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Ravens trade veteran center Jeremy Zuttah to San Francisco

Posted on 15 March 2017 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 5:05 p.m.)

Vowing to improve their offensive line after an 8-8 season, the Ravens have opened up another starting job a week after starting right tackle Rick Wagner departed via free agency.

After NFL Network reported earlier in the day that he would be released, center Jeremy Zuttah was traded to San Francisco after three seasons and 41 starts with Baltimore. The teams will swap their 2017 sixth-round picks, meaning the Ravens move up 12 spots from 198th to 186th overall on the final day of April’s draft instead of receiving nothing in what would have been a release. The trade came a few hours after former Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk lamented his teammate’s reported release on Twitter and suggested he would be a good fit with the 49ers.

Zuttah was chosen to play in the Pro Bowl as an alternate this past year, but the Ravens are aiming to have a more physical presence for the middle of their offensive line. His trade saves $2.4 million in salary cap space, but Zuttah becomes the fourth Week 1 offensive starter to exit since the end of 2016, joining Wagner, Juszczyk, and retired wide receiver Steve Smith.

The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Zuttah was graded by Pro Football Focus as the 13th-best center in the NFL and was ranked 26th in Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 system. Seeking an upgrade is an understandable goal, but it remains unclear how the Ravens will proceed as young linemen John Urschel and Ryan Jensen are the only internal candidates to replace Zuttah on the current roster.

Urschel started seven games in place of an injured Zuttah in 2015, but he played just 265 offensive snaps in 2016 despite plenty of unrest at the guard spots. Jensen made three starts at guard in 2016, but he appeared to fall out of favor as the season progressed. Of course, new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris and new senior offensive assistant — and running game guru — Greg Roman may have higher opinions of these players than former offensive line coach Juan Castillo apparently did.

Many have speculated about the possibility of the Ravens pursuing seven-time Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold, but there has been little chatter linking the 33-year-old to any team after an injury-riddled season. The New York Jets released Mangold late last month, ending their 11-year union.

The 2017 draft isn’t considered to be rich in center talent, either, but among the top center prospects are LSU’s Ethan Pocic and Ohio State’s Pat Elflein.

General manager Ozzie Newsome has received praise for the re-signing of nose tackle Brandon Williams and the addition of safety Tony Jefferson on lucrative deals to help the Baltimore defense, but the league’s 21st-ranked scoring offense has endured several losses while 32-year-old running back Danny Woodhead has been the only addition to this point. And with the first wave of free agency over, the Ravens will likely be depending on the draft as the primary way to address most of their remaining needs on either side of the ball.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts after first wave of free agency

Posted on 14 March 2017 by Luke Jones

With the first wave of NFL free agency in the rear-view mirror, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts on the Ravens, each in 50 words or less:

1. Some may scoff at the emotion shown by Brandon Williams after signing a five-year, $52.5 million contract, but his right to maximize his earnings doesn’t mean staying in Baltimore wasn’t important to him. You could also see how happy general manager Ozzie Newsome was during Monday’s press conference.

2. Kudos to Williams for paying tribute to the late Clarence Brooks for his impact on the nose tackle’s career. The 28-year-old said the longtime defensive line coach saw everything that he could be and envisioned this happening for him one day. Brooks is definitely missed.

3. The addition of Tony Jefferson could really help in trying to replace linebacker Zach Orr. If the Ravens add a complementary third safety, defensive coordinator Dean Pees could use Jefferson as a dime in passing situations and minimize the need for a three-down linebacker, which is more difficult to find.

4. Major investments have been made in the defense, but you hope Newsome has more than couch change to address a Ravens offense that was summarily broken in 2016 and has lost key pieces. The hiring of Greg Roman will help the running game, but that only goes so far.

5. I’ll give the Ravens the benefit of the doubt at right tackle, but color me skeptical about wide receiver with free-agent options dwindling and prices having not been all that outrageous. Being underprepared at the position doomed Baltimore in 2013 and 2015, and you hope that odd-year trend doesn’t continue.

6. The Anthony Levine re-signing didn’t receive much attention, but losing the likes of Orr and fullback Kyle Juszczyk hurt the special teams and Levine has been a core contributor to Jerry Rosburg’s units.

