receiver, and tight end positions, the Ravens still have plenty of work to do if they want to bounce back from last year’s 5-11 campaign.

While pass rusher, cornerback, and left tackle have been discussed at great length, an inside linebacker spot is wide open next to C.J. Mosley with the recently-released Daryl Smith signing with Tampa Bay, ending any thought about his potential return. John Harbaugh mentioned the predictable candidates — Zach Orr, Arthur Brown, and Albert McClellan — to replace the veteran Smith, but the head coach discussed another interesting option when speaking to reporters at the league meetings earlier this week.

“We could move a safety down in there,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of teams are doing that now, and one of those guys might move in there. We have the draft still in front of us, so there’s going to be competition. That’s how we like it.”

Harbaugh didn’t mention any names when discussing the possibility of a safety shifting to linebacker, but other safeties such as Mark Barron of Los Angeles and Arizona’s Deone Bucannon have successfully made that transition at the NFL level. Identifying a candidate among Baltimore’s current group of safeties isn’t easy since there isn’t an incumbent weighing more than 205 pounds.

It’s a moot point now with last week’s release stemming from his 10-game suspension to begin the 2016 season, but the 228-pound Will Hill would have been an intriguing candidate for a hybrid role with his pass coverage and tackling ability. The Ravens want to get faster and more athletic at the inside linebacker position, and Hill certainly would have fit that description if not for off-field concerns once again costing him as it did with the New York Giants.

“It was too bad, because we had really made a commitment to Will and to his future and the fact that he would be able to do things in a way that he could be successful,” said Harbaugh of the safety’s release. “He was doing that for quite a while and playing good football for us. It was not a football decision other than the fact that it was just going to cost us too much to wait for him at this point in time with the suspension.”

New touchback rule

The NFL owners voted to move touchbacks from kickoffs up to the 25-yard line in an obvious attempt to address player safety and further limit one of the most exciting — and dangerous — plays in the game.

Returners may now be more discouraged to run kicks out of the end zone, but how might the kicking team alter its strategy with a touchback now giving the opposition the ball at the 25 instead of the 20? Over the last few years, the Ravens have relied on standout kicker Justin Tucker booming the ball into or through the end zone with the opposing offense then starting at its own 20.

“We may kick it off down to the goal line as high as we can and go down there and try to get the return team at the 12-, 15-yard line,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be real hard for us to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to surrender the 25-yard line as a kickoff cover team every time.’ That’s really not in the spirit of competition and what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

It’s important to remember this rule change is only a one-year trial, but many speculate that it will have the opposite effect of what the league wants.

Upshaw still available

While no one expected Courtney Upshaw to fetch a record contract this month, it’s surprising to see him still unsigned more than two weeks after the start of free agency.

Though limited as a pass rusher, the 26-year-old is a solid edge-setting outside linebacker who is a nice fit in a timeshare with a situational rusher. Upshaw met with the New York Jets last week and has reportedly drawn interest from San Francisco and New England, but the underwhelming market for his services illustrates how increasingly important it’s becoming to have multiple players with the ability to get after the quarterback in any situation.

General manager Ozzie Newsome appeared content to allow Upshaw to depart this offseason, but the odds of him returning appear to improve as more time passes and teams continue to spend elsewhere.

“Ozzie’s still monitoring. I haven’t talked to Courtney at all,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not sure where he’s at, but he’s still on the radar.”

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Seven Ravens players needing more snaps in second half of 2015

Posted on 05 November 2015 by Luke Jones

It sounds encouraging to say the Ravens can make a second-half run for postseason contention.

After all, expectations were soaring going into the season and the AFC currently consists of three undefeated teams — New England, Denver, and Cincinnati — and just two other teams (New York and Oakland) above .500. Baltimore’s second-half schedule consists of five home games and just two contests against teams currently sporting winning records.

Anything could happen, right?

Then, you remember the Ravens have two wins in two months.

Two.

And they just lost Steve Smith — their best pass-catching target in an otherwise underwhelming group — for the rest of the season.

