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Ravens defensive end Urban suffers biceps tear

Posted on 08 August 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Having already lost safety Matt Elam to a torn biceps last week, the Ravens have lost a second young defensive player to a similar injury.

Second-year defensive end Brent Urban suffered a torn biceps during Thursday’s practice and will undergo surgery, which is expected to keep him out for at least three months. Head coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens will decide at the start of the regular season whether to place Urban on season-ending injured reserve or give him the designation to return.

The 24-year-old confirmed being injured via his official Twitter account on Saturday morning.

A fourth-round selection from the University of Virginia in last year’s draft, Urban missed his entire rookie season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee early in his first training camp. The Ravens had hoped that Urban would step into a meaningful rotation role at the 5-technique defensive end spot and as a situational pass rusher.

The 6-foot-7, 295-pound defensive end was listed behind veterans Chris Canty and Lawrence Guy on the first depth chart of the summer, but Urban had impressed so far in practices this summer.

“I was really counting on him,” Harbaugh said. “I thought he would really shine, and I still think he will. He’s had four straight years where he’s had serious injuries. That’s been a bugaboo for him that he’s going to have to overcome.”

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Twenty Ravens players missing from Friday’s practice

Posted on 07 August 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens were missing 20 players from their 90-man preseason roster as they practiced in shells and shorts on Friday afternoon.

A handful of veterans appeared to be awarded the day off as head coach John Harbaugh periodically does, but several notable players continue to nurse injuries.

Wide receivers Breshad Perriman (knee) and Marlon Brown (back) remain sidelined as the Ravens offense has worked without two of its top four wideouts for most of training camp. The first-round pick Perriman has missed seven straight practices after injuring his knee in the final 20 minutes of the first full-squad practice of the summer while Brown has now sat out five of the last six workouts.

Tight end Maxx Williams was also absent on Friday after being poked in the eye and leaving Thursday’s workout early.

Baltimore continues to deal with injury problems at the guard position with starter Kelechi Osemele (foot) and backups John Urschel (head) and Robert Myers (head) all out. Urschel and Myers both left Thursday’s practice with concussions, according to Harbaugh.

On the defensive side of the ball, defensive linemen DeAngelo Tyson and Brent Urban were new absences due to unspecified reasons. Cornerbacks Tray Walker and Chris Greenwood remain out with hamstring strains.

Outside linebacker Zach Thompson (undisclosed) was also missing again.

The list of veterans believed to be receiving a day off on Friday included wide receiver Steve Smith, running back Justin Forsett, cornerback Lardarius Webb, linebackers Daryl Smith and Terrell Suggs, and defensive end Chris Canty.

Tight end Dennis Pitta (hip) and safety Terrence Brooks (knee) remain on the active physically unable to perform list.

Already out for the season with a biceps tear, safety Matt Elam rounded out the collection of 20 players not participating in Friday’s workout.

 

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Ravens hoping they’ve finally found stability at safety

Posted on 05 August 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — In the 30 months since the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII, no position has experienced more change than safety.

Free agents like Michael Huff and Darian Stewart have come and gone and draft picks such as Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks haven’t worked out exactly as planned — at least not yet — as the only constant in the back end of the defense over the last few years has been flux.

This was never more evident than a year ago when five safeties played at least 245 defensive snaps, leaving a weekly guessing game of who would line up for defensive coordinator Dean Pees on a given Sunday. More attention fell on the list of cornerbacks going down with injuries in 2014, but the constant rotating and unrest at the safety position was a major factor contributing to the Baltimore pass defense finishing 23rd in the NFL.

“We rotated because we had to rotate. It wasn’t because I sometimes wanted to,” Pees said. “I don’t really care, but I really do think that if you have two guys that establish themselves, they get used to playing together, they get used to communicating together, and guys get used to hearing the communication from them. When that’s a rotation all the time, guys communicate differently.”

