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Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon (99) reacts while holding a smartphone after an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Baltimore. The Ravens won 28-10. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Deadline passes as Ravens, Judon fail to strike long-term deal

Posted on 15 July 2020 by Luke Jones

Wednesday’s franchise tag deadline passed with the Ravens and outside linebacker Matthew Judon failing to reach an agreement on a long-term contract.

That means the 2019 Pro Bowl selection must play the upcoming season under the tag amount of $16.808 million and is scheduled to again become an unrestricted free agent next March. Both sides had been quiet about negotiations throughout the process with no indication that a deal was close.

The 28-year-old signed his franchise tender in late May, eliminating any real possibility of him holding out during training camp. Unlike fellow tagged edge rushers Shaq Barrett and Bud Dupree who filed grievances against their respective teams after being classified as linebackers, Judon was able to work out a compromise with the Ravens to split the difference between the linebacker ($15.828 million) and defensive end ($17.788) amounts. Earlier this offseason, the 6-foot-3, 261-pound linebacker said he was “blessed” to receive the tag, a more diplomatic stance than others prevented from hitting the open market.

“I want to stay here for as long as I play, but I understand that it’s a business and that they’ve kind of got a ‘bad-good’ problem to have,” Judon said last month. “We have a lot of young talent, and unfortunately, we can’t all stay on the rookie deal our whole careers. They have stuff that they have to address, and obviously, I have needs as well.”

Despite a career season in which Judon registered a team-leading 9 1/2 sacks and ranked fourth in the NFL with 33 quarterback hits, some have pointed to defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s blitz-heavy system as reason to question whether the 2016 fifth-round pick from Grand Valley State is worthy of being paid among the league’s elite pass rushers. Still, Judon was easily Baltimore’s best performer at outside linebacker last year after the free-agent departure of seven-time Pro Bowl selection Terrell Suggs, and 2019 third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson is the only notable Ravens outside linebacker under contract beyond the upcoming season.

The climate for a long-term contract for Judon doesn’t figure to improve next offseason because of both the financial uncertainty stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and the pending free agency of Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who would be an obvious candidate for the franchise tag in the absence of a long-term extension. General manager Eric DeCosta must also weigh the long-term contract situations for 2019 MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson, All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey, Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews, and Pro Bowl right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., all players working toward top-tier contracts at their respective positions in the near future.

As Judon alluded to in his recent comments, the Ravens simply may not be able to pay everyone.

With 28 1/2 sacks, seven forced fumbles, seven pass breakups, and 185 tackles in 62 career games, Judon became the seventh player to receive the franchise tag in team history and will become the first to play out a season on the tag since Suggs in 2008. The Ravens awarded Suggs with a long-term contract the following summer and eventually reached long-term agreements with five of those previous six players who were tagged, the exception being interior offensive lineman Wally Williams after the 1998 season.

With Judon’s guaranteed salary now locked in barring a trade, the Ravens entered Wednesday with $8.886 million in salary cap space for the 2020 campaign.

Below is a history of how the Ravens have used the franchise tag in their 25 seasons:

1998 OL Wally Williams — played on a $3.062 million tag before signing a five-year, $18.5 million deal with New Orleans the following offseason
2003-04 CB Chris McAlister — signed a seven-year, $55 million extension in October 2004
2008-09 OLB Terrell Suggs — signed a six-year, $62.5 million extension in July 2009
2011 DT Haloti Ngata — signed a five-year, $61 million extension in Sept. 2011
2012 RB Ray Rice — signed a five-year, $35 million extension in July 2012
2016 K Justin Tucker — signed a four-year, $16.8 million extension in July 2016
2020 OLB Matthew Judon — will play on a $16.808 million tag and is scheduled for free agency in 2021

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McPhee, Ravens agree to one-year deal for 2020 season

Posted on 05 May 2020 by Luke Jones

After not adding an edge rusher during the 2020 draft, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta turned to a familiar face to add viable depth to the position.

Baltimore announced a one-year agreement to re-sign outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who returned to the team who originally drafted him last year and started seven games before a torn triceps against Seattle ended his 2019 season. McPhee, 31, finished tied for third on the team with three sacks and tied for fifth with six quarterback hits while effectively setting the edge against the run.

McPhee’s injury pushed 2019 third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson into a starting role in the second half of the season, but the veteran was able to revitalize his career after failing to register a sack in 13 games for Washington a year earlier. Selected by the Ravens in the fifth round of the 2011 draft out of Mississippi State, McPhee relished the opportunity to return to the place he won a Super Bowl and spent the first four seasons of his career, signing a one-year, $1.03 million last May.

