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Examining Ravens position battles: Third safety/dime back

Posted on 04 August 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens ramping up their activity level before the start of full training camp practices later this month, we’ll take a look at some key position battles ahead of the 2020 season.

Below is a look at the competition for the third safety/dime back job:

The terms “base defense” and “front seven” are no longer the norm in today’s NFL with the Ravens being no exception.

After running its conventional 3-4 defense just 16 percent of the time in 2018, Baltimore used its base front a league-low nine percent of the time last season, according to Football Outsiders. While the nickel featuring five defensive backs has become the real “base” defense around the pass-happy NFL, Wink Mardinale deployed a dime package (six defensive backs) 41 percent of the time in 2019, up from 26 percent in his first season as defensive coordinator.

With the overwhelming strength of the Ravens defense being its secondary, it makes sense for Martindale to lean more heavily in that direction, but will the trend of increasing dime usage continue in 2020? The acquisitions of defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe and the drafting of inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison reflected the desire to improve a middling run defense, but that doesn’t mean the Ravens will suddenly turn back the clock on the way defense is played, especially if they enjoy leads as often as they did last season.

Even if Martindale has more faith in Queen, Harrison, and veteran L.J. Fort to use two linebackers in passing situations more frequently, the dime figures to remain a prominent part of Baltimore’s defense, which brings us back to that sixth defensive back spot. Outside cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, safeties Earl Thomas and Chuck Clark, and nickel corner Tavon Young are the established starting five, but ex-Raven Brandon Carr served as the third safety with Clark often moving into the box in the second half of the 2019 season.

Many have discussed the possibility of veteran Jimmy Smith — re-signed to a one-year, $3.5 million deal in March — transitioning from cornerback to that third safety role, but head coach John Harbaugh downplayed the idea of Smith making a definitive position change like Carr did midway through last season. Smith also remains the Ravens’ best outside corner option behind Humphrey and Peters.

“Jimmy has already done what Brandon Carr did last year,” Martindale said in June. “We put him against good tight ends to cover in special situations, whether it’s a third down or two-minute [drill] or what have you or different kinds of packages. The thing that comes out about that is the best 11 will play, but it could be a different set of 11 for every package and matchup that we want to do with whatever situation it is.”

The Ravens also re-signed the 33-year-old Anthony Levine, who excelled as the primary dime back in 2017 and 2018 before seeing his playing time diminish last season. The most intriguing options for the No. 3 safety spot are a pair of young players who’ve combined to play only 40 defensive snaps in the NFL.

Injuries have limited 2018 sixth-round pick DeShon Elliott to six career games, but the the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Texas product turned heads last spring and summer with his physicality and range in pass coverage. That skill set would seem to be a good fit for Elliott to enter as either a deep safety or a dime back playing in the box, but Elliott will need to show he’s fully recovered from a serious knee injury sustained last October.

Elliott will face competition from seventh-round rookie Geno Stone, whom the Ravens didn’t evaluate closely until he declared for the draft in early January. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Iowa product may not stand out from a physical standpoint, but team officials like his football intellect and processing ability, making him an interesting first-year player to watch in a defense known for its flexibility and deception.

As Martindale indicated, the Ravens won’t feel compelled to stick to one player for that sixth defensive back spot as game situation and opposing personnel will prompt different looks. The arrivals of Queen and Harrison may allow Baltimore to lean more on the nickel package than a year ago, but the dime isn’t going anywhere, meaning this summer will be a key time for Ravens coaches to sort through both their veteran and younger options.

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chargerswin

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Ravens regular-season moment No. 17: “Our backs were against the wall”

Posted on 22 May 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 18 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

The Ravens hadn’t won a truly critical December game in a very long time.

After missing the playoffs in each of the previous three years, Baltimore was a team in transition as rookie first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson had replaced the injured Joe Flacco during the Week 10 bye. Many assumed that makeover would continue with a new head coach as rumors had swirled about John Harbaugh and the organization likely parting ways at the end of the season.

Jackson was still another offseason of development away from blossoming into the league MVP, but his presence had revitalized a stagnant rushing attack and breathed new life into the Ravens, who had won four of five coming out of the bye week to climb back into the playoff race. The revamped ball-control offense had better complemented a defense that dominated down the stretch and finished first in the NFL in total yards allowed, second in points allowed, and third in defensive efficiency.

