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Looking at updated 2020 slate of draft picks for Ravens

Posted on 24 March 2020 by Luke Jones

Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta has been busy at the start of the new league year with three trades executed in the last week in addition to a handful of signings.

Baltimore traded tight end Hayden Hurst and a fourth-round pick to Atlanta in exchange for a second-round pick and a fifth-round selection, sent that same fifth-round choice to Jacksonville for five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell, and finally swapped defensive end Chris Wormley and a 2021 seventh-round pick for a 2021 fifth-round pick from Pittsburgh.

With the draft only a month away, the Ravens are scheduled to have nine picks overall and seven in the top 150 spots. This could mark the sixth time in the last seven years Baltimore makes at least six picks in the top 150 selections. With lucrative contracts on the horizon for the likes of MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson, All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley, and All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey, DeCosta must continue to inject young and cheap talent into organization.

The following are the picks the Ravens currently own in the 2020 draft:

Round 1: 28th overall
Round 2: 55th overall
Round 2: 60th overall
Round 3: 92nd overall
Round 3: 106th overall (compensatory)
Round 4: 129th
Round 4: 143rd overall (compensatory)
Round 5: 170th overall
Round 7: 225th overall

Just for fun, below is a look at past players selected by the Ravens at each of those spots (or as close as possible) over the years:

28th overall: G Ben Grubbs (29th), 2007
Skinny: The first round will probably be too early for the Ravens to draft an interior lineman in the wake of Marshal Yanda’s retirement, but Grubbs was a five-year starter and made a Pro Bowl before moving on in free agency, the kind of result with which you’re perfectly content with a late first-round pick.

55th overall: CB DeRon Jenkins, 1996; RB Ray Rice, 2008; TE Maxx Williams, 2015
Skinny: This slot has produced quite a range of outcomes with Rice being one of the better players in team history and Jenkins and Williams not living up to expectations. Two second-rounders were dealt to move up for Lamar Jackson, but recent Ravens players picked in this round have been underwhelming.

60th overall: G/OT Kelechi Osmele, 2012
Skinny: Seeing action at three different positions, Osemele started every game he played in his four years with the Ravens before breaking the bank with a big-money deal in Oakland. Finding an offensive lineman of this quality in this part of the draft would be a major success.

92nd overall: C Casey Rabach, 2001
Skinny: Rabach didn’t step into a full-time role until his last season with the Ravens after being stuck behind veteran center Mike Flynn, but he would go on to be a six-year starter for Washington. That makes him a pretty decent pick in the big picture.

106th overall: WR Marcus Smith, 2008
Skinny: Smith appeared in just 21 games over three seasons with Baltimore and is one of the many Day 3 wide receivers selected by the organization not to work out over the years. Considering the hype surrounding this year’s batch of receivers, the Ravens could take a swing at the position here.

129th overall: G Edwin Mulitalo, 1999; OLB John Simon, 2013
Skinny: One of the best fourth-round picks in team history, Mulitalo was a starter for parts of eight seasons and formed a dominant left side of the line with Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden. Despite lasting just one year in Baltimore, Simon has played seven NFL seasons and has 19 career sacks..

143rd overall: DT Aubrayo Franklin (146th), 2003; S Dawan Landry (146th), 2006; OLB Matthew Judon (146th), 2016
Skinny: Franklin would play 11 seasons in the NFL despite a nondescript four-year run with the Ravens, but Landry and Judon are two of the organization’s great late-round stories. Finding multiyear starters this late in the draft is far from the norm, but the value is terrific when a team hits.

170th overall: TE Nick Boyle (171st), 2015
Skinny: Few would have believed Boyle would still be going strong as a critical cog in the offense after twice being suspended for performance-enhancing drugs in his first year in the NFL. Boyle has outlasted Crockett Gillmore, Williams, and Hurst, who were all drafted much earlier than the Delaware product.

225th overall: RB Anthony Allen, 2011
Skinny: Many seventh-round picks don’t even make it out of their first training camp, but Allen played 21 games over two years with the Ravens and was a decent special-teams contributor for the Super Bowl XLVII team. You’re not likely to do much better at this late stage of the draft.

