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Ravens offensive line starting to take shape?

Posted on 20 August 2012 by Luke Jones

One of the great mysteries off the offseason and training camp has been trying to determine exactly what the Ravens offensive line will look like when they take the field against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 10.

It started with the departure of Pro Bowl selection Ben Grubbs via free agency in March and has continued on with the uncertainty surrounding left tackle Bryant McKinnie, but as the Ravens approach their third preseason game of the summer, it’s apparent that John Harbaugh and the coaching staff need to narrow in on their decision for a starting five and where those players will line up exactly. The bizarre start to camp for McKinnie left the door open for competition at the tackle position as the Ravens have used the 32-year-old veteran as well as Michael Oher and rookie Kelechi Osemele at the tackle positions at different times.

However, conventional wisdom points to the Ravens settling in with the alignment used last year with McKinnie at left tackle and Oher on the right side, and that’s exactly what they’ve done over the last two days of practice. Harbaugh has praised the group’s versatility, but quarterback Joe Flacco acknowledges the need to start building chemistry up front.

“You want to get to a point where there’s some continuity between those guys,” Flacco said, “and they can really play together and be in sync, because that is the most important position on the field as a whole. Those guys need to kind of play off each other and get comfortable with each other.”

Considering the confusing circumstances surrounding McKinnie’s late arrival and the questions surrounding his weight and conditioning, it’s apparent the Ravens not only wanted to evaluate Oher on the left side and Osemele at right tackle but have been trying to send a message to last year’s starting left tackle that he wasn’t going to be assured of anything. And though he’s worked against reserve defenders in the first two preseason games, most still regard McKinnie as the team’s best pass blocker and his conditioning has been satisfactory, which holds more significance with the Ravens looking to use the no-huddle offense more this season.

With left guard Bobbie Williams struggling in the first two preseason games and still dealing with soreness in his surgically-repaired right ankle, Osemele has been receiving his most extensive work at left guard since organized team activities in the spring.

While Harbaugh still isn’t tipping his hand regarding McKinnie’s status, it’s beginning to look like the 6-foot-8 lineman is regaining a grip on the starting job.

“He’s had a tempo and a rhythm,” Harbaugh said. “It’s just a matter of practicing, and it’s like anybody else. He is practicing well. He’d be the first to tell you he’s not there yet. Nobody is there yet, but he is practicing well, and he is in the mix. I am looking forward to seeing how it shakes out, but he is doing a good job.”

Having played with McKinnie for seven years in Minnesota, center Matt Birk says his longtime teammate has put in the necessary work to not only get himself in better condition but to also show better agility than he has in recent years. Never regarded as a strong run blocker, McKinnie is receiving positive reviews even when the play isn’t being run to his side of the line.

“He is moving well,” Birk said. “We all get a little bit older, and you learn some things and figure some things out. Bryant has done a good job of being in shape. I think he is moving as well as I’ve seen him move in a long time on the back side. He is getting his back-side blocks and back-side cutoffs.”

Even if it looks like the Ravens are on the verge of solving the puzzle at tackle, the other question remains whether Williams can hold up inside or the rookie Osemele will eventually push him out of the starting lineup.

Rice understudy still under study

After showing impressive moves and good acceleration in his preseason debut against Detroit on Friday, rookie running back Bernard Pierce appears on the verge of taking a firm lead in the race for the backup job behind Ray Rice.

But the Ravens are still keeping their intentions for the backup job close to the vest.

“Right now, it’s a huge question mark,” running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said. “I would like to think that I know the answer to that, ‘Who’s going to back up Ray?’ But, that’s why we are in training camp to find out who’s going to back up Ray.”

Though he only participated in nine plays and carried the ball four times for one yard, Pierce showed the ability to break tackles and good vision in his limited opportunities. More importantly, however, the rookie looked to be fully healthy after dealing with a hamstring injury for most of training camp.