While still expecting the Ravens to win more games and to remain competitive in the second half of the season — all eight of their contests have been decided by one possession — it would be irresponsible not to have at least one eye toward the future. Finishing closer to .500 while continuing to rely more on veterans and street free agents with no long-term future would only give the Ravens an inferior draft pick for 2016 and not really assist in the goal of building the next championship-caliber roster.

The Ravens can continue trying to win while still taking a longer look at some younger players in the second half of the season. It makes more sense for 2016 and beyond to give a few more opportunities to younger options in hopes of seeing at least a couple real pieces emerge by season’s end. Needless to say, general manager Ozzie Newsome must improve talent on both sides of the ball, so wouldn’t you prefer seeing what some recent picks can do — good or bad — instead of those players remaining as unknowns?

It’s worth remembering that the Ravens are just 2-6, so how much drop-off could there really be evaluating some younger players at certain spots?

Only including players who’ve taken fewer than 100 snaps on offense or defense — rookies like Maxx Williams and Za’Darius Smith have played more — below are seven players who should receive more playing time in the second half of the 2015 season.

7. CB Tray Walker
2015 defensive snaps to date: 8
Rationale: The Ravens acknowledged Walker was more of a project when they selected him in the fourth round of this year’s draft, but it still hasn’t been encouraging that he remains behind Shareece Wright and Kyle Arrington — two veterans who haven’t played well — on the depth chart. Throwing the 6-foot-2 Texas Southern product into the starting lineup would be hasty, but you’d like to see him receive enough snaps to determine whether he can be a viable No. 3 or No. 4 cornerback in 2016. If he’s not up to that task by then, it’d be difficult to label his selection in the fourth round as anything but a major reach.

6. LB Arthur Brown
2015 defensive snaps to date: 0
Rationale: C.J. Mosley has struggled in coverage and Daryl Smith hasn’t played the run particularly well in 2015, making it fair to ask whether the Ravens should finally attempt to carve out a role for their 2013 second-round pick to determine whether he can even be a part-time player in Baltimore. Given Brown’s speed, defensive coordinator Dean Pees could even consider using the linebacker as an occasional blitzer off the edge in an effort to put more pressure on the quarterback. The Ravens have seen something in Brown to hold on to him even this long, so why not give him a real look, even in nickel situations?

5. WR Chris Givens
2015 offensive snaps to date (with Baltimore): 82
Rationale: The former St. Louis Ram has more experience than anyone else on this list, but the Ravens need to continue giving him more snaps, especially with Smith done for the season. Givens had been a sponge around Smith prior to the latter’s injury, so it will be interesting to see if the speedy receiver can apply any of the veteran’s lessons to his own play. No one should confuse him with a starting-caliber receiver, but you’d like to see if Givens can establish himself as a No. 3 or No. 4 guy for the future. In his four games with the Ravens, he’s outperformed Marlon Brown and deserves to play over him.

4. DE Brent Urban
2015 defensive snaps to date: 0
Rationale: It’d be nice to see the 2014 fourth-round pick finally get on the field after not even playing in a preseason game to this point in his career. John Harbaugh recently said Urban is close to returning to practice after suffering a torn biceps early in training camp. Though Lawrence Guy has emerged as a solid option at the 5-technique defensive end spot behind Chris Canty, Urban’s 6-foot-7, 295-pound frame makes him an intriguing option as an interior pass rusher. With Canty turning 33 next week, the Ravens would feel good about that position if Urban can stay healthy and contribute down the stretch.

3. S Terrence Brooks
2015 defensive snaps to date: 54
Rationale: The Ravens have had problems at the safety position dating back to Ed Reed’s final season in Baltimore, and veteran newcomer Kendrick Lewis hasn’t done much to quell those concerns in 2015. Brooks has had an up-and-down start to his NFL career, but he showed good athleticism and aggression against Cleveland in Week 5 before injuring his thumb. Whether Pees uses him at the nickel spot or at safety next to Will Hill, Brooks’ development would go a long way in improving a secondary in need of more athleticism and play-making ability than it’s had in recent years.

