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Osemele earning serious consideration as Ravens left tackle

Posted on 16 April 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Many have debated how the Ravens should handle their left tackle position as they continue preparations for the 2013 season, but a new favorite was mentioned during Tuesday’s pre-draft press conference in Owings Mills.

Coach John Harbaugh said earlier in the offseason that second-year lineman Kelechi Osemele would receive consideration at left tackle after splitting his rookie season between right tackle and left guard, but general manager Ozzie Newsome provided the most definitive assessment we’ve heard yet regarding Osemele’s standing in the race. Veteran Bryant McKinnie remains an unrestricted free agent, but the Ravens are expected to wait and see how next week’s draft plays out before making a decision on the 33-year-old.

However, Osemele — and not former left tackle Michael Oher — appears to have the inside track at the position should the Ravens pass on McKinnie and fail to come away with a tackle in the draft. The Iowa State product started at left tackle for three years in college and was an All-Big 12 selection at the position.

“He could potentially be our left tackle, too. I think we are very open,” Newsome said. “Like I said, the dialogue has been very good with [McKinnie] from my standpoint, and I think John would echo the same thing. If we had to line up today with the group that we have, I think John told [owner] Steve Bisciotti that K.O. would probably get that opportunity.”

McKinnie has received interest from New Orleans and San Diego as well as the Ravens during the offseason, but no talks have progressed beyond the preliminary stages with any of the aforementioned teams.

Harbaugh spoke to McKinnie on the phone a few weeks ago to see if the tackle was staying in shape and to express his desire for the veteran to return to Baltimore for a third season.

“I’ve had conversations with his agent prior to today,” Newsome said. “I have a good relationship with his agent Michael George. John and [run game coordinator Juan Castillo] have both been in communication with Bryant. It is a process with Bryant. Could we open up our first game this year – wherever that is, whenever it is – and he be our left tackle? He potentially could be.”

The Ravens are extremely unlikely to see any of the top three tackle prospects — Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M, Eric Fisher of Central Michigan, and Lane Johnson of Oklahoma — available when they pick at No. 32, but assistant general manager Eric DeCosta mentioned several other intriguing tackle prospects to watch, including Florida State’s Menelik Watson, Kent State’s Brian Winters, Syracuse’s Justin Pugh, Wisconsin’s Ricky Wagner, and Terron Armstead of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

Newsome downplays Alabama connection with newcomer McClain

Asked about the signing of troubled inside linebacker Rolando McClain and his Alabama roots, Newsome made a very clear assessment of why the Ravens signed the former Oakland Raider, who was released earlier this month.

Awarded only a one-year deal with a base salary of $700,000 and no guaranteed money, McClain appears to be a favorite to start in the Ravens’ 3-4 base defense, but the 23-year-old will need to prove he’s overcome his off-field problems and character flaws that led to Oakland deciding to absorb roughly $11 million in dead money on their 2013 salary cap just to be rid of him.

“Rolando is just getting an opportunity to come and make our 53-man squad,” Newsome said. “That’s it.”

Director of college scouting Joe Hortiz was the first person Newsome consulted in weighing the possibility of signing the young linebacker. Ironically enough, Hortiz attended Auburn, the Crimson Tide’s biggest rival.

Newsome’s conversations with Hortiz coupled with the strong infrastructure of the Baltimore locker room made McClain a realistic fit with minimum risk. If McClain doesn’t fall in line, the Ravens can release him with no financial ramifications.

“He is coming here just to be a part of this football team,” Newsome said. “I think the guys in the locker room will be able to provide him with the proper guidance that he needs as to the way John wants his football team and his football players to be.”

Webb, J. McClain on track for returns

Harbaugh offered positive outlooks on the respective recoveries of cornerback Lardarius Webb and linebacker Jameel McClain as the Ravens began their voluntary offseason workout program on Monday.

Webb tore the ACL in his right knee last Oct. 14, an injury that landed him on season-ending injured reserve, but the cornerback is expected to be fully recovered by the start of training camp.

“He looks really good. He should be ready to roll [for] training camp, it looks like,” Harbaugh said. “We are going to make sure we don’t have a setback. That’s the most important thing.”

McClain’s status remains trickier as he hasn’t been officially cleared to return to the field after suffering a spinal cord contusion on Dec. 9 of last season. The sixth-year linebacker and the Ravens have remained optimistic over his long-term prognosis and how it relates to his career.

His return would give defensive coordinator Dean Pees a pair of McClains at inside linebacker.

“It’s nothing but positive from the doctors about Jameel,” Harbaugh said. “He’s in training mode. He’s actually going to head out for a week to Los Angeles. There’s a certain type of trainer out there that he’s going to work with for a week out there. That will be important for him. It’s just a healing process.

“There’s a certain type of a bruise that happens that caused his issue, but it’s going away on schedule. We don’t know for sure, but I’m approaching it as if Jameel is going to be out there for us, and it looks like he has a good chance to do that – a really good chance of doing that.”

