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Ravens playing “good cop, bad cop” with Monroe?

Posted on 23 March 2016 by Luke Jones

Members of the Ravens brass have presented a lukewarm attitude regarding incumbent left tackle Eugene Monroe throughout the offseason, but Steve Bisciotti took a different approach speaking at the league meetings on Tuesday.

And while much could change between now and the start of the season, the Baltimore owner sure made it sound like the man who’s been limited to just 16 starts over the last two years will again be entrusted to protect Joe Flacco’s blind side this fall. Monroe is scheduled to enter the third season of a five-year, $37.5 million contract and would carry an $8.7 million salary cap figure for 2016.

“He is our left tackle going into next year,” Bisciotti told The Sun in Boca Raton, Fla. on Tuesday. “It’s like [third-year wide receiver Michael] Campanaro. We think the world of him. But you have to know what you get out of the guy, and Eugene has been a pretty durable player these last couple years. But nobody works out harder than he does.

“I just feel bad. I think a lot of the speculation about us moving on from him clearly comes down to the fact that he’s been hurt a lot, because he’s played pretty well when he’s been in there. We’ve always been happy with him when he’s on the field.”

Bisciotti’s comments were a contrast from those made by coach John Harbaugh earlier in the day, who was asked about Monroe and said he anticipated a competition that would include right tackle Rick Wagner and reserves James Hurst and De’Ondre Wesley. Perhaps this is the Ravens’ version of “good cop, bad cop” in trying to motivate their left tackle for 2016.

Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Wagner enters his third season as the projected starting right tackle. The Wisconsin product played at a very high level in 2014 before a Lisfranc injury cut his season short. He started all 16 games last year, but it was apparent that he was still feeling the effects of foot surgery as he finished 49th among qualifying offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus’ grading system.

Meanwhile, Hurst started 11 games in Monroe’s place and graded 74th among 77 tackles, according to PFF. It was Hurst who was pushed into Flacco’s left knee, causing tears to the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments of the franchise quarterback last November. Even if the Ravens elect to go with Monroe for another season, upgrading the backup left tackle spot is a crucial need.

“I don’t have any doubt that all those tackles can play both sides,” Harbaugh said. “In some ways, the NFL has changed a little bit where it’s not just left-tackle oriented like it used to be maybe 10, 15 years ago. It used to be a little more left-tackle oriented because of the way the protections were organized. Now, you can move that around a little bit.

“The blind side still is important. The quarterback doesn’t see that tackle getting beat when he’s one-on-one, so it still has value. But there are ways to protect both tackles. It’s going to be a competition with those guys and whoever else we add.”

It’s predictable for Harbaugh to speak with confidence about players currently on the roster, but envisioning any of the aforementioned names seriously challenging Monroe’s ability is a stretch. Wagner played left tackle in college, but it’s fair to doubt whether he has the quickness to be a serious candidate on the left side. As Bisciotti correctly noted, Monroe has performed well when he’s been on the field, but his lack of durability over the last two years is a major concern.

The tone of Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome might be a better reflection of how the organization feels about Monroe, but there should be no rush to part ways with him before a real replacement is added through free agency, trade, or the draft. Cutting Monroe now would clear just $2.1 million in cap space and would leave $6.6 million in dead money, making a post-June 1 release more of a possibility.

Even if Bisciotti’s thoughts can be taken at face value and Monroe is destined to return as the starting left tackle, Harbaugh clearly stated the organization’s position on the offensive lineman’s commentary on medical marijuana that has garnered much attention over the last couple weeks.

“Those are his comments,” Harbaugh said. “What’s the disclaimer? ‘He does not speak for the network.’ I promise you he does not speak for the organization.”

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Ravens’ Monroe continues speaking in support of medical marijuana research

Posted on 15 March 2016 by Luke Jones

A week after encouraging the NFL to research the benefits of medical marijuana in an interview with CNN, Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe discussed the topic at length using his official Twitter account on Tuesday morning.

Citing Monday’s admission from NFL executive vice president of health and safety Jeff Miller that there is a link between playing football and developing degenerative brain disorders, Monroe wrote about the need for research to determine whether marijuana can “curb traumatic brain injury” and called for fellow players to “stand up” for this issue and provide funding. The 28-year-old says he is not advocating using the drug for recreational purposes.