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Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Josh Bynes is introduced onto the field prior to an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Revisiting Ravens’ positional needs after first week of free agency

Posted on 23 March 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens didn’t begin the offseason in the way many anticipated.

The defensive line was identified by most as an area to address, but few figured it would be the top priority with the acquisitions of five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell and defensive tackle Michael Brockers headlining general manager Eric DeCosta’s start to the new league year. The versatile Campbell addresses the much-discussed pass rush in a different way than a traditional edge defender, but there is more work to be done with the front seven as well as other positions on a team with visions of winning the Super Bowl next season.

Below is how I rank those needs a week into free agency:

5. Depth

This descriptor applies specifically to the defensive line and tight end. The defensive line is much improved, but Campbell, Brockers, Brandon Williams, and Justin Ellis are all 29 or older and the trade of Chris Wormley leaves the Ravens thin behind the starters. The Ravens received good value in the Hayden Hurst trade, but tight end is too critical to Greg Roman’s offense to dismiss the need to replace his 457 regular-season snaps with a quality option. Each of these positions could be covered in the middle-to-late rounds of the draft, of course.

4. Outside linebacker

The position’s overall value and long-term outlook still makes it a priority, but the decisions to place the franchise tag on Matthew Judon and trade for Campbell ease short-term concerns about both the pass rush and setting the edge. The concern is Judon only being under contract for next season and Campbell turning 34 by Week 1. The Ravens went 14-2 last year with the quartet of Judon, 2019 third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson, Jihad Ward, and Tyus Bowser at outside linebacker — without a pass-rushing talent like Campbell up front, mind you — but Ferguson is the only one of those four under contract after 2020. A veteran like Clay Matthews or Pernell McPhee could make sense at a low price, but the Ravens need to find a long-term answer, especially if they’re not comfortable giving Judon a lucrative multiyear deal.

3. Wide receiver

At the beginning of the offseason, I believed this to be more of a want than a dire need when keeping the proper perspective in evaluating last year’s record-setting offense, but the decision to trade Hurst — who ranked third on the team in receiving yards and first among non-running backs in catch percentage — likely signals some shift in target distribution. Expecting more from a fully healthy Marquise Brown is more than fair, but the Ravens need another high-ceiling option to compete with Willie Snead and Miles Boykin for targets. The free-agent wide receiver market being so slow to develop reflects just how much talent evaluators believe in this year’s draft class. With seven selections in the top 143 spots of next month’s draft, DeCosta should have no problem taking a meaningful swing or two at a receiver.

2. Interior offensive line

Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris has done a good job developing the likes of Matt Skura, Ryan Jensen, and Bradley Bozeman and Lamar Jackson’s presence makes the offensive line’s job easier, but you can’t lose a generational player like Marshal Yanda without having concerns about any replacement and the impact on the rest of the unit. Skura’s rehabilitation from a serious knee injury makes it more critical for the Ravens to add a legitimate option to the interior mix. I never figured Baltimore would spend big money on a free agent like Graham Glasgow, but the Ravens haven’t seen enough of 2019 fourth-round pick Ben Powers to simply hand him the job. Whether it’s with a value signing like Kelechi Osmele or an early draft pick, replacing Yanda will be an unavoidable question going into the season.

1. Inside linebacker

The Ravens don’t need to find the next Ray Lewis here as last year showed the value of this position probably isn’t what it used to be in Baltimore’s defense, but the presence of a three-down linebacker would make Martindale’s life easier using his various sub packages. Veteran free-agent options such as Cory Littleton and Joe Schobert were always going to be unrealistic from a financial standpoint, but L.J. Fort, Chris Board, and Otaro Alaka are the only Baltimore inside linebackers currently under contract for 2020, making at least one viable or proven addition a clear need. Bringing back Josh Bynes or perhaps even Patrick Onwuasor on a short-term deal could make sense at the right price, but, just like the outside linebacker position, some long-term stability is needed.

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DeCosta, Ravens hedging bets by strengthening defensive line

Posted on 19 March 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens had a clear objective at the start of free agency, even if it wasn’t exactly what many expected.

