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Five young players the Ravens need more from in 2017

Posted on 13 February 2017 by Luke Jones

It’s no secret that the Ravens are facing one of their most critical offseasons in franchise history.

Most focus in the coming weeks will be on the quest to find the next Steve Smith or Terrell Suggs via the draft, free agency, or trade, but a team with as many needs as the Ravens must see real improvement from within. It’s not realistic to expect general manager Ozzie Newsome to be able to address every positional concern by external channels, and the lack of contributions from several early draft picks in recent years is a big reason why the Ravens have missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. When you’re also picking in the middle of each round in the draft and don’t have a lucrative amount of salary-cap space, young players already on your roster must be ready to take a meaningful step forward.

Below is a look at five young players the Ravens need more from in 2017 in order to make it back to the postseason:

1. LB Matt Judon

The edge rusher topping the list is a product of need more than a reflection of his 2016 performance as Judon collected four sacks and played as well as you could expect from a fifth-round rookie hailing from a Division II program. With Suggs turning 35 in October and Elvis Dumervil potentially being a cap casualty, the Ravens view Judon as their best internal option to boost a pass rush that lacked punch. At 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, he possesses the ideal frame to go along with a great deal of confidence to eventually step into a starting role. The Ravens should seek a real addition in this department, but improvement from Judon would go a long way in helping make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable.

2. WR Breshad Perriman

The 2015 first-round pick would move to the top of the list if the Ravens were to cut speedy veteran Mike Wallace for cap purposes, but it’s difficult to project Perriman being anything more than a No. 2 option without dramatic improvement in his third season. Injuries have stunted his development, but he hasn’t shown the route-running ability or hands to make you believe he can be a No. 1 guy, making this a big offseason for him. Of course, this doesn’t mean he can’t become a productive vertical threat along the lines of former Raven Torrey Smith, but expecting more than that feels too ambitious at this point.

3. LB Kamalei Correa

The debate continues whether Correa is better suited to play inside or outside linebacker, but the fact that he saw only 48 defensive snaps as a rookie is eerily familiar to failed 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown. Whether it’s replacing the retired Zach Orr inside or working as an edge defender, Correa should find ample opportunities in 2017 if he’s able to play at this level. After spending minimal time with him during the pre-draft process, the Ravens probably weren’t thrilled to run into some coachability issues with Correa, but he wouldn’t be the first to initially struggle with the maturity learning curve of the NFL.

4. LB Za’Darius Smith

Appearing on this list two years in a row is never a good sign for a player’s development, but Smith was unable to establish himself as an every-down edge defender despite receiving extensive playing time in the absence of Dumervil over the first three months of the season. The 2015 fourth-round pick managed only one sack in 494 defensive snaps and struggled to set the edge as a run defender, which led to him being a healthy scratch in three of the final six games of 2016. There’s still hope that Smith can become an effective defensive player, but regression from his rookie season was hardly an encouraging sign.

5. G Alex Lewis

Like Judon, Lewis’ inclusion on this list is a product of circumstance more than his performance as he played respectably as a rookie shifting between left guard and left tackle. The 2016 fourth-round pick fared much better at left guard, and the Ravens would love to see him become their third-best offensive lineman behind perennial Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and first-round left tackle Ronnie Stanley. With right tackle Rick Wagner a free agent and the Ravens ideally seeking an upgrade from Jeremy Zuttah at center, Lewis needs to make left guard a spot at which the organization need not worry.

Honorable mentions: RB Kenneth Dixon, DE Bronson Kaufusi, DT Carl Davis, DT Willie Henry

Dixon possesses more upside than any other back on the roster, but the presence of the effective Terrance West and the bigger need to improve the offensive line — and overall commitment to the running game — keep him out of the top five after a solid rookie campaign. The status of free-agent defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Lawrence Guy will factor heavily into how much need the Ravens will have for the development of these three defensive linemen, but they’d still like to get some real bang for their buck with talents selected in the third and fourth rounds of the draft.

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Ravens face tough decision with Brandon Williams

Posted on 08 February 2017 by Luke Jones

The Ravens want Brandon Williams back, and the nose tackle would prefer to stay in Baltimore.

If only it were that simple.

Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta made it clear at the Senior Bowl last month that re-signing Williams is “a really important part of the puzzle” for the Ravens’ offseason. The fifth-year defensive lineman knows his worth — DeCosta offered him a reminder of that — but he says he won’t automatically go to the highest bidder in free agency, either.

