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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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stanley

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Twelve Ravens thoughts in early part of June

Posted on 04 June 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens moving into the final weeks of virtual workouts and coaches on the verge of returning to the team facility in Owings Mills, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Steve Bisciotti’s latest of many donations in a difficult year was $1 million for a group of former and current Ravens to distribute to social justice reform efforts. Some have fairly noted the organization not signing Colin Kaepernick three years ago, but actions accompanying team-released statements are what’s needed now.

2. As they did with Terrell Suggs in 2008, the Ravens working out a compromise with Matthew Judon for his franchise tag tender always made sense. What doesn’t make sense is the NFL still using generic position labels like “linebacker” and “offensive lineman” in this system.

3. Ronnie Stanley made no reference to becoming the league’s highest-paid left tackle, but he wants “to get paid my value and what I’m worth” and expressed happiness for Laremy Tunsil’s record contract. Why wouldn’t he expect at least as much as what Houston is paying another 2016 draftee?

4. With uncertainty surrounding the season and how that could hurt the salary cap in the next year or two if fans can’t attend games or the schedule is condensed, teams are seemingly in no rush to do extensions right now. Tagging Stanley next March would be a no-brainer anyway.

5. I’ve always believed way too much is made of player-organized offseason workouts, but seeing clips of Lamar Jackson throw to some teammates in South Florida is another step toward some sports normalcy. I’m all for that.

6. The NFL requiring teams to stay at home facilities for training camp was hardly surprising, but you now wonder if we’ve seen the last of off-site camps, which were already disappearing rapidly. The 2011 lockout was the dagger for the Ravens training in Westminster.

7. New Carolina coach Matt Rhule revealed Wednesday that the Panthers were set to have joint practices with the Ravens in Owings Mills before the third preseason game until the pandemic erased those plans. More of these sessions still feel like the future for summer preparations.

8. Bradley Bozeman went from being perceived by many as the weak link who needed to be replaced early last season to someone already counted as a 2020 starter at either guard or center by his head coach. Of course, some continuity inside is critical with Marshal Yanda now retired.

9. In revealing Chuck Clark would likely continue to relay the calls in the defensive huddle and wear the “green-dot” helmet, John Harbaugh said, “He’s bold, he’s brilliant, and he’s brief.” Few Ravens have been praised for their football intellect like Clark in recent years.

10. I certainly would have endorsed the Ravens adding an elite talent like DeAndre Hopkins, but there’s something to be said for continuity at wide receiver while adding rookies Devin Duvernay and James Proche to the mix. A revolving door of veterans makes it difficult for a passing game to grow.

11. In handling great expectations for the upcoming season, Harbaugh said, “We’re going to be everyone’s most important game.” I can’t wait to see what Greg Roman comes up with to counter 2020 opponents who’ve been brainstorming all offseason to try to slow Jackson and this offense.

12. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my top 25 Ravens regular-season moments countdown as much as I’ve liked putting it together. It’s been a fun trip down memory lane at a time when many of us need that, and we still have quite a few to go.

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Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews (89) celebrates with quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) after they connected for a touchdown pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Fewest adjusted games lost on offense helped pace 2019 Ravens

Posted on 22 April 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens envision adding several key pieces in this weekend’s draft to what they hope will be a Super Bowl run, but continuing another recent trend might be more important for success in 2020.

Concluding last season with only 10 players on injured reserve and just four of those individuals projected to play extensive offensive or defensive snaps entering training camp, Baltimore certainly couldn’t complain about its overall health en route to a franchise-best 14-2 campaign. That came after one popular metric deemed the Ravens the healthiest team in the NFL in 2018.

“We had our best year, injury-wise,” said head coach John Harbaugh about the 2019 Ravens. “I have to give a lot of credit to [head certified athletic trainer] Ron Medlin and to [head strength and conditioning coach] Steve Saunders and to [director of sports nutrition] Sarah Snyder and everybody involved there. We were great. I’d like to find a way to try to replicate that next year.”