2. RB Buck Allen
2015 offensive snaps to date: 81
Rationale: This isn’t a plea for the Ravens to bench veteran Justin Forsett in favor of the rookie fourth-rounder, but Allen has shown more burst recently and is more likely to impact the future than the 30-year-old starter. In general, Baltimore needs more from a running game currently tied for 21st in the NFL and Forsett won’t be able to carry that workload alone. In a perfect world, you’d like Allen to show enough to at least pencil him in as a strong No. 2 option in 2016 after the Ravens invested fourth-round picks at the position in each of the last two drafts. At least 10 touches per game seems reasonable.

1. WR Breshad Perriman
2015 offensive snaps to date: 0
Rationale: Many have called for the first-round pick to be placed on injured reserve considering he’s only practiced a couple times since spraining the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on the first day of training camp. But at 2-6, it’s worth waiting a little longer to see if Perriman can make it back for the final month of the season. His absence is even more frustrating with Smith out for the year as the Ravens had hoped they were drafting their No. 1 receiver of the future. They won’t be able to make that determination, but a healthy Perriman on the field for at least a few games in 2015 would be a good sign.

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Ravens-related thoughts on Week 7

Posted on 26 October 2015 by Luke Jones

Everything about the Ravens organization has come under scrutiny after a 1-5 start with recent draft history being among the biggest concerns.

Though their draft issues pale in comparison to teams like Cleveland who have failed miserably with multiple top choices, I couldn’t help but notice how few of the Ravens’ recent high picks would be contributing in Monday’s contest against Arizona. And much of the blame can be placed on injuries.

In total, the Ravens have selected nine players in the first three rounds over their last three drafts and just four of them — linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive tackles Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, and Carl Davis — were expected to play meaningful snaps on Monday night. Four others — safeties Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks, wide receiver Breshad Perriman, and tight end Maxx Williams — are sidelined with injuries and 2013 second-round inside linebacker Arthur Brown has been nothing more than a special-teams player in his third season.

It’s interesting to note that the defensive line is one of the Ravens’ few strengths while they’ve lacked playmakers in the secondary and in the passing game, areas where these absent draft picks normally reside. While the blame doesn’t fall solely on these recent selections, it’s difficult to look at that breakdown without concluding it’s a substantial part of what ails the Ravens.

** Much has been made about the NFL still having five undefeated teams at the end of seven weeks, but taking a closer look at the AFC should have the Ravens kicking themselves over their horrendous start. After New England, Cincinnati, and Denver, the conference sports just two other teams — Pittsburgh and the New York Jets — with winning records as the calendar is ready to turn to November.

Anyone who looked at the Ravens’ early-season schedule needed to be realistic about the daunting task of playing five of their first seven on the road, but many opined that a 4-3 record — even 3-4 — would put John Harbaugh’s team in position to make a run in the second half with an easier schedule. That would have proven to be true if not for a 1-5 start, but the Ravens can’t really complain when holding an 0-2 record at M&T Bank Stadium this year.

** Baltimore appears to be getting San Diego at the right time as the Chargers have lost three straight and were handled at home by Oakland on Sunday, but coming off a Monday night road game is a difficult proposition. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens hold a 3-5 record in games immediately following a Monday road game and one of those wins — against Arizona in 2011 — was the largest comeback in team history.

The defense-challenged Chargers may only be 2-5, but preparing for Philip Rivers and the league’s top-ranked passing game on a short week could be a nightmare for the Ravens pass defense. For what it’s worth, the Ravens were coming off a Monday night road game last year when they lost to the Chargers in Baltimore.

** The Steelers did an admirable job surviving without Ben Roethlisberger, who is expected to return to action against the Bengals in Week 8.

Going 2-2 in games started by Mike Vick and Landry Jones is quite respectable, but those two losses came against teams that entered Week 7 with 1-5 records. That has to eat away at coach Mike Tomlin as Pittsburgh trails Cincinnati by three games in the loss column in the AFC North standings.

** Former University of Maryland standout Stefon Diggs had six catches for 108 yards and a touchdown in Minnesota’s 28-19 win over Detroit on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Ravens first-round pick Breshad Perriman still isn’t practicing and fourth-round cornerback Tray Walker — drafted 10 spots ahead of Diggs — hasn’t been trusted to play defensive snaps despite a slew of injuries in the secondary.