7. I’m intrigued by the addition of the diminutive Danny Woodhead, who can do some of the things Juszczyk provided despite the obvious difference in size. The Ravens view Woodhead as a potential playmaker, but he’s also 32 and coming off major knee surgery, leaving some substantial unknown.

8. The fascination with free-agent cornerback Morris Claiborne is baffling with the former Dallas Cowboy missing 41 percent of games over his five-year career and having underperformed until 2016. Barring a cheap price tag — multiple teams are interested — this feels like a fool’s gold signing.

9. The Ravens loudly reconfirmed their longtime philosophy of being strong up the middle defensively with the financial commitments made to Williams and Jefferson, but I still wonder if that thinking needs to be adjusted in today’s NFL. Fortunately, this year’s draft is rich with edge rushers and cornerbacks.

10. He’s not a No. 1 receiver, but teams are sleeping on Kamar Aiken compared to some other receivers who’ve already signed. He wasn’t keen on returning to Baltimore at the end of 2016 after being underutilized, but the Ravens could do worse than bringing back their leading receiver from 2015.

11. The Ravens have had some players recruit free agents in the past, but you have to be impressed with the efforts of Eric Weddle after just one year with the organization. He’s one of those rare veterans whom you wish could have been a Raven for his entire career.

12. Lardarius Webb is a prime example of some of the tough luck the Ravens have experienced in recent years. He was Baltimore’s best defensive player in 2012 before suffering the second ACL injury of his career six months after signing a six-year, $50 million contract. He was never the same.

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brandonwilliams

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Bisciotti call helped push Brandon Williams deal across finish line

Posted on 13 March 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Asked if trumping the massive deal awarded to New York Giants nose tackle Damon Harrison last year was his goal, Brandon Williams acknowledged reality before then trying to defer to his agency’s role in negotiating his five-year, $52.5 million contract with the Ravens.

He didn’t say it verbatim at his Monday press conference in Owings Mills, but the 28-year-old was aiming to become the highest-paid nose tackle in the NFL.

“Obviously, it was a starting point, I guess,” said Williams of Harrison’s five-year, $46.25 million contract that included $24 million guaranteed. “You look at his deal, and I guess you kind of go from there.”

It’s hardly surprising, of course, but what was interesting was general manager Ozzie Newsome pulling back the curtain on the sequence of events that resulted in Williams ultimately receiving $27.5 million guaranteed. Newsome has often referenced Baltimore’s process of determining a value for a player and staying true to that final number during the negotiating process, but an audible was apparently called last week, a reflection of how badly the Ravens wanted to keep their fifth-year nose tackle and maintain their long-held desire to be strong up the middle defensively.

A Thursday morning conference call with owner Steve Bisciotti that included Newsome, team president Dick Cass, assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, and head coach John Harbaugh paved the way for the sides to get a deal done later that evening. Regardless of their many needs on both sides of the ball, the Ravens made it clear that they weren’t going to let their man get away.

“We came to a number [in January] that we felt like would be fair for Brandon and fair for us,” Newsome said. “But then, there is always an adjustment that has to happen based on, No. 1, how high the cap went, which went up $12 million [from 2016]. Then, [we considered] some of the deals that were made in the early part of the day and the early part of the week.

“Before the deal got completely done, I got another call from Steve early Thursday evening basically saying to me, ‘Do what you have to do to get the deal done.’ Having an owner like that really helps myself and [senior vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty] to be able to put together a deal that can keep good players on our football team.”

In the end, perhaps the owner couldn’t stand the thought of seeing another talented young player find big money somewhere else like guard Kelechi Osemele did a year ago, but his final call appeared to push negotiations across the finish line.

That revelation may provide some ammunition to those arguing that the Ravens overpaid to keep a run-stopping nose tackle, but we may never know whether another team was prepared to go as high as the Ravens did to sign Williams. Newsome reiterated on Monday that he’s comfortable with the organization’s remaining resources to address its many other needs, but only time will tell whether that proves to be the case.

For Williams, the lucrative deal brings the expectations of leading a young group of defensive linemen as well as living up to the title previously held by Harrison.

“He tweeted me out and said, ‘Good job. Looks like you’re the best now. See you on the field,'” Williams said. “Now, I’ve got to prove my worth, so I’m ready to do that.”

