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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 26-24 win over Cleveland

Posted on 01 January 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens clinching their first AFC North championship since 2012 with a 26-24 win over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The running game produced a season-high 296 yards and finished 2018 with the second-most rushing yards (2,441) in franchise history behind the 2003 team and ahead of the 2008 Ravens. What do those three playoff squads have in common? A rookie quarterback started a large portion of their games.

2. From going for a fourth-and-1 on the 48 on the first drive to using Cover 0 on the final four defensive plays, Baltimore was aggressive with the season on the line. Wink Martindale’s mindset was quite the contrast from rushing four and playing zone on fourth-and-12 last New Year’s Eve.

3. C.J. Mosley hasn’t had his best season and may not be worth the money required to re-sign him, but he made the game-sealing interception and was credited with four hurries by Pro Football Focus. I’ll maintain he’s underappreciated by much of a fan base using Ray Lewis as its standard.

4. Sam Koch deserves much credit for his 51-yard punt that put the Browns on their own 26 for their final drive. After a 37-yard return earlier, Antonio Callaway had nowhere to go near the sideline. A lesser punt very likely would have given Cleveland a potential game-winning field goal try.

5. The Ravens were an inch or two away from a 27-7 lead before Lamar Jackson’s fumble at the goal line. Not only were they fortunate a whistle prevented a Cleveland touchdown the other way, but the Browns failed to take advantage of further sloppy play from Baltimore before halftime.

6. Baker Mayfield made mistakes, but I couldn’t help but feel the Browns wasted plays at times trying to run and throw to the flats when they were having so much success pushing it down the field. The 7.6 yards per play allowed was easily a season worst for the Ravens.

7. Even in victory, it was concerning to see the offense unable to sustain a late drive to protect a one-score lead for the second straight contest. Marty Mornhinweg’s play-calling inside the red zone and on that fourth-quarter drive was questionable.

8. It’s been an up-and-down season for Jimmy Smith, but he came up with the first two-interception game by a Baltimore player since 2013. Per PFF, he allowed just one catch for one yard on seven targets into his coverage. Especially with Marlon Humphrey struggling mightily, that was a critical performance.

9. The short-term ramifications of Sunday’s game dominated the attention, but I’ll gladly sign up for many more Jackson-Mayfield meetings in the years to come. Terrell Suggs’ praise for both rookies said it all. Ben Roethlisberger remains the AFC North quarterback king for now, but a shift is already underway.

10. John Brown registered games of 116 receiving yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh in Week 4 and 134 yards and a touchdown against New Orleans. Since Jackson became the starter, Brown has a total of eight catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. That’s rough playing on a one-year deal.

11. Sunday’s playoff contest will mark exactly six years since Ray Lewis and Ed Reed played their final home game as Ravens. It’s fitting Jackson, the most exciting player to arrive in Baltimore since Super Bowl XLVII, will start his first playoff game on that anniversary. What fun it should be.

12. Opinions differed on the black jerseys being paired with the purple pants for the first time, but I liked the unique look and hope to see it again, especially for a prime-time game. That was the 10th different uniform combination used by Baltimore this year. Oregon who?

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 29 December 2018 by Luke Jones

Sunday’s scenario for the Ravens appeared highly unlikely eight weeks ago.

A three-game losing streak and a hip injury to Joe Flacco made 4-5 Baltimore look like a team going nowhere fast, but a revamped run-heavy offense led by rookie Lamar Jackson and the top-ranked defense in the NFL have sparked the Ravens to five wins in their last six games. That surge and Pittsburgh’s late-season slide have put John Harbaugh’s team in position to win its first AFC North championship since 2012 with a victory over Cleveland on Sunday.