Carry on.

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Ravens-Falcons preseason primer: Five bubble players to watch

Posted on 02 September 2015 by Luke Jones

It’s all about the roster bubble on Thursday night as the Ravens conclude the 2015 preseason with a trip to the Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons.

Head coach John Harbaugh has already confirmed that he does not intend to play his starters in the fourth preseason contest with the opener in Denver less than two weeks away. However, Thursday will mark a final opportunity for fringe players to leave a positive impression as they jockey for the final few roster spots that may still be up for grabs.

“I think there’s a pretty clear picture of who’s going to be here and who’s not,” Harbaugh said on Tuesday. “Of course, the last couple spots are still up in the air, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. The other thing is guys are battling for practice-squad spots, and they’re not just battling with each other. They’re battling all around the league for some of those spots. It’s a very competitive thing to make an NFL team or an NFL practice squad.”

Harbaugh said the Ravens are prepared to play 43 of the 75 players remaining on the active roster against the Falcons.

Thursday marks the 11th time that Baltimore will play Atlanta in the preseason. The teams are playing each other for the sixth time in the preseason in the Harbaugh era.

The Ravens are 7-3 against the Falcons in the all-time preseason series and are 3-2 against them in their regular-season history. They will not meet again in the regular season until 2018, a game that will take place in Atlanta.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Thursday night’s game in Atlanta.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will come into question. This list, of course, does not take into account the many veterans who will be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: WR Breshad Perriman (knee), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (knee), DE Brent Urban (biceps)
DOUBTFUL: OL Ryan Jensen (concussion), DT Timmy Jernigan (knee), DE DeAngelo Tyson (shoulder)
QUESTIONABLE: CB Rashaan Melvin (undisclosed), CB Lardarius Webb (hamstring), G Kelechi Osemele (Achilles), OT Eugene Monroe (forearm), WR Michael Campanaro (soft tissue injury), TE Maxx Williams (upper body)
PROBABLE: DE Lawrence Guy (knee), OT James Hurst (concussion)

Five bubble players to watch Thursday night

LB Arthur Brown

Considered a player on the bubble by most pundits, the 2013 second-round pick appeared to receive an endorsement from Harbaugh this week when the Baltimore coach said he anticipated Brown playing even faster in the regular season after coming on strong this summer. However, you never want to make too much out of a coach’s comments about players who are presently on the roster and Harbaugh would not specify when asked if Brown’s roster spot was safe. The fact is that the 240-pound inside linebacker is stuck behind starters Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley on defense and reserves Albert McClellan and Zach Orr on special teams. That sounds like a player needing to cross his fingers with the numbers game and to hope there aren’t too many other positional needs elsewhere that could push him off the roster.

G Robert Myers

A concussion early in camp cost the rookie quite a bit of practice time and Myers has struggled to catch up, receiving negative grades from Pro Football Focus for his performances in the Philadelphia and Washington games. The Ravens like the 6-foot-5, 335-pound lineman’s upside, but they knew he would be a raw prospect to develop out of Tennessee State. There are more experienced reserves such as John Urschel and Ryan Jensen already in the mix on the interior line and rookie free agents Kaleb Johnson and Nick Easton have also played well this summer, so Myers would help his cause with a good showing against the Falcons. Recent history says the Ravens wouldn’t part with a fifth-round pick in his rookie year, but there are some other decent linemen in this mix with only so many spots to go around.

DL Kapron Lewis-Moore

A recent run of injuries on the defensive line have improved the former Notre Dame product’s chances and the 2013 sixth-rounder turned in his best performance of the preseason against the Redskins on Saturday. Lewis-Moore missed two whole years due to injuries, but the Ravens were attracted to the 6-foot-4, 315-pound lineman for his strong play as a collegiate player. If injuries to Timmy Jernigan and DeAngelo Tyson linger into the start of the regular season, it would be challenging for the Ravens to not carry an extra defensive lineman. It’s also fair to wonder if the Ravens want to give up on a player in which they invested two years of rehabilitation as he’s finally starting to show some of the promise they envisioned when drafting him.

