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2019 Ravens training camp preview: Inside linebackers

Posted on 19 July 2019 by Luke Jones

With training camp beginning in days and the preseason opener only a few weeks away, we’ll look at each Ravens position group before veterans begin reporting to Owings Mills for the first full-squad practice on July 25.

Cornerbacks
Running backs
Defensive line
Tight ends
Safeties
Offensive line

We continue at inside linebacker, a position at which the Ravens received a Pro Bowl berth in all but six of their first 23 seasons in Baltimore. General manager Eric DeCosta was right not to match the market-altering five-year, $85 million contract the New York Jets gave C.J. Mosley, but that doesn’t mean the Ravens won’t miss his play and leadership in the middle of the defense, especially with no other returning inside linebacker registering more than 434 defensive snaps last season.

A defense long defined by superb play at inside linebacker appears to be in the midst of a philosophical transition that started last year with a platoon at the weak-side spot that proved to be successful. How that will translate to replacing Mosley’s every-down contributions remains to be seen, but this certainly isn’t your father’s Ravens defense with two of the top three inside linebackers on the roster being former undrafted free agents and the other a former fourth-round pick.

Even in the lone season between the retirement of Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis and Mosley’s selection in the first round of the 2014 draft, the Ravens drafted Arthur Brown in the second round with designs of him being the heir apparent, signed 10th-year veteran Daryl Smith, and still had multi-year weak-side starter Jameel McClain on the roster. After investing no major resources beyond a second-round restricted tender and a few rookie free-agent signings at the position this offseason, Baltimore is devoting just under $4.4 million in total salary-cap dollars to its top three inside linebackers for 2019. Cornerback Jimmy Smith and defensive tackle Brandon Williams each have cap numbers more than three times that this season.

Below is a look at the inside linebackers who stand out for various reasons:

The Man — Patrick Onwuasor
Skinny: After headlining a three-man platoon that included dime back Anthony Levine a year ago, Onwuasor is expected to go from playing roughly 42 percent of the defensive snaps to stepping into the every-down “Mike” linebacker role, another reason why the Ravens gave him the $3.095 million second-round restricted tender. Undersized at a listed 226 pounds, Onwuasor played the best football of his career with 4 1/2 sacks and three forced fumbles over the final six games last year (counting the playoff loss), but that emergence must continue for this group to succeed without Mosley.

Old Reliable — Onwuasor
Skinny: A 26-year-old who played less than half the snaps last season and has just 26 career starts being the only conceivable choice for this category speaks to the paradigm shift at this position from the days of Lewis being one of the highest-paid players in the league. Pro Football Focus graded Onwuasor as its 40th-best linebacker last season, and his improvement in pass coverage and as a blitzer made a big difference down the stretch.

Under Fire — Kenny Young
Skinny: By no means should the 2018 fourth-round pick’s rookie campaign be considering anything but a positive as Young played just under 36 percent of snaps and contributed 51 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks, and a forced fumble. However, many believed he’d unseat Onwuasor as a starter a year ago and he’s still being challenged at the weak-side spot. Young is at his best when playing downhill and using his speed, but his pass coverage must improve and he was sometimes thinking too much diagnosing plays last year.

Up-and-Comer — Chris Board
Skinny: A former rookie free agent who made the 53-man roster on special teams and is rapidly developing as an inside linebacker? The more things change, the more they stay the same, right? The North Dakota State product played only 14 defensive snaps last year, but he received a large portion of the first-team reps in the spring, often before Young. The Ravens love Board’s speed, so a three-headed platoon is likely to continue with Young, Board, and Levine all seeing time in various sub packages.

Sleeper — Matthew Thomas
Skinny: Any of the remaining inside linebackers on the roster could be considered a sleeper with the lack of depth behind the aforementioned trio, but the 23-year-old Thomas did appear in 10 games as a rookie with Pittsburgh last season before signing a reserve-future contract with the Ravens in January. The Florida State product is one of a few in the running to win a job if he can excel on special teams.