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Former Ravens defensive end Guy signs with New England

Posted on 11 March 2017 by Luke Jones

After giving lucrative contracts to retain nose tackle Brandon Williams and to add Arizona safety Tony Jefferson, the Ravens have endured their first free-agent loss on defense this offseason.

Defensive end Lawrence Guy has agreed to a four-year, $20 million with the New England Patriots, according to NFL Network. Turning 27 next week, Guy is the fourth Baltimore free agent to find a new home this offseason, joining right tackle Rick Wagner, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and guard Vlad Ducasse.

Claimed off waivers by the Ravens in 2014, Guy appeared in 43 games and made 17 starts while collecting 90 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks, and one forced fumble. The 5-technique defensive end didn’t receive much acclaim in the Baltimore defense, but he was good against the run and often slid inside to rush the quarterback in sub packages. Pro Football Focus graded him as the 38th-best interior line defender in the NFL in 2016.

Brent Urban and Bronson Kaufusi now move up the depth chart at Guy’s position with neither having much NFL experience. A 2014 fourth-round pick, Urban has been limited to just 240 defensive snaps in his career after missing most of his first two seasons with injuries. Kaufusi was selected in the third round of last year’s draft out of Brigham Young and missed his entire rookie season with a broken ankle sustained early in training camp.

A seventh-round pick out of Arizona in 2011, Guy spent time with Green Bay, Indianapolis, and San Diego in his NFL career before finding an established role with the Ravens.

Below is a look at the free-agent scorecard for Baltimore so far this offseason:

Outside free agents signed
S Tony Jefferson (from Arizona)
RB Danny Woodhead (from San Diego)

Unrestricted free agents re-signed
DB Anthony Levine
QB Ryan Mallett
NT Brandon Willaims

Unrestriced free agents lost
DE Lawrence Guy – New England
FB Kyle Juszczyk – San Francisco
RT Rick Wagner – Detroit
G Vlad Ducasse – Buffalo

Unrestricted free agents unsigned
WR Kamar Aiken
S Matt Elam
CB Chris Lewis-Harris
CB Jerraud Powers

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Pitta reportedly restructures deal to remain with Ravens

Posted on 10 March 2017 by Luke Jones

After making his unlikely return to the field in 2016, Dennis Pitta is staying with the Ravens.

The veteran tight end has agreed to restructure his contract to lower his $7.7 million salary-cap figure for 2017, according to NFL Network. Pitta accepted a pay cut from $5 million to $1 million in base salary last year as he attempted his unlikely comeback from two devastating hip injuries and went on to earn $3 million back in incentives. He was scheduled to make $5.5 million in base salary this season in a contract scheduled to run through next year.

It remains unclear how the revised deal will look, but general manager Ozzie Newsome was aiming to add more cap space to continue revamping his roster after the Ravens missed the playoffs for the third time in four years. Asked about Pitta’s cap figure and future with the team earlier in the day on Friday, Newsome would only say that he was “still a Raven.”

Playing this past season for the first time since 2014, Pitta led all NFL tight ends with 86 receptions and was the only Baltimore tight end to play in all 16 games. However, his 8.5 yards per catch average ranked 55th of 56 players with at least 60 catches, leading many to argue that quarterback Joe Flacco was too dependent on underneath passes to his longtime teammate and close friend. Pitta managed only two touchdown receptions and often struggled to gain yards after the catch.

Pitta’s return leaves the Ravens with a very crowded tight end picture that includes fellow veteran Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore, Darren Waller, Nick Boyle, and Maxx Williams.

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Ravens release longtime defensive back Lardarius Webb

Posted on 10 March 2017 by Luke Jones

After making free agent Tony Jefferson one of the highest-paid safeties in the NFL, the Ravens are releasing longtime defensive back Lardarius Webb.

Despite a solid first season moving from cornerback to a full-time safety position, Webb was deemed expendable with general manager Ozzie Newsome signing Jefferson to a four-year, $36 million contract earlier this week. The 31-year-old Webb was scheduled to make $5.5 million and carry a $7.5 million salary-cap figure in the final year of his contract.