You often see the number of players on IR cited in these types of discussions, but that alone doesn’t provide a great picture from team to team. How many were starters compared to rotation players, special-teams contributors, or training camp bodies who had no chance of making the roster before getting hurt? How many went to IR at the end of the summer as opposed to the closing weeks of the regular season? And what about teams that had more individuals playing through injuries than those with relatively clean injury reports many weeks?

Football Outsiders uses a metric called adjusted games lost to try to quantify just how much teams were stricken with injuries. Instead of simply counting the number of games lost for each player on IR, the metric weighs the projected role of each injured player (starter, key reserve, bench-warmer, etc.) and also considers those listed on weekly injury reports who ended up playing at less than 100 percent. In other words, the metric doesn’t treat the absence of a Pro Bowl player or starter the same as a developmental player who was stashed on IR and weighs those players battling through injuries that could impact performance.

Football Outsiders’ data indicates Harbaugh’s 2019 assessment wasn’t entirely accurate as the Ravens finished 16th overall in adjusted games lost (68.7), but he was definitely on the right track regarding one side of the ball. The record-setting Baltimore offense had the fewest adjusted games lost in the NFL with center Matt Skura being the only key contributor to miss more than two games. That fortune and the retirement of eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda reinforce why general manager Eric DeCosta should continue adding talent to that side of the ball this weekend.

Meanwhile, the 2019 Ravens finished with the NFL’s second-most adjusted games lost on defense with the secondary especially hit hard. Baltimore lost slot cornerback Tavon Young to a season-ending neck injury in August, strong safety Tony Jefferson to a year-ending knee injury in early October, and starting cornerback Jimmy Smith for the better part of two months with a sprained knee. Of course, the in-season acquisition of Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters and the emergence of safety Chuck Clark proved to be upgrades that helped the Ravens become one of the league’s top defenses by season’s end.

There are always single-season exceptions and outliers with NFC champion San Francisco (27th in adjusted games lost) clearly fitting that description in 2019, but the team with the fewest overall adjusted games lost (Minnesota), the fewest on offense (Baltimore), and the fewest on defense (New England) all qualified for the postseason. In contrast, just one of the nine teams with the most overall adjusted games lost made the playoffs, reinforcing how important health is to success. “Next man up” is a nice t-shirt slogan and sentiment, but there are only so many injury hits most teams can take before any realistic chance for success goes out the window.

Below is a look at where the Ravens have finished in Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost in recent years:

2019 — 68.7 (16th fewest in NFL)
2018 – 29.7 (fewest in NFL)
2017 – 101.6 (sixth most in NFL)
2016 – 62.0 (11th fewest in NFL)
2015 – 96.1 (third most in NFL)
2014 – 52.6 (seventh fewest in NFL)
2013 – 49.8 (ninth fewest in NFL)
2012 – 57.4 (13th fewest in NFL)
2011 – 18.8 (fewest in NFL)
2010 – 50.9 (15th fewest in NFL)
2009 – 28.8 (seventh fewest in NFL)
2008 – 95.0 (third most in NFL)

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Ravens players adjusting to uncertainty with rest of sports world

Posted on 31 March 2020 by Luke Jones

April is a big month in the NFL offseason.

The draft and the schedule release dominate the headlines, but it’s also that time when players return to team facilities for the start of the offseason training program. For Ravens players coming off a franchise-best 14-2 season that ended in playoff heartbreak in mid-January, it was supposed to mark a reunion and the proverbial turning of the page with all sights toward the 2020 season.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic has already suspended the NBA and NHL seasons and postponed the start of baseball season with no end in sight, pondering the opening of an NFL season months from now brings more questions than answers. How could it not when stay-at-home orders, the closing of nonessential businesses, social distancing, and great concern for loved ones consume our everyday lives? The idea of more than 70,000 people packing a stadium for a game feels impossible — even dangerous — right now as we’re ordered to isolate from even family members and our closest friends.

