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Twelve Ravens thoughts approaching start of free agency

Posted on 05 March 2020 by Luke Jones

With the start of free agency now less than two weeks away, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Ravens knew Marshal Yanda was returning for 2019 by last year’s combine, so Eric DeCosta saying in Indianapolis last week that he hadn’t spoken to the 35-year-old since the Pro Bowl didn’t sound encouraging. A resolution before the start of the new league year would make sense.

2. With player voting on the new collective bargaining agreement now underway and lasting a week, we should start to see more movement on at least some minor signings. Even the announcement of compensatory picks has seemingly been held up by CBA uncertainty.

3. Jimmy Smith hitting the open market to determine his value makes sense for both sides. When healthy, the 10th-year veteran remains a starting-caliber cornerback deserving of starter money, realities that may not add up for the Ravens since he’d be their No. 3 outside corner.

4. Even if the Ravens are able to draft an inside linebacker such as Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray or LSU’s Patrick Queen in the first round, a veteran signing in the mold of a Josh Bynes still makes plenty of sense with L.J. Fort also still in the mix. You want options.

5. I’m interested to see how the Matthew Judon situation plays out, but Pro Football Focus isn’t as enthralled with this year’s free-agent edge rushers as much as others. We know these guys are going to get paid one way or another, but bang for the buck remains the real question.

6. Fellow 2016 first-round pick Laremy Tunsil recently firing his agent is a reminder that extending Ronnie Stanley won’t be easy or cheap as you’d expect both guys to want to be the NFL’s highest-paid left tackle. Neither will want to blink without his team making a very lucrative offer.

7. The Ravens have selected a cornerback in the fourth round or earlier in five straight drafts, a trend you’d expect to continue even if Smith re-signs or Brandon Carr’s option is picked up. The shaky development of Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall makes that more apparent.

8. The idea of trading Hayden Hurst makes little sense. It would cost nearly $3 million in additional dead money and weaken a critical position group. What would a team have to offer to motivate you to do that? Even a relatively early Day 2 pick is a “meh” for me.

9. I really like Daniel Jeremiah’s work and his insight shouldn’t be ignored given his history with the organization, but the Ravens taking a running back in the first round would be a tough sell. There’s only one football to go around, and this team barely got Justice Hill involved as it was.

10. Coaching title changes will always remind me of Dwight Schrute from “The Office,” but Harbaugh keeping last season’s staff intact will prove to be one of the biggest wins of the offseason and is a credit to how the 13th-year head coach and the organization treat their people.

11. Former first-round pick Matt Elam was waived by the XFL’s DC Defenders after only four games and hasn’t played in the NFL since 2016. Other first-round disappointments like Travis Taylor, Kyle Boller, and even Breshad Perriman at least continued their NFL careers elsewhere.

12. This has nothing to do with the Ravens, but bringing in a 43-year-old Tom Brady feels more like a move to create buzz — hello, Las Vegas Raiders — than to win. I wouldn’t bet on Brady playing elsewhere working particularly well, but I have been wrong before and will be again.

 

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Opponent doesn’t matter as Ravens seek final clinching win in December

Posted on 19 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Sunday’s game in Cleveland isn’t about the Ravens settling a score or exacting revenge against the last team to beat them nearly three months ago.

It’s not about strengthening Lamar Jackson’s position as the MVP favorite, showcasing a record-tying 12 Pro Bowl selections, or collecting more style points in extending their winning streak to 11.

Division rivalry games in December usually carry great meaning, but the class of the AFC North has been clear since Halloween. The final objective for John Harbaugh’s team in the regular season is a single victory to clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Nothing more, nothing less.

The Browns are just another opponent, regardless of their surprising 40-25 win in Baltimore on Sept. 29.

“We can control our own fate, have two home games no matter what if we win the first playoff game and have that first-round bye,” said 13th-year right guard and Super Bowl XLVII champion Marshal Yanda. “That’s obviously what we’re fighting for, and that’s a huge deal for sure. That shouldn’t change the way we play [Sunday], but obviously, we understand that’s in front of us.”

Much has changed since that first meeting when the Ravens allowed an ugly 40 points, 530 yards, and 193 rushing yards, all season highs. Of the 21 Baltimore players to play defensive snaps in that Week 4 effort, 12 are either in a reduced defensive role, on injured reserve, or out of the organization entirely. Seven players who played 17 or more defensive snaps last week — cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith, defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Domata Peko, inside linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, and rotational pass rusher Jihad Ward — were either not with the organization for that first meeting or out due to injury while another major contributor, starting safety Chuck Clark, played just 14 snaps in Week 4.

That in-season facelift has transformed the Ravens defense from a bottom-10 unit after the first month of the season to one ranking in the top seven in most major categories entering Week 16. Since giving up 30 points in the second half of that Week 4 loss, the Ravens haven’t given up more than 23 in an entire game, improvement that’s cemented their position as the Super Bowl favorite.