“When you’re in Baltimore, you know what you’re getting,” Williams told WNST.net in Houston last week. “You know who you’re getting, you know who you’re dealing with, you know who your teammates are, you know who your coaches are. Going to a new team, new scheme, new plays, new playbooks, not knowing really what to expect over here. If it’s close enough to where I have to make that decision — where it comes down to that decision — I’m staying in Baltimore.

“I like Baltimore, my family is in Baltimore, my son is going to school [there], and stuff like that. I would pick that — if it’s close. If that’s the factor that makes or breaks the decision, then I’ll stay in Baltimore if it’s close.”

But where is the tipping point for each side?

Considered one of the best run-stopping nose tackles in the NFL, Williams will presumably attempt to use the five-year, $46.25 million deal — $24 million of it guaranteed — the New York Giants awarded Damon Harrison last offseason as a baseline, especially with the salary cap expected to rise again in 2017. Turning 28 later this month, Williams is unlikely to have another chance for a lucrative payday and is only a month away from having other teams vying for his services. The 2013 third-round pick didn’t imply last week that contract talks with the Ravens were ongoing, but that could certainly change at any moment.

On the flip side, how should the Ravens value Williams, who has not only been strong on the field but has been a high-character guy in the locker room and active in the community?

The beefy nose tackle is a very good player and has been a linchpin of the run defense, but the Ravens have also gone 13-19 over the last two seasons and must address a plethora of needs this winter. Giving Williams north of a $50 million contract would undoubtedly hinder the ability to improve other areas of the roster that haven’t been good enough.

If the Ravens were to lose Williams, would adding another defensive tackle even become their top priority when young options such as Michael Pierce, Carl Davis, and Willie Henry are waiting in the wings? It’s not ideal to weaken one of the roster’s biggest strengths, but Baltimore has shown a consistent ability to find talent on the defensive line through a variety of channels over the years with the undrafted Pierce being the latest example last season.

General manager Ozzie Newsome hasn’t invested big money in a defensive tackle since 2011 when he signed Haloti Ngata to a five-year, $61 million contract, but he was a better all-around player on a championship-caliber roster at the time. Losing Williams would definitely hurt, but exhausting too many resources to keep him could hurt a roster in need of playmakers on both sides of the ball.

When mired in mediocrity for the better part of four years, you can’t be afraid to be bold, which sometimes means taking a hit in the short term. If letting go of the talented nose tackle means the Ravens can bring in a high-impact wide receiver or cornerback, it’s worth it in the long run.

Williams is deserving of a big payday, but the Ravens doing whatever it takes to keep him isn’t going to magically get them over the hump in 2017. You can’t afford to be in love with your own players when your roster is in need of more than just subtle tweaks and there’s only so much salary-cap space to go around.

That’s why a deal may not make sense for either side in the end.

Even when they both want it.

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Continuity still rules at top of organization for Ravens

Posted on 26 January 2017 by Luke Jones

As open positions go, the Indianapolis general manager job figured to present some appeal to Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta.

Baltimore’s bitter feelings aside, the Colts have built a nice tradition of winning over the last two decades with much of the credit going to the arrival of Peyton Manning in 1998. Indianapolis currently has a franchise quarterback in the prime of his career in Andrew Luck, something most teams with a GM opening can’t proclaim.

DeCosta obviously knows head coach Chuck Pagano, who served as a defensive assistant for the Ravens for four years.

Colts owner Jim Irsay hardly has a spotless reputation, but Bill Polian ran his football team for 14 years before the recently-fired Ryan Grigson was in charge over the last five seasons. He’s far from perfect, but there are worse — and less patient — owners for which to work.

Still, DeCosta didn’t surface among the candidates the Colts announced they’d interview despite a report earlier this week about their wish to talk to him about the job. He’s once again staying put.

Perhaps it’s a sign that the Ravens brass doesn’t perceive things to be as dire and broken as some critics do. Steve Bisciotti acknowledged in early January that “the pitchforks are out” for head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome after missing the playoffs for the third time in four years, but the Ravens owner also spent plenty of time expressing confidence in his guys and never gave the impression that 2017 was a nonnegotiable “playoffs-or-bust” scenario.

“You have a bad team when people are pointing fingers, and you see that with dysfunctional GMs and coaches that can’t get along and things like that, and we just don’t have that,” Bisciotti said. “I have a coach that is carrying a burden, I have a GM that is carrying a burden, and I have a quarterback that’s carrying a burden. They’re all stepping up and taking a greater percentage of the blame than they probably deserve. To me, that’s the definition of quality leadership.”

