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Amid Ravens’ offensive line trials, Jensen emerging as answer at center

Posted on 12 October 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ask any Ravens player which teammate is most likely to get into a scuffle in training camp, and the answer would be unanimous.

It’s the man who’s helped stabilize the middle of an offensive line that’s endured more than its share of injuries this season. And after years of competing and scrapping in relative obscurity, center Ryan Jensen has been one of the Ravens’ biggest surprises in his first full season as a starter.

“He gets a little feisty; he’ll throw a helmet here and there,” inside linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “He’s a great competitor, and you want that kind of play with all your players, especially on the o-line. He’s not going to let anyone [bully] him. He’s always going to get the better end of it. Playing against him in practice, that keeps you aware.

“Even though you think he’s being a butthole, he’s actually making you better because you’re protecting yourself.”

Jensen says he takes such a description from a teammate as a compliment and quips that his red hair explains why he’s so “ornery” on the field, but such a temperament can be a challenge for a young player trying to establish himself among veteran teammates. A 2013 sixth-round pick out of Division II Colorado State-Pueblo, Jensen didn’t appear in a game as a rookie after breaking his foot early in his first training camp and was then waived at the end of the 2014 preseason, which led to him spending most of that campaign on Baltimore’s practice squad.

If those setbacks weren’t enough to make Jensen wonder if he would ever become a full-time NFL starter, the 6-foot-4, 319-pound lineman was a healthy scratch for the final nine weeks of 2016 after he’d made three fill-in starts early in the season. He’d also started six games because of injuries late in 2015, but the Ravens always seemed to end up going in a different direction whenever he’d receive a look as a starter.

“My second year when I got released, there is always a little doubt that gets put in the back of your mind,” Jensen said. “Working through that is big.”

Despite appearing to fall out of favor last season, Jensen received a $1.797 million tender as a restricted free agent in March. And after incumbent starting center Jeremy Zuttah was traded to San Francisco later that month, head coach John Harbaugh and his staff liked that Jensen had gotten bigger and stronger in the offseason. Senior offensive assistant Greg Roman and new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris wanted more size and physicality at the center position in the transition from an outside-zone blocking system to a multiple approach that would include more man blocking and downhill running.

As many continued to clamor for former New York Jets center Eric Mangold and the focus on the in-house competition remained on John Urschel before his abrupt retirement in late July, Jensen lined up as the starting center on the first day of training camp and never relinquished the job. In fact, he was the only constant on the field throughout the summer as projected starters at every other position battled injuries or were working their way back from offseason surgeries.

Jensen’s first career start at center was uneven as he helped the Ravens run for a season-high 157 yards in the season-opening win at Cincinnati, but he also committed three holding penalties, prompting critics to wonder if he could channel his aggressiveness to play with enough discipline. Since then, however, he hasn’t committed a penalty and is coming off arguably the best game of his career last Sunday in Oakland as he was graded out higher than any center in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

“I feel good about my performance. I feel good about the offensive line performance,” said Jensen, who currently ranks third among centers in PFF’s grading system for 2017. “We have been meshing together really well. We have injuries and stuff like that, but we are plowing forward and we are getting there.”

Making Jensen’s emergence even more impressive has been the disruption at both guard positions. Second-year left guard Alex Lewis underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in August — and has since been replaced by James Hurst — and six-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda was lost for the year due to a broken ankle in Week 2, leaving Jensen to work with three different players at right guard since then. With Matt Skura now expected to miss action with a knee injury, the Ravens will be on their third different starting right guard in the season’s first six weeks.

Yanda’s absence in particular has forced Jensen to grow up quickly as he’s responsible for assessing the defense’s pre-snap alignment and making protection calls at the line of scrimmage.

“He is a great communicator. He’s a fine player. He’s a tough guy,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “You guys know how up front that stuff happens fast and furious. It is wicked fast, so the communication has to be there. We have been through several guys [at guard], and he has done a great job of sort of running the show there.”

