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Ravens defense begins OTAs sporting different look

Posted on 23 May 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens’ first open organized team activity didn’t offer a great look at a defense that’s undergone substantial change this offseason.

As if the offseason departures of Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, Za’Darius Smith, and Brent Urban weren’t enough, six other notable defensive players weren’t participating in Thursday’s voluntary workout, leaving only a few established veterans, role players, and unproven young talents on the practice field. The list of absentees was headlined by six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas, the blockbuster free-agent acquisition handpicked to help fill voids in leadership and play-making ability. Other defensive players not taking part were cornerback Jimmy Smith, defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, and safety Tony Jefferson, who is still working his way back to full strength from offseason ankle surgery and was a sideline observer.

Though led by one of the NFL’s best and deepest secondaries, the Ravens defense faces major questions at the inside and outside linebacker positions ahead of the 2019 season

“There are a lot of stories you’ve seen about new faces on the Ravens, but you guys see a lot of new faces and I see a lot of new opportunities,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “A lot of guys, especially in my [2017] draft class and the class last year, are stepping into bigger roles — including myself — so I look forward to that as an opportunity and for new guys to make plays and make names for themselves and to become those household names.”

As expected, Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young were lining up as the starting inside linebackers after sharing time at the weak-side inside backer spot next to Mosley last year, but trying to project the starting outside linebacker opposite Judon is anyone’s guess after Suggs manned the spot for the last 15 years. The Ravens hope some combination of third-round rookie Jaylon Ferguson and 2017 draft picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams will emerge, but the low-risk signings of Pernell McPhee, 30, and Shane Ray, 26 last week delivered the message that young players won’t be handed snaps without first earning them.

McPhee, who played for the Ravens from 2011-14, and Ray combined for only one sack with their former teams last season, but they rank first and third, respectively, among current Baltimore players in career sacks, illustrating the lack of established edge rushers on the roster.

“That certainly made it more interesting over there, and those two guys are both in really good shape,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “They both came in, and obviously, they were preparing and training for when their opportunity would come. You get in a situation like that, and you don’t always know when it’s going to come and not everybody does a good job of that. They did a good job of that. They were out there today. You saw them competing, so they looked good.”

Absences on the offensive side of the ball were more related to health as rookie wide receivers Marquise Brown (foot) and Miles Boykin (hamstring) only observed and guard Alex Lewis continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery. Right guard Marshal Yanda was not present, but the seven-time Pro Bowl selection has skipped voluntary OTAs in the past.

The most interesting absence Thursday was running back Kenneth Dixon, who likely stands fourth in his position’s hierarchy behind free-agent addition and two-time Pro Bowl selection Mark Ingram, 2018 leading rusher Gus Edwards, and rookie fourth-round pick Justice Hill. Despite averaging an impressive 5.6 yards per carry upon returning from a knee injury late last season, Dixon is entering the final year of his rookie contract, a variable that often leaves a player’s job security vulnerable when competing at a deep position. His history of injuries and drug-related suspensions also works against him.

“He was here the last few days,” Harbaugh said. “Where was he today? I don’t know. They don’t have to tell us. There’s no rule.”

Cornerback and punt returner Cyrus Jones and rookie defensive tackle Gerald Willis were also absent, but Willis did sustain an apparent leg injury during rookie camp earlier this month.

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jackson

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Sizing up the 2019 Ravens’ 90-man roster following rookie camp

Posted on 08 May 2019 by Luke Jones

(Updated: Thursday 2:30 p.m.)

The Ravens won’t trim their roster to 53 players for nearly four more months, but the draft and rookie free-agent signings offer a much better idea of what John Harbaugh and his coaching staff have to work with for the 2019 season.

This exercise will carry more meaning as we advance into the preseason, but my all-too-early look at the roster is based more on track record, contract status, draft standing, and positional need than anticipating improvement or regression from any given player. We’ll get a much better idea of where players stand beginning with the snap distribution during organized team activities later this month.

In other words, don’t read too much into who might be deemed a bubble player now as much will change before the Ravens even get to training camp in July. Not all bubble players are on equal footing, of course, with certain position groups lacking as much quality depth and others enjoying an abundance of talent and likely falling victim to the numbers game.

Though general manager Eric DeCosta, 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. The Ravens 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 spring and 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 (4)
IN: Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III
BUBBLE: Trace McSorley
LONG SHOT: Jalan McClendon
Skinny: How the coaching staff uses McSorley and how he develops will determine whether Baltimore carries three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster for a second straight year and only the second time in the last decade. Comparisons to New Orleans’ Taysom Hill — who is much bigger — will continue.

RUNNING BACKS & FULLBACKS (7)
IN: Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill
BUBBLE: Kenneth Dixon, De’Lance Turner
LONG SHOT: Christopher Ezeala, Tyler Ervin
Skinny: Suggesting someone who averaged 5.6 yards per carry last year could be on the bubble speaks to the great backfield depth. Dixon could also be a trade chip entering the final year of his contract, but a history of injuries and suspensions could prompt a tough decision. Don’t sleep on Turner either.

