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Twelve Ravens thoughts at end of 2020 training camp

Posted on 04 September 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens making moves to shape their initial 53-man roster by 4 p.m. on Saturday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. It’s a bittersweet weekend as lifelong NFL dreams are fulfilled while others see their football journeys end abruptly. Once an undrafted rookie himself in 2017, Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard empathized with the rookie free agents in these “incredibly difficult” pandemic circumstances limiting their opportunities to really impress.

2. When the most discussed roster decisions are the third-string quarterback and a No. 3 tight end, it’s safe to say the championship-hopeful Ravens are loaded. The 16-man practice squad was introduced due to the pandemic, but Eric DeCosta will now be able to retain additional intriguing talents.

3. Lamar Jackson says he’s 100 percent from his recent groin injury and is ready for the season, adding that he’s “really tired of going against our guys.” Cleveland has seen Jackson before, of course, but facing him without having even a tuneup preseason game this summer? To quote Lucius Fox:

4. On the flip side, John Harbaugh acknowledges “a guessing game” trying to anticipate what the Browns will do under new head coach Kevin Stefanski. The preseason is bland from a play-calling standpoint, but you at least get a sense of system structure and how personnel might be used.

5. Jimmy Smith is embracing his new role as a Swiss army knife who could play inside or outside at cornerback or safety, adding that his new responsibilities require “not really that much of a learning curve.” His return after hitting a pandemic-stunted open market was welcomed.

6. The reporter’s question never mentioned Earl Thomas by name, but Smith offered this when asked what jettisoning a troubled player said about the team’s culture: “If you’re not part of us, we don’t really need you.” That pretty clearly shows where Thomas stood with his former teammates at the end.

7. Justice Hill showing up as absent for Friday’s practice after missing a week of practice to end August is a potentially concerning development. Given how crowded the backfield is with J.K. Dobbins’ arrival, I’m assuming training camp couldn’t have been more frustrating for Hill.

8. Whether it’s D.J. Fluker or ascending rookie Tyre Phillips, the winner of the competition will become the first Raven not named Marshal Yanda to start an opener at right guard since Chris Chester in 2010 — when Yanda played right tackle. Phillips was only 10 when Yanda was drafted in 2007.

9. Friday brought an interesting blast from the past as the Ravens worked out 2014 third-round pick Crockett Gillmore. He last played in 2017 and added a bunch of weight that offseason to convert from tight end to the offensive line, but injuries derailed his career. He’s still only 28.

10. Asked Thursday if he would beat speedy rookie receiver Devin Duvernay in a race, Marquise Brown simply replied, “I don’t race for free.” That’s a young man who understands his worth.

11. Justin Tucker tried to downplay the lack of organic crowd noise for games, but he admitted it could be “uncomfortable in a sense” attempting a game-winning field goal in a usually raucous road environment like Heinz Field. For reference, the Ravens play at Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night.

12. Given the reduced capacities at which a handful of teams are hosting fans, we should put to rest silly complaints about any competitive disadvantage. Several thousands fans spaced out in a massive stadium seem unlikely to eclipse the pre-recorded crowd noise set at 70 decibels for empty venues.

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Predicting the initial 53-man roster for the 2020 Ravens

Posted on 03 September 2020 by Luke Jones

Only two weeks of open training camp practices and the absence of preseason games make the exercise of predicting the Ravens’ initial 53-man roster more challenging than ever despite so much continuity from last season.

With no shortage of unknowns that coaches and team officials aren’t exactly eager to discuss and the COVID-19 pandemic looming over the 2020 season, Saturday’s 4 p.m. cut-down deadline could bring a surprise move or two as well as an altered roster-building strategy with virus testing results threatening to disrupt the season at any point. The practice squad has expanded to 16 players with six spots open to veterans of all experience levels, meaning teams could be more strategic than ever trying to keep familiar players in the fold. On the flip side, organizations may be more reluctant to claim unproven players off waivers without as much as a single 2020 preseason snap to evaluate.

“Being on the practice squad this year, in my mind, is like making the team,” head coach John Harbaugh said earlier this week. “I think most teams are going to really want to hold on to their guys for their practice squad because they know the system. They’re kind of schooled up now on the offense and defense. You have to assume that there’s a possibility that those guys will be playing any given week.”