But a Week 16 showdown with the red-hot Los Angeles Chargers — who were coming off extra rest after an impressive Thursday road win over AFC-leading Kansas City the week before — was the kind of test the Ravens simply hadn’t passed in recent years. Memories of the Christmas loss in Pittsburgh two years earlier and the fourth-and-12 choke against Cincinnati in the 2017 finale were too strong for most to believe Baltimore would beat one of the NFL’s elite, especially on the road.

The plot felt all too familiar as the Ravens dominated the first half statistically, but they led only 6-3 at halftime after going 0-for-3 inside the red zone. Jackson’s beautiful 68-yard touchdown pass to fellow rookie Mark Andrews and a Justin Tucker 56-yard field goal gave the Ravens a 16-10 lead in the third quarter, but the offense then stalled with three straight three-and-outs, continuing to put great pressure on a Baltimore defense that had bullied eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers and one of the league’s best offenses all night.

In the post-Super Bowl XLVII era, Ravens defenses had remained strong statistically, but a reputation for faltering at critical moments was impossible to overlook. Even two weeks earlier, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs had pulled off a miraculous fourth-down conversion to force overtime and deny Baltimore an upset bid at Arrowhead Stadium.

That’s why Ravens fans couldn’t help but feel uneasy when Sam Koch’s punt from his own end zone was returned 24 yards by Desmond King to the Baltimore 39 with three minutes remaining. Not only could Rivers and the Chargers take the lead with a touchdown, but they had a short field to do it.

Someone would have to make a play for the Ravens to keep strong playoff hopes alive.

A holding penalty pushed Los Angeles back before Rivers completed a first-and-20 throw over the middle to eight-time Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, who fought for more yardage as cornerback Brandon Carr wrapped him up. Linebacker Patrick Onwuasor arrived a moment later to punch out the football, and slot cornerback Tavon Young scooped it up and sprinted 62 yards for a touchdown.

Game over.

The defense had closed a terrific performance, and the Ravens had secured their biggest December victory in years. And with Pittsburgh losing at New Orleans the following day, Baltimore needed only a Week 17 win to secure its first AFC North championship since 2012.

The Chargers would exact their revenge in a wild-card round rematch at M&T Bank Stadium two weeks later, but the Ravens had finally broken through after not being quite good enough for too long. The Week 16 win brought Jackson’s first 200-yard passing performance as a pro, the defense’s ability to finish, and validation for the previous night’s announcement that Harbaugh would return in 2019 with a new contract extension to continue to lead a new era for the Ravens.

“Once again, our backs were against the wall,” Harbaugh said to his players in the locker room after the 22-10 victory. “Nobody thought we’d come out here and win. Except who? Us.”

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Taking a look at remaining Ravens free agents

Posted on 08 April 2020 by Luke Jones

The NFL draft is two weeks away with the Ravens undoubtedly looking ahead to the nine selections they’re scheduled to make to augment a roster with clear Super Bowl aspirations.

However, it’s impossible to forget the emphasis general manager Eric DeCosta has placed on continuity as the Ravens have re-signed or placed the franchise tag on nine of their unrestricted agents since mid-January. That activity came after Baltimore had already awarded contract extensions to several players last year.

According to the NFL Players Association’s public report, the Ravens currently have $9.163 million in salary cap space for 2020, but the rookie draft pool and the need for a rainy day fund for inevitable regular-season roster maneuvering roughly cost that much. In other words, it appears unlikely we’ll see any other major signings without substantial restructuring of current contracts.

But are there any remaining Baltimore free agents who could still be in the plans for 2020?

Below is a look at those individuals who remain unsigned or were released for cap-related purposes:

Unrestricted free agents

DB Brandon Carr — The Ravens’ silence in declining the 33-year-old’s $6 million option for 2020 was surprising considering how they typically handle a respected veteran’s departure with a statement of praise from management. Baltimore could use a backup safety, but the re-signings of veterans Jimmy Smith and Anthony Levine eased the urgency for veteran secondary depth entering the draft.

OL Hroniss Grasu – With separate stints in Baltimore in each of the last two years, the 28-year-old could be classified as an in-season emergency option and was active for the final four games of last season, but the Ravens are aiming for better and younger options at this point. Grasu has played in only four NFL games over the last two seasons.

OLB Pernell McPhee The 31-year-old played in seven games before tearing his triceps last season, but he recorded three sacks and six quarterback hits while setting the edge effectively and providing inside-outside versatility. His return at a cheap rate could still make sense, but the Ravens already re-signed depth piece Jihad Ward and want to add more youth and upside at the edge in the draft.

