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2015 Ravens training camp preview: Wide receivers

Posted on 24 July 2015 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens beginning their 20th training camp in franchise history this month, expectations are high for John Harbaugh’s team as they eye their seventh trip to the postseason in eight years.

As veterans report to Owings Mills on July 29th and the first full-squad workout takes place the following day, we’ll examine each position group entering the summer.

July 20: Quarterbacks
July 21: Defensive line
July 22: Running backs
July 23: Linebackers
July 24: Wide receivers
July 25: Tight ends
July 26: Cornerbacks
July 27: Offensive line
July 28: Safeties
July 29: Specialists

Below is a look at the Baltimore wide receivers:

WIDE RECEIVERS
LOCK: Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, Kamar Aiken
BUBBLE: Marlon Brown, Michael Campanaro, Jeremy Butler, Darren Waller, DeAndre Carter
LONG SHOT: Aldrick Robinson, Daniel Brown, Cam Worthy

Synopsis: The Ravens feature one of the best receivers of the last 20 years in Steve Smith and a deep group of young wideouts with question marks. Even at age 36, Smith figures to still be a productive contributor in the passing game, but Baltimore hopes 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman is ready to immediately fill the void left behind by Torrey Smith, who had his flaws but was the much-needed vertical threat to utilize Joe Flacco’s talents. Beyond Steve Smith (1,065 yards and six touchdowns in 2014), the Ravens don’t have another receiver on the current roster who caught more than 24 passes last year. Kamar Aiken figures to push Perriman the most for a starting job and is the favorite to be no worse than the No. 3 receiver, but there are other young receivers who carry intrigue despite the uncertainty.

One to watch: Perriman is bigger and has more speed than Torrey Smith, but the Central Florida product will need to prove he can catch the football consistently and run the rest of the route tree beyond going vertical. Some made too much of Perriman’s drops during spring practices without mentioning that he was receiving extensive reps working with the first-, second-, and third-string offenses, meaning he was bound to drop a few more with a greater number of opportunities than others on the roster. Many observers would agree that Perriman is clearly ahead of where Torrey Smith was at this point as a rookie, which bodes well for his ability to contribute immediately.

One on notice: It wasn’t that Marlon Brown had a poor spring under new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, but he made few plays when the ball was thrown his way. Sixteen of Brown’s 24 receptions went for first downs in 2014 as he became a solid third-down target, but the 6-foot-5 receiver doesn’t run good routes and rarely plays as big as his frame. It will be interesting to see if Trestman — a fan of tall wideouts in Chicago — finds a way to unleash Brown in the end zone in a way Gary Kubiak never could. Brown’s roster spot is likely safe, but he needs to have a good summer to be relevant in the offense and to stave off younger options such as Jeremy Butler and Darren Waller from pushing him to the bubble.

Sleeper: He may not be a complete unknown after receiving some hype during the spring, but rookie free agent DeAndre Carter should have a nice opportunity to impress the coaching staff if he can prove himself worthy as an option in the return game, an area that remains a huge question mark for Baltimore. Steve Smith probably didn’t do Carter any favors by comparing him to a young Randall Cobb, but the 5-foot-8 Sacramento State product was extremely successful at the FCS level, catching 163 passes for 2,255 yards and 31 touchdowns in his last two seasons with the Hornets. Carter’s best chance to make the roster is as a return specialist, but the college pedigree makes him a dark horse to monitor.

 

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Ravens position battles to watch this summer

Posted on 24 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens possess one of the deepest rosters in the NFL entering the 2015 season, but a number of key position battles will headline the summer as they seek their seventh trip to the postseason in eight years.

After losing the likes of Haloti Ngata, Torrey Smith, Owen Daniels, and Pernell McPhee, general manager Ozzie Newsome has done a remarkable job reloading, but several questions must be answered before the season begins in Denver on Sept. 13.

Below is an early look at each competition with the first full-squad workout of the summer set for July 30:

Starting wide receiver
The candidates: Breshad Perriman, Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown
Why to be optimistic: The 26th overall pick in the draft, Perriman was projected to go in the middle of the first round by some and is a faster and bigger version of Torrey Smith on paper while Aiken and Brown are still developing and contributed a season ago.
Why to be concerned: Beyond the 13,000-plus receiving yards from 15-year veteran Steve Smith, the Ravens’ other returning wide receivers made a combined 55 catches last year, making you pray that Perriman is ready to contribute immediately.
The favorite: Aiken is the leader in the clubhouse following minicamp and has developed an impressive rapport with Joe Flacco, but Perriman’s skills are too enticing to pass on him as the favorite to start.

Starting tight end
The candidates: Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, Dennis Pitta
Why to be optimistic: Even if we assume Pitta will not be cleared to play in 2015, the Ravens invested a 2014 third-round pick in Gillmore and a second-round pick in Williams this spring for a reason.
Why to be concerned: Gillmore caught just 10 passes as a rookie while Williams did not stand out during spring practices and is still trying to adjust to Marc Trestman’s offensive system.
The favorite: After showing improvement late in his rookie year, Gillmore was a surprise of the spring with a better physique and improved ability to make catches in traffic while Williams was very quiet.