McPhee on the move

The Ravens revealed earlier this offseason that defensive lineman Bryan Hall was switching to inside linebacker and defensive end Pernell McPhee will experience a more subtle position change.

After bulking up last offseason to become a three-down defensive end in a 3-4 system, McPhee was limited with knee, thigh, and groin injuries. Harbaugh and his staff would like to use McPhee in more of a pass-rush specialist role for 2013.

“We’re kind of a hybrid, 4-3, 3-4 team, so we’re going to emphasize Pernell a little bit more at outside linebacker in Terrell Suggs’ spot and see how he does out there,” Harbaugh said. “But, he’ll still bounce. He’s an outside linebacker that can play defensive end, and he’ll be a defensive end/pass rusher in our even fronts, in our pass-rush scheme.”

The move to rush linebacker will likely require McPhee to lose a considerable amount of weight, which could ease some of the strain on his problematic knees. The third-year defensive lineman is also recovering from offseason groin surgery.

 

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Business about to pick up as Ravens brass travels to NFL scouting combine

Posted on 20 February 2013 by Luke Jones

After only a couple weeks to set offseason priorities and plans following their win in Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens realize business is about to pick up as the shapers of the organization travel to Indianapolis for the NFL’s scouting combine.

Most teams will be focused primarily on scouting the incoming rookie class ahead of April’s draft and holding informal discussions — don’t dare call these talks tampering, however — with the agents of soon-to-be free agents, but the Ravens hold the clearest and most important task of any team in Indianapolis. General manager Ozzie Newsome and vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty are set to meet with quarterback Joe Flacco’s agent for their first contract negotiations since last August. Joe Linta has expressed a desire for his client to become the highest-paid quarterback in the league and is reportedly seeking upwards of $20 million per season.

As unlikely as it is that the sides come to an agreement on a long-term contract this weekend in Indianapolis, it will be important to see progress made from the point where talks broke down prior to last season. The first real deadline on which to be focused is March 4, the last day the Ravens are allowed to place the franchise tag on Flacco for the 2013 season. Should the Ravens be forced to use the $14.6 non-exclusive tag or the exclusive one estimated to cost $20 million or more for a one-year tender, they will be faced with making a number of roster cuts to be in compliance with the salary cap by the start of the new league year on March 12.

While Flacco’s side is likely willing to be creative in structuring a deal to quell cap concerns for the 2013 season, Linta made it clear a couple weeks ago that it’s not his client’s obligation to take a hometown discount to bail the Ravens out of trouble.

“There are a lot of teams in the same boat; the Ravens aren’t the only ones with cap problems,” Linta said on AM 1570 WNST.net earlier this month. “Whether it’s Joe or any of the other free agents who are upcoming, they have to figure out how to do it. Every time you’re a cap manager like Ozzie and Pat are, you have to come up with a puzzle that works for you.”

As Moriarty’s focus will largely be on making substantial strides in order to lock up the Super Bowl MVP for the long haul, the rest of the organization will be consumed with 40-yard dash times, bench-press reps, medical exams, and interviews with countless draft prospects. And considering their tenuous cap position and how it will hinder their ability to be overly active in free agency, the Ravens will depend on April’s draft as much as ever to replenish the voids left by departing members of their Super Bowl championship team.

Te’o talk

No draft prospect will be under more scrutiny in the coming days than Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who claimed to be the victim of an online hoax that’s drawn an overwhelming amount of attention for the better part of a month. He will be peppered with questions about the story of his nonexistent girlfriend and must test well to put himself back in position to be a top-15 pick.

It’s no secret that the Ravens will be looking at the inside linebacker position due to the retirement of future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, the uncertain status of free-agent linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, and the health of Jameel McClain after he suffered a spinal cord contusion in December. Te’o has been deemed a logical fit by many draft analysts who have linked him to the Ravens at the 32nd overall pick in mock drafts. It is believed that the Ravens are impressed with the 255-pound linebacker’s ability despite his poor showing in the BCS national championship game against Alabama last month.

As is the case with any player dealing with off-field issues, it’s critical for teams to draw a definitive assessment of his ability on the field before even contemplating taking the time and resources to investigate whether they can tolerate the baggage that will accompany Te’o. His is an unprecedented case as issues of trust and whether the young linebacker will be resilient enough to deal with the intense scrutiny in the months and years to come must be strongly considered.

If the Ravens are convinced the Heisman Trophy runner-up is fast enough to go sideline to sideline — his 40 time will be a major point of interest for teams — and strong enough to take on offensive linemen in the NFL, they will do their homework on his character to determine whether he’s a realistic option at the No. 32 spot. If not, they will turn to other prospects at the position.

Another inside linebacker dealing with off-field baggage is Georgia’s Alec Ogletree, who was arrested earlier this month for DUI. Ogletree excelled at a number of positions for the Bulldogs and is considered exceptional in pass coverage, but his off-field issues — he was also suspended four games last season for failing a drug test during spring practice — may send him down the draft board, making him a possibility at the end of the first round. The questions associated with Te’o and Ogletree may benefit the Ravens, who would have figured to have no chance for either player under regular circumstances.

