Tag Archive | "John Harbaugh"

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) celebrates a 61-yard touchdown play with Marshal Yanda during the second half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/John Munson)

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Ravens have much work to do to replace the “irreplaceable”

Posted on 07 April 2020 by Luke Jones

Four weeks after eight-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda announced his retirement, the Ravens have yet to address the right guard position.

That’s hardly surprising with few appealing options hitting the free-agent market last month, but that’s not to suggest the Ravens are nonchalant about filling the void left behind by one of the best players in franchise history. There’s no easy fix.

“It’s going to be really hard. I think he’s irreplaceable, bottom line,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “You can’t say that you’re going to plug in another Marshal Yanda. Probably the same thing applied to Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. To me, he’s in that category.”

Unlike those Hall of Famers at the end of their brilliant careers, however, Yanda was still playing very close to his peak level as he was a second-team AP All-Pro selection and Pro Football Focus graded him as the NFL’s fourth-best guard last season. After Super Bowl XLVII, it was pretty clearly time for Lewis to walk away and the Ravens were content watching Houston pay big money for the player Reed no longer was by 2013.

The best in-house comparison might be Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden, who was still playing at an elite level and had been named to his 11th straight Pro Bowl in 2007 before retiring because of a chronic toe issue. It also serves as a reminder that the sky isn’t falling as the Ravens rebounded from a 5-11 campaign in Ogden’s final season to advance to the AFC Championship in 2008 with the unheralded Jared Gaither manning left tackle. Led by league MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson, a Baltimore offense that set numerous team and league records last year isn’t going to collapse without Yanda.

Ultimately, it’s a team sport with few non-quarterbacks providing make-or-break individual value, but Yanda’s elite play, institutional knowledge, and understated leadership will be missed on an offense that’s still very young.

“Taking Marshal out of that equation is not just a one-guy deal,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a force multiplier. He exponentially makes the offensive line better because he makes all the players around him so much better, including the quarterback and the rest of the offensive line. We’re going to have to really do a great job there. That’s one of the biggest challenges. It’s probably job one or two. We’ve got to make sure that we do a great job of making sure the interior offensive line is all set.”

With the proper perspective, replacing a Hall of Fame talent doesn’t have to be a nightmare. In the wake of Lewis’ retirement in 2013, the Ravens did strike out with second-round pick Arthur Brown, but the June signing of veteran Daryl Smith brought short-term stability at inside linebacker and first-round pick C.J. Mosley arrived a year later to make four Pro Bowls in five seasons with Baltimore.

Replacing Reed at safety proved more problematic with the Ravens burning through failed draft picks and underwhelming value signings over a three-year period before finally inking Eric Weddle to calm the back end of the secondary in 2016. With Jackson still playing on a rookie contract, the Ravens don’t want to compromise their Super Bowl aspirations by failing to solve the right guard spot to a satisfactory level.

This year’s draft class isn’t littered with first-round-caliber guards, but general manager Eric DeCosta says he sees no shortage of starting-caliber potential, including some offensive tackles who would be good fits to move inside in Baltimore’s system.

“I think we’ve shown in the past that we can find guys in the second, third, fourth, fifth rounds, offensive linemen who can come in and play,” DeCosta said. “We’re fortunate that we’ve got a great [offensive line] coach in Joe [D’Alessandris], who can develop younger players. We’ve seen that over and over and over again. We’re excited about that, and we’ll find some guys for sure.”

There isn’t a perfect answer, of course, as second-year guard Ben Powers, an early 2020 draft pick, or even a potential value signing like former Raven Kelechi Osemele cannot be expected to play anywhere near Yanda’s level. The Ravens would be happy with solid and steady.

The cupboard is far from bare along the rest of the offensive line with All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley playing at an elite level last year and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. making the Pro Bowl as an alternate. Center Matt Skura was playing the best football of his career prior to sustaining a serious knee injury in late November while left guard Bradley Bozeman and backup center Patrick Mekari both looked the part of starting-caliber NFL linemen in 2018.

They’ll all need to play a part in filling Yanda’s massive shoes.

“We’ll see what we can do to try to get as close as we can, and the other part of it is that the rest of the guys have to step up,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, every player on offense has to be better without Marshal, especially every player on the offensive line coming back has to be that much better just [for the group] to be the same.

