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Leftover thoughts from Ravens’ third preseason game

Posted on 30 August 2015 by Luke Jones

Many were ready to deem Asa Jackson the winner of the Ravens’ return competition after his 103-yard kickoff return late in the first half of Saturday’s 31-13 loss to Washington.

But then the fourth-year cornerback committed the cardinal sin of fumbling a punt in the fourth quarter after electing not to call for a fair catch with coverage bearing down on him. The gaffe immediately earned Jackson an animated lecture from special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg on the sideline.

To no surprise, the turnover holds more weight in the evaluation process than the explosive return.

“The biggest concern I have with those guys is dropping the ball,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Asa made a bad decision, and he knows that. You have to fair catch that. That kind of hang time, you have to fair catch it. Obviously, dropping the kickoff that we had was not great either.”

For now, the job appears to be Jackson’s by default with second-year wide receiver Michael Campanaro currently injured, but you still can’t help but wonder if this year’s return specialist isn’t yet on the team. It will be interesting to see if any teams cut loose a veteran returner for a cheaper and younger alternative when final cuts are made next weekend.

** I haven’t been overly impressed with Jeremy Butler’s performance in the preseason, but the young receiver was a member of the starting kickoff and kick return units on Saturday night, a good sign for his chances of making the 53-man roster.

Butler caught four passes for 32 yards against Washington, but three of those receptions came in the second half against the Redskins reserves. He hasn’t shown consistent ability to gain separation against reserve defensive backs, making you doubt whether he can make an impact as an NFL receiver.

With Campanaro and rookie Breshad Perriman currently sidelined with injuries, the Ravens are more likely to keep an extra receiver, which is good news for both Butler and sixth-round rookie Darren Waller.

** It was interesting to note that rookie running back Terrence Magee played 15 offensive snaps and carried four times for 13 yards while second-year back Fitz Toussaint only saw duty on special teams on Saturday night.

The Ravens are likely to carry an extra running back with Lorenzo Taliaferro sidelined with a knee injury for at least the next few weeks, and Saturday indicated that Magee is garnering strong consideration as the temporary No. 3 back behind starter Justin Forsett and rookie fourth-rounder Buck Allen.

** Speaking of Allen, I can forgive his underwhelming rushing performance (24 yards on 12 carries) due to the injured state of the offensive line, but his goal-line fumble in the closing seconds of the first half didn’t sit well with Harbaugh and was inexcusable when you’re a step away from the end zone.

“It’s just not possible to put runners out there that fumble the football,” Harbaugh said. “He’s going to have other opportunities and chances going forward, and I really believe he’s going to be a very good player. But, he’s going to have to learn from that.”

Allen is going to receive plenty of carries with Taliaferro out, but there’s no quicker way to find your way to Harbaugh’s doghouse than to put the ball on the turf.

** The run of injuries on the defensive line was the most disturbing development from Saturday’s game, but Kapron Lewis-Moore improved his chances of making the 53-man roster with a solid outing.

It’s been a quiet summer for the 2014 sixth-round pick who missed each of the last two seasons with injuries, but he played the run well, making four tackles in 28 defensive snaps against the Redskins. If any of the injuries to Timmy Jernigan, Lawrence Guy, and DeAngelo Tyson linger into the start of the regular season, Lewis-Moore may find himself on the favorable side of the roster bubble.

** I’ll spare you another negative review of backup Matt Schaub’s performance on Saturday, because it was obvious if you watched the game.

However, I’d be interested to see how the Ravens would handle their backup quarterback spot if Schaub weren’t already guaranteed $2 million this season. To be clear, no one should confuse Bryn Renner with the next Frank Reich, but the young quarterback has played well enough this summer to garner a spot on the practice squad.

** Rookie outside linebacker Zach Thompson only played 13 defensive snaps, but he was a member of the starting kickoff team, which is something to keep in mind in the final week of the preseason before final cuts next Saturday.

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Ravens-Redskins preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 28 August 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens see the regular-season light at the end of the tunnel as Saturday’s preseason game represents the final dress rehearsal for the 2015 regular season.

Starters are expected to play the entire first half as head coach John Harbaugh will get a final look at most of his starters. Baltimore has rarely played its full starting units in the preseason finale, and that trend isn’t expected to change next Thursday in Atlanta.

Of course, the Ravens want to make a better impression after taking a 40-17 beating at the hands of Philadelphia, but the third preseason game is more about looking ahead than dwelling on what happened against the Eagles — no matter how ugly it was.

