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Hurting at tight end, Ravens add former New York Giant Larry Donnell

Posted on 30 July 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens arguably had more inventory at tight end than any other position on the roster, but that’s changed substantially in less than two months.

A right knee injury to Crockett Gillmore prompted general manager Ozzie Newsome to sign former New York Giants tight end Larry Donnell on Sunday. It remains unclear just how long Gillmore will be sidelined after he left the field in the final minutes of Friday’s practice and didn’t participate on Saturday. The Ravens lost Dennis Pitta to a career-ending hip injury on June 2 and Darren Waller to a yearlong suspension announced on June 30.

Donnell, a former rookie free agent from Grambling, had a four-year run with the New York Giants in which he caught 110 passes for 969 yards and nine touchdowns in 54 games. His 2014 campaign was his best as the 6-foot-6, 265-pound target caught 63 passes for 623 yards and six touchdowns.

His 2016 season in New York was a quiet one as Donnell caught 15 passes for 92 yards and one touchdown in 14 games, six of them starts.

He joins a group of healthy tight ends that includes Nick Boyle, Benjamin Watson, Maxx Williams, Ryan Malleck, and wide receiver hybrid Vince Mayle. The 36-year-old Watson is coming back from a torn Achilles tendon suffered last August while Williams, a 2015 second-round pick, is returning from a rare knee cartilage surgery that had apparently never been performed on an NFL player.

To make room for Donnell on the 90-man preseason roster, the Ravens waived undrafted rookie wide receiver Tim Patrick.

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2017 Ravens training camp preview: Tight ends

Posted on 25 July 2017 by Luke Jones

With training camp beginning this week, we’ll take a look at a position group for the 2017 Ravens every day as they aim to return to the postseason for the first time since 2014.

Quarterbacks
Defensive line
Running backs
Cornerbacks
Wide receivers
Linebackers

TIGHT ENDS

Projected depth chart:
TE – Crockett Gillmore, Nick Boyle, Benjamin Watson, Maxx Williams, Vince Mayle, Ryan Malleck
SUSPENDED – Darren Waller

Why to be impressed: Even with Dennis Pitta suffering a career-ending hip injury in the spring and Waller being suspended for the entire 2017 season, the Ravens have three tight ends who have been envisioned as starters as some point over the last couple years. Gillmore and Boyle are both strong blockers, which bodes well for Baltimore’s desire to improve the running game.

Why to be concerned: Gillmore, Watson, and Williams all have substantial injury concerns while Boyle is a failed drug test away from potentially being suspended for two years, leaving the Ravens with plenty of baggage at the position. Pitta was the most productive tight end on the roster in 2016 while Waller possessed the most athletic upside, making it difficult to know what to expect from the rest of this group. 

2017 outlook: You could put the top four names in a hat and pick one out as the leading receiver for the season and I wouldn’t be surprised, but an unforeseen name being in the mix wouldn’t be a shock, either, considering the number of injury concerns. The biggest key to the future at this position might be the health of Williams, a 2015 second-round pick who underwent a mysterious knee procedure last fall.

Prediction: Boyle will play the most snaps, Gillmore will lead the group in receptions, and Watson will record the most touchdown receptions of any Ravens tight end.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts counting down to training camp

Posted on 14 July 2017 by Luke Jones

With the start of Ravens training camp now less than two weeks away, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The addition of Brian Billick to the preseason broadcast team is a good move and the latest step that should lead to his induction into the Ravens’ Ring of Honor. Nearly a decade after his dismissal, it’s time for the Super Bowl XXXV champion coach to be recognized.

2. Darren Waller was hardly a sure thing to become a major contributor in 2017, but he brought the most athleticism of any tight end on the roster. I’m concerned with this group, especially if Maxx Williams’ return from knee surgery doesn’t go smoothly.

3. I wish Zach Orr nothing but the best in his attempt to play football again, but his claim late last month that he’d taken the advice of only one doctor to retire completely contradicted his comments in January and made the Ravens look bad. That wasn’t a good look.

