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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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Nov 10, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens safety Matt Elam (26) in action against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

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Elam having “best camp yet” in defensive coordinator’s mind

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have made it clear this season is critical for Matt Elam and the third-year safety has responded favorably in at least one coach’s mind.

After general manager Ozzie Newsome stated earlier this offseason that the organization has “not been satisfied” with the performance of the 2013 first-round pick, defensive coordinator Dean Pees said he’s seeing plenty of progress with Elam, who has been splitting time with Will Hill at strong safety in the starting defense during voluntary organized team activities.

“Best camp he has had — bar none, not even close. I expect big things out of Matt,” Pees said on Monday. “I really do. I know there are some critics out there, but I’m just telling you I think No. 26 is going to be a good football player. I think he’s having a great camp.”

Of course, coaches will rarely go out of their way to be negative about a player publicly, but Pees’ comments contrast the tone the organization’s brass has offered when asked about the safety this offseason. The Ravens are still hoping that Elam will begin providing a better return after looking like one of the worst first-round picks in franchise history through two seasons.

The 23-year-old reported to the Ravens’ training complex in better shape this spring after losing eight pounds, according to head coach John Harbaugh. Baltimore hopes that will translate to better performance in the secondary where Elam has struggled in pass coverage and as a tackler despite a reputation for being a punishing hitter at the University of Florida.

According to Pro Football Focus, Elam graded out 78th among all safeties to have played at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps in 2014 and led the Ravens defense with 16 missed tackles. Injuries in the secondary forced Elam into nickel duty too often — a problem that should be avoided with better cornerback depth this season — but that doesn’t excuse his inconsistency in bringing down ball carriers in 2014.

So, what specific improvement is Pees seeing from Elam that suggests this season will be different?

“Communication-wise, running to the ball wise, and every aspect,” Pees said. “Now, the thing that we can’t tell right now is tackling from anybody [in non-contact practices]. It wouldn’t be just him, [but] it would be anybody. We don’t know that. But as far as just communication, knowing the defense, being in the right spot, doing all those things, [it’s the] best camp he has had.”

In two seasons, Elam has totaled 127 tackles, one interception, seven pass breakups, and a forced fumble.

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Five questions pondering Showalter, Arrington, Harvey, others

Posted on 15 May 2015 by Luke Jones

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

Five questions …

1. Is it just me or does the acquisition of Kyle Arrington have you feeling really good about the Ravens in 2015? Baltimore is no stranger to significant roster turnover, but fans were understandably uneasy in seeing so many high-profile players depart this offseason. Since then, general manager Ozzie Newsome has done some of his finest work — on paper, at least — with this year’s draft and Wednesday’s acquisition of veteran cornerback Kyle Arrington, which addressed the last glaring need the Ravens had. Arrington isn’t a Pro Bowl player, but his experience and versatility will be welcomed in a secondary that struggled at cornerback and safety last season. The Ravens may not be the clear favorite in the AFC this season, but they could be very dangerous in December and January if — and it’s a big one — rookies Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams are ready to contribute in a meaningful way.

2. Is it just me or are the Orioles delaying the inevitable with Hunter Harvey’s latest elbow problems? I couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu when hearing Buck Showalter say that the pitching prospect wouldn’t need surgery before he then dodged a question about whether a magnetic resonance imaging exam showed any damage to Harvey’s ulnar collateral ligament. Last July, Harvey was first diagnosed with a flexor mass strain, the same ailment experienced by Dylan Bundy before he ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery in 2013. To be clear, undergoing the surgical procedure shouldn’t be viewed as flippantly as some like to think as not every pitcher fully recovers, but the fact that this is the second time in less than a year that Harvey is having arm issues makes you wonder if we’ve seen the last of him on a mound until sometime in 2016. He will seek a second opinion with Dr. James Andrews in the near future, and you know how that story usually ends.

