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Ten Ravens predictions for the 2020 season

Posted on 12 September 2020 by Luke Jones

Instead of going through the exercise of making league-wide predictions, the following focus on the Ravens and the quest to win their third Super Bowl in the 25-year history of the franchise:

1. The offense will score at least 10 fewer touchdowns than a year ago.

Yes, Greg Roman is back, J.K. Dobbins joins a strong backfield, and a very young group has another year of experience under its belt, all reasons to argue the record-setting offense scoring 58 touchdowns a year ago could be even better. But reality suggests otherwise from a statistical standpoint as 30 of the 34 teams to score at least 50 offensive touchdowns in a season since 2007 saw their total drop the following year and 20 of those saw a double-digit decrease. For perspective, even Super Bowl champion Kansas City scored 20 fewer offensive touchdowns last year than in 2018. None of this is to suggest the offense will be anything but terrific again or that opponents will have “solved” it, but it’s a tribute to how remarkable and efficient the 2019 offense really was and an indication that opponents are likely to adopt more best practices to keep the Ravens from scoring 40 or more as often.

2. Lamar Jackson will once again lead the Ravens in rushing by going over 1,000 yards for the second straight year.

I fully expect Dobbins to cut into the workload of both Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards, which will keep Ingram from going over the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight season. But the arrival of the former Ohio State star doesn’t change the fact that Jackson has the ball in his hands for the start of every one of those read-option plays, meaning the reigning NFL MVP isn’t going to suddenly see a sizable decrease in his number of carries over the course of the season. Make no mistake, Jackson can and will win plenty of games with his arm and Baltimore has very talented running backs, but the third-year quarterbacks’ athleticism remains the truly transcendent component of this one-of-a-kind offense, evident by his league-best 6.9 yards per carry average last year. That isn’t changing for now.

3. Jackson will improve his yards per attempt despite throwing fewer touchdowns than a year ago.

I expect Jackson to throw more passes than last year’s 401, but throwing a touchdown on 9.0 percent of his attempts again is highly unlikely. For context, Tom Brady has never recorded a single-season percentage that high while Patrick Mahomes (5.4 percent) and Russell Wilson (6.0 percent) were well below that mark last season. Where I do anticipate growth is Jackson pushing the ball down the field more often and making more throws outside the numbers, points of emphasis for him this offseason. Jackson’s 7.8 yards per attempt ranked 13th in the NFL last year, but landing in the top 10 in that category will be a sign of the passing game having a better ability to play off schedule and from behind. He won’t be quite as touchdown efficient, but adding more explosiveness will go a long way.

4. Mark Andrews will go over 1,100 receiving yards to lead all Baltimore pass catchers.

Improved health, a bigger frame, and no shortage of workout videos on social media have made Marquise Brown the popular choice for a breakout season. I definitely expect a sizable jump for the 2019 first-round pick who collected 584 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, but Andrews made the Pro Bowl and set team highs with 852 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns catches despite playing just 41 percent of the offensive snaps and dealing with a nagging ankle injury for a good chunk of the season. With Hayden Hurst in Atlanta and the Ravens carrying just two tight ends on the 53-man roster, Andrews’ increased snap count alone suggests more targets and production in his third season.

5. The run defense will rank in the top 10 in yards per carry allowed and efficiency.

Finishing an underwhelming 21st in the NFL in both departments last year, the Ravens added veteran defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe as well as rookie inside linebacker Patrick Queen to boost a run defense that proved too vulnerable in key matchups, none more obvious than the heartbreaking playoff loss to Tennessee. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will still need to rely heavily on the blitz to pressure quarterbacks, but these additions along with moving Brandon Williams back to his natural nose tackle spot should result in less handwringing about an inability to stop the run, especially if edge defenders show more consistency setting the edge against stretch zone rushes.

6. Marlon Humphrey will grab a career-high five interceptions to be named a first-team All-Pro again.

There is no shortage of talent in the secondary, but Humphrey is the most complete player after showing off his versatility last season by frequently moving inside after excelling as an outside corner in his first two seasons. With nickel corner Tavon Young returning from last year’s neck injury, Humphrey will again be able to thrive on the outside and strengthen his case as one of the very best at his position in the league. The 24-year-old tackles like a linebacker, covers at an elite level, and will solidify his status as the best player on this defense. Another All-Pro season will have him knocking on the door for a contract extension not far off from what the Los Angeles Rams just gave Jalen Ramsey.