Starting defensive end
The candidates: Chris Canty, Lawrence Guy, Brent Urban
Why to be optimistic: Canty and Guy were effective holding down the 5-technique position a year ago despite Urban’s knee injury that derailed his anticipated role in the rotation as a rookie.
Why to be concerned: Canty is entering his 11th year and the Ravens deemed him expendable before bringing him back at a cheaper rate while Urban has been unable to shake injuries going back to his collegiate days.
The favorite: Urban was very active during spring practices and could push the veteran starter, but it’s too tough to pick against Canty, who has started 119 games in his NFL career.

Starting safeties
The candidates: Will Hill, Kendrick Lewis, Matt Elam, Terrence Brooks
Why to be optimistic: Hill proved capable in handling a starting job in the second half of 2014 while Lewis was signed for his ability to play deep center, something the Ravens lacked in coverage a year ago.
Why to be concerned: Elam was a clear disappointment in his first two seasons while Brooks is still recovering from a torn ACL, creating legitimate depth concerns going into training camp.
The favorites: The Ravens gave Elam some reps with the starting defense this spring, but it would take substantial improvement for the 2013 first-round pick to overtake Hill or Lewis for starting spots.

Return specialist
The candidates: Michael Campanaro, DeAndre Carter, Asa Jackson, Fitz Toussaint, Lardarius Webb, Steve Smith
Why to be optimistic: Campanaro and Jackson have shown flashes in the return game in very limited opportunities while Webb and Smith bring experience to the equation.
Why to be concerned: It’s difficult to buy either Webb or Smith as a serious candidate to handle the job because of their importance, leaving the real competition to players lacking experience or facing questions about their durability.
The favorite: There isn’t one as this competition lacks candidates to really feel good about at this point, making you wonder if the man to handle the job is even on the current roster.

Backup running back
The candidates: Lorenzo Taliaferro, Buck Allen
Why to be optimistic: The Ravens feel very good about Justin Forsett in a starting role for a second straight year and have invested fourth-round picks in running backs in each of the last two drafts.
Why to be concerned: Taliaferro and Allen have a combined 68 carries in the NFL and are the primary backups behind a 29-year-old back who has one year of experience as a full-time back since college.
The favorite: Last month, Allen would have been my choice because of the versatility he showed in college, but a slimmed-down Taliaferro moved well this spring and has an experience edge for now.

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Plenty of intrigue surrounding Ravens wide receivers

Posted on 19 June 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — You can easily be fooled by what you observe during spring football practice, but the Ravens’ young group of wide receivers displayed much to like over the last month.

It would be unwise to guarantee that the Ravens won’t experience any growing pains at the position following the free-agent departure of Torrey Smith, but there are many reasons to be intrigued with the upside of the group. More than a few showed their talents before the Ravens wrapped up their mandatory minicamp on Thursday, now turning their attention toward the start of training camp in less than six weeks.

“They come in all different sizes, certainly, and we have them here,” said offensive coordinator Marc Trestman of the young receivers. “But at the end of the day, it’s the guys that are really specialists that know how to get off the line and get open, and particularly when it’s bump-and-run, because that’s when it’s usually crunch time.”

Of course, introducing the threat of contact will be the real test as countless receivers over the years have shown ability while knowing they aren’t about to be leveled by a hard-hitting defensive back or linebacker over the middle. This time of the year always favors the offense with defensive players lagging behind until the pads serve as the equalizer beginning in late July.

Perhaps the most comforting aspect about the group that allows so much optimism is the man who spent the entire spring mentoring them while continuing to look like the best player on the field in the process.

While other notable veterans skipped voluntary organized team activities and didn’t arrive in Owings Mills until this week’s mandatory minicamp, the 36-year-old Steve Smith spent the last month working with the likes of rookies Breshad Perriman and Darren Waller as well as helping young receivers such as Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown. It’s easy to like your potential at a position when a seasoned commodity with five Pro Bowl selections and 13,000 receiving yards remains at the head of the class.

“He put in the time physically and he put in the time mentally to really grasp the changes that we were making and further enhance how he understood this offense,” wide receivers coach Bobby Engram said. “And, when he pulls a young guy aside, they’re going to listen. And when they see his work ethic, they better listen. His experience and his leadership has been invaluable not only for the receivers but for our entire team.”

While Smith continues to lead the way at the position, there were three young receivers who stood out this spring in particular.

Selected with the 26th overall pick in the first round of this year’s draft, Perriman has been as advertised with his combination of size and speed, and he appears to be ahead of where Torrey Smith was at this point in his rookie season. The Ravens made no secret about their desire to work him hard this spring as the Central Florida product consistently took reps with the first, second, and third-team offenses during practices, often battling fatigue to make sensational catches.

He wasn’t perfect as he suffered some drops from time to time — it hasn’t been a chronic issue — but the 6-foot-2 rookie feels good about his place in Trestman’s offense and adjusted well to the speed of the game when the full squad reported for practices this past week.

