Tag Archive | "Jarret Johnson"

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Five questions pondering Showalter, Arrington, Harvey, others

Posted on 15 May 2015 by Luke Jones

Every Friday, I’ll ponder five topics related to the Orioles or Ravens (or a mix of both).

Five questions …

1. Is it just me or does the acquisition of Kyle Arrington have you feeling really good about the Ravens in 2015? Baltimore is no stranger to significant roster turnover, but fans were understandably uneasy in seeing so many high-profile players depart this offseason. Since then, general manager Ozzie Newsome has done some of his finest work — on paper, at least — with this year’s draft and Wednesday’s acquisition of veteran cornerback Kyle Arrington, which addressed the last glaring need the Ravens had. Arrington isn’t a Pro Bowl player, but his experience and versatility will be welcomed in a secondary that struggled at cornerback and safety last season. The Ravens may not be the clear favorite in the AFC this season, but they could be very dangerous in December and January if — and it’s a big one — rookies Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams are ready to contribute in a meaningful way.

2. Is it just me or are the Orioles delaying the inevitable with Hunter Harvey’s latest elbow problems? I couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu when hearing Buck Showalter say that the pitching prospect wouldn’t need surgery before he then dodged a question about whether a magnetic resonance imaging exam showed any damage to Harvey’s ulnar collateral ligament. Last July, Harvey was first diagnosed with a flexor mass strain, the same ailment experienced by Dylan Bundy before he ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery in 2013. To be clear, undergoing the surgical procedure shouldn’t be viewed as flippantly as some like to think as not every pitcher fully recovers, but the fact that this is the second time in less than a year that Harvey is having arm issues makes you wonder if we’ve seen the last of him on a mound until sometime in 2016. He will seek a second opinion with Dr. James Andrews in the near future, and you know how that story usually ends.

3. Is it just me or are you already fatigued hearing hype about this year being different for Matt Elam? The Ravens hope to finally get a return on their 2013 first-round investment, but Elam will need to show improvement on the field after a dismal 2014 campaign. While it’s certainly premature to completely bury the strong safety in only his third season, Elam won’t be assured of anything this summer with Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis the favorites to win starting jobs on the back end. Head coach John Harbaugh mentioned earlier this week that Elam has lost eight pounds and that his body fat is down to about six percent. Elam will hope that improved fitness helps improve his tackling and coverage skills, two areas that were sorely lacking in last year’s performance. The Ravens have had other late bloomers such as cornerback Jimmy Smith, but Elam has rarely ever shown signs that his game could have another level and the discussion about him being in better shape and showing more confidence means very little until we see it translate to the field.

4. Is it just me or does Showalter just “get it” about managing in Baltimore? Winning is the most important change that the sixth-year manager has brought to the Orioles, but Monday provided the latest example of how he always knows the right thing to do. Showalter so often wears a black jacket during games that most fans would struggle to remember his jersey number, but you saw him proudly wearing his No. 26 in the series opener against Toronto when the Orioles wore “Baltimore” home jerseys in their return to Camden Yards. It was a subtle gesture, but it came after the honest and thoughtful manner in which Showalter spoke about last month’s unrest in Baltimore. He isn’t from Charm City and he’d be the first to tell you he hasn’t done it alone, but no one has been more important in rebuilding the pride of what it means to be an Oriole or an Orioles fan since his arrival in 2010.

5. Is it just me or does Jarret Johnson top the list of Ravens players you wish had won a Super Bowl? Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, and Kelly Gregg also deserve mentions, but Johnson epitomized what it meant to “play like a Raven” in his nine years in Baltimore. During his retirement press conference this week, I asked him about his emotions watching his former team win the Super Bowl less than 11 months after he departed via free agency — the Ravens made no real effort to keep him after the 2011 season — and you couldn’t sense an ounce of bitterness or regret in his reply. Johnson recalled celebrating when the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII and quickly sent a congratulatory text message to Harbaugh, a man with whom he occasionally clashed in their years together. The Ravens coach said that was one of the most meaningful messages he received that night and replied telling Johnson he was a part of that championship. He wasn’t a Pro Bowl player and is unlikely to go into the Ring of Honor, but the dependable Johnson was about as “Baltimore” as a guy from Florida can be.