RB Fitz Toussaint

The MCL injury suffered by Lorenzo Taliaferro has left the Ravens vulnerable at the running back position behind starter Justin Forsett as rookie Buck Allen hasn’t been overly impressive between the tackles this preseason. Baltimore is likely to keep an additional running back until Taliaferro is able to return, so it will come down to Toussaint or rookie free agent Terrence Magee unless general manager Ozzie Newsome goes outside the organization. Magee has received nearly twice as many carries in the preseason, but don’t forget that the Ravens trusted Toussaint enough to give him two carries in the playoff loss in Foxborough last January. Even if it’s not in Baltimore, Toussaint would like to put some good tape out there for other teams to see after Thursday’s game.

S Brynden Trawick

The third-year safety has been a special-teams mainstay, but the Ravens may desire to keep an extra cornerback with Lardarius Webb and Rashaan Melvin ailing in recent weeks, which could hurt Trawick’s standing as the fifth safety behind starters Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis and top reserves Terrence Brooks and Anthony Levine. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound safety has the kind of size that makes him an attractive option in the dime package, but Trawick struggled a great deal when receiving extensive time on defense in the preseason opener. Considering he received just 55 defensive snaps a year ago for a team that had major concerns at safety, Trawick better hope that the Ravens haven’t found others to match what he can do on special teams.

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Five questions pondering Ravens preseason opener

Posted on 14 August 2015 by Luke Jones

Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens

Every Friday, I’ll ponder five topics related to the Ravens or Orioles (or a mix of both).

Five questions …

1. Is it just me or was rookie Carl Davis the most impressive player on the field for the Ravens on Thursday? With Timmy Jernigan, Chris Canty, and DeAngelo Tyson all sitting out the preseason opener, the third-round defensive tackle was told to not only expect to start but play extensively and he did, taking 41 snaps and not exiting the game until the fourth quarter when he began cramping up. Davis consistently controlled the line of scrimmage, maintaining gap control while also making a tackle for a loss and batting down a pass. Assuming Jernigan’s foot issue isn’t a long-term concern, it appears the combination of him and Davis will be more than sufficient in helping fill the void left behind by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said last week that the Ravens need Davis to contribute immediately, and he looks more than capable of doing so.

2. Is it just me or was the handling of Jimmy Smith a reflection of just how important the Ravens think he is to their success? Even though head coach John Harbaugh also sat Lardarius Webb against New Orleans, the decision to rest Smith showed how critical he is to the Ravens’ fate in 2015. The fifth-year corner has played very well in training camp, showing no effects of the season-ending Lisfranc injury suffered last October, but it was wise for the Ravens to keep his surgically-repaired foot off the turf at M&T Bank Stadium with a month remaining until the start of the regular season. Now, Smith can make his preseason debut on natural grass in Philadelphia before then playing on the home turf in the all-important third preseason game as a final tuneup for the regular season. Questions remain about Webb and the rest of the secondary, but Smith appears to only be getting better.

3. Is it just me or is the writing on the wall for former second-round pick Arthur Brown? Watching special-teams standouts Albert McClellan and Zach Orr struggle at inside linebacker for much of the evening spoke volumes about Brown, who didn’t see extensive playing time on defense until the fourth quarter. In his 21 defensive snaps, Brown made six tackles — one for a loss — but that all came against the Saints’ third-string offensive players. Perhaps the struggles of the other two and Brown’s fourth-quarter showing earn him an earlier look over the next three preseason games, but he’s consistently been behind McClellan and Orr during practices and doesn’t have the same special-teams prowess. The Ravens hate giving up on their early draft picks and there’s still time for Brown to turn his career around, but it’s fairly obvious that he finds himself firmly on the roster bubble this summer.

4. Is it just me or was Jeremy Butler a disappointment after much hype this spring and summer? While I haven’t been quite as enamored with the 6-foot-2 Butler as some observers, there’s no denying that he’s played well in practices, making his showing against the Saints an underwhelming development. After dropping what would have been a nice catch, Butler was too passive on a curl route and allowed backup Matt Schaub’s pass to easily be intercepted, a play that was mentioned by Harbaugh after the game. Butler caught one pass for 14 yards, but he played 40 snaps, more than any other receiver on the roster. In fairness to him, none of Baltimore’s young wideouts really stood out beyond Michael Campanaro, but Thursday seemed like a golden opportunity for Butler to shine with first-round rookie Breshad Perriman and third-year receiver Marlon Brown both on the sideline.