4. The hiring of Greg Roman has probably been undersold with much of the criticism and concern expressed for the offensive line, but he also had Pro Bowl running backs Frank Gore and LeSean McCoy at his previous stops. He’ll have a chance to cement his genius with this offensive personnel.

5. Lorenzo Taliaferro could have the opportunity to be a meaningful offensive piece, especially early in the season with Kenneth Dixon’s suspension. A Le’Ron McClain-type role at fullback wouldn’t be out of the question, but he must first prove he can stay on the field.

6. The hype for the defensive backfield is through the roof, but the re-installation of Chris Hewitt as secondary coach is worth monitoring. The talent wasn’t as good when he was in charge in 2015, but communication was a total mess. Of course, the cerebral Eric Weddle should alleviate that concern.

7. This will mark the third straight summer in which Jerry Rosburg will field questions about the return specialist job. I understand the desire not to have a one-trick pony filling the role — Devin Hester didn’t work out anyway — but this offense needs all the field position it can get.

8. Brandon Williams is a beast and Michael Pierce impressed as a rookie, but the Ravens need several unknowns to fill larger roles on the defensive line. Stopping the run shouldn’t be a problem, but the pass rush is a different story with interior rushers Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy gone.

9. The addition of Jeremy Maclin certainly helps, but it’s still tough to feel dramatically better about this offense than last year’s group. Despite the efforts of some to skew the narrative, the defensive struggles late in 2016 shouldn’t mask how inadequate the offense was all year.

10. Breshad Perriman’s development may not be as critical for 2017 with Maclin’s addition, but he needs to play well enough to look like a slam-dunk starter for 2018. As we recently witnessed with Matt Elam, it can take years — and many dollars — to recover from a first-round bust.

11. This is a pivotal time for Joe Flacco. A poor season from the 32-year-old could cost people jobs and bring a new coaching regime that wouldn’t be as invested in him. His contract makes him bulletproof through 2018, but he must be better than he’s been the last two years.

12. My final thought isn’t on the Ravens, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing their old foe Peyton Manning host the ESPY Awards, a show I hadn’t watched in years. I never would have imagined that kind of comedic timing watching the often-robotic quarterback work early in his career.

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Ravens tight end Watson practices for first time in nearly 10 months

Posted on 13 June 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson said it felt like Christmas morning when he woke up on Tuesday.

Having not practiced since tearing his right Achilles tendon on the first play from scrimmage in a preseason game in Baltimore last Aug. 27, the 36-year-old was itching to get back on the football field for the first time in nearly 10 months. Watson took part in some individual drills before working to the side during the full-team portions on the opening day of mandatory minicamp.

“I went to sleep last night, and my wife and I were talking and I told the kids,” said Watson, who is now entering his 14th NFL season. “They’ve been praying for me every day since I got injured, and they will continue to. I’m still not all the way there.

“It’s definitely exciting. It leaves you hungry for more, obviously, but the plan was to have a good day and not have any setbacks and just get my feet under me a little bit.”

Watson recently agreed to a pay cut to lower his scheduled $3 million salary to $1.25 million with incentives for the 2017 season, according to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio. The move increases his chances of making the 53-man roster as the Ravens would like to have his veteran presence to lead an otherwise-inexperienced group of tight ends. Of course, Watson will need to show he can return to playing at a level high enough to justify keeping him around.

The veteran wasn’t the only tight end to return to the practice field Tuesday as Darren Waller was taking extensive reps with the first-team offense, once beating safety Tony Jefferson in coverage on a deep crossing route. However, the 6-foot-6, 255-pound former wide receiver would later leave the field for heat-related reasons.

Two-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley remained sidelined as he continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery, but head coach John Harbaugh said he’s expected to be ready for the start of training camp in late July. Tight end Crockett Gillmore was also absent after leaving the field gingerly during last Thursday’s voluntary workout.