“I think it is really important — nothing to do with the second game — but more so just so we can go into Week 1 and have as high a level of confidence as we possibly can,” said quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw two interceptions in last Saturday’s loss. “You don’t want any doubt to be able to creep into anybody’s mind. You want all of the coaches and all of the players to have 100-percent confidence that we’re going to go in there and light it up. I think for that reason, we want to go out there and play the best we can just so we feel that extra energy going into the first week.”

Of course, competition remains at various positions, and Saturday marks the final game before the organization will pare the roster from 90 players to a maximum of 75 by Tuesday afternoon.

Saturday marks the ninth time that Baltimore will play Washington in the preseason. The teams are playing each other for the fifth time in the Harbaugh era.

The Ravens are 6-2 against Washington in the all-time preseason series and are 3-2 against them in their regular-season history. They are set to meet again in the 2016 regular season, a game that will take place at M&T Bank Stadium.

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 Saturday night’s game against Washington.

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, will not include any veterans who may 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), CB Lardarius Webb (hamstring), G Kelechi Osemele (Achilles), LB Steven Means (groin), TE Dennis Pitta (hip), S Matt Elam (biceps), DE Brent Urban (biceps), TE Allen Reisner (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: OT Eugene Monroe (forearm), WR Michael Campanaro (soft tissue injury), OT Darryl Baldwin (undisclosed)
QUESTIONABLE: S Terrence Brooks (knee), OT James Hurst (concussion), TE Maxx Williams (undisclosed), OL Blaine Clausell (undisclosed)
PROBABLE: OT Rick Wagner (foot), OT Jah Reid (back), G John Urschel (concussion), DE Kapron Lewis-Moore (undisclosed), OL Ryan Jensen (undisclosed)

Five players to watch Saturday night

CB Asa Jackson

The Ravens are waiting for someone — anyone — to emerge as the return specialist while acknowledging there being few opportunities for authentic evaluation in the preseason, but Jackson appears to be the leader in the clubhouse and will return kickoffs and punts to begin Saturday’s game. The fourth-year cornerback hasn’t done much to stand out, but with Michael Campanaro again injured and rookie free agent DeAndre Carter muffing two kicks in two weeks, who else is there at this point? The Ravens want to avoid using Steve Smith and Lardarius Webb, their “aces in the hole” in the return game during the regular season, but you have to wonder if they’ll ultimately need to look elsewhere for a returner.

WR Kamar Aiken

With it appearing more and more likely that Breshad Perriman will bring a limited impact at the start of the season, the Ravens need Aiken to play like a starting receiver as he is set to lineup opposite veteran Steve Smith. The 26-year-old had an excellent spring and a strong start to the summer, but he’s been quiet in the preseason, catching only one pass for 13 yards in two games and not putting forth an impressive effort on the deep ball from Flacco that was intercepted in the first quarter of Saturday’s loss to the Eagles. Aiken shows the potential to be a solid short-to-intermediate receiver, so you’d like to see some success for him against Washington on Saturday.

CB Cassius Vaughn

Third-year cornerback Quinton Pointer garnered more attention early in the summer, but Vaughn has quietly put together two strong preseason performances. It’s fair to point out that the six-year veteran has matched up against second- and third-team offenses, but he has still been the Ravens’ highest-rated defensive player this summer, according to Pro Football Focus. At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, Vaughn doesn’t over overwhelming size, but he’s played well enough to garner consideration for one of the final spots on the roster. Strong performances in the final two preseason games would go a long way for his chances of landing on the right side of the bubble.

RB Terrence Magee

The MCL sprain suffered by Lorenzo Taliaferro has created a golden opportunity for Magee or Fitz Toussaint as the Ravens will likely want to carry a third healthy running back behind starter Justin Forsett and rookie Buck Allen to begin the year. An undrafted rookie from LSU, Magee was never the man in Baton Rouge, but he’s shown good vision and a burst when given opportunities this summer. The 5-foot-9, 215-pound back led the Ravens in rushing with 44 yards on 11 carries against Philadelphia, so it will be interesting to see how the workload is split between him and Toussaint. It would be wise for the Ravens to give a couple carries to each in the first half to see what they can do behind a better line.

LB Brennen Beyer

Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome spoke throughout the offseason about the potential of outside linebacker Steven Means, but a groin injury has sidelined him for more than two weeks, opening the door for Beyer to put himself in the conversation with a strong finish to the preseason. A smart player who had a solid career at the University of Michigan, the 6-foot-4, 256-pound Beyer remains a better candidate for the practice squad with four outside linebackers — Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw, and Za’Darius Smith — already locks for the roster, but he received a nice endorsement from former Ravens defensive coordinator and Michigan assistant Greg Mattison before he was signed in the spring.