“It’s really going to be on all our shoulders to make that happen. Not just be the same, we’ve got to try to improve. We’ve got a lot of work to do with that.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on pre-draft conference call

Posted on 06 April 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens brass conducting its annual pre-draft press conference via conference call on Monday afternoon, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Eric DeCosta described this draft as “old school” with more reliance than normal on game tape after the pandemic canceled so many pre-draft activities. It should help immensely having so much experience and continuity in the front office, scouting department, and coaching staff.

2. Many have discussed the possibility of DeCosta trading up in the first round, but he’s always spoken about desiring more picks. With this class presenting more uncertainty for obvious reasons, I’d be more inclined to use as many of those seven selections in the top 150 spots as I could.

3. With the draft being conducted away from team facilities, John Harbaugh has conveyed his concerns to the Ravens’ information technology department about various reports of security breaches in the Zoom software that’s become so popular in our current world. League-wide paranoia figures to be at an all-time high.

4. DeCosta estimated having 185 “draftable” players on his board, up from last year’s pre-draft estimate. That seemingly supports opinions of this being a deep class since you’d anticipate more prospects than usual to be removed from team boards over questions that went unanswered because of canceled pro days and visits.

5. Asked if he had interest in Antonio Brown after the former All-Pro receiver recently worked out with cousin Marquise Brown and Lamar Jackson, DeCosta declined to comment. It’s tricky discussing a relative of one of your key players, but the unfiltered answer should be a simple and definitive no.

6. DeCosta complimented his current wide receivers and stated his belief that some guys are “going to make that jump,” but I’d be surprised if the Ravens wouldn’t take a swing at such a deep position in this draft with one of their five scheduled picks over the first three rounds.

7. While acknowledging the more complete inside linebackers in this class who’ve been discussed at great length, Joe Hortiz said there are multiple options who could help this multi-look defense in more situational roles. I wonder if the Ravens are more comfortable with the mix-and-match approach than we think.

8. Harbaugh comparing replacing Marshal Yanda to Ray Lewis and Ed Reed speaks to his respect for the retired guard and a need to temper expectations. In Lewis’ case, Baltimore signed the rock-solid Daryl Smith and drafted C.J. Mosley a year later. Replacing Reed at safety was a multiyear headache, however.

9. Plans are ongoing for virtual team meetings and strength and conditioning sessions for the offseason workout program that’s scheduled to begin in two weeks. Harbaugh noted there being no excuse for players not to be in shape upon reporting to the team facility, a reference to ex-Raven Michael Pierce.

10. According to Harbaugh, Derek Wolfe has been on him “like a fly on something” to send him a copy of the defensive playbook. You get the sense that the veteran defensive lineman is going to be a popular addition in numerous ways.

11. Living in close proximity but limited to remote communication in recent weeks, Harbaugh predicted he would meet up with DeCosta for a walk at some point before the start of the draft. As long as they’re a minimum of six feet apart, of course.

12. The fantasy football draft jokes will be flowing with team executives working from their homes, but DeCosta’s shaky internet connection during Monday’s session makes you hope he has a backup queue in place. Just in case.

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Baltimore Ravens defensive end Jihad Ward (53) sacks New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) on a third down play in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, in Baltimore. The Ravens won 37-20. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Ravens reportedly re-sign Ward, Ellis to continue building defensive front

Posted on 17 March 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens continued to reinforce their front seven by re-signing two depth pieces who brought relief  during the 2019 season.

According to NFL Network, defensive tackle Justin Ellis agreed to a one-year contract while The Athletic reported a deal with edge defender Jihad Ward on Tuesday. The Ravens had been working to retain both veterans in the weeks leading up to the official start of free agency.

Signed to a rotational role in early October, the 25-year-old Ward showed the ability to effectively set the edge against the run and the versatility to line up in different pass-rushing spots, helping fill the absence of the injured Pernell McPhee. The 2016 second-round pick of the Oakland Raiders collected seven tackles, one sack, a pass breakup, and two fumble recoveries in 372 snaps over 11 regular-season games. Despite those modest numbers, the 6-foot-5, 287-pound Ward drew praise from coaches and teammates for his contributions.