However, the Browns have also been resurrected by the strong play of their first-year quarterback. The Ravens got a glimpse of what Baker Mayfield could do in Cleveland’s 12-9 overtime win in Week 5, but the top overall pick from Oklahoma has only gotten better since Hue Jackson’s dismissal, throwing 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions with a 115.2 passer rating over the last six games — five of them wins for the Browns.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Browns meet for the 40th time in the regular season with Baltimore holding a colossal 29-10 advantage and an 18-3 mark in the John Harbaugh era. Cleveland is seeking its first season sweep since 2007, which was also the last time the Browns finished a campaign with a winning record.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Terrell Suggs will record his 20th career sack against Cleveland. Most attention has been on Flacco’s expected departure and Harbaugh’s uncertain future, but Sunday could be Suggs’ final regular-season game with the Ravens, especially if Eric DeCosta chooses to make more drastic roster changes that wouldn’t include re-signing the 36-year-old. No team has surrendered more sacks to the seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker in his career, and left tackle Greg Robinson has the lowest Pro Football Focus grade along a Browns offensive line that’s surrendered only three sacks over the last six games.

2. Breshad Perriman will catch a touchdown pass against his former team. No, I’m not forecasting the doomsday scenario of a last-second Mayfield-to-Perriman touchdown to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs — I’m not that rotten — but the former first-round bust has found a place as a solid contributor in Cleveland, catching 13 passes for 295 yards and a touchdown in 199 snaps. Injuries and poor hands predictably made him an unpopular figure in Baltimore, but it had become apparent after his lost 2017 season that Perriman needed a fresh start if he was going to get his career on track.

3. The rookie quarterbacks will combine for four turnovers in their first meeting. This game’s short-term consequences overshadow the big-picture possibility of this being the first of many meetings between two former Heisman Trophy winners playing in the same division, which is fun to ponder as a football fan. That said, the Browns defense ranks second in the NFL in takeaways while the Ravens have forced five turnovers over the last three weeks after lacking in that department all year. Mayfield and Jackson will both make impressive plays, but each will show their inexperience as well.

4. Gus Edwards will rush for 100 yards and a touchdown to protect a second-half lead. At first glance, Cleveland ranking 24th in rush defense bodes well for the Ravens, but the Browns have held their last three opponents — who all rank in the top 12 in yards per carry — to a combined 3.3 yards per attempt. Kansas City and the Los Angeles Chargers quietly contained the Baltimore rushing attack in the second half, but I expect Browns coach and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to sell out to contain the edges against the speedy Jackson, which will open more inside running lanes for Edwards.

5. The defense will lead the Ravens back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 in a 23-16 win. Since Week 11, Baltimore ranks second in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric while the Browns are fourth, which speaks to how formidable both teams have become down the stretch. In a game I expect to be close throughout, I’ll take the team that has the best overall unit on either side of the ball, and that’s the Ravens defense. Wink Martindale has this defense playing at an elite level even when the Baltimore offense has bogged down as it did in the second half of the Chargers game. The Ravens need to be ready to play against an improving team with a quarterback already moving toward folk-hero status in Cleveland. The Browns would love nothing more than to knock the original Browns out of the playoffs for the fourth straight year, but the Ravens’ narrative change that began last week against the Chargers will continue in Week 17, leading to a happy New Year in Baltimore after a few nervous moments.

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Random Ravens Thoughts 12-26-18

Posted on 26 December 2018 by Dennis Koulatsos

Just a couple of weeks ago the Baltimore Ravens were given around a 4% chance of making the NFL playoffs, and lo and behold now here they are on the doorstep of not only getting in by beating the Cleveland Browns, but also in great position to win the division and earn a home playoff game.

One of the funny things – and believe you me, there’s no shortage of funny things surrounding this team right now – is the notion locally and nationally that this team can’t win with this “gimmicky” offense.  It reminds me of back in the day when Ray Lewis and the Ravens faced Miami with their version of a gimmicky offense which came in the form of the Wildcat formation.  After easily disposing of the Dolphins, Lewis quipped “that no matter what, it’s still football.”

What the 1st ballot Hall of Famer was talking about is that no matter how you scheme it up, it still comes down to blocking and tackling. It still comes down to one on one matchups. It’s a simple game.  Win those matchups, win the game.  And that is exactly what the Ravens are doing, right now.

