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Ravens begin making cuts to create salary-cap space

Posted on 07 March 2017 by Luke Jones

After weeks of speculation, the Ravens finally began making moves to clear salary-cap space just two days ahead of the start of the free agency signing period.

Baltimore terminated the contracts of cornerback Shareece Wright and safety Kendrick Lewis on Tuesday afternoon, anticipated cuts that create just under $5 million in cap space. However, their “rule of 51” replacements on the current roster make it closer to $4 million in net savings.

The moves also leave $3.1 million in dead money on the 2017 cap.

Neither termination comes as a surprise as Wright, 29, struggled in his first full season with the Ravens and eventually lost his starting job. He ranked 76th among qualified NFL cornerbacks in Pro Football Focus’ grading system and finished with 52 tackles and six pass breakups in 12 games. Wright’s release comes exactly a year to the day that general manager Ozzie Newsome signed him to a three-year, $13 million contract last offseason.

Wright’s fate appeared to be sealed in January at the season-ending press conference in which owner Steve Bisciotti criticized his 2016 performance after his strong 2015 finish that earned him a contract extension.

“We had Shareece Wright, who actually graded out better than Jimmy [Smith] in the last six weeks of the [2015] season,” Bisciotti said. “We made that one of our priorities that we thought we could lock that down, and Shareece gets away from the fundamentals and loses technique and starts playing poorly. That really set us back, to be honest with you.”

Lewis saw his role diminish dramatically in his second year in Baltimore as the Ravens replaced him and fellow 2015 starter Will Hill with veteran newcomer Eric Weddle and converted cornerback Lardarius Webb at the starting safety spots. The 28-year-old Lewis collected just six tackles and a forced fumble in six games before being placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury in late October.

The Ravens entered the week with $13.8 million in cap space, but much of that space will be needed to tender restricted free agents and exclusive-rights players before any attempts to re-sign their own unrestricted free agents or outside free agents. More cap-related moves are likely in the coming days as Baltimore tries to revamp its roster in hope of returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

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Ravens shouldn’t fret about making substantial changes

Posted on 22 February 2017 by Luke Jones

With the start of the new league year and free agency just two weeks away, we all know which Ravens players stand out as potential salary-cap casualties by now.

A few are easy calls while others have accomplished plenty in their NFL careers and are fan favorites. Most are over the age of 30, which is when you need to ask whether you’re paying too much for what a player used to be rather than what he is today.

After missing the playoffs for the third time in the last four years and lacking difference-making talent atop the roster, what is the realistic goal for 2017? Is the Ravens brass aiming to improve just enough to sneak into the playoffs to avoid being fired — a perceived ultimatum that exists at least in the minds of many outsiders — or is the organization focused on building its next championship team? Of course, incremental improvement and eyeing the long term aren’t mutually exclusive, but these two ideas may offer different viewpoints of the following veterans with questionable cap figures for 2017.

2017 cap figure Pre-June 1 cut savings 2017 dead money
CB Kyle Arrington $2.767M $2.1M $667K
LB Elvis Dumervil $8.375M $6M $2.375M
S Kendrick Lewis $2.267M $1.8M $467K
TE Dennis Pitta $7.7M $3.3M $4.4M
WR Mike Wallace $8M $5.75M $2.25M
TE Benjamin Watson $4M $3M $1M
S Lardarius Webb $7.5M $5.5M $2M
CB Shareece Wright $5.33M $2.667M $2.667M
C Jeremy Zuttah $4.607M $2.393M $2.214M

How many of these potential cap casualties can you envision being as good as or better than they were in 2016? Which of these talents are instrumental to the next championship-caliber team?

With the retirement of Steve Smith and the lack of other established talent at wide receiver on the current roster, cutting Wallace would be a tough pill to swallow without knowing what’s to come in free agency and the draft and also acknowledging the organization’s poor track record at the position. The rest of the players on the list have different degrees of remaining value, but it’d be difficult to say any would be terribly difficult to replace when factoring in either the cost to retain them or the depth at their positions — or even both.

It’s no secret how dependent the Ravens have been on older players the last couple seasons, which is fine when on the cusp of a championship like they were five years ago. But continuing down the same road with a group that’s proven to not be good enough seems counterintuitive when you’re in need of game-changing talent and more cap space. Some of the best teams in franchise history had obvious flaws and positions of weakness, but they had enough playmakers capable of masking them.

