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Ravens’ playoff absence officially hits three years

Posted on 10 January 2018 by Luke Jones

Much has changed since the Ravens squandered two 14-point leads in a playoff loss to New England three years ago Wednesday.

They would soon say goodbye to five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata as well as one of the franchise’s most accomplished wide receivers in Torrey Smith. That was also the final game of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s lone season with the Ravens and with his departure went any semblance of consistent offensive production since then.

More painful than anything else, however, has been the deterioration of the standard. Losing in the divisional round was once the minimum of expectations under John Harbaugh — illustrating how spoiled Baltimore was during the first five years of his tenure — but the Ravens haven’t been back to the postseason since that night in Foxborough when Tom Brady picked apart helpless cornerback Rashaan Melvin and an overwhelmed secondary.

Sure, the Ravens have been close to making the playoffs in each of the last two years, but that’s sometimes the worst place for an organization to be. “Close” doesn’t always mean you’re moving in the right direction, and it can prevent you from making necessary changes when you believe you’re “one play away” from getting over the hump.

The underwhelming performances in the AFC wild-card round this past weekend prompted predictable commentary from some that Joe Flacco and the Ravens would have been a more dangerous team and a bigger threat to New England and Pittsburgh. That old narrative needs to be buried when they don’t even manage to make the tournament anymore. Perhaps Brian Billick’s once-famous ban on using the “playoff” word needs to be reinstated until further notice.

The Ravens haven’t beaten the Patriots since the 2012 AFC Championship, and you can count the relevant players remaining from that Super Bowl team on two hands and have fingers left over. They still play the Steelers tough, but their only win at Heinz Field since the 2014 postseason was a game in which a washed-up Michael Vick was under center for their AFC North rival.

The sobering reality of watching the likes of Buffalo and Tennessee in the playoffs last weekend wasn’t that the Ravens might have been more formidable, but it’s that they’re closer to those mediocre teams in quality than the Patriots and the Steelers. They couldn’t even beat out such wild-card contenders despite having one of the most-favorable schedules in the NFL.

Harbaugh’s team went just 1-5 against teams who finished above .500 this season and is now 7-27 in that department since Super Bowl XLVII. For context, the 2011 team alone won six games against opponents finishing that season with winning records, and the Ravens were 18-20 against squads finishing over .500 from 2008-12.

Even that last playoff team in 2014 was an unimpressive 1-6 against teams finishing with winning records, but those Ravens did go a perfect 9-0 against opponents .500 or worse and swept a terrible NFC South division to ultimately secure a wild card. This year’s team lost home games to Chicago and Cincinnati, who finished a combined 12-20.

The standard that once made losing a playoff game in New England a bitter disappointment has regressed to not being good enough to beat winning teams and dropping a few too many games that they shouldn’t. The latter part is evident from a 33-13 record against teams finishing .500 or worse over the last five years compared to a 36-6 mark over the first five seasons of the Harbaugh era.

It’s resulted in a team that’s still competitive, but not one as close to being a serious contender as the Ravens would like to believe.

Three years ago, that disappointing 35-31 playoff loss to the Patriots still felt like the beginning of a new run for Harbaugh and the revamped Ravens after their 2013 absence from the postseason. Instead, it may have simply been the final chapter in the most successful era in franchise history.

The Ravens have a lot of work to do this offseason to both change that perception and resurrect their once-lofty standard.

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Ravens-Lions: Inactives and pre-game notes

Posted on 03 December 2017 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — December football has arrived and with it the opportunity for the Ravens to make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2014.

John Harbaugh’s team has struggled in the final month of the regular season in recent years, going an underwhelming 8-10 in regular-season games played in December and early January since Super Bowl XLVII. It’s a significant reason why Baltimore has found itself on the outside looking in in three of the last four seasons, but a 6-5 mark and a mediocre conference provide hope for 2017’s final stretch.

The Ravens are aiming for the first three-game winning streak since the start of the 2016 season.

Detroit also has plenty to play for as Jim Caldwell is trying to guide the Lions to the playoffs for the third time in his four seasons. The Ravens enter Sunday holding the final wild-card spot in the AFC while the 6-5 Lions are in eighth place in a very competitive NFC.

Wide receiver Breshad Perriman is a healthy scratch for the second time in three games, the latest disappointing development for the 2015 first-round pick. Return specialist and wide receiver Michael Campanaro is active after being a healthy scratch against Houston.

Rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey is active after being a limited participant in practices all week and going through an on-field workout with secondary coach Chris Hewitt. A thigh issue limited him to just seven defensive snaps in last Monday’s win over Houston, but fellow rookie Jaylen Hill once again being inactive would suggest that the Ravens are confident in Humphrey’s health.

As expected, running back Alex Collins is active and will start after being listed as questionable on the final injury report. Collins missed Wednesday’s practice with a calf issue, but he was a full participant on Thursday and Friday, leaving very little doubt about his status. Terrance West is inactive once again, another sign that Collins isn’t a concern.

After Joe Flacco’s broken knee brace was a topic of conversation throughout the week, it’s worth noting that the veteran quarterback was once again wearing one on his left knee during pre-game warmups.