The Rest — Otaro Alaka, Alvin Jones, E.J. Ejiya, Silas Stewart
Skinny: Alaka, a rookie free agent from Texas A&M, flashed with an interception of Robert Griffin III during minicamp and was graded as the top SEC linebacker in run defense by PFF last year. Jones spent time on the Baltimore practice squad last year after being waived at the end of the preseason. … Ejiya was tied for fourth in Conference USA with nine sacks last season.

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Baltimore Ravens Tim Williams, (56), and Brandon Williams, (98), warm up at the team's  NFL football training facility in Owings Mills, Md., Wednesday, June 12, 2019 (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Twelve Ravens thoughts at end of mandatory minicamp

Posted on 13 June 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens concluding their mandatory minicamp in Owings Mills this week, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Marquise Brown not being “certain” to be ready for the start of training camp doesn’t mean this is turning into another Breshad Perriman situation, but it’s fair to be a little uneasy he’s not yet running full-speed. Ask Jimmy Smith or Hayden Hurst how long a foot injury can linger.

2. Lamar Jackson finished offseason workouts with multiple touchdown passes in a short red-zone period Thursday, an area of the field in which he struggled this spring. He fared better overall in 7-on-7 drills than full-team work, but he raised his level of consistency as the spring progressed.

3. Asked about his plans between now and training camp, Jackson said he’s organizing throwing sessions with teammates and will work with personal quarterback coach Joshua Harris in Florida. He also “might” work with quarterback guru Tom House, but that sounded less certain. You definitely like the work ethic.

4. Earl Thomas admitted he has his challenging days coming back from his second lower left leg fracture in three years, but he feels like he’s “in the right spot” physically. We’ll get a better feel for the 30-year-old in the summer, but he appears to be gelling nicely with the rest of the secondary.

5. It was interesting how open Thomas was in describing the Baltimore defense as “very complex” compared to the straight Cover 3 looks he ran in Seattle. He admits the complexity and on-field communication have been adjustments, but that’s not surprising.

6. Trying to predict passing and receiving numbers in an offense anchored by the run is difficult, but Mark Andrews is my early pick to lead the Ravens in most receiving categories. He was the best pass-catching target on the field and is playing with an edge, something this offense needs.

7. Unlike Michael Pierce, Matthew Judon reported to minicamp in good shape and practiced like he hadn’t skipped organized team activities. Asked by a reporter if his agent has had contract talks with the Ravens, Judon replied, “They said they were going to pay me what they pay you.” Alrighty then.

8. John Harbaugh described left guard as “a competitive spot” and identified James Hurst as the slight favorite at this early stage despite Jermaine Eluemunor taking the first-team reps there this spring. The coach also mentioned Eluemunor needing to get in better shape. In other words, that spot is wide open.

9. It was interesting that Alex Lewis was not mentioned by name in that mix after Harbaugh revealed the oft-injured guard was in charge of his own rehabilitation from offseason shoulder surgery and the team hadn’t seen him until this week. That’s an interesting choice ahead of a contract year.

10. Harbaugh and Wink Martindale confirmed Kenny Young and Chris Board are competing for a starting inside linebacker spot next to Patrick Onwuasor in the base defense, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Board is in the lead based on practice rep distribution.

11. The retiring Jerry Rosburg worked his final practice Thursday and was honored in a team-wide celebration the previous day. The Ravens will miss his superb special-teams coaching, but his thoughtful remarks and underrated sense of humor will be missed by reporters. Best wishes to him.

12. I appreciated Martindale’s candid comments about the offseason departures of Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, and Eric Weddle and how the defense is impacted. I especially enjoyed the subtle shade thrown on the “next man up” phrase that’s become one of the worst cliches in sports in recent years.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on second week of OTAs

Posted on 31 May 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens winding down their second week of organized team activities, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Following an underwhelming practice from the offense consisting of mostly underneath passing and few highlights, John Harbaugh fairly noted the defense should be ahead of the offense right now with the latter installing a new system. Patience is warranted, but skepticism is understandable with such a young group.