Yes, work remains to replace eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, add an inside linebacker, strengthen the pass rush, and find a impact pass-catching option or two, but general manager Eric DeCosta recognized a problem that became painfully clear in the stunning 28-12 playoff loss to Tennessee. The Ravens surrendered the fourth-highest rushing total in team history on that disappointing January night, but warning signs were there long before Derrick Henry and the Titans piled up 217 rushing yards on 37 carries, a 5.9 yards per carry average.

The Week 4 debacle against Cleveland prompting the on-the-fly retooling of the defense was one thing, but the strong December rushing performances by San Francisco and Buffalo couldn’t be dismissed simply because of a strong effort the second time around against the Browns in Week 16. Something wasn’t quite right with an area often championed as the Ravens’ greatest strength over the last two decades.

We’ve long been programmed to look at volume, which painted a rosy picture for the run defense. The Ravens ranked fifth in the NFL at just 93.4 rushing yards allowed per game as opponents ran a league-low 340 times against them. But Baltimore ranked just 21st at 4.4 yards per carry allowed — easily the worst single-season mark in team history — and allowed 4.54 yards per attempt if you include the playoffs. Football Outsiders ranked the Ravens only 19th in its run defense efficiency metric known as DVOA, which compares success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.

Hopefully, we’ve learned by now that conventional teams run the ball more because they’re winning — not the other way around. That’s why opponents were rarely able to take advantage of Baltimore’s relative weakness.

The Ravens won a lot and by significant margins in 2019, registering the highest regular-season point differential (plus-249) the NFL had seen since the 2007 New England Patriots. Nine of their 14 victories were by 14 or more points as league MVP Lamar Jackson and a record-setting offense shredded teams on a near-weekly basis, often making opposing ground attacks irrelevant.

But after the acquisitions of defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Michael Brockers this week, DeCosta’s recent comments that seemingly prioritized a better pass rush prompted a different perspective.

“If our offense continues to play at the level they played at this past year, we will probably be ahead in some games and we’re going to want to have a strong pass rush,” DeCosta said at last month’s scouting combine in Indianapolis. “I think on defense, if you look at great defenses, historically three things: can rush the passer, can cover, and can stop the run. We really do believe all three of those things are really important. We’re trying to build a defense that can do all three of those things.”

What if the offense doesn’t play at quite that same level though?

That’s not to predict gloom and doom for Jackson and the Ravens by any means, but they’re more likely to experience at least a little regression toward the mean than to match or break the slew of league and franchise records set by last year’s group. What the Ravens offense did last year was extremely rare and shouldn’t be taken for granted.

In the 12 games (postseason included) in which the Ravens either trailed at some point or held only a single-possession lead for a portion of the second half, the defense surrendered just over 4.7 yards per carry. A few of those games still ended in comfortable victories, mind you, but it speaks to how well opponents were able to run when they didn’t have to abandon the ground game or weren’t simply playing out the string in an embarrassing defeat.

According to Pro-Football-Reference, the Ravens allowed a whopping 6.1 yards per carry on 53 attempts when trailing in games. That’s not a very big sample, of course, but it again illustrates the vulnerability when opponents were able to lean harder into the ground game.

In planning for 2020, DeCosta couldn’t assume his offense would hide the run defense quite as effectively, making it important to improve the defensive line. Enter Campbell and Brockers — regarded as two of the best run-stopping defensive linemen in the league — as upgrades to Chris Wormley and Michael Pierce, who didn’t have standout seasons in 2019. Like Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa 20 years ago, the presence of these newcomers along with Brandon Williams should make life easier for anyone playing inside linebacker in 2020.

A five-time Pro Bowl defensive end with 88 career sacks in 12 seasons, the 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell is the most versatile defensive lineman to play for the Ravens in years, providing a major boost to both their run defense and pass rush. Campbell may not be the conventional edge defender many coveted, but his ability to stop the run and pressure the pocket from multiple spots along the defensive line makes him a valuable chess piece for defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, who used extensive dime and nickel packages last season.