DT Domata Peko – Noncommittal about his football future at the end of last season, the 35-year-old seems likely to approach 2020 in the same way he did last year when he initially passed on signing with the Ravens before changing his mind in November. The re-signing of defensive tackle Justin Ellis further diminished the chances of Peko returning as the Ravens need more youthful depth up front at this point.

S Brynden Trawick Though he’s a good special-teams contributor, the market for a player like Trawick on the wrong side of 30 is always going to be slow. Counting the postseason, the reserve safety appeared in just seven games last year, but the way Baltimore values special teams means a reunion shouldn’t be ruled out at some point between now and the start of the season.

Released for cap-related purposes

OL James Hurst — The Ravens valued Hurst’s versatility for a long time, but there’s little urgency to bring back a depth option who will be suspended for the first four games of the 2020 season for a performance-enhancing drug violation.

S Tony Jefferson — The veteran safety continues to rehab and work his way back from a serious knee injury, but it’s difficult for potential suitors to get a strong feel for his progress due to the free-agent environment created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Non-tendered restricted and exclusive-rights free agents

OL Randin Crecelius – A 2018 practice-squad member, Crecelius sustained a concussion early in training camp and was placed on injured reserve at the end of the preseason.

OL Parker Ehinger – Active in four of the last five regular-season games, the 27-year-old was never going to receive a restricted tender, but he earned some praise in limited action late last year. Depending on how the draft plays out, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Ehinger back in the mix to compete for a regular-season roster spot.

DB Fish Smithson – The Baltimore native was signed late in the 2019 preseason and ended up on IR only a few days later.

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jimmysmith

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J. Smith, Levine staying with Ravens on one-year deals

Posted on 23 March 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens further strengthened their elite secondary by agreeing to re-sign longtime cornerback Jimmy Smith as well as veteran defensive back and special-teams standout Anthony Levine to one-year deals on Monday.

Smith will now continue to provide quality depth behind the cornerback trio of Pro Bowl selections Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey and fifth-year nickel back Tavon Young. Smith will serve as the primary backup to Peters and Humphrey, but his presence also allows Humphrey to move inside to the slot position if something were to happen to Young, who missed the entire 2019 season due to a neck injury sustained during training camp.

Injuring his knee in the 2019 season opener at Miami and not returning until after the Week 8 bye, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Smith finished with 30 tackles, one sack, one interception, and six pass breakups in nine games, five of them starts. Graded 43rd among qualified cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus, Smith missed at least four games for the seventh time in nine seasons, a reason why the Ravens were reluctant to make a long-term commitment.

General manager Eric DeCosta said last month that he expected Smith to test the free-agent market, usually a sign that a player will be going elsewhere. However, with outside interest slow to materialize last week, Smith agreed to a contract worth $3.5 million guaranteed and up to $6 million with incentives, according to CBSSports.com.

A 2011 first-round pick out of Colorado, Smith will turn 32 in July after playing in 107 games (83 starts) and collecting 14 interceptions, 329 tackles, 70 pass breakups, and three forced fumbles in his career. He is one of the few players remaining from the Super Bowl XLVII team as he defended San Francisco’s final fourth-down pass to the end zone in the 34-31 win that gave the Ravens their second championship.

Turning 33 later this week, Levine has served as a special-teams captain and solid depth piece in the secondary for years. He largely fell out of the defensive mix last year after Peters’ arrival and Smith’s post-bye return shifted veteran Brandon Carr to a dime safety role down the stretch, but Levine was effective playing the dime spot in the past and would be an option in that capacity again after the Ravens declined to pick up their $6 million option for Carr last week.

Levine signed with Baltimore in 2012 and is one of the longest-tenured players on the team, an unlikely outcome for the undrafted free agent from Tennessee State who began his career with Green Bay and didn’t become a factor on defense until later in his career.

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Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith (81) makes a touchdown catch against Baltimore Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr (39) during the first half an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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Carr’s option declined by Ravens as new league year quietly begins

Posted on 18 March 2020 by Luke Jones

Starting every game over the last three seasons to continue his amazing streak since entering the NFL in 2008, defensive back Brandon Carr apparently won’t be back with the Ravens.

The organization declined its option that would have paid Carr $6 million for the 2020 season, making him a “non-compensable” unrestricted free agent. The Ravens will not be eligible to receive a compensatory pick for Carr, who will turn 34 in May and signed a four-year, $23.5 million contract in 2017 after previously playing for Kansas City and Dallas.

Despite playing 76 percent of Baltimore’s defensive snaps last season, Carr saw his role change, transitioning from outside cornerback to the nickel and eventually the dime safety spot down the stretch. The 6-foot, 210-pound defensive back finished with 49 tackles, two sacks, and six pass breakups last season and was graded 52nd among 113 qualified corners by Pro Football Focus.

