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Flacco saying right things entering critical year for him and Ravens

Posted on 18 April 2018 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has never come across as someone who peruses the mock drafts circulating this time of year.

But he’s aware of the smoke coming from even some of the more respected reporters and draft pundits suggesting general manager Ozzie Newsome may select a quarterback such as Louisville’s Lamar Jackson or Mason Rudolph from Oklahoma State in the first round. The Ravens are either seriously considering taking a quarterback early or doing their best to make it look that way.

“It is what it is. It’s a business,” said Flacco, entering his 11th season in Baltimore. “Eventually, at some point, that’s going to have to happen. It’s not really for me to worry about. I come in here and you worry about what’s here and now and doing your job, which is for me right now getting guys out there working hard and making sure we’re moving towards our goal of getting to that championship.”

Whether the Ravens are serious or not, taking a quarterback in the first round would seem to contradict many circumstances facing the organization as owner Steve Bisciotti even said in early February that the Ravens had “bigger fish to fry” then finding Flacco’s successor. After Bisciotti acknowledged considering replacing head coach John Harbaugh at the end of last season, would the front office really give a coaching staff presumably fighting for its jobs a first-round pick who won’t see the field unless Flacco is injured or completely ineffective? The Ravens cited their late-season improvement as justification for retaining offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, but they’re suddenly ready to move on from Flacco, who played well down the stretch despite little help at the pass-catching positions?

An organization having missed the playoffs four out of five seasons and facing an attendance crisis is going to use its first-round pick on a player unlikely to make any meaningful impact while Flacco carries a $24.75 million salary cap number this year and would still cost the Ravens another $16 million in dead money if he’s released next season? So much for maximizing the first couple years of having a young quarterback on a cheap rookie contract, and that’s assuming the drafted signal-caller pans out, which is far from the sure thing teams and their fans want it to be this time of year.

Finding a new franchise quarterback is a proposition never to be taken lightly.

Regardless of what happens next week, the pressure is mounting on Flacco, who is coming off a third straight subpar statistical campaign and is facing his most pivotal season since the final year of his rookie contract in 2012. The Ravens have done a poor job building an offense around him since Super Bowl XLVII, but that doesn’t absolve him from criticism as even his biggest supporters should be concerned with his declining yards per attempt average and questions about his durability moving forward as the 33-year-old missed the entire 2017 preseason with a back injury, an absence that severely stunted the offense. For what it’s worth, Flacco said he feels “really good” after placing an emphasis in his offseason training on keeping his back healthy.

Newsome has followed through on his vow to change the look of the wide receiver room this offseason with the free-agent additions of Michael Crabtree and John Brown, but it’s still debatable whether that duo is markedly better than Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin and the Ravens still don’t have a pass-catching tight end on the roster after Benjamin Watson’s exit. To his credit, Flacco says he’s already spoken to Crabtree and Brown about working out away from the team’s Owings Mills facility before training camp. It’s an activity that’s been overrated by both media and fans on an annual basis, but there’s also no downside to it and such a commitment would likely garner some favor after both Newsome and Harbaugh mentioned the need for him to get on the same page with his new targets.

“I think sometimes those things are just as much, or more, about developing a relationship with those guys and developing that trust,” Flacco said. “For those guys to see that I really like who they are as football players, and for them to see that hopefully they like who I am as a football player. I think when you can get that relationship going, that’s going to help your football team out a ton.”

The Ravens have more work to do with their offense, further making the notion of taking a quarterback in the first round a puzzling one. After taking just four offensive players — left tackle Ronnie Stanley, wide receiver Breshad Perriman, and tight ends Maxx Williams and Crockett Gillmore — with their last 17 Day 1 and Day picks in the last five drafts, tight end, wide receiver, right tackle, and center remain among the roster’s biggest needs.

If Flacco has his way, the Ravens won’t wait until next week’s draft to add another pass catcher or two as he provided a ringing endorsement when asked about the possibility of adding former Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant.

