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Ranking the Ravens’ offensive needs for 2016

Posted on 21 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Trying to assess the 2015 Ravens offense isn’t easy.

Even if you weren’t always pleased with his play-calling and the lack of commitment to the running game, new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman was without his franchise quarterback, two of his top three wide receivers, his starting running back, his starting center, his starting left tackle, and his starting tight end for large chunks of the season. In some ways, you have to be impressed that the Ravens finished 14th in total offense, but finishing 25th in points per game (20.5) reflects how much they lacked playmakers.

How can you fairly judge Trestman’s work with a starting offense in the second half of the season that resembled one you’d see in the fourth preseason game?

The good news is that the Ravens will begin consecutive seasons with the same offensive coordinator for the first time since Cam Cameron’s five-year run that concluded in 2012. That continuity will be critical with Joe Flacco spending the offseason rehabbing from surgery to repair the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee.

With free agency set to begin in less than two months — March 9 at 4 p.m. — and the draft set for April 28-30, the Ravens are currently evaluating their biggest needs in all three phases of the game. In the first of a three-part series — with defense and special teams to follow — I offer my thoughts on the offensive side of the football and rank the positions of greatest need.

1. Left tackle

Considering Eugene Monroe is under contract for three more years, some could still argue that receiver is a bigger need, but surely no position on either side of the ball is more complicated right now for the Ravens.

I’m not completely convinced that Monroe is a goner since Kelechi Osemele will be an unrestricted free agent and the former’s release would leave $6.6 million in dead money on a salary cap that is already way too tight. Monroe’s performance over the last two years certainly doesn’t reflect the five-year, $37.5 million contract he was awarded, but his play has mostly still been solid when he has been on the field.

Can you count on Monroe to stay healthy after starting just 16 games over the last two years? Is the organization simply finished with him after he reportedly refused a simple restructure of his contract last offseason?

Osemele figures to be in high demand as either a guard or a left tackle, making it difficult to predict whether the Ravens can be a serious contender to sign him. Their best strategy might be to keep Monroe until the 2016 draft when they could potentially come away with a top left tackle such as Laremy Tunsil or Ronnie Stanley with the sixth overall pick and then part ways with the veteran. If it’s not a first-round talent, perhaps the Ravens draft a tackle in the second or third round and ride the roller coaster with Monroe for one more season.

2. Wide receiver

It’s a broken record at this position, but it was reassuring for Ravens fans to hear general manager Ozzie Newsome say at the season-ending press conference that he needs to add at least one more receiver.

There’s no reason to think Baltimore wouldn’t keep restricted free agent Kamar Aiken, but he is the group’s only fully-known commodity at the moment. No one doubts Steve Smith’s determination to return from an Achilles injury at age 37, but you can’t just bank on him being his old self, either. And even if the Ravens are confident that 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman will be 100 percent for the offseason conditioning program, he has yet to complete as much as a full-contact practice in the NFL.

The Ravens averaged a league-worst 10.4 yards per catch in 2015, reflecting their inability to stretch the field with any success. Perriman can still be viewed as the primary option to provide that skill next season, but Newsome can’t be without a backup plan this time around.

Whether it’s a free agent or a pick in the first three or four rounds of this spring’s draft, the Ravens need another speed receiver with upside to add to the passing game for 2016.

3. Reserve offensive tackle

This is a need that will be based on what the Ravens ultimately do at left tackle, but they probably shouldn’t count on James Hurst as the primary backup tackle, especially if Monroe is retained.

The former undrafted free agent from North Carolina is a hard worker and a favorite of offensive line coach Juan Castillo, but he graded 78th out of 81 qualified offensive tackles by Pro Football Focus and was simply overwhelmed for large stretches of playing time. He was also the one who fell into Flacco’s left knee to cause the season-ending injury against St. Louis on Nov. 22.

Starting right tackle Rick Wagner will also be an unrestricted free agent after the 2016 season, so the Ravens need to be prepared to address that position a year from now.

Undrafted free agent De’Ondre Wesley finished the season on the 53-man roster, but it’s unclear whether he would be ready to step into a primary backup tackle role next year.

4. Reserve interior lineman

John Urschel is projected to take Osemele’s place as the starting left guard in 2016, but the Ravens would probably like to add another interior lineman to the roster mix if they can.

Reserve guard Ryan Jensen played well when Osemele moved to left tackle, but the organization lost rookies Kaleb Johnson and Robert Myers to other teams late in the season. Adding another interior lineman in the late rounds of the draft to develop for the future would make sense.