The Lions will be without starting running back Ameer Abdullah (neck) as he was only able to log a limited practice on Friday. However, he’s averaging just 3.4 yards per carry for the league’s 30th-ranked rushing attack and Theo Riddick figured to present a bigger threat as a receiver out of the backfield against the Baltimore defense anyway.

Detroit right guard T.J. Lang (foot) is active after being designated as questionable on the final injury report. Starting center Travis Swanson (knee) was officially ruled out on Friday, leaving the Lions vulnerable against the formidable Ravens defensive line.

Former Ravens great Haloti Ngata spent time chatting with former teammates and coaches on the field prior to Sunday’s game. The five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle was placed on injured reserve with a biceps injury in October, bringing his third season with the Lions to a premature end.

The referee for Sunday’s game is Jerome Boger.

According to Weather.com, the Sunday forecast calls for mostly sunny skies and temperatures reaching the mid-50s with calm winds up to six miles per hour and no chance of precipitation.

The Ravens are wearing purple jerseys with black pants, the first time they’ve worn that uniform combination this season. Detroit is donning white tops with blue pants.

Sunday is the first meeting between these teams since 2013 when Justin Tucker famously hit a 62-yard field goal in the final minute to lift the Ravens to a 18-16 win in Detroit on Monday Night Football. Baltimore leads the all-time series with a 3-1 record and is 2-0 against the Lions at M&T Bank Stadium.

Below are Sunday’s inactives:

BALTIMORE
WR Breshad Perriman
RB Terrance West
CB Jaylen Hill
OL Jermaine Eluemunor
OL Maurquice Shakir
DE Bronson Kaufusi
DE Chris Wormley

DETROIT
WR Bradley Marquez
RB Ameer Abdullah
RB Dwayne Washington
CB Jamal Agnew
S Rolan Milligan
C Travis Swanson
OT Emmett Cleary

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Ravens narrowly avoided Atlanta’s fate four years ago

Posted on 06 February 2017 by Luke Jones

The Atlanta Falcons are predictably the butt of many jokes after surrendering the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history on Sunday night.

Coughing up a 25-point lead in the second half will do that to you, but Ravens fans should pause a moment or two before piling on Matt Ryan and company with too much enthusiasm. After all, Baltimore nearly suffered a similar fate in Super Bowl XLVII four years ago.

No one will forget the image of Joe Flacco raising the first Vince Lombardi Trophy or Ray Lewis celebrating the euphoric conclusion of his “last ride” in New Orleans, but the Ravens came dangerously close to squandering a 22-point lead in the second half. Such a notion felt impossible after Jacoby Jones’ 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to begin the third quarter, but San Francisco finally found its offense while the Ravens offense couldn’t run and managed only two field goals in the second half.

It didn’t take long for a comfortable 28-6 lead to become a heart-stopping affair.

You can blame the Superdome blackout if you’d like, but a defense led by Lewis and Ed Reed at the end of their careers gave up three second-half touchdowns and a field goal, which is exactly what the Falcons did before the Patriots marched down the field for the winning touchdown in overtime.

Just imagine how differently we’d view Super Bowl XLVII had Jimmy Smith been flagged on fourth-and-goal from the 5 or the 49ers hadn’t forgotten over their final four plays inside the 10 that Frank Gore was gashing a Baltimore front playing without the injured Haloti Ngata. Of course, unlike the Falcons, the Ravens were able to make a few plays to protect their narrow lead in the end, and that’s all that matters.

Super Bowl LI reminded us that you should never count out the New England Patriots and that the margin between winning and losing can be so razor thin. It also might help to run the ball when you’re protecting a 28-20 lead and are comfortably in field-goal range with under five minutes remaining.

But before mocking Atlanta too much, remember that the Ravens nearly became the Falcons four years ago and breathe a quick sigh of relief that a storybook ending didn’t turn into a nightmare.

** Many Ravens fans predictably went to social media to use Sunday’s result as validation for Flacco being better than Ryan — a tired debate that needs to end — but I’d hardly pin that loss on the quarterback as much as I would on the offensive play-calling of Kyle Shanahan and a defense that couldn’t stop a nosebleed in the second half.

Regardless, Flacco and the Ravens have a lot of work to do to give fans something more current to brag about. Even with the fallout of a devastating Super Bowl defeat, Ryan and the Falcons have a lot more going for them right now.

** After watching his limitations as a pass rusher with just five total sacks in his four seasons in Baltimore, Courtney Upshaw collecting the first quarterback takedown of Super Bowl LI wasn’t what I expected to see.

The former Ravens linebacker added weight to play on the Falcons defensive line this year, and that sack was his only tackle of the postseason.

** Every organization and fan base would love to be the Patriots, but Ravens director of public relations Patrick Gleason offered some perspective hours before Sunday’s kickoff in Houston.

It’s understandable to be discouraged by the Ravens missing the playoffs in three of the last four years and improvements certainly need to be made from top to bottom, but this organization has built up a ton of equity over the last two decades and is still just four years removed from winning the ultimate prize. Relative to most teams around the NFL, the Ravens have spoiled their fans for a long time, which isn’t easy to do.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on preseason win over Detroit

Posted on 28 August 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winding down the preseason with a 30-9 win over Detroit, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Solid in his preseason debut, Joe Flacco got rid of the ball quickly, which did disrupt the timing on a few throws. Such a strategy was hardly surprising in his first game back from a major knee injury, but it’s worth keeping an eye on this going into the season.