The Ravens are hoping they’ve finally solved that problem with the free-agent signing of Kendrick Lewis in March. The former Houston Texan and Kansas City Chief doesn’t carry overwhelming credentials, but the 27-year-old started 66 games in his first five seasons and has been praised for his intelligence in both the meeting room and the field.

Communication was a major problem in 2014, often leading to long pass plays over safeties’ heads. Lewis is viewed as a better center-field defender than the ex-Raven Stewart or any of the safeties still on the roster, which should allow cornerbacks and linebackers to play more aggressively in coverage.

The Ravens secondary has spoken at length this spring and summer about developing more trust than the group had a year ago when a new combination of cornerbacks and safeties was lining up almost every week and there was often more finger-pointing than plays being made.

“Those are the things we talk about when we’re watching film,” Lewis said, “whether we see something, [we’re] communicating, ‘Hey, listen, I’m jumping this one. Protect me here.’ That’s the type of chemistry we’re building in the secondary when we’re in meetings going over the [film], preparing and transferring it to the practice field.”

While the Ravens hope Lewis will bring stability to a free safety position they haven’t been able to fill adequately since the free-agent departure of Ed Reed, strong safety Will Hill might be the bigger factor in determining how much the secondary can improve. A year ago at this time, Hill was just learning his way around the Ravens’ Owings Mills training facility while waiting to serve a six-game suspension, but a full and trouble-free offseason has the 25-year-old primed for a breakout season.

Even before the season-ending biceps injury suffered by Elam on the third day of training camp, most expected Hill to win the competition for the starting strong safety job based on his solid play in eight starts last season.

Hill’s talent has never come into question as the New York Giants only parted ways with the University of Florida product after he drew the third suspension of his young career, so the Ravens are eager to see what the 6-foot-1, 228-pound safety can accomplish with a full year in Baltimore under his belt. His combination of size, speed, physicality, and ball skills is a recipe to become an impact player in the secondary as long as he keeps himself on the field.

“Last year, I just came in and had to hurry up and learn quick, quick, quick,” Hill said. “I had a whole offseason to learn the plays. In training camp, it’s just picking up as we go along. I’m just trying to be that assertive guy out there that they need and [to] produce.”

With so much turnover at the safety position over the last couple years, the Ravens have often relied on players lacking experience or the necessary credentials to lead the secondary. But they hope Lewis’ experience and Hill’s upside will finally bring stability for the foreseeable future while younger players such as Elam and Brooks recover from injuries.

After being spoiled by having a future Hall of Famer at free safety for the first five years of his tenure in Baltimore, head coach John Harbaugh likes what he’s seen from Lewis’ leadership.

“You don’t hear him talk too much,” Harbaugh said. “You see him, and the thing that strikes me is I see him on tape, and he knows what he’s doing, and he has been in this defense for just a couple of months now. He and Will are really taking charge in the back end. I love our communication back there. We’re a lot better than we were last year with that, and we just have to keep building on it.”

It remains to be seen how well this latest safety combination works as the Ravens seek their seventh trip to the postseason in eight years, but the secondary isn’t shying away from its stated goal of creating more turnovers after it came way with just 11 interceptions in 2014. Illustrating how little impact the defensive backfield had in making game-changing plays, the 350-pound Haloti Ngata and rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley led the team with two interceptions apiece while no defensive back had more than one.

Lewis has made it clear to the rest of the secondary in his short time in Baltimore that interceptions must become a part of what the Ravens defense creates again. And there can be no excuse for missed opportunities.

“‘You’re dropping that money. You’re leaving that money on the field,'” said Lewis about the urgency to pick off passes during practice. “We feel like there’s money in [those] balls. Those are money balls — that’s what we call them. You drop one, you owe us 10 pushups, and that’s money you left out there on the grass.”

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Ravens shift training camp to M&T Bank Stadium on Monday

Posted on 03 August 2015 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Giving many rookies their first exposure to playing in an NFL stadium, the Ravens conducted an open training camp practice at M&T Bank Stadium on Monday night.