2. Earl Thomas wasn’t tested much, but he definitely has a presence on the practice field that reminds a little of Ed Reed. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how he impacts a defense that already played plenty of single-high safety looks using an older Eric Weddle last year.

3. Patrick Onwuasor received endorsements from Harbaugh and Steve Bisciotti this week and has been more vocal in C.J. Mosley’s old role. The fourth-year linebacker said he continues to stay in touch with his former teammate, which is a valuable resource to have.

4. Most assume Kenny Young will receive the starting nod next to Onwuasor, but don’t sleep on Chris Board. The former rookie free agent has gotten a share of first-team reps this spring as well. We’ve seen similar stories before at this position, and that’s not to discredit Young’s ability.

5. Hayden Hurst is a bit of a forgotten man, but his foot injury forced him to rest for an additional month at season’s end last January. Now healthy and having added 20 pounds, he caught a deep post throw from Jackson Thursday and says he’s “on a mission” this year.

6. The spring always brings at least a couple interesting stories about players’ offseason workout regimens as Mark Andrews aimed to improve his blocking by practicing on his older brother. That had to make for some interesting family gatherings.

7. It’s tough to really gauge line play in non-contact settings, but Willie Henry batted down a Jackson pass during an 11-on-11 drill. He’s just one of a few defensive linemen whose playing time would be impacted by a potential Gerald McCoy signing.

8. Jaleel Scott received praise for his offseason work earlier this spring, and he flashed Thursday with a long touchdown catch from Robert Griffin III and another contested catch for a score in a red-zone drill. The 6-foot-5 wideout will need more of that to secure a roster spot.

9. With James Hurst never inspiring confidence as the backup left tackle, 2018 sixth-round pick Greg Senat is someone to monitor after an essential redshirt year on injured reserve. The 6-foot-6, 305-pound former college basketball player carries some intrigue despite being green.

10. It was interesting to see Jackson under center a decent bit after the Ravens were in the shotgun or pistol an NFL-high 93 percent of the time from the time he became the starter in Week 11 last year. He also mostly worked from the shotgun or pistol at Louisville.

11. Speaking to season-ticket holders, Bisciotti reiterated Jackson won’t be running the ball 20 times per game, which reflects the Ravens sharing the desire of many to keep the young quarterback healthy. Eight to 10 carries per contest feels like a general sweet spot in an evolved, more balanced offense.

12. At a time of year with little restraint for optimism, I appreciated Bisciotti’s honesty in admitting he has no idea what to expect from rookie wide receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin, citing how first-year injuries impacted Travis Taylor and Breshad Perriman. He also labeled Chris Moore a “breakout candidate.”

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Five Ravens questions for start of organized team activities

Posted on 20 May 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens conducting their first week of organized team activities and opening up Thursday’s practice to the media, below are five questions on the defending AFC North champions in late May:

1. How will Lamar Jackson look passing the ball?

There’s no shortage of unknowns about the Ravens as they attempt to win back-to-back division titles for the first time since 2011 and 2012, but Jackson’s greatest supporters and toughest critics agree his development as a passer entering his first full season as the starter tops the priority list. He again worked on his mechanics and footwork with high school coach Joshua Harris and threw to Ravens wide receivers Jordan Lasley and Jaylen Smith in Florida, but OTAs will offer a glimpse at the strides he’s made. Team-produced highlight videos and public comments from coaches and teammates will be all positive, of course, but media will be permitted to watch three OTA workouts ahead of Baltimore’s mandatory three-day minicamp in mid-June. That’s not to say reporters will — or should — overreact to every rep, but more consistency is needed on a throw-to-throw basis, especially on out-breaking routes. How Jackson throws in spring practices will only tell so much, but it’s more than we know now after an offseason full of speculation, debate, and, in some cases, mindless hot takes about the quarterback’s abilities.

