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With tough schedule ahead, Ravens defense hoping for another step forward

Posted on 10 October 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens defense took a step in the right direction in Pittsburgh.

Needing overtime to beat Steelers rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges — who still managed a 98.1 passer rating in relief of the injured Mason Rudolph — hardly qualifies as a breakthrough, but standout cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s strip and recovery against Pro Bowl wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was exactly what the Ravens needed for a 26-23 win and a long exhale after giving up a combined 73 points and over 1,000 yards the previous two weeks. The performance was far from perfect, but it was good enough, especially with a home game against winless Cincinnati looming on Sunday and the rest of the AFC North seemingly in disarray.

Executive vice president and former general manager Ozzie Newsome said it best to defensive coordinator Wink Martindale on the plane ride home to Baltimore.

“He said, ‘Just keep getting better. Just keep getting better,’” said Martindale, who praised his group’s improved tackling and situational work against the Steelers. “And that’s true. That’s the way this National Football League is.”

Of course, the road victory over their struggling division rival didn’t come without another significant setback as strong safety Tony Jefferson was lost for the season with a serious knee injury. Labeled the “heart and soul” of the defense by head coach John Harbaugh and having just taken over the responsibilities of relaying the calls in the defensive huddle, Jefferson was a veteran leader for a group already missing former Ravens Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, and C.J. Mosley. Jefferson’s loss on top of the existing concerns about the pass rush, inside linebacker, and the other injuries in the secondary is tough to take.

Third-year safety Chuck Clark is expected to take his place with 2018 sixth-round pick DeShon Elliott also stepping into a larger role in different sub packages. It’s hardly ideal, but Clark played well in two starts in place of Jefferson last year and has been praised repeatedly for his football intellect. The Ravens are about to find out what they have with their two younger options next to six-time Pro Bowl free safety Earl Thomas, who is still finding his own way in a more complex system than what he was used to in Seattle.

“We just have to go on with business as usual,” Thomas said. “Chuck will come in, and he’ll help out and I’ll fit right where I need to be. If I know the check-it and I see it, I’ll be vocal about it, but Chuck is going to take on that role as well.”

The Ravens were able to slow their heartbeat at inside linebacker with the addition of veteran Josh Bynes, whose performance as the “Mike” linebacker against Pittsburgh after only three practices and not being with an NFL team since March was nothing short of remarkable. The 30-year-old has rarely been a full-time starter in a nine-year career that began in Baltimore and will surely be tested by better offenses in the coming weeks, but the Ravens hope the stability he brought to the position in Week 5 will continue after the offseason plan to go exclusively younger and faster in the wake of Mosley’s free-agent departure clearly wasn’t working.

Bynes’ arrival has allowed the Ravens to move Patrick Onwuasor back to the weak-side position where he thrived down the stretch last season. It’s a move the fourth-year linebacker is on board with after his early struggles at Mosley’s old position. The shuffling led to 2018 fourth-round pick Kenny Young being a healthy scratch and fellow second-year linebacker Chris Board playing only one defensive snap against the Steelers.

“I felt way more comfortable. I was flying around,” said Onwuasor, who finished with seven tackles and one for a loss. “That was my natural position. It just felt like it fit me perfectly, and I think Wink could tell a little bit that I like that position a little bit better.”

Martindale will continue to tinker with both the starting lineup and sub packages to find the optimal fits, especially in a secondary ravaged by injuries. Last week brought the promotion of veteran cornerback Maurice Canady to the starting lineup after second-year defensive back Anthony Averett had struggled in place of the injured Jimmy Smith, who will miss his fifth straight game with a knee injury. Brandon Carr continues to play most of the snaps at the nickel position after the preseason loss of Tavon Young, but the 33-year-old would ideally be on more of a pitch count to keep him fresh all year.

Still, the greatest concern remains with the pass rush as the Ravens are tied for 24th in the NFL with only nine sacks and 26th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, which is adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. Unlike the secondary that has Smith’s return to look forward to, there are no pass-rushing reinforcements on the way unless general manager Eric DeCosta pulls off a significant trade by the Oct. 29 deadline. Harbaugh and Martindale both expressed optimism this week about an increasing role for rookie Jaylon Ferguson, but 2017 third-round pick Tim Williams was waived just over a week ago after being advertised this offseason as part of the solution to replace Suggs and fellow free-agent departure Za’Darius Smith. Those two combined for 15 1/2 sacks last season and have a total of 8 1/2 for their new teams so far.

The Ravens have received three sacks apiece from starting outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee, but they’re playing too many snaps, putting strain on their second-half performances as well as their long-term stamina for a 16-game season. Judon is playing 82.1 percent of the snaps on defense after taking 65.1 percent of them a year ago while McPhee is averaging a career-high 42.6 defensive snaps per game, far from ideal for a 30-year-old with an injury history.