“He wanted to prove himself. He wanted to get back on track and demonstrate that he still could play,” said head coach John Harbaugh after McPhee’s season-ending injury last October. “And to do it here, to be the leader that he was, he’s been instrumental. He’s been instrumental with the young guys. He’s been a very good player for us.

“I see no reason why he can’t recover from a triceps injury and be back next year stronger than ever.”

With Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon continuing to man the strong side after receiving the franchise tag earlier this offseason, the trio of McPhee, Ferguson, and Jihad Ward are likely to compete for the starting rush linebacker job. Regardless of how the rotation plays out, the Ravens would like to keep McPhee on a more limited snap count after he averaged a career-high 42.5 defensive snaps per game through the first six weeks of 2019 as an edge defender and an inside rusher in passing situations.

Over nine NFL seasons, McPhee has collected 34 sacks, six forced fumbles, and 15 pass breakups in 116 games.

In other roster news, the Ravens have signed 2020 fifth-round defensive tackle Broderick Washington, the first of their 10 draft picks to ink his rookie contract.

Baltimore also signed the following undrafted free agents: Utah defensive back Josh Nurse, Elon defensive end Marcus Willoughby, Tennessee-Martin wide receiver Jaylon Moore, Northern Arizona cornerback Khalil Dorsey, Tennessee safety Nigel Warrior, and Georgia tight end Eli Wolf. The Ravens have officially added 14 rookie free agents since the conclusion of the draft.

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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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Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Miles Boykin catches a pass in front of Los Angeles Rams cornerback Troy Hill during the second half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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Five Ravens players potentially impacted most by 2020 draft

Posted on 16 April 2020 by Luke Jones

With the NFL draft just a week away, the Ravens will welcome a new batch of young talent that will impact their fortunes for 2020 and beyond.

However, many of those additions will have an adverse effect on players already on the roster, ranging from stiffer competition and fewer opportunities to a diminished role or eventual unemployment. It’s a reason why observers often say the NFL could stand for “Not For Long” with the high turnover rate of rosters every year.

The following young players wouldn’t seem to find themselves in any short-term roster jeopardy, but the outcome of this year’s draft could substantially impact their standing for the coming season and beyond:

WR Miles Boykin

Many anticipate general manager Eric DeCosta adding at least one wide receiver in the draft, but how early that selection comes could be the difference in projecting Boykin to be a starter or more of a No. 3 or No. 4 option. The 2019 third-round pick from Notre Dame flashed some big-play ability with four receptions of 18 or more yards as a rookie, but he registered just 13 catches while playing 425 offensive snaps in the regular season. At worst, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound wideout with good straight-line speed remains an attractive deep-ball option, but Baltimore using a first- or second-round pick in such a deep receiver class would likely indicate less confidence in Boykin taking a big step forward this season.

S DeShon Elliott

The 2018 sixth-round pick from Texas flashed range and physicality over his first two offseasons, but injuries have limited him to just six career games as he suffered a season-ending knee injury last October and sat out his rookie year with a broken forearm. Starting safeties Earl Thomas and Chuck Clark are under contract for the next few years, but Baltimore employed extensive three-safety packages in the second half of 2019 with ex-Raven Brandon Carr entering on the back end and Clark moving to the box. That doesn’t mean defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will do the same in 2020, but the Ravens spending a draft pick at safety over the first half of the draft wouldn’t be the best sign for Elliott.

OLB Jaylon Ferguson

A 2019 third-round pick from Louisiana Tech thrown into a starting role after the season-ending injury to Pernell McPhee, Ferguson showed growth setting the edge down the stretch and should maintain a significant role. However, the Ravens covet another edge defender to bring more juice to the pass rush opposite Matthew Judon, and Ferguson needs to diversify his technique beyond the bull rush on which he relied heavily in college. There’s a drop-off after Ohio State’s Chase Young in this draft, but there are other pass-rushing options in the early rounds who could help. Ferguson is a player who could really benefit from a normal offseason in Owings Mills, but that’s not happening with the current pandemic.

RB Justice Hill

I wrote extensively about the running back position on Wednesday, but it would be naive to assume DeCosta would pass on adding more talent and depth to the group with the ground attack being the lifeblood of Greg Roman’s offense. Hill’s 66 touches as a rookie were more a product of there being only one football to go around, but he flashed over the final couple games after the calf injury to Pro Bowl veteran Mark Ingram and could be in line for an increased share of carries in 2020. His 200-pound build doesn’t suggest his surprising ability to break tackles, but the Ravens refraining from adding a late Day 2 or early Day 3 running back would bode well for Hill’s status for the next year or two.