2. How will an uncertain linebacker picture start to take shape?

A 23-year-old franchise that’s reaped the benefits of seven different linebackers making a combined 33 Pro Bowls has never had a cloudier situation following the departures of Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley. There’s no shortage of competition at outside linebacker with recent free-agent arrivals Pernell McPhee and Shane Ray competing with rookie third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson and 2017 draft picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams for playing time opposite veteran starter Matthew Judon. However, general manager Eric DeCosta has yet to add a notable inside linebacker in the quest to replace Mosley, leaving former weak-side platoon partners Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young as de facto starters. We’re a long way from any decisions needing to be made and you can only take away so much from non-contact workouts, but how — and with which unit — these linebackers even line up will be interesting to watch. In an ideal world, at least one of McPhee and Ray would work out and one of Bowser and Williams would emerge to form a solid rotation with Judon and Ferguson. A veteran inside linebacker could still be added, but the Ravens seemingly want to take a long look at Onwuasor and Young as the two starters.

3. What will new offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s offense look like?

It’s no secret Roman was the mastermind behind the shift to a run-heavy attack when Jackson took the starting reins last November, but head coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens have repeatedly discussed the rebuilding and revamping of the offense “from the ground up” this offseason, making it clear they want to play to their quarterback’s strengths. We know the ground game will remain the foundation with DeCosta spending substantial money to sign former Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram and blocking tight end Nick Boyle to multi-year deals, but the wide receiver position has undergone significant change and the offensive line remains a position group of great interest with the competition at left guard — and perhaps center — shaping up to be tight. In addition to leaning heavily on the running game and the use of multiple tight ends, play-action passes were a staple in Roman’s past offenses.

4. Who will show up in Owings Mills and who won’t?

This is your annual reminder that OTAs are voluntary, but that won’t stop us from noting player attendance, in part because we know it’s important to coaches and many fans are interested. Prominent veterans around the league seeking long-term deals often skip these workouts, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see Judon, Michael Pierce, and others set to become free agents next year over these next few weeks. It’s also worth noting a few prominent veterans who regularly attended OTAs in the past such as Eric Weddle and Mosley are gone, which makes you wonder if incumbents in their mid-to-late-20s will feel as much unstated pressure to attend. Again, none of this is the big deal many try to make it out to be.

5. Will the Ravens escape the spring without any significant injuries?

Washington lost linebacker Reuben Foster to what’s believed to be a season-ending torn ACL Monday. Two springs ago, the Ravens lost slot cornerback Tavon Young and tight end Dennis Pitta to season-ending injuries on consecutive days. Yes, teams are laying the groundwork for the 2019 season over these next several weeks, but getting through May and June workouts with your roster intact tops any coach’s spring wish list. First-round rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown isn’t expected to be on the practice field until training camp as he recovers from Lisfranc surgery and guard Alex Lewis’ short-term status is unclear after his January shoulder surgery, but the Ravens will use caution with every little ailment this spring while keeping their fingers crossed that nothing catastrophic occurs.

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Pierce officially inks second-round tender with Ravens

Posted on 01 May 2019 by Luke Jones

Less than two weeks after the deadline passed for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets with other teams, defensive tackle Michael Pierce has officially inked his second-round tender from the Ravens.

Per Wednesday’s transaction sheet, the fourth-year defensive lineman asked to sign the tender that will pay him $3.095 million for the 2019 season. The move was a formality after no other team signed Pierce to an offer sheet by April 17, but the former undrafted free agent didn’t appear to be in a hurry to sign, a common occurrence with any restricted free agent seeking a long-term extension.

The 340-pound Samford product has emerged as one of the NFL’s better run-stopping nose tackles over his first three seasons, leaving the Ravens with an interesting decision after 2019 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Pro Football Focus graded Pierce as the NFL’s fifth-best interior defender in 2018, but he’s played more than 400 snaps in a season only once while serving primarily as a rotation player, making it fair to wonder how he’d perform with a greater workload. With veteran nose tackle Brandon Williams entering only the third season of a five-year, $52.5 million contract, signing Pierce to a long-term deal while keeping Williams appears implausible. Invited to the Pro Bowl as an alternate, Williams graded 33rd among qualified interior defenders last season, according to PFF.