 

 

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webb

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Webb’s continued absence “certainly a concern” for Ravens

Posted on 25 August 2015 by Luke Jones

Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb finds himself in a place all too familiar at this time of the year.

The sideline.

Dealing with a hamstring injury suffered more than two weeks ago, the 29-year-old has missed Baltimore’s first two preseason games and hasn’t participated in a preseason game since Aug. 22, 2013. And with Webb coming off a less-than-impressive 2014 campaign hindered in part by a back injury, defensive coordinator Dean Pees wants to see the veteran on the field this summer.

“It is not his fault. He’s trying to do what he can to rehab and get ready to go, but it is certainly a concern,” Pees said. “I’d be fooling you to tell you I didn’t think it was a concern. I want guys out there practicing so we can see where they are and know where they are. The conditioning thing — all those kind of things — yes, it’s a concern. I hope we still can get him out here in the next week or so, but at this point, I wish he was out there.”

This marks the third straight summer in which Webb has been limited for injury reasons. In 2013, he was returning from the second ACL injury of his career suffered the previous fall. Last year, Webb went down with a back injury on the first day of full-squad workouts and didn’t return until a few weeks into the regular season.

The summer had already started in humbling fashion for Webb when he failed the conditioning test upon reporting to Owings Mills. Acknowledging it wasn’t a good look after a disappointing 2014, he passed the test the following day, but his play was uneven over the first two weeks of practice before he pulled up lame covering rookie Darren Waller on a deep sideline route on Aug. 10.

Webb’s absence has created more opportunities for third-year cornerback Rashaan Melvin, who started and performed well in Saturday’s 40-17 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. While many remember the 6-foot-2 defensive back’s poor showing against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the playoffs, Melvin played well in two regular-season starts and in the playoff win at Pittsburgh last January.

After a slow start this spring due to offseason shoulder surgery, Melvin continues to improve and is garnering more and more attention as a potential starter down the road, especially if Webb doesn’t bounce back from the difficulties of last season.

“This guy did a lot for us late in the year,” Pees said. “I really give him a lot of credit coming over from Tampa Bay and coming in and all of the sudden getting thrown into the mix and having to play — in the playoffs of all things. I thought he started slow a little bit in [organized team activities] — maybe a little bit because of the surgery and the injury — and I think he has gotten better and better and better.

“I know sometimes it is hard to find bright spots in a game that you lose, but I thought he and [rookie Tray] Walker both were bright spots for us at the corner position [on Saturday].”

Jackson in lead for return job

Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg still hasn’t come to a decision on the primary return specialist job, but reserve cornerback Asa Jackson remains the leader in the clubhouse.

The fourth-year defensive back has returned two punts for 17 yards and two kickoffs for 41 yards in two preseason games.

“We’ll see what happens this week, but it’s a work in progress,” Rosburg said. “We’re working a lot of different guys in practice, and we have to come to some decisions soon, because it’s going to happen quickly. This week, Asa is going to start off for us on punt return and he’s going to start off for us on kick return, and then we’re going to go from there.”

Trying to replace former Pro Bowl return specialist Jacoby Jones, Rosburg has been frustrated by the opposition’s reluctance to provide evaluation opportunities with kickoffs as many have instead sailed through the end zone and some opposing returners have downed kicks in the end zone over the first two preseason games.

“We let them play. We try to see who can cover kicks,” Rosburg said. “That’s what we do. But again, I can’t control what other coaches are doing. It makes no sense to me, either, why you’d down a ball two yards into the end zone. That makes no sense to me either. Take it out. Let’s go. That’s why we’re here.”

Rookie ready to fill in for Taliaferro

Though disappointed to see the opportunity come at the expensive of the injured Lorenzo Taliaferro, fourth-round rookie running back Buck Allen is confident that he’s ready to step up as the primary backup to Justin Forsett.

“It’s times like this where you prove yourself,” Allen said. “Can you step in and be that guy and provide for your team and have your team believe in you? It’s a great opportunity for me to go out here and show my teammates and coaches that I’ve been studying my game and in my playbook.”

Allen has carried 17 times for 54 yards and says his ability to pick up blitzes has been his biggest improvement since being drafted out of USC this spring. It’s an attribute he’s likely gained from Forsett, who is regarded as an excellent blocker in the backfield.