3. Is it just me or are you already fatigued hearing hype about this year being different for Matt Elam? The Ravens hope to finally get a return on their 2013 first-round investment, but Elam will need to show improvement on the field after a dismal 2014 campaign. While it’s certainly premature to completely bury the strong safety in only his third season, Elam won’t be assured of anything this summer with Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis the favorites to win starting jobs on the back end. Head coach John Harbaugh mentioned earlier this week that Elam has lost eight pounds and that his body fat is down to about six percent. Elam will hope that improved fitness helps improve his tackling and coverage skills, two areas that were sorely lacking in last year’s performance. The Ravens have had other late bloomers such as cornerback Jimmy Smith, but Elam has rarely ever shown signs that his game could have another level and the discussion about him being in better shape and showing more confidence means very little until we see it translate to the field.

4. Is it just me or does Showalter just “get it” about managing in Baltimore? Winning is the most important change that the sixth-year manager has brought to the Orioles, but Monday provided the latest example of how he always knows the right thing to do. Showalter so often wears a black jacket during games that most fans would struggle to remember his jersey number, but you saw him proudly wearing his No. 26 in the series opener against Toronto when the Orioles wore “Baltimore” home jerseys in their return to Camden Yards. It was a subtle gesture, but it came after the honest and thoughtful manner in which Showalter spoke about last month’s unrest in Baltimore. He isn’t from Charm City and he’d be the first to tell you he hasn’t done it alone, but no one has been more important in rebuilding the pride of what it means to be an Oriole or an Orioles fan since his arrival in 2010.

5. Is it just me or does Jarret Johnson top the list of Ravens players you wish had won a Super Bowl? Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, and Kelly Gregg also deserve mentions, but Johnson epitomized what it meant to “play like a Raven” in his nine years in Baltimore. During his retirement press conference this week, I asked him about his emotions watching his former team win the Super Bowl less than 11 months after he departed via free agency — the Ravens made no real effort to keep him after the 2011 season — and you couldn’t sense an ounce of bitterness or regret in his reply. Johnson recalled celebrating when the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII and quickly sent a congratulatory text message to Harbaugh, a man with whom he occasionally clashed in their years together. The Ravens coach said that was one of the most meaningful messages he received that night and replied telling Johnson he was a part of that championship. He wasn’t a Pro Bowl player and is unlikely to go into the Ring of Honor, but the dependable Johnson was about as “Baltimore” as a guy from Florida can be.

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perriman

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Ravens sign first-round pick Breshad Perriman

Posted on 11 May 2015 by Luke Jones

Two weeks before Memorial Day, the Ravens have signed all of their selections from the 2015 draft with first-round wide receiver Breshad Perriman agreeing to terms on Monday.

The 26th overall pick was the last of Baltimore’s nine draft picks to sign, agreeing to a four-year, $8.7 million contract that includes a fifth-year team option. The deal includes a $4.59 million signing bonus, according to the NFL’s slotting system for draft picks.

The memories of rookie draft picks holding out well into training camp continue to fade as the current collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011 eliminated the drama that once existed in signing early-round picks. All nine draft picks participated in the Ravens’ rookie minicamp in Owings Mills last weekend.

The 6-foot-2 Perriman is expected to start opposite veteran receiver Steve Smith this season.

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Even after strong draft, Ravens remain vulnerable at cornerback

Posted on 05 May 2015 by Luke Jones

As the Ravens receive much-deserved praise for addressing an extensive list of needs and wants in this year’s draft, one clear truth remained at the end of an otherwise-successful weekend.

The secondary remains vulnerable after the Ravens finished 23rd in pass defense during the 2014 season. To be clear, this isn’t meant to be a biting criticism as detractors pointing to the failures of the Ravens defense in the divisional playoff loss to New England last January are conveniently failing to mention that Baltimore needed to replace starting wide receiver Torrey Smith and starting tight end Owen Daniels before worrying about a No. 3 cornerback or help at safety, a position with few immediate solutions in this year’s draft.

Yes, the defense deserved more blame than the offense in that 35-31 defeat to the Patriots, but the Ravens weren’t going to replace two individuals responsible for 32 percent of Joe Flacco’s 2014 passing yards on hopes and dreams alone, which is why they selected Brehad Perriman and Maxx Williams with their first two picks.

