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Examining Ravens position battles: Right guard

Posted on 06 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 right guard job:

Who will replace eight-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda? OK, there’s no “replacing” a future Hall of Famer, so who will assume the right guard position?

If Matt Skura doesn’t look like himself after last November’s knee injury, what happens at center?

How does the left guard spot look if Bradley Bozeman ends up sliding over to center?

Is veteran newcomer D.J. Fluker a favorite to start due to seven years of starting experience in the NFL, or will a younger option surprise coaches despite the absence of in-person workouts this spring?

So many questions have only been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out the normal offseason program as well as preseason games. The only given here is that Yanda won’t be walking through the door after shedding more than 60 pounds since playing his final game in January.

Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris will have his hands full with the evaluation process this summer.

“The opportunity is there, and somebody has to grab the brass ring, so to speak, and go for it,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said in June. “Not just one, but multiple guys because you can never have enough really in that interior offensive line where things happen so quick. Continuity does matter because guys are working together with all that quickness down on the inside.

“It’s going to be a competition, a process, a day-to-day process, and I like where we’re at. Once we get out there, we’ll kind of see where it goes.”

The post-draft addition of Fluker, 29, appeared to raise the floor of an unproven group of starting candidates, but the 2013 first-round pick from Alabama graded an underwhelming 51st among qualified guards in 2019 and ranked no better than 45th in each of the last four seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. His familiarity with D’Alessandris dating back to their days with the San Diego Chargers should ease the transition to his new team, but Fluker is only now having the opportunity to get acclimated in person.

Patrick Mekari was one of the surprises of the 2019 season filling in for the injured Skura down the stretch, but the former undrafted free agent from Cal-Berkeley could also receive looks at guard in addition to competing with the incumbent at the center position. Starting the final five regular-season games and last January’s playoff loss gives him an experience edge over other young linemen, but so many coaches and veterans over the years have noted how important that first post-rookie offseason is for a young offensive lineman’s development.

That same challenge applies to 2019 fourth-round pick Ben Powers, who played well in his only game action in the regular-season finale. The 6-foor-4, 310-pound guard may have the most upside of the young linemen, but his lack of playing time as a rookie still makes him a wildcard.

Rookies Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredeson were selected in the third and fourth rounds respectively in April’s draft, but counting on a mid-round rookie to start is a risky proposition even under normal circumstances. Head coach John Harbaugh suggested Phillips will also take reps at offensive tackle with Baltimore not having a clear backup for Pro Bowl selections Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. after the release of James Hurst in March and Andre Smith’s recent decision to opt out of the 2020 campaign.

But the uncertainty extends beyond right guard with Skura beginning training camp on the active physically unable to perform list. His hard work and progress recovering from a multi-ligament tear has been encouraging, but how his surgically-repaired knee responds to football activity remains to be seen. Team officials are open to the possibility of moving Bozeman to center — the position he played at Alabama — but that would leave the Ravens with different starters at all three interior line spots from a year ago.

To be clear, this is an offense that made opponents look foolish on the way to setting an NFL single-season record with 3,296 rushing yards last year. The presence of generational rushing quarterback and 2019 league MVP Lamar Jackson, two Pro Bowl offensive tackles, and Roman’s innovative run-first system should alleviate concerns about right guard, but that doesn’t mean replacing Yanda will be an easy task, especially if Skura’s health prompts further shuffling inside.

There’s no shortage of candidates who may prove to be up to the task, but the Ravens identifying the best starting five is their most important objective of the summer.

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Harbaugh ready to finally lay eyes on 2020 Ravens

Posted on 30 July 2020 by Luke Jones

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has been in this position before — at least from a football standpoint.

The 2011 NFL lockout canceled spring workouts and kept players away from team facilities until training camp in late July, but the temporary obstacles created by a labor dispute pale in comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic that will challenge — and threaten — so many aspects of preparing for a new season, including whether it will take place at all.

Asked what lessons from that unique experience might apply nine years later, Harbaugh was quick to note his brother, Jim Harbaugh, was a first-year head coach in San Francisco and surprisingly took the 49ers to the NFC Championship game that season. The Ravens also advanced to the conference championship game that year despite releasing several key veterans such as wide receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap on the eve of training camp.