“This guy is a great fit in our defense. We liked him coming out of the draft,” head coach John Harbaugh said in January. “I remember our scouts liked him and our coaches liked him. I liked him. And then all of a sudden from a turn of events, he’s sitting there staring you in the face, and then you’re like, ‘Well, is he going to work for us?’ Man, he came up aces.”

Ellis, 29, was signed in mid-November as defensive tackle Michael Pierce was sidelined with an ankle injury. The 350-pound defensive lineman was a healthy scratch for three games in December, but he played well in limited snaps, making six tackles in four regular-season games and another in the divisional-round loss to Tennessee.

The deals hadn’t been officially announced as of Tuesday evening, but both players made references alluding to re-signing with the Ravens on their verified Instagram accounts.

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deanthonythomas

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Ravens re-sign return specialist De’Anthony Thomas

Posted on 14 March 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens re-signed wide receiver and return specialist De’Anthony Thomas to a one-year deal to presumably compete for a spot in what they hope will be an improved return game for the 2020 season.

Signed to the 53-man roster in early November, the former Kansas City Chief appeared in eight regular-season games, averaging 7.2 yards per punt return and 16.6 yards per kick return. The Ravens envisioned Thomas being an upgrade to previous punt returner Cyrus Jones and kick returner Justice Hill, but he posted worse averages as Baltimore would finish 30th in the NFL in team kick return average and eighth in team punt return average. The 27-year-old drew criticism in the playoff loss to Tennessee for an unnecessary roughness penalty that pushed the Ravens back to their own 5-yard line late in the first half, a foul that preceded a 91-yard drive resulting in only a field goal.

Thomas played only three offensive snaps for the Ravens last season, carrying the ball one time in the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh. In six seasons with the Chiefs, the 5-foot-8, 176-pound receiver caught 65 passes for 509 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 190 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries.

Despite their overall success on special teams in the John Harbaugh era, the Ravens have struggled to find explosiveness in the return game since the days of Jacoby Jones, featuring a revolving door of return men over the last five seasons.

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San Francisco 49ers running back Tevin Coleman (26) is taken down by Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon (99) in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Pro Bowl outside linebacker Judon receives franchise tag from Ravens

Posted on 13 March 2020 by Luke Jones

In a move anticipated for weeks, the Ravens have officially placed the franchise tag on Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon, which prevents other teams from pursuing him in free agency.

The question now becomes whether the 27-year-old will indeed remain with the Ravens if the sides are unable to strike a long-term agreement. General manager Eric DeCosta could attempt to trade him to another team — the tag-and-trade has become more popular in recent years — or Judon could balk at the reality of playing on the projected $16.3 million tag for the 2020 season. This is the first time DeCosta has used the tag since taking over for former general manager Ozzie Newsome last offseason.

“If [the tag is] what we have to do, then we’ll probably have to do it,” DeCosta said at the scouting combine in Indianapolis last month. “But there’s other options as well on the table — long-term deal being something that we would love to get accomplished. We’ll have to see how it all kind of works out.”

Another point of contention could be the Ravens designating Judon as a linebacker instead of as a defensive end, a move that saves the organization roughly $3 million. According to ESPN’s Field Yates, Judon played 36 snaps as a standup linebacker and 619 snaps as an edge defender, creating shades of gray the Ravens also encountered when using the tag on rush linebacker Terrell Suggs more than a decade ago. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6-foot-3, 261-pound Judon played 450 pass-rush snaps, 274 run snaps, and 113 coverage snaps last season.

Earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season, Judon led the Ravens in sacks (9 1/2), tackles for loss (14), and forced fumbles (four) while also posting 54 total tackles in 16 starts last season. The 2016 fifth-round pick has collected a team-high 24 1/2 sacks over the last three seasons and becomes the seventh player in team history to receive the franchise tag.

It’s no secret the Ravens are trying to improve a pass rush that ranked 21st in the NFL with 37 sacks last season despite blitzing a league-high 54.9 percent on dropbacks, according to Pro-Football Reference. Judon’s 33 quarterback hits ranked fourth in the league, but PFF classified 35 of his career-best 62 total pressures as unblocked or cleanup situations, leading some to debate whether Judon is an indispensable part of Baltimore’s pass rush or more of a product of Wink Martindale’s blitz-heavy schemes.