“Crockett tweaked his hamstring,” Harbaugh said. “I think some of you guys speculated on that, and that was right. I do not think it is real serious as far as I know. He should be ready for training camp easily.”

Other players missing from Tuesday’s workout included guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder), wide receivers Michael Campanaro (toe) and Quincy Adeboyejo, linebacker Brennen Beyer, defensive tackle Carl Davis (pectoral), tight end Maxx Williams (knee), and cornerback Tavon Young (torn ACL).

Entering his 15th season, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs saw his first on-field action of the spring after being held out during voluntary organized team activities. Suggs took part in individual drills and saw some limited work during team drills.

Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin arrived in Owings Mills early Tuesday afternoon to officially sign his contract and will speak to the media after his first practice on Wednesday. To make room on the roster, the Ravens waived tight end Barrett Burns.

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With Pitta chapter closed, Ravens must find out about tight end inventory

Posted on 09 June 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have prepared for this reality for a few years now.

Long before Dennis Pitta surprised us all by returning to the football field to lead all NFL tight ends with 86 receptions in 2016, general manager Ozzie Newsome had taken significant steps to replace him. And with the veteran sadly suffering a third dislocation of his right hip in a four-year period last week — prompting his release on Wednesday — the time is now for the Ravens to find out about their extensive inventory of tight ends.

To call it depth would be presumptuous since all five carry enough baggage to make it difficult to handicap a favorite for the top of the depth chart going into the start of training camp next month.

Benjamin Watson has caught four times as many passes in his career as Baltimore’s four other tight ends combined, but the 36-year-old is coming off a torn Achilles tendon and won’t be fully cleared to return to action until later this summer. His leadership and experience will be valued in meeting rooms and on the practice field in training camp, but whether he has anything left in the tank is a critical question for a veteran player scheduled to make a $3 million base salary for 2017.

Crockett Gillmore has been the most productive of the young tight ends on the roster, but the 2014 third-round pick has missed 13 of the Ravens’ last 20 games since emerging as the starter in 2015 with 33 receptions for 412 yards and four touchdowns over 10 contests. His rare combination of blocking ability and productive hands is enticing, but Gillmore must prove he can stay on the field. Even during Thursday’s voluntary workout in Owings Mills, the 6-foot-6, 260-pound specimen left the field with what appeared to be some type of injury.

The Ravens envisioned Maxx Williams having the most upside of any of their current tight ends when they traded up in the second round of the 2015 draft to take him, but the Minnesota product did not register a catch in four games last season before undergoing a mysterious knee surgery that no other NFL player has had, according to head coach John Harbaugh. A rookie campaign of 32 receptions and a touchdown in 14 games was respectable given the typical learning curve for tight ends entering the league, but how could anyone possibly know what to expect from the 23-year-old Williams before he returns to the practice field later this summer?

Nick Boyle might be the safest bet to secure no worse than a complementary role with his blocking skills and underrated hands, but the 2015 fifth-round selection from Delaware has twice been suspended for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy and is a strike away from a two-year ban. Despite a steady 24 receptions for 197 yards over his 17 career games as a backup, Boyle’s past doesn’t exactly breed trust to include him in any long-term plans.

And that brings us to Darren Waller, a 2015 sixth-round pick who was converted from wide receiver to tight end last year and easily has the most athleticism and speed in the group. After serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy to begin 2016, the 6-foot-6, 255-pound Waller caught 10 passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns. He flashed potential from time to time, but that’s not enough production over 12 games for him to shed the “experiment” label at his new position.

The emergence of at least one or two of the aforementioned names is even more critical this season with the Ravens still lacking a trustworthy short-to-intermediate receiver for quarterback Joe Flacco in the passing game. Baltimore offenses have historically been at their best with a go-to tight end such as Shannon Sharpe, Todd Heap, or Pitta there to move the chains on third down and to shine in the red zone.

As unfortunate as the latest news was about Pitta, the Ravens believe they are prepared for it with a process that began more than two years ago. Pitta’s unexpected return in 2016 offered a one-year safety net with the rest of the group dealing with injuries or suspensions, but his release earlier this week signals the official end of an era.