7. A shaky November will cost the Ravens the top seed in the AFC.

Trying to anticipate what teams will look like from a health standpoint — which takes on a different meaning in the midst of the pandemic — in November is anyone’s guess, but a post-bye trip to play a talented Indianapolis team, a road game at New England the next week, and a Thanksgiving night trek to Pittsburgh four days after hosting the Titans? That’s easily the most challenging four-game stretch on the schedule and the biggest roadblock on paper to securing the No. 1 seed for a second straight year. Going 2-2 over that stretch would hardly be disastrous, but it may not be good enough.

8. Six Ravens players will be named to the Pro Bowl.

Jackson, Humphrey, Andrews, Campbell, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, and kicker Justin Tucker will receive the nod, but the Ravens will hope not to be participating in that shoddy exhibition again.

9. A 12-4 record will give the Ravens their third straight AFC North championship.

No AFC North team has ever won the division in three straight seasons as you’d have to go back to the old AFC Central days when Pittsburgh won four consecutive division titles from 1994-97. The Ravens remain a clear favorite, but strong arguments can be made for all three division foes being better than a year ago. If Ben Roethlisberger looks anywhere close to his pre-injury self, the Steelers will be a formidable playoff team. The Browns should win more than six games and have a chance of sneaking in as a wild card with the AFC postseason field now expanded to seven teams. And Cincinnati should improve as the year progresses after handing the keys to first overall pick Joe Burrow. The Ravens won’t run away with this division by six games like last year, but they still own the AFC North.

10. The Ravens will defeat New Orleans 33-24 to win Super Bowl LV in Tampa.

After using much of this space to say the Ravens won’t be as dominant as last year, I’m picking John Harbaugh’s team to break through and win the third Super Bowl in franchise history. As memorable as the best regular-season team in Ravens history was, the winter was as cold as ever after the loss to Tennessee. The best record in the league and the No. 1 seed, an abundance of broken records and individual accolades, and, yes, plenty of national media love and respect — all things coveted by Baltimore fans for years — proved not as fulfilling as seeing the Ravens raise the Lombardi Trophy at the end of 2000 and 2012, two seasons with far more adversity. With Jackson taking a cue from Mahomes in winning the MVP award in his second season, why not continue the trend with a Super Bowl victory in his third year? The Ravens won’t find the 2020 regular season as easy or fruitful in terms of records and awards, but they’ll finally take down the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC Championship. The electrifying Jackson will then get the best of future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, fulfilling that promise he made the night he was drafted with the 32nd overall pick less than three years ago. Baltimore will be picking there again next spring because of him.

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Baltimore Ravens running back Mark Ingram (21) scores on a touchdown run as Houston Texans cornerback Gareon Conley (22) tries to stop him during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Examining Ravens position battles: Running back

Posted on 11 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 at running back:

How many running backs are too many?

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman insists you can never have enough, especially after Baltimore added second-round pick J.K. Dobbins and his 6.2 yards per carry average as a three-year starter for Ohio State. With the Ravens already coming off an NFL-record 3,296-yard season in 2019, the competition for touches becomes even tougher this season.

It’s a terrific dilemma to have, but challenges may still arise.

“We’ll find ways to make it work, for sure. To have that kind of backfield is a blessing,” Roman said in June. “We definitely want to get into training camp and work through it and kind of evolve as we go. As far as how we are actually going to deploy them, who we are going to emphasis [and] how, I think that’s going to happen on the fly every day in training camp. We’ll get a better feel for that.

“But I love problems like that. I mean that sincerely.”

Mark Ingram is no stranger to being pushed as he was coming off new career highs with 1,043 yards and 5.1 yards per carry in 2016 — numbers very similar to what he accomplished for the Ravens last year — when New Orleans drafted Alvin Kamara in the third round of the 2017 draft. Kamara became an instant star as a rookie, but Ingram still ran for a career-best 1,124 yards to make his second career Pro Bowl that season.

Now 30, Ingram is coming off a Pro Bowl campaign and entering the second season of a three-year contract scheduled to pay him $5 million in 2021. It’s obvious general manager Eric DeCosta drafted Dobbins to be the feature back of the future, but how will that look in 2020 with team expectations so high?