5. Is it just me or did the Saints do a disservice to their kickoff team — and the Ravens — by booting the ball through the end zone all night? Understanding New Orleans is currently having a kicking competition between Zach Hocker and Dustin Hopkins, I’m still not sure what the Saints got out of simply kicking six touchbacks on Thursday. Of course, this is only being mentioned because Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg is trying to determine who will be his returner after Jacoby Jones was jettisoned in the offseason, but you’d think the Saints would want to evaluate their coverage team with the understanding that the weather won’t always allow you to kick touchbacks. As for the Ravens’ competition, the oft-injured Asa Jackson appears to be the early leader in the clubhouse, but we’ll wait to see where he stands after tweaking his knee on Thursday.

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2015 Ravens training camp preview: Linebackers

Posted on 23 July 2015 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens beginning their 20th training camp in franchise history this month, expectations are high for John Harbaugh’s team as they eye their seventh trip to the postseason in eight years.

As veterans report to Owings Mills on July 29th and the first full-squad workout takes place the following day, we’ll examine each position group entering the summer.

July 20: Quarterbacks
July 21: Defensive line
July 22: Running backs
July 23: Linebackers
July 24: Wide receivers
July 25: Tight ends
July 26: Cornerbacks
July 27: Offensive line
July 28: Safeties
July 29: Specialists

Below is a look at the Baltimore linebackers:

LINEBACKERS 
LOCK: Daryl Smith, C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw, Za’Darius Smith
BUBBLE: Arthur Brown, Albert McClellan, Zachary Orr, Steven Means, Brennen Beyer, Zach Thompson
LONG SHOT: Andrew Bose

Synopsis: The Ravens’ top four of Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, C.J. Mosley, and Daryl Smith are as good as any linebacker quartet you’ll find around the league, but depth is certainly a question mark for this unit as free-agent-to-be Courtney Upshaw is the only other linebacker on the roster who played more than 42 defensive snaps last season. This may not be a major factor for 2015, but general manager Ozzie Newsome has to be thinking about the need to get younger at the position with Suggs, Dumervil, and Smith all on the wrong side of 30. The good news is that it appears the Ravens found the anchor of their defense for years to come with Mosley becoming the first player in franchise history to make the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. If the 2014 first-round pick can improve in pass coverage, he could quickly solidify his standing as one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL.

One to watch: Saddled with the burden of needing to replace situational pass rusher Pernell McPhee this offseason, the Ravens selected Za’Darius Smith from Kentucky in the fourth round of this year’s draft. Besides wearing No. 90 and sporting dreadlocks, Smith plays with a similar style and reminded the organization of McPhee during the pre-draft evaluation process. Considering Upshaw has never shown consistent ability to get after the quarterback, it will be of the utmost importance for Smith to be able to step in for Suggs and Dumervil and to apply some pressure in the pocket on a part-time basis.

One on notice: There’s no way to sugarcoat how disappointing Arthur Brown has been after he didn’t take a defensive snap last season, meaning this summer could be make-or-break time for the 2013 second-round pick. Brown was active for just four games in his second season, meaning Baltimore didn’t even see enough value in him as a special-teams player. No one would suggest at this point that he needs to overtake Mosley or Daryl Smith for a starting job, but Brown must show a better understanding of the defense and improved ability on special teams or it might be time to cut bait.

Sleeper: Zach Orr was one of the surprises to make the 53-man roster out of training camp last year, but it will be interesting to see if the former undrafted free agent becomes a bigger factor as a defensive player in his second season. With Brown disappointing and special-teams standout Albert McClellan scheduled to carry a $1.2 million cap figure, Orr has a golden opportunity to step forward as the primary backup at the inside linebacker position and to further solidify his standing on the roster. With Mosley sidelined in the spring due to wrist surgery, Orr received quite a few of the defensive reps before Brown.