“I got used to throwing to a guy like that when Anquan [Boldin] was here,” Flacco said. “He was a guy that even if he didn’t have the separation, it may have taken me a couple games, but you got used to throwing him the ball and having trust that he was going to get it. At the end of the day, in order to win big games, you have to have guys that can do that, because eventually, you’re not going to have guys running wide open – you’re going to have guys that can deal with traffic, winning in traffic, catching the ball in traffic. I think he’s another one of those guys.”

If Newsome finishes the job of improving the offensive cast, there will be no more excuses for the veteran quarterback. Flacco’s current deal runs through 2021, but new general manager Eric DeCosta — and perhaps even a new head coach — could elect to move on next year if 2018 offers more of the same from Flacco and an offense that’s consistently been below average in recent years.

His renaissance would likely save jobs and change the outlook of the organization as it enters a new era with Newsome stepping down as general manager.

Yes, time very well could be running out. How the Ravens proceed next week could say plenty about just how much remains, but Flacco still deserves the chance to hit pause with an improved 2018 campaign.

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Dez Bryant could help, but is he the best fit for the Ravens?

Posted on 16 April 2018 by Luke Jones

It’s no secret that the Ravens still have much work to do to their offense with the NFL draft looming.

One of those positions remains wide receiver, but Baltimore has yet to add a pass-catching tight end following the free-agent departure of Benjamin Watson and has also lost two starters from last year’s offensive line. And while some help figures to come by way of a few draft choices next week, you never want to be in a position where you’re reaching with too many picks to fill out a depth chart, leaving a team at the mercy of how the draft board plays out and how other teams value the players you covet most.

That brings us to former Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant, who was released Friday after eight seasons with the Cowboys that included three trips to the Pro Bowl and three 1,000-yard seasons. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound receiver won’t turn 30 until November, making it reasonable to think he still has some good football left despite his statistical decline, recent health concerns, and his exit from a now receiver-needy team that moved ahead of the Ravens to draft him in the first round eight years ago.

It’s easy to be mesmerized by the memory of Bryant catching 273 passes for 3,935 yards and 41 touchdowns from 2012-2014 when he was one of the NFL’s top play-makers, but any interested team must have blinders to focus on the receiver he is today. That’s where the Ravens must determine if Bryant is the best fit for what they currently need.

With just over $10 million in salary cap space entering Monday and the ability to create more room with another contract restructure or two as well as a potential C.J. Mosley extension, general manager Ozzie Newsome can likely make it work. The Ravens can’t offer Bryant the opportunity to play against Dallas this season, but a contract in the neighborhood of Michael Crabtree’s three-year, $21 million deal inked last month would be doable if he wants to catch passes from Joe Flacco.

Assuming there’s mutual interest and a financial match, what would the Ravens be getting at this stage of his career?

Bryant never had elite wheels as he used his leaping ability and physicality to complement his speed in making big plays in his prime, but knee, foot, and ankle problems have slowed him considerably. Making that more problematic is that he’s never been a disciplined route-runner, making a transition to the slot more difficult to envision as his physical tools aren’t what they once were to win as consistently on the outside. While acknowledging the physical challenges that limited him to just 150 catches for 2,035 yards and 17 touchdown in 38 games over the last three years, Bryant also had to adjust to a new quarterback and a greater emphasis on running the ball in Dallas over the last two seasons, variables that can also limit a receiver’s production.

That brings us to how he’d fit in the Baltimore passing game with Crabtree and fellow free-agent acquisition John Brown already in the mix.

Neither Crabtree nor Brown have shown great productivity in the slot in the past, a reason why the Ravens expressed interest in the likes of Cam Meredith, Willie Snead, and Eric Decker in recent weeks. Crabtree’s prime never approached Bryant’s best years, but the two are similar receivers at this point, lacking good speed and relying on making contested catches in tight coverage and in the red zone to remain productive. Many might prefer Bryant to Crabtree, but the latter is already under contract and on the roster, making that argument rather inconsequential.

We often get caught up in the labels of a No. 1 or No. 2 or No. 3 receiver, but passing games need receivers with diverse skill sets. With the Ravens employing two tight ends more frequently than anyone in the NFL last season — a staple in Greg Roman’s run-blocking schemes — the starting duo of Bryant and Crabtree sounds good in terms of name recognition, but it doesn’t leave much speed on the field and the Ravens still lack a tight end who can beat a defender down the seam, potentially leaving them even more vulnerable to tight underneath coverage. On top of that, the Ravens offensive line will be replacing two starters and wasn’t exactly elite in pass protection last year, leaving one to wonder how long Bryant and Crabtree would have to maneuver against coverage before Flacco must get rid of the ball in the pocket.