Carr’s 192 consecutive starts is the longest active streak among NFL defensive players and second to only quarterback Philip Rivers (224). Highly respected in the locker room and very active in every community in which he’s spent time, Carr was the Ravens recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award this past year and was the team’s nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year in each of the last two seasons.

“You know how this business goes. Prepare for anything,” said Carr about his status after the playoff loss to Tennessee. “But most definitely, this has been one of the best rides I’ve been on. The organization is hands down the best that I’ve been a part of, both on and off the field. It’s been an amazing three years.

“We’ll see what happens after this, but I’ve been blessed to play this game for 12 [years], and it was just an incredible run this year.”

His departure wasn’t a major shock as he was projected to be no better than the Ravens’ No. 4 cornerback and third safety, but defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s affinity for using the dime package will leave general manager Eric DeCosta needing to add more depth and versatility in the secondary. Veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith remains an unrestricted free agent as the market has apparently been slow to develop, leaving open the possibility for his return to the Ravens.

DeCosta also declined tendering restricted free-agent guard Parker Ehinger and exclusive-rights free agents Randin Crecelius and Fish Smithson, moves that were anticipated.

The organization formally announced the Hayden Hurst trade two days after agreeing to send the 2018 first-round pick and a fourth-round selection to Atlanta for second-round and fifth-round choices in this year’s draft.

“Hayden is a talented, emerging player in this league and a high-character individual for whom we have a lot of respect,” DeCosta said in a statement. “We are grateful for the contributions he made to our team and for the role he played in our success the past two seasons. We feel this is a mutually-beneficial deal, and we wish Hayden the very best in Atlanta.”

Not counting the Sam Koch extension, the Hurst trade was the only reported move announced by the Ravens Wednesday afternoon as NFL teams remain in a holding pattern due to the coronavirus pandemic. Free agents aren’t permitted to visit a club facility or another location to meet with team personnel, and club personnel — including the team’s medical staff — may not travel to any location to meet with or conduct medical examinations for a free agent.

That means the acquisitions of Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell and run-stopping defensive tackle Michael Brockers and the re-signings of edge defender Jihad Ward and defensive tackle Justin Ellis are technically still pending. The NFL and NFL Players Association are currently working on protocols to address these unprecedented obstacles.

“We continue to make the well-being and safety of our organization and community top priorities during this critical public health situation,” DeCosta stated. “In compliance with a recent memo sent by the NFL Management Council, we will withhold official announcement of any personnel moves until prospective players have safely executed a physical examination and signed a contract.

“Despite these circumstances, we are excited about the steps we’ve taken — and will continue to take — to improve our team during this free agency period. We look forward to announcing our moves at the appropriate time.”

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San Francisco 49ers running back Tevin Coleman (26) is taken down by Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon (99) in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Franchise tag “still on the table” for Ravens outside linebacker Judon

Posted on 26 February 2020 by Luke Jones

With the start of free agency less than a month away and the window to use the franchise tag opening this week, the Ravens haven’t yet revealed their plans for Matthew Judon.

Baltimore’s top unrestricted free agent and Pro Bowl outside linebacker registered a career-high 9 1/2 sacks and ranked fourth in the NFL with 33 quarterback hits last season, but how far will general manager Eric DeCosta go to keep the 27-year-old Judon?

“We’ve had good conversations with his agents. They’re ongoing, and we’ll continue to see how far that progresses,” DeCosta said at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. “As far as the franchise tag goes, that’s definitely something that’s in consideration, that’s still on the table. We have some time to go before we make that decision. We’ll have to see how it all kind of transpires over the next few weeks.”

The Ravens ranked just 21st in the NFL with 37 sacks despite blitzing more frequently than any team in the league last season, illustrating how much defensive coordinator Wink Martindale depended on numbers to disrupt the pocket. That reality could make one argue how critical it is for the Ravens to retain their only reliable pass rusher or suggest Judon’s production stemmed more from Baltimore’s scheme than his individual talents, leaving quite the dilemma.

Named to his first Pro Bowl last season, the 2016 fifth-round pick from Grand Valley State has never missed a game due to injury in his career — he was a healthy scratch for two games as a rookie — and played a career high in snaps in 2019. Pro Football Focus graded Judon a career-best 44th among qualified edge defenders, but he would likely receive elite money on the open market much like former Raven Za’Darius Smith did from Green Bay last year.