Now the Ravens will learn whether some of that inventory turns into real depth for a roster with playoff aspirations but with significant questions on the offensive side of the ball.

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Ravens linebacker Mosley working his way back from shoulder surgery

Posted on 25 May 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens concluded their first week of organized team activities with a workout in which 80 of the 89 players on their current offseason roster were participating.

One of the lone surprises among the absentees was two-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who underwent an offseason shoulder surgery that hadn’t previously been reported.

“C.J. is doing all the conditioning, and he has been at all the walk-throughs and all the meetings,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “He had the shoulder surgery, so he is out.”

The Ravens exercised their fifth-year option on the 2014 first-round pick last month, which keeps him under contract through the 2018 season. Despite dealing with hamstring and calf injuries in 2016, Mosley was named to his second Pro Bowl, collecting 92 tackles and four interceptions in 14 games.

Mosley isn’t the only veteran player recovering from offseason shoulder surgery as six-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda isn’t expected to return to the practice field until training camp. He played with the injury most of last season and even switched to left guard as a result.

Harbaugh said 15th-year outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has been taking part in offseason workouts, but the Ravens have elected to keep him out of OTA workouts so far. The 34-year-old’s presence in the building this time of year is surprising considering he’s regularly skipped voluntary spring workouts ahead of the mid-June mandatory minicamp in recent years.

“I am holding him out,” Harbaugh said. “He is in here training every single day and killing himself and doing a great job on the conditioning part of it.”

Others not participating on Thursday included tight ends Benjamin Watson (Achilles tendon surgery), Maxx Williams (knee surgery), and Darren Waller (unspecified), cornerbacks Kyle Arrington (concussion) and Carlos Davis (lower leg), and guard Jarrell Broxton (unspecified). All three of the non-participating tight ends were watching practice on the sideline.

Williams underwent a season-ending procedure on his knee last fall that’s never been performed on an NFL player, according to Harbaugh. Specifics were vague, but the Ravens coach said it was related to the meniscus and cartilage in his knee and has been deemed successful. The 2015 second-round pick has been participating in offseason conditioning and workouts this spring.

“It is one of those deals that they have not done before, and so far, so good,” Harbaugh said. “It has really held up really well, and it looks like we are going to have him full speed in training camp. I am counting on that.”

With much concern being expressed about the state of the offensive line following the offseason departures of right tackle Rick Wagner and center Jeremy Zuttah, the first-team group on Thursday included Ronnie Stanley at left tackle, Alex Lewis at left guard, Ryan Jensen at center, John Urschel filling in for Yanda at right guard, and James Hurst at right tackle. Harbaugh left open the possibility of Lewis shifting to another spot, but the current plan is for him to remain at left guard where the organization feels he’s at his best.

Needing to replace two starters on their defensive line, the Ravens primarily lined up 2015 third-round pick Carl Davis at the 3-technique defensive tackle spot and 2014 fourth-round pick Brent Urban at the 5-technique defensive end position. Those jobs were previously held by Timmy Jernigan and Lawrence Guy.

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After injury-plagued year, Gillmore intends to be “the guy” in 2017

Posted on 09 February 2017 by Luke Jones

2016 was a lost season for Crockett Gillmore, but that hasn’t stopped the Ravens tight end from expressing a strong goal going into the final year of his rookie contract.

Even with so much competition at his position.

“I don’t want to come off the field. All downs, every down, and [I want to be] the guy,” Gillmore told WNST.net in Houston last week. “There’s no reason I shouldn’t be. There’s no reason I can’t be. That’s great we have nine tight ends. They’re going to enjoy the bench. That’s just reality. I’ll tell them. They know.”

Of course, it’s a bold statement coming from a player who’s appeared in just seven of Baltimore’s last 20 regular-season games because of injuries. Gillmore appeared to be on his way to becoming an established NFL starter by catching 33 passes for 412 yards and four touchdowns in 2015 before back and shoulder injuries ended his season in early December.

