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Ravens hoping to begin gaining clarity with position battles next week

Posted on 03 August 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens hope to see business pick up next week as it pertains to their starting position battles.

Not only will they play their first preseason game against Jacksonville next Thursday, but the Jaguars arrive in Owings Mills Monday for the first of two joint practices that should ratchet up the competition level. To this point, the Ravens haven’t gained much clarity at outside linebacker or left guard, two of their biggest question marks entering the 2019 season.

Veteran Pernell McPhee has lined up as the rush linebacker opposite strong-side outside linebacker Matthew Judon for the first-team base defense, but McPhee has always been more effective as a rotational player ideally moving inside to rush in passing situations. You hope the 30-year-old receiving the early honors is more a sign of respect and a motivational tactic for younger options, but 2017 draft picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, free-agent newcomer Shane Ray, and rookie third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson haven’t consistently stood out beyond the flash play here or there. There’s also the important question of how effectively these unproven options will set the edge against the run, which remained an underrated part of former Raven Terrell Suggs’ game even in his later years.

“When we get into the games, the actual preseason games, you’ll have better questions and I’ll have better answers for you on the pass rushers,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “But I love the way we’re competing. I love how fast we are.”

The competition at left guard has been even more disconcerting with injuries and conditioning concerns muddying the waters. Fourth-year lineman Alex Lewis has yet to practice as he works his way back to full strength from offseason shoulder surgery while third-year lineman Jermaine Eluemunor — who surprisingly lined up as the starter throughout spring workouts — has missed at least part of four camp practices due to minor injury or conditioning concerns.

Rookie Ben Powers received most of first-team reps over the first week , but that appeared to be more a result of attrition than the talented fourth-round pick from Oklahoma being overly advanced in his development. In a perfect world, Powers would win the job since he has the most upside — and team control — of the aforementioned options, but head coach John Harbaugh didn’t offer a glowing endorsement when asked about the rookie working so much with the first team in the early days of camp.

“We don’t have a starter there. Who would you want me to put in there? He’s the guy right now,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “Jermaine has to get in shape still more, and those guys are competing along with James Hurst. James Hurst knows how to play the position, so we’re giving those younger guys the reps. We’ll see what happens.”

The Ravens gave Eluemunor another opportunity with the first team on Friday, but the 2017 fifth-round pick responded with two early false starts that resulted in him being forced to run laps as pre-snap penalties continue to plague the offense early in camp. Lewis remains the wild card if he returns to practice in the coming days as Harbaugh previously indicated an early August return for the oft-injured 2016 fourth-round pick who’s started 18 games in his career.

The position that’s gained the most clarity is inside linebacker where former undrafted free agent Chris Board has worked as the clear-cut starter next to Patrick Onwuasor. Martindale confirmed Board is ahead of 2018 fourth-round pick Kenny Young for the starting weak-side spot, but defensive back Anthony Levine also factors into that spot when the Ravens move into their dime package. Board appeared to receive more first-team reps in the position’s timeshare during spring workouts, but he’s taken virtually all base and nickel reps with Young relegated to the second team since the start of camp.

“He had a great offseason, and we challenged him on the things he needed to improve on and he went to work,” said linebackers coach Mike Macdonald about Board, who played more outside linebacker at North Dakota State. “He bulked up with some muscle and kept all his speed. He’s hammered out the playbook. He has a really good command of what we’re asking him to do, communicates well, and then when you turn the tape on, his speed is just hard to ignore.”

The next test for Board or any other unproven player vying for a starting position will come against the Jaguars as the Ravens will compete against someone other than themselves for the first time in 2019. The transition from spring workouts in shorts to training camp practices in full pads is always the first separator in competitions, but the coming week provides another checkpoint as coaches watch closely to see how young players handle live-game settings in August.

There’s still more than a month to go until the season opener in Miami, but the Ravens would love to begin gaining more clarity at these positions.

“You’d like for it to happen naturally and to be clear. That’s what you’d like,” said Harbaugh specifically about the offensive line. “You don’t want it to be clear because nobody is taking the reins. You want somebody to take the reins. Now, if more guys take the reins and make it tough on us, that would be even better. But we’re not there yet.”