The veteran back has offered nothing but praise for the 21-year-old who ran for over 2,000 yards with the Buckeyes last year, noting how Dobbins made the effort to reach out to him first after being drafted. The rookie describes Ingram to be “like an older brother” who’s replied to every text and answered every question he might have.

The Ravens ran a franchise-record 596 times last season — Oakland owns the league record with 681 in 1977 — but MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson remains the predominant force in the record-setting rushing attack, making it easier said on paper than in reality to want to diminish his 176-carry workload that averaged an NFL-best 6.9 yards per attempt. There’s also the topic of Jackson’s continued growth as a passer, making it tricky to assume Baltimore will even match last year’s rushing attempt total, let alone surpass it to more easily accommodate the gifted Dobbins.

Even if Dobbins serves in the primary backup role as many expect to begin the season, where does that leave Gus Edwards, who’s averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his young career and will be a restricted free agent after 2020? Edwards has emerged as one of the league’s best short-yardage backs, picking up first downs on 46 of his 133 rushing attempts last season.

Does 2019 fourth-round pick Justice Hill see more than the modest 66 offensive touches he received as a rookie or remain more of an afterthought and special-teams contributor?

The onus will be on Roman to try to get ball carriers into the flow of the game before identifying and embracing the hot hand. Every member of the crowded backfield has expressed a team-first mentality and figures to remain professional, but both Ingram and Edwards have business-related reasons to be concerned if their workloads diminish. If Dobbins proves to be the real deal, it’s difficult to see how at least one of those two incumbents wouldn’t be impacted substantially.

Again, it’s a great problem for the Ravens, who should have no issue remaining the most dynamic and productive rushing attack in the NFL.

“The coaches will decide how to rotate us and how to play us all,” Ingram said. “We all have special talents [and] special abilities, and all I do is work my butt off. I compete my butt off no matter where I’m at, no matter who is in my running back room. That’s just the bottom line.”

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Ravens OT Andre Smith opts out, rookie TE Jacob Breeland sidelined for 2020

Posted on 28 July 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens learned of a second veteran player to opt out due to the COVID-19 pandemic as veteran offensive tackle Andre Smith won’t play in 2020.

The 33-year-old re-signed with Baltimore in February and was expected to compete for the swing job backing up Pro Bowl tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. after veteran James Hurst was released in March. Smith, a 2009 first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, signed with the Ravens in January and was inactive for the playoff loss to Tennessee. He has appeared in 116 contests (98 starts) in an NFL career spent primarily with the Bengals.

Smith’s one-year, $1.05 million contract will now carry over to the 2021 season as he’ll be given a $150,000 salary advance. Ravens return specialist De’Anthony Thomas opted out of the 2020 season on Monday.

The decision sheds further light on the Ravens’ shaky depth at offensive tackle. Rookie third-round pick Tyre Phillips played left tackle at Mississippi State, but Baltimore views him being a better fit at guard. Assuming Phillips could step in for either Stanley or Brown would be asking a great deal from a rookie not having the benefit of a normal offseason program or preseason games this summer.

(Update 4:30 p.m.: The Ravens re-signed veteran offensive lineman Parker Ehinger, who appeared in two games for Baltimore late last season.)

On Tuesday, head coach John Harbaugh revealed rookie tight end Jacob Breeland is not expected to play in 2020 as he continues to work his way back from a torn ACL suffered last season. The University of Oregon product faced the challenge of rehabbing his surgically-repaired knee mostly on his own in the midst of the pandemic. He is expected to rehab with the team and return to play in 2021.

Breeland’s absence could increase the probability of general manager Eric DeCosta adding a veteran to go with 2019 Pro Bowl selection Mark Andrews and top blocking tight end Nick Boyle. Three-time Pro Bowl selection Delanie Walker and 10th-year tight end Charles Clay are both free agents and have played for Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, but their plans for 2020 remain unclear, which is notable with so many veteran players already opting out of the upcoming season.

Healthy tight ends on the roster behind Andrews and Boyle are 2019 practice-squad member Charles Scarff and undrafted rookie Eli Wolf.

Third-year running back Gus Edwards signed his exclusive-rights tender, which will pay him $750,000 for the upcoming season.

According to multiple reports, former Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce will not play for Minnesota in 2020 and is considered a high-risk opt-out because of asthma-related concerns. It’s unclear how that might impact the 2021 compensatory pick formula for the Ravens after Pierce signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the Vikings in March.