Of the nine selections made by general manager Ozzie Newsome, however, fourth-round cornerback Tray Walker has raised the most eyebrows as many projected the Texas Southern product to be a late-round selection or even a priority free agent. The Ravens really like the 6-foot-2 corner’s upside and worked him out privately during the pre-draft process, but it’s fair to wonder if it was a reach to ensure they’d come away with at least one cornerback with room for grwoth. At the very least, it would be quite ambitious to assume Walker will be ready to immediately step into the No. 3 cornerback role behind starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb.

“Could we have taken a corner in the first round? We probably could have. In the second round? We probably could have,” Newsome said. “But at the point when we were picking, it wasn’t the best player. But we do feel good. Getting Jimmy back healthy, Lardarius having a year to train, and then some of the young guys to have a chance to play being in the system for a second year [will help].”

Newsome’s correct about the Ravens being ravaged by injuries with five cornerbacks finishing the season on injured reserve. While Rashaan Melvin wouldn’t have been filling a starting role late last season under normal circumstances, the former Tampa Bay practice-squad member played well enough to garner a look as the potential third cornerback. He, Walker, Anthony Levine, and the oft-injured Asa Jackson currently stand as the candidates for the No. 3 job, but the Ravens will also be depending on first-year cornerbacks coach Matt Weiss and first-year defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt — who served as Steve Spagnuolo’s assistant secondary coach a year ago — to oversee their development.

Finding a No. 3 cornerback is not an impossible task, but that only comes with the assumption that Smith is back to form after a season-ending Lisfranc injury and Webb can build on the improvement shown late in 2014 after a back injury cost him all of training camp and the first month of the regular season. The two have missed 33 regular-season games due to injuries in their respective careers and have only played full 16-game seasons three times between them.

It’s also worth noting that the Ravens ranked just 24th in pass defense before Smith went down for the season in Week 8, proof that all wasn’t well in the secondary before defensive coordinator Dean Pees lost his top cornerback.

With the draft complete, it’s worth noting that some teams will part ways with veteran cornerbacks in the coming days and weeks like the Patriots did with Alfonzo Dennard on Tuesday. Of course, none of those names can be regarded as a sure bet, but the Ravens could find an appealing candidate or two to throw into the current No. 3 and No. 4 mix, especially with more than $10 million in current salary cap space.

“We’re not done putting this team together right now,” Newsome said at the draft’s conclusion. “It’s still maybe four months before we have to play Denver [in the season opener]. We’re still going to be mining for players to make our roster to make us better.”

Despite everything accomplished with their nine selections this past weekend, cornerback remains a top position to try to improve between now and the start of the season.

Pondering Pitta’s future

Admittedly, I’ve been surprised by some of the reaction to the Ravens drafting two tight ends and the “new-found” conclusions many have reached about the future of veteran Dennis Pitta.

All offseason, Baltimore has expressed hope that the 2010 fourth-round pick would be able to play again after suffering two devastating right hip injuries in a 14-month span. But, like everyone else, the organization saw the manner in which Pitta innocuously caught a short pass and tried to turn upfield before crumpling to the ground without even being touched in Cleveland last September.

Knowing Pitta’s character and commitment to the game, I would never count out his potential return to the field. But I’m also rooting for a 29-year-old man to do what’s best for him and his family, whether that means trying to play football again or calling it a career with what should be plenty of financial security.

If Pitta returns, having too many tight ends is a great problem to have, but the Ravens simply can’t count on any production from him in 2015 or beyond. Even if he does resume playing, it will be difficult for the Ravens — or anyone else — to shake the fear of what happened to Pitta in Cleveland from happening again.

Return game

Another position of interest that appeared to go unaddressed in this year’s draft was return specialist as the Ravens must replace veteran Jacoby Jones.

Many have pointed to wide receiver Michael Campanaro as the top candidate to return punts, but it will be worth keeping an eye on rookie free agent DeAndre Carter from Sacramento State. Carter is only 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, but he was projected by some to be a late-round pick with potential to be a solid return man at the next level.

The Ravens have a history of finding rookie free agent returners from B.J. Sams and Cory Ross to Deonte Thompson, so an opportunity could be there for Carter despite a very crowded group of young wide receivers.

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Five young players the Ravens need more from in 2015

Posted on 10 February 2015 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens coming off a 10-6 season that included a return to the playoffs after a one-year absence, the job this winter will be to augment a roster that has plenty of talent but clear deficiencies at several spots.