After losing Za’Darius Smith and Suggs in free agency last year, the Ravens couldn’t afford to let Judon depart for only a compensatory pick in next year’s draft. The tag eats up roughly 44 percent of Baltimore’s estimated $37 million in salary cap space, but 2019 third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson and 2017 second-round pick Tyus Bowser were the only outside linebackers under team control for 2020 to have played snaps last season.

If history is any indication, Judon could be in Baltimore for the long haul as all but one of the previous six Ravens players to receive the franchise tag eventually signed a long-term contract. Offensive lineman Wally Williams signed with New Orleans after playing with the tag in 1998, but cornerback Chris McAlister (2003-04), Suggs (2008-09), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (2011), running back Ray Rice (2012), and kicker Justin Tucker (2016) all reached long-term agreements to stay with the Ravens.

“Ultimately, that’s a decision that comes from them and me,” Judon said after the playoff loss to Tennessee in January. “We have to sit down and talk about some things and my agent. We have to see, but for the last four years and this whole year, I couldn’t ask for anything else.”

The Grand Valley State product has never missed a game due to injury in his four-year career, collecting 28 1/2 sacks, seven forced fumbles, seven pass breakups, and 185 tackles in 62 games, 36 of those being starts.

Coronavirus update

In response to the coronavirus pandemic that’s brought the sports world to a screeching halt, the Ravens issued the following statement on the status of their Owings Mills training facility and offseason activities:

“Public health and safety have always been top priorities for the Ravens. Due to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation, effective today, virtually all team personnel will work remotely for a minimum of two weeks. All air business travel has been suspended. We will continue to evaluate this developing situation and adjust as circumstances warrant.”

The NFL still plans to open the new league year and free agency next week.

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jimmysmith

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Twelve Ravens thoughts approaching start of free agency

Posted on 05 March 2020 by Luke Jones

With the start of free agency now less than two weeks away, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The Ravens knew Marshal Yanda was returning for 2019 by last year’s combine, so Eric DeCosta saying in Indianapolis last week that he hadn’t spoken to the 35-year-old since the Pro Bowl didn’t sound encouraging. A resolution before the start of the new league year would make sense.

2. With player voting on the new collective bargaining agreement now underway and lasting a week, we should start to see more movement on at least some minor signings. Even the announcement of compensatory picks has seemingly been held up by CBA uncertainty.

3. Jimmy Smith hitting the open market to determine his value makes sense for both sides. When healthy, the 10th-year veteran remains a starting-caliber cornerback deserving of starter money, realities that may not add up for the Ravens since he’d be their No. 3 outside corner.

4. Even if the Ravens are able to draft an inside linebacker such as Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray or LSU’s Patrick Queen in the first round, a veteran signing in the mold of a Josh Bynes still makes plenty of sense with L.J. Fort also still in the mix. You want options.

5. I’m interested to see how the Matthew Judon situation plays out, but Pro Football Focus isn’t as enthralled with this year’s free-agent edge rushers as much as others. We know these guys are going to get paid one way or another, but bang for the buck remains the real question.

6. Fellow 2016 first-round pick Laremy Tunsil recently firing his agent is a reminder that extending Ronnie Stanley won’t be easy or cheap as you’d expect both guys to want to be the NFL’s highest-paid left tackle. Neither will want to blink without his team making a very lucrative offer.

7. The Ravens have selected a cornerback in the fourth round or earlier in five straight drafts, a trend you’d expect to continue even if Smith re-signs or Brandon Carr’s option is picked up. The shaky development of Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall makes that more apparent.

8. The idea of trading Hayden Hurst makes little sense. It would cost nearly $3 million in additional dead money and weaken a critical position group. What would a team have to offer to motivate you to do that? Even a relatively early Day 2 pick is a “meh” for me.

9. I really like Daniel Jeremiah’s work and his insight shouldn’t be ignored given his history with the organization, but the Ravens taking a running back in the first round would be a tough sell. There’s only one football to go around, and this team barely got Justice Hill involved as it was.

10. Coaching title changes will always remind me of Dwight Schrute from “The Office,” but Harbaugh keeping last season’s staff intact will prove to be one of the biggest wins of the offseason and is a credit to how the 13th-year head coach and the organization treat their people.

11. Former first-round pick Matt Elam was waived by the XFL’s DC Defenders after only four games and hasn’t played in the NFL since 2016. Other first-round disappointments like Travis Taylor, Kyle Boller, and even Breshad Perriman at least continued their NFL careers elsewhere.