An offense still trying to find its footing is also benefiting from his attitude. With so many of his offensive teammates having more reserved personalities, Jensen isn’t afraid to get in the face of an opponent, something the Ravens had lost in the offseason with the retirement of wide receiver Steve Smith.

Jensen has managed to harness his temper that was so often on display during those practice-field scuffles in Owings Mills over the last few years and is forcing the rest of the league to take notice of his play.

“Ryan is a confident person. I think he has always been that way,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “The thing that you see with him the most is how nasty he is on Sunday and the style that he plays with. We play football, so that’s what it’s all about.

“You need that kind of player. You love to have those guys on your side.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 44-7 loss to Jacksonville

Posted on 26 September 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens matching the team record for biggest margin of defeat in a 44-7 loss to Jacksonville in London, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. We always try to determine blame after any loss, but you’ll rarely find a performance with such universal guilt to go around as Sunday’s. Even a couple days later, the stench remains overwhelming, but the Ravens can take solace in knowing it only counts as one loss in the standings.

2. It’s difficult finding reasons to be optimistic about an offensive line that started a former sixth-round pick and three former undrafted free agents against the Jaguars. You hope left tackle Ronnie Stanley becomes the group’s anchor, but the absence of Marshal Yanda was as nightmarish as feared.

3. The Ravens defense showed no ability to create pressure with a four-man rush, meaning defensive coordinator Dean Pees needs to be much more creative with stunts and blitzes. The loss of defensive end Brent Urban will hurt the inside pass rush in sub packages, too.

4. Yes, the offensive line is a major problem, but Joe Flacco is showing the same flaws with poor footwork, anticipating pressure even when he has the time and space, and not pushing the ball down the field. Everything about this offense needs to be better, and that includes the quarterback.

5. Ravens wide receivers have combined for 13 catches this season. There are currently 35 players in the NFL with more. Relative to other position groups, the trio of Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace, and Breshad Perriman should be an offensive strength, so there’s no excuse for such anemic production.

6. The fruits of Greg Roman’s work at least showed in the first two weeks, but I’m still waiting for a sign that the Ravens made the right call sticking with Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The passing game largely remains a mess with no downfield push.

7. Jimmy Smith played well and a couple others had their moments, but the defense sure looked like it was believing its hype before making Blake Bortles look like Ben Roethlisberger. Given the resources used, this defense must be special for Baltimore to win, but that’s still easier said than done.

8. I’m hesitant to read too much into garbage time, but Alex Collins looked the part for the second straight week and runs with urgency. That should have Terrance West and Buck Allen looking over their shoulders in a muddled offensive backfield.

9. I laughed at the outrage expressed by some over Jacksonville’s fake punt with a 37-point lead. I do find it unwise to burn a gadget play in a blowout, but John Harbaugh and the Ravens have done that same thing multiple times on the winning end of past lopsided affairs.

10. It’s a shame Jermaine Eluemunor’s debut in his native country didn’t come with a better result. His first activation was fueled by last week’s season-ending injury to Yanda, but that’s still a pretty amazing story for a London native to play his first NFL game at Wembley Stadium.

11. Those expecting a victory in Week 3 were reminded how volatile this league is — and how underwhelming the Ravens have been on the road in recent years — but I feel for the thousands who made the trip. Losing happens, but they deserved better than an uncompetitive showing.

12. We’ll see whether Baltimore was wise to request not having its bye after the London trip. How the Ravens fare at home against Pittsburgh and at Oakland could go a long way in determining if they’re serious contenders or pretenders who feasted on two bad teams the first two weeks.

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Ready or not, Ravens about to pull back curtain on 2017 offense

Posted on 06 September 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ready or not, the Ravens are about to pull back the curtain on their offense after a summer full of injuries and unanswered questions.

Quarterback Joe Flacco declares that his back feels good and he’s ready to go after missing the entire preseason.

