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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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Wild-card weekend drives home key points for Ravens

Posted on 09 January 2017 by Luke Jones

Watching wild-card weekend from home for the third time in the last four years, the Ravens had to be thinking what might have been.

They have no one to blame but themselves after losing three of their last four games to finish a mediocre 8-8, but a survey of the wild-card round field only reinforced the lack of high-quality teams in the NFL this year and in most seasons. As Bill Parcells famously said, you are what your record says you are, but you could argue that Baltimore was better than a few of the playoff teams if going off the eyeball test.

Oakland deserves a pass with the unfortunate injury to Derek Carr, but the Ravens would have certainly put up a better fight against Brock Osweiler and a Houston offense that was abysmal all season. The Texans finished minus-49 in point differential this season — Baltimore was plus-22 — and took advantage of a lousy AFC South with a 5-1 division record.

No one should have been surprised to see the Pittsburgh offense steamroll Miami after the Ravens scored 38 points against that same group last month. The Dolphins deserve credit for beating the teams they were supposed to under first-year head coach Adam Gase, but they registered only one victory against a team that finished with a winning record this season.

The Detroit Lions were a good story with so many exciting finishes, but they lost three straight to close the regular season, beat only one team that finished with a winning record, and finished with a minus-12 point differential.

The Ravens might have been an Antonio Brown tackle away from entering Week 17 atop the AFC North, but the defining stretch of the season was their winless October in which they lost to a non-playoff team at home (Washington) and dropped a 24-16 road contest to the woeful New York Jets. A single victory over that 0-4 stretch would have changed the dynamics of the final two weeks of the season.

Of course, being able to measure up to a few playoff squads doesn’t mean John Harbaugh’s team is close to being back at a championship level. Looking beyond the Texans’ lottery-winning draw of a Carr-less Raiders team on Saturday, the other three winners of the weekend — Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay — each possess dynamic playmakers, a truly special quarterback, or both.

The Ravens have a respectable collection of quality players — including the league’s best kicker and the top guard in the NFL — but they have nothing that measures closely to the impact provided by five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown and two-time Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell, who combined for four touchdowns and just under 300 yards from scrimmage in the Steelers’ 30-12 victory over Miami. And Joe Flacco didn’t come close to playing at a special level this year, either.

With Flacco arguably having more job security than anyone in the entire organization after signing a contract extension last year, general manager Ozzie Newsome better find him a playmaker or two if the Ravens’ fortunes are to markedly change for the better any time soon. It’s been a talking point for a few years now, but that makes it no less true after another non-playoff campaign.

** The four games had an average margin of victory of 19.0 points, making it the most lopsided wild-card weekend since 1981. Most expected all four home teams to prevail, but it was quite a contrast between Super Bowl contenders and pretenders this weekend.

** I couldn’t help but feel for the Raiders as they played in their first playoff game in 14 years without the benefit of their young franchise quarterback under center. Oakland should be back with such a talented group of young players on which to build, but return trips to the postseason can’t be taken for granted.

** It’s great to see Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney finally showing off the ability that warranted him being selected first overall in the 2014 draft after two disappointing seasons. He finished with an interception, two batted passes, and four quarterback pressures in a terrific performance against overwhelmed rookie quarterback Connor Cook.

** Even if Ben Roethlisberger wearing a walking boot after Sunday’s win was much ado about nothing, why in the world was the Pittsburgh quarterback and several other key starters still in the game so late in the fourth quarter?

** Can you imagine how long their fans would have been screaming about the Packers’ failed fourth-down run from the their own 42-yard line in the third quarter if it had resulted in the turning point of a New York Giants win at Lambeau Field? I suppose having a future Hall of Fame quarterback helps to cover up a bad coaching decision as Rodgers was sensational on Sunday.

** No, I don’t believe the Monday trip to Miami made by Odell Beckham Jr. — and several of his teammates — was the reason why the Giants lost to Green Bay, but it did fairly call his focus and priorities into question just days before the biggest game of his young NFL career.

Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson is highly respected around the league and summed it up nicely via his Twitter account. Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean you should, and Beckham certainly fueled the flames of the story by turning in a lousy performance.

Maybe he should have asked Tony Romo if a pre-playoff vacation is worth the potential backlash.

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Examining the Ravens’ 2017 class of free agents

Posted on 06 January 2017 by Luke Jones

The start of free agency is more than two months away, but the Ravens face another critical offseason on the heels of missing the playoffs for the third time in the last four years.

As has been the case on an annual basis, salary cap space will be an issue as the Ravens hold an estimated 2017 commitment of over $152 million to 52 players (not including free agents), according to Spotrac.com. The 2017 salary cap has not been set, but it is projected to rise from $155.27 million in 2016 to at least the $163 million-to-$165 million range, which still leaves general manager Ozzie Newsome with some tough maneuvering to clear more space and add to a roster with obvious deficiencies.

Of course, the Ravens are likely to clear cap space by renegotiating or terminating several veteran contracts. Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, safeties Lardarius Webb and Kendrick Lewis, cornerbacks Shareece Wright and Kyle Arrington, and tight ends Benjamin Watson and Dennis Pitta stand out as potential cap casualties.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

The Ravens will have the opportunity to retain any of the following unrestricted free agents before they can officially sign with any other team beginning on March 9 at 4 p.m.

WR Kamar Aiken – Steve Smith’s retirement would make Aiken a better fit to re-sign, but he was very unhappy with his role in 2016 and is more likely to move on at this point. 

G Vlad Ducasse – The veteran was re-signed to the 53-man roster in October and started the final eight games at right guard, but the Ravens will likely look younger and cheaper for depth.

S Matt Elam – It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Ravens re-sign Elam to a cheap short-term deal, but that doesn’t prevent him from going down as the worst defensive first-round pick in team history.

DE Lawrence Guy – A reliable 5-technique defensive end, Guy wouldn’t figure to be in high demand, but the Ravens also have some younger options in Brent Urban and Bronson Kaufusi.

FB Kyle Juszczyk – Widely regarded as the best fullback in the NFL, the 2016 Pro Bowl selection will have other interest, but the Ravens will likely value him more than most teams.

DB Anthony Levine – One of the Ravens’ best special-teams players over the last four years, Levine is likely to be welcomed back on a cheap deal with a minimal guarantee.

CB Chris Lewis-Harris – The former Cincinnati Bengal saw little action on defense and will not be a priority, leaving him to likely explore his options elsewhere.

QB Ryan Mallett – The 28-year-old has been able to repair his reputation in Baltimore, but you would expect Mallett to explore other situations where he has a chance to compete for a starting job.

CB Jerraud Powers – The veteran corner had his moments early, but he struggled down the stretch and Tavon Young is a better fit to slide inside to defend the slot in the nickel package.

OT Rick Wagner – The 2013 fifth-round pick has been a rock-solid right tackle, but can the Ravens pay him $6 million to $7 million per season with so many other needs?

DT Brandon Williams – He’s their top free agent, but the Ravens’ collection of interior defensive linemen makes it tough to justify paying him lucrative money if the bidding gets out of hand.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

The following players have accrued three years of service and have expiring contracts. The Ravens can tender each with a restricted free agent offer, but other teams may then sign that player to an offer sheet. If that occurs, Baltimore has seven days to match the offer and keep the aforementioned player. If the Ravens elect not to match, they would receive compensation based on which restricted tender was offered to that player.

There are three different tenders — the values won’t be set until the 2017 salary cap is determined — that can be made: a first-round tender ($3.635 million in 2016) would award the competing team’s first-round selection, a second-round tender ($2.553 million in 2016) would fetch the competing team’s second-round pick, and a low tender ($1.671 million in 2016) would bring the competing team’s draft choice equal to the round in which the player was originally drafted. For example, a restricted free agent selected in the fifth round would be worth a fifth-round pick if given the low tender. If a player went undrafted originally and is given the low tender, the Ravens would simply hold the right to match the competing figure and would not receive any compensation if they chose not to.