Cleaning house doesn’t mean general manager Ozzie Newsome should be hellbent on spending lucrative money on free agents just for the sake of doing it. But if cutting Webb and Pitta means the Ravens can have a healthier cap to go sign an established talent like Pierre Garcon, I’ll take my chances leaning on more youth at those other positions. The same even goes for the tipping point in trying to re-sign a free agent such as Brandon Williams, who is a very good player but plays a position at which the Ravens have consistently found talent over the years.

This roster has many needs and very few free agents or potential cap cuts who are indispensable. The known is more comfortable than the unknown, but the Ravens can’t afford to be in love with their own ingredients when the recipe just hasn’t added up in recent years.

To be clear, adding dynamic playmakers to the roster is easier said than done, no matter how much pundits have hammered the Ravens about it over the last few years. It often involves luck as much as anything else, evident by the fact that Baltimore had two future Hall of Famers — Ray Lewis and Ed Reed — fall late into the first round in the franchise’s first seven drafts. The Ravens are certainly aiming to find a few playmakers in this April’s draft, but they will still hope that a Kenneth Dixon takes a giant leap like Ray Rice did in his second year or that a Breshad Perriman finally takes off in his third season.

Still, the idea shouldn’t be to spend to the cap on an OK collection of veterans in the meantime. Focusing on more of a youth movement might result in some early 2017 pains, but it can yield more meaningful future gains than retaining veterans with steep price tags and rapidly-approaching expiration dates.

You either have something special or you need to be building something special.

The Ravens have been stuck in between for too long now.

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Stanley’s return lone bright spot at Ravens’ Thursday practice

Posted on 13 October 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are dealing with a plethora of injuries to key players ahead of their Week 6 meeting with the New York Giants, but they did receive a shred of good news on Thursday.

After missing the last two games with a lingering foot injury, rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley returned to practice for the first time since Sept. 23. It remains to be seen whether he’ll play against the Giants, but that is an encouraging development for an offensive line that was without right guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder) and right tackle Rick Wagner (thigh) for the second straight day.

“This is part of what we do,” offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “We won’t know [who is playing] possibly for a little while. But the guys we have playing will do a good job.”

Baltimore adding guards Vlad Ducasse and Billy Turner over the last two days didn’t appear to be positive signs for the status of Yanda and Wagner for Sunday’s game.

The Ravens also continued to practice without wide receiver Steve Smith (ankle) and linebackers C.J. Mosley (hamstring) and Elvis Dumervil (foot). Smith and Mosley left the Week 5 loss to Washington with their respective ailments, but Dumervil resurfacing on the injury report is a clear concern after he played an unremarkable 45 snaps over the last two games, his first action of 2016 after undergoing offseason foot surgery.

“Some guys can come right back right away; some guys can’t,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “There’s nobody that knows their body better than the veterans. He knows if he’s ready or not ready. We just keep talking about it all the time, along with [trainer Mark Smith] and coach [John] Harbaugh. We’ll just see where it goes. On his behalf, the guy has just been a great player. If he’s not playing at that [level], it’s just because he’s not ready yet. He’s hurt. No other reason.”

Veteran return specialist Devin Hester (thigh) was also missing from Thursday’s practice after working on a limited basis a day earlier.

During the portion of practice open to reporters, safety Kendrick Lewis left the field with what appeared to be some sort of injury.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace (ribs) practiced with a red non-contact vest over his jersey for the second straight day.

Meanwhile, the Giants welcomed defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (groin) back to practice after missing Wednesday’s workout.

Below is Thursday’s full injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), RS Devin Hester (thigh), S Kendrick Lewis (thigh), LB C.J. Mosley (thigh), WR Steve Smith (ankle), OT Rick Wagner (thigh), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OT Ronnie Stanley (foot)
FULL PARTICIPATION: LB Terrell Suggs (non-injury), WR Mike Wallace (chest), CB Shareece Wright (back)

NEW YORK
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: CB Eli Apple (groin), S Nat Berhe (concussion), WR Dwayne Harris (toe), OT Marshall Newhouse (calf), S Darian Thompson (foot)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: TE Jerell Adams (ear), RB Rashad Jennings (thumb), LB Devon Kennard (concussion), DE Jason Pierre-Paul (groin), CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (groin), DE Olivier Vernon (wrist)
FULL PARTICIPATION: TE Larry Donnell (concussion)

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Penultimate play sealed fate of Ravens defense on final drive

Posted on 03 October 2016 by Luke Jones

Sunday was a strange day for the Ravens defense in the one-point loss to Oakland.