The non-exclusive franchise tag is projected to cost just over $16 million for linebackers, which would eat more than half of the Ravens’ projected salary cap space. However, Judon moving on would leave DeCosta needing to add at least two viable pass rushers this offseason, which would be no easy task.

“If [the tag is] what we have to do, then we’ll probably have to do it,” DeCosta said. “But there’s other options as well on the table — long-term deal being something that we would love to get accomplished. We’ll have to see how it all kind of works out.”

A tag and trade is another option as Houston did with Jadeveon Clowney and Seattle did with Frank Clark last year.

Secondary depth decisions

Cornerback Jimmy Smith is expected to test free agency while the Ravens have made no decision on their $6 million option for veteran defensive back Brandon Carr that must be exercised next month.

With outside corners Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey and slot man Tavon Young all under team control for at least the next two years, Smith would no longer be in line for an every-down role, complicating his value for the organization that made him a first-round pick in 2011. Turning 32 in July, Smith has played in more than 12 games in a season only twice and missed nearly seven full games last season with a knee injury suffered early in the 2019 opener.

“I thought he played his best football later in the year,” DeCosta said. “Jimmy’s a guy that we value, so we’ll see. I suspect that Jimmy’s going to want to hit the market and assess what his value is, and he probably should. He’s a veteran. He’s worked hard to see what his value will be on the market, but lots of respect for Jimmy as a player.

“His agent and I have a really good relationship, and there’s communication, so we’ll just see. I wish Jimmy the best, no matter what. We’d love to see him back in Baltimore, but he’s a free agent.”

Carr would bring more positional versatility as a reserve safety and slot corner who could play a role in sub packages, but a $6 million price tag is high for a soon-to-be 34-year-old.

Next wave of extensions?

To no surprise, DeCosta confirmed the desire to sign “elite, young players” such as Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley and Humphrey to long-term contracts in the near future.

Stanley is entering the fifth-year option year of his rookie contract and would appear to be the bigger priority from a timing standpoint after being regarded by many as the NFL’s best at his position in 2019.

“We’ve talked quite a bit. We’ll meet again this week,” DeCosta said. “We love Ronnie. He played his butt off this year — All-Pro left tackle. We’re excited about that, excited about his future, excited about the player, and excited about the person. We’ll try to continue to have those dialogues as well.”

The Ravens are all but guaranteed to exercise their fifth-year option for Humphrey, which would keep the 2017 first-round pick under team control through 2021.

Waiting on Yanda

DeCosta is still awaiting word on the future of eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, who is contemplating whether to retire or return for a 14th season.

Yanda is under contract and scheduled to make $7 million for the 2020 season, but he has considered retirement in recent years. His departure would create a major need for the interior offensive line with no established or clear-cut replacement currently on the roster.

“I had a great conversation with Marshal at the Pro Bowl. We didn’t talk about the future,” DeCosta said. “I’m sure we’ll have those discussions probably in the next month or so.”

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humphrey

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How did Ravens cornerbacks stack up to rest of NFL in 2019?

Posted on 17 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens recorded the best regular season in franchise history, but where did their individual players stack up across the NFL in 2019?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl — Baltimore had a record-tying 13 selections — or determining postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few watch every player on every team closely enough to form any real authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you watch the Tampa Bay offensive line this season? What about the Atlanta Falcons linebackers or the Detroit Lions cornerbacks?

That’s why I respect the efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging their grading is far from the gospel of evaluation. I don’t envy the exhaustive effort to evaluate players across the league when most of us watch one team or maybe one division on any kind of a regular basis.

We’ll look at each positional group on the roster in the coming days, but below is a look at where Ravens cornerbacks ranked across the NFL this past season followed by the positional outlook going into 2020:

Safeties
Running backs

Marlon Humphrey
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 1,017
PFF ranking: 37th among cornerbacks
Skinny: While the Pro Bowl selection was actually better in 2018 than he was in his third year, Humphrey’s PFF grade doesn’t do justice to what was asked of him, moving to slot cornerback in place of the injured Tavon Young. Not only did he have a team-best 14 pass breakups and three interceptions, but Humphrey ranked second on the Ravens with 65 tackles, showing off his linebacker-like mentality.

Marcus Peters
2019 defensive snap count (with Ravens including postseason): 626
PFF ranking: fourth among cornerbacks
Skinny: Acquired from the Los Angeles Rams in the best in-season trade in the NFL last October, Peters was probably Baltimore’s best defensive player and the biggest key to the second-half surge of the defense. The 2015 first-round pick returned two interceptions for touchdowns and allowed a 63.4 passer rating in coverage, big reasons why the Ravens didn’t wait to extend his contract through 2022.