It’s also worth noting that teams may protect four players from their practice squad for a portion of every game week and are permitted to promote up to two players from the practice squad the day before a game to essentially create a temporary 55-man roster. Beginning this year, teams may have up to 48 players active for games — the previous limit was 46 — as long as at least eight are offensive linemen.

These dynamics could lead to Eric DeCosta and other general managers retaining more draft picks and veteran role players with higher profiles around the league and cutting more undrafted rookies — including even the ones they like most — in hopes of passing them through waivers and re-signing them to the practice squad. Such a strategy would be notable with the Ravens having kept at least one rookie free agent on their Week 1 roster for 16 consecutive years.

Below is my final projection of the initial 53-man roster ahead of the 2020 regular season:

IN: Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III, Tyler Huntley
OUT: Trace McSorley
Skinny: Going solely off the eyeball test from practices open to reporters, Huntley has outplayed McSorley and deserves the No. 3 job. However, the Ravens didn’t want to expose McSorley as a sixth-round rookie to waivers last summer and presumably want to keep both in the organization. Is another quarterback-light team more likely to claim McSorley — who flashed in preseason games last year — or an undrafted free agent without a single snap of preseason tape?  There’s also the question of their respective understandings of Greg Roman’s offense with McSorley having the extra year under his belt. Earlier this week, Harbaugh noted the four quarterbacks are “all in different places right now in their development.” With that in mind, my prediction could change here by Saturday afternoon.

IN: Mark Ingram, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill
OUT: Kenjon Barner, Ty’Son Williams
Skinny: Missing a portion of summer workouts with an undisclosed injury, Hill is currently a distant fourth in the pecking order, which is a precarious place to be in the event of injuries and roster needs at other positions. However, the 2019 fourth-round pick could be in the kick return mix and is valuable depth for a team that runs the ball more than anyone. In the same way Dobbins was drafted in the second round with an eye toward the future, Hill may have a more prominent role in 2021 and beyond, but he’ll need to be a special-teams contributor to be active on game days. Signed only last week, Williams flashed in last weekend’s scrimmage and could land on the practice squad.

IN: Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, Willie Snead, Devin Duvernay, James Proche, Chris Moore
OUT: Jaleel Scott, Jaylon Moore
Skinny: Even after missing all of open training camp with a broken finger, Chris Moore is one of Baltimore’s best special-teams players and still figures to have a roster spot for the regular season. Scott, a 2018 fourth-round pick, just hasn’t shown enough growth in his third summer to make the 53-man roster, but Jaylon Moore, a rookie free agent from Tennessee-Martin, could be a solid developmental addition to the practice squad after making some tough catches in practices.

IN: Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Patrick Ricard
OUT: Jerell Adams, Eli Wolf, Charles Scarff
Skinny: Ricard is a Pro Bowl fullback and not a permanent answer behind Andrews and Boyle, but the No. 3 tight end competition never really materialized this summer. Adams has the most experience of the three projected to be on the outside looking in and could be re-signed at any point, but there’s little incentive keeping an underwhelming third option if you can retain another player at a different position for the time being while exploring outside alternatives. Wolf showed some skill in the little bit of time he was on the practice field, but availability has been an issue for the undrafted rookie, making the practice squad a logical place for him.

IN: Ronnie Stanley, Orlando Brown Jr., Bradley Bozeman, Matt Skura, Patrick Mekari, D.J. Fluker, Tyre Phillips, Ben Bredeson, Ben Powers
OUT: Will Holden, Parker Ehinger, Trystan Colon-Castillo
Skinny: Skura’s health could determine whether the Ravens keep him on the roster or place him on injured reserve with a designation to return requiring only a three-game absence this year. Powers, a 2019 fourth-round pick from Oklahoma, has been a popular choice to be cut after an underwhelming summer, but the Ravens prefer not to give up on draft picks too quickly and he’s much more likely to be snatched up by another team than the three linemen left out here. Phillips, a third-round rookie from Mississippi State, has built late momentum to start at right guard, which could leave the veteran Fluker as a versatile inside-outside backup. Ideally, you’d like to have a swing tackle to back up both Stanley and Brown, but neither Holden nor Ehinger showed enough to devote a roster spot there as the Ravens will instead lean on the versatility of their interior linemen.