“It’s a shame that Roger Goodell would tell [our] fans there’s no medical vs. recreational distinction,” Monroe wrote. “If I’m a fan, I’m pissed at the time I wasted listening to Goodell lie to me at the Super Bowl. As a player, I sure am. Let’s do some research.”

Monroe suffered a concussion on the Ravens’ first offensive series of the 2015 regular season and did not return until Week 5. Because of an assortment of injuries, he has started just 16 games since signing a five-year, $37.5 million contract before the 2014 season.

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Osemele thanks Ravens after critiquing their commitment

Posted on 11 March 2016 by Luke Jones

After officially signing his five-year, $58.5 million contract to join the Oakland Raiders on Thursday, Kelechi Osemele took time to thank the Ravens and the place he called home for the last four years.

But that message came after the 2012 second-round pick complimented the Raiders’ commitment to their offensive line and appeared to question his former team’s.

“They have a really up-and-coming young team [in Oakland]. That was sold to me a lot,” Osemele said in a conference call with the Bay Area media. “Going through the roster, I kind of saw what everybody was saying and the emphasis on building the offensive line, coming from a place where [that’s] not really appreciated, you know? Coming to a team where offensive line play is a focus and it matters and they want to build that up, that was a big factor.”

Head coach John Harbaugh said last month that the Ravens made an “aggressive” offer to Osemele, but it soon became clear that they weren’t going to come close to the record-setting contract Oakland handed to the fifth-year guard. It’s true that Baltimore hasn’t spent as much on its offensive line as the Raiders, but that doesn’t mean a sufficient commitment hasn’t been made to the group.

In the last two years, the Ravens have signed five-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda and left tackle Eugene Monroe to long-term contracts and acquired starting center Jeremy Zuttah from Tampa Bay in exchange for a fifth-round pick and promptly signed him to an extension. General manager Ozzie Newsome would have loved to have kept Osemele, but you just can’t pay everyone when there’s the reality of the salary cap.

Let’s see how much Oakland will be able to spend on its offensive line in the future when young quarterback Derek Carr is no longer playing on a cheap rookie contract.

Perhaps there are some lingering hard feelings about not getting the money he wanted with the Ravens, but Osemele made these comments speaking to Raiders reporters and was more likely focused on complimenting his new team rather than going out of his way to take a shot at his old one. The comment definitely wasn’t a good look, but remembering the context is also important.

Not long after making those remarks on Thursday evening, Osemele posted the following message on Instragram:

“I want to take this time to thank the city of Baltimore, the Ravens organization, the Bisciotti family, my Ravens teammates as well as all of the Ravens fans for all the support they gave my teammates and me while I was in the great city of Baltimore. I was blessed to experience the pinnacle achievement in the NFL when we won the Super Bowl my rookie year and have been chasing that high ever since. I can never thank the Ravens enough for taking a chance on a kid out of Iowa State that critics said was too soft to play in the NFL because he was raised in a house full of women. I hope I was able to prove them wrong through my hard work and determination on the field and wish the Ravens and the city of Baltimore nothing but the best in the future! Thanks for all the memories!!!”

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Osemele set to join Oakland when free agency opens

Posted on 08 March 2016 by Luke Jones

More than 24 hours before free agency officially opened, the Ravens have all but officially lost their best player from this year’s class.

According to NFL Network, fifth-year offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele has agreed in principle to a deal with the Oakland Raiders that’s expected to pay him more than $11 million per season. The contract will reportedly make the 2012 second-round pick one of the five highest-paid offensive linemen in the league.

The Ravens had hoped to keep Osemele and planned to permanently move him to left tackle, but it soon became apparent after they made an “aggressive” offer that interest from competing teams with more salary cap space were going to be too much to overcome. With Osemele having only started four games at left tackle in his NFL career and the Ravens already extending five-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda last fall, it would have been too great a risk to pay Osemele lucrative money solely to play a position where he remains relatively unproven.

Much of the angst regarding Osemele’s status has stemmed from the disappointing return on the five-year, $37.5 million contract awarded to left tackle Eugene Monroe two years ago. Since signing that deal in March of 2013, the 28-year-old has started just 16 games and has fallen out of the good graces of the organization, evident from general manager Ozzie Newsome’s lukewarm endorsement this offseason.

