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Twelve Ravens thoughts entering 2020 draft week

Posted on 20 April 2020 by Luke Jones

(Photo courtesy of Michigan Athletics)

With the Ravens counting down to their 25th draft in Baltimore beginning Thursday night, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Logistics alone make this one of the most interesting drafts ever, but the cancellation of pro days eliminated forums in which scouts and coaches around the league informally exchange opinions on prospects. Less groupthink could lead to bigger surprises on draft boards. I’m all for it.

2. Eric DeCosta and Ozzie Newsome before him have always maintained the sanctity of trusting game tape when evaluating prospects, which is more important than ever with the other gaps in this year’s evaluation process. Teams with continuity and a trusted process have a bigger edge than normal.

3. With general managers completing a dry run for the draft on Monday, DeCosta offered a look at his war room on ESPN’s NFL Live. He has his TV and computer screens in order as well as contingency plans and a generator in case of a power failure. What a time.

4. It’s impossible to anticipate which 27 players will be gone when Baltimore is scheduled to pick, but I’ll go with Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray for my prediction, which means you can expect someone else now. Given the depth and value in this draft, however, trading back wouldn’t surprise me at all.

5. As others have noted, how teams handle the signing of undrafted free agents — a hectic endeavor under normal circumstances — should be interesting. This is another area in which the Ravens should have an advantage while recognizing their reputation for giving real opportunities to undrafted talents.

6. Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz has been mentioned as a possibility for the Ravens at the end of the first round, but would you simply keep him at the center position with Matt Skura’s status uncertain? For what it’s worth, Skura did start 12 games at right guard in 2017.

7. The Ravens will presumably take at least one swing in the deepest wide receiver classes in recent memory, but they used more than one tight end on 42 percent of their plays last year. An option like Dayton’s Adam Trautman in the third or fourth round would make sense.

8. Isaiah Simmons of Clemson will be long gone by the time the Ravens pick in the first round, but Wisconsin’s Zack Baun is another “positionless” defensive player who’d be an intriguing toy for Wink Martindale, especially if DeCosta would trade back. Defense is trending more and more this way.

9. Leonard Fournette being on the trading block is the latest example why investing heavily in the running back position just isn’t wise. A back with a career 4.0 yards per carry average and a $4.167 million salary for 2020 isn’t at all appealing.

10. The top four offensive tackles won’t be on the board long, but the thought of moving a tackle inside to guard is intriguing, especially with a Ronnie Stanley extension looming and Orlando Brown already having a Pro Bowl under his belt. Will the Ravens be able to pay both?

11. With New England being the latest team to change its uniforms, I’d be leery if the Ravens wanted to switch theirs. How many in recent years — hello, Tampa Bay and Cleveland — have been more about fixing ugly mistakes? Wrinkles like the purple pants have freshened up Baltimore’s look enough.

12. The draft brings hope for the future, something we need from the last major sporting event for the foreseeable future. As was the case with Sunday’s debut of “The Last Dance” Michael Jordan documentary, it’s fun for sports fans to have an event to be excited about in this climate.

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DeCosta weighing draft options as Ravens aim to boost inside linebacker

Posted on 14 April 2020 by Luke Jones

The most iconic player in franchise history.

Pro Bowl talents.

First-round standouts and unknowns eventually blossoming into starters.

No position epitomizes the 24-year history of the Ravens better than inside linebacker. From Ray Lewis and C.J. Mosley to Bart Scott, Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe, and Zach Orr, there’s been no shortage of success stories at the position, regardless of their origin.

But 2019 brought an abrupt shift when Mosley, a four-time Pro Bowl selection in his first five years, signed an $85 million contract with the New York Jets. For only the second season in franchise history — the other being 2013 after Lewis’ retirement — the Ravens were without a Pro Bowl talent or former first-round pick at the position. Baltimore endured a problematic September before stabilizing the position with the veteran signings of Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort and adequately mixing and matching in various sub packages the rest of the way.

General manager Eric DeCosta now hopes to find a more stable answer in next week’s draft after beefing up the defensive line with the acquisitions of five-time Pro Bowl selection Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe last month. But finding the ideal three-down player at inside linebacker is easier said than done in an ever-changing NFL.

“It used to be that we wanted these really, really big and strong, physical guys,” DeCosta said. “I think the league has kind of morphed into more of a speed league in some respects. You need guys that can run and cover and blitz and do all those things, but you also need a guy that can effectively play the run and take on guys. In a perfect world, you like to have a bigger guy, but you’re also looking for a bigger guy who can run.”

With Clemson phenom Isaiah Simmons almost universally projected to go in the top 10, draft pundits and fans alike have discussed Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray and LSU’s Patrick Queen as potential fits for the Ravens with the 28th overall pick. Asked about the two prospects last week, DeCosta said it “depends what flavor you like” and anticipates each being selected in the first 40 picks or so.

The Ravens are no strangers to taking Oklahoma talent after selecting Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews, Pro Bowl right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., top wide receiver Marquise Brown, and guard Ben Powers in the last two drafts, but the explosive and physical Murray thrived on the other side of the ball with more than 300 tackles and 9 1/2 sacks as a three-year starter. Though the 6-foot-2, 241-pound linebacker didn’t stand out quite as much in coverage with a total of six pass breakups and no interceptions over three seasons, Murray possesses ideal traits for the next level.