2. In 10 plays, Terrell Suggs registered two tackles and the Baltimore defense just had a different look and feel with him on the field. I’m not sure if that says more about the 33-year-old linebacker or the rest of the defensive personnel at this point.

3. He may not be ready for an every-down role, but rookie Matt Judon reinforced why he’s deserving of being a situational pass rusher in sub packages. He did impressive work against starting right tackle Riley Reiff and collected a sack, five tackles, and a pass defense.

4. Considered a threat to win the starting job entering the summer, Buck Allen was the last of the Ravens’ top four running backs to receive action and ran for just 15 yards on eight carries. Averaging only 1.9 yards per carry this preseason, he hasn’t impressed running between the tackles.

5. Injuries at safety gave Terrence Brooks the chance to go the distance on Saturday, but he dropped an easy interception and missed a couple tackles leading to big gains. He still hasn’t been able to put it all together despite looking the part on paper.

6. We’re now three games into the preseason and there are no signs that rookie Ronnie Stanley can’t handle protecting Flacco’s blindside after he more than held his own against Pro Bowl defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. It wasn’t a sexy pick, but Stanley is already looking like a gem.

7. A year ago at this time, Carl Davis looked like the early star of the 2015 draft class, but he continues to have a quiet preseason and failed to register a statistic in 18 snaps. His performance is especially concerning after he hit the rookie wall last year.

8. With the season-ending injury to Benjamin Watson, the coaching staff has to be watching Darren Waller and wishing he hadn’t drawn himself a four-game suspension. Other than a drop that led to an interception in the preseason opener, he’s flashed appealing upside at his new position.

9. Remembering his special-teams prowess, I never thought Anthony Levine was in real danger of not making the roster, but he added an interception and a sack on Saturday to go along with his late-game heroics in Indianapolis. Seeing him work as a dime back will be interesting.

10. The Ravens were wise not to risk playing Lardarius Webb due to back tightness since he’s had his healthiest summer in a few years. If he’s right physically, his tackling ability cannot be overlooked at the safety position and the Ravens can move him around a bit.

11. You couldn’t ask for more from Jeremy Butler in his quest to earn a roster spot, but it was interesting to note that he only participated in two plays on special teams. If he’s going to be active on game days, he’ll need to be a part of those units.

12. It was hardly surprising, but seeing Haloti Ngata recognized in the second half of Saturday’s game was still a special moment. Despite an unceremonious departure after nine years in Baltimore, the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle and future Ring of Honor member deserved a big ovation.

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Ravens-Lions preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 26 August 2016 by Luke Jones

Our longest look at Ravens starters in the preseason will be our only look at some in Saturday’s game against Detroit on Saturday night.

The much-awaited return of starting quarterback Joe Flacco will be the dominating story in the “dress rehearsal” for the regular season, but head coach John Harbaugh would like to see a good showing from his starting units that likely will still be without the likes of Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, and Elvis Dumervil. For a team that did more minor tweaking than overhauling after a 5-11 season, many questions remains.

“Either we’re going to be good or we’re not,” Harbaugh said. “It’s what we do, not what we say. We can talk about it all we want. I have reasons for optimism, and I have reasons for pessimism. It’s just going to matter how well we coach, how well we play.

“You have to do your part. Your part is to get better. Your part is not to stay the same. If you stay the same, you’re getting worse. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. You never stay the same. Your goal has to be to come out here and get better, and it’s hard to do.”

Most starters are expected to play the entire first half before giving way to younger players and fringe veterans fighting for roster spots. It will be a good opportunity for Flacco to get his first live-game reps with veteran newcomers Benjamin Watson and Mike Wallace, who have played very little in the preseason and have yet to register as much as a catch between them.

The Ravens will see a number of old friends across the field on Saturday night. Not only will five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata be making his return to M&T Bank Stadium, but fellow Super Bowl XLVII champions Anquan Boldin and Josh Bynes and former assistant coaches Jim Caldwell and Teryl Austin will be on the opposing side.

Flacco was asked whether he’d ask the 345-pound Ngata before the game to take care of him should the two meet in the pocket during Saturday’s game.

“I don’t think so,” said the 31-year-old quarterback as he laughed. “It will be interesting to see him. I’m used to seeing him over there [on defense during practices], but it will be interesting seeing him in some other colors for sure.”