12. This has nothing to do with the Ravens, but bringing in a 43-year-old Tom Brady feels more like a move to create buzz — hello, Las Vegas Raiders — than to win. I wouldn’t bet on Brady playing elsewhere working particularly well, but I have been wrong before and will be again.

 

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Ravens must walk fine line between evolving, fixing what isn’t broken

Posted on 04 March 2020 by Luke Jones

Free agency officially begins in two weeks and the 2020 draft is only 50 days away for the Ravens.

The sting of the best regular season in franchise history ending with an upset divisional-round loss lingers less than two months later. The mental challenge of moving on and trying to exorcise those playoff demons will persist long after general manager Eric DeCosta plays his offseason hand and head coach John Harbaugh has a better idea of what his team will look like in the coming weeks.

Yes, we’ve reached the point in the offseason when it feels as though every team — even Super Bowl champion Kansas City — has more questions than answers with no shortage of free-agent projections, mock drafts, and lists of needs to mull over.

How do the Ravens proceed if eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda indeed retires?

What will be the resolution with Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon, and how will that impact a pass rush already desiring more juice?

Are there enough cap dollars and draft picks available to effectively retool a free-agent-laden front seven that already had its deficiencies last year?

What about — for the “I lost count”-th year in a row — wide receiver?

But this is when the Ravens — and their fans — need perspective more than a linebacker, guard, or defensive tackle. Going an NFL-best 14-2 with the best point differential in the league in more than a decade — with some of the aforementioned concerns, mind you — shouldn’t be an invitation for complacency, but there is a fine line between evolving and trying to fix something that isn’t broken. Baltimore surely took lessons from the Tennessee loss — needing to be able to play more effectively off schedule, for example — but a bad day at the office at the wrong time didn’t mean there was some fatal flaw in need of upheaval.

Having the most efficient running and passing games in the league and a top-tier defense isn’t an identity from which to stray too far despite how tempting it can be to be bold addressing weaknesses. That’s where you trust an analytics-minded front office and coaching staff to understand themselves and the entire body of 2019 work rather than to overreact to one heartbreaking loss or a couple failed fourth-and-1 plays. Of course, there’s work to do.

“We understand that we are going to be studied on both sides of the ball by every single team in the league very thoroughly.” Harbaugh said in January. “We’ll be the first team that they will pull the tape up on and watch. Our job is to stay ahead. Our job is to find the areas where we can come up with new ideas — expand, tweak, challenge people the way they challenged us or the way we anticipate them challenging us going forward.”

Losing Yanda would definitely be a big blow to a record-setting offense, but the 2017 Ravens were a last-second Week 17 collapse away from making the playoffs without him or reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, who was spending his last days at Louisville. Jackson’s unparalleled athleticism at the quarterback position will continue to make life easier for the offensive line and whoever might need to replace Yanda.

Few would argue that the Ravens would benefit from another wide receiver to make more plays outside the numbers, but the strength of the passing game remains the middle of the field with Jackson heavily targeting his tight ends, something unlikely to change as defenses across the NFL struggle to account for big, athletic tight ends. DeCosta and Harbaugh have expressed optimism about receivers being more open to playing in this unique run-first offense, but the right fit is more critical than adding “a true No. 1” who might grow unhappy with a fraction of the targets he’s used to seeing in a typical offense.

Speculation about trading tight end Hayden Hurst and mock drafts projecting the Ravens to take a running back in the first round would fall under the category of trying too hard to fix something that isn’t broken. The Yanda decision aside, this offense simply doesn’t need a ton of work beyond adding another pass-catching option at some point and implementing whatever system tweaks offensive coordinator Greg Roman and the staff cook up between now and September.

The defense is a different story with the front seven having multiple free agents, a list including Judon, defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Domata Peko, inside linebackers Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor, and situational rushers Pernell McPhee and Jihad Ward. However, nearly half of those players were added during the 2019 season, a testament to defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and the front office to at least identify viable placeholders and account for less-than-ideal conditions.

An edge defender or two, a three-down inside linebacker, and a defensive tackle with pass-rushing ability would all be welcome additions, but that’s an ambitious list for one offseason. There’s no guarantee the right pass rusher or inside linebacker will be on the board when Baltimore selects 28th overall in next month’s draft, and there are red flags everywhere with free-agent edge rushers — Judon included.