Despite Martindale bringing plenty of blitzes in hopes of pressuring and overwhelming two inexperienced quarterbacks in Pittsburgh, the Ravens managed only one sack and three quarterback hits in nearly 65 minutes of play.

“When it really comes down to it, we have to win our one-on-ones up front,” Judon said. “We have to help our defense. We have to do a better job of getting to the quarterback and applying pressure and helping our secondary out, so they don’t have to cover forever.”

The reality is this is a much different defense than the top-shelf group that last played Cincinnati in Week 11 last season, meaning expectations for improvement must be realistic. Of the 11 defensive players who started against the Bengals in Lamar Jackson’s first NFL start 11 months ago, eight are either no longer with the organization or sidelined with long-term injuries. When dealing with that much change, you’ll gladly take another step or two in the right direction against a struggling opponent Sunday — even if the Bengals’ recent history of success against Baltimore shouldn’t be forgotten.

The schedule picks up considerably in Week 7 and beyond, meaning the Ravens must take advantage of this opportunity for a win and another confidence boost. Yes, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton has broken the Ravens’ hearts in the past, but the Bengals have already allowed 20 sacks and rank in the bottom 10 in many offensive categories. The continued absence of seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green will certainly help as the Baltimore secondary tries to find its way with another key cog now out of the picture.

“We’re seeing what we’re good at. We’re seeing what we’re struggling at, and we’re making the right corrections,” Thomas said. “It might not show up right off, but it’s going to pay off in the end.”

After Sunday, the Ravens will play six of their next seven games against teams currently holding winning records. The defense is going to need those growing pains and adjustments to start paying off much sooner than later.

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Ravens sign defensive lineman Jihad Ward, place Tony Jefferson on IR

Posted on 07 October 2019 by Luke Jones

Aiming to breathe life into a floundering pass rush, the Ravens are taking a flier on a former second-round pick.

Baltimore signed defensive lineman Jihad Ward to try to help a defense tied for 24th in the NFL with nine sacks in their first five games. Oakland’s second-round pick in 2016, the Illinois product has collected four sacks in 30 career games with the Raiders and Indianapolis.

“We have to find a way to get more sacks,” said head coach John Harbaugh before the Monday evening signing. “We have to find a way to get more pressure. We have to find a way to get more turnovers. All of those things are things that we really want to work hard at doing better at.”

Ward, 25, was waived earlier this month by the Colts, who signed defensive lineman Trevon Coley off the Ravens practice squad. The 6-foot-5, 287-pound Ward appeared in three games this season and registered one pass breakup.

Baltimore officially placed safety Tony Jefferson on injured reserve after he sustained a torn ACL and other damage to his left knee in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win in Pittsburgh. Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott are expected to see larger roles in place of Jefferson, who is one of Baltimore’s most respected players on the field and in the locker room.

“He’s a leader. He’s a great player, just a high-energy player,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a guy that flies around and makes plays. He’s a communicator for us in the back end. Those are going to be challenging things. At the same time, these are things that happen in this game. You just have to deal with them.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 4 loss to Cleveland

Posted on 01 October 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens losing their second straight game in a 40-25 setback against Cleveland, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. With 10 of the previous 15 games between these teams decided by one score despite the Ravens’ dominant record, you couldn’t help but think the Browns would “Brown” when Baltimore made it 24-18. Instead, the Ravens didn’t even touch Nick Chubb on his 88-yard touchdown run. Just brutal.

2. The first turnover of the season was inevitable, but Mark Ingram’s fumble in the third quarter summed up the day for the offense. Averaging 5.9 yards per play, the Ravens moved the ball well, but they made too many mistakes at the wrong times.

3. The defense deserves most of the blame for the two-game losing streak, but the offense has scored a total of 13 first-half points the last two weeks. That’s usually not going to get the job done, especially with the current state of this defense.

4. John Harbaugh noted Cleveland was content playing off in coverage to give the Ravens short passes — mostly to the outside — as Lamar Jackson was 6-for-8 for 34 yards in the first half. Still, Greg Roman has to find a better way to test a unit missing both starting cornerbacks.

5. There was no shortage of new defensive looks as Wink Martindale used four safeties — the starters, Chuck Clark, and DeShon Elliott — on occasion and removed Patrick Onwuasor in certain sub packages after he’d previously been an every-snap linebacker. Twenty-one players saw at least seven snaps. Martindale is exploring answers.

6. Tony Jefferson took over the defensive huddle and wore the green-dot helmet to relay the calls from the sideline, a decision made to streamline communication for the secondary and take some responsibilities off Onwuasor’s plate. Baltimore has to get its inside linebackers to play better.

7. Per OverTheCap.com, no team has more money tied to the safety position over the next two years than Baltimore, but Pro Football Focus has graded Earl Thomas 19th and Jefferson 75th among qualified safeties through Week 4. These two need to be a much bigger part of the solution.