Chargers’ coach Anthony Lynn said as much after the post game rubble he was standing in that the Ravens had left.  He said they got outplayed and got outcoached.  The most noteworthy thing he said was that the Chargers didn’t see anything from the Ravens that they hadn’t seen before, and that they hadn’t seen anything that they weren’t expecting.  It was all right there, on film, on the field, right in front of them.  They simply couldn’t stop them.

That’s the beauty of the current edition of the Baltimore Ravens.  They run a very simple offense, and they execute the heck out of it.  It’s just a handful of plays, disguised by different sets and multiple players in motion.  It causes linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks to pause and look to see where the ball is, often confused by where the ball is going.

Defenses are built on read and react principles, and they are having a hard time of doing just that against the Ravens.  Much has been made that mercurial rookie QB Lamar Jackson forces defenses to play 11 on 10 football, versus the traditional 11 on 11.  It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on them.  If they key in on Jackson too much, then bruising backs Gus Edwards and Ken Dixon gain chunk yards between the tackles.  Focus on the backs, and they risk Jackson going around the end for big gains.

And then there’s the play action passes, when Jackson pulls the ball out and surveys the field.  It is truly rare to see a rookie QB with his eyes downfield, but Jackson has done this since day one.  That’s a skill that takes some time to develop, and lots of QBs never develop it.  In terms of Jackson’s future and continued growth, the fact that he has this skill in spades bodes well for him as well as the organization.

Jackson has developed good rapport with all of the receivers, particularly Willie Snead and Mark Andrews.  He’s also shown the ability to deliver crisp, on target passes across the middle. That’s where most interceptions in the NFL occur.  It’s usually late throws across the middle, and Jackson thus far has excelled in that area.

Of course pundits are quick to point out that Jackson is prone to put the ball on the ground, but he also recovers about 70% of those fumbles.  He’s also shown a penchant for shaking off not only fumbles and interceptions, coming back to make big plays.  His short term memory in regards to making mistakes also serves him well.

The Ravens have a big time game coming up against the Browns, who are also on a hot streak right now.  I watched their last game, in which they disposed the Jeff Driskell led Bengals in a workman like fashion.  It wasn’t much of a game, as the Browns dominated in every phase. It looked to me like the Bengals had packed it in for the season.

It was also a home game for the Browns, and they had that going for them.  Baker Mayfield looked good at times and like a rookie QB at others.  He made some gains with his feet, buying some time to find open receivers as well as tucking the ball in and taking off with it downfield.  He is barely 6 feet tall and he had a couple of passes batted down.

His frequent  targets were WR Rashard Higgins and TE David Njoku.  Jarvis Landry and Breshad Perriman also contributed but to a lesser extent.  Nick Chubb is a handful at running back, and that’s the one player I am sure that the Ravens defense will focus on taking away.  Chubb and Njoku are the keys to that offense, and who the Ravens defense needs to pay particular attention to.

Much of the credit for the Browns’ dramatic turnaround this season not only goes to their interim head coach Gregg Williams, but to their offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens.  His offense has been very creative, productive and overall fun to watch.  Kitchens has done such a good job, that his name is emerging as a head coach candidate for many of the jobs that are going to be open at the end of the season.

He uses RB Duke Johnson very creatively in the run and pass game, as well as Jarvis Landry and Breshad Perriman.  In fact, Landry threw a bomb to Perriman on a double reverse.  But going back to what Ray Lewis had said, it’s still football.  The Ravens have to stay discipline, the ends have to stay at home and set the edge, and they will be fine.

As far as the Browns’ defense is concerned, the Bengals had some success running between the tackles with Joe Mixon.  The Browns are 24th in the league against the run, so the Ravens should have continued success running the ball against them.

Back to Baker Mayfield.  At the end of the game versus the Bengals, as he was running off of the field he stared down Hue Jackson for what seemed like an eternity.  It wasn’t exactly a good look for him, and it showed that he still has some immaturity issues that have haunted him throughout his college career.