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Ravens thoughts on winning vs. draft pick, 2016 opponents, more

Posted on 29 December 2015 by Luke Jones

The Ravens took great satisfaction in sweeping the Pittsburgh Steelers and putting their playoff hopes in serious danger, but the 20-17 win didn’t do any favors to Baltimore’s 2016 draft positioning.

Entering Week 16 holding the third overall pick in the first round of next year’s draft, the Ravens dropped all the way to eighth after pulling off one of the biggest upsets in franchise history. And it only added more fuel to the ongoing debate over whether it’s better for the Ravens to win now or to lose with an eye toward April.

To be clear once again, this isn’t a question of whether the Ravens themselves should be trying to win. The sheer number of injuries they’ve suffered has already cut John Harbaugh’s team off at the knees in the second half of the season, but many players and coaches are still fighting for their jobs and their efforts were rewarded on Sunday by completing the third season sweep of Pittsburgh in team history.

This also isn’t about the pointless debate of what it means to be a “true” fan, a concept that sounds elitist and is impossible to define. It’s perfectly acceptable to root for the instant gratification that the Ravens experienced against the Steelers on Sunday or to be thinking about the future of your favorite team and wanting a larger talent pool from which general manager Ozzie Newsome can choose in every round of this spring’s draft.

Ultimately, fans want to see their team win every Sunday and also win championships, right?

Harbaugh as well as some media and fans have spoken about the value of finishing the season on a high note, but that’s difficult to quantify when you’re considering the patchwork roster currently playing and how many of those players will either be gone or will have diminished roles next season. Winning these final two games would provide a short-term emotional boost, but that doesn’t equate to success in 2016 without some marked upgrades to the roster.

What isn’t as difficult to quantify, however, is how many draft prospects will be unavailable to the Ravens over the course of a seven-round draft should they finish 6-10 as opposed to 5-11 or 4-12. And that’s where the win over Pittsburgh followed by a potential upset at Cincinnati would leave fans with a hollow feeling in the offseason.

Even with potential wins over the Steelers and the Bengals to wrap the season, Baltimore will still be sitting at home watching the playoffs like the rest of us next week.

Good players can be found in every round of the draft if your talent evaluation is sound and you have some luck along the way. You can whiff picking at any spot in the draft, but you are improving the chances of landing better players the earlier you select.

It’s true that a better draft pick won’t guarantee that the Ravens land a future Pro Bowl player, but you won’t convince me that winning games when you’re playing out the string is all that valuable to the future, either. This is the equivalent of September baseball for a losing club, something Orioles manager Buck Showalter always warns can fool you when evaluating players.

The reality lies somewhere in between. It’s perfectly acceptable to be happy with a win over the Steelers, but you can also choose not to be distraught if the Ravens lose to the Bengals to wrap up the season. And I won’t accuse you of not being a “true” fan no matter what.

Brown done?

It was two years ago Tuesday when wide receiver Marlon Brown caught his seventh touchdown of his rookie season in a season-ending loss at Cincinnati.

Despite the Ravens missing the playoffs at 8-8 a year after winning the Super Bowl, the rookie free agent out of Georgia was one of the bright spots of 2013 and caught 49 passes for 524 yards. Since then, however, Brown has made just 38 receptions for 367 yards and no touchdowns in 24 games.

“Marlon is one of my favorite guys, and he works really hard at it, has a great attitude and, to my eyes, is very talented,” Harbaugh said. “But it just hasn’t worked in the last two years like we all expected after his rookie year, especially how Marlon expected to continue to improve. It’s going to be a really important offseason for him, and it’s going to be a critical season for him when he comes back.”

Brown’s back injury that cost him the final six games of 2015 doesn’t mask the disappointing of his last two seasons. And with the 6-foot-5 wideout scheduled to become a restricted free agent this winter, you wonder if he’s played his final game with the Ravens.

It’s remarkable to think that Brown was catching touchdowns for the Ravens two years ago while Kamar Aiken was on the practice squad and to see how different their careers have gone since then.

2016 opponents

Having clinched third place in the AFC North on Sunday, the Ravens officially learned their full slate of opponents for the 2016 season. The schedule itself is typically released in late April.

Below is a look at those opponents:

HOME: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington, Oakland
AWAY: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New England, New York Jets, Dallas, New York Giants, Jacksonville

It’s too soon to know what the Ravens or any of these opponents will look like from a talent standpoint  — only five of their 13 opponents in 2016 enter Week 17 with a winning record — but the travel schedule will lighten considerably with just one game (Dallas) played outside the Eastern time zone. After the Ravens played four games out west in the first seven weeks of the 2015 season, that should be a pleasant change as they try to bounce back from the first losing season of the Harbaugh era.