WIDE RECEIVERS (12)
IN: Willie Snead, Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, Chris Moore
BUBBLE: Seth Roberts, Jaleel Scott, Jordan Lasley
LONG SHOT: Quincy Adeboyejo, Sean Modster, Jaylen Smith, Antoine Wesley, Joe Horn Jr.
Skinny: With Baltimore expected to again use multiple tight ends and run the ball so frequently, the brass won’t feel compelled to keep more than four or five receivers unless others prove deserving of a spot. This is a critical preseason for Scott and Lasley, who played zero snaps as rookies last year.

TIGHT ENDS (5)
IN: Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst
BUBBLE: none
LONG SHOT: Cole Herdman, Charles Scarff
Skinny: Offensive coordinator Greg Roman may prefer having another blocking tight end in the mix to replace Maxx Williams, but it’s premature to handicap the chances of these candidates. Keizer spent much of last year with the organization, giving him a slight experience edge over the two rookies.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (16)
IN: Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley, Orlando Brown Jr., Matt Skura, Ben Powers, Bradley Bozeman
BUBBLE: James Hurst, Alex Lewis, Jermaine Eluemunor, Greg Senat
LONG SHOT: Randin Crecelius, R.J. Prince, Patrick Mekari, Marcus Applefield, Darrell Williams, Patrick Vahe
Skinny: Bozeman’s ability to play center makes him a safe bet while Hurst’s $4.75 million cap number and injury-riddled 2018 leave his status in at least some question until he proves his back problems are behind him. Time could be running out for Lewis, who just hasn’t been able to stay on the field.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
IN: Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce, Willie Henry, Chris Wormley, Daylon Mack
BUBBLE: Zach Sieler, Gerald Willis, Patrick Ricard
LONG SHOT: Kalil Morris
Skinny: This is a tough group to handicap after the duo of Williams and Pierce, but Henry is the best interior rusher on the roster despite missing most of 2018. Sieler is a good bet to make it as a 5-technique end, but the talented Willis could be the wild card after surprisingly going undrafted.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (8)
IN: Patrick Onwuasor, Kenny Young, Chris Board
BUBBLE: Matthew Thomas, Alvin Jones, Otaro Alaka, E.J. Ejiya, Silas Stewart
LONG SHOT: none
Skinny: Board leading the team in special-teams tackles as a rookie leaves him safe at this point. The competition for a potential roster spot behind him is wide open, however, with Thomas, a former Pittsburgh Steeler, headlining a group lacking experience. They’re listed as bubble players by default.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (7)
IN: Matt Judon, Jaylon Ferguson, Tyus Bowser
BUBBLE: Tim Williams
LONG SHOT: Aaron Adeoye, Markus Jones, Michael Onuoha
Skinny: Contributions on special teams and the shortage of strong-side or “Sam” backers give Bowser a clear edge over Williams, who appeared in only seven games in 2018 and was a healthy scratch by season’s end. There should be opportunities for the long shots to try to put themselves on the radar.

CORNERBACKS (11)
IN: Jimmy Smith, Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, Tavon Young, Justin Bethel, Anthony Averett, Iman Marshall
BUBBLE: Cyrus Jones, Maurice Canady
LONG SHOT: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Terrell Bonds
Skinny: There isn’t a deeper group of corners in the NFL, leaving the Ravens with a good problem trying to decide which ones to keep. Jones returning kickoffs in addition to punts would cement his spot — he only did the latter last year — while the oft-injured Canady is in the final year of his rookie deal.

SAFETIES (6)
IN: Earl Thomas, Tony Jefferson, Chuck Clark, Anthony Levine
BUBBLE: DeShon Elliott
LONG SHOT: Bennett Jackson
Skinny: Elliott is the one to watch in this group as he showed promise before breaking his forearm in the preseason last year and could potentially push Clark for some playing time in sub packages. Levine’s positional versatility remains an invaluable part of Wink Martindale’s defense.

SPECIALISTS (5)
IN: Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, Morgan Cox
BUBBLE: none
LONG SHOT: Kaare Vedvik, Matthew Orzech
Skinny: The Ravens will hope Vedvik kicks the football like he did last summer to improve his trade value at the end of the preseason. Beyond that, there’s little to see here.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following rookie camp

Posted on 06 May 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens completing their rookie camp this past weekend, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Marquise Brown is studying the playbook, but not having the first-round pick on the field took away some luster from rookie camp. He’ll still have extensive summer reps, but overcoming the learning curve at wide receiver on the heels of the foot injury presents a challenge that shouldn’t be dismissed.

2. Miles Boykin revealed he worked out with Brown prior to the combine and the two roomed together during rookie camp. History says Baltimore should be excited if just one of them makes a real impact, but it’s exciting having two young talents with such upside at the receiver position.

3. Pro Football Focus tagged Boykin with only three drops on 62 catchable targets last season, and he credited the catching improvement to the health of his fingers. The 6-foot-4 wideout said he dealt with broken fingers in each of his first two collegiate seasons.

4. It always strikes me how enjoyable rookie camp must be for John Harbaugh and the coaching staff working with so many players who won’t wear a Ravens uniform again beyond that weekend. Harbaugh coaching vise technique on punt return to unknowns had to take him back to his roots.