Of course, there are ways around this and you wouldn’t assume the Ravens offense to remain exactly the same as last year with different personnel at wide receiver. Perhaps even more critical, however, would be how Bryant meshes with another wideout who would be used in similar ways. It’s no secret that Bryant can be a handful from an emotional standpoint, but Crabtree has also been viewed as a mercurial player at previous stops.

Is Bryant prepared to come to a new team with an internal understanding that he isn’t the same star he was five years ago? No one expects the Ravens to morph back into a pass-happy attack, so would both veterans remain patient when the targets aren’t coming their way as frequently? What about those game situations when Baltimore simply needs to have more speed on the field?

Looking at the rest of the roster and the salary cap, would a Bryant signing make it more difficult to add a veteran offensive lineman or a tight end who might shake free between now and the start of the season? Would his addition prompt the Ravens to once again forgo using a meaningful draft pick on a wide receiver who could still contribute now and then develop into a long-term answer?

Is the juice worth the squeeze for a volatile receiver whose last 1,000-yard season came a year before Jeremy Maclin’s?

The answer very well might still be yes, but these are all factors that must be considered carefully. And they should far outweigh the attraction of simply adding another big name at a position of need.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following pre-draft press conference

Posted on 04 April 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens conducting their pre-draft press conference on Wednesday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I have no strong opinion on Robert Griffin III, but the notion that an oft-injured quarterback who was out of the league last year pushing Joe Flacco is silly. Perhaps he sticks as the backup, but the signing shouldn’t impact any plans to draft a quarterback in the middle rounds.

2. Ozzie Newsome has been criticized for rarely talking to media, but he said he’s taking “all the blame” for missing the playoffs three straight times and was complimentary of John Harbaugh. He remains measured, but you can tell he really wants to right the ship in his final season.

3. Asked about last year’s draft, Newsome quipped that he hopes the Ravens won’t be taking four defensive players with their first four picks, but he reiterated — as he always does — they’ll stay true to their draft board. I can only imagine the fan reaction if that were to happen again.

4. Newsome remains open to signing another wide receiver before the draft, but he wouldn’t discuss any specifics, ranging from whether he’s had discussions with the New York Giants about Odell Beckham Jr. to potential contract talks with restricted free agents Cameron Meredith and Willie Snead.

5. Eric DeCosta offered interesting thoughts HERE (4:25 mark) about whether the Ravens have undervalued wide receivers in the draft compared to other teams, but he admitted “you’ve got to swing” and that the organization hasn’t done much of that at receiver. We’ll see if that finally changes.

6. Director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said he thinks there are tight ends throughout the draft who could help the Ravens, but he acknowledged the challenge of even most standout tight ends not coming on strong as rookies, citing Dennis Pitta as an example. That position remains a major concern.

7. DeCosta estimated as many as eight or nine quarterbacks in this class have a real chance to start and be productive during their rookie contract. I’d still be surprised to see the Ravens take one in the first round, but you sense they’d really like to nab one with upside.

8. Hortiz described Maryland wide receiver DJ Moore as “holding his water” in the pre-draft process and was complimentary of his college production and talents without sounding overly enthusiastic. Interpret that as you wish.

9. Newsome’s role with the organization beyond 2018 is yet to be determined, but DeCosta welcomes as much involvement as his mentor prefers. Let’s not forget Newsome went into a scouting role immediately after his Hall of Fame playing career concluded in 1990. He may want more of a breather.

10. It wasn’t surprising to hear DeCosta stick up for younger Ravens scouts after owner Steve Bisciotti noted in February how many experienced ones the organization has lost in recent years. However, the real proof will come after the draft when you typically see changes to scouting departments among teams.

11. You could sense DeCosta’s deep respect for Newsome as he labeled him “probably the best GM in the history of football.” They both downplayed this draft feeling any different than past ones, but you know it has to be with the changing of the guard looming next year.