“I just like how they have the ability to move all the receivers around,” Perriman said. “For me, I’m decent at going deep, but at the same time, they have the ability to move me around and put all the receivers in different positions. Everyone can be a slot receiver and run different routes. That’s what I like about it.”

Perriman has drawn the outside attention as the team’s first-round draft pick, but Aiken may have impressed the most this spring with his consistency and strong rapport with quarterback Joe Flacco. After rising from anonymity to make last year’s roster, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Aiken caught 24 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season while adding another touchdown reception in the playoffs.

It would be premature — and unfair — to label Aiken a poor man’s Anquan Boldin, but perhaps he could be the poor man’s poor man’s version of the former Baltimore receiver, showing good strength and an ability to make catches in traffic. He is the current leader in the clubhouse to start opposite Smith — the Ravens almost always defer to their veterans over rookies to begin preseason competitions — but Aiken figures to be a meaningful part of the passing game, regardless of where he lands on the depth chart by the time September rolls around.

Aiken said this spring that he has never lacked confidence, but last year’s success has made him comfortable in preparing to just be himself instead of trying to do too much to make the roster as he was forced to do earlier in his career. Whether beginning the year as a starter or succumbing to Perriman, Aiken is confident he’s a good fit in a critical portion of the field.

“I like going across the middle, so I’ve never feared a route going across the middle,” Aiken said. “I feel like that’s where you make your money at. But [the coaches] do a lot of good things as far as mix and matching, just putting us in different areas [where we are] able to run different routes.”

While Perriman and Aiken have already become household names for Ravens fans, the biggest wild card could end up being Jeremy Butler, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve after turning a few heads during last summer’s training camp. It wasn’t a coincidence that Baltimore took advantage of Butler’s late-summer shoulder injury to stash him on IR, which essentially gave the Tennessee-Martin product a “redshirt” season to learn and improve.

At 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, Butler earned plenty of praise for his consistent hands over the last month. And while there have been many young players over the years to have good springs before disappearing in training camp and the preseason, it’s worth paying attention to Butler this summer after quiet acclaim from coaches last year and the compliments offered by Smith and Flacco this week.

If anything, Butler figures to offer some strong competition for Aiken in the slot as he occasionally received some first-team reps over these last few weeks.

“He might have had 1,500 yards in a three-day minicamp. He was incredible,” Flacco said. “He caught the ball extremely well. [He has] little things here and there to work on, but the biggest thing is catching the ball, and I think these guys are doing a really good job of that.”

With the ageless veteran Smith leading the way, the Ravens hope they’ll face some difficult decisions as far as how many receivers they will be able to keep. Perriman is an obvious lock and Aiken is an excellent bet, but how the depth chart plays out after that is anyone’s guess.

You’re always waiting for the 6-foot-5 Brown to take the next step after an impressive 2013 rookie season, but he didn’t do much to stand out this spring — good or bad — and you’d like to see him better utilize his massive frame, especially inside the red zone.

Campanaro has flashed potential as a return man and at receiver, but his latest quadriceps injury creates more doubt about his ability to stay on the field.

A sixth-round pick out of Georgia Tech, the 6-foot-6 Waller has shown promise, but will he develop quickly enough to justify a roster spot as a rookie?

Can rookie free agent DeAndre Carter stand out as a receiver to augment his chances for winning a roster spot and serving as a return specialist?

Of course, not all of these names will pan out, but it’s tough not to like the Ravens’ chances to break camp with a group of young receivers having room to grow, especially with a franchise quarterback in the prime of his career throwing to them. Smith is looking forward to having a front-row seat for the battles this summer as he prepares for his 15th NFL season.

“It’s very competitive,” Smith said. “I’m actually going to sit back and watch it and just root for those guys and see them make plays.”

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Is paralysis by analysis hurting Ravens at receiver?

Posted on 07 April 2015 by Luke Jones

A month after watching starting wide receiver Torrey Smith depart via free agency, the Ravens have expressed a strong sentiment this offseason.

They’re not panicking at the wide receiver position. Of course, a tight salary cap left them on the outside looking in with the top options available on the free-agent market, but the Ravens have given no clear indications that they’ve actively been trying to add a solid veteran to a mix that includes a soon-to-be 36-year-old Steve Smith and no other receiver who registered more than 24 catches last season.

Instead, the organization has talked up its current group of young receivers — Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown, and Michael Campanaro — while attempting to throw cold water on the notion that they’re desperate for a starter. Last week, owner Steve Bisciotti spent more time discussing the need for a pass rusher and another tight end rather than a wide receiver in a conference call with season-ticket holders.

Of course, it’s the season of smokescreens around the NFL, so anything said at Wednesday’s pre-draft press conference should be taken with a heavy grain of salt. But you can count on general manager Ozzie Newsome, assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, head coach John Harbaugh, and director of college scouting Joe Hortiz offering the same synopsis of the wide receiver position that they typically do.

“The wide receiver draft class is deep,” Harbaugh said at the league meetings in Arizona last month. “I think there are options for the Ravens in rounds one through seven. It’s always hard. Every position is different. We’ve done studies on that as far as the success rate in different rounds at different positions.