Shoulder surgery disrupted Gillmore’s offseason a year ago, and the surprising return of veteran Dennis Pitta limited the third-year tight end’s opportunities in the passing game as he made just eight receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown in Baltimore’s first seven games. A serious hamstring injury resulted in Gillmore sitting out the final nine games of the season.

Despite being removed from the injury report in Week 16, Gillmore was deactivated against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati while the Ravens went with the trio of Pitta, Nick Boyle, and Darren Waller at tight end. But instead of viewing the long-term absence as a missed opportunity, the 2014 third-round pick put a positive spin on the ordeal.

“It was the best injury I’ve ever had,” Gillmore said. “I got to sit back. I got to learn. I got to change my attitude about what happens and what you can control and what you can’t. I came back faster and stronger and healthier than ever [at the end of the season], and we were just short. I got to see the changes in myself as well as everything else that was going on. I really got to be ready to go.

“Honestly, I feel better than I ever have physically and I was ready to go. They make the decisions, but I was ready to go. That’s all I could do. To be able to have the opportunity, that’s all I could ask for.”

Gillmore is just one of many options the Ravens currently have at a tight end position that has plenty of inventory but few clear answers. His 6-foot-6, 260-pound frame and above-average ability as a blocker make Gillmore an enticing option on paper, but the Colorado State product has already missed 16 games in his first three seasons.

This offseason, the Ravens must evaluate the pricey salary-cap figures of both Pitta ($7.7 million) and the 36-year-old Benjamin Watson ($4 million), who missed the entire 2016 season with a torn Achilles tendon. Much like Gillmore, 2015 second-round pick Maxx Williams has flashed ability when he’s been on the field, but he appeared in just four games last season before undergoing surgery to repair a chronic cartilage problem in his knee. Boyle and Waller round out the list of question marks as both have already served drug-related suspensions in their brief NFL careers.

Regardless of who does it, the Ravens need more production from a position that was viewed as one of their greatest strengths entering 2016. Pitta was the only Baltimore tight end to record more than 10 receptions and led the team with 86, but his 8.5 yards per catch average ranked 131st among qualified pass-catchers in the NFL, reflecting the Ravens’ inability to push the ball down the field.

After making clear his intentions to be “the guy” at tight end in 2017, a healthy Gillmore isn’t wasting any time getting a head start on his offseason work. Like his many competitors at the position, he has plenty to prove.

“I’ve been lifting. Once I got hurt, I was lifting every day,” Gillmore said. “I got healthy there by the end [and was] getting ready to go for the playoffs and then we didn’t make it. I was healthy, so I just kept going. No reason not to.”

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How did Ravens offense stack up at each position in 2016?

Posted on 09 January 2017 by Luke Jones

We know the sum of their parts didn’t add up to a trip to the postseason for the Ravens, but where exactly did their offensive players stack up at each position across the NFL in 2016?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl or picking postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few realistically have the time — or want to make the effort — to watch every player on every team extensively enough to develop an informed opinion.

How many times did you closely watch the offensive line of the Tennessee Titans this season?

What about the Los Angeles Rams linebackers or the San Diego Chargers cornerbacks?

That’s why I appreciate projects such as Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 and the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus. Of course, neither the NFL1000 nor PFF should be viewed as the gospel truth of evaluation and they have their limitations, but I respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when so many of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis.

Below is a look at where Ravens offensive players rank at their respective positions, according to those outlets:

QB Joe Flacco
NFL1000 ranking: 27th
PFF ranking: 26th
Skinny: These kinds of sites have rarely been kind to the veteran over the years (Football Outsiders also ranked him 29th), but Flacco must be better in 2017 if the Ravens are to return to the playoffs.

RB Terrance West
NFL1000 ranking: 38th
PFF ranking: 12th
Skinny: West may not be a game-changing back, but he did enough to establish himself as a regular contributor in an NFL backfield after his career was at a crossroads just a year ago.