As much as critics have pointed to Monroe’s health problems over the last two years, it’s worth noting that Osemele missed 13 games over the last three seasons and underwent major back surgery in 2013.

Monroe is scheduled to carry an $8.7 million cap figure for 2016, but cutting him prior to June 1 would create just $2.1 million in space and $6.6 million in dead money on the cap. With Osemele joining the Raiders, the Ravens would also be without a starting left tackle if they decided to cut Monroe.

While many mock drafts have linked the Ravens to Notre Dame left tackle Ronnie Stanley with the sixth overall pick in April, the organization might be better off — for cap purposes and on the field — sticking with Monroe for another season while aiming to draft an offensive tackle with some upside in the second or third round. At the very least, this could upgrade the backup plan that includes James Hurst, who played poorly filling in for Monroe in 2015 before eventually being replaced by Osemele.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that right tackle Rick Wagner is set to become an unrestricted free agent next winter.

Young offensive linemen John Urschel and Ryan Jensen are expected to compete for the starting left guard job.

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Ravens can’t compound Monroe mistake with another

Posted on 07 March 2016 by Luke Jones

Kelechi Osemele is a heck of a football player.

In a perfect world without a salary cap, the Ravens would re-sign one of the better guards in the NFL and continue their experiment from last December to see if he can be a franchise left tackle. If Osemele couldn’t, Baltimore would just move him back to his normal position and allow him and five-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda to continue serving as the best guard tandem in the NFL.

But the league doesn’t work that way, and it’s for that reason that the Ravens are probably wise to let their 2012 second-round pick sign elsewhere this week, especially if other teams are willing to pay him upwards of $10 million per year as some reports have indicated.

Osemele is a very good guard who has shown ability to swing outside, but we don’t yet know whether that translates to being a long-term left tackle. Other teams with more cap space and less money invested in the guard position can afford to experiment knowing that they can always move Osemele back to guard where he’s established himself as a commodity approaching Pro Bowl stature. Other teams would be happy to keep Osemele at guard if tackle proves to be too much for him.

But that very scenario is the worst thing that could happen to the Ravens, who have limited cap space and an array of other positional needs after they already extended Yanda’s contract last October. The truth is that Osemele held up admirably at left tackle in his four-game tryout, but he didn’t stand out as a future Pro Bowl player, either. That’s not meant as criticism for a man who was only playing left tackle for the first time since his days at Iowa State, but it is a warning sign that the Ravens shouldn’t spend too drastically on the hope of Osemele being able to solidify the position moving forward.

You can criticize the Ravens for not trying out Osemele at left tackle much sooner — especially with Eugene Monroe having made just 16 starts over the last two years while James Hurst struggled mightily as his understudy — but smart organizations don’t step outside their comfort zone to overpay a relatively-unknown commodity at the position where they really need him.

It’s clear by now that Baltimore made a mistake investing a five-year, $37.5 million contract in Monroe, who played very well in 11 starts after being acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars during the 2013 season but hasn’t been able to stay on the field since receiving a big payday two years ago. General manager Ozzie Newsome shouldn’t compound that error by paying too much for the mere chance of Osemele being able to stick at left tackle for the long haul.

Other teams have the flexibility to keep an open mind about where the fifth-year lineman will play, but this only works for the Ravens if he becomes their long-term left tackle. Otherwise, they’ve invested an astronomical amount of money at the guard position and still have the same problem protecting Joe Flacco’s blindside.

That doesn’t seem to be a good bet at $10 million per year or more.

For that price, you need more of a sure thing.

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Ravens have made “really aggressive” offer to Osemele

Posted on 25 February 2016 by Luke Jones

INDIANAPOLIS — While general manager Ozzie Newsome has downplayed the need to restructure Joe Flacco’s contract to clear precious salary cap space for the start of free agency, the Ravens are pushing to keep free-agent offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele.

According to NFL Network, the Ravens have offered to make the fifth-year lineman their second-highest paid offensive player behind their franchise quarterback. Head coach John Harbaugh wouldn’t delve into the specifics of the offer, but he made it clear what the Ravens are trying to do with Osemele, who started the final four games of the 2015 season at left tackle.