8. Brandon Williams’ absence didn’t mean an opportunity for rookie Daylon Mack as much as bigger workloads for Michael Pierce, Chris Wormley, and Patrick Ricard. Mack played nine snaps while the veteran trio set season highs in snaps by significant margins. That takes a toll, especially later in the game.

9. Just how problematic has the defense been with surrendering big plays? The Ravens have already allowed six pass plays of 40 or more yards, one shy of last season’s total. Only two teams — Oakland and Jacksonville — have surrendered more completions of 20 or more yards so far.

10. His final stat line wasn’t the most accurate portrayal of his day, but Jackson’s first interception of the season was a product of needing to be aggressive down multiple scores with time dwindling. I’ll take that over dinking and dunking without the necessary urgency. The quarterback wasn’t the problem Sunday.

11. The hand-wringing over the third-quarter scuffle between Marlon Humphrey and Odell Beckham Jr. is getting ridiculous. Each team should be happy its player wasn’t kicked out of the game and just move on.

12. Justice Hill returning kicks looked like a good move to utilize his speed, but his latest drop to open the second half led to Chris Moore replacing him. Coverage has been good, but the Ravens could really use more production out of their kick returns, which rank 21st.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 26-15 preseason win over Philadelphia

Posted on 23 August 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens extending their preseason winning streak to 16 games in a 26-15 victory over Philadelphia, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. A Philadelphia crowd paying upwards of $40 just to park didn’t get to watch either starting quarterback in what used to be the regular season’s “dress rehearsal.” The chasm between football decisions and entertainment value — the NFL’s ultimate purpose — is wider than ever. The preseason stinks and must be addressed.

2. If eliminating preseason games isn’t an option, reimagine them. Joint practices are all the rage now, so let’s watch both teams’ starters compete in a controlled scrimmage and then the reserves still play a 30-minute live game. Lower prices and create a festival atmosphere with autographs, music, and more.

3. More encouraging than the production or any highlights was Marquise Brown playing 19 snaps in his preseason debut. We’ll see how his foot responds, but the Ravens had to feel good about where he is physically to play him that much, especially after he sat out Tuesday’s practice.

4. I still believe it’s wise to temper expectations for Brown and, to a lesser degree, Miles Boykin early in the season, but seeing both rookie wide receivers on the field made it easy to ponder their potential. Watching them grow with Lamar Jackson could be a lot of fun.

5. Tyus Bowser had a sack and another tackle for a loss, earning praise from John Harbaugh for his strong summer. I suspect the head coach is also trying to build his confidence, but Bowser’s ability to drop into coverage gives him an edge over the other younger options.

6. After struggling in the joint practices, Trace McSorley was impressive in the first half with the Eagles still playing a few defensive starters and many key reserves. He’s looking more and more like someone who could develop into a solid NFL backup in the right system. I’d keep him around.

7. Brandon Carr and Chuck Clark handled nickel duties with the starting defense, which reflects the committee approach Harbaugh and Wink Martindale have suggested following Tavon Young’s neck injury. Anthony Averett and Cyrus Jones also saw time in the slot.

8. One defensive back who wasn’t in the mix at the nickel was Maurice Canady, who struggled playing on the outside. His path to a job probably depends on what the Ravens do with Young and injured rookie Iman Marshall from a roster standpoint, but Thursday wasn’t very promising.

9. Mark Andrews caught only one pass, but that 25-yard catch and run had to bring back memories of former New York Giants tight end Mark Bavaro for Eagles fans. I’m really looking forward to watching the second-year tight end play after a very impressive camp.

10. With Brandon Williams sitting out, I was surprised to see Patrick Ricard start next to Michael Pierce instead of Willie Henry. That says less about Henry and more about the versatile Ricard, who entered summer on the bubble and has played his tail off on both sides of the ball.

11. The penalty on DeShon Elliott for lowering his head to initiate contact early in the third quarter was as poor a call as I’ve seen this summer. That’s a perfect example of an official anticipating a foul rather than seeing it with his own eyes.

12. Though play ended with just under 12 minutes to go because of lightning, Zach Sieler playing only two defensive snaps makes you believe he’s on the wrong side of the bubble and a better candidate for the practice squad than the 53-man roster. He’s had a disappointing summer.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts after first five camp practices

Posted on 30 July 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens enjoying their first day off from training camp and still more than a week away from the preseason opener, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I wrote about Lamar Jackson the other day, but one topic I didn’t address was ball security after he led the NFL in fumbles last season. Correcting that is critical, but his fumbling problems really only showed up in games, making it difficult to gauge progress there thus far.

2. Brandon Carr played some nickel filling in for Tavon Young at times last year, but he’s received plenty of reps at safety in camp. The 33-year-old admits his “head spins sometimes” playing multiple positions, but that versatility will be valuable to this secondary and for him extending his career.