The 6-foot, 220-pound rookie back says there are plenty of lessons to learn from Forsett in the classroom as well as on the practice field.

“He’s been through it all from fourth-string guy to being No. 1,” Allen said. “If I follow his lead, I can go down the right path. Justin does a great job of motivating guys in the room and making sure we’re on track and doing the right thing.”

 

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crockett

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Ravens release first depth chart ahead of preseason opener

Posted on 06 August 2015 by Luke Jones

With their preseason opener less than a week away, the Ravens have released their first depth chart of the summer with few surprises.

The depth chart reflects current long-term injuries, explaining why the likes of Matt Elam, Dennis Pitta, and Terrence Brooks are listed at the end of their position groups.

Despite using their first two picks of the 2015 draft on speedy receiver Breshad Perriman in the first round and tight end Maxx Williams in the second, the Ravens have listed the rookies behind Kamar Aiken and Crockett Gillmore at their respective positions. This comes as no real surprise based on the allocation of practice reps through the first week of training camp as well as the knee injury that’s sidelined Perriman since the first full-squad practice.

Gillmore is noticeably ahead of Williams at this stage of the summer while Perriman continues to miss valuable practice time to close the gap with Aiken, who has had a good start to camp.

Second-year running back Lorenzo Taliaferro is also listed ahead of rookie Buck Allen as the primary backup to Justin Forsett, but both have impressed at various times as they’ve competed in the spring and summer.

There were no real surprises on the defensive depth chart, but Rashaan Melvin being listed ahead of Asa Jackson at cornerback speaks to the latter falling out of grace defensively after he started six games last year in place of injured starters Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith.

Veteran defensive lineman DeAngelo Tyson being listed behind Carl Davis and Kapron Lewis-Moore is noteworthy, but Tyson saw his playing time dwindle in the second half of 2014.

As for special teams, Jackson is listed as the starting kick returner while wide receiver Michael Campanaro was designated the starting punt returner, but those positions remain very fluid as a number of players — including Webb and 36-year-old receiver Steve Smith — have worked out as returners. Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg has said several times that performance in the preseason games will hold the most weight in determining who wins those jobs.

It’s important not to read too much into the weekly depth chart, especially once moving past the first and second string. The depth chart is composed by the Ravens’ public relations staff, but it is based on practice and game reps, giving fans and media a worthwhile guideline.

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Harbaugh “gets a little crazy” during tough practice on Thursday

Posted on 06 August 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Nobody was safe from John Harbaugh on Thursday as the Ravens held their toughest practice of the first week of training camp.

After the practice officials were slow to blow the whistle on one particular play, the eighth-year head coach chastised them from the middle of the field, screaming, “Get your [stuff] together! You’re getting lunch and you’re getting paid!”

Of course, they weren’t alone as Harbaugh challenged his young defensive linemen to be tougher and quicker firing off the ball during 11-on-11 short-yardage drills during the first half of practice. The coach singled out rookie defensive tackle Carl Davis and second-year defensive end Brent Urban at different points, but the coach said the ranting was calculated in trying to challenge young players the Ravens figure to count on heavily this season.

“It was a very physical, very tough practice,” Harbaugh said. “The guys fought through it really well. It’s always the one where — at least in my case — this coach gets a little crazy, because it’s a tough step to take from the hitting level of intensity to this level of intensity.

“For me, it’s more of a feel thing than anything. If I think I go too far, then I try to let them know I went too far. If I don’t go far enough, I have to grab them again. You always circle back and try to have communication.”

The motivational tactics appeared to work as the defense dominated the trenches by taking advantage of an offensive line without starting left guard Kelechi Osemele or reserve guards John Urschel and Robert Myers.

Second-year inside linebacker Zach Orr and rookie safety Nick Perry had tackles for losses in run support, standout plays for two players fighting for roster spots this summer. In Orr’s case, his emergence as more of a factor at linebacker could put former second-round pick Arthur Brown’s roster spot in jeopardy. After Matt Elam’s season-ending injury, the Alabama product Perry figures to have a better chance to enter the conversation for a reserve safety spot with a strong summer.

On a day with few offensive highlights, quarterback Joe Flacco’s long touchdown pass to Jeremy Butler was a bright spot as Butler beat cornerback Quinton Pointer in coverage.

Thursday was another difficult day for veteran backup quarterback Matt Schaub, who threw an interception returned for a touchdown and also fumbled a snap.