RB Kenneth Dixon
NFL1000 ranking: 39th
PFF ranking: 23rd
Skinny: The 2016 fourth-round pick was trending upward late in the season and displays impressive toughness for a 212-pound back, making him the early favorite to be the starter in 2017.

FB Kyle Juszczyk
NFL1000 ranking: first
PFF ranking: first
Skinny: You can debate how much value a fullback brings to an offense in today’s NFL, but there was apparently no arguing over who was the best all-around talent at the position in 2016.

WR Steve Smith
NFL1000 ranking: 20th
PFF ranking: 37th
Skinny: The 37-year-old didn’t catch as many passes or finish with as many receiving yards as Mike Wallace, but replacing the retired Smith is clearly one of the top challenges of the offseason.

WR Mike Wallace
NFL1000 ranking: 24th
PFF ranking: 42nd
Skinny: The speedy Wallace profiles best as a No. 2 wideout, but the Ravens couldn’t have asked for much more from the 30-year-old as he posted his first 1,000-yard campaign since 2011.

WR Breshad Perriman
NFL1000 ranking: 78th
PFF ranking: 88th
Skinny: The 2015 first-round pick flashed at times, but these sites agree with the consensus opinion that the Ravens can’t count on the inconsistent Perriman to step into a starting role in 2017.

WR Kamar Aiken
NFL1000 ranking: 102nd
PFF ranking: 95th
Skinny: Targeted 77 fewer times than he was in 2015, Aiken didn’t receive enough opportunities, but he didn’t always take advantage of those chances, either, and is a likely departure via free agency.

TE Dennis Pitta
NFL1000 ranking: 16th
PFF ranking: 50th
Skinny: The fact that Pitta caught more passes than any tight end and was ranked so low by both outlets reflects a yards per catch (8.5) average that was 55th of 56 players with 60 or more receptions.

TE Crockett Gillmore
NFL1000 ranking: 45th
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The 2014 third-round pick showed exciting potential in 2015, but he’s played in just seven of Baltimore’s last 20 regular-season games because of various injuries.

TE Darren Waller
NFL1000 ranking: 75th
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The Ravens have quite an inventory of tight ends — all with baggage — but Waller has the most upside if the former receiver puts in the work and continues learning the finer points of the position.

TE Nick Boyle
NFL1000 ranking: 85th
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The Delaware product looks like a reliable blocker as a No. 2 or No. 3 tight end, but two performance-enhancing drug suspensions in two years make him difficult to trust in the long run.

LT Ronnie Stanley
NFL1000 ranking: 19th among left tackles
PFF ranking: 25th among all offensive tackles
Skinny: A four-game absence due to a foot injury disrupted an encouraging rookie season, but Stanley allowed only one sack over his final eight games and made PFF’s top 25 players under age 25 list.

RT Rick Wagner
NFL1000 ranking: 21st among right tackles
PFF ranking: 19th among all offensive tackles
Skinny: Wagner isn’t a Pro Bowl talent, but the Ravens would be wise to retain his rock-solid services if the free-agent bidding doesn’t get out of hand this offseason.

G Marshal Yanda
NFL1000 ranking: first among all guards
PFF ranking: first among all guards
Skinny: It’s amazing that Yanda continued to play at an elite level after a left shoulder injury eventually forced him to move from right guard to the left side, but he’s just a special player.

G Alex Lewis
NFL1000 ranking: 35th among all guards
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: Switching between tackle and guard so frequently in the first half of the season hurt the rookie’s development, but Lewis was settling in nicely at left guard before his Week 10 ankle injury.

G Vladimir Ducasse
NFL1000 ranking: 47th among all guards
PFF ranking: 59th
Skinny: Re-signed to the roster in October, the 29-year-old played the way you’d realistically expect him to and shouldn’t be viewed as anything more than veteran depth if he were to be re-signed.

