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Revamped Ravens defense better live up to expectations

Posted on 29 April 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens stayed true to their board, but that doesn’t change reality after going defense with their first four picks of the 2017 draft.

This is an unbalanced roster with the heaviest lifting of the offseason now in the books. Yes, general manager Ozzie Newsome reminded us again Saturday that the Ravens aren’t done building this year’s team, but there are only so many viable free agents still out there to move the meter in any meaningful way. Right now, Baltimore has a below-average offense that’s going to be difficult to improve dramatically without some substantial improvement from players already on the roster.

The Ravens may still add Nick Mangold or bring back Anquan Boldin, but there’s a reason why they’re still out there. They’re not “Plan A” guys anymore.

Of the seven Ravens players selected in the first three rounds over the last two drafts, just one — left tackle Ronnie Stanley — was an offensive player. It’s difficult to improve on that side of the ball if you’re not spending free-agent dollars or investing early draft picks, which will make life more difficult for quarterback Joe Flacco and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg as they will likely lean on unproven talent at wide receiver and on the offensive line.

Asked about the state of his offense after the first wave of free agency last month that included lucrative contracts for nose tackle Brandon Williams and safety Tony Jefferson and another deal for cornerback Brandon Carr, Newsome fairly pointed to the draft as the way to build the rest of the roster. But the Ravens came away with fourth-round guard prospect Nico Siragusa and fifth-round developmental right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor as their only picks for that side of the ball.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Ravens should have reached to draft offensive players purely out of need as they did appear to get good value with their picks, but the 2017 draft being so rich in defensive talent was a reason why the offense should have been a bigger focus in free agency. The outcome is an offense that’s lost a starting wide receiver, a starting right tackle, a starting center, and a Pro Bowl fullback and has netted only 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead and two Day 3 offensive linemen.

Which side of the ball had its coordinator fired again last year?

Like it or not, the Ravens prioritized building a great defense above anything else this offseason. The unit collapsed down the stretch in 2016, but the primary cause of that was the absence of No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith as John Harbaugh’s team went 2-5 in games in which he missed meaningful time.

When Smith was on the field, the Ravens had a strong defense despite an underwhelming pass rush. And even with the resources used in both free agency and the draft to revamp the secondary and the pass rush, Smith’s availability remains arguably the biggest key for defensive success.

On paper, the Ravens defense does look better than the 2016 edition, but it will need to be great — possibly even special — to justify the use of so many resources and to make up for an offense with a ton of question marks. Taking that kind of a leap is no sure thing, especially in the modern NFL that is geared toward offense.

Will some combination of the pass-rushing group of Matt Judon, Za’Darius Smith, Tyus Bowser, and Tim Williams be ready to step up with Terrell Suggs set to turn 35 in October and Elvis Dumervil no longer on the roster? Is first-round rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey going to be ready to play at a high level if Smith goes down again for some period of time? Can Kamalei Correa hold down the inside linebacker spot vacated by the retired Zach Orr? Will defensive coordinator Dean Pees use so many new pieces effectively and maximize their versatility?

The excitement for the defense is understandable with so much youth and potential at every level, but remember there isn’t a 25-year-old Ray Lewis leading this group before waxing nostalgic about replicating the 2000 Ravens. Even if we’re looking for a more contemporary comparison — it’s a different game than it was nearly two decades ago — the 2015 Denver Broncos had a generational talent in Von Miller and two 1,000-yard receivers on the other side of the ball.

A winning blueprint leaning so heavily on defense is very difficult to execute.

But it’s where the Ravens find themselves after free agency and the draft.

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Carr’s reliability made him easy choice for Ravens

Posted on 21 March 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — You can hardly blame the Ravens for being drawn to cornerback Brandon Carr.

After starting no fewer than four different players at cornerback in each of the last three seasons — including a whopping seven in 2014 — the Ravens needed more dependability at a position high in demand and limited in quality. The 30-year-old Carr may not have lived up to the high expectations that accompanied a $50 million contract with Dallas five years ago, but he’s been a reliable cornerback who’s started all 16 games in each of his nine NFL seasons.