3. There’s been no shortage of praise for Miles Boykin, who’s made plays against the starting defense and was even compared to a young Michael Thomas by Willie Snead. He’s looked good, but pumping the brakes on the hype until the first couple preseason games would be wise. It’s still early.

4. I remain more bullish on Mark Andrews, who has been the best pass catcher on the field and is playing with some attitude and swagger. Given the structure of this offense and Jackson’s passing strength being over the middle, Andrews could really take off after a promising rookie year.

5. Wink Martindale praised Pernell McPhee for his early play and bringing “that old Raven rough, tough mentality” to the outside linebackers, but this position remains a concern. Tim Williams has flashed a little — he’s done that in previous summers — but the rest of the group has been quiet.

6. After starting the final 10 games last season and serving as the starting right tackle all spring, Orlando Brown Jr. has worked with the second team since missing the first full-squad workout with a failed conditioning test. I understand sending a message, but four practices seems sufficient.

7. Jermaine Eluemunor missed the first practice after failing the conditioning test, which came after John Harbaugh wanted him to be in better shape in the spring. Perceived as a quiet favorite to play left guard, Eluemunor has also missed two practices with a muscle issue. He’s squandering early opportunities.

8. We expected a competition between Chris Board and Kenny Young at inside linebacker, but Board has taken virtually all first-team reps next to Patrick Onwuasor in the base and nickel packages. Young isn’t practicing poorly, but he’s clearly third behind Board and Anthony Levine when considering Baltimore’s frequent dime usage.

9. Two early concerns continue to be frequent pre-snap penalties and bad snaps from the centers. The precision required to run such a unique offense can’t be overstated — even in July. As Greg Roman described the many false starts, “It’s hard to turn that lemon into lemonade when you jump.”

10. With the Ravens enjoying the deepest secondary in the NFL, it’s easy to forget about guys further down the depth chart, but Chuck Clark and Maurice Canady have practiced well. DeShon Elliott received much hype for his spring play, but Clark has been steadier early in camp.

11. Seth Roberts has quietly had a solid start to camp, showing some chemistry with Jackson on shorter passes. He’s not spectacular and had a history of drops in Oakland, but he’d go into my top three wide receivers with Willie Snead and Boykin instead of Chris Moore so far.

12. The Robert Griffin III injury isn’t ideal, but Trace McSorley should continue receiving more reps behind Jackson, especially with Josh Johnson declining an offer and journeyman Joe Callahan signing instead. McSorley has a huge opportunity to prove he’s deserving of a 53-man roster spot. He’s held up OK so far.

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2019 Ravens training camp preview: Safeties

Posted on 16 July 2019 by Luke Jones

With training camp beginning in just over a week and the preseason opener less than a month away, we’ll look at each Ravens position group before players begin reporting to Owings Mills for the first full-squad practice on July 25.

Cornerbacks
Running backs
Defensive line
Tight ends

We continue at safety, a position at which the organization has exhausted extensive resources since Ed Reed played his final game as a Raven in Super Bowl XLVII. After failed draft picks and several underwhelming value signings, Baltimore finally went all in at the position by giving out a free-agent contract totaling $26 million or more in three of the last four offseasons. Those dollars have given the Ravens one of the best safety groups in the NFL

This position isn’t quite as deep as cornerback, but the philosophy is similar with versatile pieces capable of filling different roles within the defense. This offers defensive coordinator Wink Martindale the option to rotate if he wants to give someone a breather or offer a different look to an opponent.

Below is a look at the safeties who stand out for various reasons:

The Man — Earl Thomas
Skinny: The six-time Pro Bowl selection who helped lead Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” defense to a Super Bowl championship and another appearance in the big game gives the Ravens their first true center fielder at free safety since Reed. The defense will miss Eric Weddle’s football intellect on the back end, but Thomas provides a clear play-making upgrade and shouldn’t have too much difficulty adjusting to Baltimore’s more complex system from the direct Cover 3 looks he ran with the Seahawks. A four-year, $55 million contract including $32 million guaranteed automatically makes you “the man” of this group.

Old Reliable — Tony Jefferson
Skinny: Considering Thomas hasn’t played as much as a preseason game in a Ravens uniform, Jefferson is the default choice here as he’s become one of the defensive leaders after the departures of Weddle, Terrell Suggs, and C.J. Mosley in the offseason. The 27-year-old is at his best playing closer to the line of scrimmage and has missed only three games in his six-year NFL career. Critics may knock his four-year, $34 million contract or his intermediate-to-deep pass coverage, but the Ravens very much value what Jefferson brings to the field and the locker room.

Under Fire — Thomas
Skinny: The lucrative financial commitment made to Thomas came after he broke his lower left leg for the second time in three seasons last September and played in just 29 games over the last three seasons. The 30-year-old was playing at an elite level in the opening month of 2018, but you have to at least wonder what long-term toll the latest injury might have on his speed and agility entering his 10th season. Much is riding on Thomas remaining a special talent after so many key departures on defense left plenty of question marks among the front seven.