It’s still early but it looks to me that not only have the Ravens selected the better quarterback, but more importantly the better person.  These two have some history going back to 2016, as Jackson beat Mayfield and Deshaun Watson for the Heisman Trophy.  That one still burns Mayfield for sure, and you can bet he’s going to be fired up to end the Ravens’ season this Sunday.

I would be remiss if I didn’t address coach John Harbaugh and his status with the Ravens.  I thought that Friday’s 7:00 p.m. announcement by the team that he is going to coach the Ravens through 2019 while they mutually worked on a contract extension was brilliant.  Whether they do or not at this point is irrelevant.  Lots of people questioned the timing of the announcement, but I thought it was great.

It accomplished two things.  First, I thought it was a good way to double focus the team the day before a big away game with the Chargers.  It told them that if they had any doubt about Harbaugh and his coaching staff to just get it out of their minds.  More importantly it sent a message to the veteran players that they – not Harbaugh – were playing for their jobs.  They didn’t have to worry about the incoming coach – they had to worry about the current one, not only for this year but the next and even well into the future.

Respected sports journalist Peter King – among others – is still skeptical in regards to Harbaugh’s return to Baltimore as head coach in 2020.  He is of the opinion that Harbaugh – who gets a raise in 2019 and will make in the $8 million range – will play out his contract and see what his options are in 2020.

I certainly don’t share King’s opinion.  John Harbaugh is a smart man, but the Ravens are also a smart organization.  I cannot imagine a scenario where Harbaugh is a lame duck coach next year.  The Ravens will make it a boy or a girl.  It will be one or the other.  Either he signs a long term contract, or they will trade him to a team and receive as much compensation for him as possible.

Harbaugh will agree to that for a number of reasons.  For starters he would be the hottest head coach on the market.  He would be clearly the number 1 candidate on almost any teams’ wish list – this year.  Who knows what the market will be next year and who’ll be available?  Coach will strike while the iron is hot, and he should.

I believe that Harbaugh wants to stay in Baltimore and I believe the owner and front office want to keep him.  The only reason I can see stopping it from happening is if there is additional power that Harbaugh would demand over personnel decisions.  That could end negotiations.  And if that happens, I believe the Ravens would leak out word to the rest of the league that Harbaugh is available, and would seek to trade him to a team they would receive maximum compensation from in the form of draft picks.

That aside, here’s to a victory over the Browns and a long playoff run.  The Ravens have a shot to write history.  It is a long shot, but winning a Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback would be one for the ages.  They have experience, defense, special teams, running game, coaching and momentum to get there.

I don’t know if truly any teams fear them and don’t want to face them, but I do know that they are going to be an awfully tough out.  If in fact they beat the Browns and get into the Super Bowl tournament, history tells us that anything can happen.

 

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 12-9 overtime loss at Cleveland

Posted on 09 October 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens falling to 3-2 following the ugly 12-9 overtime loss to Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore has had past performances like Sunday’s at FirstEnergy Stadium, but the difference was you could always count on a lousy football team to “Brown” it up at the most critical moment. The Browns were far from perfect, but Baker Mayfield clearly makes them a better team.

2. You hate criticizing a group that surrendered only 12 points, but the two-minute defense left a lot to be desired, allowing a 78-yard touchdown drive at the end of the first half, a 38-yard drive in the final minute of regulation, and the 65-yard game-ending drive in overtime.

3. Had anyone heard of Derrick Willies before his 39-yard reception on third-and-8 in overtime? The rookie free agent caught a combined 40 passes in three collegiate seasons at Texas Tech and Iowa and hadn’t caught an NFL pass before the fourth quarter.

4. Arguably worse was Duke Johnson’s 15-yard run on the next play that put the Browns at the Baltimore 28. It was a less-than-stellar showing from Tyus Bowser and C.J. Mosley on that run since Cleveland kicker Greg Joseph wasn’t inspiring any confidence that he’d make a longer kick.

5. I’ve written extensively about the running game this week, but Lamar Jackson leads the team in yards per carry (min. 15 rushes), making it understandable why the Ravens want to keep him involved. Still, bringing him on the field for an inside rush on first-and-16 in overtime made little sense.

