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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Monday night

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Ravens-Saints: Five predictions for Monday night

Posted on 23 November 2014 by Luke Jones

Fresh off their bye week and trying to complete a 2014 sweep of the NFC South, the Ravens return to the site of Super Bowl XLVII to take on the reeling New Orleans Saints Monday night.

Baltimore hopes that a Week 11 bye coupled with the Saints’ two-game losing streak will create enough momentum to snap New Orleans’ 14-game winning streak in prime-time home games. The 4-6 Saints are trying to find some semblance of consistency in a division in which no team has made a strong claim as a viable playoff contender.

The Ravens are 5-1 in games coming off their bye week in the John Harbaugh era and will attempt to win their third road game of the season. While they were able to find success against an underwhelming Tennessee offense in Week 10, the Baltimore secondary will have its hands full against the league’s third-ranked passing attack.

Monday marks the sixth all-time meeting between these teams with the Ravens holding a 4-1 advantage. This is the first contest between these teams at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome since the 2006 season — which resulted in a 35-22 win for Baltimore — but the Ravens are obviously familiar with the surroundings after winning the Super Bowl in New Orleans two years ago.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 7-4 to keep pace in the AFC North …

1. Will Hill will draw the bulk of the assignment against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who will catch a touchdown and eclipse 80 receiving yards. Much was made about Cincinnati’s physicality last week in limiting the All-Pro tight end to just three catches for 29 yards, but the Ravens haven’t exactly been imposing in the back end of the defense aside from Terrence Brooks’ big hit on Tennessee’s Delanie Walker two weeks ago. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will try to mix it up as much as possible against Graham, but Hill is the best fit with his 6-foot-1, 207-pound frame and ability in coverage. The Ravens have held tight ends in check for most of the season, but they haven’t encountered a talent like Graham and he will bounce back from a tough week against the Bengals with a strong game in Week 12.

2. Steve Smith and Marlon Brown will catch touchdowns passes against a banged-up New Orleans secondary. A week off and a meeting with an old foe he tormented year after year as a member of the Carolina Panthers are just what the doctor ordered for the 35-year-old Smith whose production has declined in recent weeks. The Saints are down to their third-string free safety and top cornerback Keenan Lewis has been dealing with a knee issue, which will lead to the veteran wideout finding the end zone for the first time since Week 6. Looking to boost their 19th-ranked red-zone offense, the Ravens will rediscover Brown as a viable option inside the 20 as the 6-foot-5 receiver will rein in a pass in the back of the end zone for his first touchdown of the 2014 season.

3. The Ravens will contain top rusher Mark Ingram, but a returning Pierre Thomas will create problems as a receiver out of the backfield. After a very slow start to his NFL career, Ingram has emerged in 2014 with a 4.5 yards per carry average to take over the feature back role for New Orleans, but the Baltimore defense has allowed only 3.4 yards per carry and won’t have an issue keeping him in check. The return of Thomas — who hasn’t played since Week 7 — will be critical for a passing game that will miss the injured Brandin Cooks, who was becoming the Saints’ second-best receiver behind Graham as a short-to-intermediate target. With the secondary providing plenty of cushion and linebackers paying close attention to wherever Graham is, the Saints will slip Thomas free out of the backfield repeatedly to move the chains.

4. C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith will both collect sacks as the Ravens use inside blitzing to try to get to Drew Brees. Pees knows his defense must create pressure in the pocket against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but Saints tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief have been the strengths of their offensive line, meaning it won’t be a given that Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs will create enough heat. The best way to pressure Brees is up the middle where center Jonathan Goodwin and guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs have struggled in pass protection. Smith and Mosley have both been effective as A-gap blitzers, making it a good bet that the Ravens will try to ambush Brees up the middle. The strategy will pay off with each inside linebacker collecting a sack on Monday night.