Good shape at guard

It remains to be seen what the Ravens will do at left tackle moving forward, but the last couple weeks make you think that the interior offensive line will be in good shape without Kelechi Osemele.

The organization has long been confident in John Urschel’s ability to play guard, but 2013 sixth-round pick Ryan Jensen has improved substantially over the last couple weeks and earned high marks for his blocking against Pittsburgh on Sunday. With starting center Jeremy Zuttah under contract for next season, the Ravens could elect to have Urschel and Jensen compete for the starting left guard spot in training camp.

Even if Osemele is re-signed, he won’t be playing left guard, but the Ravens should feel confident about their options to replace him.

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Injuries hit Ravens defensive line in third preseason game

Posted on 30 August 2015 by Luke Jones

After dealing with a slew of injuries on their offensive line in recent weeks, the Ravens were bitten on the defensive line in a 31-13 preseason loss to Washington on Saturday night.

Starting defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan injured his right knee on the fourth defensive play of the game and did not return. The second-year defensive lineman has shown much promise in his brief NFL career, but durability is becoming a concern as he was sidelined earlier this summer with a foot injury and missed five games as a rookie.

Rookie third-round pick Carl Davis replaced him on the starting defensive line.

The Ravens’ defensive line depth also took a hit on Saturday as defensive ends Lawrence Guy (knee) and DeAngelo Tyson (right shoulder) exited early with injuries. Tyson’s injury was of particular concern as he was writhing in pain and was later being consoled by teammates on the bench.

Baltimore is already dealing with the loss of second-year defensive end Brent Urban due to a biceps tear.

Offensive lineman Ryan Jensen (concussion) and cornerback Chris Greenwood (leg) also left the game with injuries and did not return.

Head coach John Harbaugh did not give any injury updates when asked after Saturday’s loss.

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The Baltimore Ravens defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars 20-12 at M&T Bank Stadium on December 14, 2014. Photo by Shawn Hubbard

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Ravens-Eagles preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 22 August 2015 by Luke Jones

A four-day trip to Philadelphia culminates with the Ravens’ second preseason game of the summer with the Eagles on Saturday night.

Unlike last year’s three-day practice session with San Francisco that followed a preseason game, the Ravens should be very familiar with Chip Kelly’s team after two days of full workouts and Friday’s walk-through leading into their preseason contest. By most accounts, the trip was productive with only a few skirmishes that paled in comparison to fights that have taken place elsewhere between teams practicing together.

“They treated us very well, and we had three really good practices with a good football team,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “We felt like we’ve improved. You see schemes you don’t normally see, the way routes are run or different types of plays on both sides of the ball that you don’t normally see. It’s great to get a chance to expose yourself to some different schemes.”

After the starting offense put together a 16-play touchdown drive in its only action in the preseason opener, Harbaugh could push his starters to play the entire first quarter in the second game of the summer. As always, that will depend on the number of plays each drive consumes and the plan will be individualized with some starters being removed early and younger first-teamers playing a little bit more.

Saturday marks the first time that Baltimore will play the Eagles in the preseason since 2011. The teams played in 10 out of the first 12 years of the Ravens’ existence, making the recent lull somewhat surprising given the geographic proximity between the teams.

The Ravens are 7-4 against Philadephia in the all-time preseason series and 1-2-1 against them in their regular-season history. They are set to meet in the 2016 regular season, which will push back a joint-practice reunion until at least the following year.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Saturday night’s game in Philadelphia.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will be in question. This list, of course, will not include any veterans who may be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: WR Breshad Perriman (knee), CB Lardarius Webb (hamstring), TE Dennis Pitta (hip), S Matt Elam (biceps), DE Brent Urban (biceps), TE Allen Reisner (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: G Kelechi Osemele (Achilles), OT Jah Reid (back), LB Steven Means (groin)
QUESTIONABLE: OT Rick Wagner (foot), S Terrence Brooks (knee), G John Urschel (concussion), G Robert Myers (concussion), DE Kapron Lewis-Moore (undisclosed), OT Darryl Baldwin (undisclosed), OL Blaine Clausell (undisclosed)
PROBABLE: DT Timmy Jernigan (foot), WR Marlon Brown (back), DE DeAngelo Tyson (elbow), CB Asa Jackson (knee)

Five players to watch Saturday night

CB Rashaan Melvin

The absence of Lardarius Webb continues to create more opportunities for Melvin, who did a respectable job down the stretch last year until major struggles in the playoff loss to New England. Overall, the 6-foot-2 corner has practiced well this summer, impressing against the Eagles this week. With veteran Kyle Arrington better suited to play inside in the nickel package, the 25-year-old Melvin is an intriguing option for the future with Webb approaching 30 and not the player he was a few years ago. A strong performance by Melvin in the second preseason game could put some heat on the veteran once his hamstring is finally healthy.