12. Listening to Newsome speak (3:20 mark) about the draft still giving him the same butterflies he felt running out of the tunnel before a game as a player offers a glimpse into what’s made him so successful in both roles. What a competitor with a remarkable a body of work.

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Wallace leaves Ravens to join Super Bowl champion Philadelphia

Posted on 22 March 2018 by Luke Jones

Less than a week after Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said the door was still open for Mike Wallace to return, the speedy wide receiver has joined the defending Super Bowl champions.

The 31-year-old has agreed to a one-year deal with Philadelphia worth a reported $2.5 million plus incentives, according to NFL Network. He becomes Baltimore’s second unrestricted free agent to depart this offseason after starting center Ryan Jensen signed a lucrative contract with Tampa Bay.

Wallace expressed hope at the end of last season that he’d remain with the Ravens, but he said his top priority would be winning, adding that his family has plenty of financial security at this later stage of his career.

“I want to win a Super Bowl. I got there my second year, and it’s been so far away ever since,” Wallace said on Jan. 1. “When you’re a young player, you’re like, ‘Oh, we will be right back.’ I’ve never seen it again, and I’ve been on some great teams that I thought had potential. It just did not work out. It’s that hard.”

Wallace arrived in Baltimore with his career at a crossroads coming off a 2015 campaign in Minnesota in which he’d recorded a career-low 473 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He thrived in his first season with the Ravens, however, catching 72 passes for 1,017 yards and four touchdowns and looking more like the productive deep threat he was in Pittsburgh at the start of his career.

His production fell off last season as the entire passing game struggled mightily in the wake of Joe Flacco’s back injury, but Wallace rebounded after the Week 10 bye with 32 catches for 481 yards and two touchdowns over the final seven games. He finished 2017 with 52 catches for 748 yards and four touchdowns, leading the Ravens in receiving yards and finishing tied for first in touchdown catches.

Newsome vowed to change the look of the wide receiver room, and that has certainly happened with Wallace and Jeremy Maclin gone and free agents Michael Crabtree and John Brown signing with the Ravens last week. The speedy Brown will likely assume Wallace’s role in the offense and brings youth and upside, but he’s caught only 60 passes for 816 yards and five touchdowns combined over the last two seasons while dealing with injuries. Brown caught 65 passes for 1,003 and seven touchdowns in 2015.

Wallace’s depature isn’t insurmountable by any means, but he effectively filled the void left behind by Torrey Smith the last two seasons as 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman has failed to develop. And the two-year, $11.5 million contract Wallace signed in 2016 proved to be good value for the Ravens.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts after first week of free agency

Posted on 21 March 2018 by Luke Jones

With the first week of NFL free agency now in the books, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I like the Michael Crabtree signing, but looking at past notable receivers’ first season with Baltimore is concerning. Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Lee Evans, and Jeremy Maclin all saw their catch and yardage totals fall from the previous year. Steve Smith and Mike Wallace were the exceptions.

2. Benjamin Watson signing with Kansas City would put the Ravens in line to receive a 2019 third-round compensatory pick for Ryan Jensen. These comp choices shouldn’t drive the entire offseason, but that’s a pick too valuable to pass up to sign any unrestricted free agents remaining on the market.

3. Watson’s potential exit reiterates how big a need tight end remains. I’m not enthusiastic about anyone remaining on the market, but history suggests counting heavily on a rookie is a big mistake. This position may simply remain a question, but an early draft pick would bring enticing upside.

4. The reported visits of restricted free agents Willie Snead and Cameron Meredith reflect the desire to further address wide receiver, but structuring an offer sheet is tricky. You don’t want to exhaust too much effort when you may just be negotiating a deal for the original team in the end.

5. Declining the option on Austin Howard cleared $3 million in cap space, but was it wise to part ways with a reliable starting right tackle for only moderate savings? James Hurst hasn’t fared well at that spot in the past and Alex Lewis is a complete unknown there.

6. Jensen becoming the NFL’s highest-paid center is a reminder that incumbents can get markedly better over time and late bloomers do exist. There’s still at least a glimmer of hope for the likes of Breshad Perriman, Kamalei Correa, and Bronson Kaufusi, even if the Ravens aren’t banking on it.