5. From Joe Flacco’s younger brother to Jerry Rice Jr., rookie camp has brought interesting tryout names to Owings Mills over the years with wide receiver Joe Horn Jr. joining that list this spring. The Missouri Western product drew Harbaugh’s praise, but there were no flip-phone celebrations to be found.

6. Trace McSorley garnered more attention, but former Baylor quarterback Jalan McClendon threw some impressive passes during Saturday’s workout open to reporters. You’d expect the Ravens to add a fourth quarterback to the 90-man offseason roster, whether it’s McClendon or someone else.

7. The most notable of the Ravens’ rookie free-agent signings, defensive tackle Gerald Willis limped off the field Saturday before later deeming himself OK on social media. The Miami product and younger brother of Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins has potential if the off-field issues are behind him.

8. Otaro Alaka, E.J. Ejiya, and Silas Stewart were just getting their feet wet, but Baltimore has to hope one will be the latest rookie free agent to stick as an inside linebacker. Former Raven and assistant coach Zach Orr was among those watching closely this past weekend.

9. Beginning Tuesday afternoon, teams are permitted to sign unrestricted free agents without it counting against the compensatory pick formula. As we’ve noted more than once, the cap space is there for Eric DeCosta to make another notable signing or two.

10. Iman Marshall expressed infectious enthusiasm answering questions Friday, but I didn’t know whether to be impressed or offended that he didn’t return to the theater to finish watching “Avengers: Endgame” upon receiving the call that he’d been drafted. I guess that’s why I never made it to the NFL.

11. Haloti Ngata and his family visited the team facility Saturday with the recently-retired five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle and Super Bowl XLVII champion taking some time to chat with rookies. The next stop for the 35-year-old should be the Ravens Ring of Honor this fall.

12. Hollywood, Sack Daddy, Biggie, and Mack Truck. Time will tell how successful the 2019 draft class is, but the nickname game is strong. Even McSorley — whose real first name is Richard — was nicknamed after former NFL defensive lineman Trace Armstrong.

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Ravens sign four draft picks, announce rookie free-agent signings

Posted on 03 May 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With their rookies hitting the practice field for the first time this weekend, the Ravens wasted little time signing half of their 2019 draft class to four-year contracts.

On Friday, general manager Eric DeCosta signed fourth-round picks Justice Hill, Ben Powers, and Iman Marshall as well as fifth-round selection Daylon Mack, leaving only wide receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin, outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson, and quarterback Trace McSorley unsigned. Contracts are slotted based on the salary cap and rookie compensation pool, eliminating virtually all of the common holdouts that would occur prior to the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.

Baltimore also announced the signing of its rookie free agents, a list headlined by Miami defensive tackle Gerald Willis and Louisville wide receiver Jaylen Smith. Despite racking up 18 tackles for a loss during his senior season and being viewed by some as a potential Day 2 pick, Willis went undrafted largely because of off-field concerns, which included a reported fight with the son of former Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg that contributed to his dismissal from the University of Florida. Smith, a four-year starter for the Cardinals, had a disappointing senior year after catching a combined 13 touchdowns in his previous two years playing with current Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, but the pair worked out together in Florida this offseason, making the 6-foot-2 wideout a logical addition.

Of the 17 undrafted players signed, three are inside linebackers — Otaro Alaka of Texas A&M, E.J. Ejiya of North Texas, and Silas Stewart of Incarnate Word — after the Ravens did not draft a player at that position of need last weekend. At least one undrafted rookie has made Baltimore’s 53-man roster for 15 straight seasons, making the Ravens an attractive destination for many talents believing they were overlooked during the draft.

Below is the full list of rookie free-agent signings as well as the jersey numbers assigned to the Ravens’ eight draft picks:

ILB Otaro Alaka, Texas A&M — No. 50
OT Marcus Applefield, Virginia — No. 62
ILB E.J. Ejiya, North Texas — No. 57
TE Cole Herdman, Purdue — No. 88
OLB Markus Jones, Angelo State — No. 96
G Patrick Mekari, Cal-Berkeley — No. 65
WR Sean Modster, Boise State — No. 14
DT Kalil Morris, Kent State — No. 91
OLB Mike Onuoha, Texas A&M Commerce — No. 90
LS Matthew Orzech, Azusa Pacific — No. 59
TE Charles Scarff, Delaware — No. 85
WR Jaylen Smith, Louisville — No. 16
ILB Silas Stewart, Incarnate Word — No. 59
C C.J. Toogood, Elon — No. 61
WR Antoine Wesley, Texas Tech — No. 84
DT Gerald Willis, Miami — No. 92
S Evan Worthington, Colorado — No. 30

WR Marquise Brown, Oklahoma — No. 15
OLB Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech — No. 45
WR Miles Boykin, Notre Dame — No. 80
RB Justice Hill, Oklahoma State — No. 43
G Ben Powers, Oklahoma — No. 70
CB Iman Marshall, USC — No. 37
DT Daylon Mack, Texas A&M — No. 94
QB Trace McSorley, Penn State — No. 7

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