With less-heralded restricted free agents, the Ravens often elect to forgo the tender and try to re-sign them at cheaper rates.

The original round in which each player was drafted is noted in parentheses:

S Marqueston Huff (fourth) – Given the Ravens’ lack of depth at safety, Huff could be re-signed to a cheaper one- or two-year deal to compete for a job in training camp.

OL James Hurst (undrafted) – The North Carolina product has fared poorly with many chances, but he’s a favorite of offensive line coach Juan Castillo and could be re-signed on a minimum deal.

OL Ryan Jensen (sixth) – After starting three games in the first half of the season, Jensen appeared to fall out of favor and was inactive for the final nine weeks, leaving his future in question.

LB Zach Orr (undrafted) – One of the great stories of the 2016 season, the starting inside linebacker led the Ravens in tackles and would be a good bet to receive the second-round tender.

CB Jumal Rolle (undrafted) – Rolle tore his Achilles tendon in spring workouts, but Baltimore could sign him to a cheaper deal to take a look at him in organized team activities and training camp.

RB Terrance West (third) – The Towson product got his NFL career back on track with 774 rushing yards in 2016 and would be a good bet to receive the low tender as a former third-round pick.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

These players have less than three years of accrued service and can be tendered a contract for the league minimum based on their length of service in the league. If tendered, these players are not free to negotiate with other teams. Typically, the Ravens tender all exclusive-rights free agents with the thought that there’s nothing assured beyond the opportunity to compete for a spot. Exclusive-rights tenders are non-guaranteed, meaning a player can be cut at any point without consequence to the salary cap.

LB Brennen Beyer – The Ravens rewarded the Michigan product with a late-season promotion to the 53-man roster, and he’ll compete for a roster spot next summer.

WR Michael Campanaro – The River Hill grad has clear ability, but health concerns make it impossible to envision a meaningful role for him until he proves he can stay on the field.

LB Lamar Louis – Signed to the roster in mid-December, Louis was inactive for three straight games and will compete for a roster spot in the spring and summer.

WR Chris Matthews – The Ravens love his 6-foot-5 frame, but Matthews spent the season on IR and will need to have a big offseason to try to secure a roster spot.

LB Patrick Onwuasor – He led the Ravens in special-teams tackles despite not being promoted to the active roster until October and is an interesting young player to watch next year.

CB Sheldon Price – The 6-foot-2 corner drew the start in Week 5 before injuring his biceps and being placed on IR and is a young talent to watch this spring and summer.

WR Keenan Reynolds – Baltimore promoted the former Navy star to the 53-man roster in Week 17 to avoid other teams coming after his services, but this offseason will be big for his development.

OT De’Ondre Wesley – The 6-foot-6, 326-pound lineman spent the 2016 campaign on IR and is a developmental tackle to keep an eye on next summer.

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Harbaugh puts heat on own shoulders by retaining Mornhinweg

Posted on 03 January 2017 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — I was surprised by John Harbaugh’s decision to retain Marty Mornhinweg as Ravens offensive coordinator for the 2017 season.

I saw the head-scratching play calls and the lack of commitment to the running game that continued when Mornhinweg took the reins of the offense from the dismissed Marc Trestman in mid-October.

I asked Harbaugh what he saw in those last 11 games that suddenly made Mornhinweg the right man for the job after he didn’t hire him as his offensive coordinator two years ago and instead chose Trestman, someone he wasn’t nearly as familiar with. The Ravens coach offered no real specifics, saying only that he and his players believe in the veteran coordinator and believe they’re on the right track despite showing minimal improvement after his promotion.

Harbaugh proved Tuesday that he’s not afraid of making the unpopular choice. The decision now puts the heat squarely on his own shoulders if the offense fails to perform since he elected not to bring in a new offensive mind such as Mike McCoy or Ken Whisenhunt. Such a hire might have served as another scapegoat if the offense failed to improve, but Harbaugh will have no such luxury with this path.