“Receiver is a little bit of a crapshoot in the first round. It turns out, it’s a crapshoot in every round. A lot of receivers, they’ve been seventh-round picks, fifth-round picks, third-round pick receivers that have turned out to be Hall of Fame-type players. Then, you’ve got first-round picks that have never really done anything. Obviously, your chances are higher the higher you pick a guy. But it’s hard to predict.”

Harbaugh’s right on both accounts. This year’s draft class of wide receivers is one of the best in recent memory with many analysts projecting upwards of five or six being taken in the first round with plenty of quality depth available in subsequent rounds.

Drafting a wide receiver is a tricky proposition with the results all over the map around the league. The Ravens have certainly had a slew of misses with first-round disappointments Travis Taylor (2000) and Mark Clayton (2005) as well as a number of other failed picks before finally hitting on Torrey Smith in the second round of the 2011 draft.

But the expression of being able to take a receiver in any of the seven rounds will remind observers of the Ravens’ recent years in which they haven’t drafted a wideout outside the sixth or seventh round since 2011. It’s fair to wonder if some paralysis by analysis exists with the Ravens not taking even a moderate risk at the position in any of the last three drafts when wide receiver was at least a consensus area to improve.

The run began in 2012 with the sixth-round selection of Tommy Streeter, who never played a regular-season snap in Baltimore.

“Really the whole draft, there are guys in each round that can help us,” Hortiz said prior to the 2013 draft when the Ravens needed a receiver after trading Anquan Boldin. “There is a really solid core group of guys in the middle rounds that I think will go in the second or third round that will be solid, dependable starters in the NFL.”

The Ravens came away with only Aaron Mellette in the seventh round that year and struggled in the passing game on their way to missing the playoffs for the only time in the Harbaugh era. Mellette never played a snap for the Ravens, but the organization deserves credit for signing Brown as an undrafted free agent that year and he’s exceeded expectations in his first two seasons.

Last year when Torrey Smith was entering the final season of his rookie contract and newcomer Steve Smith was entering his 14th NFL season, Newsome repeated a familiar assessment about another class of wide receivers held in high regard.

“I would say that’s a position where you could probably draft a player in any of the seven rounds, and I think our board stacks that way,” Newsome said. “If there is an opportunity for us to add another receiver, we will definitely do it based on the way our board is stacked right now.”

The Ravens did take Campanaro in the seventh round, and the 5-foot-9 Wake Forset product shows some promise to be a contributor if he can remain healthy. But he was unable to do that last year as he dealt with two different hamstring injuries and a rib injury. As Harbaugh has suggested, Campanaro can’t be counted on until he proves he can stay on the field.

The lack of movement to add a veteran through free agency or trade over the last month only raises the need to add a wide receiver in the draft. And even though the consensus top three receivers in the draft — West Virginia’s Kevin White, Alabama’s Amari Cooper, and Louisville’s DeVante Parker — are expected to be gone by the time the Ravens pick 26th in the first round, a number of intriguing options should be available over the first two days.

Yes, it’s the one position in the draft in which the otherwise-shrewd Newsome has struggled, but the Ravens can’t focus so much on risk aversion that they’re caught standing on the sideline while receivers come off the board in the first few rounds.

A repeat of two years ago cannot happen if the Ravens want to be back in championship contention for 2015.

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Harbaugh says Ravens keeping all options open at receiver

Posted on 24 March 2015 by Luke Jones

Speaking to reporters at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix on Tuesday, head coach John Harbaugh says the Ravens are keeping their options open at the wide receiver position.

After releasing Jacoby Jones and allowing starter Torrey Smith to depart via free agency, Baltimore has yet to add a wideout to the current roster while veteran options available on the market have dwindled over the last two weeks. The top remaining free-agent receivers include Michael Crabtree, Greg Jennings, Nate Washington, Denarius Moore, and Hakeem Nicks.

Despite limited options, Harbaugh isn’t shooting down the possibility of the Ravens signing a free agent to add to the current mix.

“We’d be interested in adding any position right now, wide receiver being one of them if it’s the right guy,” Harbaugh said. “Again, it’s got to fit. It’s got to fit as far as the player, the personality, the talent obviously, a fit for our offense, and — of course — the financial part of it.”

Many have pointed to the draft as the best avenue to find Smith’s long-term replacement, and Harbaugh agreed with assessments of 2015 being a very deep class. Though it’s a statement that’s been uttered by the Ravens’ brass in past seasons, Harbaugh suggested there should be viable options at the receiver position in all seven rounds of the draft.

General manager Ozzie Newsome would figure to have a good chance to hit on a receiver with 10 choices over the first 203 seletions of the draft, but the organization owns a poor track record drafting receivers with Smith having represented the biggest success story in the 20-year history of the franchise.

Many have pointed to the likes of Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong, Central Florida’s Breshad Perriman, Auburn’s Sammie Coates, and Ohio State’s Devin Smith as potential fits in the first or second round. But you won’t find a more unpredictable position in the draft other than quarterback.