IN: Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe, Justin Madubuike, Justin Ellis, Broderick Washington
OUT: Aaron Crawford
Skinny: The week-to-week knee injury to Madubuike — another conceivable IR return candidate — eliminates any perceived doubt about Ellis, who has had a good summer and is the primary backup to Williams at nose tackle. The additions of Campbell and Wolfe dramatically upgraded the starting defensive line, but there isn’t a ton of depth here with the rookie fifth-round pick Washington having a quiet camp. The good news is that the Ravens spend very little time in their traditional 3-4 base defense, so there isn’t the need for as many traditional defensive linemen active for games.

IN: Patrick Queen, Malik Harrison, L.J. Fort, Chris Board
OUT: Otaro Alaka, Kristian Welch
Skinny: No one in this group improved his roster standing as much as Board, who went from the roster bubble to potentially being in the defensive mix in sub packages. Alaka still shows potential, but trying to keep five inside linebackers is difficult when acknowledging how much dime package defensive coordinator Wink Martindale likes to play. Both Alaka and Welch, an undrafted rookie from Iowa who’s had a solid camp, figure to be good candidates for the practice squad, giving the Ravens additional developmental depth at a position that’s undergone great change since last year.

IN: Matthew Judon, Jaylon Ferguson, Pernell McPhee, Jihad Ward, Tyus Bowser
OUT: Aaron Adeoye, Chauncey Rivers, Marcus Willoughby
Skinny: Despite the never-ending discussion about the Baltimore pass rush, there’s little to say here from a roster standpoint with the top five seemingly set. McPhee and Ward both have the ability to move inside in certain sub packages, which should quell some of the short-term depth concerns on the defensive line. Keeping an edge rusher or two on the practice squad is a good bet with Judon, McPhee, Ward, and Bowser all scheduled to become free agents after this season.

IN: Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Tavon Young, Jimmy Smith, Anthony Averett
OUT: Terrell Bonds, Khalil Dorsey, Josh Nurse
Skinny: The three young corners may not have seriously challenged an improved Averett for the No. 5 spot, but their quality of play was impressive compared to past summers when the Ravens would struggle to identify a couple passable depth options out of a group of veteran retreads and camp bodies. Some combination of Bonds, Dorsey, and Nurse should be on the practice squad.

IN: Chuck Clark, DeShon Elliott, Anthony Levine, Jordan Richards, Nigel Warrior
OUT: Geno Stone
Skinny: The Earl Thomas saga allows the Ravens to keep Richards, a veteran special-teams player who won’t offer much on defense. The interesting decision could come down to retaining Stone or Warrior. Stone, a seventh-round rookie from Iowa, had a fairly quiet camp while Warrior, a rookie free agent from Tennessee, has turned some heads with his nose for the football. That said, both young safeties would probably pass through waivers and make it to the practice squad, so there’s no guarantee that either makes the roster, especially with Smith looking good cross-training as a safety this summer.

IN: Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, Morgan Cox
OUT: Johnny Townsend, Nick Moore
Skinny: As usual, there’s nothing to see here with the continuity provided by this trio being more valuable than ever in such an unusual 2020 campaign.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Day 6 of open training camp

Posted on 23 August 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens leaving Owings Mills to conduct the first of three scheduled summer practices at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Lamar Jackson missed a second straight practice with what was described as “soft-tissue thing” by John Harbaugh, who wouldn’t expand when asked if it was related to the tired throwing arm mentioned by David Culley Saturday. A few hours later, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Jackson would return Monday. Alrighty then.

2. Without Jackson on the field, the defense easily won the day and didn’t show any hangover from the news of Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas being released, playing with energy and even chirping with offensive players on the opposite sideline during 11-on-11 work. I’m sure that was only coincidence.

3. DeShon Elliott looked comfortable and communicated frequently in his new spot as a starting safety next to Chuck Clark. Showing no shortage of athleticism and swagger, Elliott forced an incompletion with good coverage on Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews in an 11-on-11 drill.

4. Marcus Peters has also missed back-to-back practices with a “soft-tissue” injury, but the Pro Bowl cornerback observed on the field and even assisted with defensive back drills. He didn’t look like someone who would be out for long.

5. It remains to be seen how J.K. Dobbins will factor into the carry distribution, but the rookie running back made a terrific jump-ball catch over rookie linebacker Kristian Welch in a 1-on-1 passing drill. He definitely impressed over the first week of open practice.

6. Dobbins also broke off a 20-plus-yard run in a period of live tackling that included rookies and backup players at the end of the practice. Rookie quarterback Tyler Huntley threw a touchdown pass to tight end Jerell Adams to cap off the brief scrimmage.