WR Darren Waller

Few players have improved as much from the spring until now as the sixth-round pick from Georgia Tech, who is developing rapidly for a 6-foot-6 receiver with few opportunities in Paul Johnson’s triple-option attack. Despite being 245 pounds, Waller runs better routes than you’d expect and is sinking his hips better when trying to change directions. At the start of the summer, the practice squad appeared to be a realistic option for the tall wideout, but Waller looks more and more like a player who could help the Ravens inside the red zone while continuing to learn the finer points of the position. Baltimore has had plenty of tall receivers in the past, but he shows signs of a better skill set to go along with his height.

OL Ryan Jensen

With Osemele, Urschel, and Myers all recently dealing with health concerns, Jensen could draw a start at left guard against the Eagles after playing well this summer. A favorite of offensive line coach Juan Castillo, the Colorado State-Pueblo product is moving into position to earn a roster spot with the ability to play all three interior line positions, the kind of versatility that is valuable on game days. At 6-foor-4 and 310 pounds, Jensen will have his hands full with a very talented Philadelphia defensive line, but Saturday will be a good litmus test if he indeed plays in place of the hobbled Osemele.

LB Albert McClellan

The veteran linebacker has been a mainstay on the roster, but the younger Zach Orr has emerged as not only a special-teams standout but a viable backup linebacker and it’s clear the Ravens would still like to salvage some value out of disappointing 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown. These factors make you wonder if there will be room for all three on the 53-man roster. McClellan struggled at inside linebacker in the preseason opener, but he does have the ability to play all four linebacker spots in the Baltimore base defense, something that shouldn’t be overlooked when only a few reserve linebackers are active on game days. He’ll need to have a better showing against the Eagles to improve his roster standing.

TE Nick Boyle

Second-round pick Maxx Williams clearly possesses more upside for the future, but Boyle is showing more ability as a receiver than many anticipated and had a strong showing practicing against the Eagles this week. He has had some issues with drops at times, but the Ravens liked his hands at Delaware and believe he can be a solid all-around player at the position. Crockett Gillmore is the clear No. 1 tight end at this point, but Boyle’s ability to block and catch a few passes might earn him a few more chances in certain formations than Williams. He could be a surprising contributor inside the red zone if he can show consistent ability to block as a rookie, which the Ravens will need behind Gillmore’s expanded role.

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Ravens place Taliaferro on IR, sign former Patriots defensive tackle Walker

Posted on 16 December 2014 by Luke Jones

The Ravens officially sent three players to injured reserve on Tuesday with rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro joining injured defensive backs Asa Jackson and Terrence Brooks.

Head coach John Harbaugh had already confirmed Jackson and Brooks would miss the rest of the season, but the news of Taliaferro’s status is disappointing after he rushed for 292 yards and four touchdowns on 68 carries, often serving as the primary backup behind starter Justin Forsett. Taliaferro suffered a foot injury in the Week 14 win over Miami and missed this past Sunday’s game against Jacksonville after the Ravens promoted rookie running back Fitz Toussaint from the practice squad.

Taliaferro had originally been described as “day-to-day” by Harbaugh on Dec. 8.

To fill two of the three spots vacated on the 53-man roster, Baltimore promoted offensive lineman and 2013 sixth-round pick Ryan Jensen from the practice squad and signed defensive tackle Casey Walker away from New England’s practice squad. Walker appeared in five games for the Patriots earlier this season, collecting 11 tackles and a sack.

The 6-foot-1, 335-pound undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma started his career with the Carolina Panthers in 2013 before he was signed by the Patriots in late September of this season. He had been on New England’s active roster until late last month when he was waived to make room for running back LeGarrette Blount and then re-signed to the practice squad.

Jensen spent his entire rookie season on the 53-man roster without appearing in a game, but the Colorado State-Pueblo product did not make the team at the end of the 2014 preseason, agreeing to join the practice squad after being waived.

As of Tuesday afternoon, one spot had yet to be filled with many expecting the Ravens to add a defensive back in the wake of the season-ending injuries to Jackson and Brooks.

With Jensen and Toussaint promoted in recent days, the Ravens signed defensive end Zach Thompson and cornerback Quinton Pointer to the practice squad. Thompson is a Wake Forest product and previously spent time with the New York Jets and the Denver Broncos.