Rookie tight end Nick Boyle has shown more ability as a receiver this summer than many anticipated, but he had two bad drops.

 

Walking wounded

The Ravens had an extensive list of injured players missing from the practice field at the start of the session before three more left with injuries.

Harbaugh said Urschel and Myers were being evaluated for potential concussions suffered during practice and they will be conservative with both linemen. Urschel’s injury was particularly concerning as he was down on the field for several minutes before ultimately walking to the locker room with assistance.

Rookie tight end Maxx Williams also left practice early after being poked in the eye.

Harbaugh said Osemele was given Thursday off after having his foot stepped on a day earlier and veteran cornerback Kyle Arrington was given the day off to rest.

Players missing at the start of practice included wide receivers Breshad Perriman (knee) and Marlon Brown (back), cornerbacks Tray Walker (hamstring) and Chris Greenwood (hamstring), and linebackers Steven Means (ankle) and Zach Thompson (undisclosed). Tight end Dennis Pitta (hip) and safety Terrence Brooks remain on the active physically unable to perform list, but both watched portions of Thursday’s practice.

Hands-on Harbaugh

In addition to trying to light a fire under his younger players, Harbaugh took a hands-on approach to test Asa Jackson as a returner, trying to distract the fourth-year cornerback by bearing down on him while trying to field a punt.

Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda was particularly amused by the coach’s activity as he yelled to Jackson, “Run his ass over!”

Have a catch

During a special-teams portion of practice, top cornerback Jimmy Smith took some time out to play catch with a handful of young fans in attendance Thursday’s practice.

It was a nice way for a standout player to spend a period of practice in which he wasn’t participating anyway.

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webb

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2015 Ravens training camp preview: Cornerbacks

Posted on 26 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 cornerbacks:

CORNERBACKS 
LOCK: Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, Kyle Arrington, Tray Walker
BUBBLE: Asa Jackson, Rashaan Melvin, Tramain Jacobs, Cassius Vaughn
LONG SHOT: Chris Greenwood, Quinton Pointer

Synopsis: Five cornerbacks finished the 2014 season on injured reserve for Baltimore, leaving the secondary in tatters for large chunks of the year. This offseason, general manager Ozzie Newsome did what he failed to do a year ago in adding depth at the position with the signing of veteran slot cornerback Kyle Arrington and the fourth-round selection of Tray Walker from Texas Southern. The key to this group will be the health of starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb, but there does appear to be some decent young depth behind them with options such as Rashaan Melvin receiving meaningful playing time last year. The Ravens hope a healthy offseason will lead to a bounce-back campaign for Webb, who dealt with a lingering back issue and did not play well for most of 2014.

One to watch: Smith agreed to a four-year extension this spring that firmly solidifies him as the No. 1 cornerback moving forward, but the Ravens will gently hold their breath until the 2011 first-round pick proves he is over the Lisfranc injury that ended his 2014 season last October. In the spring, Smith moved around well, but there was still the occasional sign of hesitancy with his surgically-repaired foot. Over the last two years, the 6-foot-2 defensive back showed the sky is the limit with his potential if he can stay healthy, but that’s a fair concern after he missed a combined 17 games in his first four seasons.

One on notice: It wasn’t just that Asa Jackson missed nine games due to injury in 2014, but he played poorly when he was on the field, finishing with the worst Pro Football Focus grade of any Ravens cornerback by a sizable margin. The addition of the veteran Arrington in the slot as well as the presence of some other young cornerbacks on the roster could leave Jackson on the outside looking in if he doesn’t have a good preseason. His ability as a return man would certainly improve his standing, but Jackson has shown little evidence that he’s able to contribute defensively entering the final year of his contract.

Sleeper: He appeared in only three games last year before being placed on IR with a hamstring injury, but Tramain Jacobs grabbed coaches’ attention last summer with a strong training camp to earn a spot on the practice squad and an eventual promotion to the 53-man roster. The former rookie free agent from Texas A&M doesn’t have overwhelming size at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, but he will be in the mix with the likes of Melvin and Jackson for a roster spot. As is always the case with players filling out the bottom of the roster, the ability to contribute on special teams will be the difference.

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perriman

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Ravens position battles to watch this summer

Posted on 24 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens possess one of the deepest rosters in the NFL entering the 2015 season, but a number of key position battles will headline the summer as they seek their seventh trip to the postseason in eight years.

After losing the likes of Haloti Ngata, Torrey Smith, Owen Daniels, and Pernell McPhee, general manager Ozzie Newsome has done a remarkable job reloading, but several questions must be answered before the season begins in Denver on Sept. 13.

