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Examining Ravens position battles: Third safety/dime back

Posted on 04 August 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens ramping up their activity level before the start of full training camp practices later this month, we’ll take a look at some key position battles ahead of the 2020 season.

Below is a look at the competition for the third safety/dime back job:

The terms “base defense” and “front seven” are no longer the norm in today’s NFL with the Ravens being no exception.

After running its conventional 3-4 defense just 16 percent of the time in 2018, Baltimore used its base front a league-low nine percent of the time last season, according to Football Outsiders. While the nickel featuring five defensive backs has become the real “base” defense around the pass-happy NFL, Wink Mardinale deployed a dime package (six defensive backs) 41 percent of the time in 2019, up from 26 percent in his first season as defensive coordinator.

With the overwhelming strength of the Ravens defense being its secondary, it makes sense for Martindale to lean more heavily in that direction, but will the trend of increasing dime usage continue in 2020? The acquisitions of defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe and the drafting of inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison reflected the desire to improve a middling run defense, but that doesn’t mean the Ravens will suddenly turn back the clock on the way defense is played, especially if they enjoy leads as often as they did last season.

Even if Martindale has more faith in Queen, Harrison, and veteran L.J. Fort to use two linebackers in passing situations more frequently, the dime figures to remain a prominent part of Baltimore’s defense, which brings us back to that sixth defensive back spot. Outside cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, safeties Earl Thomas and Chuck Clark, and nickel corner Tavon Young are the established starting five, but ex-Raven Brandon Carr served as the third safety with Clark often moving into the box in the second half of the 2019 season.

Many have discussed the possibility of veteran Jimmy Smith — re-signed to a one-year, $3.5 million deal in March — transitioning from cornerback to that third safety role, but head coach John Harbaugh downplayed the idea of Smith making a definitive position change like Carr did midway through last season. Smith also remains the Ravens’ best outside corner option behind Humphrey and Peters.

“Jimmy has already done what Brandon Carr did last year,” Martindale said in June. “We put him against good tight ends to cover in special situations, whether it’s a third down or two-minute [drill] or what have you or different kinds of packages. The thing that comes out about that is the best 11 will play, but it could be a different set of 11 for every package and matchup that we want to do with whatever situation it is.”

The Ravens also re-signed the 33-year-old Anthony Levine, who excelled as the primary dime back in 2017 and 2018 before seeing his playing time diminish last season. The most intriguing options for the No. 3 safety spot are a pair of young players who’ve combined to play only 40 defensive snaps in the NFL.

Injuries have limited 2018 sixth-round pick DeShon Elliott to six career games, but the the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Texas product turned heads last spring and summer with his physicality and range in pass coverage. That skill set would seem to be a good fit for Elliott to enter as either a deep safety or a dime back playing in the box, but Elliott will need to show he’s fully recovered from a serious knee injury sustained last October.

Elliott will face competition from seventh-round rookie Geno Stone, whom the Ravens didn’t evaluate closely until he declared for the draft in early January. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Iowa product may not stand out from a physical standpoint, but team officials like his football intellect and processing ability, making him an interesting first-year player to watch in a defense known for its flexibility and deception.

As Martindale indicated, the Ravens won’t feel compelled to stick to one player for that sixth defensive back spot as game situation and opposing personnel will prompt different looks. The arrivals of Queen and Harrison may allow Baltimore to lean more on the nickel package than a year ago, but the dime isn’t going anywhere, meaning this summer will be a key time for Ravens coaches to sort through both their veteran and younger options.

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Ravens sign Malik Harrison, leaving two 2020 draft picks unsigned

Posted on 14 July 2020 by Luke Jones

The coronavirus pandemic has slowed the signing of 2020 draft picks around the NFL, but the Ravens moved a step closer to signing their entire class on Tuesday.

Baltimore officially announced its deal with third-round pick Malik Harrison, making the Ohio State linebacker the eighth of 10 selections to be under contract. First-round inside linebacker Patrick Queen and third-round wide receiver Devin Duvernay are the only Ravens picks yet to sign as the tentative start of training camp is just two weeks away.

The Buckeyes’ leading tackler in each of the last two seasons, Harrison is expected to compete with veteran L.J. Fort for a starting role next to Queen after veterans Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwuasor departed as free agents this spring. The 6-foot-3, 247-pound linebacker played as a traditional downhill thumper in Ohio State’s defense, but the Ravens liked what they saw in Harrison’s coverage ability at the Senior Bowl.