Jimmy Smith
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 425
PFF ranking: 43rd among cornerbacks
Skinny: Suffering a substantial knee injury on the sixth defensive snap of the season, Smith would miss the next six games and not return until after the bye week, an all-too-familiar story for his career. The pending free agent was solid in the second half of the season, but he will be 32 in July and has played more than 12 games in a season only twice in nine years, making any real investment a risky proposition.

Brandon Carr
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 765
PFF ranking: 52nd among cornerbacks
Skinny: The 33-year-old shifted to a dime safety role in the second half of the season and is scheduled to make $6 million if the Ravens exercise his 2020 option next month, making him a potential salary cap casualty. His versatility and durability still make him valuable at the right price, but he wasn’t as consistent against the run in his 12th NFL season and surrendered five touchdowns in coverage.

Anthony Averett
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 220
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The 2018 fourth-round pick from Alabama flashed as a rookie and had a golden opportunity to carve out his place in the defense with Smith and Young out and Peters not acquired until October, but Averett struggled as a starter in September before being benched and was inactive for six of the last seven games. This summer will be crucial for him, especially if the Ravens add more youth at corner.

Iman Marshall
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 4
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The rookie fourth-round pick from USC missed a large chunk of training camp and the first half of the season with a toe injury and made little impact upon being activated from injured reserve in November. His 6-foot-1, 210-pound frame still makes him an interesting young player, but Baltimore’s reluctance to put him on the field even in a couple blowouts doesn’t suggest a high confidence level.

Tavon Young
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 0
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: Months after signing a three-year, $25.8 million contract extension, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound slot cornerback sustained a neck injury that required surgery and forced him to miss the entire season. There was already projection in mind with this pricey deal, but Young has now missed two whole seasons in the last three years, making it fair to wonder what to expect in terms of both upside and durability.

2020 positional outlook

The Ravens will gladly take their Pro Bowl outside duo of Humphrey and Peters against anyone in the NFL, but there are some questions beyond that with the talented Young needing to stay on the field and young options such as Averett and Marshall still needing to prove themselves as reliable reserves. In an ideal world, Smith would accept a team-friendly offer to stick around to spell Humphrey and Peters for the occasional series here and there and to serve as high-quality depth, but that’s far from a sure thing as he’ll be looking for real money to re-sign. Even if the Ravens can convince Carr to take a cut in pay, he should be viewed as a third safety and no more than a backup nickel at this point, which doesn’t do much for the depth at cornerback. With Averett not taking the step forward Baltimore had hoped to see in 2019 and Marshall still a total question mark, adding another viable depth piece in either free agency or the draft would appear to be an offseason objective with this position group.

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Veteran safety Tony Jefferson officially released by Ravens

Posted on 14 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The inevitable became official Friday as the Ravens announced the release of safety Tony Jefferson, a move that saves the organization $7 million in cash and salary cap space for the 2020 season.

Jefferson, 28, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 last season and was replaced by third-year safety Chuck Clark, who played at a high level and relayed the calls in the defensive huddle for the remainder of the season. Clark signed a three-year extension through 2023 that included $15.3 million in new money earlier this week, which all but sealed Jefferson’s future with Baltimore. Jefferson’s $11.647 million cap figure was scheduled to be the fifth highest on the team next season while Clark has a cap number of just over $3.4 million for 2020.

Signed to a four-year, $34 million deal with $19 million guaranteed at the start of free agency in 2017, Jefferson was a popular figure in the locker room and very active in the community, but his play struggled to meet that lofty financial standard. In 35 career games with the Ravens, the 5-foot-11, 211-pound safety finished with 174 tackles, two interceptions, 11 pass breakups, 3 1/2 sacks, and two forced fumbles. More effective playing closer to the line of scrimmage and defending the run, Jefferson wasn’t as strong against the pass as he surrendered a 91.6 passer rating in coverage in 2018 and a 141.4 mark last season, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Jefferson continues to work his way back from a torn ACL in his left knee, which could delay his quest to join another team this offseason.

“This is the worst part of this business,” general manager Eric DeCosta said in a statement released by the organization. “Tony is the consummate teammate and someone who is respected by everyone for his leadership, determination, humility and toughness. He’s a friend to all and a true Raven.

“We know he’s going to beat this injury, and we will be cheering for him all along the way. We wish the very best to Tony and his family.”

Undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2013, Jefferson developed into a starting-caliber talent over his first four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.