Up-and-Comer — DeShon Elliott
Skinny: The 2018 sixth-round pick from Texas missed his rookie year after breaking his forearm in the preseason, but he was arguably the biggest surprise of the spring, showing impressive range in pass coverage on a few highlight interceptions. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Elliott also stood out with some physical play early in last year’s training camp, so that coupled with coverage ability could make it difficult to keep the 22-year-old off the field if the same play-making ability flashes this summer.

Sleeper — Anthony Levine
Skinny: The 32-year-old really shouldn’t be a sleeper at this point, but he remains underappreciated — especially outside Baltimore — as one of the best dime backs in the NFL. After years of that sub package being an afterthought, Levine finally got his chance in the role a few years ago and has excelled. The longtime special-teams standout recorded pass breakups on two of the final four defensive plays in the win over Cleveland last December to clinch the AFC North title, just an example of how important he’s been to the Ravens’ defensive success over the last few years.

The Rest — Chuck Clark, Bennett Jackson
Skinny: Clark has been a rock-solid contributor as a backup safety and special-teams player over his first two seasons, but the deep depth across the secondary may mean it’s no lock the 2017 sixth-round selection from Virgina Tech makes the roster. Despite never appearing in an NFL regular-season game after being drafted by the New York Giants out of Notre Dame in 2014, Jackson is still chasing the dream after spending the 2018 preseason and part of the regular season on Baltimore’s practice squad.

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Sizing up the 2019 Ravens roster after mandatory minicamp

Posted on 19 June 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens won’t trim their roster to 53 players until the end of the preseason, but the conclusion of mandatory minicamp offers a much better idea of what the coaching staff has to work with in 2019.

This exercise will carry more meaning as we advance to the preseason, but my all-too-early look at the roster is still based more on track record, contract status, draft standing, and positional need than observations from a handful of non-contact practices this spring. For now, I estimate 44 players to be safely on the roster, leaving nine spots up for grabs. We’ll get a much better idea of where players stand starting with the snap distribution when training camp begins next month.

In other words, don’t read too much into who is deemed a bubble player now as much will change between now and even the start of preseason action. Not all bubble players are on equal footing, of course, with certain position groups lacking quality depth and others enjoying so much talent that could fall victim to the numbers game.

Though general manager Eric DeCosta, head coach John Harbaugh, and the rest of the staff and front office are cognizant of the numbers at each position, trying to arbitrarily pinpoint a certain number of tight ends or inside linebackers isn’t the most accurate way of projecting a roster. You always look for reserves who will excel on special teams, so coaches will look carefully at players’ other attributes in addition to what they bring to their individual position groups when filling out the back of the roster.

The numbers in parentheses indicate how many players are currently on the roster at that position. As we move deeper into the summer, I’ll provide updated looks as well as projections of who’s in and who’s out at different stages of the preseason.

QUARTERBACKS (3)
IN: Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III
BUBBLE: Trace McSorley
LONG SHOT: none
Skinny: McSorley showed growth over the course of the spring and should feel much better about his chances, but I’m not quite ready to say he’ll definitely be on the roster when you look at the logjam at some other positions. I’d still expect a fourth quarterback to be added to share the summer reps.

RUNNING BACKS & FULLBACKS (7)
IN: Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill
BUBBLE: Kenneth Dixon, De’Lance Turner
LONG SHOT: Tyler Ervin, Christopher Ezeala
Skinny: Little has changed with this position group, but Ervin’s return ability at least puts him on the radar to potentially steal a spot. Dixon took issue with how his absences from voluntary workouts were perceived, but he needs a strong and healthy preseason to stick in the final year of his rookie deal.

WIDE RECEIVERS (13)
IN: Willie Snead, Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, Chris Moore
BUBBLE: Seth Roberts, Jaleel Scott, Jordan Lasley, Michael Floyd
LONG SHOT: Sean Modster, Antoine Wesley, Quincy Adeboyejo, Jaylen Smith, Joe Horn Jr.
Skinny: Scott, Modster, and Wesley flashed during workouts, but this group looked very ordinary overall, which wasn’t a big surprise as Brown and Boykin were sidelined. The numbers game will be interesting as you wonder how many receivers the run-heavy Ravens will even feel compelled to keep.

