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More questions than answers for Ravens entering training camp

Posted on 20 July 2016 by Luke Jones

We’re finally a week away from the curtain rising on the 2016 Ravens.

Sure, we caught a brief glimpse during last month’s mandatory minicamp, but how much could we really learn from non-contact practices that didn’t even include the starting quarterback, their No. 1 receiver, the starting outside linebackers, the top cornerback, and their 2015 first-round pick?

Trying to rebound from the worst season of the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens are hoping for better health after a team-record 21 players finished 2015 on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform list. They believe the free-agent additions of safety Eric Weddle, tight end Benjamin Watson, and wide receiver Mike Wallace and the continuing development of young players will provide the upside to return to the playoffs after failing to qualify in two of the last three years.

With a pedigree that includes two Super Bowl championships, four division titles, and 10 playoff appearances in the last 16 years, the Ravens bouncing back from a 5-11 campaign to once again become an AFC contender in 2016 would hardly be shocking. But there are more questions to ask than answers to offer as players report to Owings Mills over the next week.

What about this roster truly makes the Ravens brass rest easy at night?

Coming back from the first significant injury of his career, Joe Flacco is a franchise quarterback capable of playing at a championship level, even if his regular-season numbers don’t always reflect that. Coaches will need to be smart with him less than eight months removed from major knee surgery, but it’s comforting to know that the 31-year-old will be back on the field for the first day of training camp.

The Ravens offense has the best guard in football in Marshal Yanda and veteran starters at center and right tackle as well as arguably the deepest collection of tight ends in the NFL. The defense has one of the NFL’s best nose tackles, a 2015 Pro Bowl outside linebacker, a young inside linebacker who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, and a three-time Pro Bowl safety in Weddle, who should bring more leadership and order to a volatile secondary.

Baltimore has an elite trio of specialists in kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch, and long snapper Morgan Cox, who have all been to Pro Bowls and have signed long-term contracts over the last 12 months.

The talent and potential strengths don’t end there, but the serious questions begin at this point.

What can we reasonably expect from Steve Smith and Terrell Suggs coming back from Achilles tendon injuries?

It’s been a difficult recovery for the veteran receiver, who originally intended to make 2015 his last season. Doubting Smith’s heart and determination is foolish, but we know Father Time is undefeated, making it fair to question whether the 37-year-old can play close to the level he did prior to last year’s injury when he was still a No.1 option.

The little we’ve seen from Suggs since his injury last September includes a traffic-related arrest in Arizona in March and a guest appearance on HBO’s Ballers in which he played himself getting into a scrap with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s character. Set to turn 34 in October, the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker has been working out at the team’s facility in Owings Mills, but his conditioning and explosiveness will be scrutinized after his second Achilles injury in a four-year period. A substantially-diminished Suggs puts even more pressure on fellow veteran Elvis Dumervil as well as unproven options such as Za’Darius Smith and Kamalei Correa as pass rushers.

Will a second foot procedure allow Jimmy Smith to recapture his No. 1 cornerback form?

The 28-year-old had the screws removed from his surgically-repaired right foot this spring after he was still experiencing soreness from the 2014 Lisfranc procedure. The Ravens paid him handsomely last spring to be a difference-making presence in the secondary and need him to be the player he was in 2013 and 2014 if this defense is going to take a significant step forward this season.

What’s the reality with the Breshad Perriman injury?

It was great news that Dr. James Andrews didn’t recommend full ACL reconstruction surgery for Perriman in June, but the fact that he still prescribed a stem-cell injection makes you wonder about the healing process and stability of his left knee. The young receiver missed his entire rookie year with a right knee injury originally considered to be minor, so you hope this isn’t a cruel repeat of 2015.

For a team in desperate need of dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball, Perriman may possess more upside than anyone on the roster if he can just stay on the field.

The questions go beyond players coming off injuries.

Even if 2016 first-round pick Ronnie Stanley proves to be more like Jonathan Ogden and less like the many who have tried to replace the Hall of Fame left tackle over the last decade, how confident can the organization honestly feel about a rookie and a new starter at left guard — projected to be John Urschel — protecting the blindside of a quarterback coming off a serious knee injury?

Baltimore has a collection of talented running backs, but is there truly a No. 1 guy in the bunch?

Who is going to play inside linebacker next to Mosley?

Is the rest of the defensive backfield ready to build on its second-half improvement from last year to be more of a force under new secondary coach Leslie Frazier?