Allowing 28 points and four touchdown passes is a disappointing day by most standards, but two of those scores came on “sudden-change” drives of 29 yards or less and the Ravens allowed a mere 153 yards through three quarters.

So, what the heck happened on the final six-play, 66-yard touchdown drive that won it for the Raiders?

Baltimore had a couple problems with dropping to the right spot in coverage on the final drive, according to linebacker C.J. Mosley after the game. Oakland quarterback Derek Carr also made a few terrific throws and deserves some credit.

The pass rush certainly wasn’t there, but that was nothing new as the Ravens failed to sack or even register a quarterback hit on Carr all day. Whether sending extra blitzers — as defensive coordinator Dean Pees did twice on the last drive — or relying on a four-man rush, the Ravens rarely made the young quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket as he regularly got the ball out quickly.

In fact, the Ravens used the hated three-man rush on the penultimate play of the drive — they used four or five rushers on every other play of the drive — and nearly made the play to seal the victory. But that was the difference from the previous three weeks when the defense was able to make a critical stop in crunch time.

On first-and-10 from the Baltimore 23 with 2:25 remaining, Carr made an ill-advised deep throw over the middle intended for tight end Clive Walford, who was covered by safety Eric Weddle on the play. Weddle undercut the route just in front of the goal line and got both hands on the ball, but the veteran was unable to secure the interception that would have ended the drive and given the Ravens the chance to run out the clock with a 27-21 lead and just over two minutes left.

Making matters worse, Lardarius Webb delivered a low hit to Walford’s thigh that dislodged the safety’s helmet and prompted the training staff to remove him from the game to evaluate him for a concussion. With Webb out, reserve Kendrick Lewis entered at safety for the next play.

Already with two touchdown receptions, Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree got behind cornerback Shareece Wright on a double move and Lewis inexcusably allowed a receiver to get behind him in the red zone. The 23-yard touchdown was Oakland’s longest pass play of the game and led to a frustrating 28-27 defeat for a Ravens defense that had played well for much of Sunday’s game.

Perhaps Webb makes the same mistake, but Lewis too often allowed big plays over his head as a starter a year ago.

Against Cleveland and Jacksonville the previous two weeks, the Ravens came away with late interceptions to clinch one-possession victories.

On Sunday, Weddle was unable to make the play that could have won it for Baltimore. It would have been a great catch, but that’s what you sometimes need to prevail in a close game against a quality opponent.

The final touchdown spoiled an otherwise good day for the defense, but the Ravens missed their chance on the previous play.

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Several notable players back at practice as Ravens prepare for final cuts

Posted on 03 September 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With the Ravens counting down the final hours before trimming their roster to the league-mandated 53-man limit, they welcomed back several notable players to the practice field on Saturday morning.

Tight ends Dennis Pitta and Maxx Williams, nose tackle Brandon Williams, guard John Urschel, and safety Kendrick Lewis were all present and working after lengthy absences due to various injuries. Pitta hadn’t practiced since breaking a finger in a scuffle with rookie linebacker Kamalei Correa on Aug. 1.

“He looked fine today,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Certainly, he has to get his timing back and work the rust off, if you want to use that term, and get going. He’s back today, and he’ll be back all next week, and I expect him to be ready to go.”

Meanwhile, Brandon Williams had been sidelined since getting banged up in the second preseason game on Aug. 20. Urschel, Lewis, and Maxx Williams had been missing since suffering injuries in the Aug. 11 preseason opener.

The Ravens were again without outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (foot surgery), who also missed Tuesday’s practice and did not appear in the preseason. That looks to at least be a mild concern with the season opener only a week away and Dumervil not having logged much practice time this summer.

“It’s all in the doctors’ hands and Elvis’ hands,” Harbaugh said. “He came off the [physically unable to perform list], and he worked a couple of days. I really don’t have an answer for that. It just depends how it progresses and how it feels. When he’s cleared to practice fully, he will be out there.

“I support him practicing fully; it won’t be until he is ready.”