6. The defense recorded five sacks and a total of 27 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens allowed Mayfield to escape the pocket a few times, but the pass rush bounced back from a quiet performance in Pittsburgh. Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith were particularly good in that area.

7. Joe Flacco was among those complaining about the illegal block in the back call on Chris Moore that wiped away Alex Collins’ 17-yard run in overtime, but it was avoidable just like Matt Judon’s that canceled out a touchdown against Denver. You have to see what you’re hitting.

8. Anthony Levine continues to play terrific football after recording three pass breakups for the second straight week. He’s a good example of how using creativity with sub packages can work to your advantage. Levine isn’t a pure safety, linebacker, or cornerback, but he’s a good football player.

9. John Harbaugh acknowledged not planning to use Willie Henry for 39 defensive snaps in his return from August hernia surgery, but he played well, registering a sack and another tackle. He provides another inside pass-rushing option to rotate with Smith and Brent Urban.

10. The Ravens lead the NFL in scoring defense and rank in the top five in a number of other categories, but they’ve recorded just six takeaways in their first five games after having 10 in the first two contests last year. I suspect that’s going to change sooner than later.

11. Browns cornerback Denzel Ward was responsible for taking as many as 10 points off the board from the Ravens with his goal-line interception and field goal block. He, Mayfield, and defensive end Myles Garrett sure look poised to make Cleveland an interesting team over the next few years.

12. Watching a 9-9 contest in the final seconds of overtime brought memories of the only tie in Ravens history, which came against Philadelphia at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 16, 1997. I recall leaving that day as fans from both teams argued over which team stunk more. Both finished 6-9-1.

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Ravens-Browns: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 06 October 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens aim for their first 4-1 start since 2012 when they travel to Cleveland for a Week 5 meeting with the Browns on Sunday afternoon.

That’s significant not only because it was the last time they won the Super Bowl, but the Ravens have made the playoffs and advanced to at least the divisional round every time they’ve won four of their first five games to begin a season, something they also did in 2000, 2006, 2010, and 2011. In contrast, a 3-1 start hasn’t always guaranteed January football as Baltimore missed the playoffs in 1997 and, most recently, two years ago. Coming off their biggest road victory in years in Pittsburgh last Sunday night, the Ravens have no room for complacency as they still play three of their next four away from M&T Bank Stadium — a stretch that includes three opponents that made the playoffs a year ago.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Browns meet for the 39th time in the regular season with Baltimore holding an overwhelming 29-9 edge and an 18-2 advantage in the John Harbaugh era. Cleveland hasn’t beaten the Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium since the 2013 season.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield will be intercepted twice in his first test against a top-tier defense. Mayfield’s arrival could mean the days of automatically chalking up two annual wins against the Browns are coming to an end, but Wink Martindale labeling Mayfield “this generation’s Brett Favre or John Elway” predictably drew mocking from even coaches in Cleveland. Mayfield will want to test the returning Jimmy Smith, who will rotate with outside corners Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Carr. That will lead to a pick for Smith, who will be playing for the first time since Week 13 of last season.

2. Willie Snead will stand out in another good performance from Joe Flacco. The Cleveland defense has given up plenty of yards, but the group leads the NFL with 13 takeaways and has more talent, meaning Flacco will need to play smart. The Brown lost starting corner Terrance Mitchell to injured reserve last week and have been vulnerable at the nickel with neither T.J. Carrie nor Briean Boddy-Calhoun holding up well. To offset the pass-rushing ability of Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, and surprising rookie Genard Avery, Flacco will lean on Snead and the tight ends over the middle.

3. Browns running backs Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson will each score a touchdown to keep it close. Carlos Hyde has the most carries in the league and is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry while the rookie Chubb ran for 105 yards on three carries last week. No matter how talented Mayfield is, Cleveland will try to borrow the formula Chicago used to beat Baltimore last year when the Bears ran for over 200 yards and kept the pressure off Mitchell Trubisky. It won’t be nearly that extreme, but Chubb’s explosiveness and Johnson’s receiving ability will help keep the Ravens defense off balance.