The fifth-longest tenured player on last year’s roster, Webb started all 16 games this past season and finished with 73 tackles, one interception, and five pass breakups. A cornerback in his first seven years, the 2009 third-round pick collected 13 interceptions in his career with the Ravens.

As he often does after releasing a veteran player, Newsome left open the possibility for Webb to return at a reduced rate later this offseason.

“The door is not closed, because we need as many good football players as we can have,” Newsome said. “And we need as many guys as we can out there competing day in and day out, so it was a good conversation.”

Webb appeared on his way to becoming one of the AFC’s best cornerbacks in 2012 when he signed a six-year, $50 million contract, but he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament that season — less than three years after injuring the ACL in his other knee — and never played at the same high level after that. He accepted a pay cut two years ago to remain with Baltimore.

While the 2009 third-round pick from Nicholls State could conceivably return to play a part-time role, his improvement at his new position over the second half of the 2016 season makes it likely that Webb will draw interest from other teams looking for a safety or nickel back.

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Ravens re-sign nose tackle Brandon Williams to massive deal

Posted on 09 March 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens said that signing nose tackle Brandon Williams was a top priority and delivered on the declaration with a contract that makes him the highest-paid nose tackle in the NFL.

With negotiations continuing through the official start of the free-agent signing period, the sides agreed to a five-year, $54 million contract with $27.5 million guaranteed on Thursday night. The deal easily exceeds the five-year, $46.25 million contract with $24 million guaranteed that the New York Giants awarded Damon Harrison in free agency a year ago.

Considered one of the best run-stopping nose tackles in the NFL since he became a starter in 2014, Williams collected 51 tackles, one sack, and one pass breakup while playing in all 16 games for the third year in a row this past season. He graded as the 39th-best interior line defender by Pro Football Focus and was 18th among defensive tackles in Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 rankings.

In 55 career games, Williams has amassed 156 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks, three forced fumbles, and three pass breakups.

A respected member of the locker room, the personable Williams became a fan favorite soon after he he was selected in the third round of the 2013 draft out of Missouri Southern State. The 6-foot-1, 340-pound nose tackle has also been very active in the community as he serves as a spokesman for the Maryland Food Bank, works closely with the Boys and Girls Club of Metropolitan Baltimore, and has helped host the annual Goodwill Gridiron Halloween Party.

Williams becomes the first Ravens draft pick since cornerback Jimmy Smith from the 2011 draft to receive a long-term second contract with Baltimore.

It remains to be seen how such a lucrative payday for Williams might impact general manager Ozzie Newsome’s ability to make other improvements to a roster with a plethora of needs on both sides of the ball. The 2013 third-round pick has anchored a run defense that’s ranked third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed in his three years as a starter, but he offers little as a pass rusher and the Ravens have consistently found defensive line talent through a variety of channels over the years. The roster also had several young options such as Michael Pierce, Carl Davis, and Willie Henry who could have been asked to fill more meaningful roles had Williams departed and those resources been used elsewhere.

Having already signed safety Tony Jefferson to a four-year, $36 million contract earlier in the day, the Ravens will likely need to make more cuts to clear room on their salary cap and to try to address other needs. To this point, the Baltimore offense has lost starting right tackle Rick Wagner and Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk in free agency, gained veteran running back Danny Woodhead, and re-signed backup quarterback Ryan Mallett. The Ravens also have an obvious need at wide receiver after the retirement of Steve Smith at the end of the season.

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Ravens exercise 2017 option for Wallace, finalize other signings

Posted on 09 March 2017 by Luke Jones

After recording his first 1,000-yard season since 2011, veteran wide receiver Mike Wallace is returning to the Ravens for a second season.

Baltimore exercised its option on the 30-year-old, which will pay him $5.75 million for the 2017 season. After disappointing stops in Miami and Minnesota, the former Pittsburgh Steeler revitalized his career in 2016 by making 72 catches for 1,017 yards and four touchdowns and led the NFL with five receptions of 50 or more yards.

Wallace’s return became a foregone conclusion once former Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith agreed to a three-year, $15 contract with the Philadelphia Eagles earlier on Thursday. Baltimore had discussed a potential reunion with the former Maryland standout and may have elected to let Wallace go to clear some salary-cap space under such a scenario.