Longtime right guard Marshal Yanda says the Baltimore offense is more committed to the running game than ever after attempting more passes than any team in the NFL the last two seasons.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace believes the group merely needs to trust its abilities.

But even those wearing the deepest tint of purple-colored glasses have to be concerned if they’re being honest, especially with the Ravens opening the season in a place where they haven’t won in nearly six years. To no surprise, head coach John Harbaugh says he believes in his players and their schemes with Marty Mornhinweg in his first full season as offensive coordinator and new senior offensive assistant Greg Roman in charge of fixing a dormant ground attack.

“When you look back at all that stuff, it’s not always completely accurate,” said Harbaugh about outside expectations. “Teams rise up, and they’re better than people thought they’d be. You don’t have to justify it beforehand. You just go and play the games.”

After the Ravens prioritized defense in free agency and the draft and lost a whopping eight offensive players to season-ending injury, suspension, or retirement over the last three months, fans are being asked to take a leap of faith that the offense will be just good enough to complement a defense expected to be one of the best in the NFL this season. Frankly, even that middle-of-the-road standard is a lot to ask considering the personnel losses endured by the league’s 21st-ranked scoring offense from a year ago.

It doesn’t help that the preseason provided no meaningful answers with Flacco sidelined and the projected starting offensive line not playing a single game together. Roman was never going to show his full hand with a running game vowing to be more downhill and physical than in recent years, but a preseason average of 3.1 yards per carry doesn’t spark enthusiasm, either.

The line will have three new starters with two of them — center Ryan Jensen and left guard James Hurst — previously serving as backups and the other — former Oakland right tackle Austin Howard — only arriving in early August. General manager Ozzie Newsome thought so little of his offensive line depth that he acquired two of the Ravens’ three current reserves in separate trades in the last week.

That’s a pretty big leap.

The Ravens lost roughly half of their receiving production from last season while making only two meaningful additions in the skill-position department. Veteran running back Danny Woodhead — if healthy — should help fill the void in the underneath passing game left behind by tight end Dennis Pitta and fullback Kyle Juszczyk while ninth-year receiver Jeremy Maclin fell into Baltimore’s lap in June and will be trusted to become Flacco’s new safety net with Pitta and wide receiver Steve Smith no longer on the roster.

The problem is those two practiced together a total of two days prior to Flacco’s return to the field last weekend. The quarterback acknowledged that their on-field chemistry will be a work in progress in the early weeks of the season.

“Every guy has their own way of doing things, and you build a rapport with guys throughout the course of the year and throughout practice and all of that,” Flacco said. “But the other side of it is that Jeremy is a good player, and he knows how to get open. Things might not be perfect right now, but if he gets open, then I should be able to put the ball on him.

“We have been doing that since we have been six years old. You just have to go back to the basics of things. You can’t overthink things too much.”

No matter how much the Ravens chose to focus on improving their defense in the offseason, they need more from their offense to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. But is there enough to like about this group on paper to believe that will happen?

Though another year removed from his 2015 knee injury, Flacco is coming off back-to-back lackluster seasons and has a lot of catching up to do after being sidelined for more than a month. The aforementioned challenges on the offensive line certainly don’t quell concerns about the quarterback’s back. Backup Ryan Mallett’s play in the preseason made it pretty apparent that the Ravens are going nowhere if Flacco misses meaningful time.

A group of running backs led by starter Terrance West doesn’t appear to have much upside after the season-ending loss of Kenneth Dixon in July. The addition of two running backs to the practice squad certainly appears to reflect that line of thinking.

The current collection of tight ends combined for just six catches last season. Nick Boyle is a dependable blocker, but the Ravens need to get a return on their investments in the 36-year-old Benjamin Watson and 2015 second-round pick Maxx Williams, who are both coming back from serious injuries a year ago.