Who might step forward to make a difference in the return game?

Finally and perhaps most importantly, are there at least a couple of young players ready to step forward to become special?

The Ravens have solid-to-good football players; they need more great ones.

All teams face questions this time of year, but there are more than usual for Baltimore entering 2016. It’s understandable after a 5-11 season that fell apart even before the injuries piled up at a record level.

We’ll soon get to see what’s behind the curtain.

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Osemele thanks Ravens after critiquing their commitment

Posted on 11 March 2016 by Luke Jones

After officially signing his five-year, $58.5 million contract to join the Oakland Raiders on Thursday, Kelechi Osemele took time to thank the Ravens and the place he called home for the last four years.

But that message came after the 2012 second-round pick complimented the Raiders’ commitment to their offensive line and appeared to question his former team’s.

“They have a really up-and-coming young team [in Oakland]. That was sold to me a lot,” Osemele said in a conference call with the Bay Area media. “Going through the roster, I kind of saw what everybody was saying and the emphasis on building the offensive line, coming from a place where [that’s] not really appreciated, you know? Coming to a team where offensive line play is a focus and it matters and they want to build that up, that was a big factor.”

Head coach John Harbaugh said last month that the Ravens made an “aggressive” offer to Osemele, but it soon became clear that they weren’t going to come close to the record-setting contract Oakland handed to the fifth-year guard. It’s true that Baltimore hasn’t spent as much on its offensive line as the Raiders, but that doesn’t mean a sufficient commitment hasn’t been made to the group.

In the last two years, the Ravens have signed five-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda and left tackle Eugene Monroe to long-term contracts and acquired starting center Jeremy Zuttah from Tampa Bay in exchange for a fifth-round pick and promptly signed him to an extension. General manager Ozzie Newsome would have loved to have kept Osemele, but you just can’t pay everyone when there’s the reality of the salary cap.

Let’s see how much Oakland will be able to spend on its offensive line in the future when young quarterback Derek Carr is no longer playing on a cheap rookie contract.

Perhaps there are some lingering hard feelings about not getting the money he wanted with the Ravens, but Osemele made these comments speaking to Raiders reporters and was more likely focused on complimenting his new team rather than going out of his way to take a shot at his old one. The comment definitely wasn’t a good look, but remembering the context is also important.

Not long after making those remarks on Thursday evening, Osemele posted the following message on Instragram:

“I want to take this time to thank the city of Baltimore, the Ravens organization, the Bisciotti family, my Ravens teammates as well as all of the Ravens fans for all the support they gave my teammates and me while I was in the great city of Baltimore. I was blessed to experience the pinnacle achievement in the NFL when we won the Super Bowl my rookie year and have been chasing that high ever since. I can never thank the Ravens enough for taking a chance on a kid out of Iowa State that critics said was too soft to play in the NFL because he was raised in a house full of women. I hope I was able to prove them wrong through my hard work and determination on the field and wish the Ravens and the city of Baltimore nothing but the best in the future! Thanks for all the memories!!!”

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Ravens clear more cap space as free-agent rumors fly

Posted on 09 March 2016 by Luke Jones

After all but officially securing their first free-agent acquisition in veteran tight end Benjamin Watson on Tuesday, the Ravens were working on clearing additional salary cap space to add others on Wednesday.

Veteran cornerback Kyle Arrington accepted a pay cut to stay with the Ravens, a source confirmed. The 29-year-old is a Maryland native and Gwynn Park grad and wanted to remain close to home after previously being scheduled to make a $2.1 million base salary and carry a $2.766 million cap figure in 2016.

According to multiple outlets, the Ravens also converted $5.3 million of Marshal Yanda’s 2016 base salary into a bonus, a simple restructure that creates just under $4 million in additional cap space for 2016.

That maneuvering came as the Ravens were expressing interest in former Minnesota Vikings receiver Mike Wallace, according to NFL Network. The speedy 29-year-old was released on Tuesday and is coming off the worst season of his seven-year career in 2015, catching just 39 passes for 473 yards.

The same outlet also reported that Baltimore was looking into Pittsburgh left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who had his 2015 season cut short due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The 2012 seventh-round pick has made 39 career starts for the Steelers over the last four seasons and is an unrestricted free agent.

According to Bleacher Report, the Ravens were also interested in free agent Rodney McLeod, but the former St. Louis safety agreed to a five-year, $37 million deal with Philadelphia on Wednesday afternoon.