“He’s learning what the NFL running back position is all about,” said Montgomery, who described Pierce as finally showing the “reckless abandon” he ran with at Temple in Friday’s preseason game. “You can see the redeeming qualities that he has is that inside ability to run in between the tackles and then able to bounce plays to the outside to drop his pads and run over people.”

Kicking competition grows intense

CONTINUE >>>

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Birk, J. Smith, three others return to practice Saturday

Posted on 11 August 2012 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 5:40 p.m.)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Returning to the practice field after their 31-17 win in the preseason opener over Atlanta, the Ravens saw five players return to action but were also dealing with several news absences from injuries sustained against the Falcons.

Center Matt Birk (back), cornerback Jimmy Smith (back), defensive end Arthur Jones (hip), running back Bernard Pierce (hamstring), and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe all returned to practice on Saturday as the Ravens begin a new week of practice leading into their first preseason home game against Detroit on Friday.

Birk hadn’t practiced since July 28 after dealing with back spasms.

“It’s good to get those guys back,” coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s very important. Those guys were out here practicing, and we need to have those guys.”

Despite the good news of several key players returning, the Ravens also faced the fallout from Thursday’s game as tight end Ed Dickson (sprained right shoulder), defensive lineman Ryan McBean (broken left ankle), wide receivers Torrey Smith (sprained ankle) and Logan Payne (hip), and cornerbacks Asa Jackson (hamstring) and Chykie Brown (hamstring) did not practice.

All aforementioned players were injured against the Falcons, with McBean’s injury potentially sidelining him for the rest of the season. Dickson — who came out to watch practice in street clothes with his right arm in a sling — is expected to miss a few weeks but will be ready in time for the Ravens’ season opener on Sept. 10. Smith’s injury is not considered to be serious.

Harbaugh would not disclose any updates on the severity of McBean’s fracture or confirm whether it would be a season-ending injury.

“It’s already been reported, so there’s no reason for me to comment any further,” Harbaugh said. “You guys already got what you need.”

Others not practicing included linebackers Josh Bynes (back) and Darryl Blackstock (groin), and wide receivers Tandon Doss (hamstring) and Patrick Williams (leg). Wide receiver David Reed (knee) and offensive lineman Jah Reid (calf) remain on the active physically unable to perform list while linebacker Terrell Suggs continues to rehab his surgically-repaired Achilles tendon while on the non-football injury list.

Rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw (shoulder) was practicing again after sitting out Thursday’s game. He practiced for the first time since July 28 on Tuesday but was held out of the game due to a lack of practice reps.

 

 

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Birk to receive frequent days off; no change in McKinnie’s status

Posted on 31 July 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens continued to deal with absences on both the offensive and defensive lines as they took the practice field on Tuesday.

In addition to left tackle Bryant McKinnie — who continues to be held out of practice with a lower back injury and hasn’t taken the team’s conditioning test — center Matt Birk was given off practice for the second straight day. Entering his 15th season, the 36-year-old will receive frequent rest throughout the preseason in a move that will allow the Ravens to further evaluate rookie Gino Gradkowski and young interior lineman Justin Boren.

“Matt is at a stage of his career where probably he’s going to practice less than he’s not going to practice,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I think that would be the best thing for Matt getting ready to go.”

Offensive lineman Jah Reid (calf) continues to be held out of practice while he’s on the active physically unable to perform list.

On the defensive line, the Ravens continue to be without All-Pro lineman Haloti Ngata (hamstring) and defensive end Pernell McPhee (knee), but veteran defensive tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu joined them as a non-participant as he was given a day off as a member of the “30-and-over” club.

Outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw (bruised shoulder), wide receivers Tandon Doss (hamstring) and David Reed (knee), linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles tendon), and tight end Dennis Pitta (broken hand) were also absent. Pitta underwent surgery on Tuesday and is expected to be back for the Ravens’ season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 10.

Rookie running back Bernard Pierce and linebacker Josh Bynes were also new additions to the list of players missing from practice. Pierce is dealing with a hamstring tweak, and his girlfriend is also expecting their first child.