With Steve Smith having retired and Kamar Aiken hitting the free-agent market, the Ravens couldn’t afford to lose Wallace with 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman being the most experienced receiver behind him on the depth chart. Baltimore still needs to add a possession receiver to work the intermediate portion of the field, but Wallace, Perriman, and 2016 fourth-round pick Chris Moore make up an interesting trio of vertical threats.

In addition to picking up Wallace’s option, the Ravens officially announced their reported deals with safety Tony Jefferson, running back Danny Woodhead, and quarterback Ryan Mallett.

According to ESPN, Jefferson received a four-year, $36 million contract to become one of the highest-paid safeties in the NFL. The former Arizona Cardinal’s average annual salary of $9 million is the most given to a safety in franchise history, but the total amount is less than the six-year, $44.5 million contract awarded to future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed in 2006.

Baltimore signed Woodhead to a three-year contract — an addition that holds more significance with the news of Kenneth Dixon being suspended for the first four games of the 2017 season — while Mallett received a one-year deal to remain as Joe Flacco’s backup.

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Ravens sign safety Jefferson, veteran running back Woodhead

Posted on 09 March 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens appear on the verge of signing the top safety on the free-agent market for the second straight year.

According to ESPN, Arizona Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson is expected to sign with Baltimore when free agency officially opens on Thursday afternoon. Terms of the agreement were unknown as of late Wednesday night, but Jefferson’s expected signing comes a year after general manager Ozzie Newsome inked four-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle to a four-year, $26 million contract.

A 2013 undrafted free agent from Oklahoma, Jefferson became a full-time starter in the talented Arizona secondary in 2016 and graded fifth among all NFL safeties, according to Pro Football Focus. The 25-year-old is one of the best run-stopping safeties in the league, but he’s also considered capable in pass coverage despite having only two career interceptions. In 15 games last season, the 5-foot-11, 212-pound Jefferson accumulated 96 tackles, two sacks, five pass breakups, and two forced fumbles.

A San Diego native, Jefferson had been recruited by Weddle — who spent nine years with the Chargers — to join the Ravens with the two even interacting on Twitter in recent weeks.

Jefferson’s arrival is likely bad news for veteran safety Lardarius Webb, who is scheduled to carry a $7.5 million salary-cap figure in the final year of his contract. After a slow start at his new position in 2016, the former cornerback performed well in the second half of the season, but he will turn 32 in October.

Jefferson wasn’t the only free agent the Ravens were targeting on Wednesday night as they came to an agreement with former San Diego Chargers running back Danny Woodhead, according to NFL Network. The 32-year-old missed most of last season with a torn ACL, but he has been one of the better third-down backs in the league in recent years.

The 5-foot-8 Woodhead caught a career-high 80 passes for 755 yards and six touchdowns in 2015.

NFL Network also reported that the Ravens have re-signed quarterback Ryan Mallett to return as the backup to Joe Flacco.

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Juszczyk signs lucrative deal with San Francisco

Posted on 08 March 2017 by Luke Jones

The fullback has been viewed as a dying breed in the NFL in recent years, but you wouldn’t know it from Wednesday’s free-agent activity.

As a few other fullbacks found respectable deals elsewhere, Kyle Juszczyk is preparing to leave the Ravens for a lucrative contract in San Francisco. According to multiple outlets, Juszczyk will sign a four-year, $21 million contract with the 49ers. An ESPN report indicates that the 2013 fourth-round pick will receive $10.5 million guaranteed, an incredible amount that eclipses any other current fullback.

A Harvard graduate, Juszczyk was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2016 after catching 37 passes for 266 yards and frequently serving as the primary back in passing situations. His 10-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter of Baltimore’s Christmas Day battle with Pittsburgh looked like it would be the deciding score before a last-second touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown gave the Steelers the 31-27 win and the AFC North title.

It’s believed that new 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan envisions a more diverse role for Juszczyk than that of the typical fullback. Meanwhile, the Ravens will be forced to look for Juszczyk’s replacement this offseason.

One can hardly blame general manager Ozzie Newsome for not paying Juszczyk such a lucrative amount, but his pass-blocking ability will certainly be missed. Primary tailbacks Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon both struggled in pass protection last year, which often led the Ravens to use Juszczyk in single-back formations in passing situations.

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