Despite a number of free-agent deals around the league already being reported over the last couple days, the official signing period was set to begin at 4 p.m. on Wednesday.

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Pro Bowl just not worth effort for anyone

Posted on 27 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Against my better judgment, I watched some of the Pro Bowl draft.

Because I had nothing better to do on a Wednesday night was excited to know whether Ravens specialists Sam Koch and Morgan Cox would be drafted to opposing teams, I attempted to watch ESPN’s coverage and expected clever trash talk and over-caffeinated enthusiasm for a fake football game. What I witnessed was something different entirely.

It was dull — painfully dull.

No fun.

The highlight was New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning reminding his top receiver and Pro Bowl captain Odell Beckham Jr. why it was wise to draft him, quipping that he could have 100 catches or no catches next season. But everything else reeked of just going through the motions and running out the clock for the two-hour special.

Hoping to at least come away with some sarcastic fodder for Twitter, I instead tapped out after 32 minutes that felt much longer than that. Credit ESPN for producing a nice little segment recognizing a surviving veteran from the attack on Pearl Harbor with the 75th anniversary coming later this year, but the rest of the coverage from Hawaii felt as pointless as the upcoming game itself.

With no disrespect intended to the Ravens’ four selections — we learned that Cox and Elvis Dumervil are on Jerry Rice’s team and Koch and Marshal Yanda were chosen for Michael Irvin’s team — the Pro Bowl just isn’t worth anyone’s time or effort. More players than ever are declining the invitation and now even one of the Pro Bowl head coaches — Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy — is missing the game due to an illness.

Why again should fans bother watching on Sunday night if so many players don’t even care to show up?

Since the NFL scrapped the traditional AFC-NFC format — which at least provided some semblance of a rooting interest — the TV ratings for the game have declined sharply over the last two years, but enough are still watching. To each his own, I suppose, and the league will probably continue to hold the event if it’s profitable.

Still, it feels so pointless holding an exhibition game with players — the ones who actually bother to show up — competing at less than full speed while still putting themselves at risk for injury. It’s bad enough when a star player suffers a serious injury in the preseason when he’s at least preparing for a new year, but how would a team and its fans like to lose a standout performer to a torn ACL now with a recovery timetable that would bleed into the start of next season?

The idea of the Pro Bowl is far superior to the real thing. The Ravens have had at least four players selected for the game in each of the last 10 years — an impressive run that reflects their overall team success — but the honor itself isn’t worth putting players in harm’s way.

The league can continue on with the annual all-star game and probably still fool enough people into watching — because it’s the almighty NFL — but it just isn’t worth the effort for anyone involved.

And Wednesday’s draft sure made it feel like no one really wanted to be there.

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Ravens long snapper Cox selected to first Pro Bowl

Posted on 19 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens will have another player joining guard Marshal Yanda and punter Sam Koch in Hawaii later this month as long snapper Morgan Cox was added to the Pro Bowl roster on Tuesday.

Selected by Kansas City head coach Andy Reid to play for one of the teams, Cox will be joining Koch as a first-time Pro Bowl selection. Long snappers are not part of Pro Bowl balloting, but each coach is permitted to take a long snapper as a “needs” player for the game, which will be played on Jan. 31.

“I’m humbled by the honor of being selected as a Pro Bowl long snapper,” Cox said in a statement in which he also thanked his coaches as well as Koch and kicker Justin Tucker. “I’m especially proud to be a part of the most elite special teams unit in the NFL. A special ‘thank you’ goes out to our fans for all of their love and support. Ravens fans are the best in the world.”

Having spent the last six seasons with Baltimore, the undrafted free agent from Tennessee has been one of the NFL’s most consistent long snappers despite suffering an anterior cruciate ligament tear to each knee over the course of his career. The first came in Cleveland late in the 2010 season when Cox tore his left ACL early in the second quarter and managed to finish the rest of the game, which included snaps on a field goal, two punts, and two extra points. The feat led to him being chosen as the Ravens’ 2011 Ed Block Courage Award winner.

The 29-year-old also tore his right ACL midway through the 2014 season.

Cox has snapped for two Pro Bowl kickers — Billy Cundiff in 2010 and Tucker in 2013 — and will now have the opportunity to play with his Pro Bowl punter in Honolulu.

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Yanda named first-team All Pro for second straight year

Posted on 08 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Having already been named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl, Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda was selected a first-team All-Pro for the second straight year on Friday.