Other players missing from Saturday morning’s session included wide receivers Chris Matthews and Michael Campanaro, offensive linemen Ryan Jensen and De’Ondre Wesley, cornerbacks Shareece Wright, Jerraud Powers, and Carrington Byndom, linebackers Victor Ochi and Za’Darius Smith (ankle), defensive tackle Carl Davis (ankle), safety Matt Elam (knee), and running back Kenneth Dixon (knee).

After The Sun reported that defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore had been waived, the 2013 sixth-round pick was not on the practice field, but the Ravens hadn’t announced an official move. Offensive lineman Blaine Clausell was present and working despite his agent, Brett Tessler, announcing that he’d been waived by the organization.

The absences of “bubble players” such as Campanaro, Matthews, and Ochi were notable ahead of Saturday’s 4 p.m. roster deadline, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean they’ve been cut, either.

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Predicting the Ravens’ 53-man roster at the end of 2016 preseason

Posted on 02 September 2016 by Luke Jones

With the 2016 preseason now history, the Ravens can turn their full attention toward the season opener against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 11.

But first, it’s time to go on the record with the final projection of the Ravens’ 53-man roster to begin the regular season as head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome will make their final decisions by 4 p.m. on Saturday. Of course, this will only be the first regular-season roster as the Ravens can explore the possibility of adding other players who will be made available over the next few days.

Though the coaching staff and the front office are aware of the number of players at each position, trying to boldly pinpoint a specific number of receivers or linebackers isn’t the most accurate way of projecting the roster. In filling out the back end of their roster, the Ravens look carefully at players’ special-teams abilities in addition to what they bring to their offensive or defensive positions.

The numbers in parentheses indicate the total number of players they are projected to keep at that given position.

QUARTERBACKS (2)
IN: Joe Flacco, Ryan Mallett
OUT:  Josh Johnson
Skinny: Johnson has played well enough this preseason to earn a job somewhere, but the Ravens appear content with Mallett backing up Flacco this season.

RUNNING BACKS & FULLBACKS (5)
IN: Justin Forsett, Kyle Juszczyk, Terrance West, Buck Allen, Kenneth Dixon
PHYSICALLY UNABLE TO PERFORM LIST: Lorenzo Taliaferro
OUT: Stephen Houston
Skinny: It would have been interesting to see whether Allen’s job was truly in danger before the knee injury suffered by Dixon, but the Ravens appeared to be protecting the former’s health on Thursday.

WIDE RECEIVERS (7)
IN: Steve Smith, Kamar Aiken, Breshad Perriman, Mike Wallace, Chris Moore, Michael Campanaro, Jeremy Butler
OUT: Keenan Reynolds, Chris Matthews
Skinny: Keeping seven receivers isn’t ideal from a roster construction standpoint, but the number of injury risks in this group makes it easier to justify carrying Butler for the present and future.

TIGHT ENDS (3)
IN: Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, Dennis Pitta
SUSPENDED: Nick Boyle, Darren Waller
OUT: Daniel Brown
Skinny: If Williams and Pitta are bigger question marks for the opener than Harbaugh indicated this week, Brown could find his way onto the 53-man roster temporarily.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)
IN: Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley, Rick Wagner, Jeremy Zuttah, John Urschel, Alex Lewis, Ryan Jensen, De’Ondre Wesley
OUT: Vlad Ducasse, James Hurst, Matt Skura, Blaine Clausell
Skinny: Lewis’ ability to play left tackle and left guard will push Hurst off the roster while Ducasse is an unfortunate victim of the numbers game despite a good summer.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (7)
IN: Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, Lawrence Guy, Carl Davis, Brent Urban, Willie Henry, Michael Pierce
OUT: Kapron Lewis-Moore
Skinny: Pierce was already in the roster discussion before his exceptional performance on Thursday and is an interesting talent to retain since Williams is scheduled to become a free agent next offseason.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (3)
IN: C.J. Mosley, Zachary Orr, Kamalei Correa
OUT: Arthur Brown, Patrick Onwuasor
Skinny: Brown’s status as a former second-round pick will no longer save his roster spot, and Albert McClellan or Anthony Levine can play inside linebacker if game-day injuries were to pile up.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (5)
IN: Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Za’Darius Smith, Albert McClellan, Matt Judon
OUT: Chris Carter, Victor Ochi, Brennen Beyer
Skinny: The veteran Carter should find a job elsewhere with ease while Ochi is a raw and talented prospect the Ravens will hope to sneak onto the practice squad.