With an announced 22,111 attending the workout for free, the Ravens were still missing linebacker Elvis Dumervil (Achilles) tendinitis) and rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman (knee) as both missed their fourth straight practice. The secondary continues to be banged up as well as rookie Tray Walker (hamstring), Rashaan Melvin (hamstring), and Chris Greenwood (undisclosed) were all missing from Monday’s workout.

Head coach John Harbaugh confirmed after practice that safety Matt Elam would miss the season after suffering a torn biceps on Saturday that will require surgery.

Despite returning to the practice field on a limited basis on Sunday, wide receiver Marlon Brown missed his second workout in three days as he’s nursing a minor back ailment.

Tight end Dennis Pitta (hip) remains on the active physically unable to perform list, but he was running routes in shorts and a t-shirt before the start of Monday’s practice. Safety Terrence Brooks (knee) also remains on the active PUP list.

Defensive tackle Casey Walker (knee) was activated from the PUP list and took part in his first practice of the summer.

Practice highlights

Cornerback Kyle Arrington had a strong night, drawing the ire of Steve Smith after the veteran receiver took exception to the former New England Patriot’s tight coverage on an early pass play. The pair jawed at a couple different points over the remainder of Monday night’s practice.

Despite expectations that he would serve as Baltimore’s nickel back, Arrington has seen extensive on the outside with starter Lardarius Webb moving into the slot when the Ravens use three cornerbacks. Arrington also had an impressive breakup against Kamar Aiken in 1-on-1 drills.

Backup quarterback Matt Schaub continued his early-camp struggles by heaving a pass into triple coverage that was intercepted by rookie free agent Nick Perry.

The Ravens limited No. 1 cornerback Jimmy Smith’s reps on the stadium turf, but he registered an interception on a Joe Flacco pass that was intended for Michael Campanaro. The starting quarterback was not happy that Campanaro drifted on his sideline pattern, allowing Smith to undercut the route.

Rookie tight end Maxx Williams had arguably his best practice as a professional in beating Arthur Brown in coverage to catch a long touchdown pass from third-string quarterback Bryn Renner. However, Williams later dropped what would have been a touchdown despite having a step on starting linebacker C.J. Mosley.

Kicker Justin Tucker drew one of the loudest ovations of the night when he drilled a 64-yard field goal.

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Ravens not taking any chances with early injuries in camp

Posted on 03 August 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Already preparing to play the 2015 season without safety Matt Elam, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh isn’t taking any chances with early-camp injuries to several players.

Elvis Dumervil headlines a list of players dealing with minor ailments as the outside linebacker has been sidelined for three straight days with tendinitis in his Achilles tendon. The Ravens want to make sure the issue doesn’t linger as they’re still more than five weeks away from the start of the regular season.

“Dumervil has a tendinitis issue that we’re not even [going] to mess with,” Harbaugh said following Sunday’s practice. “He’ll be fine soon, but it won’t be until he’s 100 percent that we bring him back for practice. And I don’t think it will be more than a week, but then again, I’ve said [a time frame] before, and it’s not right. But I don’t think it will be long.”

Rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman remained sidelined on Sunday while continuing to deal with a minor knee injury. Initially labeled a “bruise” by Harbaugh, the 26th overall pick’s knee sprain isn’t expected to keep him out for long, but he hasn’t practiced since Thursday while fellow receiver Kamar Aiken has taken advantage of more reps with the starting offense.

Cornerbacks Rashaan Melvin and Tray Walker are both dealing with hamstring strains as the former did not practice on Sunday. Walker, the Ravens’ fourth-round pick this year, left Sunday’s practice after pulling up lame.

“Whenever a guy gets a hamstring, right now, we’re pretty much getting them out of there,” Harbaugh said. “We don’t want it to go.”