G Ben Powers

Replacing potential Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda is a daunting task, but the Ravens have refrained from adding a veteran so far and released reserve James Hurst last month, putting more spotlight on Powers and the draft. The 2019 fourth-round pick from Oklahoma was inactive for the first 15 games before playing an effective 30 snaps in the Week 17 finale against Pittsburgh, which isn’t a sample on which to make a confident decision. The Ravens could target an offensive tackle to move inside or Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz in the first round or look to Day 2 for an option like Ohio State’s Jonah Jackson or Temple’s Matt Hennessy, but the longer they wait would be a greater endorsement for Powers’ starting chances.

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How did Ravens outside linebackers stack up to rest of NFL in 2019?

Posted on 28 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 outside linebackers ranked across the NFL this past season followed by the positional outlook going into 2020:

Safeties
Running backs
Cornerbacks
Wide receivers
Defensive linemen
Tight ends
Inside linebackers
Offensive linemen

Matthew Judon
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 840
PFF ranking: 44th among edge defenders
Skinny: Baltimore’s sack leader is polarizing with PFF ranking him 51st in pass-rush win rate and labeling 35 of his 62 pressures as unblocked or coming in cleanup situations while ESPN viewed his win rate more favorably until some late-season fade. Ranking fourth in the NFL in quarterback hits, Judon is certainly valuable, but how that aligns with what he’ll ultimately be paid is the difficult question.

Jaylon Ferguson
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 535
PFF ranking: 88th among edge defenders
Skinny: A healthy scratch for two games to begin the season, injuries pushed the 2019 third-round pick from Louisiana Tech into a starting role after the bye week. Ferguson showed growth as a run defender as the season progressed, but he registered just 2 1/2 sacks and nine quarterback hits, not adding much bite to a pass rush that needed more impact.

Tyus Bowser
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 401
PFF ranking: 38th among edge defenders
Skinny: The 2017 second-round pick had the best season of his career with five sacks and flashed in pass coverage, but inconsistency and struggles playing the run continued to hold him back from a larger role. Bowser is the Ravens’ most experienced outside linebacker under control for 2020, but he is entering a contract year and must build on his improvement in what could be a bigger role.

Jihad Ward
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 402
PFF ranking: 99th among edge defenders
Skinny: Ward’s numbers certainly didn’t stand out with just seven tackles and one sack, but Ravens coaches and teammates praised his dirty work in the rotation after signing in early October. The former second-round pick was solid setting the edge and would also line up inside in obvious passing situations, the kind of positional versatility Baltimore valued after Pernell McPhee was lost for the season.

Pernell McPhee
2019 defensive snap count (including postseason): 260
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: Signed to a one-year, $1.03 million contract to return to Baltimore last spring, the Super Bowl XLVII champion was everything the Ravens could have expected with 19 tackles and three sacks before he tore his triceps in Week 7. The 31-year-old seems unlikely to be a top priority and was forced into playing too many snaps last season, but he still fits the profile of a solid rotation option at the right price.

2020 positional outlook

The Judon decision may very well define the offseason as the Ravens must choose whether to use more than half of their projected salary cap space for the franchise tag, make him one of the NFL’s highest-paid edge rushers, or lose him and then be forced to make multiple additions to this position group. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale relied on the blitz more than anyone in the league last year, but the Ravens ranked only 21st in the NFL with 37 sacks, making it clear that work needs to be done at this position even if Judon stays put. This will be a big offseason for Ferguson, who didn’t show enough to justify penciling him in for more than a rotational role if the Ravens are serious about improving off the edge. Like last season, a strong secondary and Martindale’s aggressive mindset can cover up for some deficiencies, but Baltimore needs to be more disruptive with a conventional four-man rush than what we saw last year.

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New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, right, tries to make a pass while taking a hit from Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce (97) during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Want or need? Assessing Ravens position groups entering offseason

Posted on 21 January 2020 by Luke Jones

Need is a relative term when assessing the Ravens roster after a franchise-best 14-2 regular season that set all kinds of franchise and NFL records.

The sting of their divisional-round loss to Tennessee will linger for a long time, but perspective is critical when sizing up a roster that included the best offense in the league and one of the top defenses by season’s end. That’s not to say improvements aren’t in order and change isn’t inevitable with 17 Baltimore players set to become unrestricted free agents, but the Ravens would easily remain a playoff-caliber team on paper after even a ho-hum offseason of free-agent departures and only pedestrian additions. Having an MVP quarterback, an innovative offense with no unrestricted free agents of real consequence, and a great secondary will go a long way in covering up any deficiencies elsewhere.