CORNERBACKS (5)
IN: Jimmy Smith, Shareece Wright, Jerraud Powers, Tavon Young, Will Davis
OUT: Sheldon Price, Maurice Canady, Julian Wilson, Carrington Byndom
Skinny: The Ravens will gamble that Price or Canady — or both — will make it to the practice squad, but depth is a clear concern at this position with the play of Wright and Powers in the preseason.

SAFETIES (5)
IN: Eric Weddle, Lardarius Webb, Terrence Brooks, Anthony Levine, Kendrick Lewis
OUT: Matt Elam
Skinny: Kendrick Lewis missed the final three preseason games, but his veteran experience should count for something as a backup to Weddle and Webb.

SPECIALISTS (3)
IN: Sam Koch, Morgan Cox, Justin Tucker
OUT: None
Skinny: This trio stays together for the fifth consecutive season, a rarity in this day and age in the NFL.

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Sizing up the 2016 Ravens roster before the third preseason game

Posted on 26 August 2016 by Luke Jones

With the “dress rehearsal” of the preseason now upon us, it’s time for our newest look at the Ravens’ 53-man roster with the last projection taking place after the first preseason game.

My current look at the roster suggests 46 players are locks if the deadline to trim the roster to 53 took place today. My rough assessment of the 90 players currently on the preseason roster lists 19 players on the bubble. Not all bubble players are on equal footing, of course, with certain positions lacking depth and others enjoying extensive talent.

Though general manager Ozzie Newsome, coach John Harbaugh, and the remainder of the coaching staff and front office are cognizant of keeping a balanced number of players at each position, trying to boldly pinpoint a specific number of wide receivers or linebackers or safeties isn’t the most accurate way of projecting the roster. In filling out the back end of their roster, the Ravens will look carefully at players’ special-teams abilities in addition to what they bring to their respective offensive or defensive positions.

The Ravens must trim the roster from 90 players to 75 on Aug. 30 and will go down to the regular-season number of 53 on Sept. 3.

The numbers in parentheses indicate the total number of players currently on the roster at that given position. Bubble players’ names that are underlined are part of the projected 53-man roster as of Aug. 26.

QUARTERBACKS (4)
LOCK: Joe Flacco
BUBBLE: Ryan Mallett, Josh Johnson
LONG SHOT: Jerrod Johnson
Skinny: If the backup competition were based solely on summer performance, Josh Johnson would likely be in the lead despite Mallett’s skill set more closely resembling Flacco’s. Harbaugh said Mallett hasn’t yet locked up the job, but I’m still not convinced that his roster spot is in real jeopardy, either.

RUNNING BACKS & FULLBACKS (7)
LOCK: Justin Forsett, Kyle Juszczyk, Buck Allen, Kenneth Dixon, Terrance West
BUBBLE: None
LONG SHOT: Stephen Houston
PHYSICALLY UNABLE TO PERFORM LIST: Lorenzo Taliaferro
Skinny: Keeping four tailbacks is unusual, but Forsett’s experience is too valuable and the upside of the three young backs is too enticing to pass up. It remains to be seen how the carries will be distributed, but the rookie Dixon flashes the look of a potential home-run hitter out of the backfield.

WIDE RECEIVERS (12)
LOCK: Steve Smith, Kamar Aiken, Breshad Perriman, Mike Wallace, Chris Moore, Michael Campanaro
BUBBLE: Jeremy Butler, Keenan Reynolds, Chris Matthews
LONG SHOT: Chuck Jacobs, Dobson Collins, Darius White
Skinny: Trying to find roster room for Butler is likely one of Baltimore’s biggest headaches now, but what does the preseason standout offer that’s truly unique from the other six on the projected roster? Reynolds is improving, but it still looks like too tall of an order to keep him on the 53-man roster.