7. It appears Brandon Williams’ eye disorder is under control, but that’s still not something you want to hear about for anyone, let alone one of your best players who just received a lucrative contract 12 months ago.

8. I’m interested to watch Tim White and Quincy Adeboyejo this summer, but I still see some fans putting too much stock into small glimpses of promise. We’ve seen this movie before, and the Ravens shouldn’t expect any of their young incumbent receivers beyond Chris Moore to make the 2018 roster.

9. Wink Martindale attending Derwin James’ pro day garnered attention, but a team needs to be sure any prospect — not just James — praised for athleticism and being able to line up at multiple positions will truly excel at at least one spot before using such a high pick.

10. Ryan Grant wasn’t going to get the same deal elsewhere after failing Baltimore’s physical, but a one-year, $5 million deal with Indianapolis is such a drop-off that you wonder if others had concerns about his ankle. I feel for him, and this still wasn’t a great look for the Ravens.

11. Eric DeCosta hasn’t been made available to local reporters since Steve Bisciotti announced the longtime assistant general manager would be taking over for Ozzie Newsome next year, but he shared his thoughts on the pending change with the team’s website HERE.

12. I’m amused by anyone believing the proposed language changes will fix the catch rule, but at least the league is trying to fix it. I can’t wait for those heated debates over what “the ability to perform a football move” really means.

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What’s next in Ravens’ quest for pass catchers?

Posted on 20 March 2018 by Luke Jones

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome uttered the key term at the conclusion of last Friday’s press conference introducing free-agent acquisition John Brown.

Pass catchers.

The Ravens need more of them.

Newsome began to make good on his vow to change the look of the wide receiver room by adding two in the opening week of free agency with established veteran Michael Crabtree and the talented but oft-injured Brown, but there’s more work to be done. What that looks like by the time the Ravens kick off in September remains to be seen with needs remaining not only at wide receiver but tight end, and one could even argue that a situational running back would be helpful after the release of pass-catching specialist Danny Woodhead.

Of course, the goal isn’t just to fill open roster spots at those positions as quickly as you can with familiar names. The Ravens need diverse skills in a passing game that ranked 29th in the NFL last season and has been broken since Gary Kubiak’s lone season as offensive coordinator in 2014. They need pass catchers at every level who can make plays and create yards after the catch.

It sounds simple, but the last several years have proven it’s anything but that for an organization that signed Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco to a record-setting contract in 2013 and has proceeded to neglect his side of the ball on a near-annual basis. One hopes the Ravens have finally learned their lesson after signing two wide receivers this past week and agreeing to terms with another before a failed physical squashed their four-year, $29 million deal with the unproven Ryan Grant, a development that understandably raised some scrutiny.

Crabtree isn’t a No. 1 receiver, but he offers a skill set that fits more closely to that of Anquan Boldin than any receiver Baltimore has had since jettisoning the latter five years ago. Not known for his speed even in his younger days, the 30-year-old uses toughness and route-running ability to make contested catches to move the chains and finish drives in the red zone, evident by his 25 touchdown catches over the last three seasons.

It’s fair to note the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Crabtree is coming off his worst statistical year since his in-season return from an Achilles injury in 2013, but motivation from being released by Oakland and an environment that’s been hospitable to veteran wideouts in the past set up a reasonable scenario for him to rebound from a 58-catch, 618-yard campaign that still included eight touchdowns. The ceiling may not be terribly high for a seasoned veteran with just two 1,000-yard campaigns in his career, but Crabtree should remain reliably productive if healthy.

Meanwhile, the speedy Brown is a $5 million wild card who appeared on his way to becoming a standout contributor after his first two NFL seasons in which he caught a combined 113 passes for 1,699 yards and 12 touchdowns in an Arizona offense that had much competition for targets. However, injuries have plagued him since his 1,003-yard campaign in 2015 as he was diagnosed with the sickle-cell trait and has been slowed by an array of ailments.

