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Ravens conclude draft with two major concerns remaining

Posted on 27 April 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens appeared to accomplish a great deal by the conclusion of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Frankly, to evaluate a draft as good or bad immediately after it takes place is a pointless endeavor, but you can look at a team’s list of needs entering the annual event to determine how successful an organization was in addressing those positions. Whether those picks ultimately work out or not won’t be known for a few years in many cases.

General manager Ozzie Newsome did what he set out to do after stating just a few days after the Super Bowl that the Ravens needed to get stronger up the middle defensively. With their first three picks of the draft, the Ravens selected Florida safety Matt Elam, Kansas State inside linebacker Arthur Brown, and Missouri Southern State defensive tackle Brandon Williams to add to the middle of defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ unit.

Baltimore added more depth to its front seven with the selections of defensive ends John Simon (Ohio State) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (Notre Dame), though the latter is currently recovering from a torn ACL sustained in the BCS national title game. The Ravens added interior offensive line depth with the additions of Wisconsin’s Ricky Wagner and Ryan Jensen of Colorado State-Pueblo. A cornerback was drafted with California’s Marc Anthony, reinforcing Newsome’s proclamation before the draft that you can never have too many despite the Ravens already having quality depth at the positon.

The Ravens found their fullback of the future in Harvard’s Kyle Juszczyk, who may even push veteran Vonta Leach off the roster should Newsome decide the team needs an extra $3 million in cap space to address other areas. Juszczyk isn’t the same punishing blocker that Leach is, but he could serve in an H-back capacity with his impressive ability as a receiver out of the backfield.

Newsome, assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, director of college scouting Joe Hortiz, and head coach John Harbaugh deserve praise for addressing many of the needs created by a plethora of free-agent departures, difficult releases, and retirements made earlier this offseason.

But the fact that the Ravens were unable to significantly address two of their most glaring questions, left tackle and wide receiver, is one that cannot be dismissed. The fifth-round selection Wagner played left tackle for the Badgers, but he isn’t considered quick enough for the position at the next level and the Ravens have already said they view him as more of a guard. Seventh-round receiver Aaron Mellette posted big-time numbers at FCS school Elon, but to say he’s any better the other young receivers currently in the mix on the roster would be a stretch.

Protecting quarterback Joe Flacco’s blindside and providing him another trustworthy receiving target are two obligations that remain unfulfilled, which is concerning when most looked to the draft as the primary avenue to address them. As Newsome said in the Ravens’ post-draft press conference on Sunday evening, much could still change between now and the start of the season on Sept. 5.

As it relates to those two positions, many will certainly hope so.

“If you look at our history, we picked up Willie Anderson a week before our first game,” Newsome said. “We picked up Bryant McKinnie before the last preseason game. It’s so fluid. We don’t know what’s going to happen between now and then, so everything has to remain fluid.”

In fairness to the Ravens’ brass, the possibility of adding anything more than a project at left tackle was never going to be easy when picking at the end of each round as the Super Bowl champion. The top three left tackle prospects in this year’s draft were gone in the first four picks of the first round and the tier of tackles — including Florida State’s Menelik Watson and Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s Terron Armstead — that was available to the Ravens didn’t stack up as favorably as the defensive selections of Elam and Brown in the first two rounds.

The Ravens said before the draft that second-year lineman Kelechi Osemele would be their starting left tackle if the season were to begin today and it appears nothing’s changed in that regard. Of course, the absence of a new tackle prospect will reignite desires for Baltimore to re-sign the veteran McKinnie to at least serve as an insurance policy for Osemele.

The only other obvious option out there appears to be the exploration of a trade for Kansas City’s franchise player Branden Albert, who sees the writing on the wall after the Chiefs took Central Michigan left tackle Eric Fisher with the first overall pick. However, the Chiefs’ asking price for Albert won’t be cheap and the 28-year-old seeks an expensive long-term contract.

Even if new run-game coordinator and highly-respective offensive line guru Juan Castillo believes Osemele is capable of handling the left tackle spot, it’s difficult to imagine the Ravens not bringing in another tackle to at least compete. Newsome didn’t sound too concerned when asked about the potential need to add a veteran, however.

“We’ll get the chance to roll the ball out there this week,” Newsome said. “You just can’t go against each other. We’ll have somebody lined up at left tackle.”

Replacing the production of veteran Anquan Boldin was another need many viewed as a priority for the Ravens and the organization praised the depth of the position in this year’s draft. As a result, most assumed the Ravens would come away with a wideout at some point during the first two days of the draft, but a receiver’s name wasn’t called by the Ravens until Mellette was announced as the 238th overall pick of the draft.

The outcome was similar to last year when the Ravens did not choose Tommy Streeter until the sixth round. Once again, Newsome remained true to the board this year, even as several well-regarded receivers appeared to slide more than many experts thought they would on Day 3.

Of course, the Ravens were also able to sign wide receiver Jacoby Jones after last year’s draft and the speedy return specialist also served as an upgrade at the No.3 receiver spot. It’s possible a similar scenario will play out when teams around the league readjust their depth charts with a new batch of rookies joining the fold.

“Were there receivers in every round that we considered? Yes,” Newsome said. “Did one receiver get taken when we were set to take the guy? No, that did not happen at that point. As far as [Mellette], when we got to that point in the draft, he was our highest-rated guy and that’s why we decided to take him.”

The 6-foot-3, 217-pound Mellette was wildly productive in his career at Elon, catching a remarkable 210 passes and 30 touchdowns over his final two collegiate seasons. His 4.54-second 40-time suggests he may have enough speed to complement his impressive size, but to consider him to be anything more than a long-term project would be too ambitious.

The Ravens have thrown out many compliments for the likes of Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, and David Reed as it pertains to the slot receiver spot, but to expect any of the aforementioned names to step up in a dramatic way to replace Boldin’s production is asking to be disappointed. Maybe Mellette or Streeter can be a diamond in the rough, but there were reasons why so many teams — including the Ravens multiple times — passed on these tall and speedy receivers.