TIGHT ENDS (5)
IN: Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst
BUBBLE: Charles Scarff
LONG SHOT: Cole Herdman
Skinny: Knowing how much offensive coordinator Greg Roman values this position, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fourth tight end with blocking ability stick with the 249-pound Scarff having the current edge. However, the Ravens could also use the versatile Patrick Ricard in that role.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (16)
IN: Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley, Orlando Brown Jr., Matt Skura, Ben Powers, James Hurst, Bradley Bozeman
BUBBLE: Jermaine Eluemunor, Alex Lewis, Greg Senat
LONG SHOT: Randin Crecelius, R.J. Prince, Patrick Mekari, Marcus Applefield, Darrell Williams, Patrick Vahe
Skinny: Eluemunor lining up as the starting left guard this spring was surprising, but Harbaugh saying his conditioning needs to improve keeps me from moving him to the “in” line just yet. Lewis missing the spring program while rehabbing his shoulder on his own leaves him with much to prove.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)
IN: Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce, Willie Henry, Chris Wormley, Daylon Mack
BUBBLE: Zach Sieler, Gerald Willis, Patrick Ricard
LONG SHOT: none
Skinny: Sieler is probably safe because of the shortage of 5-technique options on the roster, but Willis is an interesting name to watch as a rookie free agent. Ricard’s ability to play on both sides of the ball always improves his roster chances, but he was a healthy scratch for the final six games last season.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (8)
IN: Patrick Onwuasor, Chris Board, Kenny Young
BUBBLE: Matthew Thomas, Otaro Alaka
LONG SHOT: Alvin Jones, E.J. Ejiya, Silas Stewart
Skinny: There is very little clarity in this group beyond the top three, but you would think the Ravens prefer keeping at least one more inside linebacker. Any lingering doubt about Board’s status was erased this spring as he arguably moved ahead of Young in the competition to start next to Onwuasor.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (9)
IN: Matthew Judon, Jaylon Ferguson, Tyus Bowser
BUBBLE: Pernell McPhee, Shane Ray, Tim Williams
LONG SHOT: Aaron Adeoye, Markus Jones, Michael Onuoha
Skinny: Bowser’s ability to drop into pass coverage gives him an edge over the other outside linebackers vying for a roster spot, but McPhee being able to slide inside in sub packages really helps his chances. Ray flashed during the spring, but the proof will be when the pads come on.

CORNERBACKS (11)
IN: Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young, Justin Bethel, Anthony Averett, Iman Marshall
BUBBLE: Cyrus Jones, Maurice Canady
LONG SHOT: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Terrell Bonds
Skinny: Barring injuries, Baltimore is almost guaranteed to lose a quality player or two from this group. However, I’m not buying Bethel being on the bubble after the Ravens gave him a $1 million bonus and took a compensatory pick formula hit to sign him despite their established depth here.

SAFETIES (6)
IN: Earl Thomas, Tony Jefferson, DeShon Elliott, Anthony Levine
BUBBLE: Chuck Clark
LONG SHOT: Bennett Jackson
Skinny: The standout play of Elliott was one of the highlights of the spring as he showed impressive range in coverage to go with the physicality he flashed as a rookie last summer. Clark is a rock-solid backup entering his third season, but could the roster crunch at other positions squeeze him out?

SPECIALISTS (5)
IN: Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, Morgan Cox
BUBBLE: none
LONG SHOT: Kaare Vedvik, Matthew Orzech
Skinny: Vedvik really struggled with his kicking accuracy during spring practices open to reporters and will need to rebound in the preseason to build his potential trade value.

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Five Ravens players whose stock rose during spring workouts

Posted on 16 June 2019 by Luke Jones

You never want to make too much out of the Ravens’ spring workouts, whether it’s overanalyzing every Lamar Jackson throw or inflating the roster chances of the rookie labeled a sleeper after the draft.

Ravens safety Tony Jefferson said it best this past week about judging players during non-contact voluntary workouts.

“We’ll see in training camp when the pads come on,” Jefferson said. “Obviously, some people look good in shorts, and some people look great in pads. That’s when we find out who the real football players are.”

It’s particularly difficult judging offensive and defensive linemen without pads, which leads to even more attention on players at the skill positions.

Acknowledging those limitations, below are five players who seemingly helped their stock this spring:

OL Jermaine Eluemunor

Head coach John Harbaugh threw some cold water on this one by noting Eluemunor’s need to get in better playing shape for training camp, but the third-year lineman taking virtually all first-team reps at left guard was one of the bigger surprises of the spring and speaks to his growth since his rookie year. This figures to be one of the more interesting position battles on the roster with James Hurst, Alex Lewis, Bradley Bozeman, and rookie fourth-round pick Ben Powers all in the mix, but Eluemunor has quietly expanded his versatility by filling in at left tackle last year and moving back to guard this spring, which should improve his roster chances even if he doesn’t win the starting job.

ILB Chris Board

The discussion following the March departure of four-time Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley centered around 2018 fourth-round pick Kenny Young moving into the starting lineup next to Patrick Onwuasor, but Board, an undrafted free agent who excelled on special teams as a rookie, split the first-team snaps with Young and even appeared to get more reps in certain packages. Harbaugh anticipates a rotation between the two with dime back Anthony Levine also factoring into the snap distribution, but Board could be on the same path traveled by the likes of Onwuasor, Zach Orr, Jameel McClain, and Bart Scott as undrafted players who started on special teams and eventually carved out starting roles.