7. Anthony Averett continued his strong start to camp by breaking up a pass intended for Marquise Brown in a 7-on-7 rep and batting away a Trace McSorley throw intended for Jaleel Scott in an 11-on-11 period. With Jimmy Smith playing a little more safety these days, Averett’s development is important.

8. One of the more interesting drills from Sunday’s practice was watching the defensive backs practice blitzing off the edges, a reflection of how aggressive and unpredictable Wink Martindale loves to be with his pressure packages.

9. Nigel Warrior came away with the first interception in a 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 drill out of six open practices, picking off McSorley on a pass intended for Brown. Defensive players responded with an pronounced celebration around the undrafted rookie safety.

10. A sleeper I’m watching is outside linebacker Aaron Adeoye, who spent last year on the practice squad. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Southeast Missouri State product batted down a pass and later blew past Parker Ehinger to pressure McSorley into falling in the pocket. He’s an impressive athlete.

11. I’m used to hearing artificial crowd noise covering baseball from the press box at an empty Camden Yards, but the Ravens using it at the stadium still felt weird. Of course, that sort of thing is nothing out of the ordinary for the Atlanta Falcons.

12. Calais Campbell is no stranger to an NFL stadium entering his 13th season, but I caught the five-time Pro Bowl defensive end doing a little version of the Ray Lewis dance as he walked out of the tunnel for the first time as a Raven. That was a fun scene.

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Replacing Thomas not quite as simple as Ravens’ statement letting him go

Posted on 23 August 2020 by Luke Jones

Nine simple words covered everything John Harbaugh was going to say explaining why the Ravens terminated the contract of seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas on Sunday.

Personal conduct that has adversely affected the Baltimore Ravens.

With a grievance surely to come over the $10 million salary that was set to be guaranteed before Thomas’ Friday fight with fellow starting safety Chuck Clark and other reported issues leading to a four-year, $55 million contract crumbling in only 18 months, Harbaugh wasn’t about to say anything that would compromise the organization’s case. He instead deferred to the one-sentence statement announcing the roster move shortly before the Ravens practiced at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

“I’m good. We’re good,” said Harbaugh even when asked about the contributions made by Thomas in his lone season in Baltimore. “Moving forward. Eyes all ahead. Eyes ahead.”

So, how do the Ravens go about replacing Thomas three weeks before kicking off a new season against Cleveland?

It’s not quite as simple as those nine words.

To be clear, the 31-year-old’s departure hardly ruins the chances of one of the consensus Super Bowl favorites entering 2020, especially considering the way he was testing a winning team culture. Thomas was still a good player for whom opponents accounted despite some early hiccups in his lone year with the Ravens, but he hardly resembled Ed Reed in his prime or a younger Thomas anchoring the famed “Legion of Boom” secondary that won a Super Bowl in Seattle. One could fairly ask whether Thomas truly played like a $14 million per year safety, further making his contract the first substantial flop in the otherwise immaculate start to Eric DeCosta’s run as general manager.

For now, the Ravens appear ready to give the starting spot to DeShon Elliott, a third-year safety popular with many defensive teammates who had run out of patience with the mercurial Thomas. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Elliott looks the part from an athleticism standpoint and has flashed potential, but injuries in his first two seasons — a broken forearm in 2018 and a serious knee injury last year — have limited him to just 40 defensive snaps and six games in his career, making it difficult to truly know what to expect.

“He’s been practicing really well,” Harbaugh said. “He’s worked hard all through the offseason, and it’s his time. So, here we go.”

The Ravens will hope Elliott can follow in the footsteps of another former sixth-round pick in Clark, who proved to be an upgrade after Tony Jefferson suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 last year. Not only did Clark play at a legitimate starter level — Thomas ironically quipped last year that he wondered why Baltimore had even signed him after seeing what Clark could do — but he took over the play-calling duties in the defensive huddle, something with which the Baltimore defense struggled early last season.

The difference is Clark had shown the availability — only one missed game in his career — and the potential to play at a high level with two successful starts for the injured Jefferson in 2018 and more than 300 defensive snaps over his first two seasons. Nicknamed the “Joker” at the University of Texas, Elliott is much more of a wild card now.

It’s certainly not ideal for a team with all eyes on a Super Bowl run this coming season.