“I’m sure he’s shopping the deal. I can tell you — Ozzie said it already — it’s a really aggressive deal,” Harbaugh said. “I think it shows a lot of respect to K.O. It shows him that we really want him here, and I hope he takes it.”

Of course, incumbent left tackle Eugene Monroe remains under contract as he would enter the third season of a five-year, $37.5 million contract signed two offseasons ago. However, Monroe has started only 16 games over the last two seasons, and Newsome provided a lukewarm endorsement for him when speaking to reporters at the NFL scouting combine on Wednesday.

Monroe is scheduled to carry an $8.7 million cap figure for 2016, but cutting him without a post-June 1 designation would save only $2.1 million in space and leave $6.6 million in dead money. The Ravens would save $4.3 million in space on the 2016 cap with a post-June 1 designation, but that room would not be available until long after most free-agent activity would be concluded.

Harbaugh left open the possibility of Osemele returning to left guard, but the Ravens wouldn’t be entertaining the possibility of paying big money to the 2012 second-round pick to return to his old position after they already invested more money in an extension for five-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda last fall.

“I think we’ll figure it out, but I like him at left tackle,” Harbaugh said. “That’s something we talked about from the day he got drafted here that he could play left tackle. We still have Eugene, who’s still in our program. We’ll put the best five guys out there and build the best offensive line we can, no matter who’s here or who’s not here.

“As a coach, I really want K.O. here and I hope he feels the same way.”

Should the Ravens re-sign Osemele, that would presumably squash the possibility of Newsome taking a left tackle such as Laremy Tunsil of Ole Miss or Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley in this April’s draft.

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Ranking the Ravens’ offensive needs for 2016

Posted on 21 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Trying to assess the 2015 Ravens offense isn’t easy.

Even if you weren’t always pleased with his play-calling and the lack of commitment to the running game, new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman was without his franchise quarterback, two of his top three wide receivers, his starting running back, his starting center, his starting left tackle, and his starting tight end for large chunks of the season. In some ways, you have to be impressed that the Ravens finished 14th in total offense, but finishing 25th in points per game (20.5) reflects how much they lacked playmakers.

How can you fairly judge Trestman’s work with a starting offense in the second half of the season that resembled one you’d see in the fourth preseason game?

The good news is that the Ravens will begin consecutive seasons with the same offensive coordinator for the first time since Cam Cameron’s five-year run that concluded in 2012. That continuity will be critical with Joe Flacco spending the offseason rehabbing from surgery to repair the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee.

With free agency set to begin in less than two months — March 9 at 4 p.m. — and the draft set for April 28-30, the Ravens are currently evaluating their biggest needs in all three phases of the game. In the first of a three-part series — with defense and special teams to follow — I offer my thoughts on the offensive side of the football and rank the positions of greatest need.

1. Left tackle

Considering Eugene Monroe is under contract for three more years, some could still argue that receiver is a bigger need, but surely no position on either side of the ball is more complicated right now for the Ravens.

I’m not completely convinced that Monroe is a goner since Kelechi Osemele will be an unrestricted free agent and the former’s release would leave $6.6 million in dead money on a salary cap that is already way too tight. Monroe’s performance over the last two years certainly doesn’t reflect the five-year, $37.5 million contract he was awarded, but his play has mostly still been solid when he has been on the field.

Can you count on Monroe to stay healthy after starting just 16 games over the last two years? Is the organization simply finished with him after he reportedly refused a simple restructure of his contract last offseason?

Osemele figures to be in high demand as either a guard or a left tackle, making it difficult to predict whether the Ravens can be a serious contender to sign him. Their best strategy might be to keep Monroe until the 2016 draft when they could potentially come away with a top left tackle such as Laremy Tunsil or Ronnie Stanley with the sixth overall pick and then part ways with the veteran. If it’s not a first-round talent, perhaps the Ravens draft a tackle in the second or third round and ride the roller coaster with Monroe for one more season.

2. Wide receiver

It’s a broken record at this position, but it was reassuring for Ravens fans to hear general manager Ozzie Newsome say at the season-ending press conference that he needs to add at least one more receiver.