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Five questions pondering Schaub, Orioles bullpen, Flaherty

Posted on 12 June 2015 by Luke Jones

(Photo courtesy of BaltimoreRavens.com)

Every Friday, I’ll ponder five topics related to the Ravens or Orioles (or a mix of both).

Five questions …

1. Is it just me or could the Orioles be in good position to pull off a trade at this year’s deadline? Much will depend on the next few weeks with a starting rotation currently battling health issues with Miguel Gonzalez on the disabled list and inconsistency from Chris Tillman and Bud Norris, but the depth could be there to orchestrate a trade to make a push for a second straight division title. The ability to trade Alejandro De Aza freed the remainder of his $5 million salary from the books and Norris and Wei-Yin Chen will both be free agents at the end of the season, making it desirable to at least explore what they might be able to fetch for one of them. Of course, this is assuming the Orioles would feel comfortable with Kevin Gausman being back in the rotation as the 24-year-old is still being stretched out as a starter in the minors. It’s no secret that the corner outfield situation is less than ideal, but Dan Duquette has shown a willingness to make in-season deals to try to help his club over the last couple seasons and there appears to be the cash and assets available to do it again.

2. Is it just me or have the early reviews of new Ravens quarterback Matt Schaub not been encouraging? I’m the last person to put much stock into what we see at organized team activities in the spring, but it hasn’t been a strong start for the 33-year-old backup, who has been intercepted frequently and has made too many errant passes in workouts open to media. This wouldn’t be too much of a concern until you remember how poorly Schaub played in his final season in Houston and last year when he was beaten out by rookie Derek Carr in Oakland. Admittedly, I wasn’t a big fan of the signing after years of pumping little money into the backup spot, but I figured Schaub would at least provide a decent upgrade from Tyrod Taylor at the backup position. It’s still very early, but I’m not convinced he will give the Ravens any more of a chance to win than Taylor should Flacco go down with an injury this season.

3. Is it just me or is Ryan Flaherty putting together a fine season after years of criticism? The utility infielder has been a target for many fans who tire of the Orioles’ micromanaging of their roster in recent years, but he is hitting a very respectable .260 with an .801 on-base plus slugging percentage in 90 plate appearances this season. Buck Showalter has valued the 28-year-old’s ability to play above-average defense at several spots over the last few years, but it’s been nice to see his offense catch up to his work in the field. In fact, had Jonathan Schoop not gotten off to such a strong start at the plate before hurting his right knee in mid-April, you wonder how many might be clamoring for Flaherty to remain the starting second baseman even after the 23-year-old returns. Make no mistake, Schoop is the future at the position, but Flaherty has done a fine job solidifying his place as the Orioles’ utility man despite missing a month with a groin issue this year.

4. Is it just me or is this season critical for the Ravens’ 2013 draft class? There’s no sugarcoating how disappointing Matt Elam and Arthur Brown have been in their first two seasons, making this a “make or break” year for both. Elam will be competing with Will Hill for the starting strong safety job while Brown needs to have a strong camp to simply avoid being cut after playing less in his second year than he did as a rookie. Beyond those two, this year looms large for Kyle Juszczyk, who will need to prove he can produce in offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s system that didn’t prominently feature a fullback in Chicago. It also figures to be an important year for 2013 sixth-round defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore after he missed his first two seasons with injuries. The selections of defensive tackle Brandon Williams in the third round and right tackle Rick Wagner in the fifth were terrific, but you can’t give a draft two thumbs up when you whiff so badly in the first two rounds.

5. Is it just me or are the Orioles in ideal position with their bullpen? Baltimore figured to have a good back of the pen with closer Zach Britton and setup man Darren O’Day, but the Orioles have been able to distribute the workload in an encouraging manner so far. A big difference with this year’s pen compared to previous seasons is its improved ability to strike out opposing hitters as Orioles relievers rank fourth in the American League in strikeouts and are averaging 9.2 per nine innings. The bullpen averaged just 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 2014, 8.1 in 2013, and 7.5 in 2012. Strikeouts certainly aren’t everything, but there’s no disputing how helpful they can be when a reliever is summoned to escape a tough jam. On the open market, strikeouts are expensive — it’s the biggest reason ex-Oriole Andrew Miller received a four-year, $36 million contract — so it’s extremely beneficial when you can find inexpensive arms like Brad Brach (11.4 strikeouts per nine) and Chaz Roe (10.5 strikeouts per nine) who are able to miss so many bats. Though needed in the rotation at the moment, rookie Mike Wright figures to be another candidate who could settle into a bullpen role at some point this year.