Carr needs to show he can still play at a high level in 2017, but just being there means more than you might think for a team that’s started the likes of Rashaan Melvin and Shareece Wright in meaningful games over the last few years. Perhaps that’s why the Ravens signed Carr over former Dallas teammate Morris Claiborne, a talented former first-round pick who’s missed more than 40 percent of games in his career.

“There were different guys that had different histories,” said head coach John Harbaugh about the durability of others on the free-agent market. “You know you cannot do any better than Brandon has done. There’s a reason for that. Sure, luck comes into it and you do knock on wood and laugh about those kind of things.”

That durability is something the Ravens hope will continue with No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith missing 22 games over his six-year career and most of last December when their once-mighty defense fell apart. Some drop-off is inevitable whenever a team loses one of its best players, but performance can’t fall off a cliff in the way the Baltimore defense’s did at the end of last season without addressing the problem.

The Ravens feel confident about the trio of Smith, Carr, and 2016 fourth-round pick Tavon Young to go along with starting safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, but Harbaugh said they will continue to look for more secondary depth with this year’s draft deep in cornerback talent.

How has Carr been able to stay on the field at a position involving so much lateral movement and speed?

“I do not even know how I do it myself with the injuries that I won’t even talk about,” said Carr, who cited his work with outside trainers and his focus on nutrition as factors that have kept him healthy. “I just keep playing through them. Sometimes it is just the luck of the draw, and sometimes it is just being stupid and playing through whatever is going on.

“Alongside of that, my preparation throughout the offseason taking care of my body [and] just keeping a balance in my life with family, friends, football, and my faith. I just try to stay on top of injuries.”

Holding the longest active streak for consecutive games (144) started by a cornerback, Carr isn’t guaranteed to continue being an iron man who’s never missed a game as he turns 31 in May. But the Ravens figured they would take their chances.

“I think the biggest indicator of future behavior and success is past behavior and success,” Harbaugh said. “He has proven that already.”

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Ravens add veteran cornerback Brandon Carr to secondary

Posted on 16 March 2017 by Luke Jones

Having stated the goal of improving their secondary this offseason, the Ravens have made their second significant addition to that group by agreeing to a four-year deal with cornerback Brandon Carr.

The former Dallas Cowboy and Kansas City Chief has started every game of his nine-year career and has never missed a contest, a level of durability that the Ravens likely value after countless injuries in the secondary in recent years. The six-foot, 210-pound cornerback will turn 31 in May and is likely to serve as an outside corner opposite Jimmy Smith with Tavon Young defending the slot in the nickel package.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Carr will be signing a one-year contract with a subsequent options that could make the deal worth $24 million over four seasons. Such a structure makes sense when signing a player entering his 10th year in the NFL.

The 2008 fifth-round pick out of Grand Valley State collected 61 tackles, one interception, and nine pass breakups for the Cowboys last season. He has intercepted 15 passes in his career.

“This is a good football player,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement released by the team. “We got better today.”

The move comes after the Ravens had shown interest in Carr’s former teammate, Morris Claiborne, who agreed to terms with the New York Jets on Thursday. A disappointing former first-round pick from LSU, the 27-year-old Claiborne appeared to finally put it together from a performance standpoint last season, but he has never been able to stay healthy and has missed 33 games in five professional seasons. Claiborne is four years younger and has a higher ceiling, but Carr has the higher floor with his dependability over the years.

Carr was graded by Pro Football Focus as the 51st-best cornerback in the NFL and ranked 44th in Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 system last season. He’s never made the Pro Bowl in his long career, but Carr had the reputation for being a great teammate and a solid player in Dallas.

With his signing, the Ravens continue to make defense their top priority this offseason after signing Arizona safety Tony Jefferson to a four-year, $34 million contract and re-signing nose tackle Brandon Williams to a five-year, $52.5 million deal last week.

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