Pointer is in his third NFL season and appeared in eight games with the St. Louis Rams in 2012 and 2013. He was most recently with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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Ravens sign former picks Simon, Wenning, Jensen to practice squad

Posted on 31 August 2014 by Luke Jones

A day after trimming their roster to the league-mandated 53 players for the regular season, the Ravens began formulating their 10-man practice squad by signing three former draft picks and six others on Sunday.

The list was headlined by 2013 fourth-round linebacker John Simon, who was one of the more notable final cuts of the summer. Simon saw action in only seven games as a rookie, making four tackles while primarily serving on special teams. Despite a strong performance in the preseason finale in New Orleans, Simon was left off the 53-man roster just a year after the Ravens were so excited to select the 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year out of Ohio Stat.

The Ravens signed two other former draft picks as 2013 sixth-round offensive lineman Ryan Jensen and 2014 sixth-round quarterback Keith Wenning cleared waivers and agreed to join the practice squad. Baltimore elected to enter the regular season with just two quarterbacks on the roster for the fifth straight year and had hoped that Wenning would go unclaimed after final cuts.

Cornerbacks Tramain Jacobs and Deji Olatoye, defensive tackles Jamie Meder and A.J. Pataiali’i, tight end Phillip Supernaw, and running back Fitz Toussaint were the other six players to agree to join the practice squad as the Ravens had one spot to fill as of Sunday afternoon.

All nine players currently on the practice squad spent the preseason with Baltimore. Olatoye was cut when the Ravens needed to trim their roster from 90 to 75 while the other eight were officially waived on Saturday.

The NFL expanded practice squads from eight to 10 members for the 2014 season.

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Ravens cut veteran Shipley, 2013 fourth-rounder Simon to get to 53-man limit

Posted on 30 August 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Needing to trim their roster to the league-mandated 53 members by 4 p.m. Saturday, the Ravens parted ways with a number of players headlined by veteran offensive lineman A.Q. Shipley and 2013 fourth-round linebacker John Simon.

The Ravens also cut cornerbacks Dominique Franks, Derek Cox, Tramain Jacobs, and Sammy Seamster, offensive linemen Ryan Jensen and Parker Graham, defensive tackles Jamie Meder and A.J. Pataiali’i, tight end Phillip Supernaw, running back Fitz Toussaint, and sixth-round rookie quarterback Keith Wenning on Saturday.

“It’s challenging,” said head coach John Harbaugh about the final cut-down day. “When a guy walks in your room, as a head coach, or if you’re any kind of a person at all, immediately you put yourself in their shoes. You become empathetic to what they’re going through, and that’s just how you feel about it.

Defensive tackle Terrence Cody was placed on the reserve physically unable to perform list while he continues to recover from offseason hip surgery. He will be required to miss the first six weeks of the regular season before he’s eligible to return.

In addition to those transactions, the Ravens placed rookie wide receiver Jeremy Butler on injured reserve with a shoulder injury and moved running back Ray Rice and safety Will Hill to the reserve-suspended list.

The decision to part ways with both Franks and Cox means the Ravens only have four cornerbacks on their current roster, making it very likely that they’ll add another defensive back with Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, and Asa Jackson all just returning to practice on Saturday after injuries. Six safeties made the regular-season roster with Anthony Levine and rookie Terrence Brooks also having the ability to play cornerback to help depth at that position.

After much discussion over which receivers would make the 53-man roster, the Ravens elected to keep the trio of rookie Michael Campanaro, veteran Deonte Thompson, and 2013 practice squad member Kamar Aiken to give them seven total wideouts on the 53-man squad. Many were of the opinion that the Ravens would find room for only two of the three.

A pair of rookie free agents made the 53-man roster in offensive tackle James Hurst and linebacker Zachary Orr. The Ravens were excited about Hurst’s upside when they signed him following the draft while Orr impressed coaches with his special-teams ability during the preseason.

Shipley was let go by Baltimore despite starting nine games last season after left guard Kelechi Osemele underwent season-ending back surgery. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 307 pounds, the Penn State product is undersized for his position but was projected by most to make the 53-man roster as a reserve interior lineman.

The selection of fifth-round guard John Urschel in May’s draft ultimately helped push Shipley out the door as the Penn State product has the ability to play all three interior line positions.

“Less competed against and more just grew with. He’s a Penn State guy; I’m a Penn State guy,” Urschel said after Saturday’s practice. “We became very good friends while we were here, and he’s a guy who really took me under his wing and taught me a lot of things. A guy who didn’t have to help me considering that I’m a young guy, [and] he’s a veteran. Helped me every single day and really just helped teach me how to be a pro in this league.”