Saturday marks the fourth time that these teams have met in the preseason with the Ravens holding a 2-1 edge to go with their 3-1 advantage in all-time regular-season meetings. Baltimore has built a 22-12 record in preseason games during the Harbaugh era.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Saturday night’s game against Detroit.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will remain in question. Of course, this list does not consider any veteran players who could be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: WR Steve Smith (Achilles), WR Breshad Perriman (knee), TE Dennis Pitta (finger/hip), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot), S Matt Elam (knee), DE Bronson Kaufusi (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), LB Za’Darius Smith (ankle), CB Kyle Arrington (head), S Kendrick Lewis (undisclosed), TE Maxx Williams (undisclosed), G John Urschel (contusion)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Terrell Suggs (Achilles), DT Brandon Williams (undisclosed), WR Chris Matthews (soft tissue injury), CB Maurice Canady (hamstring), TE Darren Waller (jaw), CB Jerraud Powers (undisclosed)

Five players to watch Saturday night

LB Matt Judon

With other edge defenders expected to be sidelined against the Lions, the rookie fifth-round pick has a great opportunity to etch out a role as a rotational pass rusher if he can build on what he’s done in the first two preseason games against tougher competition on Saturday. Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees have spoken highly of Judon’s combination of size and quickness, so it will be interesting to see how he fares against first-team blockers. The Ravens need someone to emerge as an impact pass rusher behind Suggs and Dumervil, and Judon has propelled himself into that conversation.

RB Buck Allen

The second-year back had a 19-yard touchdown reception in the preseason opener, but he’s carried the ball 10 times for only 20 yards and has no other receiving yards beyond that score. Allen has clear ability as a receiver out of the backfield, but you’d like to see him show more as a runner between the tackles after he averaged an unspectacular 3.8 yards per carry as a rookie. With Terrance West showing improvement as a rusher and rookie Kenneth Dixon looking like a potential change-of-pace back, the 2015 fourth-round pick is still waiting to make a statement of his own this summer.

CB Will Davis

While Shareece Wright and Jerraud Powers have struggled in the preseason, Davis is trending upward as he has looked healthier and quicker since struggling early in camp. The Ravens knew he had the ability to play on the outside, but he held up surprisingly well playing some slot cornerback against Indianapolis, which is something worth monitoring moving forward. The organization obviously thought enough of Davis to send a seventh-round pick to Miami last year, so it will be interesting to see if the 2013 third-round pick will climb the depth chart as he moves further away from knee surgery.

G Vlad Ducasse

The seventh-year veteran isn’t a lock to make the team, but the other options in the competition at left guard lack experience while he’s started 22 games over his career. His performance against the Colts wasn’t quite as stellar as it was against Carolina, but Ducasse figures to improve his chances with a strong showing against the Lions while third-year guard John Urschel is expected to be sidelined again. The Ravens don’t have great depth at tackle, but Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis have the ability to play outside, meaning a guard like Ducasse could receive the nod over a reserve tackle like De’Ondre Wesley.

CB Tavon Young

A hamstring injury sustained in the preseason opener slowed a fast start to his first training camp, but Young figures to have a chance to show what he can do at the nickel spot while veterans such as Powers and Kyle Arrington are likely to be sidelined against the Lions. Despite only being 5-foot-9, Young has shown a nose for the football and impressive confidence for a rookie cornerback. At the very least, the Ravens are looking for him to be a major contributor on kickoff and punt coverage units and potentially as a kick returner, which remains an unsettled position on this current roster.

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Ravens must hit home run in this year’s draft

Posted on 06 April 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — When you draft two future Hall of Fame players with the first two picks in franchise history, the standard is going to be impossible to live up to.

But that didn’t stop general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens from coming very close for the better part of the next decade. After Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis in that franchise-defining 1996 draft came Peter Boulware, Chris McAlister, Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap, Ed Reed (another future Hall of Famer), Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Ben Grubbs in first rounds over the next 11 years, all of them Pro Bowl selections.

Sure, there were a couple misses along the way, but you simply expected the Ravens to find a Pro Bowl player in the first round of the draft every year. Those emphatic early hits began to dissipate, however, and Baltimore has seen just one first-round pick — C.J. Mosley in 2014 — make the Pro Bowl since 2008.

The previous home runs and triples have been replaced by more singles and doubles — and a few more strikeouts — in recent years, which are still better than other teams in the NFL, but that decline came into focus this past year when a lack of playmakers and a rash of injuries led to a 5-11 season.

“If you look at [recent] drafts compared to ’96 to 2004, I would say that they didn’t measure up to those drafts,” Newsome said. “From ’96 to 2004, we drafted three Hall of Famers, but I will also say that during that time early on when you’re picking in the top 10 of the draft, you have a chance to be a lot more successful than it is when you’re picking anywhere from 20 to 32, which [are] the positions that we’ve been in.

“But I would say it was not up to my standards.”

Newsome’s point is fair as the Ravens have been a victim of their own success in that way after making the postseason 10 times in the last 16 years. They haven’t picked in even the first half of the first round in a decade and the sixth overall pick in this month’s draft will be the organization’s earliest since 2000.

As much as the Ravens were blessed to be able to land Hall of Fame talent when they took Ray Lewis 26th overall in 1996 and Reed 24th in 2002, the final 10 picks of the first round and the early second round typically aren’t littered with All-Pro talent everywhere you look. As if Lewis and Reed weren’t enough, the Ravens also found future Pro Bowl selections in Heap and Grubbs very late in the first round, but such success shouldn’t fool anyone into assuming you should find a Pro Bowl player that late every single year.