Yes, the early playoff exit was a bitter disappointment and a missed opportunity as the AFC’s No. 1 seed, but this isn’t a roster in need of major surgery as much as some fine-tuning after having a bad game at the wrong time. It’s an enviable place when you have close to $30 million in salary cap space and a fresh batch of draft picks in April. But as John Harbaugh often likes to recite the quote attributed to former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, “Every day you either get better or you get worse; you never stay the same.”

Below is a look at what positions the Ravens absolutely need to address or simply would like to upgrade between now and the start of the 2020 season:

Edge defender/outside linebacker — NEED

Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale made it work after the departures of Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, but this position group remains a major concern with 2019 Pro Bowl selection Matthew Judon and depth pieces Pernell McPhee and Jihad Ward set to become free agents. Tyus Bowser took a step forward with five sacks in his third season and 2019 third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson showed growth as the year progressed, but viewing either as a definite 2020 starter would be too optimistic based on the body of work. Even if Baltimore gives Judon a blank check or the franchise tag to keep him, finding an additional impact outside linebacker is a clear objective. The Ravens blitzed more than any team in the NFL to create pressure in 2019, but more impactful four-man rushes would make this defense even more dangerous. Setting the edge against the run was also an inconsistency that was often masked by Baltimore holding so many big leads that forced opponents to abandon the ground game.

Wide receiver — WANT

I have been a broken record about Baltimore’s deficiency at wide receiver for years and noted during the Tennessee loss that another impact option would be really useful, but classifying wide receiver as a want goes back to keeping the proper perspective. You wouldn’t expect offensive coordinator Greg Roman to move away from featuring the tight ends with the success Lamar Jackson has passing to that trio between the numbers, and rookie first-round wide receiver Marquise Brown showed unique ability despite being hampered by foot and ankle issues. When you add the presence of veteran Willie Snead and the potential of 2019 third-round pick Miles Boykin, the requisite floor and upside are there — even if barely — to think the Ravens can win a Super Bowl. Still, adding a dynamic wide receiver to make plays when Baltimore trails and to have a presence outside the numbers would take Jackson and the NFL’s leading scoring offense to another level, a frightening thought for opponents.

Interior offensive line — WANT*

The asterisk is connected to eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and his decision whether to return for a 14th season. If Yanda comes back, the Ravens remain in good short-term shape on the offensive line as undrafted rookie Patrick Mekari filled in respectably at center for Matt Skura, whose major knee injury makes him a question mark until at least training camp. However, Yanda’s retirement would make this a significant need with 2019 fourth-round guard Ben Powers not exactly making an impact as a rookie and the Ravens losing a Hall of Fame talent in a position group not sporting a ton of experience. You feel more confident about Skura or Mekari at center, Bradley Bozeman at left guard, and Orlando Brown Jr. at right tackle because of Yanda’s presence and elite play. Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley may help fill the leadership void, but you just don’t replace a special player like Yanda.

Inside linebacker — NEED

This year marked only the seventh time in 24 seasons in which the Ravens didn’t receive a Pro Bowl invitation at this position, speaking to the impossible standard created by Ray Lewis and the commendable run from C.J. Mosley before his free-agent departure last March. General manager Eric DeCosta deserves credit for the in-season additions of Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort to stabilize the position, but that came after the organization underestimated the problems Patrick Onwuasor, Kenny Young, and Chris Board would have stepping into larger roles. Martindale effectively mixed and matched Bynes, Fort, and Onwuasor while often dropping safety Chuck Clark into the box in sub packages, but finding a complete three-down linebacker would decrease the likelihood of the defense getting caught with a second level that’s either too light against the run or too slow in coverage. Re-signing Bynes would certainly be on the table, but a younger every-down option would be preferable. Baltimore doesn’t need an All-Pro inside linebacker to have a great defense, but substituting so frequently was less than ideal.

Interior defensive line — NEED

Giving a big contract to Michael Pierce wouldn’t appear to be in the plans with Brandon Williams still having two years remaining on his deal and Pierce not making a strong argument for the Ravens to commit to him after weight concerns in the offseason and a solid but unspectacular 2019 campaign. Baltimore’s pursuit of six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy last spring highlighted a desire to find an interior pass rusher, but Chris Wormley and 2019 fifth-round pick Daylon Mack are the only other defensive linemen under contract for the 2020 campaign beyond the soon-to-be 31-year-old Williams. In other words, the Ravens have much work to do here to fortify their depth against the run while trying to find an inside option or two who can also get after the quarterback.