“He’s been a very, very productive player, a tremendous athlete, a cerebral guy. He’s got really good length,” DeCosta said. “He’s been a really, really good defensive player on a team that hasn’t really had a lot of really good defensive players lately. Oklahoma’s been known primarily for their offense in the last four, five, six, seven years. Kenneth Murray’s been probably one of their very best defensive players. I think he’s a good prospect. I think he’s a great student of the game. He’s got great intangibles.”

In contrast, Queen was a breakout performer for a stout defensive program after playing sparingly the previous two seasons, registering 85 tackles, three sacks, one interception, and three pass breakups as a first-year starter in 2019. At 6-foot and 229 pounds, the LSU product is a more lateral than downhill player, but his strength in coverage makes him very appealing in today’s pass-happy NFL.

There’s also the perception of Queen being a late bloomer with a higher ceiling, which can be a blessing or a curse in the long run.

“He’s not as big as Murray. He’s very, very explosive,” DeCosta said. “LSU has put a number of really, really good defensive players in the league over the last four or five years. He’s a guy that is sidelined to sideline. He can play downhill. He’s a very good cover linebacker. He kind of came on the scene this year. He was not a household name before this year. He played his best football probably over the second half of the season with some really, really good performances in the playoffs and the national championship.”

Of course, there’s no guarantee that either will be available by the time the Ravens are on the clock since multiple teams in the first round seek help at the position. That’s where the organization can embrace the experiences of last season when defensive coordinator Wink Martindale effectively rotated multiple options with different strengths.

Run-stopping linebackers such as Jordyn Brooks of Texas Tech and Malik Harrison of Ohio State or  coverage standouts like Oregon’s Troy Dye, Appalachian State’s Akeem Davis-Gaither, and Mississippi State’s Willie Gay may not offer the same package as Simmons, Murray, or Queen, but they can still serve as good solutions to improve the second level of the defense in 2020 and beyond. Teams can dream about finding their next Hall of Famer or Pro Bowl talent at a position of need, but winning the draft is about maximizing value and identifying puzzle pieces that can fit in a variety of ways.

“When we look at the guys throughout the draft, there are players that can help us in specific roles,” director of player personnel Joe Hortiz. “There are guys in the mid-rounds that can come in and cover, maybe play the run. Knowing our coaches [and] the versatility that we play with on defense, as scouts, we’re able to identify, ‘Hey, this is what this guy can do for us. This is what we believe this guy can do for us.’

“It helps us evaluate players that maybe can’t do all the things but can do one thing well.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts as free agency slows down

Posted on 30 March 2020 by Luke Jones

With free agency slowing considerably and teams beginning to turn even more attention to the upcoming NFL draft, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Derek Wolfe may not be the same player and brings durability questions, but I prefer one year and $3 million guaranteed for him to the reported $21 million Eric DeCosta planned to guarantee Michael Brockers before concerns surfaced about his ankle. Sometimes the best deals are ones you don’t make.

2. The Brockers situation conjured memories of the Ryan Grant deal falling through two years ago, but the skepticism over that case — involving a contract that was widely panned — isn’t fair to apply this time around when teams can’t conduct their own physicals. It’s never ideal in a big-picture sense, however.

3. Based on the reaction of former teammates and Denver reporters over the weekend, Wolfe should be a good fit in the Ravens locker room. He also brings championship experience to a roster with fewer and fewer Super Bowl XLVII holdovers. Only four Ravens who played in that game remain.

4. Calais Campbell said his agent wasn’t thrilled with the extension he accepted that included $20 million guaranteed, but the 33-year-old took less to play for the Ravens than potentially maxing out with other teams interested in acquiring him. It helps having the reigning MVP and a 14-2 record last year.

5. I was surprised to see Josh Bynes accept a one-year deal with Cincinnati that isn’t believed to be much money. It’s easy to say the Ravens will just draft Patrick Queen or Kenneth Murray, but relying too heavily on youth is what got them in trouble last season.

6. We’re only three weeks away from what was supposed to be the start of the offseason program. With spring activities at facilities unlikely to take place, organizations will have their technological mettle tested and players will be trusted to prepare on their own more than ever.

7. The re-signing of Jimmy Smith alleviates short-term concern about the depth at cornerback, but he’s signed only through 2020 and Tavon Young has missed two full seasons in the last three years. A late Day 2 or early Day 3 pick at that position would still make plenty of sense.

8. I was surprised over some of the negative reaction to the one-year deal for Chris Moore. He’s a reliable contributor for a special teams group that wasn’t very special last year. Moore isn’t viewed as an answer at wide receiver or a lock to be on the 53-man roster.

9. OverTheCap.com currently projects the Ravens to receive a fifth-round compensatory pick next year due to Michael Pierce’s departure since the Wolfe signing cancels out Seth Roberts’ contract with Carolina. Of course, any player cut by his previous team doesn’t apply to the formula.

10. The Ravens are — and should be — heavy favorites to win the AFC North, but their division rivals all made solid free-agent additions and the health of Ben Roethlisberger’s elbow is a big wildcard. The division should still be Baltimore’s, but it may not be quite the same cakewalk it was last year.

11. The sports shutdown has brought more attention to esports as thousands watched Marquise Brown play Madden online last week and NASCAR’s iRacing broadcasts have fetched good ratings. Maybe we’re just really bored, but that’s interesting data as sports always strive for offseason engagement.

12. On the 24th anniversary of Art Modell revealing his relocated franchise from Cleveland would be renamed the Baltimore Ravens, the team’s official Twitter account revealed a 25th season logo. I assume we’ll see a jersey patch for 2020 like we saw in 2005 and 2015 (see below).

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