C Jeremy Zuttah
NFL1000 ranking: 26th
PFF ranking: 13th
Skinny: Though PFF graded Zuttah as a slightly above-average center in 2016, the Ravens believe upgrading this position is a major key to improving their below-average offense next season.

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Youthful contributions offer hope for Ravens in second half and beyond

Posted on 11 November 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — It may well have been only fool’s gold against the worst team in the NFL, but the Ravens could still feel good about themselves after scoring a season high for points in a 28-7 win over Cleveland.

After an ugly first half in which they managed only two field goals, the second-half explosion was a confidence boost that a struggling offense desperately needed. After weeks of producing so little against mediocre-to-poor units, Baltimore was finally able to make a bad defense look, well, bad.

The first-place Ravens hope they can build off their 22-point output against the Browns in the second half, but it was the contributions of three young offensive players that offered the most excitement in Thursday’s win. Now preparing for a daunting seven-game stretch to conclude the 2016 regular season, the Ravens need more contributions from Breshad Perriman, Kenneth Dixon, and even Darren Waller like they received on Thursday night.

Veterans such as Steve Smith, Mike Wallace, and Dennis Pitta will continue to be the primary options for Joe Flacco in the passing game, but any successful offense needs meaningful contributions from others in any given week, especially against formidable opponents. After a season and a half of frustration primarily stemming from injuries, Perriman made a terrific adjustment on a 27-yard touchdown catch to cap off a 12-play, 90-yard drive in the fourth quarter.

The score was a long time coming for the 2015 first-round pick, who finished with three catches for 64 yards. Two of those receptions came on that scoring drive to put Cleveland away for good.

“For Breshad to go up and get that ball and adjust his body, it was fantastic,” said Smith, who finished with five catches for 60 yards and a touchdown. “That is dramatic. As your first career touchdown, that is as dramatic as you want it to be. That is a keeper.”

The Ravens can only hope that touchdown is a springboard for Perriman to truly become a keeper, but he wasn’t the only young player to impress against the Browns. Dixon, a fourth-round rookie from Louisiana Tech who turned heads in the preseason, finished with a team-high 80 yards from scrimmage on just 11 touches and flashed the ability that prompted some analysts to rate him as high as the second-best running back in this year’s draft behind only fourth overall pick Ezekiel Elliott.

Terrance West has proven himself to be a capable starting back through the first half of the season, but the 212-pound Dixon shows a combination of speed and surprising physicality — he broke at least two tackles on Thursday — that makes you think he can be more of a big-play option in the backfield. Injuries have been his biggest challenge as he is just now starting to look as explosive as he did in a strong preseason before suffering a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee.

Through his first four NFL games, Dixon averaged just 1.5 yards per carry and caught only five passes for six yards, but he looked like a different player against the Browns.

“He got back from the knee about four weeks ago and has steadily looked better,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I told him this week, I said, ‘This is your breakout game. You look like you’re ready.’ He did a great job.”

Waller isn’t someone who was on many people’s radar as the Ravens entered the season with extensive depth at tight end, but injuries have led to an increased role and it was his four-yard touchdown that put Baltimore ahead early in the third quarter. A converted receiver drafted in the sixth round out of Georgia Tech a year ago, Waller has a 6-foot-6, 255-pound frame and the kind of speed that could make him a significant matchup problem as he matures.

Entering the night ranked 24th in red-zone offense, the Ravens would be wise to continue to look his way in that area of the field where they’ve lacked an option to go up and get the ball.

“Darren’s a big guy that runs well, has great hands. He’s a real talented guy,” said Flacco, who shook off two interceptions to throw for 296 yards and three touchdown passes on Thursday. “I think getting him involved and showing himself that he can do it [is important]. He’s another guy that once he gets out there and gets more playing experience, he’ll start to really understand things. I think he’s got a great guy to watch in Dennis, in terms of running routes and stuff like that.”

The Ravens merely did what they were supposed to do against a team that hasn’t yet won a game, so it would be unwise to boldly proclaim Thursday as a turning point for an offense that’s disappointed all year. Nine games into the season, we know this team leans heavily on a strong defense that was once again sensational in limiting the Browns to just one touchdown and 144 total yards.