Last year, the Ravens were elated to draft Simon, who was the 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year for Ohio State, but the 6-foot-1, 252-pound linebacker was slow to develop and failed to show the all-around skill set required of an outside linebacker. With Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw, and Pernell McPhee all ahead of him on the depth chart, Simon was clearly on the bubble after an underwhelming summer.

Simon’s departure marks the second straight year in which the Ravens have parted ways with a fourth-round pick from the previous year. Baltimore cut disappointing 2012 fourth-round safety Christian Thompson after he finished serving a four-game suspension to begin the 2013 season.

The exit of Shipley initially appeared to be good news for the second-year offensive lineman Jensen, but he was also waived. A sixth-round pick in the 2013 draft, Jensen did not appear in a game last season, but the Ravens thought highly enough of him to carry him on the 53-man roster despite a broken foot costing him a sizable portion of training camp and the regular season.

The Ravens remain hopeful that Wenning will clear waivers, which would allow him to join the practice squad. They appear on track to carry only two quarterbacks on their active roster for the fifth consecutive season as starter Joe Flacco and backup Tyrod Taylor are the only signal-callers currently in the organization.

Of Saturday’s cuts, Jacobs, Seamster, Wenning, and Toussaint are among the potential fits for the 10-man practice squad if they do not draw interest from other NFL teams.

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Ravens-Saints preseason primer: Five bubble players to watch

Posted on 27 August 2014 by Luke Jones

While many have turned their attention toward the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 7, the Ravens complete their preseason schedule by taking on the New Orleans Saints in their first visit to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome since Super Bowl XLVII Thursday night.

Of course, the stakes pale in comparison to the last time the Ravens traveled to Louisiana, but the livelihood of a select group of players still vying for roster spots is on the line as key position battles remain at wide receiver and potentially on the offensive and defensive lines. After trimming their roster to 75 players earlier this week, the Ravens must produce their first 53-man roster by 4 p.m. Saturday while also scanning the open market to see what players might shake free from other teams.

Thursday represents the final time some players will ever play football while others will find themselves seeking opportunities with 31 other NFL teams by the weekend. In all reality, most decisions will have been made prior to Thursday’s game with only a couple spots potentially up for grabs when the Ravens take the field against the Saints.

“It’s hard every year. It seems like we get to this point every year and we feel this way about our team,” said head coach John Harbaugh of the final roster decisions. “It just seems like it’s a challenge every year. That’s a good problem to have. Getting to the season, I hope it’s proven true. I hope we don’t think we have good depth and all of the sudden we get into the season [and] find out we don’t. That’s the nature of what we do.”

Thursday’s game won’t offer much from an entertainment standpoint as Harbaugh confirmed earlier this week that most starters will not play against the Saints, a team the Ravens will face in the regular season on Nov. 24. With the number of injuries currently plaguing the secondary alone, Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome will likely use the preseason finale as an evaluation tool of their secondary depth — the Ravens signed veteran cornerback Derek Cox on Wednesday — more than anything else.

Even without his starters playing in the final game of the summer, Harbaugh says expectations remain high for backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor and the rest of the Baltimore reserves who will either be filling out the 53-man roster or looking for work by Saturday.

“I want to win the game. We don’t go down there to not win the game,” Harbaugh said. “We are going to do everything we can to win the game. If we walk off the field without the win, I’m not going to be happy about it. I want to walk over and shake the other coach’s hand as the winner — not the loser.”

Thursday will be the second preseason meeting between the Ravens and the Saints, but Baltimore owns the 4-1 edge in the regular season and a 1-0 advantage in the preseason. The Ravens are 45-29 all-time in the preseason and have a 18-9 preseason mark in the Harbaugh era.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Thursday night’s game in New Orleans.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will be in question. This list, of course, does not take into account the many veterans — injured or not — who will be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: CB Lardarius Webb (back), CB Asa Jackson (ankle), CB Jimmy Smith (chest), DT Terrence Cody (hip)
DOUBTFUL: OL Jah Reid (head)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Owen Daniels (legs), S Matt Elam (leg), RB Bernard Pierce (head)
PROBABLE: WR Kamar Aiken (head)

Five bubble players to watch Thursday night

1. QB Keith Wenning

This one will be fairly clear-cut as you’d expect the Ravens to limit Wenning’s playing time if they desire to pass him through waivers and place him on the practice squad. If Wenning receives extensive playing time, it could be a sign that they’re prepared to keep him on the 53-man roster as the third quarterback behind Joe Flacco and Taylor. The Ravens haven’t carried three quarterbacks on the active roster since 2009, so the consensus expectation is they’ll run the risk of losing their 2014 sixth-round pick and use that roster spot for another position of need while hoping Wenning makes it to the practice squad.