On paper, the 27-year-old fills the role of free-agent vertical threat Mike Wallace, but he’s shown the ability to be more diverse in running routes and shouldn’t be classified as a “one-trick pony” either. Unfortunately, a 2017 season in which he missed six games and registered only 299 receiving yards should make it obvious that he can’t be the only option in the speed department either. That’s why a reunion with Wallace on a modest deal could make sense as Newsome confirmed he’s remained in contact with the veteran’s representation.

Unless Crabtree moves inside more frequently than he has in the past, a slot receiver remains on the Ravens’ wish list with the just-released Allen Hurns representing an intriguing option on the market. At 6-foot-3, he’s not the prototypical slot guy, but he’s been productive in that role and his big frame would be another good red-zone target for Flacco. The problem is he’s also dealt with injuries, missing a total of 11 games since his breakout 2015 season.

It’s a critical balance for the Ravens as they need to do more at wide receiver and tight end, but they shouldn’t fixate too much on band-aid veterans with limited upside at the expense of finding long-term answers, which are more likely to come in next month’s draft. No, you can’t count on a rookie wide receiver or tight end to pop immediately, but that shouldn’t be an argument to sign an inferior veteran and forgo drafting players at those positions altogether. It’s easy to point to 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman as validation for not drafting a wide receiver, but remember he’s the only wide receiver selected by Baltimore in the first three rounds of the last six drafts.

Going off what’s currently available on the open market and barring an unforeseen trade, you’d like to see the Ravens come away with at least one wide receiver and one tight end over the first few rounds of the draft. If not, you can’t help but think they’ll be right back in the same position with the same issues next year.

When a team has this much work to do to fix its passing game, questions will inevitably remain entering the season.

Last week was a start, but a deeper collection of experience and youth with diverse skills is needed to breathe life into an offense that’s held Baltimore back for too long. Crabtree presents a good safety net on third down and in the red zone while Brown is a boom-or-bust option.

Let’s see if the Ravens finish the job this time around.

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Veteran wide receiver Maclin officially released by Ravens

Posted on 14 March 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens envisioned Jeremy Maclin as the next veteran wide receiver to enjoy success in Baltimore after being cast aside elsewhere when he signed a two-year, $11 million contract last June.

But he turned out to be closer to T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Lee Evans than Steve Smith or Anquan Boldin, prompting Baltimore to release him before the start of the new league year on Wednesday. The move was expected after Maclin caught a career-low 40 passes for 440 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games and never seemed to mesh with his new team. The 29-year-old was also hampered by injuries ranging from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for two games in October to a knee sprain that ended his season in mid-December.

The move clears roughly $4.5 million in salary cap space when including the player taking Maclin’s place in the “Rule of 51” calculation.

Maclin’s tenure in Baltimore got off on the wrong foot as he recorded only two June minicamp practices with Joe Flacco before the veteran quarterback would then miss all of training camp and the preseason with a back injury. Despite connecting for a touchdown in each of the first two games of the season, the two never developed a consistent rapport. Maclin caught a season-high eight passes for 98 yards in the Week 9 loss at Tennessee, but he would mostly be a non-factor the rest of the way, recording no more than 41 receiving yards in his five remaining contests before injuring his knee early in the Week 15 win at Cleveland.

It marked the second straight disappointing season for Maclin as he caught just 44 passes for 536 yards and two touchdowns with Kansas City in 2016. Prior to that, he had recorded back-to-back seasons of at least 1,000 yards and eight touchdown catches.

General manager Ozzie Newsome said earlier this month he intended to make significant changes at the wide receiver position and agreed to deals with free agents Ryan Grant and John Brown on Tuesday. Mike Wallace and Michael Campanaro are also free agents who could join Maclin in exiting Baltimore this offseason.

The Ravens have now said goodbye to each of their three notable offensive additions from last year as running back Danny Woodhead and right tackle Austin Howard were let go Tuesday. While Howard played well, the other two battled injuries and didn’t live up to expectations after many questioned why the Ravens didn’t do more to improve a below-average offense from the 2016 season.

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Ravens open their wallet in lucrative wide receiver market

Posted on 13 March 2018 by Luke Jones

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome vowed to make changes to the wide receiver room in his final season in charge, resulting in a surprising opening to free agency.