Other inside linebacker prospects that could be options in the first few rounds include LSU’s Kevin Minter, Oregon’s Kiko Alonso, and Alabama’s Nico Johnson, who will not participate at the combine after undergoing sports hernia surgery following the Senior Bowl.

Addressing the blind side

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Ten non-Flacco thoughts on Ravens’ offseason

Posted on 19 February 2013 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens about to enter the most critical contract negotiations in franchise history later this week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, it’s difficult not to be inundated with the Joe Flacco discussions as general manager Ozzie Newsome tries to lock up his franchise quarterback for the long haul.

Frankly, the talk has been overwhelming and I’m as guilty as anyone in fueling the Flacco fire — HERE, HERE, and even HERE — and what impact it will have on the rest of the offseason and even the future of the franchise.

With that in mind, I offer 10 offseason thoughts not related to “you know who” as we wait to see how negotiations play out:

1. The Ravens could be faced with the choice of overpaying Bryant McKinnie or enduring another season of Michael Oher at left tackle.
Both sides will explore other options, but it’s difficult to find a left tackle — who’s ready to play immediately, anyway — with no cap room and no draft choice higher than 32nd overall. McKinnie may also find a lukewarm market with his off-field baggage and questions over why the Ravens sat him for the entire regular season. If the Ravens deem McKinnie too expensive or too risky to sign, would they roll the dice in going with Oher at left tackle for another season and hoping they can find their left tackle of 2014 in the draft? It’s a dangerous proposition and the Ravens simply don’t have the resources to expect to find anyone better than McKinnie in free agency.

2. Regardless of how the tackle position shakes out, I’d like to see Kelechi Osemele remain at left guard next season. Lost in the shuffle of the offensive line shakeup to start the postseason was the stellar play of Osemele, who was seeing his first extensive time at left guard since the preseason. The Iowa State product played solidly at the right tackle position, but he showed the potential of being a Pro Bowl player on the interior line in four playoff games. At 6-foot-5 and 335 pounds, Osemele clearly has the size to hold up at right tackle, but he could be good enough to make everyone forget about Ben Grubbs at the left guard position. The combination of him and Marshal Yanda could be the best guard duo in the league sooner rather than later, so the Ravens would love to keep Osemele inside in a perfect world.

3. Nothing should be guaranteed to Jimmy Smith next season despite a strong rebound in the postseason.
It looked like a lost season for the 2011 first-round pick after ineffective play and sports hernia surgery dropped him to fourth on the depth chart late in the year, but Smith rebounded to play well in the postseason, including making critical plays on third and fourth down of the Ravens’ goal-line stand in the Super Bowl. His 6-foot-2 frame is the logical replacement for the likely-to-depart Cary Williams, but Smith will need to work his way up the depth chart by first beating out Chykie Brown for the No. 3 corner spot and then Corey Graham for a starting job. His postseason play proves the discussion about Smith being a bust was premature, but the time is now for Smith to prove the Ravens were wise to use a first-round pick on him.

4. This will be a big offseason for Terrence Cody, who is looking more like the second failed second-round pick of the 2010 draft. Outside linebacker Sergio Kindle has already parted ways with the Ravens and Cody might follow him sooner rather than later as the nose tackle enters the final year of his rookie contract. Newsome made it clear at the season-review press conference that the Ravens need to improve at defensive tackle and Cody struggled to get on the field as he competed with veteran Ma’ake Kemoeatu this season. Despite being listed at 341 pounds, Cody was often manhandled and made little impact in taking on blockers to allow linebackers to make plays against the run. The defensive lineman made only two tackles in the postseason and could find himself on the roster bubble should he go through the motions during training camp.

5. With all the discussion over the salary cap purge following the 2001 season, has everyone forgotten how quickly the Ravens returned to prominence after gutting their roster? I understand the line of thinking of both Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti in saying they don’t want to mortgage the future solely to make an ill-advised effort to get back to the Super Bowl next season, but it’s not as though the Ravens fell off a cliff following their last purge. They went 7-9 as the youngest team in the NFL in 2002 and improved to 10-6 and captured their first AFC North title in 2003. It certainly helped that the Ravens had young versions of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as well as offensive pillars in Jonathan Ogden and Jamal Lewis, but that group also had Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright playing quarterback. What’s the moral of the story? Organizations that draft well and stay true to their process for making personnel decisions won’t stay down for long in the NFL.

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Oher says Super Bowl experience “unbelievable” after life of trials

Posted on 30 January 2013 by WNST Staff

RIGHT TACKLE MICHAEL OHER

 

(on the family that took him in when he was young) “I’ve got them coming to the game. They’re still my family.”

 

(on his life being made into the film The Blindside) “I’m tired of the movie. I’m here to play football.”

 

(on if he’d rather people concentrate on him as a player) “Football is what got me here and the movie, it wasn’t me. I always knew how to play football growing up. It was different personalities, stuff like that. Playing football is what got me to this point.”