2. WR Deonte Thompson

The speedy third-year wideout has been one of the stars of the summer with a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Dallas and a 21-yard touchdown reception against Washington, but Thompson has also failed to take advantage of past opportunities in Baltimore. Even in Saturday’s game in which he caught the touchdown from Taylor, Thompson played only nine offensive snaps compared to 19 taken by Kamar Aiken and 13 by seventh-round rookie Michael Campanaro. The wild card that could keep Thompson on the roster is his blinding speed, which is a nice asset to back up Jacoby Jones in the return game.

3. LB John Simon

I’d still expect the 2013 fourth-round pick to make the roster, but the Ohio State product hasn’t stood out this preseason with only three total tackles. Considering there are four outside linebackers — Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw, and Pernell McPhee — ahead of him on the depth chart, Simon’s only chance to see the field will be as a special-teams player in his second season. Given the current vulnerabilities at cornerback and on the defensive and offensive lines, Simon could be a surprise cut as nothing about his play on the field during practices or limited game opportunities suggests he’s really deserving of being a lock.

4. OT James Hurst

Despite receiving more attention that the typical rookie free agent after a broken leg factored into him going undrafted out of North Carolina, Hurst has struggled this summer and probably wouldn’t be receiving much consideration for a roster spot if not for the recent concussion suffered by fourth-year tackle Jah Reid. If Reid’s symptoms linger longer than expected, Hurst might find himself on the active roster when final cuts are made, but it’s doubtful that the Ravens would feel comfortable if needing to use him on game day. The likely scenario for Hurst would be the practice squad where he can continue to develop.

5. OL Ryan Jensen

The Ravens thought enough of the 2013 sixth-round pick as a rookie — and their struggling offensive line probably played a part as well — that they carried him on the 53-man roster despite a broken foot that sidelined him for an extensive part of the regular season. A year later, Jensen is firmly behind veteran A.Q. Shipley and fifth-round rookie John Urschel in the pecking order at guard as he saw only eight offensive snaps against Washington. Because he’s a recent draft pick, Jensen would figure to have a good chance to be signed to the practice squad, but his performance and playing time suggest his roster spot is in major jeopardy.


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Live From Owings Mills: CB Jackson remains out of practice Wednesday

Posted on 13 August 2014 by Glenn Clark

OWINGS MILLS — The Baltimore Ravens returned to the practice fields at their 1 Winning Drive facility Wednesday, the penultimate open session of their 2014 Training Camp.

Two injured Ravens returned to the practice field following Tuesday’s day off. OL Ryan Jensen (leg) and S Brynden Trawick (back) were both back on the practice field-both had been out since Saturday. Additionally, TE Dennis Pitta (ankle) was on the practice field again after missing Sunday’s session and being limited in Monday’s activities.

CB Asa Jackson missed a third straight day of practice Wednesday dealing with an ankle injury, continuing to deplete a unit that is already missing Lardarius Webb (back). Webb is not expected to return until at least the end of the preseason. OL Will Rackley was not participating in Wednesday’s practice-he continues to work his way back from a concussion suffered at the start of Training Camp. DL Terrence Cody remains on the active Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list as he recovers from offseason hip surgery.

TE Owen Daniels was not present for the session Wednesday either, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak confirmed after the session there was no injury issue-the veteran had just received a day off.

Defensive Linemen Kapron Lewis-Moore (Achilles) and Brent Urban (knee) remain on the roster but are both expected to miss the entire 2014 season.

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Osemele biggest key to Ravens fixing offensive line

Posted on 04 June 2014 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It was a year ago when the only question about Ravens offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele was whether he would become a Pro Bowl left guard in his second season in the NFL.

The expectations were high for the 2012 second-round pick after his successful shift to left guard was part of a offensive line shuffle that helped catapult the Ravens in a run to their Super Bowl XLVII championship. Osemele had played admirably at right tackle during his rookie season, but his postseason work inside made most think he was ready to take off in his second year.

Instead, a debilitating back injury led to poor play and, eventually, season-ending surgery while the offensive line crumbled with too many question marks all over. Now recovered and participating fully during voluntary organized team activities this spring, Osemele sees no reason why the lofty goal of making the Pro Bowl should be any different as he returns from surgery to repair a herniated disk.

“That’s always going to be the expectation for me as a player,” Osemele said. “Knowing the ability that I have and my work ethic, I feel like I would be an underachiever if that wasn’t my goal.”

With uncertainty lingering at right tackle after the Ravens re-signed left tackle Eugene Monroe and acquired veteran center Jeremy Zuttah this offseason to reshape their offensive line, Osemele is the linchpin of the group as he is currently slated to be the starting left guard. However, his versatility leaves the door open for the third-year lineman to shift back to right tackle should 2013 draft picks Rick Wagner and Ryan Jensen fail to play well enough to win the job and general manager Ozzie Newsome chooses not to sign a veteran.