There’s no reason to think Baltimore wouldn’t keep restricted free agent Kamar Aiken, but he is the group’s only fully-known commodity at the moment. No one doubts Steve Smith’s determination to return from an Achilles injury at age 37, but you can’t just bank on him being his old self, either. And even if the Ravens are confident that 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman will be 100 percent for the offseason conditioning program, he has yet to complete as much as a full-contact practice in the NFL.

The Ravens averaged a league-worst 10.4 yards per catch in 2015, reflecting their inability to stretch the field with any success. Perriman can still be viewed as the primary option to provide that skill next season, but Newsome can’t be without a backup plan this time around.

Whether it’s a free agent or a pick in the first three or four rounds of this spring’s draft, the Ravens need another speed receiver with upside to add to the passing game for 2016.

3. Reserve offensive tackle

This is a need that will be based on what the Ravens ultimately do at left tackle, but they probably shouldn’t count on James Hurst as the primary backup tackle, especially if Monroe is retained.

The former undrafted free agent from North Carolina is a hard worker and a favorite of offensive line coach Juan Castillo, but he graded 78th out of 81 qualified offensive tackles by Pro Football Focus and was simply overwhelmed for large stretches of playing time. He was also the one who fell into Flacco’s left knee to cause the season-ending injury against St. Louis on Nov. 22.

Starting right tackle Rick Wagner will also be an unrestricted free agent after the 2016 season, so the Ravens need to be prepared to address that position a year from now.

Undrafted free agent De’Ondre Wesley finished the season on the 53-man roster, but it’s unclear whether he would be ready to step into a primary backup tackle role next year.

4. Reserve interior lineman

John Urschel is projected to take Osemele’s place as the starting left guard in 2016, but the Ravens would probably like to add another interior lineman to the roster mix if they can.

Reserve guard Ryan Jensen played well when Osemele moved to left tackle, but the organization lost rookies Kaleb Johnson and Robert Myers to other teams late in the season. Adding another interior lineman in the late rounds of the draft to develop for the future would make sense.

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Pondering the Ravens’ potential 2016 salary cap cuts

Posted on 12 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are facing their most critical offseason of the John Harbaugh era, but revamping a 5-11 team won’t be easy with a salary cap lacking flexibility.

Having entered the offseason with an estimated 2016 commitment of just under $146 million to 47 players, general manager Ozzie Newsome can only hope that the salary cap will rise to the highest reported estimate of $153.4 million, an increase of $10 million from this past season. However, that would still leave little room to sign some of their own free agents, let alone try to make other additions.

The direction of the offseason hinges on Baltimore’s ability to adjust quarterback Joe Flacco’s $28.55 million salary cap figure for the 2016 season, but additional cap-related moves will likely still need to be made. The Ravens may not have an extensive list of high-priority free agents, but standing pat after missing the playoffs in two of the last three seasons won’t sit well with the fan base — or owner Steve Bisciotti.

And after last week’s revelation that Harbaugh doesn’t plan to make any changes to his coaching staff, the Ravens are signaling that the roster was the bigger problem in 2015.

In evaluating cap space and potential cuts, it’s important to remember the rule of 51 as the top 51 cap numbers on the roster count against the salary cap. The savings from any released player is offset in part by an additional player jumping into the top 51 from the bottom of the list. For example, if a released player carrying a $3 million cap number is replaced in the top 51 by another player carrying a $450,000 cap number, the end result is a $2.55 million savings on the salary cap.

Below is a list of veteran candidates to be cut for cap purposes (with the pre-June 1 cap savings noted in parentheses):

CB Kyle Arrington ($1.433 million)
Skinnny: Signed last spring to serve as Baltimore’s No. 3 corner, Arrington struggled and saw his playing time dwindle dramatically until the late-season move of Lardarius Webb to safety. With younger options such as Will Davis and Tray Walker already on the roster and the Ravens mentioning cornerback as a need to address this offseason, Arrington’s roster spot would appear to be in serious jeopardy.

DE Chris Canty ($2.15 million)
Skinny: The 33-year-old is still a useful player when healthy, but injuries and the presence of Lawrence Guy and Brent Urban for the 5-technique spot make it likely that the Ravens will elect to cut Canty this winter. The organization decided to bring the veteran back after terminating his contract a year ago, but you wonder if either side would have interest in doing that again.