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Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards runs for a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Edwards, Ravens’ historic ground game still aiming for “step forward” in 2020

Posted on 17 June 2020 by Luke Jones

The revolutionary Ravens offense rushed for an NFL-record 3,296 yards on the way to a 14-2 record last season.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson (1,206) and running backs Mark Ingram (1,018) and Gus Edwards (711) each ran for more than 700 yards. In contrast, seven NFL teams didn’t have a single 700-yard rusher in 2019.

Now adding the second-round selection of Ohio State star running back J.K. Dobbins to the mix, could the Baltimore ground game improve in 2020?

“It’s going to be difficult to do better than what we did last year with breaking the rushing record, but I think it’s a step forward,” Edwards said in a Wednesday conference call. “It’s a definite step towards that because he’s a great back and all. He’s going to make the competition that much better in the running back room.”

Consider the Ravens ran for nearly 1,000 more yards than second-place San Francisco and over 2,000 more yards than the New York Jets and Miami in 2019. Only one other team — the Michael Vick-led 2006 Atlanta Falcons — has sniffed 3,000 rushing yards in the 21st century and just 12 other teams have even eclipsed the 2,500-yard mark in a season since the beginning of the John Harbaugh era in 2008.

In other words, improving upon — or even matching — those raw numbers and efficiency will be a very tall order, especially in a sport where the passing game has been proven as the more efficient way to move the ball and score points in the long run. The record-setting pace was certainly aided by the Ravens rarely trailing last season, allowing them to lean even more heavily on the run in the second half of games. One can’t assume those multi-score leads will come quite as easily in the new season as we saw what happened when Baltimore fell behind multiple scores in the playoff loss to Tennessee.

There’s also the question about the number of carries to go around.

Even without Dobbins in the picture last season, Edwards and his shiny 5.3 yards per attempt average received just 133 carries — many in short-yardage situations — behind Ingram and Jackson in the pecking order while 2019 fourth-round pick Justice Hill only saw 58. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s long-held stance that you can never have too many running backs could be put to the test, especially if the Ravens have designs of Jackson and the offense taking another step forward through the air.

“Coach Roman is just committed to it. It seems like coach Harbaugh is committed to it,” said Edwards about the competition for carries. “Everybody is just throwing around a ‘four-headed monster.’ I think everybody is committed to it and really wants to do it. That’s the first step and we’ll see where it goes. I’m excited.

“It’s a chance to make history.”

It’s a great problem to have on paper, of course, but reality could prove more challenging.

Cutting down on the number of times Jackson carries the ball may make sense in the big picture, but arbitrarily redistributing some of his attempts to running backs is highly unlikely to produce the same NFL-best 6.9 yards per carry the league MVP averaged a year ago. Dobbins is an intriguing talent, but his addition doesn’t change the reality of Jackson being the transcendent force in this running game or the simple math of there being only one football.

There’s also the business side with many viewing Dobbins as the running back of the future and a signal that the 30-year-old Ingram could be a salary cap casualty next winter despite his 1,000-yard season that resulted in a trip to the Pro Bowl last year. That’s not to suggest Ingram or any other Ravens back will be anything but a team player, but the earning potential at the position is as tenuous as ever, making touches and statistics that much more important.

Entering his third season, Edwards will be a restricted free agent next year and is certainly aiming to continue making his mark after exploding on the scene as an undrafted free agent from Rutgers in the second half of 2018.

“I think that’s how I want myself to be remembered as somebody that works hard,” said Edwards, who’s averaged an impressive 5.3 yards per carry in his brief career. “That’s what the team thinks of me. I’m going to be in a great position with a great team, a team that wants to run the ball. Everything is in front of me. I just have [to take] another step forward.”

The ground game is certainly deeper and should easily remain the NFL’s best by a significant margin, but making history once again could prove difficult in more ways than one.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 2020 schedule release

Posted on 11 May 2020 by Luke Jones

With the NFL unveiling the 2020 regular-season schedule late last week, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. What we know about the alarming incident between Earl Thomas and his wife doesn’t — and shouldn’t — provide any grounds to jeopardize his employment, but the Ravens’ terse statement made clear their disenchantment about being left in the dark. Practically speaking, a public figure’s right to privacy only goes so far.

2. The schedule release highlighted what we already knew about Baltimore being in tremendous shape from a travel standpoint with the longest trip of the season being to Houston in Week 2. Already dominant on the road last season, the Ravens should be able to continue such away success.