“It’s always hard. Every position is different,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve done studies on that as far as the success rate in different rounds at different positions. Receiver is a little bit of a crapshoot in the first round. It turns out it’s a crapshoot in every round. A lot of receivers, they’ve been seventh-round picks, fifth-round picks, third-round pick receivers that have turned out to be Hall of Fame type players. Then, you’ve got first-round picks that have never really done anything. Obviously, your chances are higher the higher you pick a guy, but it’s hard to predict.”

Regardless of how that crapshoot might play out or whether they’re able to add a veteran through free agency or a trade, the Ravens know they’ll need more contributions from young receivers already on the roster such as Kamar Aiken, Michael Campanaro, Marlon Brown, and Jeremy Butler.

Beyond veteran Steve Smith (79 receptions for 1,065 yards) and running back Justin Forsett (44 catches for 263 yards), the Ravens don’t have another player on the current roster who made more than 24 receptions last year. In 2014, Aiken and Brown were solid No. 3 and No. 4 receivers in the passing game while the rookie Campanaro showed some flashes (seven receptions for 102 yards and a touchdown) in very limited playing time.

The bar will be higher for the coming season.

“They are going to have to handle more. That’s going to be their job,” Harbaugh said. “They are excited about it, they want to handle more. They’ll have their opportunity to prove it.

“I think Campanaro is a talented guy in the slot. He’s gifted as far as getting open, catching the football, and making plays after the catch. I’m excited to see if he can stay healthy and grow. Aiken is a strong receiver that’s just gotten better every single practice and every single day. If he continues to improve like that, he’ll be a very good player.”

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Who could be this year’s Rick Wagner for the Ravens?

Posted on 21 March 2015 by Luke Jones

Nearly two weeks into free agency, the Ravens appear no closer to filling gaping holes at the wide receiver and tight end positions after losing Torrey Smith and Owen Daniels.

Viable options on the open market are dwindling and it would deviate from general manager Ozzie Newsome’s “best player available” philosophy to enter April’s draft with two starting positions to fill. Of course, a trade cannot be ruled out with Baltimore projected to have 10 or 11 draft picks — compensatory choices will be announced this week — and Newsome has acquired the likes of left tackle Eugene Monroe, center Jeremy Zuttah, and even former Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin through trades in recent years.

But the lack of activity makes you wonder if the Ravens have more confidence in their current batch of wide receivers or tight ends — or both — than the outside world does.

It was only a year ago when many were discussing how desperately the Ravens needed a starting right tackle following the free-agent departure of the disappointing Michael Oher. Considered little more than an afterthought by most, 2013 fifth-round pick Rick Wagner became an instant upgrade and an above-average starter in his second NFL season after playing sparingly as a rookie.

Who might the Ravens view as this year’s Wagner?

At the wide receiver position, Marlon Brown is the most experienced receiver remaining behind veteran Steve Smith as he caught 24 passes for 255 yards in his second season after collecting 49 receptions for 524 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie in 2013. Despite a slow start working in Gary Kubiak’s new offensive system, Brown became more involved as the 2014 season progressed with 16 of his 24 receptions going for first downs.

The other logical in-house candidate to emerge at the receiver position would be Kamar Aiken, who caught 24 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns in his first year with the Ravens. The 6-foot-2, 213-pound receiver plays with a physical nature that the organization likes.

Of course, a deep draft class of wide receivers makes it feasible that the Ravens could find an immediate starter in the first round, but the lack of a veteran addition could signal that they likes their young receivers more than we think. Either way, the addition of a productive vertical threat is an absolute must for strong-armed quarterback Joe Flacco by the start of the season.

Failing to do so would mean trouble for the Ravens offense in 2015.

Shifting focus to the tight end position, Crockett Gillmore is the strongest candidate of any player at any position to become this year’s version of Wagner. The 2014 third-round pick is currently the safest bet at his position on the offseason roster with veteran Dennis Pitta’s future remaining in doubt.

Gillmore caught just 10 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown in the regular season, but he caught a 21-yard touchdown in the wild-card win over Pittsburgh and the Ravens appeared more comfortable involving him in the passing game as the season progressed. If you’re looking for precedent with the Ravens handing over the starting tight end job to an inexperienced option, then-rookies Ed Dickson and Pitta had a total of 12 receptions for 153 yards behind veteran Todd Heap in 2010 before combining to make 94 catches for 933 yards and eight touchdowns a year later.

Do the Ravens need to add another tight end? Absolutely, but the lack of free-agent activity to this point — Baltimore reportedly had mild interest in veteran Scott Chandler before he signed with New England — and an underwhelming draft class make you wonder if Baltimore has a higher opinion of Gillmore than most observers. Barring a trade, finding a backup tight end would certainly appear more feasible than a starter at this point.

The discussion at either position could become moot at any point as Newsome has more than five months to shape the roster for the regular season. No one is suggesting the Ravens should — or will — stand pat at wide receiver or tight end, but few would have endorsed Wagner as the starting right tackle at this time a year ago.

It’s simply a possibility to keep in mind as the offseason continues and we inch closer to the draft with the Ravens’ two biggest needs yet to be addressed.

