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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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Twelve Ravens thoughts as virtual spring workouts continue

Posted on 27 May 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens and the NFL now in the early stages of the virtual offseason workout program, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. After Gov. Larry Hogan gave permission, the organization entered “Phase I” for the opening of the Owings Mills facility, which permits returnees from the equipment crew, football video group, and the personnel department. Coaches and players still aren’t allowed in the building, but it’s a step in the right direction.

2. Those restrictions won’t prevent Baltimore players from working out together in South Florida as Lamar Jackson will hold informal sessions next week. The reigning MVP’s recent workouts with Marquise Brown highlighted on social media must have served as motivation for other teammates.

3. It’s been far from an ideal spring for players to keep in shape and prepare for the season, but the creativity has been fun to watch from afar such as the below example from Marlon Humphrey. I’ll be curious to see what technological and workout innovations stick beyond the pandemic.

4. Miles Boykin expressing confidence that he’ll “be able to play faster” in his second year reflects the steep challenge awaiting current rookies without a normal spring. Studying the playbook and virtual classroom work simply can’t replicate the challenging on-field application of concepts.

5. Ed Reed was the latest legend to speak with players virtually with Boykin describing his message as, “Take care of business — whatever it is.” The Hall of Famer discussed various topics, from finances and watching film to recovery and even locker room cleanliness. Reed remains one of a kind.

6. As Bill Belichick mentioned during the NFL 100 all-time team unveiling, Reed may have been the greatest punt blocker of all time, a cue rookies wanting to make a first-year impact should take. He was an absolute force on special teams before injuries eventually took him away from that realm.

7. Deep passing accuracy is still mentioned as a relative weakness for Jackson, but separate studies put him 16th (Pro Football Focus) and 12th (Football Outsiders) last season. With Brown and Boykin entering their second season, Jackson taking another step in the vertical game seems quite plausible.

8. Jamal Adams is a heck of a talent and drew trade interest from Baltimore last fall, but surrendering early draft picks and committing another market-setting contract to the secondary on top of the lucrative in-house extensions already on the horizon would make me take serious pause. You can’t pay everybody.

9. Speaking of safeties, this PFF piece on the three-safety defense in college is something to remember with the Ravens’ reputation for being ahead of the curve with innovations. Wink Martindale frequently used three safeties down the stretch last year, but not with the same principles as these college teams.

10. John Harbaugh was tied for 11th with 25-1 opening odds to win 2020 AP Coach of the Year, according to BetOnline. Dramatic improvement from the previous year usually prompts strong support for this award, so tangibly improving on a 14-2 regular season for him to repeat feels very unlikely.

11. As I get older, I more and more disagree with criticism for aging players who continue well past their prime. If they’re still competent enough in at least one team’s eyes, why walk away to appease anyone who isn’t their family? That goes for Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, or anyone.

12. There aren’t many stadiums where the Ravens haven’t won a game as they prepare for their 25th season in Baltimore, but they’ll have a chance to secure their first victories at Philadelphia and Indianapolis this fall. Of course, a road game could be quite different from what we’re used to.

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Ranking paths to prominent first-year roles for Ravens draft picks

Posted on 25 May 2020 by Luke Jones

With the draft having taken place a month ago, we normally begin gaining a better feel for where Ravens rookies stand when organized team activities begin and are open to local media.

Of course, full-team workouts are expected to take place until training camp because of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving more guesswork and a greater need to temper expectations for draft picks and rookie free agents alike. With those realities understood, I’ve ranked the path of Baltimore’s 10 draft picks to prominent playing time from most likely to least likely:

1. ILB Patrick Queen (first round)
Skinny: The absence of a normal offseason program will hurt even first-round picks around the NFL this year, but the shortage of veteran options at the inside linebacker position should give the LSU standout a direct path to a starting job. The Ravens love Queen’s athleticism, vision, and ability to play in coverage, so something will have likely gone wrong if he’s not starting Week 1.