 

(on if it’s been an interesting week with all of the media) “Obviously there’s a ton of media. It’s good exposure.”

 

(on his childhood) “It was a little different, but I’ve been through a lot in my life, some rough times. Being here in New Orleans for the Super Bowl is truly unbelievable.”

 

(on advice of kids that hope to one day play in the Super Bowl) “Get your grades, academics first. Work hard enough and everything else will take care of itself.”

 

(on if 10 years ago he thought he’d be playing on one of the biggest stages in sports) “Not at all. I knew that I was working for something and worked hard and am getting to play in the Super Bowl.”

 

(on what he has to say to kids about hard work) “Hard work does pay off.  If you’re not working hard, you’re not going to get too far. That’s in everything that you do.”

 

(on if Hugh Freeze having success at Ole Miss surprises him) “It does not surprise me at all. I always understood the kind of coach he was.  He’s a hard worker. He knows the game inside and out and I expect him to do big things.”

 

(on Ole Miss and their success) “Ole Miss is unbelievable.  The football program, the basketball program, 16th in the nation.  Ole miss is going to be a lot of trouble for a lot of people in the next few years, I think.

 

(on the portrayal of him in the movie The Blindside as not being smart) “I only watched the movie one time. If they did that, it was definitely wrong.”

 

(on Coach Hugh Freeze believing in him) “I’ll always believe in Coach Freeze, he believed in me.”

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Birk admires Oher’s versatility

Posted on 29 January 2013 by WNST Staff

 

CENTER MATT BIRK

 

(on if he thought it would take 15 years) “I didn’t think I was going to be here 15 years later in 1998.”

 

(on he and Randy Moss starting together that year at opposite ends of the publicity spectrum) “I was fortunate enough to play with Randy for seven years and the way he took the league by storm was unbelievable.  To be a part of that and to be his teammate for seven years, we had a lot of fun in the locker room and obviously won a lot of games in large part to him.  I haven’t kept in touch with him or anything like that, but obviously I’m happy for him and that he’s still playing.  I think Randy’s been through a lot, gone through a lot of different things, but I understand having been his teammate for seven years what a competitor he is and how hard he works.”

 

(on the time and effort he’s put in and what it means to get here with the guys in his locker room) “Just being here with these guys, this is a special group.  That was obvious when I got to Baltimore.  Being here for four years, it’s just a tight-knit group and we really are a team and that come from Coach Harbaugh.  If you’re not about the team you’re not going to play for the Ravens.  Obviously we have great players, Hall of Fame players, guys that their impact isn’t measured only on the field, but off the field as well.  It’s just a blessing to able to play with those guys.”

 

(on any misconceptions about Randy Moss in a general sense) “I would just say he was a great teammate, extremely hardworking.  I mean the things he did on the football field were fantastic.  Those are the guys you want to play with, those types of competitors.

 

(on if this is a dream matchup) “These are two very physical teams, alike in a lot of ways and the physical aspect of football. That element is never going to change and big games you have to be physical.  The two teams here are physical.  It’s our 20th game of the season, we’re not going to change what we do and they’re not going to change what they do.  It’s going to be pretty straight forward.  I think the way the game evolves and changes and so much in passing and spreading out the field and doing things.  I like the fact that just as a fan it comes down to these two teams and this style of play to decide the world champion.”

 

(on Joe Flacco’s development) “He’s just continued to get better.  It’s been five years evolving and every year he’s gotten better and other guys have developed along with him that are young players.  Ray Rice, Torrey Smith, Dennis Bennett, guys like that.  Joe’s gotten better, but I think a lot of guys around him have gotten better as well.  It’s kind of a two way street.”

 

(on Joe Flacco being a leader in the locker room) “I think just Joe being Joe.  He is who he is and he’s very comfortable with that.  The person he is and his personality.  He doesn’t try to be somebody he’s not.  The quarterback position is a leadership position and hopefully you have to play well and Joe’s done it time and time again.  He’s proven that he’s an excellent quarterback on big stages and he plays well and you do the best you can to respect your teammates.

 

(on the special feeling you need to have in the playoffs to win and coming back sense the middle of the season) “I think we have great leadership on this team.  I think Coach Harbaugh is a great coach and a great leader.  I think the guys in this room, their performance and their careers speak for themselves, but they’re not guys that a just in it for themselves.  They’re team guys, they lead and the rest follow.  Everybody’s going to have bumps in the road.  You’re going to have downs in the middle of the season and we understand that and you try your best to avoid them, but it’s going to happen.  I think when we had ours nobody panicked because players still believed in players and in coaches and coaches believed in players and we still believed in the way we were doing things.  We know that you get rough patches during the season it’s a long season, but we just have to do things the way we’ve been doing.  Our philosophy is just come to work ready to work and try to work as hard as you can and to get as good as you can and that’s basically all we do.”
(on the length of time he’s been in the league and what it feels like being here) “I feel very fortunate to be playing this game and to be doing it with this group of guys.  It’s a special group of guys all the way around and nobody’s entitled and nobody deserves to play in the Super Bowl, but everything really came together for us.”