Bisciotti is a man of conviction and won’t fire people simply because the outside world is calling for it. It’s become obvious that DeCosta has a similar will after passing on plenty of chances to run other football teams over the last several years.

If DeCosta sensed the boss was on the verge of blowing things up next offseason, you’d think he would have at least wanted to explore the possibility with the Colts.

We’ll see if valuing continuity pays off for both Bisciotti and DeCosta over the next few years.

“I want my fans to know that I think John can coach better. I think Ozzie and Eric can draft better. I think Joe [Flacco] can play better,” Biscotti said earlier this month. “If all of them do it — and I think they’re capable and determined to be better — then I think next year we’re sitting here with a playoff-caliber team, and I really believe that. If you get improvement from quality people, I believe that they can collectively bring this team back to prominence.”

Birds of a feather

I wouldn’t expect many fans to be pulling for New England in Super Bowl LI anyway, but there are several former Ravens with the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons.

The list is headlined by 2012 second-round pick Courtney Upshaw, who has converted from outside linebacker to the defensive line for the Falcons. Guard Chris Chester was a reliable member of the Ravens’ offensive line for the first five years of his career and started 16 games for Atlanta in his 11th season.

Of course, Matt Schaub served as the Baltimore backup in 2015 and became the first Ravens quarterback not named Flacco to start a game since Troy Smith at the end of the 2007 season. Cornerback Deji Olatoye and wide receiver Aldrick Robinson also had brief stints with the Ravens.

Falcons tight ends coach Wade Harman spent 15 years with the Ravens and was part of the coaching staffs that won Super Bowls in 2000 and 2012.

If that’s not enough, Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn is a Salisbury graduate, adding another local flavor to the mix.

Give Tucker a chance

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Ravens kicker Justin Tucker hit a 75-yard field goal during Wednesday’s Pro Bowl practice.

There was no defensive line for Tucker to kick over and the ball was on a tee, but I’d still like to see AFC head coach Andy Reid give him a chance to try one from 65 yards or longer at some point during Sunday’s Pro Bowl. It’s a meaningless game, so why not?

No love for Juszczyk

It’s bad enough that Kyle Juszczyk’s last name was misspelled on his Pro Bowl practice shirt on Wednesday, but then the fullback was left out of the dodgeball tournament, something in which he wanted to take part.

I guess fullbacks still aren’t getting the respect they deserve.

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DeCosta not among announced interviewees for Indianapolis job

Posted on 25 January 2017 by Luke Jones

Another year and the same apparent outcome involving Eric DeCosta.

After a Sports Illustrated report said Tuesday that Indianapolis was seeking permission to interview the Ravens assistant general manager, DeCosta is not among the six candidates the Colts formally announced they’d be interviewing for their general manager position. Currently at the Senior Bowl, DeCosta hadn’t commented on the initial report as of early Wednesday afternoon.

The 45-year-old has long been considered the successor to general manager Ozzie Newsome and has been with the organization for over 20 years despite countless interview requests for other general manager openings in recent offseasons. It’s believed that owner Steve Bisciotti pays DeCosta as well as some other top executives around the league.

Bisciotti has often boasted publicly that he has two general managers as DeCosta has taken on more responsibilities over the years. The 60-year-old Newsome has given no indication that he is nearing retirement when asked periodically in recent years, insisting how much he still enjoys the job.

“He has too much at stake here in his relationship with Ozzie, and Ozzie’s relationship with him is just strong,” said Bisciotti about DeCosta last January. “I commend him for his patience, because I know there are other guys that are GMs after they chose [to leave]. Because Eric wasn’t interested in the last five, six years — and he probably could’ve had 10 different jobs. But I will say that seven of those 10 [general managers] have been relieved of their duties already. I think that’s where Eric would say [he has] his patience.

“Because we promote continuity, Eric can afford to be patient.”

Unlike other opportunities that may have lacked appeal, the Colts already have a franchise quarterback in place, making it a more attractive job than the typical GM opening. Of course, DeCosta is also familiar with Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano, who worked in Baltimore from 2008-2011.

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Critical Ravens offseason even more unsettling after Orr retirement

Posted on 24 January 2017 by Luke Jones

We already knew the Ravens were facing a critical offseason.