The wide receiver trio of Maclin, Wallace, and former first-round pick Breshad Perriman probably inspires more confidence than any other offensive position group, but will the offensive line and running game be effective enough for Flacco to effectively utilize these weapons?

And after many called for Harbaugh to replace Mornhinweg since the 2016 offense showed little improvement when he took over for the fired Marc Trestman, the coordinator will be under great pressure to revitalize the downfield passing game and to bring new ideas to the table. He also needs to get more out of his quarterback as he continues to coach that position group.

Much has worked against their offense in the last few months, but the Ravens must find their way on that side of the ball and find it quickly. The Bengals — nor any other early-season opponent — aren’t going to feel sorry for them.

“We’re paid to do a job and paid to do a job at a high level,” Yanda said. “It doesn’t matter how much time you’re taking off, if you’re injured or sick — it doesn’t matter. You have to go out there and produce. We’re expected to go out there and play winning football on Sunday, and we’re preparing to do that.”

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Ravens need to ramp up rushing attack in third preseason game

Posted on 24 August 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ideally, the Ravens would be putting the finishing touches on their 2017 preparations against Buffalo on Saturday night.

The third preseason game is typically the final tuneup for the starting units before they turn their sights toward the season opener in a couple weeks. The Baltimore offense instead remains in a concerning state of flux with several key players out once again against the Bills.

In fact, the Ravens could field an entire offense (see below) with players currently sidelined with injuries or already lost for the season, which tells you how difficult the last couple months have been for a group that already sustained some substantial losses in the offseason.

QB Joe Flacco
RB Kenneth Dixon
WR Breshad Perriman
TE Crockett Gillmore
LT Ronnie Stanley
LG Alex Lewis
C John Urschel
RG Nico Siragusa
RT Stephane Nembot
TE Dennis Pitta
WR Tim White

Of course, Flacco is expected to return to practice as soon as the beginning of next week, but his absence again makes it extremely difficult to evaluate the passing game. Even if backup Ryan Mallett improves from his uninspiring performance over the first two preseason contests, the Ravens will hope it’s the final time he’s seeing any meaningful playing time with the starters this season.

The focus should be on the running game. After hiring senior offensive assistant Greg Roman and new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris to rebuild a ground attack that ranked 28th in rushing yards per game and 21st in yards per carry in the NFL last season, the Ravens need to see meaningful progress with four of their five projected offensive line starters expected to be on the field Saturday.

“Our run game, Joe D has done a great job, fantastic job,” said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who also praised Roman’s efforts to install a more downhill, physical attack. “You look at what that line has been through here recently — nobody has blinked. That’s big. We’ve got guys that have played multiple spots and continue to do that, and [they’re] playing pretty well there. That’ll be a big, big part of our football team if we can run the football against a really good defense.”

Despite positive remarks from Mornhinweg and head coach John Harbaugh this week, the Ravens have averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in the first half of their first two preseason games when starters and key backups have played. Considering six-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda has yet to see any preseason action and Stanley missed the Miami game, we can’t take much away from the first two games, but those numbers are all we have to go on so far and the running game wasn’t finding much room against a stout defensive front in training camp practices open to media.

Projected starter Terrance West has carried just 11 times on 21 yards in the preseason while backup Buck Allen has gained 61 yards on 18 rushing attempts. In addition to getting West into a flow ahead of the regular season, the Ravens must still figure out their fullback picture, which has included Lorenzo Taliaferro, rookie free agent Ricky Ortiz, and even defensive tackle Patrick Ricard.

On the offensive line, new right tackle Austin Howard needs to show improvement from his unimpressive preseason debut in Miami while Ryan Jensen must continue his solid work to hold off former starter Jeremy Zuttah for the center job. Unfortunately, the left side of the line is more complicated to judge with projected left guard James Hurst filling in at left tackle with Stanley still out.

The expected presence of Yanda on Saturday night hopefully allows the group to begin finding much-needed cohesion.