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Jarret Johnson to sign one-day contract to retire with Ravens

Posted on 04 March 2015 by Luke Jones

After announcing his retirement from the NFL last week, Jarret Johnson is coming home to officially finish his career where it started.

The former Ravens linebacker will sign a one-day contract to retire with the organization that selected him in the fourth round of the 2003 draft. The 33-year-old Johnson spent nine years in Baltimore and was one of the most respected players in franchise history for his toughness and durability as he played in 129 consecutive games to conclude his Ravens career — once a franchise record — before departing to sign with the San Diego Chargers in 2012.

Johnson’s departure from the Ravens was amicable but difficult as he saw his former team go on to win Super Bowl XLVII while he spent his first season in San Diego. Though not as flashy on the field as former teammates such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, the University of Alabama product earned the respect of Ravens fans for his blue-collar approach while becoming a permanent starter in 2007.

He finished his run in Baltimore with 382 tackles, 20 sacks, three interceptions, and nine forced fumbles in nine seasons in addition to setting a franchise record for consecutive games played that was surpassed by punter Sam Koch this past year.

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Former Ravens linebacker Johnson ready to reunite with former teammates

Posted on 21 November 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Former Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson sent a text message to running back Ray Rice and several other former teammates Wednesday afternoon ahead of Sunday’s game in San Diego and the message was clear.

Guys, you better bring your game faces!

The new Chargers linebacker has adjusted to life in a new town, but he still identifies with the city he called home for nine years. Old feelings don’t die easily, especially when you have the type of blue-collar reputation revered in a place like Baltimore.

“It was weird the first time I saw them on TV,” Johnson said. “It was really weird watching the Pittsburgh game the other night on the way home from Denver. That’s a game the Ravens look forward to, and looking out there and me not being one of them was a little weird.”

It was just eight months ago that a choked-up Johnson sent another text message to those same teammates, informing them of his decision to sign a four-year, $19 million contract with the San Diego Chargers in what was a bittersweet day for the 31-year-old. He knew it was time to move on as the Ravens were strapped for salary cap room while Johnson wanted a long-term contract for the latter portion of his career.

He now faces those former teammates for the first time this Sunday as the Ravens look to improve to 9-2 and avenge an embarrassing 34-14 loss from last season. At 4-6, the Chargers have struggled offensively, but Johnson has been a welcome addition to a respectable defense that ranks eighth in total yards and tied for 13th in points allowed.

Serving primarily in running situations in his first season with San Diego, Johnson has accumulated 26 tackles, one sack, and a forced fumble.

Never possessing the flash of Ray Lewis or the physical tools of Terrell Suggs, Johnson prided himself on doing the dirty work, setting the edge at the strongside linebacker position and playing in a franchise-record 129 consecutive games before his free-agent departure in March.

His 382 tackles, nine forced fumbles, and 20 sacks over his nine years in Baltimore all rank in the top 10 in the history of the franchise.

“He epitomized what it was to be a Raven,” Rice said. “He was a no-nonsense kind of guy here.”

The scene figures to be especially significant for Suggs, who roomed with Johnson when they were rookies in 2003. Suggs was the Ravens’ first-round pick while Johnson was an undersized defensive lineman from Alabama drafted in the fourth round.

Johnson transitioned from the defensive line to outside linebacker and worked his way up the depth chart in the early years of his career before finally joining Suggs in the starting lineup in 2007. Though offering different skills, the two formed one of the top outside linebacker duos in the NFL over a five-year period.

“I’m definitely going to give him a hug,” said Suggs, who joked about offering the silent treatment or even a cheap shot to his former teammate. “Me and Jarret, we came in the same class together [in the 2003 draft], and it was nine years, me and him. It’s definitely going to be a little emotional to see him wearing a different color and playing for a different team.”

Both have faced trials this season as Johnson took on the challenge of adjusting to new coaches and teammates as well as an entirely different defensive system while Suggs rehabbed from surgery to repair a partially-torn Achilles tendon sustained in late April.

The two kept in touch over those months but will now be on opposing sides in San Diego on Sunday.

“We’ve been through a lot of wars together,” Johnson said. “We are kind of polar opposites personality-wise, but it was kind of an odd mix. The experiences you go through on and off the football field are things that you remember forever. He’s been a very important person in my football career.”