3. Even if one argues the Ravens are better from a talent standpoint and have a favorable schedule on paper, ESPN’s Mike Clay presented some data that should make you take pause before boldly predicting another 14-2 or better finish. What they did offensively last season just isn’t easy to duplicate.

4. With five prime-time games, four in a five-week period from November into early December, and the reigning NFL MVP, the Ravens have never carried a brighter national profile than they do right now, which is saying plenty for an organization with two Super Bowl titles in the last 20 years.

5. Asked about the center spot in a call with season-ticket holders, Eric DeCosta mentioning Bradley Bozeman was interesting, especially since left guard was seemingly the only stable interior line spot entering 2020 after Bozeman started every game there last year. Will we see three different starters inside?

6. When an elite player retires at the top of his game, speculation can persist about a comeback, but Marshal Yanda left no doubt by losing 45 pounds in two months after his final game and looking even thinner on “The Pat McAfee Show.” He looked lighter than the ex-Indianapolis punter.

7. No matter how you felt about the second-round selection of J.K. Dobbins, I don’t get the rush some have to trade Gus Edwards or Justice Hill for what would likely be an inconsequential draft pick. If more depth at running back was important, hastily diminishing the group makes little sense.

8. DeCosta acknowledged the Ravens having limited avenues to clear meaningful salary cap space without striking a long-term deal for Matthew Judon or Ronnie Stanley, who carry two of their five largest cap numbers for 2020. These negotiations and decisions won’t get any easier.

9. First-round pick Patrick Queen bought his mother a new Range Rover over the weekend. Seeing a young player fulfill his NFL dream after years of hard work and finally be able to gift a token of appreciation to a parent never gets old.

10. Asked once again — this time by a season-ticket holder and not the media — whether the Ravens were interested in signing Antonio Brown, DeCosta provided a “filibuster” non-answer that would make Dan Duquette smile.

11. With Joe Flacco undergoing neck surgery and reportedly not expected to be cleared to play until late August, you wonder if the 35-year-old has played his final snap. However, Jets general manager and ex-Ravens scout Joe Douglas “discovered” Flacco and does need a backup to Sam Darnold.

12. A personal thanks to director of player personnel Joe Hortiz for taking extensive time to conduct a virtual film session on the Ravens’ 2020 draft class and answering questions from local reporters. Such a forum offers transparency and better educates media to hopefully improve our coverage for fans.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 2020 draft

Posted on 29 April 2020 by Luke Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2020 draft reinforces Ravens’ long-term view and identity

Posted on 27 April 2020 by Luke Jones

(Photo courtesy of Ohio State Athletics)

One of the more significant moments of draft weekend had nothing to do with the Ravens, but it was a reminder of what lies ahead.

On Friday, Pro Bowl selection Laremy Tunsil and the Houston Texans agreed to a three-year, $66 million contract including $50 million guaranteed, making the 2016 first-round pick the highest-paid left tackle in NFL history by an overwhelming margin. Selected seven spots earlier in that same draft by Baltimore and also a 2019 Pro Bowl pick, Ronnie Stanley was surely paying attention as he prepares for the final season of his rookie contract and has had the better career to this point. Yes, the Ravens will need to pay their left tackle how teams used to pay franchise quarterbacks not terribly long ago in order to keep him.

Coming off a 14-2 season with the reigning NFL MVP and 11 other returning Pro Bowl selections, the Ravens are about to get incredibly expensive over the next 24 months, which will leave general manager Eric DeCosta with some very difficult decisions. Of course, that’s better than the alternative of not having a franchise quarterback and other elite talent, but understanding that reality and how it relates to the draft is how the best teams are able to remain good.

That’s how the second-round selection of Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins reinforced the long-term view and identity of the organization, even when there were very fair arguments to select Baylor wide receiver Denzel Mims or Boise State offensive lineman Ezra Cleveland with the 55th overall pick. After all, either of those players would have addressed a greater immediate need for a team that already had a record-setting rushing attack with two 1,000-yard rushers and plenty of depth.

But DeCosta learned his lesson from so many drafts alongside former general manager Ozzie Newsome, his mentor and current executive vice president who drafted at least three Pro Football Hall of Famers and was the architect of two Super Bowl championships in Baltimore.