Wide receiver Marlon Brown (back) and linebacker Andrew Bose (undisclosed) both participated in Sunday’s practice after sitting out the previous day.

Harbaugh gave a number of veteran players the day off on Sunday, including wide receiver Steve Smith, running back Justin Forsett, guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele, linebackers Daryl Smith and Terrell Suggs, and defensive end Chris Canty.

Tight end Dennis Pitta (hip), safety Terrence Brooks (knee), and defensive tackle Casey Walker (knee) remain on the active physically unable to perform list.

The Ravens will return to M&T Bank Stadium on Monday night for the first time since December to hold an open and free practice for fans to attend. The workout will give rookies an early experience in an NFL stadium before the preseason opener against New Orleans on Aug. 13.

“I just think it’s a real plus to put them in that environment, a different environment,” Harbaugh said. “When it comes time to play the Saints, they’ll at least have been there before. Plus, it’s great for the fans.”

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Harbaugh “not optimistic” with prognosis for Elam’s biceps injury

Posted on 02 August 2015 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 8:30 p.m.)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens safety Matt Elam suffered what is feared to be a season-ending arm injury during the first full-contact practice of training camp on Saturday.

The 2013 first-round pick underwent a magnetic resonance imaging exam to determine whether he suffered a torn biceps when he reached awkwardly for a wide receiver. Head coach John Harbaugh did not have the final results of the MRI when he addressed reporters on Sunday evening.

“I’m not real optimistic right now,” Harbaugh said. “I haven’t heard a final word, but it wasn’t very optimistic yesterday talking to the doctors [about] his biceps.”

After injuring his arm on Saturday afternoon, Elam walked inside the Ravens’ training facility with head athletic trainer Mark Smith. He did not appear to be in serious pain as he walked without any assistance.

After a disappointing start to his NFL career, Elam was expected to compete with Will Hill for the starting strong safety spot this season. Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome made it no secret this offseason that the organization expected more from the University of Florida product, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees had praised Elam for his performance during spring workouts.

“I’m sure it’s very disappointing for him and he told me that,” Harbaugh said. “Here’s a guy who came back with a renewed attitude. He had a better approach than he’d had the first two years. He just had grown up a lot. He was very serious. He was in tremendous shape and then he gets a fluke injury. That’s a disappointment.”

Should Elam be sidelined for an extended period of time, depth at the safety position would become a concern behind projected starters Hill and Kendrick Lewis. Terrence Brooks remains on the active physically unable to perform list while recovering from a knee injury, which would leave Anthony Levine, Brynden Trawick, and rookie free agent Nick Perry as the only other healthy safeties on the 90-man preseason roster.

In two seasons, Elam has played in 32 games (26 starts), accumulating 127 tackles, one interception, and seven pass breakups.

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2015 Ravens training camp preview: Safeties

Posted on 28 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 Wednesday and the first full-squad workout takes place the following on July 30, 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 safeties:

SAFETIES (7)
LOCK: Will Hill, Kendrick Lewis, Matt Elam, Terrence Brooks
BUBBLE: Anthony Levine, Brynden Trawick, Nick Perry
LONG SHOT: None

Synopsis: Much attention was paid to the rash of injuries at cornerback last year, but the Ravens really struggled at the safety position, using a number of players with underwhelming results. Ozzie Newsome addressed the position with the offseason signing of veteran Kendrick Lewis, who is considered good in deep coverage — an area that was particularly problematic in 2014 — but isn’t a dynamic player. Will Hill emerged as a starter in the second half of 2014 and brings intriguing upside if he can continue to stay away from off-field trouble. Beyond that, this group is filled with a plethora of questions from disappointing 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam to Terrence Brooks, who begins training camp on the physically unable to perform list while recovering from last December’s knee injury.