As he expressed the day he signed with the Chargers on March 14, Johnson holds no ill thoughts toward his former team. The business side of the game can be difficult to accept for many players when they’re forced to depart the place they called home, but the former Raven sounds happy, even if San Diego appears to be a team in transition and likely heading toward a coaching change.

It isn’t Baltimore, but Johnson is feeling right at home.

“I wanted to finish my career there,” Johnson said. “It’s where I spent nine great years. Love the staff there. Definitely where I wanted to finish, but I kind of knew the writing on the wall going into the [final] year. You can’t pay everybody.

“I was just fortunate enough to have a team like San Diego. Other than staying, I couldn’t have drawn up a better storyline for my career.”

 

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More Questions Than Answers for the Ravens

Posted on 25 May 2012 by Thyrl Nelson

#1 – What’s going to happen with Ray Rice?

 Not only has Ray Rice been one of the best pound-for-pound bargains in all of football during his time as a Raven, but unlike many other running backs in similar situations last season Rice played things quiet and trusted that the team would take care of him. Whether or not they do remains to be seen, and whether or not they should is debatable. Running backs come and go quickly in the NFL, but by most accounts Rice has been “special” and is perhaps worth the risk. Either way expect him to play in 2012, but history hasn’t been kind to players who hold out of camp. A bad season for Rice under the franchise tag could be disastrous for him and for the Ravens.

 

#2 – Who’s playing on the offensive line?

 

This question is actually a myriad of different questions. Who fills Ben Grubbs spot at LG? How much does Matt Birk have left in the tank? Can we pencil in Bryant McKinnie at LT? Are Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda still the right side? And where do Kelechi Osemele, Jah Reid, Gino Gradkowski and Ramon Harewood fit into the picture? The answers to all of these questions could represent the beginning or the end of any offensive hopes the Ravens will have in 2012?

 

#3 – Do they have enough at wide receiver?

 

Torrey Smith was a pleasant surprise last season, but whether he can refine his route running and improve his hands still remain to be seen. He’s now a proven field stretcher but will need to add to his game in order to be a bona fide playmaker. Anquan Boldin was worse than expected last season, but was also injured, He’ll need to be more like the Anquan Boldin of old to lead these Ravens forward on the offensive side of the ball. And beyond those two the questions are even bigger. Is Jacoby Jones a wide out or a just a special teamer? Will Tandon Doss be ready to play in 2012? Who is Tommy Streeter and if he’s any good, how did the Ravens get him so late? Before we start comparing Joe Flacco to the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, let’s make sure he has some weapons that he can rely on.

 

#4 – Are the tight ends good enough?

 

Ed Dickson is big and athletic enough but has struggled with his hands. Dennis Pitta has very good hands but may not be big or athletic enough to impose his will on defenders, as modern tight ends are prone to do. Until one or the other shows marked improvement the Ravens will hesitate to use the middle of the field in the passing game, where coincidentally the best offenses all seem to have fantastic weapons. And who is Lamont Bryant?

 

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Courtney Upshaw- with or without Suggs injury absence- determined to produce

Posted on 03 May 2012 by Ryan Chell

When the Baltimore Ravens traded out of the first round last week in the NFL Draft and picked up Alabama LB/DE Courtney Upshaw with the 35th pick, many Ravens fans criticized the move saying that general manager Ozzie Newsome needed to select an impact wide receiver or other skill position to help quarterback Joe Flacco and the offense score points.

Little did they know that on Thursday, it was revealed that linebacker Terrell Suggs-the reigning defensive player of the year in 2011-tore his Achilles tendon last weekend and is likely out for the 2012 season.

Suggs may have ruptured the tendon playing pick-up basketball Saturday night-which could cost Suggs a chunk of his contract (at least a reported $250,000 this season)-should the Ravens go after him for a non-football injury.

That decision to draft Upshaw and go with the best player available looks a lot better now doesn’t it?

Courtney Upshaw

Upshaw, a 2011 First-team All-American for the Crimson Tide, was originally scheduled to be the backup to Paul Kruger at the SAM/strong side linebacker spot opposite Suggs.