Cornerback — WANT

No one would classify cornerback as a need with 2019 Pro Bowl selections Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey both under contract and slot cornerback Tavon Young expected to be ready for the offseason program after a season-ending neck injury suffered in August. However, you can never have enough depth at this critical spot with Jimmy Smith set to become an unrestricted free agent and Brandon Carr carrying a $6 million price tag for his 2020 option and transitioning to more of a safety role this past season. A modest short-term extension could make sense for Smith, but committing substantial money to someone who will be 32 in July and has played in more than 12 games in a season only twice in nine years doesn’t sound appealing. Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall bring some upside as recent fourth-round selections, but relying on either as the first wave of depth would be risky.

Special teams — WANT

The Ravens signing unrestricted free-agent cornerback Justin Bethel in the first week of free agency last March reinforced their commitment to this phase of the game that goes beyond specialists Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, and Morgan Cox. With that in mind, Anthony Levine, Chris Moore, Brynden Trawick, Jordan Richards, and De’Anthony Thomas will all be unrestricted free agents after playing at least 120 special-teams snaps apiece for Baltimore this season. Whether re-signing a few members of that group or using resources to sign a veteran or two on the open market, the Ravens seem likely to address special teams after being underwhelming in that department — at least by their lofty standards — down the stretch.

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Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, center, has the ball knocked loose as he is hit by Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon (99), right, during the first half of an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. The fumble was recovered by Ravens defensive end Jihad Ward. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Week 14 win at Buffalo

Posted on 09 December 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winning their ninth straight game in a 24-17 final over Buffalo to officially clinch a playoff spot, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. You thought it could be over when Baltimore received the ball with seven minutes left, but a clock-smothering offense was stonewalled, leaving it up to the defense. As Matthew Judon said, “We want to be the heroes sometimes.” Late (and questionable) penalties aside, the defense saved the day.

2. Despite holding an opponent under 20 points for the seventh time in eight games, the defense had some shakier coverage than the numbers suggest. Bills quarterback Josh Allen missed some shots and was harassed to the tune of six sacks and 12 hits. The difference in quarterback play was obvious.

3. Sunday wasn’t his best day as Lamar Jackson fought challenging elements and a tough defense for the second straight week, but he shook off a rough first half to go 11-for-15 for 115 yards and two touchdowns after intermission. You’re probably the MVP favorite when a three-touchdown day feels ho-hum.

4. Hayden Hurst has faced an uphill battle after a foot injury as a rookie, but his 61-yard touchdown to begin the second half was massive and he’s caught 26 of 32 targets this season. Has Hurst really been a disappointment or has Mark Andrews’ phenom status simply hurt his perception?

5. The only thing better than Marcus Peters’ breakup of Allen’s fourth-down throw to John Brown to seal the victory was his Stone Cold Steve Austin-like celebration. He bounced back from last week’s rough showing against San Francisco in a big way with three pass breakups and four tackles.

6. When the 4-2 Ravens began a stretch of six of seven against teams over .500 in October, you probably hoped for a 5-2 mark and would have lived with a 4-3 record. Baltimore went 7-0 with a plus-150 point differential and is 7-1 against teams currently 8-5 or better. Domination.

7. Credit the Bills defense for limiting the Ravens to a season-low 118 rushing yards. To hold Jackson to his lowest rushing total since Week 1 and Mark Ingram to just 3.3 yards per carry was impressive and helps explain why Greg Roman was so out of sync as a play-caller.

8. Sam Koch’s seven punts more than doubled his previous season high (three). He hadn’t punted more than four times in any of Jackson’s first 19 regular-season starts, so you hope his kicking leg is recovered enough in time for Thursday night.

9. With their offense shattering franchise records left and right, you could have made some money betting on the Ravens being part of the first NFL game this season in which both teams had fewer than 100 yards of offense in the first half. Sports are funny.

10. Marquise Brown has four catches for minus-one yard and the Ravens have logged only two plays of 20 or more yards that weren’t aided by penalty over the last two games. Dealing with foot and ankle issues, the rookie could probably use a January bye week as much as anyone.

11. Jaylon Ferguson rebounding from last week’s performance against San Francisco was encouraging as the rookie registered a sack, three quarterback hits, and three tackles. His continued development will be critical down the stretch, especially against outside runs.