 

(on President Obama saying that if he had a son he would have to think long and hard before letting him play football because of the physical toll it takes) “I have three sons and I think anyone who is a parent can relate to that.  Certainly it is a dangerous game and we’re finding out more and more, every day, the long term effects that this game can have.  I think it’s a joint effort with the commissioner, with coaches, with players, with everybody, everybody that wants to watch and make this game as safe as it can be.  I think we’re making strides in that.  Football’s a great game.  Obviously it’s a great game for NFL players, it’s how we make a living, but most kids who play football aren’t going to make it to the NFL.  It’s such a great game because it teaches you about life and lessons and there’s so much to be gained by participating in football.  It’s served us all well and just to continue to have this conversation and continue to talk about it and just do whatever we can to make it safer  whether it be through rule change or research.”

 

(on how important Coach Jim Caldwell has been to this team) “Obviously he’s done a great job.  It’s probably less than an ideal situation.  I think his track record speaks for itself and what he’s accomplished in this league.  I think he helped Joe (Flacco) progress, get a different coach, different voice and a different viewpoint and this offense as a whole, he’s obviously brought a lot of ideas and when he became coordinator he was able to put his stamp on it, his personality a little bit more.  Fortunately he’s been successful.”

 

(on the dynamic of the changes in the offensive line) “We always talk about chemistry on the offensive line, five guys because you work together so much and ideally you’d love to have five guys in there at the same position all season.  That’s not the way it worked out for us, but you get back to the team philosophy that we have and everybody buying in and what was best for the team.  Guys like Michael (Oher) and Michael’s been back and forth many times throughout his career and he just does it.  He doesn’t complain. He just does it because he knows that’s what’s best for the team.  Brian (Williams) did a great job of just staying ready all season to jump in and Kelechi (Osemele) as a rookie you lean so much and you’re learning curve is so steep and he’s playing left tackle for 16 games and then all of a sudden get switched to guard.  Those guys, they just want to win.  They’re about the team and whatever it took when we had to make those changes because of injury and everybody just went all in and did the best they could.”

 

(on Bryant McKinnie and Aldon Smith matching up) “It’ll be a great matchup. Bryant’s been a great player in this league for a long time.  Left tackle  position, you’ve got to be able to block guys one-on-one in the pass and obviously with Smith, the year that he’s had and to do what he’s be able to do is phenomenal.  That’ll be two great players going at it.”

 

(on Alex Smith going out with a concussion and if that hurts the advancement of the safety issue) “I don’t know that situation particularly, but I think the culture has changed for the better in the last few years as far as concussions are concerned.  I think the attitude is that it’s not smart to play with a concussion.  You’re not doing your team any favors by trying to play through a concussion because you can.”

 

(on if he had the information now based on the research they’re showing, would that have affected his decision as far as playing) “I don’t know.  It’s hard to say.  I have three sons and once they get to a certain age and want to play football, I’ll let them.”

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McKinnie prepared for “possibility” of increased role

Posted on 19 December 2012 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The running question that’s been asked throughout the season is still being posed as the Ravens prepare for their Week 16 matchup with the New York Giants.

When will Bryant McKinnie finally crack the lineup for a struggling offensive line? The veteran left tackle says he is preparing as though he might receive the call this week as the Ravens need a win to clinch their second straight AFC North title.

If the Ravens were to make a change — and there’s no indication they’re leaning in that direction — McKinnie would start at left tackle with Michael Oher presumably switching to the right side. This would leave rookie Kelechi Osemele to move inside to the left guard position.

For now, McKinnie says he will continue to prepare mentally while hoping to show enough during practice time to convince the coaching staff he is deserving of playing in games. McKinnie told WNST.net during the Ravens’ Week 8 bye that he expected to be named a starter at some point during the second half of the season but understandably took a softer stance when asked about the possibility of playing more against the Giants this Sunday.

“It’s a possibility,” said McKinnie, who hadn’t heard any indication from the coaching staff of a new rotation prior to Wednesday’s practice. “We’ve just got to wait and see.”

The Ravens have struggled to protect Joe Flacco all season as opponents have racked up 34 sacks against the Baltimore quarterback. In Sunday’s 34-17 loss to Denver, Flacco was sacked three times and the Broncos registered nine quarterback hits.

McKinnie has expressed confidence in his ability throughout the season, so it was no surprise to hear his response when asked what’s gone through his mind when seeing Flacco take beatings against opposing defenses with talented pass rushers.

“If I was out there, maybe some things would be a little bit different,” McKinnie said. “But there’s not too much I can do.”

The 33-year-old tackle didn’t miss an offensive snap while starting all 16 games of the 2011 regular season and both playoff contests, but his conditioning and weight came into question during the offseason and his late arrival in training camp appeared to be the last straw for coach John Harbaugh and the rest of the staff.

After the Ravens nearly released McKinnie and cut his salary by $1 million less than a week before the start of the season, Oher has started all 14 games this season at left tackle while the rookie Osemele has manned the right tackle spot all year.