5. Joe Flacco and Brees will each throw for over 250 yards, but the veteran will be a little better in a 31-23 win for New Orleans. A few weeks ago, it would have been tough to give the Ravens much of a chance in this one following the injury to Jimmy Smith on top of the Saints’ reputation for playing so well at home. But New Orleans is difficult to figure out with two straight losses at home that came after blowing out mighty Green Bay less than a month ago. On the other hand, a solid performance against the Titans isn’t enough to ease concerns that the Ravens secondary will be able to prevent the Saints from passing up and down the field all night. Flacco and the offense will put together one of their better road performances of the year, but it won’t be quite enough to put the Ravens over the top on Monday night.

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Ravens wouldn’t designate Pitta’s position if franchise tag comes into play

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Ravens wouldn’t designate Pitta’s position if franchise tag comes into play

Posted on 26 February 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are less than a week away from needing to decide whether to use the franchise tag on tight end Dennis Pitta, but it appears that the potential conflict over the position at which he’ll be tagged won’t be up to them.

According to NFL Network’s Ian Rappoport, when a team sends a letter to the league announcing its intention to name a franchise player, it does not designate that player at a specific position. In Pitta’s case, the league — not the Ravens — would then determine whether he is to be tagged as a tight end or wide receiver.

Much like New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, Pitta is expected to file a grievance through the NFL Players Association arguing that he should be tagged as a wide receiver after he lined up in the slot on 79.7 percent of his snaps in 2013. The collective bargaining agreement states that a franchise player is to be tendered at the position “at which [he] participated in the most plays during the prior league year.”

The 2014 salary cap hasn’t been officially set — with new reports surfacing that the cap may climb higher than $130 million — but the current estimated franchise tenders for the tight end and wide receiver positions are $6.89 million and $11.86 million, respectively.

Teams have until Monday at 4 p.m. to elect to name a franchise player.

This clarification serves to benefit the Ravens in two important ways while they continue negotiations to lock up the 28-year-old tight end to a long-term agreement.

First, it would seem to eliminate any argument that a player could be deemed an unrestricted free agent if an arbitrator were to find a team had incorrectly tagged a player and, thus, missed the March 3 deadline to designate him properly. There had been some speculation about Graham — and possibly Pitta — using this argument as a way to still be able to cash in on a monster free-agent contract in 2014, but with teams not being the ones to designate a franchise player’s position, it’s assumed that the franchise tender amount would simply be altered from one figure to another with the tag remaining in place.

Secondly, this process would appear to diminish animosity over a franchise-tag fight with the Ravens having no say over Pitta being tagged as a tight end or a wide receiver. Of course, contract negotiations can create plenty of tension already without the added element of a position squabble that could mean a difference of nearly $5 million in salary.

The Ravens are expected to use the franchise tag on Pitta if they can’t sign him prior to March 3, but coach John Harbaugh wasn’t ready to rule out the possibility of the organization allowing the fifth-year tight end to test the open market. Free agency officially begins at 4 p.m. on March 11.

“I think every scenario is possible here,” Harbaugh told reporters in Indianapolis last week. “The franchise tag is very vague right now, so anything could happen.”

Pitta’s age is something to consider as he’s older than most players entering their fifth season after he took a two-year mission trip during his college days at Brigham Young. And that, coupled with the confusion over the franchise tag, has made these negotiations more complicated than many anticipated.

Of course, the Ravens would prefer to get a deal ironed out sooner rather than later, but no agreement was considered imminent at the conclusion of the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis earlier this week.

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How far must the Ravens go to keep Pitta?

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How far must the Ravens go to keep Pitta?

Posted on 18 February 2014 by Luke Jones

With linebacker Terrell Suggs’ long-term future secure and the Ravens gaining an additional $4.6 million in cap space in the process, they now turn their attention to the next biggest items on the offseason agenda.

Left tackle Eugene Monroe and tight end Dennis Pitta are the top priorities, and the ability to work out agreements for both unrestricted free agents is aided by the Ravens holding just under $16 million in salary cap room after Suggs’ contract extension. However, with the start of free agency on March 11 only three weeks away, it becomes more and more difficult to persuade a pending free agent to agree on your terms as he sees the benefit of a wide-open market in full focus.