With Jefferson no longer in the picture, the Ravens will likely aim to add a young safety in April’s draft to develop behind Clark and seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas, who will turn 31 in May. Third-year safety DeShon Elliott remains an intriguing talent, but injuries have limited the 2018 sixth-round pick out of Texas to just six career games. Baltimore also owns a 2020 option worth $6 million for veteran Brandon Carr, who moved from cornerback to a dime safety role in the second half of last season.

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Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Devlin Hodges (6) tries to throw a pass from his team's end zone as Baltimore Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr (39) grabs him during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Baltimore. Hodges was penalized for an intentional grounding penalty and the Ravens were given two points on a the safety. The Ravens won 28-10. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Ravens must weigh dime options for their evolving defense

Posted on 13 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The three-year extension awarded to safety Chuck Clark ensured the Ravens would have their top five defensive backs under team control through at least the 2021 season.

But that doesn’t mean general manager Eric DeCosta can turn all attention toward the defensive line and linebacker groups in need of significant revamping. The numbers suggest Baltimore has at least one more substantial decision to make in its secondary beyond the annual task of adding depth.

A year after using the dime package on 26 percent of defensive snaps, the Ravens had six defensive backs play at least 45 percent of their snaps in each of the eight games following the bye week when Marcus Peters was in the fold and Jimmy Smith was finally back from injury. In other words, the popularity of the dime package only increased while the defense would sometimes go entire games without lining up in a traditional “base” 3-4 alignment. The game is changing with defensive packages and personnel continuing to reflect that.

The Ravens certainly need to address their pass rush and talent level at linebacker, but the overwhelming strength of the defense will remain on the back end, making pending decisions on Smith and Brandon Carr that much more interesting to watch. Though not a dime option himself, Smith is scheduled to become a free agent for the first time in his career. Meanwhile, Carr is scheduled to make $6 million if the Ravens exercise a team option for the 2020 season. Anthony Levine, the man Carr replaced in the dime package midway through the season, is also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.

The only other in-house option for the dime package would appear to be third-year safety DeShon Elliott, who has been limited to just six career games due to injuries despite showing some promise in spring and summer practices.

Baltimore’s preference is maintaining their veteran depth, however.

“We want both those guys back,” said head coach John Harbaugh about Smith and Carr last month. “We’re not going to try to weaken ourselves in the secondary, but we can focus on the front seven. That’s the thing, and we know with our scheme and the way that we get attacked, we know the kind of player that we want.”

Wanting to keep both and actually doing it are different concepts, of course, with other areas to address on both sides of the ball. At face value, many would argue Smith is the better player since he’s two years younger and brings more value as an outside corner whereas Carr is now better suited for the dime safety role he played down the stretch last year. But it’s more complicated than that since we’re no longer talking about an every-down role for either veteran.

Smith will be an unrestricted free agent and is projected by OverTheCap.com to receive a two-year, $16 million deal with $8.5 million guaranteed. That’s substantial money when the Ravens have already awarded Peters and returning slot cornerback Tavon Young with big extensions over the last 12 months and will need to spend lucrative cash to extend No. 1 cornerback Marlon Humphrey in the not-too-distant future. Giving real money to a 32-year-old Smith who’s played all 16 contests just twice in his nine seasons — Carr has never missed a game in his 12-year career — doesn’t sound like the best investment, especially when Smith would be third in the outside corner pecking order and hasn’t shown the positional versatility of Carr over the last couple seasons.

That said, the 2020 price tag for a 34-year-old you’d prefer not to play at outside corner anymore — even in the event of injury — is also expensive. Carr did a respectable job filling in as a nickel corner in parts of the last two seasons, but he found a new fit at safety when the Ravens would slide Clark down to the box in the dime package.

All things equal, Carr could have a more defined role in the dime package while Smith’s real value would come in the event of an injury to one of the top three corners as he could step in for Humphrey or Peters and Humphrey could move to the nickel spot in the event of an injury to Young like we saw last season. Carr’s injury replacement value would likely be limited to safety or the nickel corner position. The Ravens have prioritized secondary depth over the last couple years, but at what cost?

Ultimately, the futures of Smith and Carr will come down to money with the first one to blink having a better chance to return in 2020, but DeCosta will need to add more youth to the secondary in any case. Both veterans have expressed a desire to continue playing for the Ravens, but Smith will probably need to accept a team-friendly deal and Carr might have to take a pay cut to make it happen.

The allure of chasing a Super Bowl could help the Ravens’ efforts with Smith, Carr, or any other veteran option out there.