One to watch: The 6-foot-1, 228-pound Hill brings an impressive combination of size and speed to the position and is projected to be the starting strong safety. It will be interesting to see how much improvement Hill can make after he didn’t sign with the Ravens until training camp last year and served a six-game suspension to begin the 2014 season. Even with other high draft picks currently on the roster, the former rookie free agent from the University of Florida appears to have the most potential to be a stabilizing force at the safety position.

One on notice: The lack of depth at the position leads me to believe Elam isn’t in real danger of losing his roster spot, but the Ravens have made it abundantly clear that they need to see more from him after a very disappointing 2014 campaign. In fairness, he was asked to play a lot of nickel due to the injuries at the cornerback position last year, but that doesn’t forgive his tackling issues as he led the team with 16 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. There’s still time for Elam to turn around his young career, but this figures to be a critical season for him to do that.

Sleeper: Nick Perry had to wait his turn behind other safeties at Alabama, but he performed well in the Crimson Tide secondary as a senior, showing good ability as a tackler and some solid coverage ability. He doesn’t figure to be ready to be a factor defensively, but a strong preseason and ability on special teams could put him in decent position to take away a roster spot from an incumbent such as Anthony Levine or Brynden Trawick. His 4.62-second 40-yard dash is good enough and his intelligence on the football field was praised at Alabama, making him someone to watch this summer.

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Nov 11, 2012; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens punter Sam Koch (4) celebrates after scoring a touchdown on a fake field goal in the third quarter against the Oakland Raiders at M&T Bank Stadium.  Baltimore defeated Oakland 55-20.  Mandatory Credit: James Lang-US PRESSWIRE

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Ravens thoughts on Koch, safety position, Ngata

Posted on 14 July 2015 by Luke Jones

At a time of year when you pray for peace and quiet while counting down to the start of training camp, the Ravens made positive news last week by signing veteran punter Sam Koch to a long-term extension.

Despite being the second-longest tenured player on the team behind Terrell Suggs, the 32-year-old’s future had been under scrutiny the last couple offseasons due to a high salary cap figure for a punter, but general manager Ozzie Newsome showed how much the organization valued Koch by inking him to a five-year, $16.25 million extension that runs through the 2020 season. The 2006 sixth-round pick was coming off arguably the best season of his career in which he led the NFL in net punting with a 43.3 yard average.

Koch will receive good pay for however long he remains in Baltimore — the structure of the contract would make it fairly easy to cut him as early as the conclusion of the 2016 season if desired — but the deal still ranks outside the top five for punter contracts in total cash and guaranteed money. Remembering that the salary cap has increased by more than $23 million since 2011 makes Koch’s deal much easier to swallow considering his consistency.

While more attention has understandably fallen on the future of 2013 Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker — who is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2015 season — Koch has long been a respected member of the locker room that extends beyond his reputation for executing directional kicks as well as any punter in the league. Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg passionately summarized Koch’s value to the Ravens after the veteran failed to make the Pro Bowl last December despite winning the fan vote:

I think the fans got it right. The fans prove to be more informed than the experts in this particular regard, in my opinion. Sam has his team as the No. 1 net punt and No. 1 gross punt team in the league if you’re looking just at numbers – which I’m assuming people did – and that’s hard to do. It’s hard to do both. And other numbers that jump out at you – he’s one of the lowest numbers in percentage of returned balls, one of the lowest numbers in percentage of yards returned, one of the highest percentage of inside-the-20 punts in the league.

Besides that, he’s probably – and I don’t have numbers to back it up – but I suspect that the numbers would back me up to say he’s probably the best holder in the history of football. He has held for three Pro Bowl kickers since he has been here. This last year, he held for three different snappers, actually four counting Haloti [Ngata]. What more does a guy have to do? I guess that’s the way I look at it. And this is meant as no disrespect for the two outstanding players that made it, but the reason we do what we do is because Sam can do it. And the season he has had has been phenomenal. He went through an offseason where he got some undeserved criticism that was thrown out there and some people swallowed it and then spit it back up. His family endured that, and all Sam did is work and take care of his family.