TIGHT ENDS (7)
LOCK: Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, Dennis Pitta
BUBBLE: None
LONG SHOT: Daniel Brown
SUSPENDED: Nick Boyle, Darren Waller
Skinny: Health is a concern here as only the 35-year-old Watson has avoided missing extensive practice time this summer. Pitta is more of an unknown than you’d like, but Harbaugh did not indicate that his roster spot was in danger while bemoaning his long-term absence due to a broken finger.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (15)
LOCK: Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley, Rick Wagner, Jeremy Zuttah, John Urschel, Alex Lewis
BUBBLE: Ryan Jensen, Vlad Ducasse, De’Ondre Wesley, James Hurst
LONG SHOT: Anthony Fabiano, Matt Skura, Jarell Broxton, Blaine Clausell, Stephane Nembot
Skinny: This eight-man group would leave the Ravens light at offensive tackle, but Lewis can play there and Yanda can certainly move out to right tackle in a game-day pinch. Wesley would appear to be a good candidate to land on the practice squad if he doesn’t make the 53-man roster.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (10)
LOCK: Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, Lawrence Guy, Carl Davis, Brent Urban
BUBBLE: Willie Henry, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Michael Pierce
LONG SHOT: Trevon Coley
INJURED RESERVE: Bronson Kaufusi
Skinny: It’s been an underwhelming summer for Henry, but it’s difficult envisioning the Ravens cutting a fourth-round pick in his rookie season. Lewis-Moore has improved from last season, but keeping more than six defensive linemen is difficult with so many needs elsewhere.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (6)
LOCK: C.J. Mosley, Zachary Orr, Kamalei Correa
BUBBLE: Arthur Brown
LONG SHOT: Kavell Conner, Patrick Onwuasor
Skinny: Brown hasn’t done much to distinguish himself as worthy of making the team this summer, making it the potential end of the road for the disappointing 2013 second-round pick. The versatility of this overall linebacker group is a strength with a few players like Correa able to play inside or outside.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (9)
LOCK: Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Za’Darius Smith, Albert McClellan, Matt Judon
BUBBLE: Chris Carter
LONG SHOT: Victor Ochi, Brennen Beyer, Mario Ojemudia
Skinny: With McClellan and Orr now playing bigger defensive roles, Carter might be a good fit as a veteran easing some of their workload on special teams. Ochi is an intriguing prospect who has barely played in the preseason, making you think the Ravens are trying to sneak him onto the practice squad.

CORNERBACKS (10)
LOCK: Jimmy Smith, Shareece Wright, Jerraud Powers, Tavon Young
BUBBLE: Will Davis, Sheldon Price, Maurice Canady, Kyle Arrington
LONG SHOT: Julian Wilson, Carrington Byndom
Skinny: The Ravens would probably like to find room for Price or Canady, but they have safeties who can play the nickel and dime spots. Arrington’s extended absence due to a concussion has really hurt his chances of making the team after his salary was already cut this offseason.

SAFETIES (6)
LOCK: Eric Weddle, Lardarius Webb, Terrence Brooks, Anthony Levine
BUBBLE: Kendrick Lewis
LONG SHOT: None
INJURED RESERVE: Matt Elam
Skinny: Elam seems like a logical candidate to land on injured reserve where the Ravens could potentially activate him after Week 6 if there’s a need at safety. Coaches like Lewis, but he has missed a lot of time this summer, making you wonder if he’s losing his grip on a roster spot.

SPECIALISTS (4)
LOCK: Sam Koch, Morgan Cox, Justin Tucker
BUBBLE: None
LONG SHOT: Wil Lutz
Skinny: There’s still nothing to see here with Lutz occasionally easing the workload of Tucker and Koch during practices.

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Ravens cut safety Will Hill prior to news of 10-game suspension

Posted on 16 March 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Not long after making their four-year contract with three-time Pro Bowl free safety Eric Weddle official, the Ravens addressed a crowded safety picture by releasing Will Hill.

The news came as a surprise to many fans before ESPN reported a couple hours later that Hill had been suspended 10 games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

Hill had three drug-related suspensions in his first three seasons in the NFL — two related to marijuana — and had other off-field problems in the past. The Ravens signed Hill in the summer of 2014 when he had already been suspended for the first six games of that season and subsequently released by the New York Giants, but he had managed to stay out of trouble — at least publicly — since then.

With his latest ban, Hill will now have been suspended for 24 games in his first five NFL seasons.

Regarded by many as Baltimore’s best safety in 2015, Hill saw his playing time decrease when veteran Lardarius Webb moved from cornerback to safety in mid-December. The 26-year-old did not start the final two games of the season and played just 49 of the Ravens’ 122 defensive snaps over that time.