It’s on him now with the Ravens having missed the playoffs in three of the last four years and the offense struggling in each of those non-winning seasons.

“Those decisions are taken very seriously,” Harbaugh said. “We’re not just sitting there saying, ‘It’s easier to keep everybody.’ Actually, it’s easier to do the opposite. Everybody is happy for a little while, but being pleased because something was done in January or February is different than being pleased with what you build in September, October, and through the season. That’s what I’m thinking about.”

To be fair, Mornhinweg was put in a tough spot taking over for an offense that had been a mess since the start of the 2015 season. For every success story like Jim Caldwell taking over for Cam Cameron late in the 2012 season, there are countless examples of an in-season coordinator change making little or no impact.

With a full offseason to revamp the offense, Mornhinweg could very well make improvements as he has orchestrated viable offenses in the past. Of course, much of that will depend on what players general manager Ozzie Newsome will add as the Ravens must replace wide receiver Steve Smith and may need to address both the center and right tackle spots on the offensive line.

Harbaugh and the Ravens have run out of excuses regarding the running game after throwing more passes than any team in the NFL over the last two years and setting new franchise lows in rushing attempts in consecutive seasons. Trestman was fired in large part for his hesitancy to run the football, but the Ravens averaged fewer carries per game (22.4) under Mornhinweg than in their first five contests (24.2) of the season.

It isn’t just about running more often, but Baltimore must run more effectively after ranking only 21st in the NFL in yards per carry (3.99) in 2016.

“Marty believes in running the football, and I believe in running the football,” Harbaugh said. “We have not run the football well enough or enough, really, for the last two years. That has to change. I think it goes hand in hand [with] being good at it and doing it a lot more than we do it.”

And then there’s Joe Flacco.

The ninth-year quarterback was coming off ACL surgery and was rattled playing behind an injury-riddled offensive line over the first half of the season, but he didn’t come close to playing his best football this season. Whether subconsciously compensating for a surgically-reconstructed knee or anticipating pressure when it wasn’t even there, Flacco inconsistently went through his progressions, often checking down too quickly without allowing plays to develop.

Trestman’s system wasn’t a good fit for Flacco as it required more interpretation and was more expansive than Gary Kubiak’s black-and-white version of the West Coast offense. The belief exists that Mornhinweg can cultivate a more cut-and-dry system this offseason more closely resembling Kubiak’s structure, which should help Flacco play with more confidence.

We’ll see.

Of course, strengthening the offensive line and jump-starting the running game are musts, but the Ravens need much more from their franchise quarterback, who will have a normal offseason after rehabbing all last year and will be another season removed from the injury.

“It does start with Joe. It starts with your quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “We need our quarterback to be playing at a level that changes the game in positive ways for us and makes a big difference. There are ways for Joe to play better, and he and I talked about that at length [on Monday].”

Ultimately, Harbaugh’s decision to retain Mornhinweg reflects a belief that the Ravens need more talent rather than better coaching. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but no one would argue that the Ravens’ skill players on offense have been on par with those of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in recent years. Even with a blue-chip coordinator — and I’m not sure there’s truly one out there with Kubiak not only stepping down in Denver but retiring from coaching altogether — it’s difficult to imagine this offense blossoming without significant upgrades at wide receiver and center at the very least.

As has been the case for a few years, the Ravens need to find a high-impact playmaker, whether it’s at receiver, running back, or tight end.

With plenty of personnel turnover anticipated, Harbaugh believes coaching continuity is what’s best for his offense next season. He’s putting his own continuity in Baltimore on the line if he’s wrong.

“I believe that we’re going to be physical,” Harbaugh said. “I believe that we’re going to run good, solid concepts that Joe can execute efficiently. I believe, within that system, there’s room for a lot of creativity. That’s what we have to chase.”

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