“When you get new guys coming in, it’s not one of those, ‘Hurry up and get going, and you’ll get with us when you get with us,’” said Williams, who missed the loss to the Browns due to a knee injury. “We’re picking everybody up, trying to get everybody on the same page. If you come in here, you have to help us to win. We want to get you to your peak as fast as possible.”

The defensive performance in that loss has been the more popular topic of discussion this week, but how the offense fared that day could bring the more relevant lesson for Sunday’s tilt. In a season in which their top-ranked, record-setting scoring offense has come away with points on 10 of its 14 opening drives, the Ravens punted on each of their first three possessions against the Browns and scored just seven points in the first half, allowing the visitor to play with a lead for most of the afternoon.

A repeat of that slow start could give a Cleveland team all but officially eliminated from playoff contention the incentive and energy to play up to its talent level, a rare occurrence in 2019. On the flip side, a fast beginning for the Ravens would sour an already disenchanted crowd for Cleveland’s home finale and likely return the 6-8 Browns to the lifeless funk they showed in a 38-24 loss at Arizona last week.

The objective is clear without any need for extra story lines or drama.

Win one more game against one more regular-season opponent.

“We know they want to sweep us,” Jackson said. “We’re the Ravens, and we’re having so much success this year. That’s what everybody wants to do: beat us. We just have to go into Cleveland and have a good game.”

Yanda strengthens Canton case

Few would have guessed Yanda would one day trail only three Hall of Famers on the Ravens’ all-time Pro Bowl selections list when he was entering his fifth season in Baltimore.

The 2007 third-round pick from Iowa had a solid reputation at that point in his career, but a serious knee injury in his second season and annual questions along the Baltimore offensive line had left Yanda as more of a super-utility lineman, moving back and forth between right guard and right tackle. That versatility prompted the Ravens to extend Yanda prior to the 2011 season, the year he’d finally settle in at right guard and earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl.

After eight Pro Bowls in a nine-year period — the one miss coming in a season in which he played in just two games due to a broken ankle — Yanda continues to build an impressive resume at a position not commonly recognized in Canton.

“It doesn’t matter if you’d made one or you’d made 15, it’s a special deal for sure,” Yanda said. “Everybody works extremely hard. Every year, you start at the bottom of the mountain and you’ve got to climb and you’ve got to put the work in.”

You wonder if he’d have a couple more Pro Bowls to his name and an easier case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame had he settled into the right guard spot sooner, but those early career circumstances may not even matter as his elite reputation continues to grow in his mid-30s.

Special teams mishaps

Special teams coach Chris Horton didn’t offer many specifics about his units’ difficulties in the Week 15 win over the New York Jets, but the urgency is there to rebound on Sunday.

How poor was the special-teams performance? It ranked as Football Outsiders’ worst single-game showing of any team this year in terms of DVOA, dropping the Ravens in special-teams efficiency from fourth to 14th for the season.

“They did some things on kickoff return that we got a chance to see, but we have to just stick to our details,” said Horton, who also cited communication issues on the blocked punt returned for a Jets touchdown. “We have to get off blocks, and we have to go make plays. It just came down to the little details that I always talk about.

“We’re back at it, and we’re looking forward to going out and playing another game.”

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, right, is tackled by Los Angeles Rams defensive end Dante Fowler during the second half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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NFL milestone could come exactly as Lamar Jackson prefers it

Posted on 05 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The records and achievements have come at such a prolific rate for Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson that they’ve almost become white noise in an MVP-caliber season.

On Wednesday, the 22-year-old became the first Ravens quarterback to ever be named AFC Offensive Player of the Month after an incredible November that included 13 touchdown passes, three touchdown runs, a 76.2 completion percentage, a 143.7 passer rating, 777 passing yards, 300 rushing yards, no turnovers, and — what he cares about most — a 4-0 record. But his next potential feat isn’t a run-of-the-mill weekly award or an obscure record you’d need the Elias Sports Bureau to confirm.

A week after surpassing Randall Cunningham and Bobby Douglass on the single-season list, Jackson needs only 63 rushing yards — a total he’s eclipsed in nine of his last 11 games — to break Michael Vick’s NFL record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season. Vick rushed for 1,039 yards in 2006, but Jackson is currently on pace to run for an amazing 1,302 yards in his first full season as a starter. For context, a player rushed for 1,300 yards only eight times over the previous four NFL seasons and no Raven has reached that mark since Ray Rice (1,364) in 2011.

For a young player who’s tried to downplay weekly awards and MVP hype in favor of team-oriented goals throughout the season, this record certainly carries meaning.