“Calais is a player we have long admired, even going back to the draft when he came out of college,” DeCosta said in a statement released Thursday. “He’s a natural fit for our defense and a versatile player who plays like a Raven.”

With much of the outside focus at other positions, DeCosta spending big on two defensive linemen reinforced that old Ravens staple of stopping the run, something with which the 2019 defense struggled despite the overwhelming team success. With more thump and resistance up front, DeCosta can now shift his attention toward augmenting the defense’s second level at both inside and outside linebacker.

That way, even if the offense isn’t quite on the historic level of last year, a more complete Ravens defense will be ready to shut down the run.

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Ravens to acquire Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell from Jacksonville

Posted on 15 March 2020 by Luke Jones

Days before the scheduled start of the new league year, the Ravens have quite possibly made their biggest move of the offseason to boost their pass rush and front seven for the 2020 season.

General manager Eric DeCosta is set to acquire five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell from the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for a 2020 fifth-round pick, according to multiple outlets. The deal will not be made official until the start of the new league year, which is currently scheduled for Wednesday at 4 p.m. Campbell, 33, is scheduled to make $15 million base salary in the final season of a four-year deal, but the sides are nearing an extension to keep him under contract through 2021, according to NFL Network.

Coming off his third straight Pro Bowl campaign with the Jaguars, the 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell immediately becomes Baltimore’s top pass rusher and has registered 6 1/2 or more sacks in four straight seasons and at least five quarterback takedowns in each of the last 11 years. Pro Football Focus graded him as the second-best edge defender in the NFL and its best run defender of 2019, speaking to his all-around skill in the trenches. In 16 starts last season, Campbell collected 6 1/2 sacks, 56 tackles, and one pass breakup while registering 71 total pressures by PFF’s count.

Campbell has recorded 88 sacks, 696 tackles, 14 forced fumbles, and 48 pass breakups over a 12-year career in which he’s missed only six total games.

Playing extensively as both an interior lineman and edge defender over the years, Campbell will give defensive coordinator Wink Martindale plenty of flexibility to use different looks along the defensive line. Campbell will likely line up as a 5-technique defensive end in the Ravens’ 3-4 “base” defense, but he’ll move all over the place in other packages, which could give nightmares to opposing offensive lines trying to minimize his impact. His presence could also allow the Baltimore pass rush to rely less on numbers than it did in 2019 when the defense blitzed a league-high 54.9 percent of the time, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Relying heavily on that blitzing as well as a top-notch secondary to finish fourth in Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency last season, the Ravens ranked 21st in the NFL with 37 sacks last season.

It’s been a long time since the Ravens have had a talent of Campbell’s size and skill set with the best comparison perhaps being former defensive end Trevor Pryce, who piled up 13 sacks in his first year with Baltimore in 2006 and amassed 26 in parts of five seasons. Pryce was three years younger when he signed with the Ravens, but Campbell is playing at a higher level, arguably even better in his 30s than he was over his first nine seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. The 2008 second-round pick from Miami will turn 34 on Sept. 1.

Campbell’s value goes beyond what he brings to the field as he received the 2019 Walter Payton Man of the Year award for his community work and is one of the most respected players around the league. His leadership qualities will be welcomed by a young team that lost eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda to retirement last week.

Now on the hook for a significant financial obligation to Campbell after committing just under $16 million with the franchise tag for Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon, the Ravens could face some tough choices related to a suddenly tight salary cap. They still must decide on their $6 million 2020 option for veteran defensive back Brandon Carr in the coming days and could now feel more urgency to either work out a long-term contract with Judon or trade him rather than allowing the 27-year-old to play for the tag amount for 2020.

The deal will be viewed as another massive win for DeCosta as he will trade the 2020 fifth-round pick acquired from Minnesota last summer for kicker Kaare Vedvik, who faltered with the Vikings and was waived weeks later. This trade coupled with the deal for Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters last October means DeCosta essentially swapped Vedvik, inside linebacker Kenny Young, and his original 2020 fifth-round pick for two established Pro Bowl defensive talents.