For now, the burden falls heavily on Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta as well as Flacco to overcome the absence of the safety net Boldin provided when the vertical passing game was struggling.

As they will at the offensive tackle position, the Ravens will keep their eyes open to other teams potentially releasing veteran receivers or dangling them in trades as a result of what they fetched in this weekend’s draft. Newsome has used future draft picks to acquire veterans before and certainly wouldn’t hesitate if the right opportunity were to come along.

Perhaps another veteran receiver or left tackle drops into the Ravens’ lap between now and the start of the season, but it’s impossible not to feel uneasy about each position with the draft now coming and going.

And as good as this draft might ultimately end up being in other areas, it did very little to answer those two major questions.

 

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Osemele earning serious consideration as Ravens left tackle

Posted on 16 April 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Many have debated how the Ravens should handle their left tackle position as they continue preparations for the 2013 season, but a new favorite was mentioned during Tuesday’s pre-draft press conference in Owings Mills.

Coach John Harbaugh said earlier in the offseason that second-year lineman Kelechi Osemele would receive consideration at left tackle after splitting his rookie season between right tackle and left guard, but general manager Ozzie Newsome provided the most definitive assessment we’ve heard yet regarding Osemele’s standing in the race. Veteran Bryant McKinnie remains an unrestricted free agent, but the Ravens are expected to wait and see how next week’s draft plays out before making a decision on the 33-year-old.

However, Osemele — and not former left tackle Michael Oher — appears to have the inside track at the position should the Ravens pass on McKinnie and fail to come away with a tackle in the draft. The Iowa State product started at left tackle for three years in college and was an All-Big 12 selection at the position.

“He could potentially be our left tackle, too. I think we are very open,” Newsome said. “Like I said, the dialogue has been very good with [McKinnie] from my standpoint, and I think John would echo the same thing. If we had to line up today with the group that we have, I think John told [owner] Steve Bisciotti that K.O. would probably get that opportunity.”

McKinnie has received interest from New Orleans and San Diego as well as the Ravens during the offseason, but no talks have progressed beyond the preliminary stages with any of the aforementioned teams.

Harbaugh spoke to McKinnie on the phone a few weeks ago to see if the tackle was staying in shape and to express his desire for the veteran to return to Baltimore for a third season.

“I’ve had conversations with his agent prior to today,” Newsome said. “I have a good relationship with his agent Michael George. John and [run game coordinator Juan Castillo] have both been in communication with Bryant. It is a process with Bryant. Could we open up our first game this year – wherever that is, whenever it is – and he be our left tackle? He potentially could be.”

The Ravens are extremely unlikely to see any of the top three tackle prospects — Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M, Eric Fisher of Central Michigan, and Lane Johnson of Oklahoma — available when they pick at No. 32, but assistant general manager Eric DeCosta mentioned several other intriguing tackle prospects to watch, including Florida State’s Menelik Watson, Kent State’s Brian Winters, Syracuse’s Justin Pugh, Wisconsin’s Ricky Wagner, and Terron Armstead of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

Newsome downplays Alabama connection with newcomer McClain

Asked about the signing of troubled inside linebacker Rolando McClain and his Alabama roots, Newsome made a very clear assessment of why the Ravens signed the former Oakland Raider, who was released earlier this month.

Awarded only a one-year deal with a base salary of $700,000 and no guaranteed money, McClain appears to be a favorite to start in the Ravens’ 3-4 base defense, but the 23-year-old will need to prove he’s overcome his off-field problems and character flaws that led to Oakland deciding to absorb roughly $11 million in dead money on their 2013 salary cap just to be rid of him.

“Rolando is just getting an opportunity to come and make our 53-man squad,” Newsome said. “That’s it.”

Director of college scouting Joe Hortiz was the first person Newsome consulted in weighing the possibility of signing the young linebacker. Ironically enough, Hortiz attended Auburn, the Crimson Tide’s biggest rival.

Newsome’s conversations with Hortiz coupled with the strong infrastructure of the Baltimore locker room made McClain a realistic fit with minimum risk. If McClain doesn’t fall in line, the Ravens can release him with no financial ramifications.

“He is coming here just to be a part of this football team,” Newsome said. “I think the guys in the locker room will be able to provide him with the proper guidance that he needs as to the way John wants his football team and his football players to be.”

Webb, J. McClain on track for returns

Harbaugh offered positive outlooks on the respective recoveries of cornerback Lardarius Webb and linebacker Jameel McClain as the Ravens began their voluntary offseason workout program on Monday.

Webb tore the ACL in his right knee last Oct. 14, an injury that landed him on season-ending injured reserve, but the cornerback is expected to be fully recovered by the start of training camp.

“He looks really good. He should be ready to roll [for] training camp, it looks like,” Harbaugh said. “We are going to make sure we don’t have a setback. That’s the most important thing.”

McClain’s status remains trickier as he hasn’t been officially cleared to return to the field after suffering a spinal cord contusion on Dec. 9 of last season. The sixth-year linebacker and the Ravens have remained optimistic over his long-term prognosis and how it relates to his career.

His return would give defensive coordinator Dean Pees a pair of McClains at inside linebacker.

“It’s nothing but positive from the doctors about Jameel,” Harbaugh said. “He’s in training mode. He’s actually going to head out for a week to Los Angeles. There’s a certain type of trainer out there that he’s going to work with for a week out there. That will be important for him. It’s just a healing process.

“There’s a certain type of a bruise that happens that caused his issue, but it’s going away on schedule. We don’t know for sure, but I’m approaching it as if Jameel is going to be out there for us, and it looks like he has a good chance to do that – a really good chance of doing that.”