12. The Ravens tied the franchise record with their sixth road win of 2019 and extended their team-record away winning streak to five. Because of that, they will very likely play just one more road game this season — unless you want to consider Miami on Feb. 2.

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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, right, is tackled by Los Angeles Rams defensive end Dante Fowler during the second half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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NFL milestone could come exactly as Lamar Jackson prefers it

Posted on 05 December 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The records and achievements have come at such a prolific rate for Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson that they’ve almost become white noise in an MVP-caliber season.

On Wednesday, the 22-year-old became the first Ravens quarterback to ever be named AFC Offensive Player of the Month after an incredible November that included 13 touchdown passes, three touchdown runs, a 76.2 completion percentage, a 143.7 passer rating, 777 passing yards, 300 rushing yards, no turnovers, and — what he cares about most — a 4-0 record. But his next potential feat isn’t a run-of-the-mill weekly award or an obscure record you’d need the Elias Sports Bureau to confirm.

A week after surpassing Randall Cunningham and Bobby Douglass on the single-season list, Jackson needs only 63 rushing yards — a total he’s eclipsed in nine of his last 11 games — to break Michael Vick’s NFL record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season. Vick rushed for 1,039 yards in 2006, but Jackson is currently on pace to run for an amazing 1,302 yards in his first full season as a starter. For context, a player rushed for 1,300 yards only eight times over the previous four NFL seasons and no Raven has reached that mark since Ray Rice (1,364) in 2011.

For a young player who’s tried to downplay weekly awards and MVP hype in favor of team-oriented goals throughout the season, this record certainly carries meaning.

“It would be an honor. Like I’ve said, Michael Vick is my favorite player,” Jackson said. “For me to do such a thing, it’s incredible. He had that record for a long time, and it will be pretty cool. But I’m focused on the win regardless.”

With winning always at the forefront of Jackson’s mind, breaking Vick’s record on the same day the Ravens can clinch a playoff spot with a win at Buffalo — and possibly their second straight AFC North division championship if Pittsburgh also loses at Arizona — would be exactly how he likes it.

Jackson has now rushed for at least 60 yards in nine straight games, the kind of consistency for which the best running backs in the league strive. That he’s continued to run at such a historic pace while also being a top 10-caliber passer — if not even better than that — is why he’s the clear favorite to be NFL MVP. It’s the stuff of video games if a game of Madden were as fun as watching the electrifying Jackson make defenders look silly in the open field.

“Lamar is a generational talent in my opinion running the ball, and a lot of people understand that,” right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “People want to stop him. People want to slow him down and all those different things. People haven’t really figured out how to do it yet. I’m sure there isn’t an answer.”

There really isn’t one at this point, but Jackson would gladly take a quiet day with his legs against the Bills as long as the Ravens officially punch their ticket for January football. And that mindset is part of what makes him so special.

Cleaning up run defense

The 174 rushing yards allowed — 146 by Raheem Mostert — in last Sunday’s 20-17 win over San Francisco grabbed the Ravens’ attention preparing for Buffalo’s fifth-ranked ground attack this week.

The Bills rank 10th in the NFL in rushing efficiency while the Baltimore run defense will try to bounce back from its worst game since the Week 4 loss to Cleveland. The Ravens did limit the 49ers to just nine yards on five carries in the fourth quarter after San Francisco had much success running outside.

“There were some edge issues that we had with Jaylon [Ferguson], and it was just a different look that a rookie hasn’t seen,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “We worked on it because we know how this league is. If they see a scab scratched, they’re going to keep trying to attack it and we’ve worked on it. That’s been a point of emphasis for us going into this game. We just had too many missed tackles on that [40-yard touchdown run], and what I liked is how we bounced back in the second half.”

Should Ferguson’s Week 13 problems holding the edge carry over against Buffalo, veteran Jihad Ward seeing more snaps at outside linebacker wouldn’t be surprising.

Special moment for Humphrey

Marlon Humphrey said he’d never blocked a field goal in practice, college, or even high school, but his deflection of 49ers kicker Robbie Gould’s 51-yard attempt to end the first half proved to be a critical play in the three-point win.

The play sparked an enthusiastic embrace as part of a big day for the Baltimore special-teams units.

“We prepared, we talked about it. We said, ‘We have an opportunity,’ if we got in that situation,” special teams coach Chris Horton said. “I was really excited for him. It was our first blocked kick as a staff, so it was just a really exciting moment. And I think it was deserving of a big hug.”