“Nobody knows what’s going to go on, what’s going to come from this,” safety Chuck Clark said on a conference call with Baltimore media. “I would love to be able to play in a stadium again where fans are in there. That’s what we all live for — whether it’s basketball, baseball, football or hockey — playing in front of a crowd. And then even for the fans, for their enjoyment and having fun.”

But it’s one day at a time. Players have already adjusted their training routines over these last few weeks, but the scheduled April 20 opening of the Ravens’ offseason workout program clearly won’t be taking place at their Owings Mills facility. Team president Dick Cass has already expressed great doubt about organized team activities and spring minicamps being held, meaning the earliest return to the team facility for players may not be until training camp in July.

Tight end Mark Andrews said he hasn’t yet received details from Ravens coaches or staff members about how a spring program limited to at-home participation and remote communication will work.

“I don’t think anybody really knows what’s going to happen,” said Andrews, who described his current training setup at his Arizona home as a “prison workout” with free weights in his backyard. “There’s a ton of uncertainty right now with timelines and when people are going to report and when things are going to start up, so we’re not sure at the moment.

“But at the end of the day, we’re all going to be on the same playing field.”

Unlike teams with new head coaches and significant changes to their staffs, however, the Ravens benefit from stability as John Harbaugh enters his 13th season as head coach. Greg Roman and Wink Martindale will remain as coordinators despite interviewing for head coach positions in January, a development with even greater significance now for a team with championship aspirations.

With team meetings expected to be cyber sessions this spring, that familiarity will be important.

“Obviously, there are a ton of guys on the team that already know the system, the schemes and whatnot,” Andrews said. “It definitely helps, but we’re all professionals and even the guys that have new coaches and things like that, those guys are going to get that playbook down as fast as they can. That’s our job.”

Of course, thoughts of football are accompanied by the more serious problems and concerns we’re all facing to varying degrees. Being a Type-1 diabetic, Andrews initially wondered if he was at greater risk to the virus.

“The word right now is that there’s not too much more of a danger for me than anybody else,” said Andrews, who was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season. “Just like everybody else, I’m staying smart, I’m staying inside, I’m social distancing myself from other people. That’s all you can do.”

Like the rest of the sports world, Ravens players are trying to adapt and follow altered workout routines while waiting for that “all clear” message we all want sooner than later.

But unlike other sports and events, the NFL has time on its side with the scheduled start of the regular season still more than five months away, reason for cautious optimism. Still, it’s impossible to know what to expect as the pandemic has already disrupted the league’s pre-draft process, challenged the free-agent signing period, pushed the schedule release back to May, and very likely wiped out all on-site workouts this spring.

No one wants to dwell on the possibility of a lost season, but there’s much we’d rather not think about these days.

“It crosses your mind, but at the end of the day, at some point this will all clear up and it will get better,” Clark said. “When it’s over, you’re a professional athlete, and that’s what you’re asked to do. You have to be in tip-top shape to be ready to play.”

At some point.

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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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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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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Chuck Clark extension

Posted on 11 February 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens locking up another piece of their secondary with Chuck Clark’s three-year contract extension, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Who would have imagined the 2017 sixth-round pick receiving $10 million guaranteed when Clark had only two career starts under his belt a year ago? He flashed starter potential filling in late in 2018, but few would have guessed him being the first from his draft class to get extended.

2. Clark citing Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson as individuals aiding in his development wasn’t surprising, but he also mentioned retired special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, who had a similar impact on numerous young players who eventually worked their way up to meaningful defensive or offensive roles. He was highly respected.

3. The signing reiterated the writing on the wall for Jefferson and his future in Baltimore that’s felt apparent for a while, but the veteran’s congratulatory tweet was a snapshot of why teammates and coaches like him so much. Regardless of what happens, he’ll have many rooting for him.