McPhee on the move

The Ravens revealed earlier this offseason that defensive lineman Bryan Hall was switching to inside linebacker and defensive end Pernell McPhee will experience a more subtle position change.

After bulking up last offseason to become a three-down defensive end in a 3-4 system, McPhee was limited with knee, thigh, and groin injuries. Harbaugh and his staff would like to use McPhee in more of a pass-rush specialist role for 2013.

“We’re kind of a hybrid, 4-3, 3-4 team, so we’re going to emphasize Pernell a little bit more at outside linebacker in Terrell Suggs’ spot and see how he does out there,” Harbaugh said. “But, he’ll still bounce. He’s an outside linebacker that can play defensive end, and he’ll be a defensive end/pass rusher in our even fronts, in our pass-rush scheme.”

The move to rush linebacker will likely require McPhee to lose a considerable amount of weight, which could ease some of the strain on his problematic knees. The third-year defensive lineman is also recovering from offseason groin surgery.

 

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Stay or leave: Forecasting the Ravens’ 2013 class of free agents

Posted on 07 March 2013 by Luke Jones

With free agency set to begin at 4 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, it’s time to predict who remains and who departs among the Ravens’ 12 unrestricted free agents, six restricted free agents, and 10 exclusive-rights free agents.

The 2013 salary cap was officially set to $123 million last week and the Ravens have roughly $11 million in cap space after signing quarterback Joe Flacco to a six-year, $120.6 million contract. Most media attention focuses on unrestricted free agents, but the Ravens’ list of restricted free agents and exclusive-rights players will eat up a sizable portion of that remaining cap space.

Of course, the Ravens still have the option of cutting players under contract or potentially re-signing or restructuring the contracts of players already committed to the organization to create more cap space.

A new wrinkle to consider this year is the NFL allowing teams to enter into negotiations with the certified agents of players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in the three days leading up to the start of the new league year (March 12 at 4 p.m.), meaning the rumors and speculation will pick up this weekend before the start of the signing period.

To see how I fared last year, check out my 2012 free-agent forecast HERE.

Unrestricted free agents

LB Dannell Ellerbe: STAYS
Skinny: The Ravens’ top priority among their unrestricted free agents, Ellerbe easily figures to trump the three-year, $10.5 million contract Baltimore awarded Jameel McClain in a deep inside linebacker market last offseason and will be looking for a deal worth at least $20 million. 

S Ed Reed: LEAVES
Skinny: If the future Hall of Fame safety is willing to take a modest two-year deal, he could have his chance to finish his career in Baltimore, but I’m guessing Reed will bolt for a more generous offer from another team looking for his services.

LB Paul Kruger: LEAVES
Skinny: With rumors of the situational pass rusher potentially fetching more than $8 million per season, the Ravens will turn to Courtney Upshaw for an increased role and move on from Kruger, who is not strong against the run and played in only 22 of 62 defensive snaps in Super Bowl XLVII.

CB Cary Williams: LEAVES
Skinny: With Lardarius Webb, Corey Graham, Jimmy Smith, and Chykie Brown all under contract, the Ravens will remember their depth at cornerback and allow Williams to seek a well-deserved payday somewhere else.

OT Bryant McKinnie: STAYS
Skinny: The Ravens will explore other options on the open market, but McKinnie should be an affordable stopgap as they’ll look to draft a left tackle of the future on the first or second day of April’s draft.

NT Ma’ake Kemoeatu: LEAVES
Skinny: The 34-year-old’s comeback was a nice story last year, but general manager Ozzie Newsome has made it a priority to upgrade the depth at defensive tackle, making Kemoeatu’s return unlikely at this point.

S James Ihedigbo: STAYS
Skinny: With Reed’s status in doubt, Ihedigbo is a nice depth player the Ravens would like to re-sign at the right price and he was a strong special-teams player last year as well.

DL Ryan McBean: STAYS
Skinny: The Ravens had high hopes for the former Denver Bronco last year before a season-ending ankle injury in the preseason opener, so it wouldn’t be out of the question for them to retain McBean’s services at a cheap rate.

S Sean Considine: LEAVES
Skinny: Though he was a solid special-teams contributor, the Ravens are likely to fill Considine’s spot with a younger, cheaper option.

TE Billy Bajema: LEAVES
Skinny: With Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next offseason, the Ravens should look to a younger option with some upside to fill their third tight end spot.

CB Chris Johnson: LEAVES
Skinny: The slew of injuries at the cornerback position midway through the season prompted the Ravens to sign the speedy veteran, but his services will no longer be needed.

LB Ricky Brown: LEAVES
Skinny: A preseason concussion landed the veteran on injured reserve, but Brown was little more than a camp body last summer.

Restricted free agents

(The Ravens can offer a first-round, second-round, or low tender to any of these players, giving them the right to match any offer sheet from an opposing team or to receive that team’s draft pick that matches the designation. The low tender awards a draft pick equal to the round in which the player was originally drafted. If the player originally went undrafted, it simply provides the team the right to match an offer sheet but awards no compensation for losing the player.)

TE Dennis Pitta: STAYS
Skinny: The Ravens may explore a multi-year extension for their talented tight end, but the second-round tender should be enough to keep Pitta in Baltimore for the 2013 season.

DL Arthur Jones: STAYS
Skinny: Jones started six games and really emerged in the second half of the season as an impact player along the defensive line, making him a likely candidate to receive a second-round tender.

TE Ed Dickson: STAYS
Skinny: Though his blocking skills are underrated, Dickson’s dwindling role as a receiver makes it likely that he’ll receive the low tender, meaning another team would have to fork over a third-round pick — the round in which he was drafted in 2010 — to sign him.

LS Morgan Cox: STAYS
Skinny: Happy with Cox’s services, the Ravens will either offer him the low tender or re-sign him to a lower salary than the $1.32 million attached to the tender.