Despite a plethora of missing players on Tuesday, the Ravens saw three players return to action in wide receivers Tommy Streeter and Devin Goda and offensive tackle Ramon Harewood.

Wide receiver LaQuan Williams left practice late in the session, but whatever was ailing him is not considered to be a concern.

Maryland football coach Randy Edsall was attending practice on Tuesday.

Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear from John Harbaugh, linebacker Paul Kruger, and linebackers coach Ted Monachino HERE.

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Ed Reed no-shows first day of Ravens’ mandatory minicamp

Posted on 12 June 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — An unsettling off-season for the future of safety Ed Reed grew more concerning for the Ravens on Tuesday.

Beginning a mandatory three-day minicamp in Owings Mills, the team was without its All-Pro safety as Reed did not appear for the first of the three mandatory days under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. Reed is subject to a fine of up to $63,000 if he skips all three days of the camp, but it is unclear whether the Ravens will follow through with the action.

Coach John Harbaugh briefly addressed the situation, pointing to the terms of the new CBA when asked whether he was concerned with the star safety’s absence.

“I have not communicated with Ed, so I’m not sure what the situation is on that,” Harbaugh said.

Reed has questioned his desire to continue playing while also expressing his preference for a long-term contract. He is slated to make $7.2 million in the final year of his contract this season.

While Reed has not kept in touch with his head coach, linebacker Ray Lewis offered clarity on the situation in revealing he’s been in touch with his longtime teammate. Unsurprisingly, Lewis downplayed the significance of Reed’s absence, insisting the safety is focusing on his family and will report for training camp ready to play their 11th season together in Baltimore.

“These three days won’t take away from what Ed Reed’s focus is,” Lewis said, “and that is to come back and help our defense be the best defense there is in football. I don’t think it’s an issue at all. Not for us.”

Also absent from Tuesday’s workout were left tackle Bryant McKinnie and center Matt Birk. However, their reasons for not being on the practice field were different than Reed’s potential disenchantment.

“Bryant McKinnie is a guy we held out for conditioning purposes,” Harbaugh said. “We’re probably going to continue to do that and try to continue to get him into good shape.”

The Ravens awarded McKinnie a $500,000 bonus earlier this off-season but want to see the veteran shed pounds and get himself in better shape in the final year of his two-year deal signed last August. McKinnie recently said he’d like to be down to 350 pounds by the start of the season and weighed around 365 a month ago.

Birk had a surgical procedure on the varicose veins in his legs, confirming what Harbaugh told media earlier this off-season. The starting center is fully expected to be ready for the starting of training camp.

“Matt Birk had surgery last week on his legs; he’s got those veins,” Harbaugh said. “We tried to get it done earlier. We could not get it done earlier — whatever [the] doctor’s reasons there were. He was not allowed to fly this week, so he wouldn’t have been able to practice anyway.”

Defensive end Pernell McPhee was also missing from the practice field on Tuesday as he recovers from a minor injury. A Scout.com report says McPhee underwent arthroscopic knee surgery a couple weeks ago but will be ready for the start of camp.

Running back Ray Rice (franchise tag) and linebacker Terrell Suggs (Achilles tendon) were also absent from practice. Wide receivers Tandon Doss (undisclosed) and David Reed (torn ACL) and offensive linemen Kelechi Osemele (undisclosed) and Howard Barbieri (undisclosed) were on the field but not working.

Offensive lineman Jah Reid and cornerback Cary Williams (hip) returned to practice.

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Ravens rookie OL Gradkowski looking forward to working with Birk

Posted on 10 May 2012 by WNST Audio

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Ravens select Delaware center Gino Gradkowski with 98th overall pick

Posted on 28 April 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Needing to address the center position with veteran Matt Birk not getting any younger, the Ravens wasted no time on the third day of the draft by selecting Delaware’s Gino Gradkowski with the third pick of the fourth round.

Able to play both center and guard, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Gradkowski will compete for the vacant left guard job as well as continue to develop at the center position. The younger brother of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, the Blue Hens product joins quarterback Joe Flacco in Baltimore.