4. The overwhelming reaction to Weddle’s retirement wasn’t surprising as his three seasons in Baltimore stabilized a safety position that had been problematic since the end of the Ed Reed era. Echoing others, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back with the organization in some capacity down the road.

5. I sometimes wonder if the Ravens have missed out on helpful free agents over the years at the expense of their compensatory pick obsession, but Day 3 guys like Clark and Nick Boyle — not compensatory selections themselves — receiving second contracts helps one understand why they value those late lottery tickets.

6. Speaking of former Day 3 picks, I’m fascinated to see how the Matthew Judon situation plays out. You don’t want to overpay, but that’s easier said than done at a position of great need for a Super Bowl-caliber team with a favorable salary cap picture for the next couple years.

7. I’m reluctant to pay substantial money to re-sign Jimmy Smith since he’ll be 32 and hasn’t played more than 12 games in a season since 2015, but Clark’s extension reminded how highly the Ravens value the secondary. Insurance behind Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Tavon Young will be prioritized.

8. Andre Smith wouldn’t have been anywhere near my short list of Baltimore free agents to re-sign before hitting the market, but he’ll have a chance to impact the evaluation of swing tackle James Hurst, who is scheduled to make a pricey $4 million in base salary in 2020.

9. Josh Bynes will be 31 in August and isn’t a long-term answer, but he’s being sold short as an attractive option to re-sign while mock drafts link Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray to the Ravens. Last year illustrated the danger of just handing the keys to inexperienced options at inside linebacker.

10. OverTheCap.com does a terrific job breaking down the nuances of the NFL salary cap and offered evidence why the Ravens might be more active than usual spending cash in free agency. That could also create more urgency to extend Ronnie Stanley sooner than later, an action I support.

11. It’s that time of year when we conjure signing and trade ideas, but the price for Stefon Diggs would be steep and there’s no guarantee he’d be happier playing in a run-first offense and passing game anchored by tight ends than he is in Minnesota. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

12. The days of an annual “State of the Ravens” including Steve Bisciotti appear to be long gone, but Eric DeCosta hasn’t met with local media since last year’s draft and apparently won’t again until the pre-draft luncheon. He’ll speak at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, but that’s still surprising.

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Baltimore Ravens defensive back Chuck Clark, left, brings down Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Ravens continue prioritizing secondary by extending safety Chuck Clark

Posted on 10 February 2020 by Luke Jones

Even in an offseason in which the Ravens need to revamp their front seven, maintaining a strong secondary remains a top defensive objective.

General manager Eric DeCosta reinforced that stance Monday by reaching a three-year contract extension with starting safety Chuck Clark, who was entering the final year of his rookie contract after a breakout 2019 campaign. Taking over for the injured Tony Jefferson in Week 5, Clark proved to be an upgrade at safety and led the Ravens with 68 tackles to help spark a defensive turnaround. Graded 36th among qualified safeties by Pro Football Focus in 2019, the 24-year-old registered an interception, ranked third on the team with nine passes defensed, and forced two fumbles.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the three-year extension running through 2023 is worth $15.3 million with $10 million in guarantees for the 2017 sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech. Clark was already scheduled to make just over $778,000 in the final year of his rookie contract.

“Chuck is a great story about hard work, patience, preparation, and passion,” DeCosta said in a statement released by the team. “He waited for his chance and seized the opportunity. Chuck’s a good football player, a fine teammate, and respected leader. He’s the type of player we want on our defense for a long time. Congrats to Chuck and his family.”

Making 12 starts in the regular season and starting in the playoff loss against Tennessee, Clark played all but two defensive snaps after Week 5, wearing the “green dot” communication helmet and relaying defensive calls in the huddle. That leadership proved to be a key to Baltimore’s defensive turnaround when early struggles at inside linebacker prompted roster shuffling and a platoon at a position traditionally entrusted to make the calls in the defensive huddle.