OL Ramon Harewood: STAYS
Skinny: The 2010 sixth-round pick clearly fell out of favor after starting the first five games of the season at left guard, but the Ravens could look to sign Harewood at a lower rate after non-tendering him.

WR David Reed: LEAVES
Skinny: It’s possible the Ravens would re-sign Reed at a smaller salary, but they have several young wide receivers and Deonte Thompson can back up returner Jacoby Jones, which could prompt the 2010 fifth-round pick to seek an opportunity for more playing time elsewhere.

Exclusive-rights free agents

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Difficult decisions still loom for Ravens after locking up Flacco

Posted on 02 March 2013 by Luke Jones

General manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens front office had to wake up smiling the morning after reaching an agreement in principle with Joe Flacco on a six-year, $120.6 million contract that’s expected to be finalized Monday.

The move not only locks up the franchise quarterback for the long haul, but it’s also expected to provide short-term relief to a tight salary cap that would have had a difficult time absorbing a minimum of $14.9 million with the non-exclusive franchise tag. All the terms of the record-setting contract have yet to be released, but the 2013 cap number is just $7 million, according to CBS Sports’ Jason LaCanfora.

Estimated to have roughly $18 million in cap space before accounting for their quarterback or any of their unrestricted, restricted, or exclusive-rights free agents, the Ravens will now have some space to maneuver but not enough to change the entire landscape of their offseason. Moderation will be the key as Newsome will look to sign a couple of his own unrestricted free agents, make wise decisions on his seven restricted free agents, and then turn toward the open market to explore some shrewd signings.

Here’s a rundown of what to expect as the Ravens address their remaining free agents:

No tag this year

The first order of business will be the potential use of the franchise tag as teams have until Monday at 4 p.m. to designate a player if they so desire. Many have begun asking if Newsome and the Ravens will now use the tag on outside linebacker Paul Kruger or inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, but we received a preliminary answer to that query just a few days after the Super Bowl.

“If we get a deal done with Joe, we will not franchise another player,” said Newsome as he appealed to owner Steve Bisciotti with a humorous tone. “We will not do that. You are OK with that, right?”

The 2013 tag numbers released by the NFL on Friday suggest that stance isn’t changing as the Ravens would be looking at a $9.6 million cost at the linebacker position. As it relates to Kruger, the pass rusher could contest that he should be considered a defensive end, which commands an $11.175 million tag number for the 2013 season.

Those price tags are far too expensive for Kruger or Ellerbe as the Ravens would be looking at massive cuts to accommodate the franchise tag, regardless of what Flacco’s 2013 cap number ultimately is.

Cuts still coming

We’ve spent plenty of time discussing which veterans might be on the chopping block due to cap constraints and the Ravens will still pull the trigger on a few. It just won’t be the mass exodus that was feared if Flacco had received either of the franchise tag options.

Offensive lineman Bobbie Williams is the easiest decision as the Ravens will clear $1.2 million from their cap by releasing the 36-year-old lineman. Linebackers Brendon Ayanbadejo ($806,000 in savings) and Jameel McClain ($1.8 million saved) are also likely to go, with McClain becoming far more expendable if the Ravens can sign Dannell Ellerbe to a long-term deal before he hits the open market.

It would be an unpopular decision, but fullback Vonta Leach remains an intriguing option to release as it would save $3 million in cap space. Leach is tremendous at what he does as the best pure fullback in the NFL, but the Ravens are clearly moving toward a pass-heavy attack after committing the richest contract in league history to their quarterback.

The 31-year-old Leach took part in just 39.7 percent of the Ravens’ offensive snaps in the postseason, so can you justify devoting that big of a cap number to the fullback with other pressing needs at left tackle and all over the defense? Should they part ways with Leach, tight end Ed Dickson could serve in more of an H-back capacity and the Ravens could look to a younger, cheaper option coming out of college.

The Flacco contract means wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones are very likely to be safe, but the Ravens could explore reasonable contract extensions for both as they enter the final years of their respective contracts, thus lowering their cap numbers for 2013. This is especially true for Boldin, who carries a $7.5 million number for the upcoming season and proved himself worthy of a couple more years in Baltimore after an outstanding postseason.

Prioritizing unrestricted free agents

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Clock ticking, exclusive tag price falling (a little) for Flacco and Ravens

Posted on 28 February 2013 by Luke Jones

As the clock ticks for the Ravens to strike a long-term agreement with quarterback Joe Flacco ahead of Monday’s deadline to use the franchise tag, there have been no indications that the sides have engaged in contract talks since the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Flacco’s agent Joe Linta and Ravens vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty entered contract discussions last weekend for the first time since last August, but there was no report of a deal being imminent. Of course, this doesn’t mean that progress hasn’t been made and it’s not surprising the sides are without an agreement as the March 4 deadline for designating a player with the franchise tag is now only days away.

Deadlines provide a greater sense of urgency to get deals done as we’ve seen in recent years when long-term agreements were struck with running back Ray Rice, linebacker Terrell Suggs, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata with only hours — or even minutes — to spare in each case.

Linta has stood firm in his quest to make Flacco the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL and league insiders such as ESPN’s Adam Schefter have said a potential deal will exceed New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ five-year, $100 million contract that included $60 million guaranteed over the first three years of the deal. As has been said countless times since Super Bowl XLVII, you’d be hard-pressed to find a recent example of a player having this much leverage over a team strapped for salary-cap room and knowing they will need to fork over big bucks to a quarterback who just completed one of the greatest postseason performances in league history.

The question isn’t whether Flacco really deserves to make more than any other quarterback in football but rather do you want to keep him in Baltimore for the long haul.

The Ravens did receive some good news this week in terms of the exclusive franchise tag with New England quarterback Tom Brady and Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger reworking their current deals to lower their cap figures for the 2013 season. While neither is expected to impact the long-term negotiations between Flacco and the Ravens, the lower cap numbers for both Brady and Roethlisberger have taken them out of the league’s top 5 quarterback cap listings, which are averaged to determine the tender amount for the exclusive franchise tag.