“It’s a perfect spot for me,” Gradkowski said. “Come in and maybe play guard my first year and eventually take over at center, and that’s what I was looking to do. Get in behind a veteran like Matt Birk. I’m really excited to meet him and pick his brain about football. It’s a perfect scenario, and I just couldn’t be happier.”

Gradkowski was the second center taken off the board in the 2012 NFL Draft after Wisconsin’s Peter Konz was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the third round. The Houston Texans took the third center off the board with the pick immediately following the Ravens, grabbing George center Ben Jones with the 99th overall pick.

The Ravens showed plenty of interest in Gradkowski throughout the draft process as he reportedly made a pre-draft visit to Baltimore.

“I’m elated right now because Baltimore plays football the way it’s supposed to be played,’ Gradkowski said.

The Gradkowski pick at 98th overall was made possible by general manager Ozzie Newsome’s decision to trade the Ravens’ first-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings for the third pick of the second round (35th overall) and the third pick of the fourth round, where Baltimore grabbed the center.

A Pittsburgh native, Gradkowski began his collegiate career at West Virginia before transferring to FCS school Delaware due to a lack of playing time with the Mountaineers. He was a co-captain for the Blue Hens in his senior season.

Though he transferred to Delaware after Flacco was already taking snaps in Baltimore, Gradkowski is looking forward to potentially forming an all-Blue Hens quarterback-center combination in the future.

“I have heard a lot of great things about him, and I am excited to meet him,” Gradkowski said. “I feel like, from the things I have heard, we are very similar personality wise.”

Listen to Gradkowski’s conference call with the Baltimore media here.

 

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Harbaugh envisions Kruger at outside linebacker for Ravens

Posted on 27 March 2012 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cundiff competition

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

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

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

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

Running without Rice?

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

Posted on 23 March 2012 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ravens bolster special teams by re-signing Ayanbadejo to three-year deal

Posted on 23 March 2012 by Luke Jones

Using the second Friday of the free-agent signing period to strengthen their special teams, the Ravens have re-signed linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo.

The three-time Pro Bowl special teams standout will remain in Baltimore on a three-year contract, according to Pro Football Talk. Ayanbadejo has spent the last four seasons with the Ravens, playing an active role in the special teams units as well as providing depth at the linebacker position.

After spending three years with the Chicago Bears, the 35-year-old has seen an increased role defensively in Baltimore in the defense’s nickel package and was regarded as one of the Ravens’ best pass-coverage linebackers. Ayanbadejo becomes the second unrestricted free agent to stay with the Ravens after veteran center Matt Birk signed a new three-year deal last week.

Ayanbadejo ranked second on the team with nine special teams tackles and also recovered a fumble. Defensively, he finished with 27 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks, and two pass breakups.

Earlier in the day, the Ravens agreed to a two-year deal with former Bears cornerback Corey Graham, who was selected to the 2011 Pro Bowl as a special teams standout for Chicago.

Prior to the signings of Ayanbadejo and Graham, the Ravens were projected to have just under $5 million in salary cap room.

 

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Ravens’ free-agent target Ginn elects to stay in San Francisco

Posted on 22 March 2012 by Luke Jones

Addressing the return game is a clear objective of the offseason, but the Ravens won’t be enlisting the services of former first-round pick Ted Ginn Jr. to do it.

After visiting with the Ravens last week, the return specialist has elected to remain with the 49ers on a one-year contract. Ginn has played in San Francisco the last two seasons after spending the first three years of his career with the Miami Dolphins.

Ginn is one of the better kick returners in the league — producing six career return touchdowns — but the Ravens are also looking for a No. 3 receiver to replace veteran Lee Evans. The 26-year-old caught only 19 passes for 220 yards this past season and has six career touchdown receptions in his five-year career.

Deep into the second week of free agency, the Ravens have only re-signed veteran center Matt Birk while losing five unrestricted free agents to other teams. Baltimore has roughly $5 million in salary cap room despite needing to address number of positions this offseason.

 

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