The versatile Clark also saw snaps in the box playing as the “Mike” linebacker, which allowed the Ravens to use Brandon Carr as a third safety in their popular dime package. His presence was frequently cited as a major reason why Baltimore ranked fourth in total defense, sixth in pass defense, and third in points allowed by season’s end despite struggling mightily over the first month of the year.

“It’s unbelievable,” said defensive coordinator Wink Martindale about Clark’s play in late December. “As far as the communicator, as far as the checks, as far as just the football smarts, he has become that [Eric] Weddle, that Magic Johnson of the defense of getting people lined up and setting them up to make plays, as well. He’s had a tremendous year, and I’m really happy for him.”

Long before taking over as a starter in October, Clark had been praised by teammates and coaches for his football intelligence. Upon arriving last spring, seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas even quipped that he wondered why the Ravens had signed him to a lucrative contract when they already had Clark, who had mostly played special teams over his first two seasons and started two games in place of an injured Jefferson late in 2018.

According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, quarterbacks completed 62.9 percent of passes and posted a 75.1 rating when targeting Clark in coverage this season. The 6-foot, 205-pound safety was also an important cog for a defense using blitzes more than any team in the NFL as Clark blitzed 97 times, registering a sack and three quarterback hits.

“I’m just taking my career from being a full-time special teams player to being a full-time defensive starter,” Clark said last month. “This year, I showed what I can do, but every year — I know I’ve said this before — this league is a league where you have to prove yourself every day, every practice, every game, every rep. I’ll just keep building on that.”

The Ravens now have their top five secondary pieces — Clark, Thomas, Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, and Tavon Young — under team control through at least the 2021 season. All but Humphrey are under contract through 2022, but extending the Pro Bowl cornerback is expected to be a priority in the coming months as the Ravens can exercise their fifth-year option on the 2017 first-round pick from Alabama this spring.

Clark’s extension only reinforces the likelihood of the Ravens moving on from Jefferson, who is still recovering from a serious knee injury sustained in early October. Entering the final season of a four-year, $34 million contract signed in 2017, Jefferson is scheduled to make $7 million in base salary, but Baltimore can save that amount in salary cap space by releasing the 28-year-old.

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Ravens, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters reach contract extension

Posted on 28 December 2019 by Luke Jones

A critical component of the remarkable in-season transformation of the Ravens defense will be sticking around beyond the 2019 season.

Just 2 1/2 months after being acquired from the Los Angeles Rams, Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters has agreed to a three-year contract extension worth $42 million and $32 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The deal runs through the 2022 season and makes Peters one of the eight highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL in terms of both average annual value and guaranteed money, according to OverTheCap.com.

With the Ravens having endured numerous injuries in the secondary and ranking 25th in pass defense after Week 6, general manager Eric DeCosta sent disappointing inside linebacker Kenny Young and a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Rams for Peters. The move lacked the fanfare — or long-term risk — of Los Angeles’ decision to then trade two first-round picks and a fourth-round selection to Jacksonville for disgruntled Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but Peters’ arrival brought immediate dividends for Baltimore, who has climbed all the way to seventh in pass defense entering Week 17.

Despite logging only two practices with the Ravens and flying across the country twice in less than three days, the 26-year-old returned a Russell Wilson pass 67 yards for a touchdown in his Ravens debut, a 30-16 win at Seattle. Peters also returned a pick for a score against Cincinnati in Week 10, giving him a league-leading three interceptions returned for touchdowns this season. The outspoken cornerback also preserved a 24-17 win in Buffalo with a fourth-down pass breakup in the final minutes of Week 14.

Pro Football Focus has graded Peters as the third-best cornerback in the NFL this season, an effort that resulted in the 6-foot, 197-pound defensive back being named to his third Pro Bowl earlier this month.