2. ILB Malik Harrison (third round)
Skinny: For the same reasons spelled out for Queen, Harrison could have an easier road to the field than any other Day 2 pick despite him being the fifth player selected by the Ravens in the draft. Questions about Harrison’s pass coverage could make a platoon with veteran L.J. Fort the most likely outcome, but his physicality playing the run and ability to blitz could lead to substantial playing time.

3. RB J.K. Dobbins (second round)
Skinny: The perceived starter of the future has the talent to push for significant playing time sooner than later, but some have been a bit too quick to dismiss Pro Bowl starter Mark Ingram and top backup Gus Edwards, who both averaged over 5.0 yards per carry last season. There’s a ton of competition for carries in this offense — especially with a record-setting rushing quarterback — so time will tell here.

4. DT Justin Madubuike (third round)
Skinny: The third-round pick is stuck behind Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, and Derek Wolfe, but all three are over age 30, making it likely that Wink Martindale will need to rely on Madubuike more heavily at some point, especially if the pass-rushing ability he showed at Texas A&M translates to the pros. That said, snaps are at a premium for defensive linemen in this multi-look system.

5. WR Devin Duvernay (third round)
Skinny: The organization has raved about Duvernay’s hands and physical running style, but the presence of Willie Snead and Mark Andrews — who plays more as a slot receiver than as a traditional tight end — complicates his path to early playing time. The way San Francisco used Deebo Samuel in its running game last year could offer clues for offensive coordinator Greg Roman using Duvernay.

6. S Geno Stone (seventh round)
Skinny: The seventh-round pick being this high on the list sounds odd, but there could be some earlier-than-expected playing time for the Iowa product if Martindale uses the three-safety dime package as often as he did in the second half of 2019. Of course, Stone would still be competing with DeShon Elliott and Anthony Levine for the No. 3 safety job in that scenario.

7. WR James Proche (sixth round)
Skinny: A sixth-round wide receiver lacking blazing speed or dynamic physical traits doesn’t look like a strong candidate for immediate playing time on offense, but Proche should compete for the punt returner job. There’s also the fact that Eric DeCosta traded a 2021 fifth-round pick to draft the very productive SMU product, which elevates his first-year standing a bit.

8. G Ben Bredeson (fourth round)
Skinny: A four-year starter at a Big Ten program like Michigan shouldn’t be ruled out in a crowded interior offensive line competition, but you rarely see Day 3 offensive linemen start as rookies and an abbreviated offseason only heightens that reality. A technician and competitor like Bredeson should fit well with offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris, but his road to immediate playing time will be tough.

9. OL Tyre Phillips (third round)
Skinny: The 6-foot-5, 345-pound mauler brings upside that made him a late third-round pick, but questions about his pass protection and inexperience at guard won’t help him in the interior battle. With Andre Smith being the only veteran offensive tackle on the roster behind Pro Bowl starters Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr., Phillips may vie for James Hurst’s old role as the swing tackle.

10. DT Broderick Washington (fifth round)
Skinny: The Ravens liked what they saw from their fifth-round pick at the Senior Bowl, but Washington didn’t show enough as a pass rusher at Texas Tech to predict a clear path to rotation snaps as a rookie. At 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, he profiles as more of an option at the 3- and 5-technique spots where the competition is pretty tough.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts with virtual offseason program underway

Posted on 05 May 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens and the NFL now in the early stages of the virtual offseason workout program, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Don Shula was the winningest coach in NFL history and won two Super Bowls, but he’s remembered in Baltimore for 1964 NFL championship game and Super Bowl III losses in which the Colts were heavy favorites. There’s probably a lesson in there not to judge early postseason failures too harshly.

2. In a statement released on Shula, John Harbaugh shared the memory of being able to work with the legendary Miami coach when he served as a mentor coach with the Philadelphia staff for a week in the early 2000s. What an experience that had to be for an aspiring coach.

3. I’d rather watch paint dry than keep tabs on Antonio Brown, but his Photoshopped post of him wearing a Ravens uniform created more buzz. I take Steve Bisciotti at his word on his domestic abuse stance, but the longer Eric DeCosta gives non-answers on Brown, the longer unnecessary speculation persists.