Yes, there have been some ugly first- and second-round picks in recent drafts as Sergio Kindle, Terrence Cody, Matt Elam, and Arthur Brown immediately come to mind, but other maligned choices such as Michael Oher and Courtney Upshaw were still more positive than not — even if they weren’t Pro Bowl players.

The drafts haven’t been all bad as Pernell McPhee, Brandon Williams, Crockett Gillmore, and Rick Wagner have been impressive middle-round finds over the last five years, but they just need to be better, especially in the early rounds. Recent drafts have been solid — for the most part — but rarely special.

“Have we drafted a ton of Pro Bowlers? No, we haven’t, but I’m proud of the players we’ve drafted,” said assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, who cited the big free-agent money other teams have spent on Ravens picks such as McPhee, Torrey Smith, Arthur Jones, and Kelechi Osemele in the last few offseasons. “I think we’ll get back to being a really good team soon. I’m not going to stress out about it.

“Can we do better in certain instances? Of course we can. You’re dealing with human emotion people, but I think our scouts and coaches have done a really good job. I think we’ll get back to prominence.”

If serious contention is in the cards for 2016, the Ravens need to hit a couple long balls and triples, not just with the sixth overall pick but with their six other selections in the top 134 spots. A successful draft isn’t only about the first round as Newsome has shown in finding Pro Bowl-caliber players and starters in the middle and late rounds over the years.

Expecting the Ravens to find their next future Hall of Famer later this month would be unfair, but they do need to find the next pillar around which to build. If it isn’t a Ray Lewis, Ogden, or Reed, drafting the next Suggs, Ngata, or Jamal Lewis is a reasonable expectation when picking so early.

DeCosta acknowledged Tuesday that the money in Vegas would be on the Ravens taking a defensive player with the sixth pick as there are five or six “elite” ones in his mind, but the executive also said there are three or four offensive players who might be the best fit depending on how the first five picks play out in a few weeks.

Whether it’s a player like Jalen Ramsey of Florida State unexpectedly falling into their laps or a regular mock-draft target such as Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, UCLA’s Myles Jack, Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, or Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley or even another name being discussed less frequently such as running back Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State, the Ravens must come away with a special talent.

They need to find the next player who will one day be in the Ring of Honor at M&T Bank Stadium.

That would go a long way in not only helping them bounce back from a 5-11 season, but such a player would be a good step in preventing the Ravens from being back in this position for another 16 years.

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Looking at former Ravens set to hit free agency

Posted on 12 February 2016 by Luke Jones

The start of NFL free agency is less than a month away.

This is the time of year when teams not only look at their own free agents, but they start to explore who else might become available. A full list was comprised by Pro Football Talk that included more than a few familiar names who could spark discussion among Ravens fans about a potential return.

Below is a look at ex-Ravens set to officially hit the open market on March 9:

OLB Jason Babin
2015 team: Arizona
Ravens-related thought: It’s tough to recall many players who received as much attention and produced as little as Babin did for the Ravens as he failed to register a defensive statistic in two October games.

WR Anquan Boldin
2015 team: San Francisco
Ravens-related thought: No, the Ravens shouldn’t bring back the 35-year-old as Kamar Aiken fits that skill set, but trading Boldin in 2013 was still one of Ozzie Newsome’s worst decisions in recent memory.

G Chris Chester
2015 team: Atlanta
Ravens-related thought: The 2006 second-round pick was disappointing in his first couple seasons in Baltimore, but he’s carved out a really nice career that includes 127 starts over a decade in the NFL.

C Gino Gradkowski
2015 team: Atlanta
Ravens-related thought: Denver cut him at the end of the summer and Gradkowski played in just three games this season, putting his career at a crossroads after struggling as a starter in Baltimore in 2013.

K Shayne Graham
2015 team: Atlanta
Ravens-related thought: Many fans forget that the Ravens signed the veteran to fill in for an ailing Billy Cundiff late in the 2011 regular season, just a few weeks before “you know what” happened.

SS James Ihedigbo
2015 team: Detroit
Ravens-related thought: If the Ravens had known Matt Elam would be such a disappointment, they likely would have kept Ihedigbo after his strong 2013 season, but Will Hill now plays the same position.

ILB Rolando McClain
2015 team: Dallas
Ravens-related thought: Inside linebacker is a potential need depending on what happens with veteran Daryl Smith, but Baltimore can’t be foolish enough to venture down this road again, right?

DT Haloti Ngata
2015 team: Detroit
Ravens-related thought: It will be interesting to see what market exists for an accomplished 32-year-old defensive tackle, but a reunion seems unlikely unless Ngata is willing to take a very team-friendly deal.

RB Bernard Pierce
2015 team: Jacksonville
Ravens-related thought: It’s hard to believe how quickly Pierce flamed out after averaging 4.9 yards per carry in his rookie season and being on the verge of threatening Ray Rice for the starting job.

RB Bobby Rainey
2015 team: Tampa Bay
Ravens-related thought: The undrafted free agent from Western Kentucky was a good story a few years ago, but he fell out of the Buccaneers’ backfield picture and the Ravens are set at the position.

RS Jeremy Ross (restricted)
2015 team: Oakland
Ravens-related thought: You can’t last as a return specialist in the NFL if you can’t secure the football, a lesson Ross learned with the Ravens as well as with a few other teams in his career.