He and Kruger were being relied upon together to fill the void left by longtime Raven and fellow Alabama-alum Jarret Johnson, who left via free agency for the San Diego Chargers.

But with today’s news, it shoots the pair to the top of the depth chart barring any other outside transactions from the Ravens.

And Upshaw told me today that even with the news of Suggs’ injury, it wouldn’t have changed his preparation of suiting up for the Ravens in 2012-his first year in the NFL.

“I was already coming in expecting to be a big part of this team,” Upshaw said this morning. “There’s no added pressure.”

Upshaw said that he’s been bombarded with messages today about “manning up” and “stepping up”, but he remained adamant that next week at rookie mini-camp is when the work begins for him, and that he is still going to come into this season with the attitude of not having a roster spot by default.

“I’m a grown man,” Upshaw said. “I was already planning on battling for a position.”

Upshaw said just getting drafted by the Ravens-especially being tabbed as their primary selection last week-carries with it a lot of trust and respect in its own that he has to build on.

“I just have to go out there and produce,” Upshaw said. “With me being the the 1st pick, I have to live up to it.”

“I’m determined to go out there and produce.”

Upshaw ironically played Suggs’ position on the Alabama defense and flourished in the role.

On top of being named an AP First-Team All-American after finishing with 51 tackles and 8.5 sacks in 2011, Upshaw also came up big in Alabama’s National Championship win over LSU, recording a sack and winning the game’s defensive MVP award.

“I think about getting sacks all the time,” Upshaw joked.

Whether the Ravens decide to keep Upshaw at his natural position of rush-linebacker or decide to move Kruger-the converted defensive end-to Suggs’ spot so he can rush the passer instead, Upshaw said it doesn’t matter to him.

“Playing that position does sound a lot like I did at Alabama,” Upshaw said earlier in the week. “It wont be too much of a transition. I’ve already been looking at the playbook and I’m ready to go.”

But he knows that comes with a lot more work than just chasing down the quarterback.

“Playing that SAM position, I’ll be doing much more dropping back. The SAM and the rush are totally different. At the SAM, you have to know more of the defense’s concepts…there’s a lot more playing the SAM than the rush.”

Wherever Coach John Harbaugh and new defensive coordinator Dean Pees want him, Upshaw says right now he has a “Yes Sir” approach.

“I still have the same mindset,” he said. “If the coaches want me to play the rush-backer, I will go battle for it. I’m fine with that. And if they want me to continue being the SAM, I’ll learn the SAM.”

Upshaw made it clear that he didn’t want to let his coaches down.

And despite being new to the team and not having an opportunity to chat with Suggs, Upshaw did say that on a day like this, he knows how hard Ravens Nation is reeling right now at this news, and he wants to be there even more for the fans who know he was the right choice by Ozzie Newsome.

“The one thing I’ve learned in the last week on Twitter is that the fans really love their Ravens. I want to give [them] a good showing.”

WNST thanks Courtney Upshaw for his time and expects good things out of him this year! WNST-We Never Stop Talking Baltimore Sports!

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Your Monday Reality Check-Are Ravens better after Draft? I guess…

Posted on 30 April 2012 by Glenn Clark

I’ve already gotten about a hundred messages via email/Facebook/Twitter/text/Pony Express that said something along the lines of “well Glenn, you got what you wanted.”

To at least an extent, the people sending those messages have been right. After pounding on the desk of the studio at 1550 Hart Rd. in Towson for months (if not years), the Baltimore Ravens acquired a size receiver in the NFL Draft.

In the 6th round of the Draft, the Ravens selected Tommy Streeter, a 6’5″ wide receiver from the University of Miami. Combined with impressive speed (Streeter posted an impressive 4.40 forty time at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis), Streeter seemingly adds a more unique dynamic to Cam Cameron’s offense in 2012. Streeter’s size presents an immediate matchup problem in the red zone (and specifically in the end zone) that the team simply didn’t have in their receiving corps in 2011.

Well…mostly anyway.

You see, the Ravens actually DID briefly have a receiver like that in 2011. If you’ll remember, the Ravens acquired former Buffalo Bills WR James Hardy late in the 2010 season in hopes he could make the team out of Training Camp. Nagging injury issues and a lockout later, Hardy couldn’t crack the 53 and the lack of a size receiver played a role in the Ravens finishing 18th in the NFL in red zone offense.