As contract talks remain far apart with both players, the Ravens have until March 3 to decide whether they want to place the franchise tag on an unrestricted free agent, but such an option appears too expensive for Monroe as the tag for an offensive lineman is projected to be a hefty $11.1 million for the 2014 season and he simply isn’t regarded as one of the best left tackles in the NFL. That leaves Baltimore with the decision of whether to use the designation on Pitta with the 2014 franchise tag projected to be $6.7 million for a tight end.

Such an option would appear to make sense if the sides couldn’t agree and the Ravens were unsure of Pitta’s worth or the fifth-year tight end simply wanted to reestablish his value after a serious hip injury limited him to just four games last season.

If only it were that simple.

Few have paid closer attention to the showdown between New Orleans and All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham than the Ravens as New Orleans is prepared to use the franchise tag on Drew Brees’ top pass-catching target who collected more than 1,215 yards and 16 touchdown catches last season. As a threat who lines up in the slot and out wide more often than as a traditional tight end, Graham is expected to contest that he should be tagged as a wide receiver, which carries a tender that’s $4.8 million more than the anticipated tight end figure in 2014.

While Pitta isn’t at Graham’s level in terms of production, he can easily file a similar grievance after he lined up in the slot on 79.7 percent of his routes last season, according to Pro Football Focus. And while many have argued that the tight end position is simply evolving — with the 6-foot-7 Graham as transcendent as anybody — the collective bargaining agreement makes it clear that a franchise player is to be tendered at the position “at which [he] participated in the most plays during the prior league year.”

In the same way that they prefer not to tag Monroe because he isn’t a top-five tackle in the league, the Ravens can’t risk the possibility of needing to tie an $11.5 million commitment to Pitta. Of course, Baltimore found itself in a similar position with Suggs years ago when he argued that he should be viewed as a defensive end before the sides eventually split the difference in the franchise tag costs for a defensive end compared to a linebacker.

But even a compromised figure of just over $9 million would eat up much of the Ravens’ available cap space in an offseason in which they have a plethora of needs on both sides of the football after the first non-playoff season of the John Harbaugh era.

And Pitta’s agent, Justin Schulman, is aware of that reality as talks continue.

There’s no disputing Pitta’s importance to the offense as one of Joe Flacco’s favorite weapons over the last couple years, but quantifying that on a relatively small sample size is problematic for a player who will turn 29 in June. His best year came in 2012 as his 61 catches ranked ninth among tight ends and his 669 receiving yards were 11th. Pitta has 61 additional catches for 575 yards in his three other seasons combined in Baltimore.

Prior to his devastating hip injury last July, Pitta was expected to fill an expanded role out of the slot to ease the pain of Anquan Boldin’s departure, but the Ravens were never able to see that come to fruition with him missing more than four months of action. At the very least, Pitta was able to prove he was healthy enough to continue his career at a high level after playing in the final four games of the season and recording 20 catches.

With the uncertainty surrounding the price of the franchise tag and Pitta’s absence being an obvious detriment to the offense last season, are the Ravens being backed into a corner from a negotiating standpoint?

Even if Pitta’s representation would have a difficult time making the argument that he deserves to be paid in the same stratosphere as talents such as Graham or New England’s Rob Gronkowski, hefty contracts handed out to non-elite tight ends such as Jared Cook ($16 million guaranteed), Zach Miller ($13 million guaranteed), and Marcedes Lewis ($12.85 million guaranteed) in recent years certainly won’t help general manager Ozzie Newsome. The top tight ends in the league generally have an average salary of $7 million per season over the course of their contract, but it always comes down to how much guaranteed money a team is willing to hand over.

After Cook secured $16 million in guaranteed money last offseason — which included a $5 million signing bonus and three years of guaranteed salary — it isn’t farfetched that Pitta could be looking for guaranteed money approaching the $20 million range.

His production and talents indicate that he should be paid as a top-10 tight end, but his leverage with the franchise tag and what’s still viewed by some as untapped potential may drive the cost much higher than the Ravens would prefer to go.

The clock is ticking on not only the decision to use the tag but the possibility of Pitta hitting the open market with the organization already declaring the need to add an impact wide receiver to an offense that ranked 29th in the NFL last year.

The Ravens can’t afford to lose their starting tight end.

But whether they can afford him without making sacrifices elsewhere remains to be seen.

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