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Five young players the Ravens need more from in 2015

Posted on 10 February 2015 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens coming off a 10-6 season that included a return to the playoffs after a one-year absence, the job this winter will be to augment a roster that has plenty of talent but clear deficiencies at several spots.

However, with a poor salary-cap situation and only so many holes that can be filled through the draft, the Ravens will lean on a handful of young players already on the roster to emerge and make a difference with another year of experience under their belts.

Below are five young players the Ravens will need more from in order to build on their 2014 campaign:

1. S Matt Elam

Through two years, it’s no secret that Elam has looked like the worst defensive first-round pick in franchise history, but the Ravens aren’t going to give up on the University of Florida product as quickly as many fans would like. In fairness, the 5-foot-10 safety was asked to play out of position for a second straight year — playing extensively at the nickel due to injuries — but leading the team in missed tackles doesn’t make a good argument for him to be the starting strong safety, either. Elam needs to take advantage of this offseason to improve after admitting he didn’t handle his demotion well in terms of putting in good effort during practices. Baltimore won’t pencil him in as a starter, so Elam needs to take advantage of his opportunities this summer.

2. TE Crockett Gillmore

The 2014 third-round pick had a solid rookie campaign considering he was supposed to be the No. 3 tight end entering the year, but the Ravens hope the signs he showed as a receiver late in the year will translate to more production in 2015. With Dennis Pitta’s future unclear and Owen Daniels scheduled to become a free agent, Gillmore is the most reliable option the Ravens currently have at the position. Even if those veterans return, Gillmore will be counted on more in the passing game after proving himself as a capable blocker. General manager Ozzie Newsome will likely look to address the tight end position this offseason, but Gillmore’s continued development would go a long way in helping quarterback Joe Flacco next season.

3. DE Brent Urban

Normally, it’d be unfair to include a player on this list who’s coming off a season-ending knee injury suffered in his first training camp, but veteran Chris Canty may retire or be released and reserve Lawrence Guy is a free agent, meaning the Ravens will hope the fourth-round pick can be a factor at the 5-technique defensive end position in 2015. The organization loved Urban’s 6-foot-7, 295-pound frame coming out of Virginia, and the timing of his injury last summer would presumably allow him to be a full participant in training camp this summer. It’s unlikely that Urban will simply be penciled in as the starter with veteran DeAngelo Tyson still on the roster, but the Ravens drafted him last May with visions of him eventually replacing Canty.

4. S Terrence Brooks

The season-ending knee injury the 2014 third-round pick suffered in December ended a disappointing first year for the Florida State product, who often looked unsure of himself in coverage and gave up big plays at a few critical junctures. The emergence of Will Hill in the second half of the season brought some stability to the position, but Hill’s off-field baggage is good reason for Brooks to be ready to seize opportunities when he’s healthy enough to get back on the field. Last May, the Ravens had to be hoping that Brooks and Elam would be their starting safety tandem for years to come, but both have much to prove going into the 2015 season. Unfortunately, getting healthy is the first item on the offseason agenda for the athletic Brooks.

5. LB Arthur Brown

When you’re active for only four games and can’t even get on the field as a special-teams contributor, what else needs to be said for a second-round pick after two seasons? It wasn’t surprising to see Brown’s defensive role diminish — he saw time as a nickel linebacker as a rookie — after C.J. Mosley was selected in the first round, but the Ravens regularly going with undrafted rookie Zachary Orr for special teams on game days didn’t speak well for Brown’s athleticism. So, why not simply admit he was a bust and move on? Mosley and Daryl Smith remained healthy enough to play over 1,000 snaps each in 2014. The odds suggest that’s unlikely to happen again, so it’d be nice to see Brown improve enough to at least become a solid backup in his third year.

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