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Ravens-Jaguars: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 13 December 2014 by Luke Jones

There’s no big secret to Sunday’s game between the Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

If the Ravens are the playoff-caliber team they’ve shown themselves to be for much of the 2014 season, there won’t be any drama as they try to improve to 9-5. It’s difficult to call this one a trap game when 2-11 Jacksonville hasn’t won a game on the road all year and the Ravens win the games they’re supposed to — especially at home — in the John Harbaugh era.

The Ravens know they’re guaranteed a playoff spot by winning their final three games, but Sunday is the closest they’ll get to a sure thing the rest of the way with a challenging trip to Houston next week and a season-finale against Cleveland that will likely carry plenty of pressure. Meanwhile, the struggling Jaguars are now dealing with the season-ending loss of starting running back Denard Robinson due to a sprained foot.

It’s time to go on the record as these old AFC Central foes meet for the 18th time in regular-season history with the Jaguars holding a 10-7 edge. However, the Ravens are 5-4 in Baltimore and have won seven of the last nine meetings. Jacksonville won the last regular-season game between these teams, a 12-7 final on Oct. 24, 2011.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to move a step closer toward securing a playoff spot …

1. Terrell Suggs will pick up 2 1/2 sacks working against Jacksonville tackle Luke Joeckel. Opposing offensive lines haven’t been able to slide protection because of the pressure the Ravens have created from both edges this season, but you wonder if the Jaguars will pay more attention to Elvis Dumervil, who last week set the single-season franchise record in pushing his sack total to 16. Despite being the second overall pick of the 2013 draft, Joeckel has struggled mightily in his sophomore season and Suggs will take advantage to try to close the gap in the sack department. The Ravens shouldn’t have any trouble making rookie quarterback Blake Bortles uncomfortable with the 12th-year linebacker leading the effort.

2. With Torrey Smith limited, Marlon Brown will catch his first touchdown of the season. The Ravens surprisingly listed Smith as probable on their final injury report, but they’ll try to limit throwing him into the fire as much as possible on Sunday to rest his sprained knee, which will mean more opportunities for Brown and Kamar Aiken. It’s been a disappointing season for Brown after a surprising rookie year, but he’s been more involved with the offense since the bye week, a trend that will continue against the league’s 18th-ranked pass defense. Justin Forsett and the running game figures to be featured heavily, but quarterback Joe Flacco will find Brown in the red zone for a score.

3. Wide receiver Cecil Shorts will rein in a score in a rare highlight for the Jaguars on Sunday. If Jacksonville can find even a little time for Bortles in the pocket, it’s no secret that the Baltimore pass defense is vulnerable and ranked 31st in the NFL. The Jaguars figure to be throwing the ball a lot if they fall behind like most would expect, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees will play soft coverage in the back end as the game goes on. Bortles has shown flashes of promise when he hasn’t been annihilated in the pocket — Jacksonville has allowed an incredible 54 sacks this season — and he’ll orchestrate a nice scoring drive finished off with a short touchdown to Shorts.

4. Lardarius Webb will secure his first interception in what’s been a difficult season. The sixth-year cornerback is healthier now than he was earlier in the season, but it’s been a disappointing year for Webb as his future with the Ravens is in question due to his $12 million cap figure in 2015. However, the Jaguars don’t have any receivers that should scare the Ravens, and Bortles has thrown 16 interceptions in 379 pass attempts. The Ravens secondary hasn’t been able to create many turnovers this season, but the Jaguars are tied for 26th in the NFL with a minus-8 turnover margin. Webb will pick off his first pass of the season to set the Ravens up on a short field.

5. The Ravens will emphatically handle a team they’re supposed to beat in a 31-13 final. Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, but this one is as close as it gets with an opponent having nothing to play for coming to M&T Bank Stadium to face the Ravens, who have very little margin for error as they try to make it back to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Short of something catastrophic such as a multiple-turnover performance or an injury to Flacco, the Ravens just aren’t going to let the lowly Jaguars beat them. It won’t be a flawless performance — the Ravens never seem to make it quite as easy as they should in these spots — but the home crowd will ultimately go home happy after the win.

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Harbaugh’s bold move sets attitude for Ravens’ season-saving win

Posted on 07 December 2014 by Luke Jones

John Harbaugh may not be a prophet, but he offered a glimpse into a head coach’s mindset for making difficult in-game choices six days prior to the Ravens’ season-saving 28-13 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.

That decision-making process played out again early in the third quarter Sunday as the Ravens trailed 10-7 and faced fourth-and-1 at their own 35-yard line. Instead of sending his punting unit onto the field as most coaches would do in such a spot, Harbaugh decided the Ravens would go for it and threw caution to the wind.

And that’s where his response last Monday when questioned about using a timeout before kicking a late field goal in the disappointing loss to San Diego rang loud and clear.

“‘In retrospect,’ you’d always like to do something different if it doesn’t work out,” Harbaugh said. “But in the heat of battle, you do the best you can, you make the decision that you make — the one that you think is best at the time.

“We did the best we could; it wasn’t good enough. I didn’t do well enough making those decisions enough to win the game in the end. And that’s the reality — just take responsibility for it and move on.”