The Associated Press voted Yanda as the only Ravens player to be a first-team All-Pro while punter Sam Koch was a second-team selection behind Johnny Hekker of St. Louis. According to Pro Football Reference, Yanda is only the sixth Ravens player to be named a first-team All-Pro more than once, joining Ray Lewis (seven times), Ed Reed (five), Jonathan Ogden (four), Haloti Ngata (twice), and Vonta Leach (twice).

Unlike the Pro Bowl, the All-Pro team consists of only one player for each position.

The 31-year-old Yanda continues building an impressive résumé as one of the best players in franchise history and was voted the 2015 team MVP by the local media last month. He was a second-team All-Pro selection in 2011 and 2012.

The 2007 third-round pick signed a four-year contract extension in October.

Yanda and Koch were the only Ravens players named to the Pro Bowl this past season.

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Yanda named 2015 Ravens MVP by local media

Posted on 30 December 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Rarely is an offensive lineman ever discussed as an NFL team’s most valuable player, but the 2015 season has been anything but typical for the Ravens.

With 20 players currently on injured reserve and suffering their first losing season of the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens have leaned on the offensive leadership of five-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, who was voted team MVP by local media on Wednesday. In his ninth season, Yanda is the first offensive lineman to receive the annual award introduced in 2003.

“[It’s just] the attitude of offensive linemen, just the daily grind of the guy that doesn’t get the recognition, which that’s fine with me,” Yanda said. “I’ve always been the guy that I’m happy to be out there and playing in the NFL and being able to compete with the best in the world. I’m happy with being out there and to say that I can stand out there with those men.

“It’s neat to be recognized, but it’s one of those things where I’ve always been happy and relished the opportunity to play in the NFL.”

Signed to a four-year extension through 2019 earlier this season and named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl last week, Yanda has been graded by Pro Football Focus as the top guard in the NFL and has been viewed by many as the best at his position for a few years now. He is just one of six players in the 20-year history of the Ravens to be named to five Pro Bowls as members of the organization.

Durability has been considered one of Yanda’s biggest strengths as he’s missed only two games since missing much of the 2008 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The 2007 third-round pick out of Iowa has also played right tackle on more than one occasion in his career including last year’s postseason.

“I feel like football is a sport where it’s not if you get hurt, but when,” Yanda said. “You’re going to get hurt no matter what in this business. It’s part of having to play through injuries, because your team needs you and because they need production out of you. You owe it to the guy next to you. I owe it to Joe [Flacco] to be out there and do my job to keep him clean.”

The local media also voted cornerback Jimmy Smith as the winner of the Good Guy Award, an honor bestowed upon a Ravens player who has been particularly helpful in granting interviews and being accessible to reporters.

Below are past winners with the MVP listed first and the Good Guy Award winner second:

2003: Jamal Lewis, Gary Baxter
2004: Ed Reed, Anthony Weaver
2005: Adalius Thomas, Jamal Lewis
2006: Steve McNair, Bart Scott
2007: Willis McGahee, Derrick Mason
2008: Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs
2009: Ray Rice, Jarret Johnson
2010: Haloti Ngata, Chris Carr
2011: Ray Rice, Bernard Pollard
2012: Ray Rice, Arthur Jones
2013: Justin Tucker, Joe Flacco
2014: Justin Forsett, Torrey Smith

Flacco remains on track for training camp

Head coach John Harbaugh reiterated Wednesday that he expects Flacco to be ready for training camp as he continues to rehab his surgically-repaired left knee.

A CBS Sports report recently said that Flacco is already riding a stationary bike, and the 30-year-old has been seen walking around the Ravens’ training facility with minimal use of crutches after undergoing surgery earlier this month. The Super Bowl XLVII MVP had never missed a game in his NFL career prior to tearing his ACL in a win over St. Louis on Nov. 22.

“I guess you never say never, but everything I’ve been told is he’s going to be ready for training camp — 100 percent ready to go,” Harbaugh said. “The key with all these injuries is that they get the most out of every day, but there’s never a setback. If you don’t have a setback, then it should be fine.”

More than steak

After having a 101-yard interception return for a touchdown wiped away due to Courtney Upshaw’s offside penalty, Smith quipped after Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh that he expected a steak dinner to make up for it.

Now, the fifth-year cornerback expects more from his teammate.