4. The NFL releasing the 2020 schedule will be fun, but this feels premature with the uncertainty of the pandemic. With the draft, we know those players will definitely be playing football at some point. In this case, waiting another month or so would provide a better picture of reality.

5. Am I the only one who wonders if the value of a full 90-man offseason roster outweighs the challenge of trying to keep an even larger group of players and coaches coronavirus-free during an eventual training camp? Of course, we’re still at least 2 1/2 months away from that.

6. Rookie fourth-round guard Ben Bredeson said he sees “a lot of glaring similarities” between the Harbaugh brothers. We’ll see if Bredeson, a four-year starter for the Wolverines, works out better than other recent Michigan draft picks Willie Henry and Chris Wormley.

7. The list of notable seventh-round picks for the Ravens is a short one with DeAngelo Tyson, Ralph Staten, and Michael Campanaro, and Anthony Allen being the best ones. The field vision and pedigree of Iowa safety Geno Stone make him more interesting than the usual seventh-rounder.

8. Both Bredeson and Stone expressed excitement and relief that J.K. Dobbins, a former Big Ten rival, is now on their side after giving both of their schools problems. You don’t have to sell them on what the Ravens are getting with the standout running back.

9. Sixth-round wide receiver James Proche says he’s learning the Ravens playbook by adopting some helpful study habits from his mother, who’s currently in nursing school. That’s just another example of the unique circumstances created by this pandemic.

10. Proche admitted he was tracking how many catches Devin Duvernay made last season. Proche tied for first in the nation with LSU’s Justin Jefferson at 111 while Duvernay was third at 106. I suspect the competition between the two will carry over to training camp.

11. The signing of veteran Jake Ryan became official Tuesday, but the landscape of the inside linebacker position sure changed with the selections of Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison. Ryan still has a chance to stick if he can shine on special teams.

12. The idea of getting to be Lamar Jackson in a virtual reality game sounded like a blast until I began wondering what that might mean for the well-being of my ACLs.

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What to expect from Ravens’ 2020 draft picks

Posted on 25 April 2020 by Luke Jones

The picks are in for the 2020 draft, so what can we expect from the Ravens’ 10 selections?

Time will tell whether the NFL will have anything resembling a regular training camp and a 2020 season starting on time, but below is an early look at how each rookie fits now and in the future:

LB Patrick Queen
Drafted: First round (28th overall) from LSU
2020 projected role: Joining Ray Lewis and C.J. Mosley as the only inside linebackers to be drafted in the first round by the Ravens, Queen should start from Day 1, most likely as the weak-side backer whose coverage ability will keep him on the field for virtually every defensive snap.
Long-term view: Queen’s slight 6-foot, 232-pound frame brings questions, but a big defensive line in front of him should allow the athletic linebacker to effectively show off his speed to make plays. The growth shown over his one full season as a starter at LSU makes it reasonable to believe Queen has only scratched the surface of his potential and could eventually develop into a Pro Bowl linebacker.

RB J.K. Dobbins
Drafted: Second round (55th overall) from Ohio State
2020 projected role: Selected in the same spot as Ray Rice in the 2008 draft, Dobbins enters a crowded backfield behind 2019 Pro Bowl selection Mark Ingram, but his workload eclipsing Gus Edwards’ 133 carries from a year ago seems quite plausible.
Long-term view: The real value of this pick begins in 2021 when Ingram will be entering his 11th season and scheduled to earn $5 million, factors that could shorten Dobbins’ path to the starting role. A 796-touch workload in college shouldn’t prohibit the 212-pound back from thriving for at least a few seasons in a Lamar Jackson-led offense using the pistol looks from which he ran very effectively as a Buckeye.

DT Justin Madubuike
Drafted: Third round (71st overall) from Texas A&M
2020 projected role: The 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive lineman will compete for a rotational role behind a veteran starting group, particularly as a situational pass rusher after collecting 5 1/2 sacks and 11 1/2 tackles for a loss last season.
Long-term view: With Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe, Brandon Williams, and Justin Ellis all age 29 or older, Madubuike could move into a starting role as early as 2021, especially if he more consistently channels the dominance flashed at the collegiate level. The Ravens haven’t had many pass-rushing defensive tackles in recent years, but Madubuike has the tools to be a complete player as a 3-technique.