After failing to land a top-tier talent such as Jarvis Landry or Allen Robinson, the Ravens have opened their wallet to spend significant money in one of the most lucrative markets for seemingly-ordinary wide receivers we’ve ever seen. Whether that’s a smart decision is open for debate.

The reported one-year, $5 million agreement with former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver John Brown at least involves a wideout who recorded a 1,000-yard season earlier in his career, but the four-year, $29 million deal with $14.5 million guaranteed reportedly struck with former Washington wide receiver Ryan Grant was immediately met with shock and even confusion Tuesday night. Grant did set career highs with 45 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns in 2017, but the 27-year-old has made just 84 receptions for 985 yards and six touchdowns over his four NFL seasons combined.

Is that production worthy of one of the richest wide receiver contracts in team history? Of course, that’s not exactly an extensive list of deals as the Ravens have historically been very thrifty at the position, but this was an organization lacking salary cap space, making the Grant signing even more puzzling.

At such a price, are these two even as good as Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin, let alone better?

The 6-foot, 204-pound Grant was a favorite of Washington head coach Jay Gruden and is considered a good route-runner with the ability to play outside or in the slot, but he’s never had as much as a 100-yard game in his career. A 2014 fifth-round pick from Tulane, Grant graded 57th among qualified wide receivers by Pro Football Focus this past season and ranked 60th among outside receivers in Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 project, the latter of which labeling him an “ideal” No. 4 receiver.

The Ravens brass clearly sees substantial potential to award him that type of a deal, but scrutiny will understandably until Grant proves critics wrong.

Meanwhile, Brown provides some intriguing upside if he can stay healthy after he caught 65 passes for 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015. The speedy 5-foot-11, 179-pound receiver has averaged 14.5 yards per catch in his career, but he was diagnosed with the sickle-cell trait in 2016 and has been slowed by various injuries over the last two seasons.

In 2017, Brown played in only 10 games and caught 21 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. The former third-round pick from Pittsburg State has caught 173 passes for 2,515 yards and 17 touchdowns in his four-year career.

For Brown, a high ceiling is there, but there’s also a low floor because of health concerns.

With these expected signings at the start of free agency, the Ravens wide receiver room has certainly changed as Newsome promised. Whether it’s truly any better is the fair question.

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Ravens still paying for past mistakes at start of free agency

Posted on 13 March 2018 by Luke Jones

Owner Steve Bisciotti declared last month that the Ravens could “make a splash” to improve one of the NFL’s worst passing attacks, but it was always going to need to come at their price.

Free agency hasn’t yet officially begun, but dreams of a discounted rate for a high-impact wide receiver like Allen Robinson or Sammy Watkins are long gone as both agreed to deals for a combined $55 million in guarantees. Former Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham is going to Green Bay. Even second- and third-tier free-agent receivers such as Paul Richardson and Albert Wilson are fetching deals with an average annual value of $8 million despite underwhelming production in their careers.

If the Ravens wanted to hand out a contract or two along those lines — many of them aren’t exactly looking wise — entering the week with less than $5 million in salary cap space left them in poor position. And as Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer noted, the popular three-year structure being used in many deals this offseason makes it difficult for a cap-strapped team to spread out high guarantees and keep a free agent’s 2018 cap number affordable.

That isn’t an excuse, but it serves as a reminder that the Ravens continue to pay for past mistakes that have piled up since Super Bowl XLVII. And it’s why fixing their passing attack in one offseason isn’t going to be easy. Yes, these free-agent prices have looked outrageous, but Baltimore hasn’t shown the ability — or used the necessary resources — to draft and develop its own receivers over the years, either, meaning something has to give at some point.

To their credit, the Ravens have spent to the salary cap on an annual basis, but how they’ve used it is certainly open to criticism as too many back-loaded deals and veteran restructures have frequently left them in tight spots. It’s a vicious cycle that’s contributed to the current era of mediocrity, leaving one to wonder if some type of reset is needed sooner than later. Of course, try selling that strategy to John Harbaugh and his staff, who are likely coaching for their jobs after missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.