“Sometimes you have to wait until he gets to an All-Star game where he’s in more man-[coverage] type settings or deeper zone drops,” said director of player personnel Joe Hortiz in early May. “With him, you saw enough of it — you did. They had him walk up to check the back, and he would release out with the back. You saw the speed and the length for him to be able to run with backs and tight ends vertical.”

In 52 career games including 28 starts at Ohio State, Harrison registered 205 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss, nine sacks, three fumble recoveries, nine pass breakups, and an interception.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on training camp preparations and other topics

Posted on 10 June 2020 by Luke Jones

With Ravens coaches returning to the Owings Mills headquarters this week and the NFL releasing protocols for training facilities, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. The July 28 report date for training camp is seven weeks away, but much work remains regarding COVID-19 protocols. The recent expansion and renovations of the team facility helps, but spacing lockers six feet apart for a 90-man roster will be quite a challenge by itself.

2. NFL Network’s report on the possibility of the preseason schedule being shortened was hardly a surprise since there was growing support for that long before the pandemic. The bigger question might be whether that sparks permanent change to the exhibition schedule.

3. Pittsburgh moving its camp to Heinz Field raises a fair question for teams that already struggled to find space for 90 players before even factoring in social distancing. A shorter preseason makes you wonder if that high number is absolutely necessary if you want to minimize health risks. Difficult questions.

4. Patrick Queen, Devin Duvernay, and Malik Harrison are the only 2020 Ravens draft picks yet to sign, but we’re approaching the time when you’d expect those rookie deals to get done. Of course, the pandemic could always complicate that timing.

5. Social media hardly provides a complete picture of the work so many players are putting in right now, but James Proche has logged recent workouts with Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III, and Trace McSorley. Good for the sixth-round rookie wide receiver getting acquainted with Baltimore quarterbacks.

6. You won’t find a more respected person in the organization than tight ends coach Bobby Engram, who was nominated for the PFWA’s George Halas Award for overcoming adversity to succeed. I recommend this piece from The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec if you’re unfamiliar with the Engram family’s story.

7. The value of the return specialist isn’t what it used to be due to rule changes in the game, but I can’t recall the last time we weren’t talking about that spot being a question mark around this time of year. The days of Jacoby Jones?

8. In contrast, Sam Koch is the only player to have any punts for the Ravens since 2006 and Justin Tucker is the only one to make a field goal since 2012. That continuity is just remarkable compared to most teams. Tennessee had four different kickers last season alone.

9. We’ve talked so much about inside linebacker the last couple years that I couldn’t help but notice Ravens coaching analyst and former player Zach Orr celebrated his 28th birthday on Tuesday. He thankfully escaped football without serious injury, but you wonder how much better he might have become.

10. Dick Cass, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Ray Rice, Steve Smith, Calais Campbell, and Queen were among the current and former Ravens joining over 1,400 sports figures in signing a letter to Congress requesting an end to qualified immunity. I applaud them for making their voices heard.

11. Have you ever imagined what might have happened if Baltimore signed Colin Kaepernick? Does he replace a Joe Flacco who had a bad back in 2017? Reunited with Greg Roman, does Kaepernick thrive and keep the starting job? Does Lamar Jackson then wind up elsewhere? Quite the potential butterfly effect.

12. Kudos to the Ravens for putting out the following video for high school and college graduates. We all had different school experiences, but I can’t imagine not being able to enjoy those final weeks or to celebrate these accomplishments with friends and family.

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Ranking paths to prominent first-year roles for Ravens draft picks

Posted on 25 May 2020 by Luke Jones

With the draft having taken place a month ago, we normally begin gaining a better feel for where Ravens rookies stand when organized team activities begin and are open to local media.

Of course, full-team workouts are expected to take place until training camp because of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving more guesswork and a greater need to temper expectations for draft picks and rookie free agents alike. With those realities understood, I’ve ranked the path of Baltimore’s 10 draft picks to prominent playing time from most likely to least likely:

1. ILB Patrick Queen (first round)
Skinny: The absence of a normal offseason program will hurt even first-round picks around the NFL this year, but the shortage of veteran options at the inside linebacker position should give the LSU standout a direct path to a starting job. The Ravens love Queen’s athleticism, vision, and ability to play in coverage, so something will have likely gone wrong if he’s not starting Week 1.

2. ILB Malik Harrison (third round)
Skinny: For the same reasons spelled out for Queen, Harrison could have an easier road to the field than any other Day 2 pick despite him being the fifth player selected by the Ravens in the draft. Questions about Harrison’s pass coverage could make a platoon with veteran L.J. Fort the most likely outcome, but his physicality playing the run and ability to blitz could lead to substantial playing time.