Having missed the playoffs in three of the last four years and sporting an underwhelming 31-33 record since winning Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore knows it has work to do to reclaim its place as an annual contender in the AFC. Sure, you could try to argue that the Ravens are “close” since they were a tackle away from topping Pittsburgh in Week 16 to take the AFC North lead, but an 8-8 record with such a veteran-dependent roster doesn’t exactly scream that they’re moving in the right direction. It also means that they’re picking in the middle of each round of the 2017 draft, making it more difficult to land the kind of elite game-changing talent they desperately need.

And then the news broke last Friday that 24-year-old inside linebacker Zach Orr was retiring due to a rare congenital spine condition.

The former undrafted free agent wasn’t going to be the next Ray Lewis, but Orr was one of the few second- and third-year Ravens to take a major step forward, establishing himself as a quality talent in his first year as a starter. While general manager Ozzie Newsome has recently counted on many veterans to fight off Father Time to maintain a high level of play, Orr had the potential to get even better, the kind of upside the Ravens need more of to climb out of their rut of mediocrity.

The young linebacker’s unexpected retirement only makes the offseason to-do list longer.

Their 2016 starters at nose tackle, 5-technique defensive end, right tackle, and fullback are unrestricted free agents. The Ravens need to add starting-caliber options at wide receiver, cornerback, and edge pass rusher. They would like to upgrade at center and may need a starting safety if Lardarius Webb ends up being among their salary-cap casualties.

And inside linebacker has now been added to the list of concerns after that position was regarded as one of the most stable. Perhaps they will find an internal option to take Orr’s place, but the Ravens aren’t in a position where they can afford to downgrade their strengths.

With only so much cap space at their disposal, the Ravens won’t be able to address all of the aforementioned needs to the degree they’d like and frankly will need good fortune along the way, whether it’s finding some late-round gems or a diamond-in-the-rough free agent or two.

Losing Orr is the opposite of good luck and is unsettling in a crucial offseason that hasn’t really started yet.

Pro Bowl shuffling

With safety Eric Weddle and center Jeremy Zuttah added to the AFC roster on Monday, the Ravens now claim a total of seven players invited to the Pro Bowl, one shy of the franchise high.

At what point does the madness end with this charade of a game in which many players don’t even want to participate and many fans don’t want to watch?

Even if fans and media were too hard on Zuttah this season, it’d be very tough to argue that his play warranted an invitation to Orlando as an alternate. What about Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian, who reportedly would have been invited to play in the game if not for recent shoulder surgery?

Ask Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert if playing in the game is worth it after an ankle injury suffered in last year’s Pro Bowl cost him half of the 2016 season.

If the NFL wants to preserve whatever prestige that remains for being a Pro Bowl selection, the game needs to be discontinued. Maybe they could instead hold a rousing game of musical chairs, a much better reflection of the roster shuffling.

Keep the honor, but please dump the game.

Second-round suffering

With Orr’s retirement, many have pointed to Kamalei Correa as his potential replacement with the Ravens currently viewing the 2016 second-round pick as more of an inside linebacker than an outside option.

To do that, Correa will need to buck the trend of second-round disappointments after he played just 48 defensive snaps as a rookie. Baltimore’s last four selections in the second round have made a total of 31 starts with defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan making 24 of those.

Jernigan may not blossom into a Pro Bowl player, but he’s at least been a productive starter, a fair standard for a second-round choice. In contrast, inside linebacker Arthur Brown didn’t make it through his rookie contract, tight end Maxx Williams is coming off major knee surgery for a cartilage problem, and Correa couldn’t crack an outside linebacker rotation that had playing time up for grabs in 2016.

This is a big offseason for the Boise State product to prove he’s not the latest second-round disappointment.

Patriots Invitational

Perhaps a healthy Derek Carr would have made the Oakland Raiders an intriguing foe, but it was clear how big the divide was between New England and everyone else after Pittsburgh was demolished in the AFC championship game on Sunday.

Even in past years in which the Patriots ultimately advanced to the Super Bowl, you usually felt there were at least a couple AFC teams who had a real chance to beat them, but that simply wasn’t the case this season.

A league that champions parity had more mediocrity than usual with most of the 12 playoff teams not posing a serious threat to the contenders at the top. Eight of the 10 playoff games being blowouts helped support that notion.

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Ravens linebacker Orr retiring due to neck injury

Posted on 20 January 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After emerging as the Ravens’ leading tackler in his first season as a starter, inside linebacker Zachary Orr is walking away from football due to a congenital spinal condition.