“I hope my body of work thus far has proven that I can play this game still at a high level, play safety,” Carr said last month. “And I’m still learning. I think I still have some potential left in that position. But I just love to play the game of football, whether it’s safety, nickel, corner, special teams, whatever the case is.

“At this point, I just want to win. It’s been 12 years. I’m just trying to get a ring.”

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How did Ravens safeties stack up to rest of NFL in 2019?

Posted on 12 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens recorded the best regular season in franchise history, but where did their individual players stack up across the NFL in 2019?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl — Baltimore had a record-tying 13 selections — or determining postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few watch every player on every team closely enough to form any real authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you watch the Tampa Bay offensive line this season? What about the Atlanta Falcons linebackers or the Detroit Lions cornerbacks?

That’s why I do respect the efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging their grading is hardly the gospel of evaluation. I don’t envy the exhaustive effort to evaluate players across the league when most of us watch one team or maybe one division on any kind of a regular basis.

We’ll look at each positional group on the roster in the coming days, but below is a look at where Ravens safeties ranked across the NFL this past season followed by the position outlook going into 2020:

Earl Thomas
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 947
PFF ranking: 16th among safeties
Skinny: Thomas was named to his seventh Pro Bowl and played well in his first year with Baltimore, but there was a definite adjustment with the 30-year-old being asked to be more multiple than he was in Seattle’s Cover 3 looks. For what it’s worth, Thomas registered his lowest PFF season grade since 2012, which is something to keep in mind as he enters the second year of a lucrative $55 million contract.

Chuck Clark
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 803
PFF ranking: 36th among safeties
Skinny: Clark entering the starting lineup and taking over the play-calling responsibilities in the huddle helped spark a turnaround after the season’s opening month as he led the Ravens in tackles. His contract extension signals he’ll be the starter next to Thomas moving forward, but it will be interesting to see if he keeps the green-dot helmet and continues to play “Mike” linebacker in select defensive packages.

Tony Jefferson
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 281
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: A serious knee injury cut Jefferson’s season short in Week 5, but his PFF grade was the lowest of his career and would have landed him among the worst qualified safeties in the league for the full season. His health and Clark’s emergence make it very likely that the Ravens will move on from Jefferson this offseason since he’s scheduled to make $7 million in base salary in the final year of a $34 million deal.

Anthony Levine
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 167
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: Regarded as one of the better dime backs in the league in previous seasons, Levine saw his defensive role diminish after the bye week as veteran cornerback Brandon Carr shifted to a safety role in the dime package. Still a strong special-teams player, Levine registered his lowest defensive snap count since 2016 and lowest PFF grade since 2014, trends that weren’t great for him going into free agency.

DeShon Elliott
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 40
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The 2018 sixth-round pick has flashed potential in the spring and summer, but injuries have limited him to just six games in his first two seasons, making it difficult to know what the Ravens really have with the Texas product. With other veteran backups scheduled to hit free agency, an opportunity should be there for Elliott to carve out a meaningful role in sub packages if he can finally stay healthy.

Brynden Trawick
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 11
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: A former Pro Bowl special-teams player with Tennessee a few years ago, the 30-year-old was limited to six regular-season games with an elbow injury and is scheduled to become a free agent.  With the Ravens facing the possibility of some substantial roster turnover on special teams, Trawick returning for a salary near the veteran minimum would be a possibility.

Jordan Richards
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 1
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The former Patriot joined the Ravens in October in what was essentially a swap as special-teams standout Justin Bethel wound up in New England, but Richards was a healthy scratch for the playoff loss to Tennessee, which doesn’t say much for how Baltimore valued him as a special-teams player.

2020 positional outlook

The Ravens have been at or near the top in spending and exhausting resources at the safety position for years now, but the results have been a mixed bag with some unsuccessful early draft picks and disappointing returns on free-agent contracts besides the Eric Weddle deal. Time will tell on the Thomas contract, of course, but wondering whether he’s a $14 million-per-year safety at this stage of his career is a reasonable question. Clark may not be spectacular, but he brings a high floor and long-term stability to the position at an affordable cost, the latter part being something that’s eluded the organization for quite a while. Considering how often the Ravens used three-safety alignments — and occasionally four safeties — this past season, it will be interesting to see if they elect to keep Carr for a hybrid role, roll the dice on Elliott finally staying healthy, or aim to draft a young safety to develop. Thomas and Clark are set as starters for the upcoming season, but more safety depth will be needed if the Ravens indeed move on from Jefferson and Carr while letting Levine, Trawick, and Richards depart in free agency.

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