So Streeter solves all of those problems, right? Right?

As I was also quick to point out, simply being tall wasn’t the only desirable attribute in a new Ravens receiver. Clarence Moore was tall. Randy Hymes was tall. Even Marc Lester was tall. The Ravens not only needed a tall receiver, they needed a receiver who could catch the ball and become a consistent threat in a National Football League offense.

While I liked the team’s decision to draft Streeter, I will admit that I don’t believe the Ravens (and 31 other teams) passed on him for five and a half rounds because they were TOO worried about how good he was. There have been questions about Streeter’s hands, as well as his overall ability to develop into a consistent standout receiver. Those questions may or may not be fair, as the former Hurricanes star could show 31 teams they made a mistake in the coming seasons or they could show one particular team they made the wrong decision to take him even as late as the sixth round.

I guess that’s basically the entire point of this week’s column. After the NFL Draft, analysts attempt to identify “winners” and “losers” from three days of selecting players. Some of these players will go on to outstanding pro careers, others will leave little in the way of a legacy at the NFL level and others still will never play in even a single NFL game.

So do I think the Ravens did a nice job in the NFL Draft? Yeah…I guess. I guess the Baltimore Ravens did a nice job in the NFL Draft.

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Ravens select Alabama LB Courtney Upshaw with third pick of second round

Posted on 27 April 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After trading out of the first round on Thursday, the Ravens drafted pass rusher Courtney Upshaw from Alabama with the third pick of the second round on Friday night.

The Crimson Tide defensive end is projected to be an imposing pass-rush linebacker who will be a nice option lining up on the opposite side of 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs. At 6-foot-2 and 272 pounds, Upshaw will have the ability to line up at defensive end on passing situations immediately while the Ravens will likely look to develop him as a strong-side linebacker.

Upshaw collected 16 1/2 sacks in his final two seasons at Alabama, where he was a critical member of the 2011 national championship team. He will now compete with third-year linebacker Paul Kruger for the outside linebacker spot vacated by Jarret Johnson, who signed a four-year contract with the San Diego Chargers earlier this offseason.

“I’m a tough physical player,” Upshaw said. “I feel like I’m relentless. I get after the ball. I’m a playmaker. At the end of the day, I’m a football player and I love the game.”

Much like Johnson did in his days in Baltimore, Upshaw is strong setting the edge against the run despite some critics questioning how his athleticism will translate at the next level. Upshaw revealed earlier this month he took a pre-draft visit with the Ravens, as general manager Ozzie Newsome met with another Alabama alum.

Projected to go in the first round by most draft pundits, Upshaw gives new defensive coordinator Dean Pees another pass-rushing threat for a defense that accumulated an AFC-leading 48 sacks in 2011. Thought Upshaw wasn’t asked to drop into pass coverage often during his collegiate, he played a hybrid “Jack” position that included linebacker and defensive end responsibilities.

“I wasn’t shocked,” said Upshaw when asked if he was surprised to fall out of the first round. “I kind of went into it today hoping I would be a Baltimore Raven honestly. I couldn’t do nothing but smile once I got the call. I tried to get the tough guy act going.”

Though the Ravens’ biggest need was to address the interior of the offensive line, a talent such as Upshaw in addition to the uncertainty at the outside linebacker position made it difficult for Newsome to pass on such a defensive talent.

Offensive linemen Cordy Glenn, Peter Konz, and Jonathan Martin as well as wide receiver Stephen Hill were all remaining on the board when the Ravens made their first selection of the second round.

Hoping to continue their tradition of excellent defense, the Ravens hope Upshaw is just the next in a long line of impact defenders selected in the draft over the history of the franchise.

“Courtney will provide great competition,” coach John Harbaugh said. “There will certainly, obviously, be tremendous depth. It adds one more guy into the mix in special teams. Obviously, it makes us more physical on defense. We will continue to be physical and stay physical, because that’s the kind of player he is.”

Hear Upshaw’s conference call with the Baltimore media on Friday evening here.

Listen to Courtney Upshaw’s interview with WNST.net’s Glenn Clark on “The Reality Check” on April 16 here.

Check out Upshaw’s Wikipedia profile here.