The 24-year-old announced his retirement after only three seasons, leaving a hole in the middle of a Baltimore defense that ranked seventh in total yards and fifth against the run in 2016. Orr suffered a herniated disc in the Christmas Day loss to Pittsburgh and missed the season finale against Cincinnati, but further testing and a CAT scan revealed that the top of his spinal column never fully developed, a condition he was told less than one percent of the world have.

Orr said he was unaware of the condition that doesn’t show up in an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging exam, making it difficult to detect unless someone is having more extensive testing for a neck injury. He would not have been able to pass a physical to continue his career and was running a great risk of catastrophic injury by playing.

“I’ve been playing since I was nine years old,” said Orr, who also underwent shoulder surgery for an injury that was unrelated to the spinal condition. “It’s been a blessing that I’ve been able to play the game so long without any major injury happening. When I first found out the news, it was shocking. I was sad, disappointed, upset because football is something I’ve been doing my whole life.”

An undrafted free agent from North Texas in 2014, Orr initially made the 53-man roster as a special-teams player and earned a role in sub packages late in his second season. His arrival was an important development for the Ravens after 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown failed to pan out as a meaningful contributor.

Following the release of veteran linebacker Daryl Smith last offseason, Orr won the starting job next to C.J. Mosley and became one of the Ravens’ most dependable defensive players, ranking 10th in the NFL with 130 tackles in 2016. He also intercepted three passes and forced a fumble on his way to becoming a second-team All-Pro selection by the Associated Press.

“You guys see him on Sunday flying around. This guy is one of the smartest football players I’ve ever been around,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “It makes the job easy for coaches, for position coaches and for coordinators when you have guys like this that you can do so many things with.

“You can tell him on the sideline to make a little adjustment, and this guy can go right out there and get it done. That’s what makes the difference between great football players and football players. This guy right here is a great football player, and I can’t tell you how much we’re going to miss him.”

Orr was the recipient of the local media’s “Good Guy” award last month for his cooperation with reporters and is in the midst of starting the Orr Family Kids and Youth Foundation, an endeavor to which he now plans to devote more time. He now plans to go home to Texas to spend more time with family, which includes two younger brothers in college with NFL aspirations of their own.

Mosley, safety Eric Weddle, and linebacker Albert McClellan as well as linebackers coach Don Martindale attended the press conference as Orr sat with general manager Ozzie Newsome, head coach John Harbaugh, and Pees. Other players used social media to offer their support for a teammate who was popular in the locker room and active in the community.

“I never expected to hear something like that,” said Newsome of Orr’s unfortunate retirement. “Having had the opportunity to sit with a number of players at a press conference like this that have had longer careers, I don’t think there has been any player that has been more inspirational to me over the last three years than Zach.”

Orr’s unexpected departure leaves the Ravens with another need to address after inside linebacker had appeared to be one of their most stable position groups with both starters under age 25. One internal option to replace him could be 2016 second-round pick Kamalei Correa, who practiced at both inside and outside linebacker as a rookie but saw just 48 defensive snaps in nine games.

Signed to a three-year, $1.533 million contract as a rookie, Orr was scheduled to become a restricted free agent this offseason. He was projected to receive the second-round tender — which was worth $2.553 million last season — and likely would have been in line for a nice free-agent payday next offseason with the Ravens or another team.

“I always take a positive outlook in everything,” said Orr, who is interested in coaching in the future. “It’s something I can’t control what happened. I feel like my best football years on the field were ahead of me. I was excited about that, but when I found out the news and how serious it is, it was something I looked at as a blessing.”

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Reviewing Ravens’ 2016 draft class after one season

Posted on 17 January 2017 by Luke Jones

Even with two of their first three picks being non-factors as rookies, the Ravens couldn’t have been much happier with the early return on their 2016 draft compared to what they’ve seen in recent years.

Owner Steve Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome, and head coach John Harbaugh all pointed to the 11-man class as reason for optimism despite Baltimore missing the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons. And there’s plenty of room for growth, especially with third-round defensive end Bronson Kaufusi missing the entire season with a broken ankle suffered early in training camp.

The success of first-round left tackle Ronnie Stanley was expected, but an unprecedented fourth round that included five selections could be the difference in this being the Ravens’ best draft class in several years. Three of those five players filled meaningful roles as rookies, an impressive feat for Day 3 picks.

“I think we are going to find some really good players there,” Bisciotti said. “I hope one of them turns out to be elite. I hope that we have those kind of guys. I hope Alex Lewis turns out to be as good as Kelechi Osemele was as a second-round pick, and our first indication is that he may be that good, but we will see. I hope he does not disappoint. I hope [Kenneth] Dixon does not disappoint. That is what we are hoping for — that we see that kind of growth.”