“Maybe the biggest lesson is that it can be done,” said Harbaugh about handling an abbreviated offseason and training camp. “You can build a football team as long as everybody is on the same playing field, no matter really what the organization is. The main thing is being able to keep the players safe enough and healthy to prepare them enough where they can protect themselves on the field [and] they can execute the techniques and the game in a way to protect themselves.”

The Ravens must wait a little longer to hit the field as veterans reported earlier this week for virus testing in hopes of clearance to enter the building to take physicals over the weekend and to begin football-related activities in Owings Mills on Monday. An extended acclimation period for strength and conditioning this summer means we won’t see full-contact practices until mid-August.

Such a timetable as well as the cancellation of preseason games will make it even more challenging to sort through an interior offensive line picture in which the Ravens must replace eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, who announced his retirement in March. Bradley Bozeman is expected to start — likely at left guard — and the returning Matt Skura is a strong bet to remain at center if healthy, but offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris must evaluate veteran newcomer D.J. Fluker as well as second-year linemen Patrick Mekari and Ben Powers and rookies Ben Bredeson and Tyre Phillips, who all are vying for Yanda’s old spot.

Further complicating the offensive line discussion is the need to identify a swing tackle to back up Pro Bowl offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. following the offseason release of veteran James Hurst.

“We are going to give reps to different spots, so even our guards are going to be playing tackle some,” Harbaugh said. “You’ll see Tyre Phillips playing some tackle even though he’s still competing for the starting right guard and the backup left guard spots. That’s just going to be how it’s going to go this training camp, and we are going to have to really be flexible.”

Part of that flexibility is the possibility of players opting out due to the pandemic, something veteran offensive tackle Andre Smith did earlier in the week. Harbaugh called the decisions of Smith and return specialist De’Anthony Thomas “surprises,” but it’s part of a new reality in a contact sport not conducive to social distancing.

As of late Thursday morning, Harbaugh wasn’t aware of any other Baltimore players considering not playing in 2020.

“That’s not something I’ve talked to any of the guys about. Nobody has mentioned that to me,” Harbaugh said. “I think that’s a very personal type of a choice. If a guy wants to talk to me about it, I’m happy to talk to him, but I do think it’s such a personal choice. I don’t really know how much you can add from the outside to that decision.”

“We’ll look at any and every player”

The Antonio Brown questions just won’t go away as MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson admitted Wednesday to “still hoping a little bit” that the Ravens will sign the seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver.

Jackson and second-year receiver Marquise Brown worked out with the former Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this offseason and Harbaugh said he respects his quarterback’s opinion, but Antonio Brown’s off-field problems make it unclear whether he would face a suspension from the NFL even if general manager Eric DeCosta would choose to take a chance on the controversial wideout.

“We’ll look at any and every player at all times. Antonio Brown is no exception,” Harbaugh said. “Decisions will be made based on whatever they are made on. I don’t think he’s really available to even sign right now, so it’s not really a conversation that you have until he’s available to sign. Maybe I’m wrong about that. That’s something that I’ll have to ask Eric about — where that stands with the league and the player. But that’s where we stand on it, at least from my perspective.”

Safety or cornerback?

Harbaugh downplayed the notion of veteran Jimmy Smith moving to the safety position as he’s expected to be the No. 3 outside cornerback behind Pro Bowl starters Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters.

That doesn’t mean Smith won’t have a meaningful role in Wink Martindale’s versatile defense.

“If he lines up at safety, it will be for a reason to do a certain specific task or number of tasks,” Harbaugh said. “Any kind of a big-picture transition saying Jimmy Smith is a safety, that’s not really where we are going this year. He’s a corner and he’ll play corner, but he could be out there as a first corner, second corner, the third corner on the field, the fourth corner on the field. We’ll put different groups out there.”

Injury report

Harbaugh said slot cornerback Tavon Young (neck), outside linebacker Pernell McPhee (triceps), and safety DeShon Elliott (knee) are all in great shape and ready to go after suffering season-ending injuries in 2019, leaving Skura as the Ravens’ only real injury question going into training camp.

Despite suffering a major knee injury in late November, Skura made great progress with his rehabilitation this offseason and could be ready to practice sooner than most anticipated.