“It would be an honor. Like I’ve said, Michael Vick is my favorite player,” Jackson said. “For me to do such a thing, it’s incredible. He had that record for a long time, and it will be pretty cool. But I’m focused on the win regardless.”

With winning always at the forefront of Jackson’s mind, breaking Vick’s record on the same day the Ravens can clinch a playoff spot with a win at Buffalo — and possibly their second straight AFC North division championship if Pittsburgh also loses at Arizona — would be exactly how he likes it.

Jackson has now rushed for at least 60 yards in nine straight games, the kind of consistency for which the best running backs in the league strive. That he’s continued to run at such a historic pace while also being a top 10-caliber passer — if not even better than that — is why he’s the clear favorite to be NFL MVP. It’s the stuff of video games if a game of Madden were as fun as watching the electrifying Jackson make defenders look silly in the open field.

“Lamar is a generational talent in my opinion running the ball, and a lot of people understand that,” right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “People want to stop him. People want to slow him down and all those different things. People haven’t really figured out how to do it yet. I’m sure there isn’t an answer.”

There really isn’t one at this point, but Jackson would gladly take a quiet day with his legs against the Bills as long as the Ravens officially punch their ticket for January football. And that mindset is part of what makes him so special.

Cleaning up run defense

The 174 rushing yards allowed — 146 by Raheem Mostert — in last Sunday’s 20-17 win over San Francisco grabbed the Ravens’ attention preparing for Buffalo’s fifth-ranked ground attack this week.

The Bills rank 10th in the NFL in rushing efficiency while the Baltimore run defense will try to bounce back from its worst game since the Week 4 loss to Cleveland. The Ravens did limit the 49ers to just nine yards on five carries in the fourth quarter after San Francisco had much success running outside.

“There were some edge issues that we had with Jaylon [Ferguson], and it was just a different look that a rookie hasn’t seen,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “We worked on it because we know how this league is. If they see a scab scratched, they’re going to keep trying to attack it and we’ve worked on it. That’s been a point of emphasis for us going into this game. We just had too many missed tackles on that [40-yard touchdown run], and what I liked is how we bounced back in the second half.”

Should Ferguson’s Week 13 problems holding the edge carry over against Buffalo, veteran Jihad Ward seeing more snaps at outside linebacker wouldn’t be surprising.

Special moment for Humphrey

Marlon Humphrey said he’d never blocked a field goal in practice, college, or even high school, but his deflection of 49ers kicker Robbie Gould’s 51-yard attempt to end the first half proved to be a critical play in the three-point win.

The play sparked an enthusiastic embrace as part of a big day for the Baltimore special-teams units.

“We prepared, we talked about it. We said, ‘We have an opportunity,’ if we got in that situation,” special teams coach Chris Horton said. “I was really excited for him. It was our first blocked kick as a staff, so it was just a really exciting moment. And I think it was deserving of a big hug.”

Thursday’s injury report

Defensive tackle Brandon Williams was the only player on the 53-man roster not to practice on Thursday as he received a veteran day off.

Wide receiver Marquise Brown (ankle) was added to the injury report as a limited participant, which hasn’t been uncommon over the course of the season.

Below is the full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Brandon Williams (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Marquise Brown (ankle), CB Marlon Humphrey (thigh), LB Patrick Onwuasor (ankle), WR Seth Roberts (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: TE Nick Boyle (illness), CB Brandon Carr (non-injury), RB Mark Ingram (non-injury), CB Jimmy Smith (non-injury), S Earl Thomas (non-injury)

BUFFALO
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Lorenzo Alexander (non-injury), RB Frank Gore (non-injury), OT Ty Nsekhe (ankle), G Quinton Spain (illness), RB T.J. Yeldon (illness)

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Baltimore Ravens cornerback Cyrus Jones (27) celebrates his interception on a pass from Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Tanner Lee with teammates, including defensive back DeShon Elliott (32), during the second half of an NFL football preseason game, Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Return game to remain fluid for Ravens entering season

Posted on 05 September 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens confirmed Cyrus Jones is “the guy” as the primary punt returner entering the 2019 season, but that doesn’t mean the Marquise Brown experiment is over.

Despite muffing two punts in the preseason finale against Washington, the 2019 first-round pick will continue to field punts in practice in hopes of it paying off at some point down the line. Jones prevailed in the summer competition with Tyler Ervin, who was claimed off waivers by Jacksonville last weekend, but special teams coach Chris Horton still views the speedy Brown as a wild card to potentially provide a spark.

The 5-foot-9, 170-pound receiver didn’t register a punt return in his decorated career at Oklahoma, but he returned nine punts for 182 yards and recorded a 73-yard touchdown return for College of the Canyons — a California junior college — in 2016. That’s a far cry from returning punts in the NFL, however.