Below is a look at each of the Ravens’ 2016 draft picks after one season:

OT Ronnie Stanley
Drafted: First round (sixth overall) from Notre Dame
2016 role: Despite missing four games in October with a foot injury, Stanley started 12 games and was rated as Pro Football Focus’ best pass-blocking tackle over the final eight weeks of the regular season.
Long-term view: Considering Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden wasn’t even asked to play left tackle as a rookie, the Ravens are pleased with Stanley, who is on track to be a potential Pro Bowl pick one day.

LB Kamalei Correa
Drafted: Second round (42nd overall) from Boise State
2016 role: Correa practiced both inside and outside in training camp before seeing just 48 defensive snaps in nine games and eventually being placed on injured reserve in late December.
Long-term view: Baltimore enters the offseason viewing Correa as a limited rusher and as more of an inside backer, making the choice to pass on talents like Noah Spence and Myles Jack more questionable.

DE Bronson Kaufusi
Drafted: Third round (70th overall) from Brigham Young
2016 role: The 6-foot-6, 285-pound lineman missed most of spring workouts with a back injury and suffered a broken ankle early in training camp, which cost him the rest of his rookie season.
Long-term view: Kaufusi needed to add lower-body strength and flexibility, so it’ll be interesting to see how he projects with Lawrence Guy a free agent and Brent Urban entering the final year of a rookie deal.

CB Tavon Young
Drafted: Fourth round (104th overall) from Temple
2016 role: Despite a 5-foot-9, 177-pound frame, Young played admirably as a rookie and started the final 11 games of the season, debunking the notion that he could be no better than a slot corner in the NFL.
Long-term view: The Ravens would be wise to add a corner with better size that would at least allow Young to move inside in the nickel package, but he deserves to be in the mix for a starting role.

WR Chris Moore
Drafted: Fourth round (107th overall) from Cincinnati
2016 role: Despite seeing just 162 offensive snaps and catching only seven passes for 46 yards, Moore was a key special-teams contributor and scored two touchdowns on punt plays.
Long-term view: The 6-foot-1 receiver shows some potential as a complementary vertical threat and will be in the mix as a kick returner, but this will be an important offseason for his development.

OL Alex Lewis
Drafted: Fourth round (130th overall) from Nebraska
2016 role: Splitting time between left guard and left tackle, Lewis made eight starts and was steadily improving before missing six of the final seven games of the season with an ankle injury.
Long-term view: The clear favorite to be the starting left guard in 2017, Lewis has the potential to develop into an above-average starting guard and to be a solid left tackle backup moving forward.

DT Willie Henry
Drafted: Fourth round (132nd overall) from Michigan
2016 role: Henry did not appear in any of the Ravens’ first nine games before he was placed on injured reserve in mid-November.
Long-term view: The free-agent status of nose tackle Brandon Williams will play a big part in determining how many opportunities Henry and 2015 third-rounder Carl Davis will see in the rotation.

RB Kenneth Dixon
Drafted: Fourth round (134th overall) from Louisiana Tech
2016 role: After missing the first four games with a knee injury, Dixon steadily saw his role increase as he averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 88 attempts and had three touchdowns as Terrance West’s backup.
Long-term view: The Ravens have talked about adding another running back with high-end speed, but Dixon showed impressive toughness and is the early favorite to be the starter in 2017.

OLB Matt Judon
Drafted: Fifth round (146th overall) from Grand Valley State
2016 role: In 308 defensive snaps, the 6-foot-3, 275-pound edge rusher finished with four sacks and 27 tackles as a member of an outside linebacker rotation missing Elvis Dumervil for much of the year.
Long-term view: Judon flashed promise and leapfrogged Za’Darius Smith, but the Ravens need him to step up substantially with Terrell Suggs a year older and Dumervil a potential salary-cap casualty.

WR Keenan Reynolds
Drafted: Sixth round (182nd overall) from Navy
2016 role: The former quarterback spent the first 16 weeks of the regular season on the practice squad before the Ravens promoted him to the 53-man roster and deactivated him for the season finale.
Long-term view: The 5-foot-10 receiver has a long way to go, but the Ravens didn’t want to risk him signing a reserve-future deal elsewhere, proving they still see potential in the former Midshipmen star.