Thursday’s injury report

Defensive tackle Brandon Williams was the only player on the 53-man roster not to practice on Thursday as he received a veteran day off.

Wide receiver Marquise Brown (ankle) was added to the injury report as a limited participant, which hasn’t been uncommon over the course of the season.

Below is the full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Brandon Williams (non-injury)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Marquise Brown (ankle), CB Marlon Humphrey (thigh), LB Patrick Onwuasor (ankle), WR Seth Roberts (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: TE Nick Boyle (illness), CB Brandon Carr (non-injury), RB Mark Ingram (non-injury), CB Jimmy Smith (non-injury), S Earl Thomas (non-injury)

BUFFALO
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Lorenzo Alexander (non-injury), RB Frank Gore (non-injury), OT Ty Nsekhe (ankle), G Quinton Spain (illness), RB T.J. Yeldon (illness)

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Five Ravens players to watch for rest of 2019 season

Posted on 25 October 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are 5-2 atop the AFC North and are enjoying their bye week with a winning record for the first time since 2014, but unknowns remain that will surely impact the rest of this season and beyond.

Which individuals a bit more on the periphery than budding stars such as Lamar Jackson and Marlon Humphrey could have a significant impact on the second half of the season as well as future decision-making?

Below are five players to watch for the remainder of the season:

WR Miles Boykin

It’s no secret that production from wide receivers not named Marquise Brown has been less than stellar this season, in part because of the lack of opportunities in a run-first offense prominently featuring tight ends. But the last few weeks have illustrated the need for another dependable option to emerge for the Ravens to alleviate some of the pressure on Jackson, who’s accumulated 56.7 percent of his season rushing attempts over the last three games in which Brown was either out or limited. Boykin has reeled in nine of his 13 targets, a percentage high enough to warrant more looks. After experiencing some growing pains, the 6-foot-4 wideout stepping up would improve the Ravens’ chances the rest of the way while easing some of the urgency for general manager Eric DeCosta to add more help at the position in the offseason.

S Chuck Clark

Since losing Tony Jefferson to a season-ending knee injury in Pittsburgh, the Ravens couldn’t have asked for more from Clark, who has played well in Jefferson’s absence and seamlessly assumed the responsibilities of relaying calls in the defensive huddle. Pro Football Focus has graded the 2017 sixth-round pick from Virginia Tech as the NFL’s 17th-best safety this season and much more favorably in pass coverage than Jefferson. Clark proved his worth as a valuable backup filling in for Jefferson last season, but a strong finish to the season could give him the inside track on the 2020 starting job with Jefferson entering the final year of his contract and scheduled to make $7 million in base salary while recovering from a major knee injury. Clark’s challenge now is to show week-to-week consistency.

OLB Jaylon Ferguson

Whether or not the right pass rusher at the right price becomes available for a successful trade before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline, the Ravens will be depending on the third-round rookie from Louisiana Tech to step up with the versatile Pernell McPhee gone for the season with a triceps injury. Defensive line coach Joe Cullen confirmed Ferguson will be used in McPhee’s hybrid role in which he’ll line up as an edge defender or as an interior rusher in sub packages. That’s a lot to ask of someone who was a healthy scratch at the start of the season, but the silver lining is the Ravens will get a long look as how effective Ferguson can be at the next level, which contrasts how the first couple years played out with Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams. That knowledge should assist in how to attack the pass rush this offseason.

TE Hayden Hurst

His rookie year was a lost cause because of a foot injury that lingered throughout the season, but the former first-round pick has remained a bit player in Baltimore’s offense so far while fellow 2018 draft choice Mark Andrews is rapidly becoming one of the best tight ends in the NFL. Hurst has caught 14 of his 18 targets this season — the team’s highest percentage from any non-running back — but PFF has graded him as the worst run-blocking tight end in the league entering Week 8 while Andrews has shown marked improvement in that area. Hurst’s name has reportedly been mentioned in trade discussions, but there’s still time for him to carve out a more meaningful role in this offense, especially with the Ravens looking for a more prominent No. 3 pass-catching option behind Andrews and Brown.

CB Marcus Peters

The trade sending linebacker Kenny Young and a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams paid immediate dividends with Peters returning an interception for a touchdown in the impressive 30-16 win over Seattle. Leading the NFL in picks (25) and interceptions returned for touchdowns (five) since his rookie season in 2015, Peters has a propensity for making big plays while also giving up some of his own, a high-variance quality that will be interesting to watch the rest of the way. He’ll be a free agent in March, which gives DeCosta another decision to make with Jimmy Smith also hitting the market and the team holding a 2020 option for Brandon Carr. There’s also the matter of planning for the massive extension the 23-year-old Humphrey will very likely command in the not-too-distant future.