The Ravens made no secret in the offseason about their desire to revitalize a running game that’s been substandard in three of the last four seasons. That goal has become even more important with Flacco missing the entire summer and likely to be rusty going into the regular season.

Attempting more passes than any team in the NFL over the last two years hasn’t worked and will not be the winning formula for 2017.

“The history of the Ravens shows that you play great defense, you run the ball, you don’t turn the ball over, [then] you win and you’ll have a chance at the Super Bowl,” safety Eric Weddle said. “We’re going to show that and see where it takes us.”

With a defense showing great potential in 2017, the offense likely just needs to be average for the Ravens to have a good chance to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

We won’t learn much about the passing attack on Saturday, but the ground game making strides would make the Ravens feel much better with Flacco hopefully returning to the practice field next week.

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Flacco reportedly to miss start of training camp with back issue

Posted on 26 July 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have already endured a litany of injuries since the start of spring workouts, but the eve of training camp brought an unsettling development for their most important player.

According to multiple outlets, quarterback Joe Flacco will miss the start of camp with a disc issue in his back. It remains uncertain how long the 10th-year signal-caller will be out, but an NFL Network report suggested he could miss as much as three to six weeks, which wouldn’t leave a great deal of time ahead of the Sept. 10 season opener.

The Ravens have yet to comment publicly on Flacco’s health or status, but head coach John Harbaugh is scheduled to speak with the media after the first full-squad practice of the summer on Thursday morning. A recent media advisory sent out by the team’s public relations staff had Flacco scheduled to meet with reporters Friday, but it’s unclear whether that session will still take place.

The Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player hadn’t missed a game in his career until tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee in the latter half of the 2015 season and missing the final six games. Flacco, 32, returned for the start of training camp last year and started all 16 games, but he missed some practice time with a tender shoulder ahead of the Week 7 loss to the New York Jets.

Though eclipsing the 4,000-yard mark for the first time in his career, Flacco is coming off a down season in which he threw only 20 touchdowns and averaged 6.4 yards per pass attempt, which ranked 27th out of 30 qualified quarterbacks. The Ravens are counting on a bounce-back campaign to help them return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

“He is the guy that makes the whole offense go,” said wide receiver Mike Wallace on Wednesday before word of Flacco’s back discomfort surfaced. “Just getting more time with him and him being healthy the whole offseason and being able to work with him even more just puts us in a better position and a better place.

“Even though I think from Day 1 last year in training camp, he was ready to go, but just for him to be healthy and not have to worry about his knee at all and just get the time from Day 1 and [organized team activities] and everything, we all feel more confident.”

Of course, back problems can be volatile, so the Ravens will want to be cautious with their franchise quarterback at this early stage of the summer.

The injury leaves Baltimore with just two healthy quarterbacks — backup Ryan Mallett and the little-known Dustin Vaughan — for the start of camp. Even if Flacco were only to miss a week or two, the Ravens would likely prefer to add another quarterback to merely share practice reps.

A longer absence would bring a more compelling discussion as media and fans were already speculating Wednesday evening about the possibility of the Ravens adding veteran Colin Kaepernick, whose continued unemployment has led many to believe he’s been blackballed by the NFL after choosing not to stand for the national anthem as a form of protest during the 2016 season. In addition to playing for Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, Kaepernick was tutored by current Ravens senior offensive assistant Greg Roman, the 49ers’ offensive coordinator from 2011-2014.