CB Maurice Canady
Drafted: Sixth round (209th overall) from Virginia
2016 role: Canady saw special-teams action in four games before a hamstring injury landed him on IR in early October.
Long-term view: A 6-foot-1, 193-pound frame makes Canady a developmental candidate as an outside cornerback, but he will be competing for a roster spot in training camp.

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Nasty and David Modell with Lombardi Trophy, Jan. 2001 copy

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My life and times and memories with David Modell

Posted on 16 January 2017 by Nestor Aparicio

I’ve written many times about the miracle of the Baltimore Ravens in my life. In November 1995, a football team landed here and I was in the third year of post-newspaper work doing sports radio and conversation in a town starved of NFL football for a decade in the absence of the once-beloved Colts.

Baltimore was a jilted football metropolis, thrown on the scrapheap by the big money of the NFL in 1984 and local fans had learned to fully adopt the Orioles and newly-minted Camden Yards as the only game in town by the mid 1990s.

It’s no secret how David Modell came into my life or how the Baltimore Ravens were birthed in our city. The Modells never minced words about the deal – it was about money. They were broke in Cleveland. I chronicled all of that and wrote at length about it after the first Super Bowl championship in 2001 here in Purple Reign – Diary of a Raven Maniac.

In Chapter 4, I wrote about the contributions of David Modell in the early years and how he was a major player in helping to build that incredible night in Tampa when his father, Arthur B. Modell, lifted the Lombardi Trophy to the Florida sky in a most-unlikely story.

It’s been 21 years since David Modell walked into my WLG studios for the first time. I unearthed the tape and played it on WNST-AM 1570 this week and you can listen here via our BuyAToyota Audio Vault.

You can also listen to a lengthy chat from two years ago (before his illness) and watch this video from last May at “A Night of Heroes” when he opened our event along with Gov. Larry Hogan.

 

His death this week was not sudden, but it has suddenly rocked me.

Like the kind of jolt a 48-year old guy would feel when he loses his 55-year old friend with a wife and twin babies, I must say that this one has hit me hard on many levels.

David Modell was a true iconoclast. From afar as a Houston Oilers fan in Dundalk for first quarter century of my life, I’d always seen him as the bespectacled young kid next to Art Modell with the pocket square and a quality tailor. Then he came into my studio – and my life for real – in 1996 with his family’s name being dragged through the mud throughout …

(NEXT)

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Ravens need better from Flacco because there’s no alternative

Posted on 11 January 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti delivered the message that quarterback Joe Flacco must improve in 2017.

But that doesn’t mean an “or else” accompanied the declaration in the same way it might for head coach John Harbaugh or even general manager Ozzie Newsome after the Ravens missed the playoffs for the third time in the last four years. Regardless of your feelings on the 10th-year quarterback, Flacco might have more job security than anyone in the organization over the next few years.

The salary-cap ramifications of his contract scheduled to run through the 2021 season make it pointless to discuss moving in a different direction at quarterback for at least two more seasons. Even cutting the soon-to-be 32-year-old after the 2018 campaign would leave $16 million in dead space on the 2019 cap.

You can try to find the next Dak Prescott on Day 3 of the 2017 draft if you’d like, but taking a quarterback any earlier only serves as a detriment to a roster needing more talent on both sides of the ball.

The Ravens’ best hope is that Flacco being another year removed from ACL reconstruction surgery on his left knee will pay major dividends in 2017. They want to see better footwork and crisper decision-making going through his progressions to improve upon a 6.42 yards per attempt average that ranked 27th in the NFL.

“We were better this year with Joe Flacco back in the lineup, but I certainly don’t think we saw the Joe Flacco that he’s capable of being,” Bisciotti said. “We’ve seen a better Joe Flacco in the past.”

Of course, Bisciotti and head coach John Harbaugh were very careful to add that the offense around Flacco needs to improve as well. The decision to retain offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has been met with much criticism, but the hope is that he can utilize a full offseason to move further away from Marc Trestman’s complex system and to try to more closely replicate elements of Gary Kubiak’s West Coast attack in which Flacco thrived in 2014.

The final 11 games of the 2016 season as well as Mornhinweg’s body of work as the quarterbacks coach over the last two seasons don’t inspire confidence, but the thought of a sixth offensive coordinator in six seasons didn’t sound so great, either. Bisciotti noted that Flacco was happy with the decision to retain Mornhinweg, which seemingly puts more pressure on the quarterback to make it work with the incumbent.

Finding more balance with a successful running game would be a good start for everyone.