Regardless of what happens in free agency and the draft, the Ravens will continue to lean on an elite secondary, a defensive strength endorsed by analytics, and the frequent blitzing that made a rebuilt defense one of the league’s best over the second half of 2019. The identity is in place, which is more than many defensive units can say at this point. Last season proved the personnel doesn’t need to be perfect.

“I think we want to have really good players at all those positions,” DeCosta said in Indianapolis last week. “I’d love to have some elite pass rushers. I’d love to have some elite corners. I think Wink Martindale does an unbelievable job taking players, finding out what they can do, putting them in position to succeed, and they did that this year. What we were able to do on defense under Wink’s guidance with our coaches and our players — bringing in all those guys that we did — I thought that was masterful.”

The Ravens are bound to face some roster turbulence over the next few weeks. A year ago at this time, DeCosta didn’t know he’d be losing perennial Pro Bowl defenders C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs, and desperate teams frequently overpay players coming from winning organizations. Baltimore has never been in the business of “winning” the offseason, and that’s unlikely to change simply because of a little more salary cap space than usual this year. Long-term planning is too critical, especially with the elite talents up for contract extensions over the next couple years such as left tackle Ronnie Stanley, cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and Jackson.

The truth is I’d take this team essentially as it is — meaning all but sitting out free agency and having only an ordinary draft class — up against any conference opponent not named the Chiefs next fall. Even with the disappointment of January being so slow to dissipate, that is rare territory and speaks to the tremendous opportunity Baltimore has to improve this offseason.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Ravens are going 14-2 again — only three teams have ever done that in back-to-back years — as unforeseen challenges await next season. They can’t count on the schedule to fall the right way or for their remarkably good health over the last two seasons to continue, but those are realities every team faces. That’s why the Ravens know they must continue to evolve without drastically altering what they do best.

“We’re not going to be sitting on our hands schematically,” Harbaugh said. “We are not going to be saying, ‘OK, we have this offense and this defensive system that was hard for people to deal with, and we are good.'”

But they are good. Very good.

That makes this year’s offseason uncertainty easier than usual to handle, regardless of how it all plays out.

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NFL reportedly expanding playoff field to 14 teams for 2020

Posted on 20 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The last-minute touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd in the 2017 regular-season finale knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs in one of the most painful moments in franchise history.

Under the NFL’s new proposed collective bargaining agreement, however, Cincinnati’s shocking fourth-and-12 score would have been of little consequence to John Harbaugh’s team that finished seventh in the AFC that season. According to multiple reports, the league is expected to expand the playoff format from 12 to 14 teams as early as the upcoming 2020 season, the first expansion of the field since the 1990 season. In other words, those 9-7 Ravens would have still gone to the playoffs.

The league is also hoping to increase the regular season from 16 to 17 games with the preseason being reduced to three contests.

Under the new playoff format, only the top team in each conference would earn a first-round bye with the other three division winners each hosting wild-card teams in the opening round of the playoffs, increasing the total number of first-round games from four to six. Such a change would intensify the battle for the coveted No. 1 seeds — which become even more valuable now — but it would also put more mediocrity in the playoffs as 15 of the 20 teams finishing seventh in their respective conferences over the last 10 seasons had fewer than 10 wins.

Was there too much of an appetite for that hypothetical first-round meeting between Devlin Hodges and Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City last month? Speaking of Pittsburgh, the new format would have meant four more playoff appearances for the Steelers over the last eight seasons, which probably wouldn’t have sat too well in these parts.

Of course, playoff expansion and a 17-game regular season — while conveniently ignoring player safety ramifications — will mean more money for both owners and players, and it’d be naive to think fans won’t continue to eat it up, making dissenting opinions like this one all but moot. It’s also fair to recognize there were only 28 teams in the NFL when the playoff field increased from 10 to 12 teams three decades ago, making a one-team increase in each conference more palatable.

But there’s always the long-term concern of any sport — even the mighty NFL — hurting its regular-season product when loosening the exclusivity of its playoff field. Sure, leagues love bigger TV deals for the playoffs, but ask the NBA and NHL — and their fans — what that’s done for interest in their 82-game regular seasons over the years when more than half of their teams make the postseason. Major League Baseball is reportedly considering expanding its playoff field again after already devaluing its uniquely long regular season over the last 25 years and having significant problems with profit-hungry owners not doing all they can to try to win.