Below is an early look at each competition with the first full-squad workout of the summer set for July 30:

Starting wide receiver
The candidates: Breshad Perriman, Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown
Why to be optimistic: The 26th overall pick in the draft, Perriman was projected to go in the middle of the first round by some and is a faster and bigger version of Torrey Smith on paper while Aiken and Brown are still developing and contributed a season ago.
Why to be concerned: Beyond the 13,000-plus receiving yards from 15-year veteran Steve Smith, the Ravens’ other returning wide receivers made a combined 55 catches last year, making you pray that Perriman is ready to contribute immediately.
The favorite: Aiken is the leader in the clubhouse following minicamp and has developed an impressive rapport with Joe Flacco, but Perriman’s skills are too enticing to pass on him as the favorite to start.

Starting tight end
The candidates: Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, Dennis Pitta
Why to be optimistic: Even if we assume Pitta will not be cleared to play in 2015, the Ravens invested a 2014 third-round pick in Gillmore and a second-round pick in Williams this spring for a reason.
Why to be concerned: Gillmore caught just 10 passes as a rookie while Williams did not stand out during spring practices and is still trying to adjust to Marc Trestman’s offensive system.
The favorite: After showing improvement late in his rookie year, Gillmore was a surprise of the spring with a better physique and improved ability to make catches in traffic while Williams was very quiet.

Starting defensive end
The candidates: Chris Canty, Lawrence Guy, Brent Urban
Why to be optimistic: Canty and Guy were effective holding down the 5-technique position a year ago despite Urban’s knee injury that derailed his anticipated role in the rotation as a rookie.
Why to be concerned: Canty is entering his 11th year and the Ravens deemed him expendable before bringing him back at a cheaper rate while Urban has been unable to shake injuries going back to his collegiate days.
The favorite: Urban was very active during spring practices and could push the veteran starter, but it’s too tough to pick against Canty, who has started 119 games in his NFL career.

Starting safeties
The candidates: Will Hill, Kendrick Lewis, Matt Elam, Terrence Brooks
Why to be optimistic: Hill proved capable in handling a starting job in the second half of 2014 while Lewis was signed for his ability to play deep center, something the Ravens lacked in coverage a year ago.
Why to be concerned: Elam was a clear disappointment in his first two seasons while Brooks is still recovering from a torn ACL, creating legitimate depth concerns going into training camp.
The favorites: The Ravens gave Elam some reps with the starting defense this spring, but it would take substantial improvement for the 2013 first-round pick to overtake Hill or Lewis for starting spots.

Return specialist
The candidates: Michael Campanaro, DeAndre Carter, Asa Jackson, Fitz Toussaint, Lardarius Webb, Steve Smith
Why to be optimistic: Campanaro and Jackson have shown flashes in the return game in very limited opportunities while Webb and Smith bring experience to the equation.
Why to be concerned: It’s difficult to buy either Webb or Smith as a serious candidate to handle the job because of their importance, leaving the real competition to players lacking experience or facing questions about their durability.
The favorite: There isn’t one as this competition lacks candidates to really feel good about at this point, making you wonder if the man to handle the job is even on the current roster.

Backup running back
The candidates: Lorenzo Taliaferro, Buck Allen
Why to be optimistic: The Ravens feel very good about Justin Forsett in a starting role for a second straight year and have invested fourth-round picks in running backs in each of the last two drafts.
Why to be concerned: Taliaferro and Allen have a combined 68 carries in the NFL and are the primary backups behind a 29-year-old back who has one year of experience as a full-time back since college.
The favorite: Last month, Allen would have been my choice because of the versatility he showed in college, but a slimmed-down Taliaferro moved well this spring and has an experience edge for now.

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jacoby

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Ravens open to numerous possibilities in return game

Posted on 10 June 2015 by Luke Jones

Of the various position battles expected to take place this summer, the uneasiest ones for the Ravens come at the punt and kick returner spots.

With the Ravens jettisoning 2012 Pro Bowl return specialist Jacoby Jones earlier in the offseason, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg is casting a wide net in trying to find his replacement. If voluntary organized team activities are any indication, numerous veterans and rookies alike will be in the competition mix.

“I think we’ll limit it to keeping the offensive linemen out of there,” said Rosburg as he laughed on Monday afternoon. “We’re not going to let any of those guys go out there, but we are going to have a long line when it comes to that time.”