“I’m hearing great things. I’m optimistic about Matt; I really am,” Harbaugh said. “That’s a big plus for us if he can do it, but we’ll be careful. We’ll see how he looks and how he feels. A lot of it will be up to Matt too, but he knows himself really well and I know he’s worked really hard to be ready.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts with virtual offseason program winding down

Posted on 22 June 2020 by Luke Jones

With the virtual offseason workout program concluding and attention turning toward the uncertainty of opening training camp next month, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Despite Dr. Anthony Fauci’s recent comments and positive cases around the NFL, John Harbaugh remains optimistic about playing the season, saying he won’t “run scared from a virus” while also acknowledging uncertainty and following protocols. Some will interpret that as cavalier, but coaches and players must prepare with full commitment.

2. All teams are in the same boat, of course, but Harbaugh predictably acknowledged the Ravens being “behind” where they’d normally be at this point. Much like it was with the 2011 lockout, continuity should be in Baltimore’s favor both with the coaching ranks and the roster.

3. With the NFLPA recommending players refrain from gathering for private workouts due to recent increases in positive cases, you wonder how rough those early practices could be even if training camp begins on time. At least with that 2011 lockout, players could work out together as much as they wanted.

4. Asked about Lamar Jackson playing beach football and hurdling a jet ski, Harbaugh said any conversation he’s had with the league MVP it will remain internal. It’s not the first or last time a team will hope to see a young star exercise a bit more caution. No biggie.

5. While describing Matt Skura’s recovery from a major knee injury as “remarkable,” Harbaugh said the Ravens should be fully healthy going into training camp and will “roll from there.” The health of players will definitely carry some additional connotations for the coming season.

6. Harbaugh is “very anxious” to see D.J. Fluker compete this summer and has been pleased with the veteran guard’s ability to learn the offense and keep up with the training program. It’s strange to remember coaches have yet to meet many newcomers to their rosters.

7. Asked about undrafted free agents and the increased difficulty those players could face in making the team, Harbaugh even lamented individuals who never got their chance to try out at rookie camp and be signed to the 90-man roster later on. Justin Tucker fit that description in 2012.

8. Those challenges as well as the reality of trying to play through a pandemic is why potentially expanding practice squads from 12 to as many as 16 players makes perfect sense. Keeping more talent in organizations would ease short-term outbreak concerns and benefit these players in the long run.

9. Baltimore has expressed interest in Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams before, but giving up what would likely be premium draft picks and committing to another top-of-the-market extension in addition to the upcoming deals we’ve discussed ad nauseam feels farfetched. But you never know.

10. According to Inside the League’s Neil Stratton, longtime scout Lonnie Young has retired to enter the private sector after more than a decade with the Ravens. You hate losing experience, but a successful organization is used to seeing good people move on from time to time.

11. Harbaugh said he respects Jackson’s recent comments about the Ravens taking Tennessee too lightly while disagreeing with the sentiment, saying his team “just didn’t play well.” That’s certainly true, but I’ll maintain having that extra week to hear such effusive praise from everyone didn’t help.

12. I try to avoid “hot takes” from national media types, but a year in which a pandemic canceled the normal spring program, is threatening to disrupt training camp, and could result in any player testing positive at any point isn’t when I’m going to ponder the Ravens going 16-0. Sorry.

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Ranking best veteran bargain signings for 2020 Ravens

Posted on 01 June 2020 by Luke Jones

Expectations for the 2020 Ravens couldn’t be higher, but even the best seasons don’t go exactly as planned.

A longtime starter begins to decline more rapidly than anticipated. Promising young players expected to fill prominent roles don’t always take the proverbial step forward. And, of course, some injuries are inevitable. That’s why it’s important to identify some veteran bargains — especially when you’re tight against the salary cap as the Ravens often are — to fill rotational roles and to serve as insurance behind higher-priced starters or unproven youngsters.

Prior to the 2012 Super Bowl season, Baltimore signed former Chicago Bears cornerback Corey Graham to a two-year, $3.95 million contract primarily for his special-teams prowess after the relative unknown had started just 10 games in his first five NFL seasons. Beginning the year fourth on the cornerback depth chart, Graham played only seven defensive snaps over the first five games before a season-ending injury to Lardarius Webb and the multi-week absence of Jimmy Smith propelled him to the starting lineup for the second half of the season. The 27-year-old was Baltimore’s top cornerback down the stretch and intercepted two Peyton Manning passes — returning one for a touchdown — in the epic divisional-round double-overtime win at Denver.

You just never know.