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

Posted on 28 February 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens recorded the best regular season in franchise history, but where did their individual players stack up across the NFL in 2019?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl — Baltimore had a record-tying 13 selections — or determining postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few watch every player on every team closely enough to form any real authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you watch the Tampa Bay offensive line this season? What about the Atlanta Falcons linebackers or the Detroit Lions cornerbacks?

That’s why I respect the efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging their grading is far from the gospel of evaluation. I don’t envy the exhaustive effort to evaluate players across the league when most of us watch one team or maybe one division on any kind of a regular basis.

We’ll look at each positional group on the roster in the coming days, but below is a look at where Ravens outside linebackers ranked across the NFL this past season followed by the positional outlook going into 2020:

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 positional outlook

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

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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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Franchise tag “still on the table” for Ravens outside linebacker Judon

Posted on 26 February 2020 by Luke Jones

With the start of free agency less than a month away and the window to use the franchise tag opening this week, the Ravens haven’t yet revealed their plans for Matthew Judon.

Baltimore’s top unrestricted free agent and Pro Bowl outside linebacker registered a career-high 9 1/2 sacks and ranked fourth in the NFL with 33 quarterback hits last season, but how far will general manager Eric DeCosta go to keep the 27-year-old Judon?

“We’ve had good conversations with his agents. They’re ongoing, and we’ll continue to see how far that progresses,” DeCosta said at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. “As far as the franchise tag goes, that’s definitely something that’s in consideration, that’s still on the table. We have some time to go before we make that decision. We’ll have to see how it all kind of transpires over the next few weeks.”

The Ravens ranked just 21st in the NFL with 37 sacks despite blitzing more frequently than any team in the league last season, illustrating how much defensive coordinator Wink Martindale depended on numbers to disrupt the pocket. That reality could make one argue how critical it is for the Ravens to retain their only reliable pass rusher or suggest Judon’s production stemmed more from Baltimore’s scheme than his individual talents, leaving quite the dilemma.

Named to his first Pro Bowl last season, the 2016 fifth-round pick from Grand Valley State has never missed a game due to injury in his career — he was a healthy scratch for two games as a rookie — and played a career high in snaps in 2019. Pro Football Focus graded Judon a career-best 44th among qualified edge defenders, but he would likely receive elite money on the open market much like former Raven Za’Darius Smith did from Green Bay last year.

The non-exclusive franchise tag is projected to cost just over $16 million for linebackers, which would eat more than half of the Ravens’ projected salary cap space. However, Judon moving on would leave DeCosta needing to add at least two viable pass rushers this offseason, which would be no easy task.

“If [the tag is] what we have to do, then we’ll probably have to do it,” DeCosta said. “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.”

A tag and trade is another option as Houston did with Jadeveon Clowney and Seattle did with Frank Clark last year.

Secondary depth decisions

Cornerback Jimmy Smith is expected to test free agency while the Ravens have made no decision on their $6 million option for veteran defensive back Brandon Carr that must be exercised next month.

With outside corners Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey and slot man Tavon Young all under team control for at least the next two years, Smith would no longer be in line for an every-down role, complicating his value for the organization that made him a first-round pick in 2011. Turning 32 in July, Smith has played in more than 12 games in a season only twice and missed nearly seven full games last season with a knee injury suffered early in the 2019 opener.

“I thought he played his best football later in the year,” DeCosta said. “Jimmy’s a guy that we value, so we’ll see. I suspect that Jimmy’s going to want to hit the market and assess what his value is, and he probably should. He’s a veteran. He’s worked hard to see what his value will be on the market, but lots of respect for Jimmy as a player.

“His agent and I have a really good relationship, and there’s communication, so we’ll just see. I wish Jimmy the best, no matter what. We’d love to see him back in Baltimore, but he’s a free agent.”

Carr would bring more positional versatility as a reserve safety and slot corner who could play a role in sub packages, but a $6 million price tag is high for a soon-to-be 34-year-old.

Next wave of extensions?

To no surprise, DeCosta confirmed the desire to sign “elite, young players” such as Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley and Humphrey to long-term contracts in the near future.