Younger players such as cornerback Asa Jackson, wide receivers Michael Campanaro and DeAndre Carter, and running back Fitz Toussaint figure to receive plenty of opportunities this summer, but Rosburg has also given veteran wideout Steve Smith some reps this spring and will do the same with veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb during training camp. Smith and Webb have shown plenty of ability in the return game throughout their careers, but the Ravens would obviously prefer not to use key veteran starters to return kicks on any kind of a regular basis.

In a perfect world, the Ravens would find someone to return both punts and kickoffs, but versatility will be critical as they’re not looking for a player to solely be a return man. That’s the biggest reason why the organization cut Jones, whose role as a wide receiver all but disappeared as he struggled with drops in his final season in Baltimore.

“You’d like to see a return specialist do both, and also contribute on offense or defense,” Rosburg said. “My personal philosophy is I don’t want just a return specialist. That’s not enough value to the roster. It doesn’t help the team enough.”

While training camp practices provide opportunities for evaluation, limits on contact during special-teams drills make it difficult for Rosburg to truly determine what he has. It’s easy to know what veterans such as Webb or Smith have to offer, but determining whether a rookie free agent like Carter can handle the job is best assessed during preseason games.

Securing the ball and turning upfield is simple enough on a Wednesday afternoon at the team’s Owings Mills training complex in early August, but doing it consistently when it matters is a different story.

“I like to see guys in games,” Rosburg said. “Practice is practice. It’s really valuable [and] it is important. You see what skills guys have, you watch them play, and you get a feel for them. Having said that, there’s nothing like game reps. Handling a crowd [and] handling a game situation is really important. We’ll make the decision based on who is best in preseason.”

Predicting which candidate that might be at this point is anyone’s guess.

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Even after strong draft, Ravens remain vulnerable at cornerback

Posted on 05 May 2015 by Luke Jones

As the Ravens receive much-deserved praise for addressing an extensive list of needs and wants in this year’s draft, one clear truth remained at the end of an otherwise-successful weekend.

The secondary remains vulnerable after the Ravens finished 23rd in pass defense during the 2014 season. To be clear, this isn’t meant to be a biting criticism as detractors pointing to the failures of the Ravens defense in the divisional playoff loss to New England last January are conveniently failing to mention that Baltimore needed to replace starting wide receiver Torrey Smith and starting tight end Owen Daniels before worrying about a No. 3 cornerback or help at safety, a position with few immediate solutions in this year’s draft.

Yes, the defense deserved more blame than the offense in that 35-31 defeat to the Patriots, but the Ravens weren’t going to replace two individuals responsible for 32 percent of Joe Flacco’s 2014 passing yards on hopes and dreams alone, which is why they selected Brehad Perriman and Maxx Williams with their first two picks.

Of the nine selections made by general manager Ozzie Newsome, however, fourth-round cornerback Tray Walker has raised the most eyebrows as many projected the Texas Southern product to be a late-round selection or even a priority free agent. The Ravens really like the 6-foot-2 corner’s upside and worked him out privately during the pre-draft process, but it’s fair to wonder if it was a reach to ensure they’d come away with at least one cornerback with room for grwoth. At the very least, it would be quite ambitious to assume Walker will be ready to immediately step into the No. 3 cornerback role behind starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb.

“Could we have taken a corner in the first round? We probably could have. In the second round? We probably could have,” Newsome said. “But at the point when we were picking, it wasn’t the best player. But we do feel good. Getting Jimmy back healthy, Lardarius having a year to train, and then some of the young guys to have a chance to play being in the system for a second year [will help].”

Newsome’s correct about the Ravens being ravaged by injuries with five cornerbacks finishing the season on injured reserve. While Rashaan Melvin wouldn’t have been filling a starting role late last season under normal circumstances, the former Tampa Bay practice-squad member played well enough to garner a look as the potential third cornerback. He, Walker, Anthony Levine, and the oft-injured Asa Jackson currently stand as the candidates for the No. 3 job, but the Ravens will also be depending on first-year cornerbacks coach Matt Weiss and first-year defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt — who served as Steve Spagnuolo’s assistant secondary coach a year ago — to oversee their development.

Finding a No. 3 cornerback is not an impossible task, but that only comes with the assumption that Smith is back to form after a season-ending Lisfranc injury and Webb can build on the improvement shown late in 2014 after a back injury cost him all of training camp and the first month of the regular season. The two have missed 33 regular-season games due to injuries in their respective careers and have only played full 16-game seasons three times between them.