Considering positional value and the depth at different spots on either side of the ball, I’ve ranked the veteran bargains (making less than $2 million in 2020 and not on a rookie contract) signed or re-signed by general manager Eric DeCosta this offseason:

1. G D.J. Fluker
2020 base salary/cap number: $1.05 million/$775,000 (veteran salary benefit)
Outlook: Ideally, one of several first- or second-year candidates with long-term upside would emphatically move to the front of the line to replace retired eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, but offensive line development is tricky even without a pandemic wiping out the normal spring workout program. That’s why the addition of the 29-year-old Fluker and his 88 career starts was a smart investment to raise the position’s floor at just 0.4 percent of the total salary cap for 2020. Pro Football Focus graded him just 51st among qualified guards last season, but his past experience working with offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris in San Diego made this signing even more logical.

2. OLB Pernell McPhee
2020 base salary/cap number: $1.05 million/$887,500 (veteran salary benefit)
Outlook: A triceps tear in Week 7 derailed what had been a renaissance for the 31-year-old, who still finished tied for third on the team with three sacks and tied for fifth in quarterback hits with six in just seven games. Even better than his pass-rush contributions was his ability to set the edge as PFF graded him the best run defender among the Ravens’ edge players. Averaging a career-high number of snaps per game prior to the injury, McPhee should be in more of a situational role at this point in his career, but that could hinge on the development of second-year outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson.

3. OLB Jihad Ward
2020 base salary/cap number: $910,000/$887,500 (veteran salary benefit)
Outlook: Much like McPhee, Ward showed the ability to effectively set the edge and line up at multiple spots along the defensive front, earning praise from coaches and teammates after his October arrival. Those comments prompted some to expect the 26-year-old to see more interest in free agency, but the Ravens were able to keep him around at outside linebacker and as a situational inside rusher. McPhee is the more proven player, but youth is on Ward’s side to fill a bigger role if necessary.

4. DB Anthony Levine
2020 base salary/cap number: $1.675 million/$1.1875 million (four-year qualifying player)
Outlook: The 33-year-old saw his role diminish in the second half of 2019, but the longtime dime back has the versatility coaches like in this age of increasing “positionless” defense. He may no longer play 250-plus defensive snaps per season like he did from 2017-18, but Levine’s leadership and ability on special teams alone justify the signing for a team that struggled some in that area down the stretch last year. How he still might fit into Wink Martindale’s various packages remains to be seen.

5. DT Justin Ellis
2020 base salary/cap number: $910,000/$887,500 (veteran salary benefit)
Outlook: The selections of Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington in April’s draft added young depth to the defensive line, but the unproven Daylon Mack is the only other notable backup to starting nose tackle Brandon Williams, making the Ellis re-signing more important with the free-agent departure of Michael Pierce. Upon arriving last November, Ellis, 29, didn’t play much, but he graded out favorably when he saw action in the defensive line rotation.

Other veteran value signings this offseason: WR Chris Moore, WR De’Anthony Thomas, OT Andre Smith, ILB Jake Ryan
Outlook: 
Moore remains one of the better special-teams players on the team while Thomas will compete for the return specialist role he held late last season. Smith’s career has been in a steady decline for a few years now, but the lack of depth behind Pro Bowl offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. makes him someone to monitor this summer. Ryan’s roster chances looked promising until the selections of inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison in April’s draft.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 2020 draft

Posted on 29 April 2020 by Luke Jones

With the 2020 NFL draft in the books and the Ravens shifting attention toward an unprecedented virtual offseason workout program, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Baltimore’s draft haul has been widely praised as it is, but Eric DeCosta also used 2020 fifth-round picks to acquire Pro Bowl selections Marcus Peters and Calais Campbell. We know many draft choices don’t pan out, of course, but the Ravens sure took advantage of value.

2. Marlon Humphrey’s fifth-year option being exercised was elementary as he’s projected to make $10.244 million in 2021, but he’s already been a team MVP and a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection prior to turning 24. He’s one more big year away from commanding top-of-the-market money at cornerback.

3. The career of D.J. Fluker has been pedestrian compared to first-round expectations, but his signing is a reminder of keeping expectations in check for rookies, especially without normal offseason workouts. Ideally, a young guy with a higher ceiling seizes the right guard job, but Fluker raises the position’s floor.