S DeShon Elliott

The Ravens should have one of the best starting safety duos in the NFL with Earl Thomas and Tony Jefferson, but it was impossible to watch Elliott make plays this spring without thinking Wink Martindale needs to find ways to get him on the field. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Texas product showed off plenty of physicality last summer before breaking his forearm, but it was his range in pass coverage that stood out in spring workouts. Whether it’s working Elliott into the dime package or using a little bit of a safety rotation like we saw at cornerback last year, the Ravens will have a hard time leaving the 2018 sixth-round pick on the sideline if what he did in the spring carries into the preseason.

WR Sean Modster

The last two names on this list remain long shots to make the 53-man roster, but Modster flashed on multiple occasions this spring and even drew some praise from slot cornerback Tavon Young. The 5-foot-11, 183-pound receiver from Boise State has shown good hands and change of direction working out of the slot, but he’ll need to show that same ability against the threat of contact to put himself in serious contention for a roster spot. With a few veterans and several recent draft picks ahead of Modster in the pecking order and Baltimore’s run-based offense not exactly prioritizing wide receivers as highly as most teams, the rookie free agent will need to really impress in the preseason to have a chance.

CB Terrell Bonds

Only signed to a contract after trying out during rookie camp and a former member of the Memphis Express in the defunct Alliance of American Football, Bonds made quite an impression on the second day of minicamp when he intercepted Jackson twice in the same red-zone period. At 5-foot-8 and 182 pounds, the Tennessee State product faces what could be a near-impossible path to a roster spot with the deep depth as his position, but a strong summer would at least put him in position to catch on elsewhere like ex-Raven Darious Williams did with the Los Angeles Rams last fall. The fact that we’re even mentioning Bonds in this space is a credit to his hard work after he went undrafted in 2018.

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marquisebrown

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Ravens still waiting on first-round pick to make practice debut

Posted on 12 June 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens defense was always going to win the battle this spring.

Not only has the Baltimore offense been completely revamped under coordinator Greg Roman, but a run-first system isn’t going to operate with full effect in non-contact practices. As you’d expect, a passing attack with a quarterback entering his first full year as a starter and veteran wide receivers with limited ceilings hasn’t produced many big plays against arguably the best and deepest secondary in the NFL.

But the Ravens — and their fans — must maintain the proper perspective knowing some intriguing upside is on the way in addition to quarterback Lamar Jackson and the rest of the offense simply increasing their comfort level in the new system. General manager Eric DeCosta selected two wide receivers with his first three picks of April’s draft to address the very concern observers have witnessed this spring.

Third-round rookie Miles Boykin missed a large portion of organized team activities with a hamstring injury and is still taking limited reps during this week’s minicamp, but first-round pick Marquise Brown has yet to make his practice debut for the Ravens. The speedy 5-foot-9, 170-pound receiver has increased his activity level this week by doing agility work on a side field, catching passes from the Jugs machine, and even taking a couple reps in an individual position drill Wednesday, but the real show won’t begin until the start of training camp in late July. Brown was selected with the 25th overall pick to make an immediate play-making impact, but the Ravens knew they’d have to be patient after the Oklahoma standout underwent Lisfranc surgery on his foot in January.

“He gets a little extra meeting time because he doesn’t get to do the stuff on the field that some of the guys get to do,” wide receivers coach David Culley said. “He spends a little bit of extra time going over those kinds of things. For the most part, he gets extra film work in, just watching everything in practice. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t get to see himself to be able to correct things.”

Taking nothing away from complementary veteran wide receivers such as Willie Snead, Seth Roberts, and Chris Moore who will receive their share of opportunities, the Ravens are counting on Brown to be a difference maker, something they’ve rarely had at the wide receiver position over their history. The combination of speed and athleticism with which Brown consistently burned Big 12 defenses is exactly what Jackson needs to help fulfill his potential as a franchise quarterback.

The wait is almost over to see Brown in action, but he’ll have plenty of catching up to do after missing valuable spring reps.

“When I think about what I saw when we drafted him from Oklahoma, I get really excited about it,” Culley said. “Hopefully, he can do some of those same things that he did. He was a big-play guy for them, and one of the reasons why we got him where we got him was because of his big-play ability. We’re looking forward to him bringing that to us.”

In addition to Brown, defensive tackle Michael Pierce (conditioning), guard Alex Lewis (shoulder), cornerback and return specialist Cyrus Jones (illness), and guard Patrick Mekari did not participate in Wednesday’s minicamp practice. Safety Tony Jefferson increased his activity level in only his second practice since having ankle surgery in January.

Elliott shines again

Second-year safety DeShon Elliott continues to be a surprising standout performer this spring as he snatched another interception during Thursday’s practice, victimizing backup quarterback Robert Griffin III during a 7-on-7 period.