CB Cassius Vaughn
2015 team: San Diego
Ravens-related thought: The veteran corner had two different stints with the Ravens in 2015, but it would be difficiult to view him as anything more than offseason roster depth at this point.

CB Cary Williams
2015 team: Washington
Ravens-related thought: Williams was better than some want to give him credit for during his time in Baltimore, but his struggles in Seattle last year will dim interest for his services this offseason.

CB Josh Wilson
2015 team: Detroit
Ravens-related thought: The former Terp will be 31 next month and played well for the Ravens in 2010, but his career appears to be winding down after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in November.

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Ngata trade proved to be winner for Ravens

Posted on 26 January 2016 by Luke Jones

There is plenty to question about the offseason that preceded a disappointing 5-11 campaign for the Ravens in 2015.

But the decision to trade five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata proved to be a good one.

Of course, general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens were never going to allow Ngata to carry a $16 million salary cap figure in the final season of a five-year, $61 million contract, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t try to keep him. The organization attempted to work out an extension like it did with Terrell Suggs a year earlier, but the sides didn’t come to an agreement before the 2006 first-round pick was traded to Detroit in the final moments before free agency began on March 10.

It turns out that the Ravens were probably fortunate not to extend Ngata. As Hall of Fame baseball executive Branch Rickey used to say, “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.”

The trade was praised by many at the time, but the possibility of Ngata producing another Pro Bowl season and the Ravens struggling mightily up front was still there.

Ngata wasn’t awful in Detroit, but he hardly played at a Pro Bowl level as he registered a career-low 24 tackles in 14 games and dealt with hamstring and calf injuries. Pro Football Focus graded him as the league’s 39th-best interior defender in 2015 while Brandon Williams was 21st and Timmy Jernigan 49th. The production certainly didn’t warrant the $8.5 million base salary he was paid by the Lions, who were desperate to fill the void left behind by four-time Pro Bowl selection Ndamukong Suh.

Meanwhile, the Ravens drafted outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith with the fourth-round pick they received from Detroit and used their new fifth-round selection to trade up a few spots in the second round to take tight end Maxx Williams. Time will tell whether these players will make major contributions after mostly-quiet rookie seasons that did finish on high notes, but the potential value alone trumps what Baltimore might have gotten from Ngata in 2015.

If we’re being honest, the Ravens probably missed the 345-pounder to some degree as the run defense ranked 12th in the NFL and allowed 4.0 yards per carry after finishing fourth and surrendering just 3.6 per attempt in 2014. His primary replacement Jernigan shook off a slow start to play well in the second half of 2015, but he was stronger as a pass rusher than as a run-stopping defender at Ngata’s old 3-technique spot.

Ngata would have made the defensive line more stout, but his expensive presence hardly would have transformed the Ravens from a 5-11 team into a 10-6 playoff contender. If the Ravens had signed him to an extension last winter, we’d also be wondering how much football he has left in the way we’re now asking about his longtime teammate Suggs, who will be coming off his second Achilles tendon tear in four years and carries a $7.45 million cap figure for 2016.

The 32-year-old Ngata has expressed desire to re-sign with Detroit, but he is not committed to playing beyond 2016, which should make Ravens fans feel even better about the organization not signing him last winter. Given the issues Baltimore has with its salary cap, the fewer contracts awarded to aging players near the end of their careers, the better.

It became apparent over the course of the 2015 season that the Ravens need to get younger at several key spots, something they’ve done along the defensive line without significant drop-off. Ngata was one of the best players in the 20-year history of the franchise, but parting ways with an aging defensive tackle was the right call with only minimal short-term fallout.

Little went right for the Ravens in one of the most disappointing seasons in team history, but the Ngata trade has already proven to be a winner without even knowing what Smith and Maxx Williams will offer in the future.

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What brought the 2015 Ravens to this point?

Posted on 28 September 2015 by Luke Jones

An 0-3 record has brought many questions for the Baltimore Ravens.

Who’s to blame? Is it a lack of talent, poor execution, or the coaching?

A week after head coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees questioned the effort and energy of their defense, the Ravens were gashed to the tune of 28 points and 458 total yards by Cincinnati to fall to 0-3 for the first time in franchise history. Meanwhile, an offense too reliant on Steve Smith in the passing game has lost its way on the ground, ranking 28th in the NFL at just 3.3 yards per carry.

While fans and media try to hand out blame to coaches and players or point to a tough schedule for the poor start, below are seven realities that have contributed to the predicament of the Ravens being the only winless team in the AFC. Some were the result of bad decisions while others were out of their control.

These factors are in no particular order and some clearly hold more weight than others.

Dead cap money

Dead cap space is a reality for every NFL team from year to year, but the Ravens are carrying an incredible $17 million in dead money for two former Pro Bowl players no longer on the roster: Ray Rice and Haloti Ngata. With the cap set at $143.28 million for the 2015 season, general manager Ozzie Newsome was without nearly 12 percent of his cap because of those two alone. When you combine that with the rest of their dead money, the Ravens were unable to utilize more than $21 million (just under 15 percent) of the salary cap for 2015. Baltimore rarely spends big in free agency, but they might have been able to make an impact signing or two with those resources tied to star players who aren’t even on the roster anymore.