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Kruger Looking To Reward Harbaugh For Faith

Posted on 27 March 2012 by WNST Audio

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Harbaugh envisions Kruger at outside linebacker for Ravens

Posted on 27 March 2012 by Luke Jones

After longtime linebacker Jarret Johnson signed a four-year contract with the San Diego Chargers two weeks ago, the Ravens began the process of finding his replacement at the strong-side linebacker position.

Pass rush specialist Paul Kruger is the consensus choice among options currently on the roster, and coach John Harbaugh confirmed that notion at the NFL owners’ meetings in Florida on Tuesday. Selected in the second round of the 2009 draft, Kruger struggled to find a role on the defense in his first two seasons before becoming a regular contributor in passing situations last season.

“I think Paul is probably the leading candidate for the ‘Sam’ linebacker job,” Harbaugh said. “I could very definitely see him doing that. When we lost [Johnson], I went back and watched all of Paul’s tape. I watched every one of his plays from last year just to try and get a feel just for whether or not we’d be comfortable with him in there. He did a nice job in coverage, he set the edge well.”

The 26-year-old Utah product collected 5 1/2 sacks while playing in all 16 games last season after struggling to simply avoid the inactive list in his first two seasons. Kruger had only one sack and five tackles over 20 games in 2009 and 2010 as the coaching staff evaluated whether he was better suited for defensive end or linebacker.

He and rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee became mainstays of the defensive line on third down last season as the pair combined for 11 1/2 of the Ravens’ 48 sacks. Now, new defensive coordinator Dean Pees will take a long look at Kruger as the replacement to the run-stopping, blue-collar Johnson, who started every game at strong-side linebacker over the last five seasons.

“Obviously, he’s a very good pass rusher,” Harbaugh said. “I believe Paul can do it. I think he will do it.”

Kruger’s ability to play the run and to drop in pass coverage remains a mystery after limited opportunities in his first three professional seasons. The Ravens will look hard at the draft if a prospect such as Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw or North Carolina’s Zach Brown is available early, but with other positions to address and limited cap space to potentially add another veteran linebacker, Kruger may find himself in position to be the starter when the preseason begins.

“He wants to be that guy and he wants to do it as well or better than how it’s been done for the Ravens,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what you want out of one of your players.”

Of course, Harbaugh’s comments should be taken with a grain of salt when you remember we’re four months away from the start of training camp. The coach is clearly going to show as much faith as he can in players currently on the roster without dwelling too much on hypothetical additions down the road.

The other player mentioned by some as a potential candidate to replace Johnson is 2010 second-round pick Sergio Kindle, but Harbaugh didn’t exactly speak about him in the same encouraging terms as he did with Kruger. Active for only two games last season, Kindle more closely resembles a player fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster than a viable starting option after the slow recovery he endured from a fractured skull just days before the start of the 2010 training camp.

While it’s true that Kindle has never had the benefit of a full offseason program at the team’s Owings Mills facility, it’s clear he has plenty of work to do before the Ravens can afford to keep him on the roster for a second straight season.

“If he comes back and becomes a player in the NFL, it’s going to be an unparalleled accomplishment,” Harbaugh said. “You know what? We think it can happen, and we’re going to know by the end of training camp.”

Cundiff competition

Ever since kicker Billy Cundiff missed a last-second 32-yard field goal that would have sent the AFC Championship game into overtime, fans and media alike have pondered how the Ravens should handle the kicker position next season.

As he did when he spoke to WNST.net at the NFL Combine last month, Harbaugh reiterated that he fully expects Cundiff to handle kicking duties again this fall. However, the Ravens are looking to create some competition for the incumbent kicker in the preseason.

Whether the Ravens choose to add a veteran or sign a rookie following the draft, Harbaugh sees no reason why they shouldn’t explore every avenue to get better — while clearly maintaining faith in the 2010 Pro Bowl selection.

“I say that so I’m not ruling anything out, but Billy is our kicker,” Harbaugh said. “I would anticipate Billy [being] our kicker for the opening game of the season. I think he’ll have a great preseason. I think he’ll have a great season next year, but everybody gets competition and he’s no exception.”

Running without Rice?

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Plenty of work remains, but Friday’s activity a modest step forward for Ravens

Posted on 23 March 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The first 10 days of free agency had been anything but smooth for the Ravens, even if it was expected by anyone paying attention.