S Matt Elam ($1.328 million)
Skinny: The Ravens would still like to salvage some production out of the worst defensive first-round pick in franchise history, but Elam is making enough money now to wonder if it’s worth it. With Will Hill manning the strong safety spot, where does the University of Florida product even fit? Elam would be an expensive backup and special-teams player at a crowded position.

RB Justin Forsett ($2.3 million)
Skinny: The Ravens have three young running backs behind him on the depth chart, but Lorenzo Taliaferro hasn’t been able to stay healthy, Buck Allen had ball-security issues late in the season, and Terrance West wore out his welcome with two other NFL teams in less than two years. Forsett may not be a home-run hitter, but his $3.7 million cap figure is reasonable and Allen didn’t quite show enough for the Ravens to sign off on him being ready to be a No. 1 running back just yet.

S Kendrick Lewis ($933,333)
Skinny: Though Lewis didn’t bring the impact to the free safety position that the Ravens hoped when they signed him last offseason, his release wouldn’t bring much in the way of cap savings. That being said, if the Ravens truly intend to make Webb their starting free safety, cutting Lewis might be a football move more than one related to the salary cap.

OT Eugene Monroe ($2.1 million)
Skinny: This could be the most complicated decision of the offseason as Monroe has started only 16 games since signing a five-year, $37.5 million contract two years ago. Cutting Monroe leaves $6.6 million in dead money on the 2016 cap, and re-signing Kelechi Osemele won’t be an easy task. If Laremy Tunsil of Ole Miss or Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley falls into their laps in the first round, the Ravens could wave goodbye to Monroe. Otherwise, they may look to draft a tackle in the second or third round and hold their breath that Monroe bounces back in 2016.

TE Dennis Pitta ($600,000)
Skinny: The veteran tight end said at the end of the season that nothing has changed in terms of his hopes to play again, but things have changed for the Ravens as his 2016 base salary ($5 million) is not guaranteed like it was this past year. There’s always a chance that Pitta agrees to an incentive-laden deal with no guaranteed money to continue with a potential comeback, but he is more likely to be released or to retire. The question will be whether the Ravens want $6.6 million in dead money to be absorbed in 2016 or to give him a post-June 1 designation to push $4.4 million of that to 2017. Either way, Pitta’s exit isn’t going to be of great assistance when it comes to making moves this offseason.

LB Daryl Smith ($2.625 million)
Skinny: The veteran has done a fine job stepping into the position once held by Ray Lewis, but he wore down as 2015 progressed and was being replaced by Zach Orr in nickel situations late in the season. There isn’t an obvious every-down replacement waiting in the wings, but Smith will be 34 and carries a $4.375 million cap figure for 2016. In a perfect world, 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown already would have stepped into the spot next to C.J. Mosley, but we know how that story has played out.

CB Lardarius Webb ($3.5 million)
Skinny: Newsome spoke with conviction at the season-ending press conference about the Ravens moving Webb to free safety, but his $9.5 million cap figure for 2016 would make him one of the most expensive safeties in the league despite his inexperience there. Webb accepted a pay cut a year ago and will likely need to take another one unless the Ravens are that blindly confident in him being a Pro Bowl-caliber safety. The fact that Webb already proclaimed himself to be a safety moving forward probably won’t help his cause in negotiating with the Ravens or on the open market if he’s let go.

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Making sense of Ravens’ running game in 2015

Posted on 11 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Plenty of factors interfered with the Ravens’ ability to run the football in 2015.

The departure of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, injuries along the offensive line and to 2014 Pro Bowl running back Justin Forsett, more eight-man boxes due to limited weapons in the passing game, and a questionable commitment from new coordinator Marc Trestman all contributed to the Baltimore rushing game dropping from eighth in 2014 all the way to 26th this past season. The Ravens averaged 4.5 yards per attempt in Kubiak’s lone season in Baltimore and averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in 2015 (24th in the NFL).

“To the extent that we didn’t run the ball well, yes, we lost our identity a little bit and we have to be able to do that,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We’re going to find our way back that way, and we’re going to work on that right now.”