However, with a poor salary-cap situation and only so many holes that can be filled through the draft, the Ravens will lean on a handful of young players already on the roster to emerge and make a difference with another year of experience under their belts.

Below are five young players the Ravens will need more from in order to build on their 2014 campaign:

1. S Matt Elam

Through two years, it’s no secret that Elam has looked like the worst defensive first-round pick in franchise history, but the Ravens aren’t going to give up on the University of Florida product as quickly as many fans would like. In fairness, the 5-foot-10 safety was asked to play out of position for a second straight year — playing extensively at the nickel due to injuries — but leading the team in missed tackles doesn’t make a good argument for him to be the starting strong safety, either. Elam needs to take advantage of this offseason to improve after admitting he didn’t handle his demotion well in terms of putting in good effort during practices. Baltimore won’t pencil him in as a starter, so Elam needs to take advantage of his opportunities this summer.

2. TE Crockett Gillmore

The 2014 third-round pick had a solid rookie campaign considering he was supposed to be the No. 3 tight end entering the year, but the Ravens hope the signs he showed as a receiver late in the year will translate to more production in 2015. With Dennis Pitta’s future unclear and Owen Daniels scheduled to become a free agent, Gillmore is the most reliable option the Ravens currently have at the position. Even if those veterans return, Gillmore will be counted on more in the passing game after proving himself as a capable blocker. General manager Ozzie Newsome will likely look to address the tight end position this offseason, but Gillmore’s continued development would go a long way in helping quarterback Joe Flacco next season.

3. DE Brent Urban

Normally, it’d be unfair to include a player on this list who’s coming off a season-ending knee injury suffered in his first training camp, but veteran Chris Canty may retire or be released and reserve Lawrence Guy is a free agent, meaning the Ravens will hope the fourth-round pick can be a factor at the 5-technique defensive end position in 2015. The organization loved Urban’s 6-foot-7, 295-pound frame coming out of Virginia, and the timing of his injury last summer would presumably allow him to be a full participant in training camp this summer. It’s unlikely that Urban will simply be penciled in as the starter with veteran DeAngelo Tyson still on the roster, but the Ravens drafted him last May with visions of him eventually replacing Canty.

4. S Terrence Brooks

The season-ending knee injury the 2014 third-round pick suffered in December ended a disappointing first year for the Florida State product, who often looked unsure of himself in coverage and gave up big plays at a few critical junctures. The emergence of Will Hill in the second half of the season brought some stability to the position, but Hill’s off-field baggage is good reason for Brooks to be ready to seize opportunities when he’s healthy enough to get back on the field. Last May, the Ravens had to be hoping that Brooks and Elam would be their starting safety tandem for years to come, but both have much to prove going into the 2015 season. Unfortunately, getting healthy is the first item on the offseason agenda for the athletic Brooks.

5. LB Arthur Brown

When you’re active for only four games and can’t even get on the field as a special-teams contributor, what else needs to be said for a second-round pick after two seasons? It wasn’t surprising to see Brown’s defensive role diminish — he saw time as a nickel linebacker as a rookie — after C.J. Mosley was selected in the first round, but the Ravens regularly going with undrafted rookie Zachary Orr for special teams on game days didn’t speak well for Brown’s athleticism. So, why not simply admit he was a bust and move on? Mosley and Daryl Smith remained healthy enough to play over 1,000 snaps each in 2014. The odds suggest that’s unlikely to happen again, so it’d be nice to see Brown improve enough to at least become a solid backup in his third year.

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In end, Ravens couldn’t overcome biggest weakness

Posted on 11 January 2015 by Luke Jones

Reflecting on Saturday’s season-ending 35-31 loss to New England, the Ravens know there were other reasons why they didn’t advance to the AFC Championship.

A last-minute interception by quarterback Joe Flacco tarnished what had been a banner day for him and a Ravens offense that produced at least 30 points for the second straight week. The decision to take the deep shot, the effort by wide receiver Torrey Smith to break it up, and the throw itself all came under scrutiny, but the offense had been more than good enough to win for the first 58 minutes of the game.