“When we think [McKinnie] is the best option, we will put him in there,” said coach John Harbaugh last week when asked about the veteran’s status. “He is working hard at practice. He, obviously, has some ability [as a] pass-protector; that’s a big deal, no doubt about it. I would have no qualms about him going into the game. If we feel like he’s the best option at one position or another, we’ll do it. Right now, we think we have the best group of guys out there, but that could change.”

Though probably the best pass-blocking left tackle on the roster, McKinnie is a poor run blocker and the Ravens are not convinced he gives them the best chance to win after a tumultuous offseason that included continuing financial concerns. McKinnie was also graded as the Ravens’ lowest-rated starting offensive lineman during the 2011 season, according to Pro Football Focus.

However, the Ravens are in the midst of a three-game losing streak and have already purged their offensive coordinator from the organization, so nothing can be dismissed at this point.

Why would the Ravens finally make the change now?

“Because we’re at the end and you never know what can happen,” said McKinnie as he laughed softly.

The Ravens’ decision to part ways with Cam Cameron last week smelled of desperation, but it’s still difficult to envision McKinnie earning his starting job back now if he didn’t over the first 15 weeks of the regular season.

Listen to McKinnie’s conversation with AM 1570 WNST.net on Tuesday right here.

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Changes coming to Ravens offensive line during bye week?

Posted on 22 October 2012 by Luke Jones

Entering the bye week following the Ravens’ worst loss in his five years as head coach, John Harbaugh preached a message of reflection and evaluation in speaking to the media 24 hours after the 43-13 loss to the Houston Texans.

The problems are numerous on both sides of the football despite the Ravens’ 5-2 record and first-place standing in the AFC North, but one of the most concerning aspects through the first seven weeks of the season is the inconsistent play of the offensive line. Quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked four times and had several passes batted down as the Houston defense controlled the line of scrimmage.

It was the latest example of the offensive line following a strong performance with a poor outing as the Ravens held Dallas to one sack in Week 6 before allowing the Texans to make life miserable for Flacco throughout the day in Houston on Sunday.

“We’re a work in progress,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not going to put a grade on it – it’s just not what we do. We’ve done some really good things, and we’ve done some not so good things.”

The offensive line has been in line with the overall “Jekyll and Hyde” personality demonstrated by the Baltimore offense, turning in excellent performances mixed with unacceptable showings. The group struggled to protect Flacco in all three road games this season, allowing 10 sacks in those contests, and allowed the Cleveland Browns to sack the fifth-year quarterback four times in a Week 4 win in Baltimore. However, the line excelled in home wins over Cincinnati, New England, and Dallas, allowing a combined four sacks in those three games.

Beginning in training camp with the late arrival of 2011 starting left tackle Bryant McKinnie, Harbaugh emphatically stated the best five linemen would play as the Ravens used a variety of combinations in the preseason before surprisingly settling on Michael Oher at left tackle, Ramon Harewood at left guard, and rookie Kelechi Osemele at right tackle to begin the season. Veteran Bobbie Williams supplanted Harewood in the starting lineup against the Cowboys, but the Ravens appear no closer now to having a comfortable starting lineup than they did in late July.

Are more changes coming following the bye week with the offensive coaching staff now having the opportunity to take a step back from game-planning to evaluate its own personnel in a more detailed manner?

“That’s a possibility,” Harbaugh said. “We’re not benching guys and putting other guys in there and all that kind of stuff. To me, that wouldn’t be a fair description of what we’re doing. On our offensive line, we’re just trying to find a good mix. [Different] guys are probably going to be playing since we have a mix of young guys and older guys. I would guess we’re going to roll some guys in there and see how they do.”

If changes are to be made, the most logical step would be to put McKinnie back in the spot he enjoyed last season with Oher sliding back to the right tackle position he played last season. The move would also allow the Ravens to slide Osemele to the left guard spot where he received plenty of work during spring organized team activities and training camp.

McKinnie offers little as a run blocker but is arguably the Ravens’ best pass-blocking tackle. The results with Oher at the left tackle spot have been mixed as it appears the fourth-year offensive lineman is better suited to play on the right side.

And with the Ravens hell-bent on being a pass-heavy offensive attack this season — another aspect that could be tweaked during the bye — it would make sense to make the change to improve the outside pass blocking while upgrading the left guard spot where the 36-year-old Williams struggled mightily on Sunday. Of course, McKinnie’s lack of mobility and conditioning concerns would also impact the Ravens’ desire to run the no-huddle offense, which has floundered in three road games this season.

McKinnie played 18 snaps on Sunday after Osemele temporarily left the game with a sprained right ankle, but Harbaugh wouldn’t discuss the 33-year-old tackle’s play, citing a minor injury he sustained while playing. It’s no secret the organization was unhappy with McKinnie’s lack of commitment in the offseason and cut his pay less than a week before the start of the regular season.

“He got hurt. He’s had a little hip flexor issue that came up during the game,” Harbaugh said. “That’s all he played once he came out with the hip flexor, so it wasn’t that many plays to really evaluate.”