It’s also worth noting that the Ravens ranked just 24th in pass defense before Smith went down for the season in Week 8, proof that all wasn’t well in the secondary before defensive coordinator Dean Pees lost his top cornerback.

With the draft complete, it’s worth noting that some teams will part ways with veteran cornerbacks in the coming days and weeks like the Patriots did with Alfonzo Dennard on Tuesday. Of course, none of those names can be regarded as a sure bet, but the Ravens could find an appealing candidate or two to throw into the current No. 3 and No. 4 mix, especially with more than $10 million in current salary cap space.

“We’re not done putting this team together right now,” Newsome said at the draft’s conclusion. “It’s still maybe four months before we have to play Denver [in the season opener]. We’re still going to be mining for players to make our roster to make us better.”

Despite everything accomplished with their nine selections this past weekend, cornerback remains a top position to try to improve between now and the start of the season.

Pondering Pitta’s future

Admittedly, I’ve been surprised by some of the reaction to the Ravens drafting two tight ends and the “new-found” conclusions many have reached about the future of veteran Dennis Pitta.

All offseason, Baltimore has expressed hope that the 2010 fourth-round pick would be able to play again after suffering two devastating right hip injuries in a 14-month span. But, like everyone else, the organization saw the manner in which Pitta innocuously caught a short pass and tried to turn upfield before crumpling to the ground without even being touched in Cleveland last September.

Knowing Pitta’s character and commitment to the game, I would never count out his potential return to the field. But I’m also rooting for a 29-year-old man to do what’s best for him and his family, whether that means trying to play football again or calling it a career with what should be plenty of financial security.

If Pitta returns, having too many tight ends is a great problem to have, but the Ravens simply can’t count on any production from him in 2015 or beyond. Even if he does resume playing, it will be difficult for the Ravens — or anyone else — to shake the fear of what happened to Pitta in Cleveland from happening again.

Return game

Another position of interest that appeared to go unaddressed in this year’s draft was return specialist as the Ravens must replace veteran Jacoby Jones.

Many have pointed to wide receiver Michael Campanaro as the top candidate to return punts, but it will be worth keeping an eye on rookie free agent DeAndre Carter from Sacramento State. Carter is only 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, but he was projected by some to be a late-round pick with potential to be a solid return man at the next level.

The Ravens have a history of finding rookie free agent returners from B.J. Sams and Cory Ross to Deonte Thompson, so an opportunity could be there for Carter despite a very crowded group of young wide receivers.

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Ravens place Taliaferro on IR, sign former Patriots defensive tackle Walker

Posted on 16 December 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens officially sent three players to injured reserve on Tuesday with rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro joining injured defensive backs Asa Jackson and Terrence Brooks.

Head coach John Harbaugh had already confirmed Jackson and Brooks would miss the rest of the season, but the news of Taliaferro’s status is disappointing after he rushed for 292 yards and four touchdowns on 68 carries, often serving as the primary backup behind starter Justin Forsett. Taliaferro suffered a foot injury in the Week 14 win over Miami and missed this past Sunday’s game against Jacksonville after the Ravens promoted rookie running back Fitz Toussaint from the practice squad.

Taliaferro had originally been described as “day-to-day” by Harbaugh on Dec. 8.

To fill two of the three spots vacated on the 53-man roster, Baltimore promoted offensive lineman and 2013 sixth-round pick Ryan Jensen from the practice squad and signed defensive tackle Casey Walker away from New England’s practice squad. Walker appeared in five games for the Patriots earlier this season, collecting 11 tackles and a sack.

The 6-foot-1, 335-pound undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma started his career with the Carolina Panthers in 2013 before he was signed by the Patriots in late September of this season. He had been on New England’s active roster until late last month when he was waived to make room for running back LeGarrette Blount and then re-signed to the practice squad.

Jensen spent his entire rookie season on the 53-man roster without appearing in a game, but the Colorado State-Pueblo product did not make the team at the end of the 2014 preseason, agreeing to join the practice squad after being waived.

As of Tuesday afternoon, one spot had yet to be filled with many expecting the Ravens to add a defensive back in the wake of the season-ending injuries to Jackson and Brooks.

With Jensen and Toussaint promoted in recent days, the Ravens signed defensive end Zach Thompson and cornerback Quinton Pointer to the practice squad. Thompson is a Wake Forest product and previously spent time with the New York Jets and the Denver Broncos.

Pointer is in his third NFL season and appeared in eight games with the St. Louis Rams in 2012 and 2013. He was most recently with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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