But in the same way coordinator Wink Martindale has moved away from rigid position defense, the Ravens won’t view replacing Thomas as a 1-for-1 trade-off, instead continuing to use deception and versatility to their advantage.

With slot cornerback Tavon Young back on the field after missing 2019 with a neck injury, the Ravens have been cross-training veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith at the safety position as they did with Brandon Carr in previous summers. Smith has looked comfortable covering tight ends and dropping into deeper coverage after playing almost exclusively as an outside cornerback throughout his career. His versatility could keep opponents guessing as to whether the Ravens are using a traditional dime package or going with more of a four-corner look in certain situations.

Anthony Levine was already in the mix in certain sub packages while veteran Jordan Richards and rookies Geno Stone and Nigel Warrior will also try to make the 53-man roster and factor into a re-calibrated back-end equation.

“I like the guys we have. The young guys are practicing. We’ll see how they do,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll just do what we always do; we’ll put the best players we have out there. We’ll prepare them and get ready to go play. If other players turn up, then we’ll get those guys ready to go play.

“It’s nothing different. This is how it goes whether it’s a personnel change or an injury or anything that might come up.”

Viewing Thomas’ departure like an injury is the best strategy from an on-field standpoint, especially when he was apparently hurting the Ravens so much in other ways. Baltimore still has more than enough talent in the secondary to be one of the league’s best defenses, but replacing Thomas the player won’t be as easy as replacing the person.

A Super Bowl contender with very few questions entering training camp created a substantial one with Sunday’s simple statement.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on uncertain Earl Thomas situation

Posted on 22 August 2020 by Luke Jones

With the status of Ravens safety Earl Thomas uncertain after Friday’s altercation and his Saturday absence being an “organizational decision,” I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Some quickly dismissed this as a typical summer fight, but it’s the first time in the 12 training camps I’ve covered in which two players on the same side of the ball got into such an altercation in plain sight of media. The decision to send Thomas home reflects that.

2. Despite entering just his fourth season, Chuck Clark is one of the most respected players in the locker room and is known for a calm demeanor. I’d have a hard time believing his frustration was solely about Thomas’ busted coverage on the play immediately preceding the fight.

3. It’s understandable wanting to defend himself, but Thomas posting a since-deleted practice clip on Instagram wasn’t the way to go about it, especially when it showed Clark throwing his helmet without any acknowledgement of the former then allegedly taking a swing at him.

4. Not everyone on even the best teams will love each other, but the mercurial Thomas having high-profile run-ins with Clark and Brandon Williams last September is difficult to dismiss. Not having trust with prominent teammates and coaches is tough to rehabilitate.

5. Thomas was still good in his first year in Baltimore, but he admitted there being a learning curve grasping Wink Martindale’s defense and old habits to freelance like he did in Seattle are apparently tough to break. Discipline is a must for a system built on deception and positional flexibility.

6. Even if Thomas isn’t the dominant safety he once was, the Ravens’ current top reserve is a former sixth-round pick who’s played 40 defensive snaps in six career games. DeShon Elliott shows promise if he can stay healthy, but a committed Thomas is superior to other options on the roster.

7. Releasing him would result in $15 million in dead money on this year’s salary cap and $10 million next year, but the Ravens owe him $10 million in guaranteed cash this year. That’s why a trade — even for something inconsequential — makes more sense if this partnership isn’t salvageable.

8. Even with The Athletic reporting missed meetings and unexcused absences, going down the “conduct detrimental” path can be a slippery slope sure to be challenged with players and agents around the league paying close attention. You sometimes just have to take a financial hit to remedy a problem.

9. Whatever the outcome, you’d assume the Ravens want to have this resolved quickly with Week 1 only three weeks away. There are already enough challenges trying to navigate their way through a pandemic and abbreviated summer without this saga hanging over the team.

10. Thomas has had a Hall of Fame career making the Pro Bowl in seven of his eight healthy seasons — he finished two other years on injured reserve — but ugly exits from what many consider to be two of the NFL’s model organizations wouldn’t look great for his legacy.

11. This example is why I bristle at arguments that teams with good cultures can “control” a problematic figure. That doesn’t mean you should always shy away from anyone questionable, but these are grown men who make their own choices. Strong culture is recognizing good fits more than “babysitting” bad ones.