As a result, the exclusive tag has been lowered from just under $20.5 million to a reported $19.13 million, making the use of the pricier option that takes Flacco off the free-agent market completely a bit more appealing. The non-exclusive tag is expected to cost $14.6 million for a quarterback, but it would allow another team to sign Flacco to an offer sheet and potentially surrender two first-round picks to the Ravens if they were unable to match the deal.

The lower number might do more to entice the Ravens to use the exclusive tag, but it requires an extra $4.5 million of cap room that the team already doesn’t have. In deciding between using the non-exclusive tag and the exclusive one, it could be the difference between keeping wide receiver Anquan Boldin and needing to make the painful decision to release him to clear an additional $6 million in cap space. The exclusive number also creates a natural springboard for Linta to use for negotiating by reminding the Ravens they already view Flacco as a $19.13 million-per-year player at worst in using the exclusive tag.

However, the cheaper non-exclusive tag would also result in sleepless nights for general manager Ozzie Newsome over the thought — as highly unlikely as it might be — of a team with a dramatic cap surplus like the Cleveland Browns swooping in and signing Flacco to a front-loaded offer sheet with an absurd cap number for 2013 that would either prohibit the Ravens from matching or force them to cut even more players to match the offer.

Regardless of where you fall on the decision of which tag the Ravens should use — and opinions are split around the league — it’s apparent how urgent this situation is for the Ravens as they’ve engaged in virtually no discussion with other free agents because they don’t have a clear picture of what their salary-cap picture will be at this point. Baltimore has been in contact with the agent for inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe — considered the second-biggest priority among their unrestricted free agents — but even keeping him would be extremely difficult if Flacco is to carry either tag number.

Ellerbe, left tackle Bryant McKinnie, safety Ed Reed, and any other free agent — with the team or not — remain little more than an afterthought at this point in time.

We’ll begin to receive more clarity by 4 p.m. on Monday, the last day teams may designate a player with the franchise tag, but it won’t mean negotiations will automatically break off should the Ravens announce they are tagging their quarterback. The significant time for the Ravens and Flacco to have a long-term contract in place by falls on March 12 at 4 p.m. for the start of the new league year — and the opening of free agency — when teams must be in compliance with the salary cap.

But in those final days leading up to the start of free agency, the ax could fall on a few of Flacco’s teammates as the Ravens wouldn’t be able to assume a long-term deal will happen in time to quell their cap concerns.

The clock is ticking as the Ravens and Flacco approach the first tangible deadline of the offseason and their negotiations.

As I wrote right after the Super Bowl, the real question is when — not as much if or how — the deal gets done.

And the Ravens are in a holding pattern with the rest of their offseason until it does.

 

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Your Monday Reality Check: Protecting Flacco most important for Ravens to tackle

Posted on 25 February 2013 by Glenn Clark

INDIANAPOLIS — Nestor Aparicio and I did a little bit of everything during our weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine.

We had fantastic sit downs with NFL coaches like the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis and the Falcons’ Mike Smith. We debated the merits of what’s next for the Ravens with top NFL analysts like CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora and NFL Network’s Albert Breer. We had private chats with Ravens executives, who stopped celebrating a Super Bowl XLVII victory awhile ago and are very hard at work in shaping the next Super Bowl team. We rubbed elbows (and I assure you I did so in the most insufferable way possible) with football royalty at Indy hotspots like the world famous St. Elmo steakhouse. We braved the throngs of reporters who wanted to talk to controversial future NFL players like former Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o and former LSU CB Tyrann Mathieu.

At the end of the weekend, I found one of my Baltimore Ravens-related opinions to have been solidified if not further strengthened.

The question of “what’s the most important thing the Ravens need to address this offseason?” is rhetorical. While Super Bowl MVP QB Joe Flacco is indeed an unrestricted free agent and in need of a contract, the Ravens aren’t debating the future of the QB position. They have their guy. Flacco will be under center (provided he’s healthy) when the Ravens open the season Thursday, September 5 at M&T Bank Stadium. They don’t need to address the QB position, they need to address the QB’s contract. It will either get done before next weekend and the Ravens won’t have to tag him or they’ll tag him and it will get done later in the offseason.

There isn’t actually a discussion about the future of the quarterback. The point is moot. Joe Flacco isn’t really the biggest issue for the Ravens this offseason because they already have an unequivocal answer at the position moving forward.

Therefore, when you ask the question there’s only one legitimate answer. The Baltimore Ravens MUST address left tackle before they do anything else this offseason.

There’s an odd roadmap to a bad scenario for the Ravens this offseason. LT Bryant McKinnie is an unrestricted free agent, coming off a turbulent season that included conditioning concerns, not showing up for Training Camp on time, having his salary cut right before the deadline to get a guaranteed contract, getting hurt but then ultimately being reinserted into the Offensive Line just in time to drastically change the trajectory of the Ravens’ O-Line and help lead the team to only their second Super Bowl title.

McKinnie has said he would like to return and has said that John Harbaugh told him after the Super Bowl he wanted him back. If the Ravens are indeed comfortable with McKinnie’s return and are able to work out the details financially, this scenario makes the most sense. It doesn’t address the position long term as McKinnie will turn 34 early in the season, but it goes a long way in establishing pass protection for a quarterback you’re investing an extraordinary amount of money in-and a quarterback that needs an amount of protection a bit different than your typical NFL quarterback.
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Business about to pick up as Ravens brass travels to NFL scouting combine

Posted on 20 February 2013 by Luke Jones

After only a couple weeks to set offseason priorities and plans following their win in Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens realize business is about to pick up as the shapers of the organization travel to Indianapolis for the NFL’s scouting combine.