4. The Ravens special teams’ edge will shine through at a critical moment. The likes of Mayfield and Garrett may eventually lead Cleveland to prominence, but the special teams have remained on brand as Cleveland has had kicks blocked and surrendered long returns early in the season. Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric ranks the Browns last in the NFL in special teams. The Ravens have had their own hiccups, specifically with the punt team, but Justin Tucker and Sam Koch always give them an edge. The Browns will “Brown” in a crucial spot to help the Ravens maintain a lead.

5. Baltimore will grind its way to a 24-16 win. Four of the last five meetings in Cleveland have been decided by a single possession and each of the Browns’ two losses this season — both on the road — have come by one score, meaning the Ravens have no excuse to feel too confident in their second of three straight away from home. Mayfield will be making his first home start after coming off the bench two weeks ago to lead the Browns to their first win since 2016, meaning the Cleveland crowd will be fired up more than usual for a game against the team that once played there. The Ravens will be tested, but the composure displayed at Heinz Field last Sunday will show up again in a workmanlike win.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 2018 draft

Posted on 03 May 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens now finished with the draft and looking ahead to rookie minicamp this weekend, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. An organization that’s struggled to remain relevant nationally in recent years will have plenty of buzz as the Lamar Jackson watch begins. This will easily be the most interesting spring and preseason the Ravens have had in a long time.

2. Joe Flacco declining to speak to local reporters Saturday was much ado about nothing, but the Ravens created this situation and need to be prepared to handle it. Every national reporter coming through Owings Mills this year will be asking the veteran about the quarterback of the future.

3. I’m already seeing the annual overhype about the receiver competition as the Ravens added three veterans who combined for 87 catches for 1,009 yards last year and can point to Demetrius Williams as their greatest fourth- or fifth-round success story at the position in the 21st century. Pump the brakes.

4. With that said, I do like the diversity in skills and physical traits of the pass catchers added by general manager Ozzie Newsome. Even the surest thing, Michael Crabtree, coming off a down season makes you nervous, but there is enough potential and upside in this group to be hopeful.

5. Willie Snead was impressive in his press conference earlier this week, taking accountability for his difficult 2017 season without pointing any fingers for his disappearance in the New Orleans offense. Now we’ll find out if he was a byproduct of Drew Brees and Sean Payton or a productive slot option.

6. Drafting Anthony Averett gave Baltimore 11 corners on the preseason roster with as many as seven of those held in high regard. Health will factor heavily into the makeup of this group, of course, but the possibility of a late-summer trade to address another position of need still seems plausible.

7. Tight ends frequently struggle in their rookie season and his age could limit his overall ceiling, but I have little doubt that Hayden Hurst will be as good as he’s capable of being after reading this terrific piece by Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei. He’s already dealt with failure admirably.

8. Since many have cited Marty Mornhinweg’s work with Michael Vick in Philadelphia to endorse the first-round selection of Jackson, I’ll note that Flacco’s numbers began declining as soon as Mornhinweg took over as his quarterbacks coach the year after arguably the best regular season of his career.

9. I’m curious to see how DeShon Elliott fits at the NFL level as Pro Football Focus views him as a free safety while others envision him playing more in the box. The Ravens hitting on a late-round safety after using so many resources at the position recently would be helpful.

10. Jordan Lasley is the kind of prospect on which a team should take a chance in the fifth round. His off-field issues were far from egregious, but the key will be whether his issues with drops are correctable. I still like the pick at a position lacking any long-term answers.

11. Considering their impeccable track record with undrafted free agents, the Ravens tying a franchise record with 12 picks in the draft was surprising. You just hope they didn’t miss out on some quality players in the name of adding so much quantity in the later rounds.

12. With Baker Mayfield going first overall to Cleveland, Jackson being the final pick of the first round, and first-round hopeful Mason Rudolph sliding to Pittsburgh in the third round, ESPN would have a good “30 for 30” topic if the quarterback future of the AFC North comes to fruition.

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