12. You’d still like to see cooler heads prevail if possible. Team chemistry cannot be ignored and the Ravens remain a serious Super Bowl contender without him, but they’re better with Thomas on the field. Conversely, he’s not going to find a better situation to win another Super Bowl.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) looks to pass, during the first half at an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

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Ravens give Lamar Jackson Saturday practice off to rest throwing arm

Posted on 22 August 2020 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — On a day when all eyes were on the absence of Ravens safety Earl Thomas due to an “organizational decision,” the reigning NFL MVP was also missing from the practice field.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson was not taking part in Saturday morning’s workout in an effort to rest a throwing arm that’s been very impressive in the opening week of full-team practice. For what it’s worth, Jackson was a late arrival to the field on Friday and was shaky with his passing early in the workout, but giving him Saturday off was always part of the plan, according to the Ravens.

“During training camp, what he’s getting right now is a day that he normally gets,” assistant head coach and pass coordinator David Culley said. “He’s been throwing the ball beautifully all training camp, and the arm gets a little tired every now and then. This is just part of the rest that he gets as he has gotten in previous training camps.”

Jackson led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes last season on his way to becoming the second-youngest player in league history to win the MVP award. That combined with his 1,206 rushing yards — most ever by a quarterback in a single season — and 6.9 yards per carry average easily made Jackson the most dynamic talent in the league.

So far in camp, the 23-year-old has shown few signs of rust with his throwing mechanics — a hot topic at this point last year — despite the absence of a normal offseason program due to the pandemic. Jackson now appears poised to build upon his 3,127-yard passing season in 2019, his first full year as the Baltimore starter.

“In terms of fundamentals, [we] literally start with the stance every year,” quarterbacks coach James Urban said. “And that way, it’s like riding a bike. Third year with him, what I’ve noticed is he’s much further along and was much faster to get up to speed in terms of the body, mechanically and throwing and accuracy and those things. He looks like he’s going into his third year of playing.”

Jackson and Thomas weren’t the only players absent from Saturday’s practice as cornerback Marcus Peters, tight end Eli Wolf, wide receiver Chris Moore (finger), running back Kenjon Barner (leg), and wide receiver Antoine Wesley (shoulder) were also missing. The Ravens placed Wesley on injured reserve Saturday afternoon as he’ll undergo shoulder surgery, according to NFL Network.

After previously being limited to individual work, center Matt Skura saw his first full-team reps during Saturday’s practice, a major step for someone less than nine months removed from his major knee injury. The Ravens would likely turn to second-year center Patrick Mekari if Skura isn’t ready to go for the 2020 season opener in three weeks.

“It’s nice to see him back from that injury,” offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris said. “He came out there, and we’ve got him in some drills — start him off in fundamentals and technique. From there, we start putting him in plays like today. He practiced really well for us today. He’s coming on.”

The Ravens will practice at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon with head coach John Harbaugh expected to address the Thomas situation.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Day 4 of open training camp

Posted on 21 August 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens wrapping up their fourth day of full-team practice on Friday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Tempers boiled over toward the end of practice when Earl Thomas and Chuck Clark needed to be separated in a confrontation that resulted in Clark leaving the field. John Harbaugh said he wasn’t sure what prompted the conflict, but he was unhappy about it cutting into practice time.

2. That skirmish followed one between Justin Ellis and Patrick Mekari with the defensive tackle taking exception to how Mekari was grabbing him in what was a shells-and-shorts practice. You expect guys on opposite sides of the ball to mix it up occasionally, but your starting safeties? Not so much.

3. After a superb first three practices, Lamar Jackson was a little out of sync early, but the play of the day was his gorgeous deep touchdown to Marquise Brown as the quarterback escaped pressure and threw on the run. Brown got behind Marcus Peters and the rest of the secondary.

4. I don’t recall many training camps where the defense hasn’t intercepted a pass in an 11-on-11 or 7-on-7 drill through the first four open practices, but Friday brought close calls with Geno Stone almost picking off a throw intended for Mark Andrews and Terrell Bonds nearly intercepting Robert Griffin III.

5. Baltimore continues to bring Matt Skura along slowly as he was again limited to individual work, which feels a bit more notable after the off-day. With the opener a little over three weeks away, you’d assume his participation level must increase soon to be ready to start Week 1.