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Twelve Ravens thoughts counting down to start of training camp

Posted on 12 July 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens beginning full-squad training camp workouts in less than a week, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Alex Collins was no fluke in 2017, but he hit the 20-carry mark in just two games and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry over the second half of last season. His slighter 5-foot-10, 210-pound frame still suggests a need for an impactful complementary back like Kenneth Dixon to emerge.

2. I believe Michael Crabtree offers the highest floor and John Brown the highest ceiling of the wide receiver newcomers, but Willie Snead is my sneaky choice to stand out the most. Joe Flacco has been at his best when he’s had reliable slot options like Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta.

3. For those inclined to blame Flacco for all of the offense’s problems, Pro Football Focus recently noted the 2017 wide receiver group generated the lowest rate of positively-graded plays and the highest rate of negatively-graded plays in the league last year. Yuck.

4. Speaking of 2017, I’m interested to see how Mike Wallace fares in Philadelphia after somewhat rebooting his career in Baltimore. Many say Flacco doesn’t elevate the play of his receivers, but wouldn’t these guys go elsewhere and at least do as well? Torrey Smith and Kamar Aiken, anyone?

5. Given the untapped youth and long-term questions at both inside and outside linebacker, John Harbaugh is showing great faith in new linebackers coach Mike Macdonald. Veterans Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley will be huge assets for the 31-year-old assistant, who was hired by the Ravens in 2014.

6. I’m curious to see who plays center on the first day of full-squad workouts next Thursday. Ryan Jensen topped the depth chart on the first day last year — even as John Urschel surprisingly retired — and never relinquished the spot. Will it be Matt Skura or Alex Lewis?

7. The Ravens ranked 24th in PFF’s preseason offensive line rankings. Whether you agree or not, the publication is spot on saying the group’s upside rests on Marshal Yanda. Is it realistic to expect him to be the same elite player coming off a major injury and being another year older?

8. I’m frequently asked about Lamar Jackson possibly starting over Flacco this year, but I only see it if the Ravens enter December with a 4-7 record and are out of the playoff race. Assuming Flacco and the offense haven’t played well under that scenario, Jackson playing would be a no-brainer.

9. I won’t hide from my criticism of the Ravens drafting a first-round quarterback this year, but that won’t temper my excitement to watch Jackson play this summer. I rarely look forward to “fake” football, but this is easily the most anticipated preseason for this organization in a long time.

10. It’s easy and fair to label Breshad Perriman, Kamalei Correa, Maxx Williams, and Bronson Kaufusi as potential cuts, but the Ravens rarely give up on former early picks until they absolutely have to. The disappointing Terrence Cody was even re-signed for another year. Just keep that in mind.

11. Close to 2,000 fans being able to attend training camp daily will be a plus for an organization needing to reconnect more strongly with its fans. The fallout of leaving Westminster was always going to be felt more at a time when the Ravens weren’t winning as frequently.

12. I get the rationale and advantages of the new digital ticket system, but the collector in me is bummed to see traditional game tickets go away. Hopefully the complimentary programs will continue to be distributed for years to come to appease those still desiring a physical souvenir from the game.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following mandatory minicamp

Posted on 15 June 2018 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens concluding their mandatory minicamp to conclude their offseason workout program, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. A year ago at this time, tight end Dennis Pitta and cornerback Tavon Young had already been lost for the season. The Ravens are dealing with some minor ailments, but the return of cornerback Jimmy Smith to practice this week further signaled the good health so far.

2. Alex Lewis and John Brown being among those dealing with minor health concerns isn’t as encouraging. These two could be pivotal in determining whether this offense makes meaningful progress from last season, but they must stay on the field.

3. Lamar Jackson was given the keys to run Thursday’s practice from the quarterback position as several veterans rested on both sides of the ball, and he responded with his most consistent passing performance to date. The rookie knows he has a long way to go, but his confidence is impressive.

4. Some pundits have cherry-picked quotes complimenting Jackson while ignoring the parts about him being a work in progress, but anyone who’s watched this spring knows Joe Flacco has been head and shoulders above the other quarterbacks. Ignore any noise from those pushing a quarterback controversy this early in the game.

5. It’s been evident that new quarterbacks coach James Urban has stressed mobility, pocket movement, and footwork timing with Flacco. The quarterback being healthy and another year removed from the knee injury is crucial, but these skills have been lacking since Gary Kubiak was in Baltimore.