When was the last time a team you felt was deserving was left out of the playoffs?

If the NFL increases its playoff field to 14 teams, what’s to stop the league from going to 16 in a few years to generate even more TV revenue in January and February? Can you imagine the insane money if you just let everyone in and create a 32-team NCAA-like tournament?

From the players’ perspective, that’s why postseason expansion should be accompanied by an increase in team and league-wide spending requirements. Adding more playoff teams lowers the benchmark to qualify, which gives more profit-minded owners less incentive to spend to the cap. If a team doesn’t view itself as a No. 1 seed contender, why not pocket a little more money and hope 8-8 or 9-7 still gets you a hat and T-shirt by the end of the regular season? That line of thinking just became easier.

Increasing revenue is great and an extra playoff team in each conference is hardly the end of the world, but lowering the competitive bar has potential drawbacks down the road that aren’t always apparent.

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Veteran safety Tony Jefferson officially released by Ravens

Posted on 14 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The inevitable became official Friday as the Ravens announced the release of safety Tony Jefferson, a move that saves the organization $7 million in cash and salary cap space for the 2020 season.

Jefferson, 28, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 last season and was replaced by third-year safety Chuck Clark, who played at a high level and relayed the calls in the defensive huddle for the remainder of the season. Clark signed a three-year extension through 2023 that included $15.3 million in new money earlier this week, which all but sealed Jefferson’s future with Baltimore. Jefferson’s $11.647 million cap figure was scheduled to be the fifth highest on the team next season while Clark has a cap number of just over $3.4 million for 2020.

Signed to a four-year, $34 million deal with $19 million guaranteed at the start of free agency in 2017, Jefferson was a popular figure in the locker room and very active in the community, but his play struggled to meet that lofty financial standard. In 35 career games with the Ravens, the 5-foot-11, 211-pound safety finished with 174 tackles, two interceptions, 11 pass breakups, 3 1/2 sacks, and two forced fumbles. More effective playing closer to the line of scrimmage and defending the run, Jefferson wasn’t as strong against the pass as he surrendered a 91.6 passer rating in coverage in 2018 and a 141.4 mark last season, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Jefferson continues to work his way back from a torn ACL in his left knee, which could delay his quest to join another team this offseason.

“This is the worst part of this business,” general manager Eric DeCosta said in a statement released by the organization. “Tony is the consummate teammate and someone who is respected by everyone for his leadership, determination, humility and toughness. He’s a friend to all and a true Raven.

“We know he’s going to beat this injury, and we will be cheering for him all along the way. We wish the very best to Tony and his family.”

Undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2013, Jefferson developed into a starting-caliber talent over his first four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.

With Jefferson no longer in the picture, the Ravens will likely aim to add a young safety in April’s draft to develop behind Clark and seven-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas, who will turn 31 in May. Third-year safety DeShon Elliott remains an intriguing talent, but injuries have limited the 2018 sixth-round pick out of Texas to just six career games. Baltimore also owns a 2020 option worth $6 million for veteran Brandon Carr, who moved from cornerback to a dime safety role in the second half of last season.

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Jackson, Harbaugh earn NFL honors, but lasting word on 2019 still unwritten

Posted on 01 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens stole the show in Miami on Saturday night.

After weeks of using the words “expected,” “anticipated,” “favorite,” or “lock,” we could officially call second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson the 2019 AP NFL Most Valuable Player. The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner became the second-youngest MVP in league history — only Jim Brown was younger in 1957 — and only the second unanimous choice, joining Tom Brady in 2010. He’s the first Raven and fourth Baltimore player to be named AP NFL MVP, joining old Colts quarterbacks Johnny Unitas (1959, 1964, 1967), Earl Morrall (1968), and Bert Jones (1976).

His electrifying efficiency was unlike anything we’ve ever seen as Jackson shattered the single-season rushing record for a quarterback, led the league in touchdown passes, and set a slew of other records ahead of his 23rd birthday last month. His otherworldly highlights and unparalleled dual-threat ability made the Ravens the toast of the football world in the regular season, rare territory for a team historically viewed as an underdog despite its overall success.