“These great players would just fall down the board, and we would take them,” said DeCosta, who expected Dobbins to be drafted as early as the late first round. “You prepare yourself for it, and when it happens, you have to be prepared to take the guy. We didn’t really expect it. I don’t think anybody really did. We didn’t anticipate it, but we just had to take him. He’s just a talented guy, and it just made too much sense for us not to take him.”

The truth is that Dobbins probably doesn’t dramatically improve the chances of the 2020 Ravens beyond the possibility of a rash of injuries, an argument that supports taking more players at any position on the field. There’s no questioning Dobbins’ talent and fit running out of the pistol formation, but 2019 Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram gained 5.0 yards per carry and top backup Gus Edwards ran for 5.3 yards per attempt as Baltimore averaged a whopping 5.53 yards per carry — the NFL’s third-highest single-season mark since 1960 — and broke the 16-game season rushing record at 3,296 yards in 2019. In other words, short of Dobbins being the next Jim Brown — the 1963 Cleveland Browns hold the single-season rushing average record (5.74) interestingly enough — there just isn’t much room for the Ravens to be markedly better running the football if we’re being realistic.

That’s especially true if the goal is to decrease carries for quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is truly the special component of this ground game that makes both running backs and the offensive line that much better after setting the single-season quarterback rushing record and gaining 6.85 yards per carry last year. The retirement of eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda doesn’t help the equation either.

But that’s when we come back to the long-term view and identity of this football team, which is to continue to run more often and better than anyone in the league despite Jackson also leading the NFL in touchdown passes last season.

Much like when Ray Rice was selected with the same pick in the 2008 draft and played behind Pro Bowl running backs Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain as a rookie, Dobbins will definitely contribute in his first year. But his real value will come in 2021 as Ingram will be another year older and scheduled to make $5 million and Edwards will be a restricted free agent. At that point, the Ravens will have potentially already paid Stanley and will likely be navigating contract discussions with Jackson and All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey, which could prompt DeCosta to be thriftier at a position like running back with a prime talent like Dobbins ready to assume the primary workload with three years remaining on his rookie contract.

Yes, the draft may allow a team to fill an immediate need or two — first- and third-round inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison both could be Week 1 starters this fall — but it’s much more about better positioning itself for the future. Right now, the Ravens are benefiting from an MVP quarterback on a rookie contract and a run-first attack that set all kinds of records a year ago and remains the cheapest offense in the NFL.

But that flexibility isn’t going to last forever, and the Ravens want to maintain both their identity and standing as contenders beyond just the next year or two. That’s why picks such as Dobbins, defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, and wide receiver Devin Duvernay who may not be immediate starters are still so critical to get right for 2021 and beyond.

The Ravens were already a Super Bowl contender entering draft weekend and came out of it confident that they had improved their chances both now and down the line.

“We like the chemistry of the team. It changes every single year,” DeCosta said. “The draft is one mean that we have to improve the chemistry along with free agency and different things.

“It’s an ongoing process that never ends.”

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Baltimore Ravens running back Mark Ingram (21) scores on a touchdown run as Houston Texans cornerback Gareon Conley (22) tries to stop him during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Ingram not scared of competition if Ravens draft running back next week

Posted on 15 April 2020 by Luke Jones

Ravens running back Mark Ingram is already an outlier, but he has no plans of slowing down.

The oldest player in the NFL to rush for 1,000 yards last season — Houston’s Carlos Hyde was the only other over age 25 — the 30-year-old Ingram is entering the second season of a three-year, $15.5 million contract and averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry for just the second time in his career. The 2019 Pro Bowl selection isn’t ready for a diminished role after eclipsing 200 carries for just the fourth time in his nine seasons, but that moderate workload is a likely reason why he’s still going strong at a position with a short shelf life.

“I’m with a great team that takes care of me, and I feel like I can play this game at a high level – at the highest level – for at least another four or five years,” Ingram said. “I feel like that. I honestly do. My body feels good. I’m moving good. I have nothing really lagging. If I do, I’ll be working on it, rehabbing it, strengthening it up so all my weaknesses are turning into my strengths.

“I just want to be the best, man. I want to be one of the best. When you talk about running backs who had long, prestigious careers, I want to be in that discussion.”

But that ambition after a strong first season in Baltimore comes as many suggest the organization shouldn’t maintain the status quo at the position, especially after a calf injury slowed the veteran in the shocking playoff loss to Tennessee. The Ravens rushed for an NFL-record 3,296 yards, averaged 0.5 yards per carry more than any other team, and had nearly 100 more carries than second-place San Francisco last year, but you still hear the various ideas.