Joe Flacco’s biggest critics will point solely to his $24.75 million cap figure and label the remainder of his lucrative contract as holding the roster hostage. Of course, they’d be overlooking the fact that the Ravens felt compelled to give a box safety (Tony Jefferson) a $34 million contract last offseason when it was clear the offense was what needed more help, just a recent example of that side of the ball being neglected in favor of the defense. Two of the three modest veteran additions (running back Danny Woodhead and right tackle Austin Howard) made to the offense last year have already been jettisoned with the other (wide receiver Jeremy Maclin) possibly going next, illustrating the minimal impact they made.

Only four of Baltimore’s 17 combined picks in the first three rounds of the last five drafts have been used on offensive players with all four of their Day 1 and Day 2 selections last year spent on defense. Exactly one of those four offensive picks — left tackle Ronnie Stanley — has panned out with wide receiver Breshad Perriman and tight end Maxx Williams standing out as major disappointments at positions of great need. Making matters worse, several of those early picks on defense didn’t pan out, either, which compelled general manager Ozzie Newsome to pump even more resources into positions like safety.

The Ravens did re-sign offensive lineman James Hurst on Monday, but it’s difficult selling that move as a positive after the decision to cut Howard, who was solid at right tackle last season. Neither Hurst nor Alex Lewis is a proven starter at the position, creating another question mark on offense to go with the gaping holes at wide receiver and tight end. And should center Ryan Jensen receive the lucrative deal elsewhere that many are predicting, it would mark the third straight offseason in which the Ravens have lost an above-average offensive lineman in free agency.

When you haven’t spent major free-agent money or used meaningful draft capital on your offense, what exactly do you really expect from Flacco, who clearly has his own flaws?

Perhaps this offseason and this draft will be different. A number of marquee free agents have already come off the board, but potential value remains and some cap casualties are still to come with Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson being the latest cut loose on Tuesday. Maybe the organization will actually focus on the offense for this year’s draft and hit on multiple picks in a way similar to how New Orleans reversed its fortunes last year.

It’s only mid-March and much will happen between now and the start of the season, but the Ravens’ needs are too great and their resources too limited to simply trust that everything will be OK.

Too many mistakes in recent years leave them no longer enjoying the benefit of the doubt like they once did.

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Franchise tag developments bode well for Ravens’ wide receiver search

Posted on 06 March 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are one of several teams in the mix to acquire Miami wide receiver Jarvis Landry, but two other accomplished receivers are on track to hit free agency after not receiving the franchise tag on Tuesday.

Jacksonville’s Allen Robinson and Los Angeles Rams wideout Sammy Watkins were not tagged and will hit the open market next week unless their respective teams sign them to long-term contracts. The Watkins news wasn’t a big surprise, but many assumed Robinson would be tagged despite the former Penn State product coming back from an ACL injury suffered in the 2017 season opener.

If fully healthy, the 6-foot-3 Robinson could bring the most upside of any free-agent receiver after he caught 14 touchdowns and posted 1,400 receiving yards in 2015 while playing with maligned Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles. His numbers slipped to six touchdowns and 883 receiving yards a year later, but the 24-year-old represents the kind of red-zone and jump-ball threat quarterback Joe Flacco has sorely lacked in years.

Watkins, the fourth overall pick of the 2014 draft, had over 2,000 receiving yards combined in his first two seasons with Buffalo, but a foot injury derailed his 2016 season and he was traded to the Rams last summer. In 15 games in 2017, he caught 39 passes for 593 yards and eight touchdowns.

Landry has easily been the most consistent of the trio, but Robinson and Watkins hitting the market could certainly impact the overall demand — and subsequent asking price from the Dolphins — in trade talks. Their presence would also figure to impact the cost of a variety of second- and third-tier free-agent options such as Marqise Lee, Paul Richardson, and Donte Moncrief.

Regardless of which receivers the Ravens ultimately target, more quality on the open market is good news for a roster in need of at least two meaningful additions at the position. With disappointing veteran Jeremy Maclin likely to be cut and leading wide receiver Mike Wallace scheduled to hit free agency, the Ravens will need to be aggressive to improve the league’s 29th-ranked passing attack from last season.

And though many are clamoring for Baltimore to address the position in next month’s draft, the need for both experience and upside makes it obvious that Newsome should be looking at the free-agent and trade markets before the final weekend in April.

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