The Flacco news came just a day after second-year running back Kenneth Dixon underwent season-ending knee surgery. Baltimore also lost cornerback Tavon Young (knee) and tight end Dennis Pitta (hip) to season-ending injuries during spring OTAs. Tight end Darren Waller was also suspended for a year for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

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2017 Ravens training camp preview: Offensive line

Posted on 26 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
Safeties

OFFENSIVE LINE

Projected depth chart:
LT – Ronnie Stanley, De’Ondre Wesley, Roubbens Joseph
LG – Alex Lewis, Nico Siragusa, Jarell Broxton, Maurquice Shakir
C – John Urschel, Ryan Jensen, Matt Skura, Brandon Kublanow
RG – Marshal Yanda, Jermaine Eluemunor, Jarrod Pughsley
RT – James Hurst, Stephane Nembot

Why to be impressed: Even with a shoulder injury that forced him to move to the opposite side last season, the 32-year-old Yanda remained the standard at the guard position in today’s NFL and is Baltimore’s best offensive player. Stanley graded as Pro Football Focus’ most efficient pass blocker among rookie offensive tackles and is poised to be even better in his second year.

Why to be concerned: The Ravens lost above-average right tackle Rick Wagner in free agency and traded starting center Jeremy Zuttah without adding a veteran at either position or selecting an offensive lineman before Day 3 of April’s draft. As promising as Stanley and Lewis are, the pair missed a total of 10 games as rookies and are now being counted as the surest things the Ravens have beyond Yanda.

2017 outlook: The hiring of senior offensive assistant Greg Roman and new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris shouldn’t be overlooked, but the three options who worked at center this spring were all behind the maligned Zuttah on the depth chart last year and Hurst has never come close to proving himself as an acceptable NFL starter. This is easily the Ravens’ biggest concern entering training camp.

Prediction: Yanda will make his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl, but at least one of Baltimore’s Week 1 starters on the offensive line isn’t currently on the roster.

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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 offense waits as defense receives substantial facelift

Posted on 23 March 2017 by Luke Jones

During Brandon Carr’s press conference this week, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees was recalling how he’d sent a text message to John Harbaugh after the latest defensive signing was made when the head coach interjected.

“I got a text from Marty [Mornhinweg], too, by the way,” said Harbaugh about his offensive coordinator. “He thought it was a good signing, too — just for the record. We’ve got some work to do over there, too.”

That’s an understatement as general manager Ozzie Newsome has spent lucrative dollars and most of his salary-cap space to revamp a defense that still finished in the top 10 of most significant statistical categories last season despite its well-documented problems down the stretch. Meanwhile, an offense that ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in virtually everything in 2016 has last four starters and has added only 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead, who is an intriguing talent but coming off a major knee injury.

Some have attempted to skew the 2016 narrative by pointing to a 27-point scoring output and the late defensive collapse in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day as justification for focusing on the defense this offseason, but that anecdotal evidence clouds the truth. The offense played at a high level only a few times all year while the defense — flawed as it was when cornerback Jimmy Smith wasn’t on the field — was the bigger reason why the Ravens were still in contention in Week 16. That’s not to say that improvements weren’t warranted on the defensive side — which still could use another edge rusher — but the offense was summarily broken all year and has only gotten worse since the season finale in Cincinnati. You can certainly be excited about the re-signing of nose tackle Brandon Williams and the additions of safety Tony Jefferson and Carr, but it’s fair to ask if some of those resources might have been better served addressing the offense.

To be clear, we know the start of the season is more than five months away, and Newsome and the Ravens are aware that they still have much work to do on that side of the ball. But with the first and second waves of free agency now in the books, Baltimore has fewer remaining channels — with the draft being the biggest one — to not only replace departed starters but find ways to markedly improve the offense. Of course, the margin for error is smaller without a dynamic offensive playmaker on which to lean.

Harbaugh sent a loud signal that the Ravens want to get back to running the ball at a high level by hiring senior offensive assistant and ground-game guru Greg Roman, but they need the horses in the trenches to do it. Otherwise, the offense will inevitably revert to Joe Flacco throwing more than 40 times per game, and we’ve seen how that’s worked out since Super Bowl XLVII.

The biggest objective must be to address the offensive line after the departure of right tackle Rick Wagner and the trade of center Jeremy Zuttah to San Francisco. Whether you believe Detroit overpaid for Wagner or not, replacing an above-average right tackle without meaningful drop-off will be very difficult unless new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris has a trick up his sleeve.