The Ravens could also look at the possibility of working Harewood back into the mix as well as second-year tackle Jah Reid, who is finally healthy after dealing with a calf injury for the better part of four months.

Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and veteran center Matt Birk figure to be the only safe bets to remain at their current positions on the starting offensive line, but Harbaugh said  even rookie Gino Gradkowski has made big strides and would be ready to play guard if needed.

Regardless of whether the Ravens make wholesale changes or simply confirm the current group as its best starting five, it’s apparent Harbaugh and the coaching staff will be taking a long look up front before their next game on Nov. 4 against the Cleveland Browns.

“We’d like to have five guys who are rock solid and who are in there and working with everybody all the time,” Harbaugh said. “It’s really just not where we’re at right now. So, let’s make the best of it and let’s work some guys in there. If we get hot with a group, then we’ll stick with it.”

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Healthier Ravens make final preparations for New England

Posted on 21 September 2012 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 3:15 p.m.)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens conducted their final full practice of the week in preparation for their Sunday night showdown with the New England Patriots and appeared to be working with their full 53-man squad.

Though they performed their traditional “jersey swap” for Friday’s practice, all players listed on Thursday’s injury report were present and working, including offensive lineman Jah Reid (calf).

Safety Bernard Pollard (chest), cornerback Lardarius Webb (knee), linebacker Jameel McClain (knee), and defensive end Pernell McPhee (knee) were all practicing during the portion of practice open to the media. All four defensive starters were listed as limited participants for Thursday’s practice after sitting out Wednesday.

Listed as full participants on Thursday, linebacker Paul Kruger (back) and left tackle Michael Oher (ankle) were both working and no longer appear to be a concern for Sunday’s game.

Reid was practicing — likely on a limited basis — for the first time since suffering a setback during training camp. The second-year offensive lineman injured his calf during the team’s mandatory minicamp in June and experience two different setbacks that kept him sidelined for nearly the entire preseason.

“As a coach-doctor — that we are as head coaches in the National Football League — you start learning about all these little injuries. I’ve learned that calves take a long time to heal. I was not aware of that. But he is getting back, he is getting closer. So, it will be good to have him back in the mix.”

The Ravens will wear their purple jerseys with white pants on Sunday night as the forecast calls for temperatures to be in the high 50s for the prime-time affair.

The referee will be Bruce Hermansen, who carries 37 years of experience officiating Div. II and III college football games as well as high school and semipro. However, he was responsible for awarding the Seattle Seahawks an extra timeout in the second half of their Week 1 loss at Arizona.

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Five pressing questions for the 2012 season

Posted on 09 September 2012 by Luke Jones

As the Ravens begin defense of their AFC North division crown against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night and hope to embark on a journey to Super Bowl XLVII in John Harbaugh’s fifth year as head coach, they play the fourth-toughest schedule in the league statistically as their opponents held a .523 winning percentage (134-122) last season.

Expectations remain sky-high in Baltimore, even after a trying offseason than included key injuries and significant departures due to limited salary cap room.

Here are the five biggest questions weighing on my mind for the Ravens’ 2012 season:

1. Is the starting line good enough for the offense to take the next step?

Deemed a priority to upgrade at the beginning of the season, the offensive line remains a major question mark as the Ravens tinkered with various alignments throughout the preseason. Even determining which starting five will line up has been quite a challenge considering the circumstances the organization has dealt with since last January.

The Ravens knew Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs — now with New Orleans — would be difficult to replace as they eventually settled on former Bengals guard Bobbie Williams. Playing with a surgically-repaired right ankle, the 35-year-old has dealt with swelling as scar tissue is still breaking up in the ankle, making you wonder if Williams will hold up over the course of a 16-game regular season.

The bigger surprise has been the uncertainty at the tackle position as the Ravens weren’t satisfied with Bryant McKinnie’s weight and conditioning this offseason and the tackle reported late to training camp, opening the door to the idea of Michael Oher returning to left tackle. All seemed to be straightened out when McKinnie started at left tackle and Oher shifted back to the right side in the third preseason game, but the Ravens surprisingly played hardball with McKinnie by cutting his pay last week, a tactic that nearly led to his departure.

In another twist, rookie Kelechi Osemele revealed Saturday that he expected to start at right tackle against the Bengals, meaning Michael Oher will play on the left side and McKinnie will hold a backup role for now. Osemele played well at the position in the preseason and is the most pleasant surprise of the 2012 draft class to this point, but his insertion in the starting lineup creates the question whether Oher can handle protecting quarterback Joe Flacco’s blind side, which led to the Ravens signing McKinnie in the first place last August.

The Ravens’ handling of their line is unsettling considering the offense is expected to take a significant step forward this season. The combination of Oher and Osemele is more athletic and better conditioned, factors worth remembering when you consider how much they expect to run a no-huddle offense, but much doubt remains about their ability as pass blockers. Though McKinnie is considered a below-average run blocker, he is still the best pass blocker among the Baltimore tackles, which should be the most important factor in trying to protect the most important player on the field.