3. RB J.K. Dobbins (second round)
Skinny: The perceived starter of the future has the talent to push for significant playing time sooner than later, but some have been a bit too quick to dismiss Pro Bowl starter Mark Ingram and top backup Gus Edwards, who both averaged over 5.0 yards per carry last season. There’s a ton of competition for carries in this offense — especially with a record-setting rushing quarterback — so time will tell here.

4. DT Justin Madubuike (third round)
Skinny: The third-round pick is stuck behind Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, and Derek Wolfe, but all three are over age 30, making it likely that Wink Martindale will need to rely on Madubuike more heavily at some point, especially if the pass-rushing ability he showed at Texas A&M translates to the pros. That said, snaps are at a premium for defensive linemen in this multi-look system.

5. WR Devin Duvernay (third round)
Skinny: The organization has raved about Duvernay’s hands and physical running style, but the presence of Willie Snead and Mark Andrews — who plays more as a slot receiver than as a traditional tight end — complicates his path to early playing time. The way San Francisco used Deebo Samuel in its running game last year could offer clues for offensive coordinator Greg Roman using Duvernay.

6. S Geno Stone (seventh round)
Skinny: The seventh-round pick being this high on the list sounds odd, but there could be some earlier-than-expected playing time for the Iowa product if Martindale uses the three-safety dime package as often as he did in the second half of 2019. Of course, Stone would still be competing with DeShon Elliott and Anthony Levine for the No. 3 safety job in that scenario.

7. WR James Proche (sixth round)
Skinny: A sixth-round wide receiver lacking blazing speed or dynamic physical traits doesn’t look like a strong candidate for immediate playing time on offense, but Proche should compete for the punt returner job. There’s also the fact that Eric DeCosta traded a 2021 fifth-round pick to draft the very productive SMU product, which elevates his first-year standing a bit.

8. G Ben Bredeson (fourth round)
Skinny: A four-year starter at a Big Ten program like Michigan shouldn’t be ruled out in a crowded interior offensive line competition, but you rarely see Day 3 offensive linemen start as rookies and an abbreviated offseason only heightens that reality. A technician and competitor like Bredeson should fit well with offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris, but his road to immediate playing time will be tough.

9. OL Tyre Phillips (third round)
Skinny: The 6-foot-5, 345-pound mauler brings upside that made him a late third-round pick, but questions about his pass protection and inexperience at guard won’t help him in the interior battle. With Andre Smith being the only veteran offensive tackle on the roster behind Pro Bowl starters Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr., Phillips may vie for James Hurst’s old role as the swing tackle.

10. DT Broderick Washington (fifth round)
Skinny: The Ravens liked what they saw from their fifth-round pick at the Senior Bowl, but Washington didn’t show enough as a pass rusher at Texas Tech to predict a clear path to rotation snaps as a rookie. At 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, he profiles as more of an option at the 3- and 5-technique spots where the competition is pretty tough.

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2020 draft reinforces Ravens’ long-term view and identity

Posted on 27 April 2020 by Luke Jones

(Photo courtesy of Ohio State Athletics)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What to expect from Ravens’ 2020 draft picks

Posted on 25 April 2020 by Luke Jones

The picks are in for the 2020 draft, so what can we expect from the Ravens’ 10 selections?

Time will tell whether the NFL will have anything resembling a regular training camp and a 2020 season starting on time, but below is an early look at how each rookie fits now and in the future:

LB Patrick Queen
Drafted: First round (28th overall) from LSU
2020 projected role: Joining Ray Lewis and C.J. Mosley as the only inside linebackers to be drafted in the first round by the Ravens, Queen should start from Day 1, most likely as the weak-side backer whose coverage ability will keep him on the field for virtually every defensive snap.
Long-term view: Queen’s slight 6-foot, 232-pound frame brings questions, but a big defensive line in front of him should allow the athletic linebacker to effectively show off his speed to make plays. The growth shown over his one full season as a starter at LSU makes it reasonable to believe Queen has only scratched the surface of his potential and could eventually develop into a Pro Bowl linebacker.

RB J.K. Dobbins
Drafted: Second round (55th overall) from Ohio State
2020 projected role: Selected in the same spot as Ray Rice in the 2008 draft, Dobbins enters a crowded backfield behind 2019 Pro Bowl selection Mark Ingram, but his workload eclipsing Gus Edwards’ 133 carries from a year ago seems quite plausible.
Long-term view: The real value of this pick begins in 2021 when Ingram will be entering his 11th season and scheduled to earn $5 million, factors that could shorten Dobbins’ path to the starting role. A 796-touch workload in college shouldn’t prohibit the 212-pound back from thriving for at least a few seasons in a Lamar Jackson-led offense using the pistol looks from which he ran very effectively as a Buckeye.