6. Jaylon Ferguson was back at practice Friday and is the presumed favorite to start at rush linebacker opposite Matthew Judon. However, he’ll face stiff competition from Pernell McPhee, Jihad Ward, and Tyus Bowser, who have all flashed this week and bring different skills to the rotation.

7. The speed of Patrick Queen is a big reason why he was a first-round pick, but how does it measure against Jackson in practice? Queen said he could “probably” hold his own before conceding, “It’s exciting to be in the position that I ain’t gotta play against him!” Rookie honesty.

8. Anthony Averett had a good practice with Devin Duvernay taking the brunt of it. In a 1-on-1 rep, Averett all but ran the rookie’s end-zone corner route for him to force an incompletion. The third-year cornerback later broke up a pass intended for Duvernay in an 11-on-11 period.

9. Friday brought no additional clarity on where Dez Bryant stands after his tryout, but you’d think the Ravens would have wanted to get him on the practice field as soon as possible to start building chemistry with Jackson if he was in their plans. Things can always change, of course.

10. Miles Boykin took a question about Bryant’s tryout in stride by saying it “has nothing to do with me,” but he’s held his own against Marlon Humphrey and Peters this week. As Boykin quipped, going up against Pro Bowl corners in practice should make the games easier.

11. Kenjon Barner left the field early in practice with what appeared to be a left knee injury after a collision during a punt return drill. The veteran is on the roster bubble, but he’s a rare experienced return specialist candidate.

12. You’re used to seeing Harbaugh bring the team together for a huddle to offer a few remarks and conclude practice, but players and coaches keep a little more distance and just raise their hands in the air for the usual “Ravens!” break. That’s football in the midst of a pandemic.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Day 2 of full-team practice

Posted on 18 August 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens conducting their second day of full-team practice on Tuesday morning, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Lamar Jackson made several beautiful sideline throws, including a toe-tap grab from Willie Snead during an 11-on-11 period. The third-year quarterback chalks it up to simple “repetition,” but his offseason focus on out-breaking routes outside the numbers seems evident early on.

2. Much of the offseason talk about Jackson centered around playoff performance and his ability — as well as this offense’s — to play from behind. Those are fair questions, but Marlon Humphrey said it best about what’s next: “To put a ceiling on him, I don’t think there is one.”

3. A day after news of Dez Bryant coming to town to work out for Baltimore, Miles Boykin turned in a strong practice headlined by a high-point catch with Humphrey in tight coverage along the sideline. Coincidence or not, it was good to see from a 6-foot-4, 220-pound target with potential.

4. Jimmy Smith is in good shape and has been smooth in coverage against both wide receivers and tight ends. I still expect him to primarily line up at corner when on the field, but cross-training at safety as Brandon Carr did in previous years makes perfect sense.

5. Earl Thomas looks leaner than he did last year and is “ready to roll” in John Harbaugh’s words. With the 31-year-old acknowledging a learning curve transitioning to his new defense last season, I’m interested to see how Thomas fares in the second year of his $55 million deal.

6. While rookie third-round pick Tyre Phillips has been mentioned as the potential swing tackle, keep an eye on the 6-foot-7, 312-pound Will Holden, who is 26 and with his seventh organization since being selected by Arizona in the fifth round of the 2017 draft. Someone needs to fill that job.

7. You’d expect some rust from Tavon Young after the slot corner missed all of 2019 with a neck injury, but he impressively broke up a pass intended for Snead on a short double move in a 1-on-1 drill. That’s hardly a setting conducive to seeing tight coverage from the defender.

8. Evaluating kick and punt returners without the benefit of preseason games will be unsettling, but rookie sixth-round pick James Proche looks natural catching punts so far. Still, it will be difficult not to hold your breath considering the volatility at the Ravens’ returner spots for years.

9. Chris Moore being sidelined with a broken finger opens the door for someone like Jaleel Scott to stand out as a gunner on the punt team, something the third-year receiver did during a Tuesday drill. Scott’s roster hopes depend on becoming a legitimate special-teams contributor.

10. Tyler Huntley doesn’t have the most consistent mechanics, but the rookie has made some good throws over the first two days of open practice, including a perfect deep ball to Marquise Brown. It’s a shame he didn’t get a normal spring to work with quarterbacks coach James Urban.

11. Contact and 11-on-11 drills attract more attention for obvious reasons, but the Ravens spent quite a bit of time early in Tuesday’s session working on alignment and technique. The rookies and young players need as much of that work as possible after missing so much on-field time.