Moving on from the underwhelming Zuttah wasn’t shocking, but they have to replace him with someone better or at least as good. There’s been little chatter about former New York Jet Nick Mangold to this point, and even if the Ravens eye a draft prospect such as Ethan Pocic from LSU, there are no guarantees of landing him in the second or third round. The Ravens could consider an internal candidate, but neither John Urschel nor Ryan Jensen inspire much confidence after their respective 2016 campaigns.

Finding a fullback to replace 2016 Pro Bowl selection Kyle Juszczyk shouldn’t be too difficult, but — like with Wagner — it may not be easy to do it without some drop-off.

Then, there’s wide receiver, that position we’ve discussed this time of year on an annual basis.

Baltimore lost its top two possessions receivers in Steve Smith and Kamar Aiken and elected not to sign any free-agent wideouts from a top tier that included Alshon Jeffery and Terrelle Pryor. Perhaps the next Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, or Smith will be acquired in the coming weeks, but one can only look to 2013 and 2015 as recent examples of the Ravens being underprepared at that position and it hurting them substantially. Even looking past the organization’s poor track record with drafting receivers, relying heavily on a rookie wideout is a risky proposition for any team.

You might be willing to give the Ravens the benefit of the doubt along the offensive line — after all, Wagner was mostly an unknown three years ago — but skepticism at wide receiver is justified, whether it’s March or September.

It’s been interesting to see how the offseason has played out to this point, starting with Harbaugh’s decision to retain Mornhinweg as his offensive coordinator despite showing little improvement taking over for the fired Marc Trestman. The team’s brass spoke at length at the season-ending press conference about needing to do whatever it takes to help Flacco play better in 2017, but a below-average offense from a year ago is currently standing at a net loss, putting heavy pressure on the front office and scouting department to nail next month’s draft and to find an under-the-radar free agent or two while also hoping that internal options take significant steps forward.

Otherwise, the Ravens will be needing a 2000-like performance from its revamped defense to have a real shot at getting back to the playoffs in 2017.

Yes, there’s plenty of time left, but many boxes remain unchecked.

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Ravens trade veteran center Jeremy Zuttah to San Francisco

Posted on 15 March 2017 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 5:05 p.m.)

Vowing to improve their offensive line after an 8-8 season, the Ravens have opened up another starting job a week after starting right tackle Rick Wagner departed via free agency.

After NFL Network reported earlier in the day that he would be released, center Jeremy Zuttah was traded to San Francisco after three seasons and 41 starts with Baltimore. The teams will swap their 2017 sixth-round picks, meaning the Ravens move up 12 spots from 198th to 186th overall on the final day of April’s draft instead of receiving nothing in what would have been a release. The trade came a few hours after former Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk lamented his teammate’s reported release on Twitter and suggested he would be a good fit with the 49ers.

Zuttah was chosen to play in the Pro Bowl as an alternate this past year, but the Ravens are aiming to have a more physical presence for the middle of their offensive line. His trade saves $2.4 million in salary cap space, but Zuttah becomes the fourth Week 1 offensive starter to exit since the end of 2016, joining Wagner, Juszczyk, and retired wide receiver Steve Smith.

The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Zuttah was graded by Pro Football Focus as the 13th-best center in the NFL and was ranked 26th in Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 system. Seeking an upgrade is an understandable goal, but it remains unclear how the Ravens will proceed as young linemen John Urschel and Ryan Jensen are the only internal candidates to replace Zuttah on the current roster.

Urschel started seven games in place of an injured Zuttah in 2015, but he played just 265 offensive snaps in 2016 despite plenty of unrest at the guard spots. Jensen made three starts at guard in 2016, but he appeared to fall out of favor as the season progressed. Of course, new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris and new senior offensive assistant — and running game guru — Greg Roman may have higher opinions of these players than former offensive line coach Juan Castillo apparently did.