6. Linebackers coach Mike Macdonald labeled Tyus Bowser the most productive linebacker of the spring as he even recorded an interception return for a touchdown on a Flacco pass. Bowser making a Matt Judon-like leap from his first to second year would create some much-needed long-term stability at outside linebacker.

7. Meanwhile, Terrell Suggs is again in great shape as he enters his 16th year and comes off his first double-digit sacks season since 2014. He’s entered that Ray Lewis and Ed Reed territory in that the Ravens won’t easily replace what he’s brought to the table for so many years.

8. It’s difficult to evaluate line play in the spring, but Orlando Brown Jr. definitely showed growth from rookie camp until the end of spring workouts. This next month will be critical for him to keep himself in good shape to continue that momentum into the summer.

9. Willie Snead is developing a good rapport with Flacco as they frequently connected over the middle. Flacco complimented the slot receiver for having “a knack for seeing the game the way the quarterback does.” You can see why Drew Brees liked him a couple years ago in New Orleans.

10. I’ve been as critical as anyone about this Ravens offense, but I do believe it has more intrigue and potential than it’s enjoyed the last few years. The problem is there are so few sure things, meaning the floor remains very low.

11. Hats off to John Harbaugh for offering this truth about spring workouts: “This isn’t football practice. This is just getting ready for football practice. … Nobody is going to make a play here that’s going to make the team.” We now return to our regularly-scheduled overreacting.

12. Between Eric Weddle dropping a Wolverine reference about Smith and Wink Martindale joking that Suggs must have done his offseason training in Wakanda, this week’s quotes were a Marvel fan’s dream. You just hope Thanos stays away from the roster when training camp gets underway.

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Ravens promote linebackers coach Martindale to defensive coordinator

Posted on 09 January 2018 by Luke Jones

The Ravens followed an old pattern to hire the seventh defensive coordinator in franchise history.

Continuing the organization’s long-held practice of promoting from within, head coach John Harbaugh announced linebackers coach Don “Wink” Martindale would replace retired defensive coordinator Dean Pees. He is the sixth consecutive Ravens defensive coordinator to be an internal promotion with Marvin Lewis being the only outside hire that arrived for the team’s inaugural 1996 season.

Hired to coach the inside linebackers in 2012 and promoted to linebackers coach in 2016, Martindale is held in very high regard by his players and has helped develop the likes of three-time Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mosley and Matthew Judon as well as former undrafted free agents Zachary Orr and Patrick Onwuasor. The 54-year-old was considered the top in-house candidate to replace Pees, but the delay in promoting him lead many to believe he wasn’t the top choice.

“Wink has earned the promotion to defensive coordinator,” Harbaugh said in a statement. “His aggressive mentality will serve to take our defense to new levels. He is obviously respected by players, many of whom have already benefited from his direct coaching at the linebacker position. He knows the ins and outs of what we have been about on defense and has been an important contributor to our success on that side of the ball.”

The announcement was met with a lukewarm response from those fans wanting the organization to bring back Chuck Pagano, who served as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator in 2011 before being hired as the head coach in Indianapolis. The Ravens had been interested in a reunion with Pagano, but he had two years remaining on his contract with the Colts and may ultimately elect to take some time off from coaching after being fired last week.

Martindale served as the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos in 2010, but it was a forgettable year as Pro Bowl defensive end Elvis Dumervil missed the entire season with a pectoral injury and the unit finished last in total yards and points allowed. He was dismissed after that season and hired a year later by Harbaugh.

An internal hire is rarely an exciting one, but Martindale has roots with the Ryan family and coached with former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan at the University of Cincinnati from 1996-97 and with Rob Ryan in Oakland from 2004-08. It’s also worth noting that the popular Pagano was an internal Ravens hire who replaced Greg Mattison, who wasn’t exactly a popular defensive coordinator in the eyes of many Ravens fans.

Harbaugh also named Mike Macdonald to take Martindale’s place as the linebackers coach. The 30-year-old has been with the Ravens since 2014 and served as the defensive backs coach this past season.

“Mike is one of the rising coaching standouts in the NFL, and he has earned the respect in the locker room and in the coaching room,” Harbaugh said. “We’re excited to see what he’ll do when he coaches our linebackers.”

Baltimore promoted Sterling Lucas to the role of defensive quality control after he most recently served as administrative assistant for the defense.

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