12. Brandon Williams — who was back at practice after missing Monday — and the rest of the defensive line are having fun with veteran free-agent arrivals Derek Wolfe and Calais Campbell. Wolfe received wolf howls from his teammates while Campbell has heard both playful teasing and praise.

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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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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) looks to pass, during the first half at an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

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Ravens regular-season moment No. 10: “Not bad for a running back”

Posted on 09 June 2020 by Luke Jones

Check out the No. 11 regular-season moment in Ravens history HERE.

No one knew exactly what to expect from Lamar Jackson entering his first full season as starting quarterback.

The 2018 first-round pick had replaced longtime starter and former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco midway through his rookie season and helped rally the Ravens to their first postseason appearance in four years. Jackson’s athleticism was off the charts, but questions persisted about his passing despite some encouraging flashes playing in an offense that hadn’t been built around his special talents. His rookie campaign ended with a poor performance in a playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers that garnered some boos from his home crowd, but Jackson vowed to teammates he’d improve.

The harshest claims that Jackson was a running back masquerading as a signal-caller were absurd, but that’s not to say many saw the 22-year-old as an MVP candidate in his second season either. At least one Vegas oddsmaker gave unproven quarterbacks such as Baker Mayfield, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Mitch Trubisky better MVP odds entering 2019. Improvement in Jackson appeared evident from the early days of training camp, but we wouldn’t have to wait long to see just how much better he was.

The Ravens kicked off the season in Miami — just 30 miles from where Jackson grew up in Pompano Beach — and wasted little time jumping all over the hapless Dolphins with a run-heavy opening drive for a touchdown and an Earl Thomas interception that gave the ball back to Baltimore near midfield. From there, Jackson began an aerial assault that dwarfed anything he’d done in his rookie season and immediately started shifting perceptions about his passing ability and ceiling as an NFL quarterback.

On the first play of the Ravens’ second drive, the Miami defense bit on a run fake as Jackson connected with rookie Marquise Brown over the middle for a 47-yard touchdown. Just the fourth wide receiver selected in the first round in franchise history and also a South Florida native, Brown immediately showed off his game-changing speed despite an abbreviated summer in which he was still recovering from January foot surgery.

The pair hooked up again in even more impressive fashion on the next drive. Forgoing an opportunity to take off as left tackle Ronnie Stanley signaled for him to run for an easy first down to move the chains, Jackson uncorked a near-50-yard bomb that hit Brown in stride for an 83-yard touchdown, the fifth-longest pass play in Ravens regular-season history.

The young quarterback would throw three more touchdowns before being relieved by backup Robert Griffin III with the Ravens leading 52-10 to begin the final period. In just three quarters, Jackson had completed 17 of 20 passes for a team-record-tying five touchdowns, 324 yards, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating, the first in franchise history. The game was not only the best of his young career, but Jackson had put forth the best statistical performance ever by a Ravens quarterback.

It was all “not bad for a running back” as Jackson quipped after a game in which he ran only three times for six yards, one of those attempts being a kneel to end the first half.

Doubters still noted the Dolphins being one of the NFL’s worst teams, but Jackson proved the performance was far from a fluke as he’d throw five touchdown passes in a contest twice more, post another perfect single-game passer rating, and lead the league with 36 touchdown passes to lead a record-setting offense and the best regular-season team in Ravens history at 14-2. He would become just the second unanimous AP NFL MVP, the second youngest behind only Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown to win the award, and the first Raven to earn the honor.

And, oh yeah, his 1,206 rushing yards broke the NFL single-year record for a quarterback, making his tiny Week 1 running output an amusing footnote in a historic season.

Of course, there would be other memorable moments from Jackson that season such as his fourth-down touchdown run in Seattle, his incredible spin and 47-yard touchdown scamper in Cincinnati, and his Monday Night Football performance in Los Angeles, but what he did in that season opener made his harshest critics look foolish and prompted so many to fully realize just how special he could be.

“He’s definitely better. He’s worked really hard,” head coach John Harbaugh said after the 59-10 demolition. “I think he’s only going to continue to improve because he wants to work at it. He was a rookie last year. He didn’t practice much throughout the course of the year. So, he’s had a chance to be with the No. 1 offense on a daily basis, and he did a great job with it.

“Again, this is just a start. This is just one game.”

Just a start and just one game indeed.

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