Most teams will be focused primarily on scouting the incoming rookie class ahead of April’s draft and holding informal discussions — don’t dare call these talks tampering, however — with the agents of soon-to-be free agents, but the Ravens hold the clearest and most important task of any team in Indianapolis. General manager Ozzie Newsome and vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty are set to meet with quarterback Joe Flacco’s agent for their first contract negotiations since last August. Joe Linta has expressed a desire for his client to become the highest-paid quarterback in the league and is reportedly seeking upwards of $20 million per season.

As unlikely as it is that the sides come to an agreement on a long-term contract this weekend in Indianapolis, it will be important to see progress made from the point where talks broke down prior to last season. The first real deadline on which to be focused is March 4, the last day the Ravens are allowed to place the franchise tag on Flacco for the 2013 season. Should the Ravens be forced to use the $14.6 non-exclusive tag or the exclusive one estimated to cost $20 million or more for a one-year tender, they will be faced with making a number of roster cuts to be in compliance with the salary cap by the start of the new league year on March 12.

While Flacco’s side is likely willing to be creative in structuring a deal to quell cap concerns for the 2013 season, Linta made it clear a couple weeks ago that it’s not his client’s obligation to take a hometown discount to bail the Ravens out of trouble.

“There are a lot of teams in the same boat; the Ravens aren’t the only ones with cap problems,” Linta said on AM 1570 WNST.net earlier this month. “Whether it’s Joe or any of the other free agents who are upcoming, they have to figure out how to do it. Every time you’re a cap manager like Ozzie and Pat are, you have to come up with a puzzle that works for you.”

As Moriarty’s focus will largely be on making substantial strides in order to lock up the Super Bowl MVP for the long haul, the rest of the organization will be consumed with 40-yard dash times, bench-press reps, medical exams, and interviews with countless draft prospects. And considering their tenuous cap position and how it will hinder their ability to be overly active in free agency, the Ravens will depend on April’s draft as much as ever to replenish the voids left by departing members of their Super Bowl championship team.

Te’o talk

No draft prospect will be under more scrutiny in the coming days than Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who claimed to be the victim of an online hoax that’s drawn an overwhelming amount of attention for the better part of a month. He will be peppered with questions about the story of his nonexistent girlfriend and must test well to put himself back in position to be a top-15 pick.

It’s no secret that the Ravens will be looking at the inside linebacker position due to the retirement of future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, the uncertain status of free-agent linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, and the health of Jameel McClain after he suffered a spinal cord contusion in December. Te’o has been deemed a logical fit by many draft analysts who have linked him to the Ravens at the 32nd overall pick in mock drafts. It is believed that the Ravens are impressed with the 255-pound linebacker’s ability despite his poor showing in the BCS national championship game against Alabama last month.

As is the case with any player dealing with off-field issues, it’s critical for teams to draw a definitive assessment of his ability on the field before even contemplating taking the time and resources to investigate whether they can tolerate the baggage that will accompany Te’o. His is an unprecedented case as issues of trust and whether the young linebacker will be resilient enough to deal with the intense scrutiny in the months and years to come must be strongly considered.

If the Ravens are convinced the Heisman Trophy runner-up is fast enough to go sideline to sideline — his 40 time will be a major point of interest for teams — and strong enough to take on offensive linemen in the NFL, they will do their homework on his character to determine whether he’s a realistic option at the No. 32 spot. If not, they will turn to other prospects at the position.

Another inside linebacker dealing with off-field baggage is Georgia’s Alec Ogletree, who was arrested earlier this month for DUI. Ogletree excelled at a number of positions for the Bulldogs and is considered exceptional in pass coverage, but his off-field issues — he was also suspended four games last season for failing a drug test during spring practice — may send him down the draft board, making him a possibility at the end of the first round. The questions associated with Te’o and Ogletree may benefit the Ravens, who would have figured to have no chance for either player under regular circumstances.

Other inside linebacker prospects that could be options in the first few rounds include LSU’s Kevin Minter, Oregon’s Kiko Alonso, and Alabama’s Nico Johnson, who will not participate at the combine after undergoing sports hernia surgery following the Senior Bowl.

Addressing the blind side

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Ten non-Flacco thoughts on Ravens’ offseason

Posted on 19 February 2013 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens about to enter the most critical contract negotiations in franchise history later this week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, it’s difficult not to be inundated with the Joe Flacco discussions as general manager Ozzie Newsome tries to lock up his franchise quarterback for the long haul.

Frankly, the talk has been overwhelming and I’m as guilty as anyone in fueling the Flacco fire — HERE, HERE, and even HERE — and what impact it will have on the rest of the offseason and even the future of the franchise.

With that in mind, I offer 10 offseason thoughts not related to “you know who” as we wait to see how negotiations play out:

1. The Ravens could be faced with the choice of overpaying Bryant McKinnie or enduring another season of Michael Oher at left tackle.
Both sides will explore other options, but it’s difficult to find a left tackle — who’s ready to play immediately, anyway — with no cap room and no draft choice higher than 32nd overall. McKinnie may also find a lukewarm market with his off-field baggage and questions over why the Ravens sat him for the entire regular season. If the Ravens deem McKinnie too expensive or too risky to sign, would they roll the dice in going with Oher at left tackle for another season and hoping they can find their left tackle of 2014 in the draft? It’s a dangerous proposition and the Ravens simply don’t have the resources to expect to find anyone better than McKinnie in free agency.

2. Regardless of how the tackle position shakes out, I’d like to see Kelechi Osemele remain at left guard next season. Lost in the shuffle of the offensive line shakeup to start the postseason was the stellar play of Osemele, who was seeing his first extensive time at left guard since the preseason. The Iowa State product played solidly at the right tackle position, but he showed the potential of being a Pro Bowl player on the interior line in four playoff games. At 6-foot-5 and 335 pounds, Osemele clearly has the size to hold up at right tackle, but he could be good enough to make everyone forget about Ben Grubbs at the left guard position. The combination of him and Marshal Yanda could be the best guard duo in the league sooner rather than later, so the Ravens would love to keep Osemele inside in a perfect world.