4. Whenever anticipating a position battle, I remember how much angst there was about the Ravens making no meaningful addition to replace right tackle Michael Oher in 2014. Rick Wagner, who had barely played as a fifth-round rookie, stepped in as an immediate upgrade for the next three seasons.

5. Speaking of competition, Jaylon Ferguson and Tyus Bowser had to be pleased to see no edge defenders taken in this draft class. Ferguson will compete to start and was in no roster danger, of course, but players like Bowser in the final year of their contract are always vulnerable.

6. J.K. Dobbins will try to break this post-Super Bowl XLVII run of second-round picks: Bowser (2017), Kamalei Correa (2016), Maxx Williams (2015), Timmy Jernigan (2014), and Arthur Brown (2013). Talk about “meh,” but I suppose the Ravens did OK trading their 2018 and 2019 second-rounders.

7. How the ground game shakes out with four running backs and the greatest single-season rushing quarterback in NFL history will be interesting — there’s only one football — but there’s no shortage of motivation. Mark Ingram was essentially put on notice and Gus Edwards and Justice Hill dropped down the pecking order.

8. Devin Duvernay will be an interesting wild card with good hands and an uncanny ability to gain yards after the catch. Considering how many screens he ran at Texas, I wouldn’t be surprised to occasionally see him lining up in the backfield and also motioning into jet sweeps.

9. After drafting exactly one wide receiver (Breshad Perriman) in the first three rounds from 2012-2018, the Ravens have selected three (Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, and Duvernay) in the last two drafts. Somewhere, Joe Flacco shrugs his shoulders.

10. Not only is Mike Tomlin getting inside information from Maryland wide receiver Dino Tomlin, but former Terps interim head coach Matt Canada became Pittsburgh’s quarterbacks coach in January. Anthony McFarland and Antoine Brooks landing with the Steelers was hardly a shock.

11. The gap is sizable between the Ravens and the rest of the AFC North on paper right now, but Cincinnati and Cleveland had strong drafts and Pittsburgh appeared to do OK despite trading its first-round pick for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick last fall. Much talent was added to the division.

12. I’m not going to pretend to have any great insights into the Ravens’ reported (and unofficial) class of rookie free-agent signings, but I just hope the addition of Kennesaw State fullback Bronson Rechsteiner means his uncle shows up in Owings Mills at some point.

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Ravens reportedly agree to deal with veteran guard D.J. Fluker

Posted on 28 April 2020 by Luke Jones

Needing to replace one of the best players in franchise history, the Ravens have added an experienced veteran to the competition to replace eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda.

According to NFL Network, the Ravens have agreed to terms on a deal with former Seattle guard D.J. Fluker, pending a physical. The Seahawks released the 29-year-old after drafting LSU guard Damien Lewis in the third round of this weekend’s draft. Fluker started 14 games in the regular season and two playoff contests at right guard this past year, but he missed the Week 7 meeting with the Ravens due to a hamstring injury.

Pro Football Focus graded Fluker 48th among 81 qualified guards last season.

The 11th overall pick of the 2013 draft out of Alabama, Fluker began his career with San Diego and spent three seasons with current Ravens offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris, who held the same job with the Chargers from 2013-15. The 6-foot-5, 342-pound Fluker began his career at right tackle before moving to right guard in 2015.

Fluker played four seasons with the Chargers before spending 2017 with the New York Giants and playing for the Seahawks the last two seasons. He’s started 88 of his 92 games played over seven seasons.

The competition at right guard also includes 2019 undrafted free agent Patrick Mekari, 2019 fourth-round pick Ben Powers, and 2020 draft picks Tyre Phillips and Ben Bredeson, but the two rookies could be at a significant disadvantage with on-site spring workouts wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic. None will fully replace the Hall of Fame-caliber play of Yanda, of course, but Fluker’s experience edge could prove the difference amidst the uncertainty of the summer and the 2020 season as a whole.

Much of the offseason responsibility will fall on players to keep themselves in shape between now and whenever they’re allowed back at practice facilities.

“The other advantage is them knowing the playbook inside and out, not just starting when they come back,” said head coach John Harbaugh about the challenge of rookies being limited to remote work with coaches. “We’re teachers; our coaches want to coach. We’ve been developing all these applications remotely, teaching tools and interactive-type teaching tools and games and things like that. We’re going to get those guys plugged into that stuff right away just like we are with the veterans.”

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