“After I re-watched the play, I think I needed more,” said Smith as he smiled. “That type of play is the play that every corner always dreams of. That’s the first time that’s ever happened for me. Even in practice, that’s never happened. I don’t know what I want. Maybe some new rims for my car — I don’t know.”

Wednesday’s injury report

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Elvis Dumervil (non-injury), FB Kyle Juszczyk (illness), LB Albert McClellan (ankle)

CINCINNATI
OUT: QB Andy Dalton (right thumb)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: RB Ryan Hewitt (knee/illness)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: DE Carlos Dunlap (hamstring), S George Iloka (groin), WR Marvin Jones (hamstring), QB AJ McCarron (left wrist)
FULL PARTICIPATION: TE Tyler Eifert (concussion)

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Ravens have taken holiday spirit too literally in 2015

Posted on 23 December 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s better to give than to receive, right?

Perhaps the Ravens have taken the spirit of the holiday season too literally in 2015 as they enter Sunday’s meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers holding the second-worst turnover ratio in the NFL at minus-15. It’s a major reason why Baltimore has long been out of the playoff race and needs one win in the final two weeks of the season just to avoid tying the worst record in franchise history.

“You don’t win football games when you turn the ball over,” head coach John Harbaugh said after Sunday’s loss to Kansas City in which his team committed three turnovers. “If any team this year should understand that, it’s the Baltimore Ravens. Until we learn that lesson, we can play as hard as we want, we can be as physical as we want, we can be as tough as we want, we can play some pretty darn good football. But if you turn the ball over, you’re not going to win.”

The Ravens have committed 26 turnovers, the second-highest total of the Harbaugh era with only their 2013 total (29) being higher. It’s no coincidence that those are the Ravens’ only non-playoff seasons under their eighth-year coach.

But the inability to create turnovers from the opposition has been a much greater problem for the Ravens in 2015. With just 11 takeaways in 14 games, they’re on pace to shatter the franchise-worst mark of 22 set in 1996 and matched last season.

The current Ravens can only dream of forcing 49 turnovers like the 2000 team that won Super Bowl XXXV or the 2006 squad that forced 40 on the way to the best regular-season mark (13-3) in franchise history. The Baltimore defense of old feels light years away as its old rival comes to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.

“To be able to play like [that], you’ve got to get the lead,” linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. “We just shoot ourselves in the foot when we don’t get [the lead] early. It’s always harder to play behind versus with the lead. I think that’s a valuable lesson we’re all learning this year.”

Though the Ravens have held a lead in 10 of their 14 games this season, those advantages have often been brief as they’ve led at the conclusion of just 14 of 58 quarters of play (counting two overtime periods) all season. The game-winning points in all four of their victories have come on the final play of the game.

We know that the Ravens lack dynamic, game-changing talent on the defensive side of the ball, but it isn’t easy to set the tempo and attack opposing offenses when they’re always on their heels and taking the punches.

“It’s being in the right place consistently, creating a little momentum [and] probably creating pressure on quarterbacks,” Harbaugh said. “Getting the lead has a lot to do with turnovers, especially interceptions. I think you’ll find – if you look at the analytics – that when you have the lead and you force quarterbacks to be a little more desperate in some of their decision-making, they’ll throw you the ball quite a bit more. We have been behind most of the season, so I think that factors into it.”

Yanda in exclusive company

After being named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl on Tuesday, right guard Marshal Yanda became the sixth Ravens player in franchise history to be named to at least five Pro Bowls, joining Ray Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata.

Having played with all five of those individuals in his nine-year career, Yanda realizes he’s entered special company as he quietly carves out his place as one of the best players in Ravens history.

“It’s awesome. It’s a great honor, obviously, to be mentioned with those guys,” Yanda said. “Those guys are Hall of Famers, and it’s just awesome, and I feel fortunate to be able to stay healthy at the right time and be able to play on a good team, good organization.

“I understand a lot of that stuff sometimes has to help, too, [with Pro Bowl selections]. Obviously, you see that other teams are having a really good year [and] more guys get voted in. When you’re having a tough year, less guys get voted in.”

The Ravens have made the playoffs in six of Yanda’s nine seasons.

New England reunion

The Ravens are trying to get quarterback Ryan Mallett up to speed with their offense as quickly as possible, but one of his new teammates was already familiar with him.

Before spending the last two seasons with the Houston Texans, Mallett spent three years backing up Tom Brady in New England where he practiced with a current Ravens wide receiver on the scout team.