Hill finished 17th among qualified safeties in Pro Football Focus’ grading system, but the publication noted that he graded 70th over the final nine weeks of the 2015 season when he appeared to begin falling out of favor. Like many members of the secondary, Hill had his share of communication breakdowns and blown coverages that were often overshadowed by his hard-hitting style of play in 2015.

He was originally set to make $2.84 million in base salary for the 2016 season, which means that money is now cleared from the 2016 salary cap.

After signing a two-year, $7 million contract last summer, Hill started 14 of 16 games and collected 64 tackles, one interception, one sack, and six pass breakups while also leading the team in penalties. His 64-yard return for a touchdown off a blocked field goal was the game-winning play in the Week 12 Monday night victory at Cleveland.

Despite being scheduled to carry a $9.5 million cap number for the coming season, Webb has repeatedly been endorsed by both general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh as a starting-caliber safety this offseason. At Weddle’s introductory press conference on Wednesday, Harbaugh indicated that Webb would start next to the former San Diego Charger.

On paper, the 6-foot-1, 228-pound Hill may have been the better fit as a strong safety complementing the undersized Weddle, but the Ravens plan to use Weddle and Webb interchangeably and want more versatility and play-making ability from their safeties.

“You can bring both of these guys down and they can blitz and bring it really effectively,” Harbaugh said. “You’re not going to know who is down and who is deep, and that can be a big benefit for our defense.”

Behind Weddle and Webb on the projected safety depth chart are Kendrick Lewis, Matt Elam, Terrence Brooks, and Anthony Levine. Reserve safety and special-teams player Brynden Trawick agreed to a deal with the Oakland Raiders on Wednesday after the Ravens elected not to tender the restricted free agent earlier this month.

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What’s next at safety after Ravens bring on Weddle?

Posted on 15 March 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens already had a crowded safety group before agreeing to a four-year deal with three-time Pro Bowl selection Eric Weddle on Monday.

The 31-year-old should bring the stability, high-impact play, and leadership that the Ravens have lacked at the position since the days of Ed Reed, but what Weddle’s arrival means for the other safeties on the roster remains to be seen. There was already a prevailing thought that the organization would part ways with at least one safety from a group that includes Lardarius Webb, Will Hill, Kendrick Lewis, and Matt Elam, and the arrival of the longtime San Diego Charger would appear to make that a certainty.

But who would be the likeliest candidate to go?

The Ravens would save $3.5 million in salary cap space by cutting Webb, who only converted from cornerback to safety late last season and is scheduled to carry a $9.5 million cap figure for the 2016 season. However, general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh have both talked up the veteran’s potential at his new position and have spoken with conviction about him being a starter. Of course, that all came before the Ravens gave $13 million in guaranteed money to their new safety, and Weddle and Webb would be a smaller duo compared to most safety tandems around the league.

It’s worth noting that a pre-June 1 release of Webb would leave $6 million in dead money, but a post-June 1 designation would leave his heavy commitment on the salary cap until most offseason activity has already concluded.

Releasing Hill would save $3 million in cap space, but he was the NFL’s 17th-highest-graded safety in Pro Football Focus’ rankings and his 6-foot-1, 228-pound frame would appear to be the perfect complement to the undersized Weddle (5-foot-11 and 200 pounds). The Ravens love having interchangeable safeties capable of playing the free or strong spot, and the combination of Weddle and Hill would appear to fit that vision perfectly.

There wouldn’t appear to be much use for Lewis in the base defense anymore, but releasing him would save just $933,000, which is very little when you account for the player taking his place in the “Rule of 51” list that counts against the salary cap. He would appear to be a reasonable backup option with just a $1.867 million cap figure for 2016.

Elam might be the most interesting name as the Ravens have never given up on a first-round pick prior to the conclusion of his rookie deal, but he carries a $2.14 million cap figure for 2016 and his release would save $1.33 million in space. Coaches said last summer that the University of Florida product had a strong offseason prior to tearing his biceps in training camp, but Elam didn’t show enough in his first two seasons to make you believe he’s a long-term fit.

The Ravens aren’t in a position where they need to make a decision immediately as Weddle’s signing leaves them with roughly $8 million in cap space for 2016, but this position group has become too crowded and too expensive to not make an adjustment as the offseason progresses.