DT Justin Madubuike
Drafted: Third round (71st overall) from Texas A&M
2020 projected role: The 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive lineman will compete for a rotational role behind a veteran starting group, particularly as a situational pass rusher after collecting 5 1/2 sacks and 11 1/2 tackles for a loss last season.
Long-term view: With Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe, Brandon Williams, and Justin Ellis all age 29 or older, Madubuike could move into a starting role as early as 2021, especially if he more consistently channels the dominance flashed at the collegiate level. The Ravens haven’t had many pass-rushing defensive tackles in recent years, but Madubuike has the tools to be a complete player as a 3-technique.

WR Devin Duvernay
Drafted: Third round (92nd overall) from Texas
2020 projected role: One of the best slot receivers in this year’s draft class, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Duvernay has sure hands and an uncanny ability to gain yards after the catch that could prompt offensive coordinator Greg Roman to work him into the offensive mix sooner than later.
Long-term view: Built like a running back, Duvernay has drawn comparisons to the likes of Golden Tate and Albert Wilson, but how he adapts to press coverage will be key in his development, especially working from the slot. The creativity of this offense suits unconventional players, and veteran slot man Willie Snead only being under contract through 2020 could clear a path to an even bigger role.

LB Malik Harrison
Drafted: Third round (98th overall) from Ohio State
2020 projected role: A downhill tackler at 247 pounds, Harrison will have the chance to compete for an early-down starting job as the “Mike” linebacker next to Queen.
Long-term view: Harrison plays exactly how one used to view the inside linebacker position, but his limitations in pass coverage and the propensity with which the Ravens use sub packages may prevent him from ever becoming a three-down linebacker in the modern game. However, there remains a place for run-stopping options, making him a rock-solid pick at the end of the third round.

G Tyre Phillips
Drafted: Third round (106th overall) from Mississippi State
2020 projected role: Spring workouts being canceled by the pandemic won’t help his immediate development, but the former tackle could still put himself in the mix for the starting right guard spot.
Long-term view: Phillips’ 6-foot-5, 330-pound frame makes him an impressive mauler as a run blocker, but the big question will be his pass blocking as he transitions to the inside. The Ravens like his size and physicality and offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris has the teaching reputation to make you believe Phillips can develop into a starter while possibly remaining a backup option at offensive tackle.

G Ben Bredeson
Drafted: Fourth round (143rd overall) from Michigan
2020 projected role: In the same boat as Phillips this spring, Bredeson was a four-year starter at left guard in the Big Ten and should have the chance to compete for a starting job right off the bat.
Long-term view: An impressive technician as a pass blocker, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound guard isn’t considered as strong a run blocker despite his extensive experience against high-level competition. With the way guys like Matt Skura and Bradley Bozeman have developed under D’Alessandris, however, Bredeson seems like a reasonable bet to become a starter eventually.

DT Broderick Washington Jr.
Drafted: Fifth round (170th overall) from Texas Tech
2020 projected role: A run-stopping 3-technique option and a three-year starter in college, Washington will compete for a spot as a rotational contributor behind the likes of Williams and Ellis.
Long-term view: Washington looks the part at 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds, but his lack of pass-rushing ability will probably limit his odds of becoming much more than a rotational piece. However, the current age along the starting defensive line helps his chances of sticking around as he tries to develop under defensive line coach Joe Cullen.

WR James Proche
Drafted: Sixth round (201st overall) from SMU
2020 projected role: Cracking the wide receiver mix won’t be easy in such a run-heavy offense, so Proche’s ability as a punt returner seems to be his best chance to see action right away.
Long-term view: The 5-foot-11, 201-pound slot man doesn’t stand out from an athletic standpoint, but his excellent hands and ball skills don’t reflect a sixth-round billing in what was a deep draft class of wide receivers. He caught a whopping 204 passes and 27 touchdowns over his final two collegiate seasons, making him an interesting late-round pick for whom the Ravens moved up to draft.

S Geno Stone
Drafted: Seventh round (219th overall) from Iowa
2020 projected role: His path to a 53-man roster spot and playing time as a rookie will be as a special-teams contributor, which is how current starter Chuck Clark began as a sixth-round pick in 2017.
Long-term view: Evaluations of his play are mixed, but the Ravens like Stone’s ability to quickly process what’s happening on the field, a crucial trait for a safety. Odds say his best best to eventually secure a defensive role will be as a dime safety as he saw time in the box, covered the slot, and played deep zone at Iowa, experiences that should help his development at the next level.

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