It’s clear the Ravens have grown tired of McKinnie’s act, but they also didn’t have enough confidence in life without him or they would have pulled the trigger in releasing him last week when he balked at their original pay-cut demand. They appear set to try the younger duo against Cincinnati, but you have to wonder if it will work week in and week out, especially when considering Williams’ health and age at left guard and the fact that there’s no viable option behind him other than Osemele on the 53-man roster.

Even when finally appearing to settle on a starting five moving forward, the Ravens will need to show improvement in short-yardage run situations, an area in which they struggled immensely last season.

Regardless of the factors working against them, the Ravens deemed upgrading the offensive line a major priority in the offseason and even the optimistic takes on the current group couldn’t possibly feel more confident about it than last season’s group.

2. How will the defense find a consistent pass rush without Terrell Suggs?

No one knows if and when the Pro Bowl linebacker will return this season and whether he’ll display the same explosiveness he displayed last season on his way to the 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year award. His absence has created a gigantic black cloud over a defense ranking among the NFL’s elite annually for over a decade.

The Ravens have used their “next man up” mantra since the news broke about the injury in early May, but they appear no closer to answering their pass-rush question than they were when first learning about Suggs’ partially-torn Achilles tendon. And it’s a sobering thought when you remember the defense will encounter 11 quarterbacks who have made at least one Pro Bowl this season.

Fourth-year linebacker Paul Kruger is being asked to play the strongside linebacker position in place of the departed Jarret Johnson and struggled setting the edge against the run in the preseason. However, an even more disappointing outcome of the summer was the slow development of rookie Courtney Upshaw, who dealt with a shoulder injury for much of training camp. Upshaw appeared overweight and lacked explosiveness coming off the edge and was beaten out by former practice squad member Albert McClellan for the rush linebacker spot.

While no one should have expected Upshaw to immediately enter the league as a poor man’s version of Suggs, the fact that he was unable to show any tangible signs of being a threat as a pass rusher in the preseason is disheartening after he was selected with the 35th overall pick in late April. To suggest Upshaw is a draft bust is absurdly premature, but the Ravens hope the light comes on quickly for the rookie from Alabama to be a bigger factor on passing downs.

In terms of maximizing their pass rush, the Ravens might be better served by scrapping the idea of Kruger at the “Sam” position and allowing him to move back to the rush linebacker spot where he can focus more often than not on simply getting after the quarterback. His 5 1/2 sacks in limited time last season showed he can put heat on the quarterback, but those also came with a healthy Suggs on the opposite side of the defensive line.

Defensive end Pernell McPhee will also be critical to the pass rush as his six sacks last year were a major surprise. The Ravens will elect to use him more extensively on first and second down given his pass-rushing ability, but McPhee also bulked up to 290 pounds to aid in playing the run. The second-year defensive lineman made positive plays in run support in the preseason, but you also wonder how the extra weight will affect the combination of strength and quickness he displayed as a pass rusher last year.

There’s simply no replacing the loss of Suggs and the secondary will be challenged in coverage much more without him tormenting quarterbacks for at least the bulk of the regular season. It’s difficult envisioning the defense maintaining the same level of excellence we’ve come to expect over the years, meaning the offense will be asked to be more productive if the Ravens are to remain a legitimate Super Bowl threat.

3. With the no-huddle attack expected to become a prominent part of the offense, how will it affect Ray Rice’s touches?

CONTINUE >>>

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Rookie Osemele expects to start at tackle Monday night

Posted on 08 September 2012 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 1:30 p.m.)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Preparing to play his first NFL game on Monday night, Ravens offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele may play a much larger role than anyone anticipated.

The rookie from Iowa State said he expects to start and play tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals, which is an interesting development after veteran left tackle Bryant McKinnie was nearly released on Tuesday before agreeing to a restructured contract that reduced his 2012 base salary from $3.2 million to $2.2 million. Osemele worked extensively at right tackle this summer while Michael Oher moved to the left side as McKinnie worked with the second team after reporting late to training camp.

“I think so,” said Osemele when asked if he thought he would start. “It looks like it.”

The last extensive action for the starting offense came in the third preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In that contest, McKinnie started at left tackle and Oher played right tackle while Osemele played left guard and Bobbie Williams shifted to the right guard position in place of the injured Marshal Yanda.

Coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens have said all along that the best five offensive linemen would start and play, and Osemele’s comments would lead you to believe the team has identified the rookie as being part of that group. Of course, his remarks do not guarantee he will actually be in the starting lineup because no member of the coaching staff has confirmed the decision.

When asked on Tuesday about Osemele’s role on the offensive line and whether he might start over Bobbie Williams at left guard, Harbaugh would not reveal the team’s plans. We’ll learn Monday night whether he was hiding the possibility of the rookie starting at right tackle instead.

“I don’t think we will be disclosing that at this time,” Harbaugh said. “But, there will be five guys starting, and we do have a plan.”

It appears that plan may be different than most would have anticipated.

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