“I know Mallett pretty well,” said Kamar Aiken, who spent time with the Patriots in 2012 and 2013. “I’ve been catching balls with him when I was in New England, so I’m pretty comfortable with him and everybody else. He’s a really talented guy. He has to get the offense.”

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Koch, Yanda only Ravens players named to Pro Bowl

Posted on 22 December 2015 by Luke Jones

In his 10th year with the Ravens, punter Sam Koch is finally going to his first Pro Bowl.

Though the Ravens are in the midst of the most disappointing season in franchise history, Koch and right guard Marshal Yanda were named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday night. The two Pro Bowl selections are the fewest Baltimore has had since left tackle Jonathan Ogden was the lone representative in the 2005 season.

Having led the NFL in net punting average each of the last two seasons, Koch is finally receiving credit as one of the best punters in the NFL. The 2006 sixth-round pick is averaging 43.0 net yards per punt and has just three touchbacks all season.

“This has definitely been a long time in the making,” Koch said in a statement released by the Ravens. “A lot of hard work and practice have gone into this. … This is a very surreal and exciting moment for my family and me. I can’t wait to represent the Ravens in Hawaii.”

Having signed a five-year extension before the season, Koch has never missed a game in his 10-year career and has played in a team-record 158 consecutive games. The 6-foot-1, 219-pound punter is the fifth special-teams player under John Harbaugh to make a Pro Bowl, joining Brendon Ayanbadejo, Billy Cundiff, Jacoby Jones, and Justin Tucker.

With six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs spending the season on injured reserve, Koch is the longest-tenured Ravens player currently on the active roster. The next-longest-tenured player on the roster is Yanda, who was named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl.

Yanda is the sixth player in franchise history to make five Pro Bowls while playing for the Ravens, joining Ray Lewis, Ogden, Ed Reed, Suggs, and Haloti Ngata. With the Ravens celebrating their 20th season in Baltimore, Yanda was voted by fans as one of the 10 best players in franchise history earlier this year.

Pro Football Focus has graded Yanda as the top overall guard in the NFL this season as he’s graded third in run block and third in pass blocking. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound lineman signed a four-year extension earlier this season and is quietly building a case as one of the best players in franchise history.

Yanda has missed only two offensive snaps all year and has missed only two games over the last seven seasons.

“Football is the ultimate team sport, and you don’t do anything in this league on your own,” said Yanda, Baltimore’s third-round selection in the 2007 draft. “I want to thank the coaches and my teammates for helping me along the way. We all grind together with the goal of achieving greatness.”

Linebacker C.J. Mosley and fullback Kyle Juszczyk were named third alternates at their positions, meaning they could be invited to play in the game should other players not be able to attend due to injury or because they’re competing in the Super Bowl.

Many teammates, fans, and media were clamoring for nose tackle Brandon Williams to make the Pro Bowl as he’s emerged as arguably the best run-stopping defensive tackle in the NFL, but players at positions with few statistics often have to wait their turn to finally receive Pro Bowl recognition. Though he became one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL from the time he was drafted by the Ravens in 2006, Ngata did not make his first Pro Bowl until his fourth NFL season and went on to make it five consecutive years.

The Pro Bowl will take place at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu on Jan. 31.

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Ravens thoughts on Aiken, Pittsburgh, injuries, Pro Bowl

Posted on 22 December 2015 by Luke Jones

Kamar Aiken is one of the last men standing in the Ravens offense.

In a lost season on so many levels, the Central Florida product has established himself as a productive NFL receiver and an important piece moving forward. His 62 catches for 802 yards — already the 24th-highest single-season receiving yardage total in franchise history — and five touchdowns would make for a good season without accounting for the two games he still has to add to those totals.

In the six games since Steve Smith suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 8, Aiken has caught 37 passes for 469 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers put the 6-foot-2 receiver on pace for a 98-catch, 1,250-yard season over a full 16 games. Of course, the Ravens currently don’t have a whole lot besides Aiken in terms of viable pass-catching targets — Torrey Smith’s production similarly ballooned in 2013 — but he’s also played with three different quarterbacks including the last two games with Jimmy Clausen, who’s been with Baltimore for all of a month.

It’s been impressive work from the former practice-squad receiver who had never made an NFL reception before last season. But Aiken’s emergence shouldn’t make general manager Ozzie Newsome feel he’s set at wide receiver this offseason.