“We put a guy out there in a game situation and we want to see if he can do it,” said Horton about Brown’s struggles fielding punts against Washington. “When [he] put those two balls on the ground, it just told me and told our coaches we just have to continue to practice him back there and continue to get him more reps. He’s going to be a guy that we can put back there and give us a little bit of excitement.”

The depth chart released by the public relations staff this week lists veteran slot receiver Willie Snead as the second-string punt returner and Brown as the No. 3 option.

The kick return spot remains more fluid with Chris Moore again topping the depth chart after leading the Ravens with 22 returns for 491 yards last season. Rookie running back Justice Hill is an intriguing option despite returning only one kickoff for nine yards in the preseason and not serving in that capacity at Oklahoma State.

“We have guys that we can throw back there,” Horton said. “Chris Moore has done an outstanding job for us. We love what Justice Hill brings. We gave Cyrus some opportunities in the preseason. We’ll go forward, and you guys will find out on Sunday.”

Rookie first-round pick added to injury report

Deemed “full-go” physically by head coach John Harbaugh earlier this week, Brown was added to Thursday’s injury report with a foot issue presumably related to his January surgery that sidelined him during spring workouts and for the start of training camp.

Brown was listed as a full participant in practice, but it was a reminder that he’s returning from a Lisfranc injury that will continue to be monitored and managed when necessary.

Cornerback Brandon Carr (hip) practiced fully after being limited Wednesday.

Below is Thursday’s injury report:

BALTIMORE
FULL PARTICIPATION: WR Marquise Brown (foot), CB Brandon Carr (hip)

MIAMI
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Trent Harris (foot)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: CB Johnson Bademosi (hip), G Danny Isidora (hamstring), S Bobby McCain (shoulder), LB Andrew Van Ginkel (foot), WR Albert Wilson (hip)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DE Charles Harris (wrist)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts ahead of annual league meetings

Posted on 22 March 2019 by Luke Jones

With NFL teams convening in Phoenix next week for the annual league meetings, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Eric DeCosta has roughly $16 million in salary cap space with the draft a little over a month away. That leaves the flexibility to make another moderate signing or two while leaving the necessary space for the rookie draft class and in-season moves.

2. The Ravens were certainly interested in Justin Houston, but the two-year, $24 million deal he received from Indianapolis would have been difficult to absorb without restructuring deals or cutting another player, actions the organization prefers to avoid.

3. I still believe a $9.5 million salary and $15.85 million cap number are risky for someone who’s played more than 12 games in a season only twice in his career, but it’s clear Jimmy Smith is still valued. He remains a trade chip if they can address another need, however.

4. Robert Griffin III always seemed among the most likely of the free agents to re-sign. He hit it off with Lamar Jackson and had a nice preseason, but we’re talking about someone who was out of the league entirely in 2017. A deal made too much sense for both sides.

5. No one expected Brent Urban to sign in the opening hours of free agency, but I’m surprised there hasn’t been more interest in the 5-technique end. I figured he’d be looking at a contract similar to the four-year deal New England gave Lawrence Guy two offseasons ago.

6. With so much reported outside interest in Nick Boyle before he re-signed with the Ravens, teams wanting to add a blocking tight end should sign Maxx Williams, who would be a fraction of the price and interestingly received better blocking grades from Pro Football Focus in fewer snaps last year.

7. The lack of movement on Urban and Williams is likely complicating DeCosta’s free-agent strategy as the Ravens are currently slated to receive only one 2020 compensatory pick. There’s not a remaining unrestricted free agent who’s worth forfeiting a third-round pick to sign.

8. Much focus has been on the need for edge rushers, but Za’Darius Smith and Urban were vital parts of the inside pass rush. A healthy Willie Henry would help, but interior pressure is more important than ever with quick throws so prevalent today to try to neutralize edge defenders.

9. Jerry Rosburg’s retirement is a significant loss as his units have finished in the top five in Rick Gosselin’s revered special teams report and have ranked sixth or better in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA in seven straight seasons. The pressure is on successor Chris Horton.

10. With Terrell Suggs and Joe Flacco officially gone, only six players remain who were with the organization during Super Bowl XLVII and Anthony Levine was on injured reserve at the time. Only eight remain under contract from the Ravens’ last playoff win over Pittsburgh in January 2015.

11. As Mark Ingram noted after news of Griffin’s deal surfaced, the Ravens now have three Heisman Trophy winners on their current roster. That’s definitely a rare occurrence, but the late 1980s Los Angeles Raiders quickly came to mind with Marcus Allen, Tim Brown, and Bo Jackson.

12. Congratulations to former Ravens coaching intern Lori Locust for earning a full-time NFL coaching position with Tampa Bay. This interesting story describes her journey to now work for Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians, who has advocated for more diversity in coaching in recent years.

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