He’s a great husband and a father, an outstanding member of his community. This is a model for pro athletes. If anybody wants to look at a pro athlete, I say, ‘Look at Sam. Be like Sam.’ His teammates have an enormous amount of respect for him. The thing I think has happened here is, because he’s such an unassuming team man – that he doesn’t seek attention for himself – that I think he has been overlooked for a number of years. Certainly not by us, not by his teammates – he is not being overlooked. We are passionate in our support of Sam Koch, because he’s such an outstanding man and an outstanding player.

Is Rosburg partial to the only punter he’s known in Baltimore? Of course, but his words tell all you need to know as to why the Ravens felt it was important to lock up their veteran punter.

Of course, the bigger challenge will be signing Tucker, but the franchise tag is almost certain to be in play if the sides don’t strike a deal by next February.

Safety concerns

The Ravens were able to augment their depth at the cornerback position with the additions of veteran Kyle Arrington and fourth-round rookie Tray Walker this offseason, but safety remains a concern as they enter training camp later this month.

Newsome made a modest commitment to veteran newcomer Kendrick Lewis with a three-year, $5.4 million contract, but only time will tell whether he represents an upgrade from Darian Stewart, who wasn’t exactly stellar in his lone season in Baltimore last year. According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis graded out as the 27th-best safety among those playing at least 50 percent of team snaps while Stewart was 23rd, but the Ravens believe Lewis has better ability to play deep coverage — an area in which the pass defense struggled dramatically a year ago.

Strong safety Will Hill could be the wild card for the Ravens secondary if he can build on his 2014 campaign in which he graded out as the 14th-best safety in the league, per PFF. Head coach John Harbaugh challenged the 25-year-old Hill to keep himself out of trouble this offseason after he was suspended three times in his first three years in the NFL, resulting in him being jettisoned by the New York Giants last year.

Baltimore will knock on wood hoping no news is good news with Hill as his continued emergence would mean less reliance on the disappointing Matt Elam or the rehabbing Terrence Brooks to begin the 2015 season. Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason, Hill would not only solidify his standing in the starting defense with a strong season, but he’d put himself in line for a nice payday despite the tumultuous beginning to his professional career.

Ngata story

The winner of this year’s Ravens-related topic that isn’t remotely a story might have been the recent comments made by Haloti Ngata about his new defense in Detroit.

Apparently, the five-time Pro Bowl selection saying he had “never been a part of a defense like this” meant he was trashing his former team as if he’s supposed to walk on eggshells in describing his new surroundings. Many of those stirring up controversy failed to mention that Ngata will be playing in a base 4-3 front for the first time in his NFL career and — wait for it — will have different teammates than the ones with whom he played in Baltimore, very much making it a defense he’s “never been a part of” before.

If you need further evidence to dismiss the notion that Ngata was out of line in expressing admiration for a non-Baltimore defense, Detroit finished ahead of the Ravens in total defense and points allowed in 2014.

While I wouldn’t describe the separation between Ngata and the Ravens as harmonious after contract talks broke down this winter, each side ultimately made a business decision the other respected. The veteran spent nearly a decade in Baltimore, rarely ever used the media to draw attention to himself, and has expressed nothing but respect for his former organization since the March trade, making last week’s created controversy absurd.

Yes, it’s a slow news time in the NFL, but there was nothing to see there at all.

 

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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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Five questions pondering Schaub, Orioles bullpen, Flaherty

Posted on 12 June 2015 by Luke Jones

(Photo courtesy of BaltimoreRavens.com)

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

Five questions …

1. Is it just me or could the Orioles be in good position to pull off a trade at this year’s deadline? Much will depend on the next few weeks with a starting rotation currently battling health issues with Miguel Gonzalez on the disabled list and inconsistency from Chris Tillman and Bud Norris, but the depth could be there to orchestrate a trade to make a push for a second straight division title. The ability to trade Alejandro De Aza freed the remainder of his $5 million salary from the books and Norris and Wei-Yin Chen will both be free agents at the end of the season, making it desirable to at least explore what they might be able to fetch for one of them. Of course, this is assuming the Orioles would feel comfortable with Kevin Gausman being back in the rotation as the 24-year-old is still being stretched out as a starter in the minors. It’s no secret that the corner outfield situation is less than ideal, but Dan Duquette has shown a willingness to make in-season deals to try to help his club over the last couple seasons and there appears to be the cash and assets available to do it again.