Many have speculated about the possibility of the Ravens pursuing seven-time Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold, but there has been little chatter linking the 33-year-old to any team after an injury-riddled season. The New York Jets released Mangold late last month, ending their 11-year union.

The 2017 draft isn’t considered to be rich in center talent, either, but among the top center prospects are LSU’s Ethan Pocic and Ohio State’s Pat Elflein.

General manager Ozzie Newsome has received praise for the re-signing of nose tackle Brandon Williams and the addition of safety Tony Jefferson on lucrative deals to help the Baltimore defense, but the league’s 21st-ranked scoring offense has endured several losses while 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead has been the only addition to this point. And with the first wave of free agency over, the Ravens will likely be depending on the draft as the primary way to address most of their remaining needs on either side of the ball.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts after first wave of free agency

Posted on 14 March 2017 by Luke Jones

With the first wave of NFL free agency in the rear-view mirror, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts on the Ravens, each in 50 words or less:

1. Some may scoff at the emotion shown by Brandon Williams after signing a five-year, $52.5 million contract, but his right to maximize his earnings doesn’t mean staying in Baltimore wasn’t important to him. You could also see how happy general manager Ozzie Newsome was during Monday’s press conference.

2. Kudos to Williams for paying tribute to the late Clarence Brooks for his impact on the nose tackle’s career. The 28-year-old said the longtime defensive line coach saw everything that he could be and envisioned this happening for him one day. Brooks is definitely missed.

3. The addition of Tony Jefferson could really help in trying to replace linebacker Zach Orr. If the Ravens add a complementary third safety, defensive coordinator Dean Pees could use Jefferson as a dime in passing situations and minimize the need for a three-down linebacker, which is more difficult to find.

4. Major investments have been made in the defense, but you hope Newsome has more than couch change to address a Ravens offense that was summarily broken in 2016 and has lost key pieces. The hiring of Greg Roman will help the running game, but that only goes so far.

5. I’ll give the Ravens the benefit of the doubt at right tackle, but color me skeptical about wide receiver with free-agent options dwindling and prices having not been all that outrageous. Being underprepared at the position doomed Baltimore in 2013 and 2015, and you hope that odd-year trend doesn’t continue.

6. The Anthony Levine re-signing didn’t receive much attention, but losing the likes of Orr and fullback Kyle Juszczyk hurt the special teams and Levine has been a core contributor to Jerry Rosburg’s units.

7. I’m intrigued by the addition of the diminutive Danny Woodhead, who can do some of the things Juszczyk provided despite the obvious difference in size. The Ravens view Woodhead as a potential playmaker, but he’s also 32 and coming off major knee surgery, leaving some substantial unknown.

8. The fascination with free-agent cornerback Morris Claiborne is baffling with the former Dallas Cowboy missing 41 percent of games over his five-year career and having underperformed until 2016. Barring a cheap price tag — multiple teams are interested — this feels like a fool’s gold signing.

9. The Ravens loudly reconfirmed their longtime philosophy of being strong up the middle defensively with the financial commitments made to Williams and Jefferson, but I still wonder if that thinking needs to be adjusted in today’s NFL. Fortunately, this year’s draft is rich with edge rushers and cornerbacks.

10. He’s not a No. 1 receiver, but teams are sleeping on Kamar Aiken compared to some other receivers who’ve already signed. He wasn’t keen on returning to Baltimore at the end of 2016 after being underutilized, but the Ravens could do worse than bringing back their leading receiver from 2015.

11. The Ravens have had some players recruit free agents in the past, but you have to be impressed with the efforts of Eric Weddle after just one year with the organization. He’s one of those rare veterans whom you wish could have been a Raven for his entire career.

12. Lardarius Webb is a prime example of some of the tough luck the Ravens have experienced in recent years. He was Baltimore’s best defensive player in 2012 before suffering the second ACL injury of his career six months after signing a six-year, $50 million contract. He was never the same.

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