The 2018 sixth-round pick from Texas showed physicality in his first training camp before being lost for the season with a broken forearm last August, but his range in pass coverage has turned plenty of heads with a diving interception last week being the highlight play of the spring. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Elliott has the size to be used in different capacities even if he’s stuck behind six-time Pro Bowl selection Earl Thomas and established veteran Tony Jefferson on the depth chart.

“He’s just picked up where he left off right before he got hurt, and it’s just going to be another fun piece,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “We play a bunch of different personnel and everything else. I know we have two really good safeties right now, but we’ll find spots for the good football players. Obviously, specials teams play a big part in that.”

Elliott’s development could impact snaps for reserve safeties Anthony Levine and Chuck Clark, who both saw plenty of action in sub packages last season.

Rough day for quarterbacks

Even with some inconsistency and the overall shortage of big plays in the passing game, Jackson had done a commendable job avoiding turnovers this spring with only one interception over the first four practices open to media, but that changed Wednesday.

The 22-year-old quarterback was picked off by reserve defensive back Bennett Jackson in a 7-on-7 period and was later intercepted twice by rookie cornerback Terrell Bonds in the red zone, an area of the field in which the offense has struggled. Griffin also threw two interceptions during the morning practice.

Jackson also threw a touchdown to tight end Mark Andrews as the two continue to build on the encouraging chemistry they showed down the stretch last season.

“I’m not looking to win the practices. I’m looking to get ready for the training camp and get ready for the season,” Roman said. “Every opportunity, whether a good result or a bad result, on a play this time of year is a great thing because it gives us an opportunity to grow from it.”

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edwards

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Twelve Ravens thoughts at conclusion of voluntary OTAs

Posted on 07 June 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens wrapping up their third and final week of voluntary organized team activities, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. DeShon Elliott made the play of OTAs with a diving interception of a deep Robert Griffin III pass. He showed impressive range sprinting from hash to sideline to make the pick. Elliott’s stuck behind Earl Thomas and Tony Jefferson, of course, but I want to watch more of that athleticism.

2. You’re never going to get the full effect of a run-based unit in non-contact practices, but the Ravens offense just didn’t make many plays in OTAs open to media and going against a defense consistently missing several veterans. Minicamp should be interesting with the full defense on the field.

3. Lamar Jackson hasn’t been as consistent as he’d like, but he threw only one interception in the three open voluntary workouts, which came on a pass to Brandon Carr that was a clear miscommunication. Learning a new system has been challenging for the entire offense, but he’s protecting the football.

4. The offense was particularly rough in red-zone drills, which reminds that Baltimore went 11-for-26 in that area with Jackson starting. Greg Roman will use plenty of play-action calls to scheme open targets between the 20s, but Jackson will need to make throws in tight windows in the red zone.

5. It’s been a quiet spring for Jaylon Ferguson, which isn’t all that surprising since his patented bull rush doesn’t really play in non-contact workouts. He’s been out of position from time to time playing the run, but we’ll better know where he is when the pads come on.

6. I’ve seen some snarky remarks about the run-heavy Ravens inviting former Navy coach and triple-option aficionado Paul Johnson to Owings Mills, but I commend a coaching staff seeking new ideas and innovation as we see the influence of the college game continue to make its way into the NFL.

7. Asked about the arrivals of Mark Ingram and Justice Hill, Gus Edwards said “nothing has really changed” and he’s still getting reps with the starters. I do expect him to continue playing an important role, but Edwards averaging 17.4 carries per game like he did from Weeks 11-17 seems unlikely.

8. Iman Marshall faces a steep climb to any defensive playing time as a rookie, but the fourth-round cornerback was impressive with a few pass breakups Thursday. Guys like Marshall, Anthony Averett, and Maurice Canady would be much higher on virtually any other corner depth chart in the league.

9. Their pursuit of Gerald McCoy made it clear the Ravens aren’t perfectly content with their interior pass rush, but Chris Wormley has been active with batted passes and pressures this spring. He will be competing with Zach Sieler to step into the old Brent Urban role.

10. Trade candidate Kaare Vedvik missed field goals from 35 and 48 yards before connecting from 58 after Sam Koch impressively handled a bad snap from rookie Matthew Orzech. I expect Vedvik to receive plenty of preseason opportunities to showcase his strong kicking leg, but consistency is key.

11. Plenty of young receivers flash this time of year before disappearing when the pads come on, but the 5-foot-11, 183-pound Sean Modster made several plays with the reserve units Thursday and was even singled out with praise from slot cornerback Tavon Young.

12. Asked about McCoy, John Harbaugh endorsed his defensive line before challenging critics to “wring their hands” and write how bad his team is. It’s fair to envision the Ravens taking a step back after such roster turnover, but I’ve seen few credible opinions suggesting they’ll be “bad.” Coaches love motivation.

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