But seeing Perriman, Dixon, and Waller stand out was not just an encouraging sign for the playoff run over the final seven games. The Ravens need young players such as these to step forward for a brighter future.

“Any time you’re a young guy, and you do those things, it’s good in the long run,” Flacco said. “You feel a part of the team. And when you go out there, in order to really feel part of the team and feel great about it, it’s all about going out there and making plays and showing your teammates that you can do it.”

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Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 05 November 2016 by Luke Jones

Two rivals coming off their bye week and needing a win on Sunday.

The stakes are clear for both the Ravens and Pittsburgh when they meet for the 41st time in their regular-season history. Having lost four straight games in October, Baltimore is trying to turn its season around and pull even in the AFC North with the Steelers, who have dropped two consecutive games themselves.

Health is a hot topic for both teams as the Ravens expect to welcome back several key starters, a list including linebackers Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley and offensive linemen Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley. Meanwhile, the Steelers appear likely to have starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back under center less than three weeks after knee surgery.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens attempt to win their fourth straight game against Pittsburgh, which includes their victory in the 2014 postseason. The Steelers lead the regular-season series by a 21-19 edge, but Mike Tomlin’s team hasn’t won a game at M&T Bank Stadium since 2012. Counting the playoffs, Baltimore has won five of the last six meetings with its biggest rival.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Dennis Pitta will catch his first touchdown of the season while Darren Waller will make his first catches of 2016. Who would have guessed with the well-documented depth entering training camp that Pitta would be the only tight end to play in all of the Ravens’ first eight games? His production has slowed since surpassing the 100-yard receiving mark in Week 2, but he poses a problem for Pittsburgh linebackers who are weak in coverage. With Crockett Gillmore out, Waller is now the No. 2 option and is an imposing physical specimen offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg should utilize.

2. Le’Veon Bell will not do much against the Ravens on the ground, but the Pittsburgh running back will burn them in the passing game. The Baltimore run defense is for real and allowing just 3.5 yards per game, but a returning Mosley — and his hamstring — will face a heck of a test in coverage with Bell’s ability to separate as a pass catcher. With the way Matt Forte had success as a receiver against the Ravens in Week 7, Roethlisberger won’t hesitate to look for the explosive Bell out of the backfield to help keep the Steelers on schedule despite little production in the running game.

3. Suggs will collect a sack to add to an impressive mark, but Baltimore won’t get enough heat on a hobbled quarterback otherwise. Suggs poked fun earlier this week at the injury drama often surrounding Roethlisberger, the kind of trash talk bringing back memories of the prime of this rivalry. The six-time Pro Bowl linebacker has backed up the talk over the years with 16 1/2 career sacks against the Pittsburgh quarterback. However, an improved Steelers offensive line won’t have too many issues against a pass rush that’s been largely unproductive without Elvis Dumervil this season.

4. The Ravens secondary will fare respectably against Antonio Brown, but the big-play receiver will still catch a second-half touchdown. As tremendous as Brown has been for several seasons, Baltimore has surprisingly done a commendable job against him, holding him to just one touchdown reception. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens defense approaches Brown as Jimmy Smith has traveled with him at times in past meetings. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will likely mix up coverages against Brown, but the Steelers wideout will still find a way to the end zone on Sunday.

5. Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense will show some signs of improvement, but it won’t be enough in a 24-20 loss. The Steelers are the better football team, but the Ravens winning wouldn’t be surprising after Ryan Mallett’s heroics in the most recent meeting between these teams last December. You never truly know with this rivalry. Improved health on the offensive line should help the offense, but John Harbaugh’s team just isn’t inspiring enough confidence and Pittsburgh is also feeling plenty of urgency with higher expectations for the season. The Steelers have better play-makers, and that will be the difference in a narrow defeat for the Ravens that will only add to the frustration level in Baltimore.

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