Reports persist that Steve Smith is likely to return if his rehabilitation goes well, but he will also be 37 next year and coming off a serious injury that impacts explosiveness. It’d be foolish to doubt such a fierce competitor’s desire to return and be productive in 2016, but expecting him to come back as a No. 1 option like nothing ever happened would be unrealistic — and unfair.

Breshad Perriman will be back, but the Ravens haven’t seen their 2015 first-round pick play as much as a snap in a preseason game. He will need to prove his knee is healthy and that he can contribute as an NFL wide receiver before anyone signs off on him as the No. 1 receiver of the future.

With a plethora of needs on both sides of the ball, the Ravens may not need to draft a receiver in the first round this spring, but another wideout should firmly be on Newsome’s radar in the first few rounds of the draft. Otherwise, Baltimore will once again enter a season with too many questions at a position that’s been an Achilles heel for much of the 20-year history of the franchise.

At the very least, Aiken is shaping up to be a dependable possession receiver — a poor man’s Anquan Boldin — and the one commodity at the position that the Ravens can really trust while shaping their 2016 roster this offseason.

Bracing for Pittsburgh

Based on the number of Seattle and Kansas City fans that made their way to M&T Bank Stadium over the last two weeks, Steelers fans may make Sunday’s game feel like it’s being played at Heinz Field, which would be a disheartening conclusion to a home schedule that has already included five losses — most in franchise history.

I’ll never judge fans for selling their tickets — personal seat licenses and season tickets are a heck of a financial commitment for mere entertainment — but you’d like to see Ravens fans protect their home turf against their biggest rival if at all possible. I wrote about this topic earlier this season, but I also won’t fault fans trying to make some money around the holiday season as the injury-ravaged hometown team is barely recognizable at this point.

To add insult to injury, the Steelers can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a New York Jets loss against New England on Sunday. And, oh yeah, Pittsburgh has scored 30 or more points in six straight games and will be facing a pass defense that has offered little resistance all season.

Optimists will call it a rivalry game in which anything can happen, but it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for Ravens fans to brace themselves for it to get ugly two days after Christmas.

Injury excuse

With the preseason feel of recent games that have followed the loss of quarterback Joe Flacco, the narrative surrounding the 2015 Ravens — particularly from a national perspective — now centers around their numerous injuries.

Tight end Crockett Gillmore became the 21st Ravens player to officially be lost to a season-ending injury when he was placed on injured reserve with a back ailment on Monday, but many of the significant names on that list went down after the season was already in the dumpster. Below is a look at the Ravens’ Week 8 starting lineup when they sported a 1-6 record and welcomed San Diego to Baltimore:

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My point?

Injuries are certainly part of the story — particularly the early losses of Terrell Suggs and Perriman — but don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that’s the only — or even the most — significant explanation for the team’s failures this year. It was apparent early in the season that a number of problems unrelated to injuries contributed to this nightmare season.

The loss of players like Flacco, Smith, and Justin Forsett merely turned a lost year into a punchline with players now on the field whom fans have needed to google on a weekly basis.

Pro Bowl picks

The NFL will announce its Pro Bowl selections Tuesday night and while no Ravens players won the fan vote, coaches and players account for two-thirds of the voting.

My picks would be guard Marshal Yanda, defensive tackle Brandon Williams, and punter Sam Koch.

Yanda has shown no signs of slowing down as he should be in line for his fifth straight Pro Bowl invitation. Meanwhile, Williams has proven himself as the top run-stopping nose tackle in the NFL and has steadily received more praise around the league this season, leading you to believe he has a solid chance to have his name called. But even as Haloti Ngata learned several years ago, players are sometimes deserving of the Pro Bowl a year or two before they are finally recognized to go.

I’m pulling for Koch to finally earn a trip to the Pro Bowl as he is leading the NFL in net punting for the second straight year and is the longest-tenured Ravens player behind only Suggs. Now in his 10th season in Baltimore, Koch has routinely been one of the better punters in the NFL and has brought innovation to the position that should be recognized with a trip to Honolulu.

Interception perspective

Not only do the Ravens rank last in the NFL with just four interceptions, but 10 players around the league have more than four this season. The previous franchise low for interceptions in a season was 11 set in 2005 and matched last season.

Future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed collected more than four picks in a season seven different times in his career.

Baltimore has just one interception in its last 11 games.

Where have you gone, Ravens defense of old?

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