Beginning with a record-setting five-touchdown performance and perfect passer rating 30 miles from his native Pompano Beach, Fla. in the season opener and never looking back, Jackson returned to Miami to accept the MVP award that had been all but a foregone conclusion since the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers were being polished off. In a city with no shortage of Hall of Famers and former MVPs, few have captivated Baltimore quite like Jackson after the most remarkable individual season in the Ravens’ 24-year history.

His arrival comes at a time when the city needs as much inspiration as it can get, but his impact extends beyond Charm City, evident by the reaction to Saturday’s announcement.

We’re watching someone special.

Of course, Jackson wasn’t alone as John Harbaugh won AP Coach of the Year for the first time in his career and offensive coordinator Greg Roman was voted AP Assistant Coach of the Year. Though not the same overwhelming favorite as Jackson, Harbaugh leading the Ravens to a franchise-best 14-2 record, a team-record 12 straight wins, and their first No. 1 seed made him an appropriate choice before even considering the coaching staff’s offseason reconstruction of the offense or his ahead-of-the-curve use of analytics.

The honor only adds to an impressive body of work over 12 seasons as Harbaugh already owns a Super Bowl championship, four AFC North division titles, 10 playoff wins, and eight postseason appearances. The first Ravens head coach to earn the NFL award, Harbaugh joins Weeb Ewbank (1958), Don Shula (1964, 1967, 1968), and Ted Marchibroda (1975) as Baltimore head men to win NFL Coach of the Year. Having now coached the Ravens for half of their existence, Harbaugh is building a resume that will leave him in very exclusive company if he remains on a similar track.

But Saturday wasn’t the culmination Jackson, Harbaugh, and the Ravens envisioned a month ago if we’re being reflective on the eve of the Super Bowl. After one of the best regular seasons of the 21st century, Baltimore fell short of expectations in January, the kind of pain those accolades only do so much to dull right now. Both referred to their individual honors as team awards, but the Ravens wanted to be preparing to play for the ultimate team prize the following night instead of being dressed to the nines on the red carpet.

Jackson and Harbaugh became just the 12th MVP-Coach of the Year combination for the same team, but all but two of the first 11 at least made it to the Super Bowl or NFL championship game, a reminder of a great opportunity missed. That doesn’t dismiss a regular season that was as special as it gets, but the final word on the Ravens’ 2019 legacy has yet to be written and will be shaped by the context of next season and beyond.

If Baltimore wins the Super Bowl a year from now, we’ll remember the end of this season more as the precursor to better things to come, regardless of whether Jackson repeats as MVP, Harbaugh is again voted top coach, or the Ravens are able to match a 14-2 mark. The agonizing memory of Lee Evans, Billy Cundiff, and the 2011 AFC Championship loss didn’t feel so bad after Joe Flacco and the Ravens raised the Vince Lombardi Trophy a year later. But we also know next season will be a clean slate with new challenges and no guarantees along the way.

Perhaps the most comforting perspective is knowing one of the teams sporting both the MVP and Coach of the Year that didn’t make it to the Super Bowl was the 2010 New England Patriots, who also went 14-2 before being bounced at home in the divisional round. If it could happen to Brady and Bill Belichick, it can happen to anyone, right? The Patriots would claim three more Super Bowl championships over the next decade, leaving 2010 as little more than a blip over two decades of dominance.

Last month’s playoff loss to Tennessee was an abrupt reminder of the late-season dynasty chatter being way too premature, but the Ravens will have their shot at redemption and Jackson and Harbaugh their opportunity to fortify their legacies as soon as 12 months from now. Beyond the question of longevity that any young player faces, Jackson now needs only a Super Bowl championship to stake his claim as a generational quarterback with strong Hall of Fame aspirations. If that sounds overly bold, count the number of quarterbacks who failed to be enshrined despite winning a league MVP and Super Bowl title over the course of their careers.

Another Super Bowl championship for Harbaugh — with a different starting quarterback this time — would make him all but a lock for Canton one day.

Make no mistake, the Ravens owning the spotlight the night before the Super Bowl is deserving of some celebration after the hangover of these last few weeks.

But Jackson and Harbaugh winning the Lombardi Trophy in Tampa next February will make the lasting memory of 2019 — even its bitterly disappointing ending — that much better.

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