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Ranking the Ravens’ defensive needs for 2016

Posted on 22 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens defense needs some work.

Yes, the unit finished eighth in total defense and surrendered the fewest passing yards in the NFL over the second half of the season, but five of the Ravens’ final eight games came against passing attacks ranked 19th or worse and another came against an AJ McCarron-led Cincinnati attack in the season finale.

The improvement was encouraging, but it wasn’t enough to just assume everything is fine, especially after the defense finished with just 14 takeaways, shattering the worst mark in team history. The hiring of former NFL head coach Leslie Frazier to coach the secondary highlights the Ravens’ desire to improve against the pass.

With free agency set to begin in less than two months — March 9 at 4 p.m. — and the draft set for April 28-30, the Ravens are currently evaluating their biggest needs in all three phases of the game. In the second of a three-part series — we’ve already looked at the offense and special teams will follow — I offer my thoughts on the defensive side of the football and rank the positions of greatest need.

1. Cornerback

Some will argue that improving the pass rush is a bigger need than cornerback, but with Shareece Wright scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and Lardarius Webb moving to safety, who will start opposite top cornerback Jimmy Smith?

Even if they’re able to re-sign Wright — who shook off a nightmare debut against San Francisco to play quite well the rest of the way — the Ravens would benefit from having another high-end cornerback. In addition to hoping that Smith is finally over the effects of his 2014 foot surgery, they need another playmaker in the secondary.

That’s the biggest reason why the Ravens have been linked to top cornerback prospects such as Jalen Ramsey from Florida State or Vernon Hargreaves from Florida with the sixth overall pick in this spring’s draft.

Baltimore has some internal options such as Will Davis who carry intrigue, but none have a body of work suggesting you could pencil them into the starting lineup with any great level of confidence.

2. Outside linebacker

Owner Steve Bisciotti spoke at length at the season-ending press conference about how much the Ravens missed Terrell Suggs after he was lost for the year in the 2015 opener, but the six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker will be 34 in October and coming off his second Achilles injury in four years.

Further complicating matters is the pending free agency of Courtney Upshaw, who lacks pass-rushing skills but is effective setting the edge against the run. The Ravens saw promising development from 2015 fourth-round pick Za’Darius Smith late in the year, but they’d love to add another outside linebacker to ease the workload of the 32-year-old Elvis Dumervil, who wore down late in the year as a three-down player.

The defense needs a young outside linebacker who can get after the quarterback, but the top options in the draft beyond Ohio State’s Joey Bosa — Myles Jack of UCLA and Leonard Floyd of Georgia — would likely be considered a reach where the Ravens are picking in the first round.

There’s a lot of uncertainty at this position for 2016 and beyond when your top two options are both well over 30.

3. Safety

Since the departure of Ed Reed, the Ravens have pumped so many resources into improving this position with very underwhelming results.

Though not quite as consistent as you’d probably like, Will Hill has emerged as a solid starter at strong safety, but the free safety position remains a different story. Kendrick Lewis just doesn’t show enough ability to make high-impact plays, and Lardarius Webb’s $9.5 million salary cap figure for 2016 will need to be addressed if he’s even to remain on the team.

Terrence Brooks has flashed his athleticism when given opportunities, but the 2014 third-round pick has battled injuries and has yet to earn the trust of the coaching staff from a mental standpoint.

Unless you draft Ramsey and move him to safety, there doesn’t appear to be a safety in this year’s draft who can bring the type of impact the Ravens are seeking. This could mean another year of hoping an internal option such as Brooks finally emerges as more of a ball-hawking threat.

4. Inside linebacker

Daryl Smith will be 34 and is no guarantee to return, meaning the Ravens should be looking for the inside linebacker of the future next to 2014 Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mosley.

Former undrafted free agent Zach Orr showed solid coverage skills while replacing Smith in the nickel package late last season, but it remains to be seen whether he can be a viable three-down linebacker. And 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown is more likely to be cut then to suddenly become a starter after three disappointing seasons in Baltimore.

Considering Mosley has struggled in pass coverage, the Ravens would benefit greatly from having another inside linebacker who can stick with running backs or tight ends in routes.

Whether it’s for 2016 or beyond, general manager Ozzie Newsome would probably be wise to be on the lookout for an inside backer with upside in the middle rounds of the draft.

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