Stanley is entering the fifth-year option year of his rookie contract and would appear to be the bigger priority from a timing standpoint after being regarded by many as the NFL’s best at his position in 2019.

“We’ve talked quite a bit. We’ll meet again this week,” DeCosta said. “We love Ronnie. He played his butt off this year — All-Pro left tackle. We’re excited about that, excited about his future, excited about the player, and excited about the person. We’ll try to continue to have those dialogues as well.”

The Ravens are all but guaranteed to exercise their fifth-year option for Humphrey, which would keep the 2017 first-round pick under team control through 2021.

Waiting on Yanda

DeCosta is still awaiting word on the future of eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, who is contemplating whether to retire or return for a 14th season.

Yanda is under contract and scheduled to make $7 million for the 2020 season, but he has considered retirement in recent years. His departure would create a major need for the interior offensive line with no established or clear-cut replacement currently on the roster.

“I had a great conversation with Marshal at the Pro Bowl. We didn’t talk about the future,” DeCosta said. “I’m sure we’ll have those discussions probably in the next month or so.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following Chuck Clark extension

Posted on 11 February 2020 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens locking up another piece of their secondary with Chuck Clark’s three-year contract extension, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Who would have imagined the 2017 sixth-round pick receiving $10 million guaranteed when Clark had only two career starts under his belt a year ago? He flashed starter potential filling in late in 2018, but few would have guessed him being the first from his draft class to get extended.

2. Clark citing Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson as individuals aiding in his development wasn’t surprising, but he also mentioned retired special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, who had a similar impact on numerous young players who eventually worked their way up to meaningful defensive or offensive roles. He was highly respected.

3. The signing reiterated the writing on the wall for Jefferson and his future in Baltimore that’s felt apparent for a while, but the veteran’s congratulatory tweet was a snapshot of why teammates and coaches like him so much. Regardless of what happens, he’ll have many rooting for him.

4. The overwhelming reaction to Weddle’s retirement wasn’t surprising as his three seasons in Baltimore stabilized a safety position that had been problematic since the end of the Ed Reed era. Echoing others, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back with the organization in some capacity down the road.

5. I sometimes wonder if the Ravens have missed out on helpful free agents over the years at the expense of their compensatory pick obsession, but Day 3 guys like Clark and Nick Boyle — not compensatory selections themselves — receiving second contracts helps one understand why they value those late lottery tickets.

6. Speaking of former Day 3 picks, I’m fascinated to see how the Matthew Judon situation plays out. You don’t want to overpay, but that’s easier said than done at a position of great need for a Super Bowl-caliber team with a favorable salary cap picture for the next couple years.

7. I’m reluctant to pay substantial money to re-sign Jimmy Smith since he’ll be 32 and hasn’t played more than 12 games in a season since 2015, but Clark’s extension reminded how highly the Ravens value the secondary. Insurance behind Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Tavon Young will be prioritized.

8. Andre Smith wouldn’t have been anywhere near my short list of Baltimore free agents to re-sign before hitting the market, but he’ll have a chance to impact the evaluation of swing tackle James Hurst, who is scheduled to make a pricey $4 million in base salary in 2020.

9. Josh Bynes will be 31 in August and isn’t a long-term answer, but he’s being sold short as an attractive option to re-sign while mock drafts link Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray to the Ravens. Last year illustrated the danger of just handing the keys to inexperienced options at inside linebacker.

10. OverTheCap.com does a terrific job breaking down the nuances of the NFL salary cap and offered evidence why the Ravens might be more active than usual spending cash in free agency. That could also create more urgency to extend Ronnie Stanley sooner than later, an action I support.

11. It’s that time of year when we conjure signing and trade ideas, but the price for Stefon Diggs would be steep and there’s no guarantee he’d be happier playing in a run-first offense and passing game anchored by tight ends than he is in Minnesota. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

12. The days of an annual “State of the Ravens” including Steve Bisciotti appear to be long gone, but Eric DeCosta hasn’t met with local media since last year’s draft and apparently won’t again until the pre-draft luncheon. He’ll speak at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, but that’s still surprising.

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