General manager Ozzie Newsome confirmed the need to add another wide receiver after the retirement of Steve Smith, but it remains unclear whether that will come through free agency, trade, or the draft. Baltimore must also address its offensive line by attempting to upgrade the center position and replacing free-agent right tackle Rick Wagner should he not be retained.

For now, the Ravens are saying 2017 will bring improvement because that’s all they can really do at this early stage of the offseason. It will be interesting seeing how much Newsome can realistically accomplish with only so much cap space and 2017 draft picks falling only in the middle of each round.

“Joe is going to be better next year,” Harbaugh said. “There is no doubt in my mind that he is going to be better next year, because he is going to be healthier, because we are going to have an offense in place that we all believe in, and we are going to work on it from Day 1 with our guys healthy in training camp.”

The quarterback who helped define the legacy of Harbaugh with a historic performance in the 2012 postseason will now be counted on more than ever to prolong the head coach’s tenure in Baltimore. Yes, the front office and coaching staff need to better hold up their end of the bargain, but you can’t expect to have All-Pro talent at every position around the guy who’s taking up roughly 15 percent of a team’s total cap, either.

Bisciotti hopes a healthy knee and a healthy mind will make all the difference for his high-priced quarterback who’s now facing more scrutiny than ever.

“Is the recovery from what everybody else says that they are not back completely, did that mess with his mind?” Bisciotti said. “Did that mess with his timing, his accuracy? I think it did. … I think that it really comes down to that Joe is going to have to prove that he is back and he is better.”

If Flacco doesn’t, we’ll likely see changes at this time next year.

And it would then be up to a new regime to try to make it work with the high-priced quarterback.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following season-ending press conference

Posted on 11 January 2017 by Luke Jones

With the annual “State of the Ravens” press conference having taken place on Tuesday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Steve Bisciotti acknowledged the “pitchforks” from the outside world and expects improvement, but he spent a great deal of time defending both Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh. The Ravens owner may not be happy, but he still trusts his guys — at least for now.

2. I’m nitpicking over semantics, but Newsome saying the Ravens need a “complementary” receiver is interesting when they don’t have a clear-cut primary one. I suppose they could technically label Mike Wallace as the No. 1 guy after a 1,000-yard season, but they need a very good “1a” then.

3. I fully agree with the Ravens’ desire to keep Terrell Suggs for the 2017 season. His $6.95 million salary cap figure isn’t outrageous, and the 34-year-old is still an above-average player who brings valuable leadership. The challenge will be providing him enough help at the position.

4. I wasn’t surprised to hear Elvis Dumervil’s uncertain status mentioned, but Shareece Wright can’t be feeling good about his future in Baltimore. You never want the owner mentioning you by name in saying you “set us back.” Ouch.

5. Asked about fans’ disenchantment with Harbaugh’s decision to retain Marty Mornhinweg, Bisciotti bluntly stated that his quarterback “seems happy with it.” That’s a fine endorsement, but Mornhinweg didn’t exactly net good results as Flacco’s quarterbacks coach the last two years, either.

6. The Ravens brass rightly pointed to the 2016 rookie class as reason for optimism. Another return similar to that in the 2017 draft will leave the roster in much better shape moving forward.

7. I didn’t think anyone could still defend the Anquan Boldin trade four years later, but Bisciotti went out of his way to mention it, saying the 2013 Ravens were no worse off with the players they were able to acquire as a result. Just admit you screwed up, guys.

8. I understand that the Ravens have made stadium improvements and haven’t raised ticket prices in four years, but Dick Cass couldn’t have felt good delivering the news of a likely increase for 2017 after missing the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in over a decade.

9. Bisciotti downplayed the notion that the Ravens need to get younger, but the proof will be in how many veterans become cap casualties this offseason. Dumervil, Dennis Pitta, and Lardarius Webb are still useful players, but they’re on the wrong side of 30 and expensive at their current salaries.

10. The Ravens owner using the word “bewilderment” to describe his feelings watching a once-strong defense falter late in the season was spot on. Bisciotti expressed confidence moving forward, but that’s an honest expression that should stick in the backs of the minds of Dean Pees and the defensive staff.

11. As it is the case every year, adding depth in the secondary is a priority, but the Ravens haven’t selected a cornerback in the first three rounds of the draft since 2011 and try to band-aid the problem with cheap veteran castoffs. You get what you pay for.

12. There’s a fine line between continuity and complacency. I respect Bisciotti’s conviction in believing in his guys, but much needs go right this offseason to convince me that this football team is truly moving in the right direction.

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