Recent draft history

To be clear, not even the great Newsome can be expected to bat 1.000 in the draft, but C.J. Mosley was the first Pro Bowl player the Ravens had drafted since Rice in 2008. The 2013 draft is particularly glaring with the top two draft picks — Matt Elam and Arthur Brown — being non-factors, but the later selections of Brandon Williams and Rick Wagner prevented that class from being a total disaster. Of course, the Ravens’ recent draft issues are only relative to their high standards, but they have selected just one player in the first or second round since 2009 — Jimmy Smith — whom they’ve signed to a second long-term contract at this point. They’ve still found talent, but Newsome must find new game-changers to be pillars of the roster moving forward. And when you miss badly on high picks like Elam and Brown, those positions have to be accounted for with additional resources that could have gone to other areas of need.

Departure of assistant coaches 

Not only did the Ravens begin 2015 with their fourth offensive coordinator in four years, but the absence of Gary Kubiak has been even more pronounced with the running game looking very 2013-esque so far. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Marc Trestman is a fit in Baltimore, but it’s difficult to continue enduring annual coaching changes without a few hiccups at some point. Another oft-overlooked coaching departure from two years ago was secondary coach and current Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Highly respected by the likes of Ed Reed, Lardarius Webb, and Jimmy Smith, Austin was succeeded by Steve Spagnuolo for a year and the combination of Chris Hewitt and Matt Weiss are now coaching the secondary. It’s not an excuse for the poor performance, but that’s a lot of coaching turnover in what’s been the biggest weakness on the field for the Ravens dating back to last season.

Veteran exits

It’s been a testament to the Ravens to seemingly be able to replace departing veterans with cheaper, younger replacements every year, but the exit of Ngata, starting wide receiver Torrey Smith, rush specialist Pernell McPhee, and starting tight end Owen Daniels was a large group to replace in one offseason, especially when you factor in the dead cap space working against Newsome. At some point, you can only lose so many established players and not have the well run dry — at least temporarily — as young players are still maturing.

Excessive reliance on rookies and inexperienced players

This goes hand in hand with the veteran departures, but the Ravens are relying on more young players at key spots than they have in quite some time. Ideally, even your first-rounders can be worked in slowly like the Ravens did with the likes of Terrell Suggs (one start in 2003) and Todd Heap (six starts in 2001). The 2015 draft class looked great on paper in addressing so many positional needs, but that never meant those rookies would be ready to contribute immediately. So far, third-round defensive tackle Carl Davis is the only pick to make a significant contribution, but the Ravens will hope to see others come on sooner rather than later to prove they can be part of the future. The presence of so many inexperienced wideouts beyond Steve Smith has hindered the offense so far in 2015.

Injuries to Terrell Suggs and Breshad Perriman

All teams endure injuries, but these two have been difficult to overcome in the early stages of 2015 with Suggs being the emotional leader of the defense and an important part of the pass rush and Perriman representing offensive upside. When you consider the exits of Ray Lewis, Reed, and Ngata over the last few years, Suggs’ season-ending injury brought the end of the old guard of Baltimore defense. Meanwhile, it was no secret that Perriman would be the replacement for Torrey Smith as the vertical threat in the passing game. The Ravens hope their 2015 first-round pick will still contribute in his rookie season at some point, but the passing game has been too dependent on Steve Smith with only a collection of late-round picks and former rookie free agents behind him in the receiver pecking order.

Big contracts not paying off

No, Joe Flacco’s record-setting deal is not part of this discussion, regardless of arguments that some fans and media have tried to make over the last couple years. But the Ravens haven’t had an impressive run with other long-term deals over the last few years for various reasons, some out of their control. Starting in 2012, Newsome has rewarded the likes of Rice, cornerback Lardarius Webb, tight end Dennis Pitta, and left tackle Eugene Monroe with big contracts that have produced disappointing results. Other deals such as the ones given to Pro Bowl outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil and four-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda have worked out, but the overall return hasn’t been what the organization anticipated with most of these big-money contracts. It’s too early to judge Jimmy Smith’s contract despite a rough 2015 start, but he’s certainly the next one under the microscope.

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Nov 11, 2012; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens punter Sam Koch (4) celebrates after scoring a touchdown on a fake field goal in the third quarter against the Oakland Raiders at M&T Bank Stadium.  Baltimore defeated Oakland 55-20.  Mandatory Credit: James Lang-US PRESSWIRE

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Ravens thoughts on Koch, safety position, Ngata

Posted on 14 July 2015 by Luke Jones

At a time of year when you pray for peace and quiet while counting down to the start of training camp, the Ravens made positive news last week by signing veteran punter Sam Koch to a long-term extension.

Despite being the second-longest tenured player on the team behind Terrell Suggs, the 32-year-old’s future had been under scrutiny the last couple offseasons due to a high salary cap figure for a punter, but general manager Ozzie Newsome showed how much the organization valued Koch by inking him to a five-year, $16.25 million extension that runs through the 2020 season. The 2006 sixth-round pick was coming off arguably the best season of his career in which he led the NFL in net punting with a 43.3 yard average.