2. Is it just me or have the early reviews of new Ravens quarterback Matt Schaub not been encouraging? I’m the last person to put much stock into what we see at organized team activities in the spring, but it hasn’t been a strong start for the 33-year-old backup, who has been intercepted frequently and has made too many errant passes in workouts open to media. This wouldn’t be too much of a concern until you remember how poorly Schaub played in his final season in Houston and last year when he was beaten out by rookie Derek Carr in Oakland. Admittedly, I wasn’t a big fan of the signing after years of pumping little money into the backup spot, but I figured Schaub would at least provide a decent upgrade from Tyrod Taylor at the backup position. It’s still very early, but I’m not convinced he will give the Ravens any more of a chance to win than Taylor should Flacco go down with an injury this season.

3. Is it just me or is Ryan Flaherty putting together a fine season after years of criticism? The utility infielder has been a target for many fans who tire of the Orioles’ micromanaging of their roster in recent years, but he is hitting a very respectable .260 with an .801 on-base plus slugging percentage in 90 plate appearances this season. Buck Showalter has valued the 28-year-old’s ability to play above-average defense at several spots over the last few years, but it’s been nice to see his offense catch up to his work in the field. In fact, had Jonathan Schoop not gotten off to such a strong start at the plate before hurting his right knee in mid-April, you wonder how many might be clamoring for Flaherty to remain the starting second baseman even after the 23-year-old returns. Make no mistake, Schoop is the future at the position, but Flaherty has done a fine job solidifying his place as the Orioles’ utility man despite missing a month with a groin issue this year.

4. Is it just me or is this season critical for the Ravens’ 2013 draft class? There’s no sugarcoating how disappointing Matt Elam and Arthur Brown have been in their first two seasons, making this a “make or break” year for both. Elam will be competing with Will Hill for the starting strong safety job while Brown needs to have a strong camp to simply avoid being cut after playing less in his second year than he did as a rookie. Beyond those two, this year looms large for Kyle Juszczyk, who will need to prove he can produce in offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s system that didn’t prominently feature a fullback in Chicago. It also figures to be an important year for 2013 sixth-round defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore after he missed his first two seasons with injuries. The selections of defensive tackle Brandon Williams in the third round and right tackle Rick Wagner in the fifth were terrific, but you can’t give a draft two thumbs up when you whiff so badly in the first two rounds.

5. Is it just me or are the Orioles in ideal position with their bullpen? Baltimore figured to have a good back of the pen with closer Zach Britton and setup man Darren O’Day, but the Orioles have been able to distribute the workload in an encouraging manner so far. A big difference with this year’s pen compared to previous seasons is its improved ability to strike out opposing hitters as Orioles relievers rank fourth in the American League in strikeouts and are averaging 9.2 per nine innings. The bullpen averaged just 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 2014, 8.1 in 2013, and 7.5 in 2012. Strikeouts certainly aren’t everything, but there’s no disputing how helpful they can be when a reliever is summoned to escape a tough jam. On the open market, strikeouts are expensive — it’s the biggest reason ex-Oriole Andrew Miller received a four-year, $36 million contract — so it’s extremely beneficial when you can find inexpensive arms like Brad Brach (11.4 strikeouts per nine) and Chaz Roe (10.5 strikeouts per nine) who are able to miss so many bats. Though needed in the rotation at the moment, rookie Mike Wright figures to be another candidate who could settle into a bullpen role at some point this year.

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