The financial commitment to Peters is the latest example of DeCosta and the Ravens subscribing to the analytics-minded approach of prioritizing coverage on the back end above all else defensively. Even with veteran Jimmy Smith scheduled to become a free agent, Baltimore has the cornerback trio of Peters, fellow Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and slot man Tavon Young under control through at least the 2021 season while Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas is signed through 2022 and fellow starting safety Chuck Clark is under contract through next season.

Having a reputation as a polarizing player both on and off the field prior to his arrival, Peters has been labeled a cornerback “savant” by defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and has fit in well with a defense that’s been one of the NFL’s best since the first month of the season.

Kansas City’s 2015 first-round pick out of Washington, Peters has the most interceptions (27) in the NFL by a wide margin over the last five seasons and is tied for fourth in the league with five interceptions this season. He’s also collected 52 tackles and 14 pass breakups in 15 games split between the Ravens and Rams in 2019.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) scrambles against the Cleveland Browns during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, in Cleveland. The Ravens won 31-15. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 16 win at Cleveland

Posted on 23 December 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens clinching the AFC’s top seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs for the first time in team history in a 31-15 win over Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The turning point of Sunday’s victory was the 14-0 run over the final 78 seconds of the first half, but the defense forcing a three-and-out between those two touchdown drives without cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith on the field was enormous.

2. I saw a little Ben Roethlisberger in Lamar Jackson’s second touchdown pass in which he evaded pressure in the pocket and then muscled an end-zone throw to Mark Andrews. His speed and agility are givens, but Jackson doesn’t get enough credit for his strength.

3. Jackson recorded his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season — equaling the total produced by all Ravens players from 2015-17 — and now owns the ninth 1,200-yard rushing season in franchise history. Not bad for a quarterback.

4. The Baltimore run defense has been fairly scrutinized despite a shiny ranking in yards per game allowed, but it answered the bell holding Nick Chubb to 45 yards after he embarrassed the Ravens in Week 4. The dime package sometimes springs leaks against the run, but not this week.

5. The decline of the ground game was a major part of the post-Super Bowl XLVII era with the Ravens producing only one 1,000-yard rusher — Justin Forsett in 2014 — over six seasons. To now have only the seventh 1,000-yard rushing duo in NFL history with one being their quarterback is remarkable.

6. You never want to see fumbles, but it really is amazing that miscues at the mesh point between Jackson and Mark Ingram have been so rare this season. John Harbaugh will now hope his team got that seemingly overdue sloppiness out of its system after a season-high three fumbles.

7. On a day when the defense had some trouble getting off the field due to several drive-extending penalties, Chuck Clark was credited with four pass breakups to continue his breakout season. Two of those breakups came on Cleveland’s final three-and-out of the first half.

8. Mark Andrews is three receiving yards shy of Todd Heap’s single-season team record for a tight end, but a tender ankle could impact his Week 17 status. He may need to settle for becoming the third Raven to catch 10 touchdowns in a season, joining Michael Jackson and Torrey Smith.

9. Ingram will have nearly three weeks to recover from a left calf strain, but Justice Hill scoring his first NFL touchdown should provide a confidence boost if the Ravens need to lean on the rookie a little more in the postseason. The fourth-round pick’s opportunities have been limited.

10. L.J. Fort having two interceptions wiped away by a penalty and a replay review prompted me to look up whether he’d ever picked off a pass. His only career interception came in his first NFL game seven years ago — in Cleveland. Quite the coincidence that likely prompted some memories.

11. We know the 2019 Ravens’ legacy will ultimately be defined in the postseason, but Football Outsiders ranks them very favorably among the greatest regular-season teams of the last 35 years. Knowing the best team doesn’t always win the Super Bowl, remember to enjoy the journey — even as the favorite.

12. We place such importance on the postseason while oddly marginalizing it in the record book. That’s why I had bristled some over this year’s team being recognized as having the longest winning streak in franchise history when the 2000 Ravens won 11 in a row overall. They’re now even.

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