There’s no doubt that Harbaugh would have been facing a mountain of criticism had quarterback Joe Flacco been stuffed at the line of scrimmage and the Ravens not moved down the field to score the go-ahead touchdown and eventually win the game. Numbers-savvy fans and statistical analysts will tell you going for it in such a situation isn’t the risk it seems, but they’re not the ones on the sideline and potentially facing the wrath of the owner, general manager, media, and fans if the decision blows up in their face.

It’s a risk many wouldn’t have taken — especially when Baltimore was stuffed on two short-yardage situations in the first half — but no one knows the Ravens’ pulse in Week 14 better than Harbaugh following a difficult defeat to the Chargers last Sunday and this week’s news of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata being suspended for the rest of the regular season. After weathering a miserable start in the first half and his Ravens only trailing by three, Harbaugh’s bold move made it clear he didn’t want to surrender the momentum gained with a touchdown late in the second quarter and the Dolphins punting on the opening possession of the third quarter.

In a game the Ravens described all week as a must-win affair, Harbaugh’s decision illustrated the desperation of the day. And perhaps it was the lift his team needed to put a trying first half in the rear-view mirror.

The fourth-down conversion to continue the drive that culminated with Flacco’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Kamar Aiken set the attitude for a dominating finish and a crucial victory in Miami.

Of course, the Ravens had begun to awaken before Harbaugh’s fourth-down gamble as Flacco bounced back from throwing one of his worst interceptions of the season to lead the Ravens down the field for a 97-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard touchdown to Steve Smith with two seconds left in the first half. That connection came after Smith had dropped a perfectly-thrown pass in the end zone a play before Flacco’s ugly turnover.

The Baltimore signal-caller was superb after his end-zone miscue midway through the second quarter, completing 18 of 23 passes for 200 yards and two touchdown passes the rest of the way as he finished with 269 yards.

But Flacco wasn’t alone as a running game playing with a hobbled Justin Forsett came alive in the fourth quarter, rushing 14 times for 107 yards in the final 15 minutes. Forsett finished with 71 yards, Bernard Pierce chipped in three carries for 50 yards in the fourth quarter, and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro added 35 more yards on the day.

A Baltimore defense that surrendered 10 points in its first two series settled down and began swarming Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the pocket to the tune of six sacks and nine quarterback hits, much of that pressure coming in the second half when Miami managed just three points. Elvis Dumervil collected 3 1/2 sacks to set the Ravens’ single-season record with 16 through 13 games, eclipsing Peter Boulware’s mark set in 2001.

Despite some leaky run defense early, the Ravens hardly seemed to miss Ngata as the Dolphins ran for only 63 yards on 16 carries.

A secondary that lost reserve cornerbacks Anthony Levine and Danny Gorrer to injuries will remain a concern for the rest of the season, but the unit wasn’t nearly the same liability with the Ravens consistently collapsing the pocket and harassing Tannehill.

The Ravens answered the bell without the services of a healthy Torrey Smith, who was held without a catch in limited action. With the fourth-year wideout’s knee swelling up during pre-game warmups, Aiken contributed six receptions for 65 yards, Marlon Brown caught three passes for 30 yards, and even the recently-promoted tight end Phillip Supernaw added a 29-yard reception to set up a Forsett touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

It was a team effort as the Ravens awoke from a painfully slow start to dispose of the Dolphins and move just a half-game behind first-place Cincinnati in the AFC North.

There’s no way of knowing whether the Ravens would have won had Harbaugh elected to punt early in the third quarter or if they’d failed to convert on fourth-and-1, but Baltimore didn’t look back from the point Flacco surged forward to move the chains.

Whether you viewed it as the prudent choice or a foolish risk, Harbaugh’s bold move worked out and set the tone for the remainder of the game.

The Ravens responded by dominating the rest of the way to earn a critical win in the AFC playoff landscape.

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Ravens-Cowboys preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 15 August 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens will try to build on an encouraging performance in their preseason opener as they travel to Texas to take on the Dallas Cowboys in their second preseason game of the summer.

Observers were abuzz over an impressive 10-play, 80-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown in the starting offense’s only work of the night against San Francisco, but the Ravens have acknowledged throughout the week that they can’t put too much stock into one possession. Even with plenty of strides already taken throughout training camp to grasp new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s system, there is plenty of work remaining before the Ravens kick off the regular season against Cincinnati on Sept. 7.

“You have an opportunity to really see progress,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “You’re in a crucible, and every single day, it’s all you do. It’s wall-to-wall football. It’s morning to night. You go to sleep and you wake up, and you’re back at football. There’s no escape. There’s nowhere to hide, [and] there’s nowhere to run. It’s all football all the time, so you make progress rapidly, but you have to because you have a long way to go.”

Harbaugh confirmed starters are expected to receive more playing time against the Cowboys than they did against San Francisco, but the first units will receive their most extensive work against Washington in the third preseason game next weekend.

The Ravens are expected to continue giving running back Ray Rice first-team reps along with top backup Bernard Pierce before focusing more on the latter next week with Rice suspended for the first two games of the regular season.