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Ravens lose McPhee for season, cut Bethel to recoup compensatory pick

Posted on 21 October 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Coming off their best performance of the season in which two takeaways were returned for touchdowns, the Ravens still can’t catch a break on defense.

After leaving the game early in the second quarter of Sunday’s 30-16 win over Seattle, veteran outside linebacker Pernell McPhee is expected to miss the remainder of the season with what’s believed to be a torn triceps, according to head coach John Harbaugh. It’s a major blow to a pass rush that has recorded just 12 sacks over the first seven games of the season and has struggled to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks.

The 30-year-old had collected three sacks and started all seven games after signing a one-year, $1.03 million contract in May to return to Baltimore to help fill the void left by free-agent departures Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith and rejuvenate a career plagued by injuries in recent years. Expected to be more of a situational rusher before younger edge defenders struggled in the preseason, McPhee was averaging a career-high 42.5 defensive snaps per game through the first six weeks, serving both as an edge defender and as an interior rusher in obvious passing situations.

“He wanted to prove himself. He wanted to get back on track and demonstrate that he still could play,” Harbaugh said. “And to do it here, to be the leader that he was, he’s been instrumental. He’s been instrumental with the young guys. He’s been a very good player for us.

“I see no reason why he can’t recover from a triceps injury and be back next year stronger than ever.”

McPhee’s injury creates even more urgency for general manager Eric DeCosta to add pass-rushing help by the Oct. 29 trade deadline, but the Ravens started Monday with just $1.933 million in 2019 salary cap space, according to the NFL Players Association. With McPhee playing only 12 defensive snaps against Seattle, rookie Jaylon Ferguson played 46 defensive snaps, third-year outside linebacker Tyus Bowser played 22, and situational rusher Jihad Ward saw 39.

With limited resources available and not knowing how much other teams might ask for an impact pass rusher in a potential trade, the Ravens’ best bet for meaningful improvement might be the continued development of Ferguson, who was drafted in the third round out of Louisiana Tech in April and holds the NCAA Division I career sacks record previously set by Suggs. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound Ferguson finished with three tackles (one for a loss) and a quarterback hit against the Seahawks.

“He played his best game, a very physical game and against a couple of really big, grabby tackles to say the least,” Harbaugh said. “He was strong at the point of attack and applied pressure, ran to the ball. He played really well.”

Sunday marked the third straight game in which a Baltimore defensive player was lost to a season-ending injury after starting strong safety Tony Jefferson sustained a torn ACL in Week 5 and reserve safety DeShon Elliott hurt his knee in Week 6.

Business decision with Bethel

The Ravens signing unrestricted free-agent cornerback Justin Bethel in the opening week of free agency was always surprising because of the negative impact on the compensatory pick formula, but it spoke to how they valued the three-time Pro Bowl special-teams player.

Their hand was forced over the weekend, however, when Tennessee released former Baltimore defensive end Brent Urban, a move that would have stripped the Ravens of a projected 2020 fourth-round compensatory pick had Bethel remained on the roster through Week 10. Despite the 29-year-old leading Baltimore with four special-teams tackles this season, DeCosta simply couldn’t justify passing on an early Day 3 draft pick to keep someone who’s played only 16 defensive snaps this season.

Bethel was released Monday, giving the coaching staff time over the bye week to account for his departure.

“That’s tough for us because he’s playing [so well],” Harbaugh said. “I told him I think he’s the best special-teams player in the NFL, and he’s playing that way. That’s going to be a blow, and we’re going to have to find a way to overcome that.”

Full strength after bye week?

Despite the McPhee injury, Harbaugh expressed optimism about his team’s health coming out of the Week 8 bye with an exciting Nov. 3 showdown with New England looming.

Wide receiver Marquise Brown (ankle) and inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor (ankle) have missed the last two games while cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee) has been out since the season opener, but all are on track to return against the Patriots, according to Harbaugh. Reserve cornerback Maurice Canady also missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury suffered against Cincinnati in Week 6.

“We feel very confident we should have all those guys back barring a setback, so to speak, and I can’t even imagine what that would be right now,” Harbaugh said. “Very optimistic that we’ll be full strength coming out of the bye.”

Smith worked out on a limited basis last week before missing his sixth straight game, but neither Brown nor Onwuasor have seen the practice field since being injured in the Week 5 win at Pittsburgh.

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