WR Devin Duvernay
Drafted: Third round (92nd overall) from Texas
2020 projected role: One of the best slot receivers in this year’s draft class, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Duvernay has sure hands and an uncanny ability to gain yards after the catch that could prompt offensive coordinator Greg Roman to work him into the offensive mix sooner than later.
Long-term view: Built like a running back, Duvernay has drawn comparisons to the likes of Golden Tate and Albert Wilson, but how he adapts to press coverage will be key in his development, especially working from the slot. The creativity of this offense suits unconventional players, and veteran slot man Willie Snead only being under contract through 2020 could clear a path to an even bigger role.

LB Malik Harrison
Drafted: Third round (98th overall) from Ohio State
2020 projected role: A downhill tackler at 247 pounds, Harrison will have the chance to compete for an early-down starting job as the “Mike” linebacker next to Queen.
Long-term view: Harrison plays exactly how one used to view the inside linebacker position, but his limitations in pass coverage and the propensity with which the Ravens use sub packages may prevent him from ever becoming a three-down linebacker in the modern game. However, there remains a place for run-stopping options, making him a rock-solid pick at the end of the third round.

G Tyre Phillips
Drafted: Third round (106th overall) from Mississippi State
2020 projected role: Spring workouts being canceled by the pandemic won’t help his immediate development, but the former tackle could still put himself in the mix for the starting right guard spot.
Long-term view: Phillips’ 6-foot-5, 330-pound frame makes him an impressive mauler as a run blocker, but the big question will be his pass blocking as he transitions to the inside. The Ravens like his size and physicality and offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris has the teaching reputation to make you believe Phillips can develop into a starter while possibly remaining a backup option at offensive tackle.

G Ben Bredeson
Drafted: Fourth round (143rd overall) from Michigan
2020 projected role: In the same boat as Phillips this spring, Bredeson was a four-year starter at left guard in the Big Ten and should have the chance to compete for a starting job right off the bat.
Long-term view: An impressive technician as a pass blocker, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound guard isn’t considered as strong a run blocker despite his extensive experience against high-level competition. With the way guys like Matt Skura and Bradley Bozeman have developed under D’Alessandris, however, Bredeson seems like a reasonable bet to become a starter eventually.

DT Broderick Washington Jr.
Drafted: Fifth round (170th overall) from Texas Tech
2020 projected role: A run-stopping 3-technique option and a three-year starter in college, Washington will compete for a spot as a rotational contributor behind the likes of Williams and Ellis.
Long-term view: Washington looks the part at 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds, but his lack of pass-rushing ability will probably limit his odds of becoming much more than a rotational piece. However, the current age along the starting defensive line helps his chances of sticking around as he tries to develop under defensive line coach Joe Cullen.

WR James Proche
Drafted: Sixth round (201st overall) from SMU
2020 projected role: Cracking the wide receiver mix won’t be easy in such a run-heavy offense, so Proche’s ability as a punt returner seems to be his best chance to see action right away.
Long-term view: The 5-foot-11, 201-pound slot man doesn’t stand out from an athletic standpoint, but his excellent hands and ball skills don’t reflect a sixth-round billing in what was a deep draft class of wide receivers. He caught a whopping 204 passes and 27 touchdowns over his final two collegiate seasons, making him an interesting late-round pick for whom the Ravens moved up to draft.

S Geno Stone
Drafted: Seventh round (219th overall) from Iowa
2020 projected role: His path to a 53-man roster spot and playing time as a rookie will be as a special-teams contributor, which is how current starter Chuck Clark began as a sixth-round pick in 2017.
Long-term view: Evaluations of his play are mixed, but the Ravens like Stone’s ability to quickly process what’s happening on the field, a crucial trait for a safety. Odds say his best best to eventually secure a defensive role will be as a dime safety as he saw time in the box, covered the slot, and played deep zone at Iowa, experiences that should help his development at the next level.

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