The vaunted pass rush that ranked second in the NFL with 49 sacks during the regular season managed to sack Patriots quarterback Tom Brady only twice with neither coming in the second half as the Ravens squandered a 14-point lead — their second of the night — in the third quarter. Baltimore had accumulated four or more sacks in each of its last eight wins and was 0-5 over that same stretch when failing to reach that plateau.

But it was the Ravens’ greatest weakness that ultimately led to their demise as the secondary was exposed and exploited by Brady and New England’s passing game. In giving up 408 passing yards and four touchdown passes — one thrown by Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman — the Ravens cannnot be fooled by the statistical improvement in the final month of the season that came against opposing passing games led by Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Connor Shaw. Baltimore ranked 31st in pass defense entering the final month of the regular season before rallying to finish 23rd.

Fixing the secondary will be a major undertaking for general manager Ozzie Newsome, who misread the Ravens’ depth at cornerback last offseason long before a rash of injuries decimated the position. There are no easy solutions as every notable member of the unit faces a significant question this offseason and secondary coach Steve Spanguolo could draw interest as a potential defensive coordinator elsewhere.

Top cornerback Jimmy Smith will be returning from a Lisfranc injury and is scheduled to make $6.898 million in the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. Emerging as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL before the foot ailment cut his season short in October, Smith is someone the Ravens would like to keep for the long run, but it’s difficult to ignore the reality that he’s missed 17 games in four seasons when considering the significant money it will likely require to keep him.

Veteran Lardarius Webb made a team-high 11 starts at cornerback, but he carries a $12 million cap figure for the 2015 season. After once appearing on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowl player, Webb will be entering his seventh season and played like no more than average at best after returning from a back injury that cost him all of training camp and three games at the start of the season. Two surgically-repaired knees on top of the back ailment make you wonder if his 5-foot-10, 182-pound body is failing him at this stage of his career.

Cutting Webb would only save $2 million in cap space — he has three years remaining on a six-year, $50 million contract signed in 2012 — and the Ravens would need to replace him in the starting defense, but it’s difficult to justify his salary for such lackluster play for much of the 2014 campaign.

Safety Will Hill was a rare bright spot in the secondary after starting the final eight games upon coming off a six-game suspension, but can the Ravens trust him to stay out of trouble and remain committed to the game? The Ravens wouldn’t figure to have difficulty keeping the restricted free agent, but he’ll need to prove Baltimore right in giving him a second chance before a long-term commitment is even considered.

The in-house options look grim beyond that.

Even if it’s too soon to declare Matt Elam a complete bust, there’s no sugarcoating how disappointing the 2013 first-round pick has been through his first two seasons. In fairness, Elam was forced to play out of position again for much of the year, but he also led the Ravens in missed tackles, which is a problem considering his tackling was viewed as a strength of his coming out of the University of Florida.

Third-round safety Terrence Brooks offered a few glimpses of potential amidst typical struggles of a rookie, but a knee injury cut his season short and the Ravens couldn’t have seen enough to feel comfortable in moving forward with him as a guaranteed starter.

Cornerback Rashaan Melvin was a nice story in becoming a starter late in the year after being signed off the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad in early November, but the Patriots completed 15 of 19 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns, and a 150.9 passer rating against him in coverage. He proved himself enough to be a solid option for depth, but no more than that at this point.

Injuries limited Asa Jackson to just seven games and his pass coverage wasn’t overly impressive when he played.

Safeties Darian Stewart and Jeromy Miles and cornerback Danny Gorrer are unrestricted free agents, and cornerback Anthony Levine is a restricted free agent.

The draft appears to be the most logical outlet to seek improvement for 2015 and beyond, but the Ravens won’t pick until 26th overall and rookie cornerbacks don’t often provide an immediate impact in significant roles. Baltimore can look no farther than Smith’s selection in 2011 as evidence with the 6-foot-2 University of Colorado product disappointing in his first two years before establishing himself as a starter in 2013.

The Ravens don’t need a top 10 secondary with the strength of their front seven, but it was apparent that even an average secondary might have carried them to at least an AFC Championship appearance.

It will be up to Newsome to make the necessary improvement for 2015.

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