With limited salary cap room and 12 unrestricted free agents becoming available, coach John Harbaugh knew there would be difficult decisions to make, including waving goodbye to veterans Ben Grubbs, Jarret Johnson, Corey Redding, Haruki Nakamura, and Tom Zbikowski. Even when the Ravens targeted a potential outsider to help fill one of those voids — such as their flirtation with Eagles guard Evan Mathis — they found themselves without sufficient funds to close the deal.

Other than the re-signing of veteran center Matt Birk last week, the lack of activity was causing some restless nights among the fan base. But with the second week of free agency nearing its conclusion, this is typically when general manager Ozzie Newsome begins hunting for the best value.

Newsome and the Ravens apparently found it on Friday, re-signing linebackers Jameel McClain and Brendon Ayanbadejo and inking former Bears cornerback Corey Graham and veteran safety Sean Considine to contracts.

“[Waiting] probably wasn’t as hard for me as it was for the fans, because I had a little bit more of a front seat into what we were doing and those conversations are happening every day,” Harbaugh said. “We were involved with guys all the time, but we had our limits as to what we were going to be able to pay certain players.”

While none of the four moves should be labeled as significant splashes, the retaining of McClain allows the Ravens to cross off inside linebacker as one of their most pressing needs this offseason. Though not an elite player, McClain acquitted himself nicely in the absence of fellow inside linebacker Ray Lewis for four games last season.

The 26-year-old repeatedly stated his preference to remain with the organization that took a chance on him as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2008, but many expected McClain to find a new home somewhere else once he hit the open market on March 13.

“There’s always that possibility, because this game is unpredictable,” McClain said. “We never know what’s going to happen at the end of the day. But in the back of my heart, I always knew that Baltimore was home.”

With a deep group of available inside linebackers and a slow pace to the market, McClain’s only visit came with the Denver Broncos, who eventually re-signed inside linebacker Joe Mays. Those circumstances led to increased optimism that the Ravens would be able to keep McClain in Baltimore, which became reality on Friday afternoon.

“I probably wasn’t real confident early on because we just know what kind of a player he is,” Harbaugh said. “I think you guys have seen him. Our fans know how good of a player he is. For whatever reason, the inside backer market just didn’t really go crazy.”

McClain represents a rock-solid starting option next to Lewis and quells concerns at the position, but the Ravens will still look to address the inside linebacker position in April’s draft with an eventual replacement for Lewis in mind. Pass coverage still remains an issue, but the re-signing of Ayanbadejo does give the Ravens another option in the nickel package.

Friday also represented an encouraging day for the Ravens’ special teams with two Pro Bowl selections secured for a unit that finished 30th in the NFL in 2011, according to FootballOutsiders.com. The returning Ayanbadejo as well as Graham and Considine will try to help the Ravens improve on their 31st-ranked kickoff coverage and 24th-ranked punt coverage last season.

Of the three signings, Graham represents the most intriguing upside. Regarded as one of the best gunners in the league, he will start on all special teams units and be a focal point for which other teams will have to game-plan. Though clearly behind Lardarius Webb, Cary Williams, and Jimmy Smith, Graham does have secondary experience in addition to his special teams prowess.

“He’s kind of a guy like me who you’re going to have to scheme against him and double-team him and come up with ways to stop him,” Ayanabadejo said about his former Chicago teammate. “And anytime you double-team one guy, that’s going to leave someone else open.”

While Friday can be regarded as a modest sigh of relief for the Ravens and their fans, plenty of holes remain with the draft nearly a month away. Identifying starting replacements for Grubbs at left guard and Johnson at outside linebacker are still the top priorities. After that, the Ravens will look to address the third receiver spot as well as to try to find a viable return specialist.

The four signings eat away most of the near-$5 million in cap room the Ravens held entering the day, meaning they will likely need to sit tight until the draft and reassess the roster and the open market after selections have been made.

Yes, Friday represented a satisfying move in the right direction, but it will likely put the Ravens back in the familiar position of waiting.

With plenty of work still to do between now and the start of the season.

Hear interviews with John Harbaugh, Jameel McClain, and Corey Graham in the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault right here.

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