More or fewer carries for Ingram, who finished just 20th in the NFL in rushing attempts.

More carries for Gus Edwards, who averaged 5.3 yards per rush last year.

More touches for Justice Hill, who flashed late in his rookie season.

Fewer rushes for Lamar Jackson despite him leading the league in yards per carry by an extraordinary margin last year and his generational athleticism being what truly makes this offense special.

Some have gone a step beyond those predictable talking points to even suggest that the Ravens take a running back like D’Andre Swift of Georgia late in the first round.

This is when we remind ourselves there’s only one football to go around, especially if you want to see the passing game continue to grow. That’s not to say the Ravens shouldn’t be open to adding young talent at a position so important to Greg Roman’s offense, but any thought of devoting an early pick to an already deep position falls into the category of trying to fix something that isn’t broken, especially with other needs on both sides of the ball.

Ingram says he wouldn’t be surprised to see general manager Eric DeCosta add a running back in next week’s draft. Perhaps even someone like Maryland’s Anthony McFarland on the final day would make sense.

“I don’t think I’ve been in the league a year where a running back hadn’t been drafted or acquired,” said Ingram, who saw New Orleans draft immediate Pro Bowl back Alvin Kamara in the third round of the 2017 draft. “Running back is always a position you try to have depth and quality. If that did happen, that’s just what it is. We’re going to welcome that young running back and try to make him better, try to make the team better. That’s just the gist of it.

“There’s always going to be somebody younger trying to come in. They’re always looking for new talent, new people at every position. Competition is a part of it. You can’t be scared of competition; it breeds excellence. Whatever we do, I’m sure it would be good.”

We know the Ravens offense is unique and conceivably values the running back position more than the more conventional team — though one could argue it’s really Jackson’s presence that makes any back that much better — but the debate centers around the importance of the position relative to the rest of the roster. Earlier this week, Carolina made 2019 Pro Bowl selection and former first-round pick Christian McCaffrey the highest-paid running back in league history after he eclipsed the 1,000-yard marks in both rush and receiving last year.

Showing support for the running back fraternity, Ingram offered his strong endorsement of the deal.

“Why should a running back be treated less than another position? All these other positions get high numbers,” Ingram said. “Why is it that the running back is subject to that? Why does the running back have to be the red-headed stepchild? I think [McCaffrey] deserves that number. His value on the team, his value across the league, his leadership, everything. I think he deserves that, and I think other running backs deserve bigger contracts as well.”

The overwhelming evidence in recent years suggests lucrative contracts for running backs are poor investments, but the Panthers — coming off a 5-11 season — are the latest team to insist their guy will be the exception. In Baltimore, we tend to forget three-time Pro Bowl selection Ray Rice was already in the midst of a sharp decline just two seasons into a five-year, $35 million contract signed in 2012 before the domestic violence incident that ended his NFL career.

Perhaps the best way to avoid the eventual big contract pitfall is having the discipline to avoid drafting a running back so early in the first place, another behavior analytics fail to support. It’s not that running backs don’t matter as much as understanding there will be more than enough value in less heralded options who can thrive in the right scheme and with a good offensive line, which are the biggest keys to the success of a ground attack.

When an undrafted back like Edwards has averaged 5.3 yards per carry over his two seasons in this offense, do you really expect to get the bang for your buck with a first-round running back?

To borrow a phrase from owner Steve Bisciotti, the Ravens should have bigger fish to fry than drafting a running back early next week. Some competition for Ingram and the other incumbents can come later in the weekend.

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Ravens release veteran lineman Hurst, give low tender to center Skura

Posted on 16 March 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens announced the release of veteran offensive lineman James Hurst on Monday, a move that saves $2.75 million on this year’s salary cap.

The 28-year-old was suspended for the first four games of the 2020 season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy last month, a development that had jeopardized his future in Baltimore. Hurst was entering the third season of a four-year, $17.5 million contract, but he played a career-low 195 offensive snaps and made only two starts last season, making his 2020 base salary of $4 million rather steep for a reserve.

Regarded by most as a below-average starting option, Hurst did bring game-day value as a versatile backup able to play multiple spots along the offensive line. The 2014 undrafted free agent from North Carolina made multiple starts at both tackle spots and at left guard over his six seasons with the Ravens.