Media and fans frequently speak about the commitment — or lack thereof — to the running game, citing overused stats about a team’s record when they rush a certain number of times in a game. For this reason, some have pointed to the Ravens’ 383 rushing attempts — fewest in franchise history and tied for 25th in the NFL — as the biggest culprit in the struggles.

That simply isn’t the case.

Research has shown over and over that running the ball more often doesn’t cause a team to win more games just like simply trying to bench-press the most weight doesn’t magically make you stronger. Being strong to begin with (having leads) puts you in position to lift that heavier weight (carrying the ball more frequently). Otherwise, a team would mindlessly run the ball for the first 20 or 25 plays of a game to hit those statistical landmarks and have a big lead in the first half, right?

There are always exceptions, but teams that run the most generally do so because they have the lead with Carolina being a perfect example with a league-high 526 rushing attempts despite a 4.3 average that ranked only 10th in the NFL. It’s no coincidence that the 15-1 Panthers led for a league-best average of 39:47 per game and trailed an average of just 8:57 — also best in the NFL — according to Football Outsiders. They also averaged fewer runs in the first quarter than in any of the final three quarters, reflecting again that it’s more about running when you have the lead than “establishing the run” early.

In contrast, the 5-11 Ravens led an average of just 14:37 per game (27th in the NFL) and trailed for 32:13 per contest (26th in the league), easily their worst marks since Football Outsiders began keeping track in 1997. Of the 66 periods (counting two overtimes) in which they played during the 2015 season, the Ravens led at the conclusion of just 19 of them.

Of the five teams that led less frequently than the Ravens in 2015 — Miami, Chicago, Jacksonville, San Francisco, and Cleveland — only the Bears finished outside the bottom 10 in rushing attempts. All five of those teams also averaged better than Baltimore’s 3.9 yards per carry clip.

Whether they take it too far or not, teams pass more frequently when they’re behind as even the worst passing teams in the NFL average more yards per throwing attempt than the most efficient rushing teams average yards per carry. It’s common sense that you can catch up more quickly by going through the air, even if that leaves you prone to more turnovers.

The 2010 Ravens averaged 3.8 yards per carry — a mark slightly worse than this year’s team — but carried the ball 104 more times in a 12-4 season. Yes, you can argue that Cam Cameron had a stronger affinity for the running game than Trestman, but Baltimore also enjoyed the lead an average of 38:26 per contest, the best in the NFL that season.

It’s easy to run the ball when you’re protecting a lead.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the running game wasn’t problematic or one of many reasons leading to the first losing season of the Harbaugh era. The issues with the running game just didn’t have as much to do with the number of attempts as it did the lack of efficiency and how regularly the Ravens trailed in games.

In looking at the breakdown of rushes by quarter, however, there’s little excusing Trestman for the Ravens only having 91 rushing attempts in the first quarter compared to the league average of 106.3. Strangely, the Ravens collected more rushing attempts (105) in the fourth quarter than in any other period — a trend usually indicative of a winning team — but that number was skewed by a combined 25 fourth-quarter carries against Pittsburgh and Cleveland in Weeks 4 and 5, their best rushing performances of the season by a significant margin.

At times, there was certainly a questionable commitment to the running game — a knock on Trestman before he was hired by Harbaugh last January — but the Ravens’ frequent deficits magnified the problem.

“Part of that is scheme, part of that is how many times we call it and when we call it,” said Harbaugh about the problems with the running game. “There’s play-action that goes with it [and] passes behind runs that keep the linebackers off your run game — all of those things that we need to build into our run game to be as good as we can be.”

The healthy returns of Forsett and starting center Jeremy Zuttah, finding stability at left tackle, and the continued development of Buck Allen, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Terrance West should help to improve the running game. Gaining more leads by playing better on both sides of the ball will create more opportunities that weren’t there for a ground game that struggled to find its groove throughout the season.

But it will ultimately be about running the ball better — not just more often — in 2016.

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What’s going on with Terrell Suggs?

Posted on 05 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Among the many interesting topics expected to be covered when the Ravens’ brass gathers for Thursday’s season-ending press conference will be the status of Terrell Suggs.