3. Nothing should be guaranteed to Jimmy Smith next season despite a strong rebound in the postseason.
It looked like a lost season for the 2011 first-round pick after ineffective play and sports hernia surgery dropped him to fourth on the depth chart late in the year, but Smith rebounded to play well in the postseason, including making critical plays on third and fourth down of the Ravens’ goal-line stand in the Super Bowl. His 6-foot-2 frame is the logical replacement for the likely-to-depart Cary Williams, but Smith will need to work his way up the depth chart by first beating out Chykie Brown for the No. 3 corner spot and then Corey Graham for a starting job. His postseason play proves the discussion about Smith being a bust was premature, but the time is now for Smith to prove the Ravens were wise to use a first-round pick on him.

4. This will be a big offseason for Terrence Cody, who is looking more like the second failed second-round pick of the 2010 draft. Outside linebacker Sergio Kindle has already parted ways with the Ravens and Cody might follow him sooner rather than later as the nose tackle enters the final year of his rookie contract. Newsome made it clear at the season-review press conference that the Ravens need to improve at defensive tackle and Cody struggled to get on the field as he competed with veteran Ma’ake Kemoeatu this season. Despite being listed at 341 pounds, Cody was often manhandled and made little impact in taking on blockers to allow linebackers to make plays against the run. The defensive lineman made only two tackles in the postseason and could find himself on the roster bubble should he go through the motions during training camp.

5. With all the discussion over the salary cap purge following the 2001 season, has everyone forgotten how quickly the Ravens returned to prominence after gutting their roster? I understand the line of thinking of both Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti in saying they don’t want to mortgage the future solely to make an ill-advised effort to get back to the Super Bowl next season, but it’s not as though the Ravens fell off a cliff following their last purge. They went 7-9 as the youngest team in the NFL in 2002 and improved to 10-6 and captured their first AFC North title in 2003. It certainly helped that the Ravens had young versions of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as well as offensive pillars in Jonathan Ogden and Jamal Lewis, but that group also had Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright playing quarterback. What’s the moral of the story? Organizations that draft well and stay true to their process for making personnel decisions won’t stay down for long in the NFL.

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No Rest for the Wizard

Posted on 19 February 2013 by Thyrl Nelson

Obviously when setting the tone for the Ravens’ off-season, everything takes a back seat to resolving the Joe Flacco contract situation. The importance thereof is only magnified by the realization that there are so many questions still to be answered, so many decisions still to be made; but until the Ravens know for sure what their quarterback’s financial future may hold, everything else is essentially on hold. That however doesn’t diminish the fact that there are important decisions outside the QB position to be made before the Ravens begin their title defense and prepare for the 2013 campaign.

Conceding that the importance of Flacco’s deal is paramount to everything else, here are the next 5 major points of consideration for the Ravens to deal with this off-season in order to have hopes of a 6th straight post-season trip.

 

#1 – Suring Up the Left Tackle Situation

 

If Flacco was the biggest difference maker for the Ravens in the playoffs, then further investigation is merited in determining what helped him turn his season, and his reputation, around. For my money, it began with the offensive line. After a season in the proverbial “dog house” Bryant McKinnie was finally given a chance to show and prove, and from there the offense never seemed to look back.

 

In the lead up to the Broncos game, no one seemed to have any concerns about the Denver secondary. Hindsight might suggest that to have been a result of the constant quarterback pressure the Broncos were able to count on from Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. Without that pressure however, the Ravens found and readily exploited cracks in the Broncos secondary that no one seemed to know were there in the first place.

 

McKinnie and the Ravens began this season on unceremonious terms, and pretty much kept things that way until the end. Having proven his value, albeit over a 4-game stretch, there’s still no real assurance that the Ravens will or should trust McKinneie enough to agree to terms on a multi-year deal. On the other side of that coin, there’s no good reason to think McKinnie will feel any special brand of loyalty to the Ravens when others come calling on the open market.

 

What’s undeniable about the whole episode is that by replacing Michael Oher with McKinnie at LT, the Ravens were able to move Oher to his natural RT position where he represented an improvement over Kelechi Osemele. Osemele then moved to the LG position that the Ravens struggled to find an answer for all season too. This three-fold improvement made the Ravens line exponentially better; and no matter how they address LT going forward, any “solution” involving moving Oher and Osemele back to the positions they played for the majority of 2012 has to be considered multiple steps backward.

 

#2 – Replacing Jim Caldwell

 

Continuing with the theme of what was different for the Ravens offense at the end, the departure of Cam Cameron and the elevation of Jim Caldwell to the offensive coordinator position would seem to be the other major factor. The performance of Caldwell’s offense has been celebrated widely within the fan base, and certainly hasn’t been lost on the league at large either.

 

In an off-season where everyone seems dissatisfied with the impact of the Rooney Rule and the lack of minority hires made in filling head coaching vacancies, Caldwell will all but surely be a hot head coaching candidate at the end of next season. Even getting to the Super Bowl again, and therefore delaying the process for teams interested in Caldwell might not be enough to slow his roll.

 

In what looks to be a lame duck season for Caldwell with the Ravens, it’s important to figure out if the next guy in line is someone already on staff, or how the team can look to groom a next guy in line, potentially by hiring him as a quarterback coach / OC in waiting.

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Offseason begins and ends with resolving Flacco contract

Posted on 07 February 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Even after winning their second Super Bowl only days ago, the Ravens wasted no time in beginning preparations for the 2013 season.

A day after celebrating with a downtown parade and a rally at M&T Bank Stadium, general manager Ozzie Newsome, head coach John Harbaugh, and the front office were back at it with a 10-hour personnel meeting on Wednesday in which they evaluated 70 to 75 players. It’s no secret the Ravens face a tight salary cap this offseason, leaving many to wonder if they’d go the same route used in the offseason following Super Bowl XXXV in which the organization put cap ramifications on the back burner in favor of making another run at a championship.

Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti put that possibility to rest at the Ravens’ season-review press conference on Thursday.

“We will not repeat what we did in 2001 because we’re trying to build where we can win Super Bowls more than just one more time,” Newsome said. “I think our team is structured differently this time also. We do have some veterans that will probably be retiring, but we’ve got a great nucleus of young players and players that are just heading into their prime that we’re going to build this team around. We are not going to be restructuring contracts or doing all of those different things to be able to just maintain this team to make another run. We’re not doing that.

“That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to try to go and repeat.”

That reality means the Ravens will likely say goodbye to a number of their 13 unrestricted free agents, which include safety Ed Reed, linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, cornerback Cary Williams, and quarterback Joe Flacco. Of those players, Flacco is the only one certain to return as the Ravens will try to reach a long-term agreement with the Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player prior to the deadline for using the franchise tag on March 4.

Even with a long-term contract completed with the quarterback, the Ravens are unlikely to maintain the services of Kruger or Williams, who will both receive significant offers on the free-agent market in mid-March. According to several reports, the Ravens are expected to have roughly $15 million in cap space including the money saved from Ray Lewis’ retirement, but that doesn’t account for money needed for the tag for Flacco and for tenders offered to restricted and exclusive-rights free agents. Of course, additional money could come via the retirement of veterans such as Matt Birk or Bobbie Williams or by releasing other veterans.

“We’re not going to get caught up in the moment and do things to our salary cap and make decisions in the euphoria of winning that could hurt us in 2014 and 2015 like we did in 2001,” owner Steve Bisciotti said. “Every single veteran was restructured, I think, so that every single veteran could stay and then we ended up losing so many people the next year. We don’t want to do that.”

In order to maintain any real sense of continuity, the Ravens must agree on a long-term contract with Flacco, but agent Joe Linta has said he’s aiming for his client to become the highest-paid quarterback in the league. The 2008 first-round pick is believed to be seeking $20 million per season with a significant portion of the deal including guaranteed money.

Bisciotti said Thursday the organization offered Flacco a “top-5” contract last summer and believes winning the Super Bowl this season would not hinder negotiations more than if the Ravens had exited in the first round of the playoffs.

“We’re looking to get a fair deal with Joe and, yes, the franchise number does consume a lot of cap room,” Newsome said. “We’re looking for a fair deal; Joe Linta is looking for a fair deal. If we are able to get a deal done, it will allow us to be able to participate more in the market if we so choose. But we understand what the priority is.”

That priority would include being forced to use the franchise tag to keep Flacco in Baltimore, which would cost $14.6 million for the 2013 season. However, that is only the price for a non-exclusive designation, meaning teams could sign Flacco to an offer sheet if they’d be willing to fork over two first-round picks should the Ravens not match the offer.

The exclusive rights tag would cost roughly $20 million, but it would prohibit teams desperate enough for a quarterback to negotiate with Flacco. Last year, the Redskins traded three first-round picks and a second-round pick to the St. Louis Rams in exchange for the second overall pick to draft Robert Griffin III.

“What you have to look at is what the Redskins did this past year to move up to get Robert Griffin,” Newsome said. “If someone thinks that a quarterback is that valuable and I’m sure you can talk to [the Washington front office], they’re very happy with [Griffin] right now and they don’t mind not having those draft picks. I don’t know what 31 other teams are doing, so we have to prepare ourselves for it.”

As the Ravens continue to organize their list of priorities for the 2013 offseason, the fate of Flacco remains at the top of the list as a long-term agreement is a must in order to maintain hope of re-signing or acquiring any impact players.

But time is running out as Newsome joked that the Ravens are “five weeks behind” the rest of the league after winning the Super Bowl. Much has changed with the perception of Flacco, who just completed one of the greatest playoff performances in NFL history.

“I’m coming away today thinking that we can get a deal done,” Newsome said. “We’ve gotten deals done with Haloti [Ngata], [Jonathan Ogden], Ray [Lewis], Ray Rice, Ed Reed, [Terrell] Suggs. I’ve got a very good owner who understands the business [and] understands the importance of certain positions, so I’m optimistic.”

Biggest need up the middle

Asked to assess the biggest area of need for next season, Newsome admitted the middle of the Baltimore defense needed to be improved, in part because of the failure of young players to step up but also due to a number of possible departures.

With Lewis retiring and Ellerbe and Reed potentially hitting the open market, the Ravens could look very different at the linebacker and safety positions next season. Jameel McClain, Josh Bynes, and Brendon Ayanbadejo would be the top returning inside linebackers while 2012 fourth-round pick Christian Thompson would be the next man up on the depth chart at the safety position.

The combination of third-year player Terrence Cody and veteran Ma’ake Kemoeatu was also severely disappointing at the nose tackle position.

“As we talked about it, the middle of the defense [is a priority],” Newsome said. “We think we’ve got to get better at defensive tackle. We know we have one linebacker retiring and another that’s a free agent. We have a safety that’s a free agent and some young guys that have yet to step up. We would say the middle of the defense is the one area that we would concentrate on.

“In saying that, we realized that pass rushers and guys that can cover, we felt pretty good about that.”

The Ravens might not feel as good about their pass rush with the expected departure of Kruger, but Terrell Suggs figures to bounce back from an injury-plagued season and rookie Courtney Upshaw played effectively against the run and should continue to develop in his first full offseason with the team.

Newsome expressed no specific concerns on the offensive side of the football beyond the need to secure Flacco long-term.

“Offensively, we will not turn down a good player if that player is available for us on the offensive side of the ball,” Newsome said. “We just won’t do it, because you can never have enough depth.”

Chance of Reed return?

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