“Normally, in the second preseason game you get a quarter, maybe a little more than a quarter,” Harbaugh said. “Some of that will be individualized for different players; we’ll have some play counts for a few guys, including Joe [Flacco] and some of the defensive players. We’ll see how it goes, but basically, about a quarter is what you’re looking at — maybe more. It could get close to a half; it could even be a half for some of the starters.”

Saturday will be the first preseason meeting between the Ravens and the Cowboys, but Baltimore owns the 4-0 edge in the regular season and will be making its first visit to AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The Ravens are 43-29 all-time in the preseason and have a 16-9 preseason mark in 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 Dallas.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will be in question. This list, of course, will not include any veterans who may be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference. Cornerback Lardarius Webb is not expected to play in the second preseason game as he’s been sidelined with a lower back injury since July 25.

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

OUT: CB Lardarius Webb (back), G Will Rackley (head), DT Terrence Cody (hip), DE Kapron Lewis-Moore (Achilles tendon), DE Brent Urban (knee)
DOUBTFUL: CB Asa Jackson (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Owen Daniels (unspecified)
PROBABLE: LB Daryl Smith (groin), S Brynden Trawick (back), OL Ryan Jensen (leg)

Five players to watch Saturday night

1. C Jeremy Zuttah

While many pointed to the success of right tackle Rick Wagner in the first preseason game, the new Baltimore center appeared to make calls at the line successfully as the starting offense ran the ball effectively and protected Flacco. Zuttah isn’t dramatically bigger than 2013 starter Gino Gradkowski, but he’s held up well physically as a run blocker and in pass protection. The offensive line will remain under heavy scrutiny through the early portion of the series, but the reviews for Zuttah have been positive and the overall concern at the center position last year at this time appears to be a distant memory.

“The thing about Jeremy, he is a professional in every way,” offensive line coach Juan Castillo said. “He is smart, and he studies the game. For him, too, it’s a different technique, and he’s been working very hard at the fundamentals and trying to do the things the way we do it here in Baltimore.”

2. S Terrence Brooks

It was no secret that Brooks was lagging behind in the competition at free safety due to concerns with him grasping the intricacies of the defense, but injuries to Webb and Jackson at the cornerback position have prompted the Ravens to take a look at the Florida State product in the nickel spot, a position he played with the Seminoles. The shift is more of a reflection on how shallow the cornerback depth is at this point, but Brooks may find the nickel and dime packages as his best chance to see the field for meaningful defensive snaps to start his rookie season.

“Everybody is an option right now. We’re just trying to find guys,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees on the No. 3 cornerback spot. “We’re moving guys around a little bit. We have two more games to experiment with where we want to put guys and see where they fit getting ready for the season. The first two games are [about] playing everybody [to] see what we have, and then after that, we have to start honing in. But we’ll move a bunch of guys around. Terrence is playing well; he’s playing hard. He’s a multi-position guy like all of our guys really are. It’s a possibility.”

3. WR Kamar Aiken

The 2013 practice squad member has turned plenty of heads and certainly took advantage of his opportunity in the preseason opener with four catches for 46 yards on six targets and 29 offensive snaps. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound wideout appears to be competing closely with Deonte Thompson for a potential roster spot, but Aiken has outplayed the incumbent member of the 53-man roster and can further improve his chances by building on what he did against the 49ers. Of course, special-teams contributions will play a major part in determining whether Aiken finds himself on the active roster.

“He is explosive and he’s big,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. “I tell you, in all my years in the league, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen as competitive a situation as we have at receiver right now. I would have no chance telling John [Harbaugh] which five or six I would want right now, and that’s a good thing as a coach.”

4. DL DeAngelo Tyson

The 2012 seventh-round pick has been a steady member of the defensive line rotation in his first two seasons, but season-ending injuries to young defensive ends Brent Urban and Kapron Lewis-Moore may force the Ravens to use Tyson more exclusively at the 5-technique spot to spell veteran Chris Canty. The University of Georgia product can play multiple spots on the defensive line, so it will be a blow to their overall versatility in the trenches if Pees must use Tyson outside, but his presence has become much more important with the overall depth taking a hit this summer.

“The next guy will be up, and we’ll find a way to do it,” said Harbaugh about the injuries to Urban and Lewis-Moore. “There are always going to be injuries. You adapt, you adjust and you fill out your positions.”

5. TE Crockett Gillmore

The Ravens insist the veteran tight end Daniels isn’t injured, but it’s clear there are some physical concerns with him missing two straight practices following an off-day and not showing great separation while running routes in practices. These factors could open the door for Gillmore to receive more opportunities with the starting offense against Dallas and beyond. It’s been an inconsistent summer for the Colorado State product as a blocker and as a receiver, but that’s to be expected from a third-round pick who will be counted on to be used to some degree with neither Daniels nor starter Dennis Pitta considered particularly strong blockers.

“Crockett is a good football player,” Pitta said earlier this summer. “He’s a tough kid and he’s big and physical and a great blocker at the point of attack. I think that’s what stood out the most this early on. He’s going to be a valuable asset for this offense moving forward.”


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