Lost for the year after tearing his left Achilles tendon in the Sept. 13 opener, the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker spent very little time at the team’s Owings Mills training facility this season and was still wearing a walking boot as he watched the Week 16 upset victory over Pittsburgh from the sideline. In contrast, Suggs was out of a boot a little over two months after tearing his right Achilles tendon in the spring of 2012 — he amazingly returned to action in less than six months to play that season — and 36-year-old wide receiver Steve Smith shed his walking boot on Monday and suffered his Achilles injury seven weeks after the 33-year-old linebacker did.

Asked on Monday if he sought advice from his teammate who has been through a similar rehabilitation process twice, Smith made a cryptic remark that could be taken any number of ways.

“Suggs is a little vulnerable right now, so I’m not going to talk to Suggs about it,” said Smith, who announced last week that he would return for another season after previously planning to retire. “He’s not a ray of sunshine like he usually is.”

It’s worth noting that Smith’s comments were made as he smiled, but the veteran receiver can occasionally be sly with the media, making one wonder if there was more to it than Suggs simply having a bad day.

Suggs hasn’t spoken with reporters since suffering the injury in Denver.

Head coach John Harbaugh said in early November that the 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year told him at the time of the injury that he intended to return in 2016, but Suggs was more reflective than usual about his career this past spring and struggled to cope with the departure of his longtime teammate and friend Haloti Ngata, who was traded to the Detroit Lions last March. Suggs wore a hat with No. 92 on it — Ngata’s jersey number for nine years in Baltimore that isn’t currently worn by a Ravens player — as he cheered on his teammates during the Steelers game on Dec. 27.

General manager Ozzie Newsome holds a unique relationship with the 2003 first-round pick, so it will be interesting to hear where the veteran stands in terms of his health and status for next season.

Suggs is under contract through 2018 and is scheduled to carry a $7.45 million salary cap figure for next season.

Hindsight with Osemele

With much discussion centering around the left tackle position, it’s fair to wonder why the Ravens didn’t try Kelechi Osemele at left tackle before the acquisition of Eugene Monroe a few years ago.

Following the win in Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore considered the possibility of moving Osemele to left tackle as Bryant McKinnie hit the free-agent market, but Newsome ultimately re-signed the veteran later that spring. Of course, McKinnie did not perform well and the Ravens traded fourth- and fifth-round draft picks to Jacksonville in exchange for Monroe in early October of 2013.

Had Osemele not been dealing with a chronic back issue at the time that eventually required season-ending surgery, he could have been a real option to move outside, but it’s difficult to fault the Ravens for not wanting to try it when he was already struggling just to perform at his regular left guard position. Instead, Monroe arrived and played so well over the remainder of the season that the Ravens rewarded him with a five-year, $37.5 million contract.

If the 2012 second-round pick had been healthy, perhaps he would have gotten his chance then and become Baltimore’s long-term left tackle a few years ago.

Complicated Webb

Following the season-ending loss to Cincinnati, veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb told reporters he viewed himself as a safety moving forward, but how the Ravens elect to handle that remains to be seen.

Webb and the Ravens already reworked his contract last offseason, but he is still scheduled to carry a $9.5 million salary cap number for 2016, which would put him among the highest-paid safeties in the NFL. Of course, that would come with a very limited sample of Webb playing the position.

The 30-year-old may very well be an upgrade from recent options such as Kendrick Lewis and Darian Stewart, but the Ravens would need Pro Bowl-quality play to justify that price tag. There’s just no way of knowing he can do that, making it likely that Webb will be cut if he isn’t willing to further adjust his contract that expires after the 2017 season.

Need for speed

Asked whether the passing game needs more speed next season, quarterback Joe Flacco didn’t answer with a definitive yes, but he was quick to point out how much it helps an AFC North rival.

“It does a lot for football teams,” said Flacco, who discussed the need to be able to push the ball down the field more at different times this past season. “You see what the Steelers are doing with the speed that they’ve added over the last couple years. It definitely makes a difference out there. I’m not saying that it’s something that we need, but when we’ve had it here, it’s definitely made a little bit of a difference.”

Should the Ravens re-sign restricted free-agent receiver Kamar Aiken, they would have the trio of Aiken, Smith, and 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman, but the latter two have questions about their health and only Perriman brings impact speed. The roster would benefit greatly from another speed option with upside.

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