The move comes less than a week after the retirement of eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, making it even more obvious that general manager Eric DeCosta will need to strengthen his depth along the offensive line.

In other offensive line news, the Ravens placed the right-of-first-refusal tender on restricted free-agent center Matt Skura, who continues to work his way back from a major knee injury suffered in late November. The tender is worth a projected $2.1 million and gives Baltimore the right to match any offer sheet executed by another team.

Speaking to media after Yanda’s retirement press conference last week, Skura reiterated his hope that he’d be ready to return to action during training camp. However, his uncertain health as well as the solid play of undrafted rookie Patrick Mekari down the stretch last season likely prompted the Ravens to give Skura the low tender rather than the more expensive second-round amount.

Skura has started 39 games over the last three seasons and established himself as Baltimore’s starting center in 2018.

The Ravens also tendered exclusive-rights free-agent running back Gus Edwards, a move that was only a formality after the primary backup to Mark Ingram averaged 5.3 yards per carry last season.

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Baltimore Ravens running back Mark Ingram (21) scores on a touchdown run as Houston Texans cornerback Gareon Conley (22) tries to stop him during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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How did Ravens running backs stack up to rest of NFL in 2019?

Posted on 14 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens recorded the best regular season in franchise history, but where did their individual players stack up across the NFL in 2019?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl — Baltimore had a record-tying 13 selections — or determining postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few watch every player on every team closely enough to form any real authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you watch the Tampa Bay offensive line this season? What about the Atlanta Falcons linebackers or the Detroit Lions cornerbacks?

That’s why I respect the efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging their grading is far from the gospel of evaluation. I don’t envy the exhaustive effort to evaluate players across the league when most of us watch one team or maybe one division on any kind of a regular basis.

We’ll look at each positional group on the roster in the coming days, but below is a look at where Ravens running backs ranked across the NFL this past season followed by the positional outlook going into 2020:

Safeties

Mark Ingram
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 532
PFF ranking: eighth among running backs
Skinny: The Ravens couldn’t have asked for more in the first season of a three-year, $15 million contract as Ingram became the first Baltimore running back to rush for 1,000 yards since 2014 and was selected to his third career Pro Bowl. Not only was Ingram terrific as a rusher at 5.0 yards per carry, but he provided veteran leadership for a very young offense and excelled in pass protection.

Gus Edwards
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 415
PFF ranking: 29th among running backs
Skinny: The 238-pound back was always going to have a reduced role from the moment Ingram signed last March, but he still improved his yards per carry to 5.3 in his second season. Though not the well-rounded back that Ingram is, Edwards picked up a first down on 34.6 percent of his carries, easily making him one of the best short-yardage options in football last season.

Justice Hill
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 237
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The rookie shows good speed and agility, but he saw no more than 22 offensive snaps in a game until playing 50 in the playoff loss with Ingram ailing and the Ravens down multiple scores in the second half. You’d like to see Hill get more opportunities in his second year, but there’s only one football to go around with two stout backs ahead of him and 1,200-yard rusher Lamar Jackson at quarterback.

Patrick Ricard
2019 offensive snap count (including postseason): 349
PFF ranking: first among fullbacks
Skinny: An afterthought as a healthy scratch by the end of 2018, the hybrid defensive lineman became the best pure blocking fullback in the league this past season, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl and a contract extension through 2021. Ricard’s ability to play on defense as well as to line up at fullback, tight end, or as an extra offensive lineman will continue to make him valuable to the game-day roster.

2020 positional outlook

With a record-setting offense running an NFL-high 54 percent of the time in 2019, the Ravens are always on the lookout for ways to strengthen their offensive backfield, especially if a dynamic talent slips to them in April’s draft. However, the trio of Ingram, Edwards, and Hill matched with an MVP dual-threat quarterback leaves the running game in very strong shape going into 2020. His age suggests Baltimore should keep an eye on Ingram as he enters his 10th NFL season, but this past year marked just the fourth time he’s cracked 200 carries, meaning he’s arguably fresher than the typical 30-year-old running back and also no stranger to a backfield timeshare if Edwards and Hill getting more touches proves to be optimal for 2020. The Ravens may not duplicate their NFL-record 3,296 rushing yards, but Ingram and Edwards offer a high floor, Hill brings a higher ceiling, and Jackson has the generational ability to continue making this the best running game in football by a wide margin.

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