Putting aside the right tackle battle, the Ravens are still putting plenty of faith in Osemele regaining the form of his rookie year, even after the positive reviews and the way he’s looked during spring workouts in which players practice in helmets, jerseys, and shorts. They know the true test won’t come until training camp when players are in full pads and experiencing full contact. The organization will then see how well Osemele holds up against the likes of hefty defensive linemen Haloti Ngata, Timmy Jernigan, and Brandon Williams in practices.

“As far as explosiveness, it’s hard to gauge that for any player, because we’re not hitting out here,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I don’t think you can really evaluate the power that a guy has, but I don’t doubt that it’s in there with him if you just watch the way he moves. He looks good. He’s going to be a lot better than he was last year.”

The Ravens and Osemele hope his best play has yet to come as he initially sustained the back injury during his collegiate days at Iowa State. The combination of him and Monroe on the left side of the offensive line is formidable on paper as Monroe’s athleticism at the left tackle spot is complemented well by Osemele’s combination of power and agility from the interior.

But the recovering lineman acknowledged the changes he’s been forced to make in his training regimen after last fall’s surgery. He is no longer permitted to perform any lifting over his head or squats as he focuses more closely on core training and flexibility than he did in the past.

The preexisting back condition that he had managed for years worsened last offseason when he trained too hard with thoughts of the Pro Bowl on his mind. And it showed in his diminished performance that was limited to just seven games before he was placed on season-ending injured reserve and underwent surgery in November.

“I didn’t train very smart,” Osemele said. “It was definitely on me [and] the way that I had been training, obviously, without knowledge of how bad that it was and then throughout the season getting those multiple MRIs, and seeing the condition worsen and already being at a point where you have to [play] because you’ve been taking all the reps. I ate up all the reps and then couldn’t play to my ability.”

An offensive line that was already struggling took further lumps with Osemele sidelined as the undersized A.Q. Shipley filled in at left guard next to new starting center Gino Gradkowski, giving the Ravens major problems inside as their running game and pass protection could never get on track during a disappointing 8-8 season.

The question of what player will line up at right tackle isn’t one that figures to be resolved anytime soon, but Osemele’s return to the mix will ease the concerns of the entire organization. The Ravens saw more than enough during his rookie season to feel confident that Osemele can be an anchor of the offensive line as long as the back is no longer an issue.

He said Wednesday that he hasn’t felt this healthy and strong since his first year or two of college.

“He’s back to his usual self, running around,” Monroe said. “[He is] one of the best-conditioned guys on the field, just grinding and trying to get better. We are even having to slow him down a little bit because it has been a while since he played, and we have certain rules we have to follow right now. We’re just working together every day. I’m glad he’s right next to me, I really am.”

On Wednesday, Harbaugh reiterated the preference of Osemele staying at left guard next to Monroe while the Ravens solve the puzzle at the right tackle spot. Even if they don’t find a great answer at that position, there are plenty of ways for offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to scheme help in protection to account for vulnerability on the right side.

One weak link on the offensive line can be overcome, but the Ravens cannot afford to be vulnerable at multiple spots like they were last season, making it critical that Osemele is once again the player that dominated defensive linemen in the 2012 postseason while helping the organization win its second Super Bowl title. He’s the most important variable in determining whether the unit makes substantial improvement or once again struggles this season.

Whether it’s ultimately at left guard or right tackle, Osemele needs to be a force.

“We can’t lock ourselves into saying one thing or another, because we just don’t know how it’s going to play out,” Harbaugh said. “[Osemele] gives us flexibility because he can move out to tackle, but I sure like the way he and Eugene look over on that left side. That’s the direction we’re heading right now and hopefully we can maintain that course.”

Wednesday OTA attendance

There were more veterans absent for Wednesday’s workout than at last week’s workout that was open to reporters as Ngata, linebackers Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Daryl Smith, defensive end Chris Canty, and guard Marshal Yanda were not on the field.

Ngata, Suggs, and Canty were the only veterans not present last Thursday.

Defensive tackle Terrence Cody (hip surgery) and offensive lineman Jah Reid (calf strain) remained sidelined as they continue to rehab injuries. Rookie wide receiver Michael Campanaro (hamstring) returned to the practice field after he’d been sidelined since his first week with the organization.

Running back Bernard Pierce (shoulder surgery) and rookie defensive end Brent Urban (ankle surgery) were once again practicing after undergoing procedures earlier in the offseason.

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