Koch will receive good pay for however long he remains in Baltimore — the structure of the contract would make it fairly easy to cut him as early as the conclusion of the 2016 season if desired — but the deal still ranks outside the top five for punter contracts in total cash and guaranteed money. Remembering that the salary cap has increased by more than $23 million since 2011 makes Koch’s deal much easier to swallow considering his consistency.

While more attention has understandably fallen on the future of 2013 Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker — who is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2015 season — Koch has long been a respected member of the locker room that extends beyond his reputation for executing directional kicks as well as any punter in the league. Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg passionately summarized Koch’s value to the Ravens after the veteran failed to make the Pro Bowl last December despite winning the fan vote:

I think the fans got it right. The fans prove to be more informed than the experts in this particular regard, in my opinion. Sam has his team as the No. 1 net punt and No. 1 gross punt team in the league if you’re looking just at numbers – which I’m assuming people did – and that’s hard to do. It’s hard to do both. And other numbers that jump out at you – he’s one of the lowest numbers in percentage of returned balls, one of the lowest numbers in percentage of yards returned, one of the highest percentage of inside-the-20 punts in the league.

Besides that, he’s probably – and I don’t have numbers to back it up – but I suspect that the numbers would back me up to say he’s probably the best holder in the history of football. He has held for three Pro Bowl kickers since he has been here. This last year, he held for three different snappers, actually four counting Haloti [Ngata]. What more does a guy have to do? I guess that’s the way I look at it. And this is meant as no disrespect for the two outstanding players that made it, but the reason we do what we do is because Sam can do it. And the season he has had has been phenomenal. He went through an offseason where he got some undeserved criticism that was thrown out there and some people swallowed it and then spit it back up. His family endured that, and all Sam did is work and take care of his family.

He’s a great husband and a father, an outstanding member of his community. This is a model for pro athletes. If anybody wants to look at a pro athlete, I say, ‘Look at Sam. Be like Sam.’ His teammates have an enormous amount of respect for him. The thing I think has happened here is, because he’s such an unassuming team man – that he doesn’t seek attention for himself – that I think he has been overlooked for a number of years. Certainly not by us, not by his teammates – he is not being overlooked. We are passionate in our support of Sam Koch, because he’s such an outstanding man and an outstanding player.

Is Rosburg partial to the only punter he’s known in Baltimore? Of course, but his words tell all you need to know as to why the Ravens felt it was important to lock up their veteran punter.

Of course, the bigger challenge will be signing Tucker, but the franchise tag is almost certain to be in play if the sides don’t strike a deal by next February.

Safety concerns

The Ravens were able to augment their depth at the cornerback position with the additions of veteran Kyle Arrington and fourth-round rookie Tray Walker this offseason, but safety remains a concern as they enter training camp later this month.

Newsome made a modest commitment to veteran newcomer Kendrick Lewis with a three-year, $5.4 million contract, but only time will tell whether he represents an upgrade from Darian Stewart, who wasn’t exactly stellar in his lone season in Baltimore last year. According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis graded out as the 27th-best safety among those playing at least 50 percent of team snaps while Stewart was 23rd, but the Ravens believe Lewis has better ability to play deep coverage — an area in which the pass defense struggled dramatically a year ago.

Strong safety Will Hill could be the wild card for the Ravens secondary if he can build on his 2014 campaign in which he graded out as the 14th-best safety in the league, per PFF. Head coach John Harbaugh challenged the 25-year-old Hill to keep himself out of trouble this offseason after he was suspended three times in his first three years in the NFL, resulting in him being jettisoned by the New York Giants last year.

Baltimore will knock on wood hoping no news is good news with Hill as his continued emergence would mean less reliance on the disappointing Matt Elam or the rehabbing Terrence Brooks to begin the 2015 season. Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason, Hill would not only solidify his standing in the starting defense with a strong season, but he’d put himself in line for a nice payday despite the tumultuous beginning to his professional career.

Ngata story

The winner of this year’s Ravens-related topic that isn’t remotely a story might have been the recent comments made by Haloti Ngata about his new defense in Detroit.

Apparently, the five-time Pro Bowl selection saying he had “never been a part of a defense like this” meant he was trashing his former team as if he’s supposed to walk on eggshells in describing his new surroundings. Many of those stirring up controversy failed to mention that Ngata will be playing in a base 4-3 front for the first time in his NFL career and — wait for it — will have different teammates than the ones with whom he played in Baltimore, very much making it a defense he’s “never been a part of” before.

If you need further evidence to dismiss the notion that Ngata was out of line in expressing admiration for a non-Baltimore defense, Detroit finished ahead of the Ravens in total defense and points allowed in 2014.

While I wouldn’t describe the separation between Ngata and the Ravens as harmonious after contract talks broke down this winter, each side ultimately made a business decision the other respected. The veteran spent nearly a decade in Baltimore, rarely ever used the media to draw attention to himself, and has expressed nothing but respect for his former organization since the March trade, making last week’s created controversy absurd.

Yes, it’s a slow news time in the NFL, but there was nothing to see there at all.

 

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