Releasing Williams after the 2019 season would result in $4.33 million in savings and $9.84 million in dead money on the 2020 salary cap.

There’s also the question of whether committing lucrative money to a run-stopping defensive tackle is the best investment with many having criticized the return on the Williams deal. Pierce’s PFF pass-rushing grade was higher than any other incumbent interior lineman on the roster, but he’s registered just three sacks in his 46 career games. The 26-year-old stated a desire to improve his pass-rush ability at the end of last season, one in which he didn’t record a sack in 14 contests.

“I need to get some more sacks — well, a sack to start with,” said Pierce as he laughed. “I think I’ve been stopping the run pretty well; that is something I pride myself on. I got better as a pass rusher [in 2018], but for me to be able to get some sacks would be paramount for this team going forward.”

That improvement would not only be critical for a Baltimore defense needing to replace the pass-rushing ability of Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs, but it would only drive Pierce’s price up in free agency next offseason.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 2019 NFL draft

Posted on 30 April 2019 by Luke Jones

With the 2019 NFL draft now in the rear-view mirror, I’ve offered a dozen Ravens thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. After undergoing their biggest roster turnover on defense since the offseason after Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens still went offense with four of their first five picks. That’s quite a change from the 2013 draft when their first four selections were defensive players. I approve for Lamar Jackson’s benefit.

2. Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young were winners of the weekend with none of Baltimore’s eight picks being used on an inside linebacker. With Eric DeCosta having just over $15 million in salary cap space, however, a veteran addition could still be in the cards at some point.

3. Another winner was Matt Skura despite many predicting the Ravens would come away with an early-round center. There’s certainly room for improvement and Bradley Bozeman could push him with a strong offseason, but I don’t get the sense the organization is as down on Skura as some outsiders.

4. DeCosta said the visit with edge rusher Ezekiel Ansah was “great,” but a potential signing likely won’t come until after May 7 when unrestricted free agents no longer impact the compensatory pick formula. Ansah visiting Seattle Monday should dismiss any idea of a handshake agreement being in place.

5. Fifth-round defensive tackle Daylon Mack was considered a disappointment entering his senior year at Texas A&M as a five-star recruit who hadn’t yet become a starter, but 5 1/2 sacks and 9 1/2 tackles for a loss changed that perception. That “sneaky” inside rush ability could be a nice addition.

6. Orlando Brown Jr. attending the draft party for fourth-round guard Ben Powers had to be a cool moment for the reunited Oklahoma teammates and speaks to their close friendship. You’d assume the Ravens had a great scouting report on Powers, who is expected to compete at left guard initially.

7. I’ll be curious to see how the Ravens handle Marquise Brown as he recovers from a Lisfranc injury that could keep him off the practice field until training camp. You don’t want to rush what can be a tricky foot ailment, but developing on-field chemistry with Jackson will be crucial.

8. The Ravens haven’t yet made their undrafted rookie signings official, but the addition of Louisville wide receiver Jaylen Smith made too much sense, especially after he worked with Jackson this offseason. At the very least, it’s a nod to your starting quarterback giving his college teammate a look.

9. Jaleel Scott was a forgotten man after a disappointing summer that ended with him on injured reserve, but the 2018 fourth-round pick has turned some heads this spring with improved speed and fitness. The 6-foot-5 wideout from New Mexico State needs a big preseason to secure a roster spot.

10. Joe Flacco has more important things to worry about after Denver selected Missouri quarterback Drew Lock in the second round, but it’s crazy the Ravens drafted as many wide receivers for Jackson in the first three rounds this weekend as they did over Flacco’s entire 11-year run.

11. Watching the inspiring Miles Taylor and Mo Gaba announce draft picks this weekend was a reminder of how superb the Ravens’ community outreach continues to be. The efforts of so many in the organization really make a lasting impact, including plenty of examples that aren’t publicized.

12. Despite Steve Bisciotti ceremoniously switching the seats of DeCosta and Ozzie Newsome at the conclusion of last year’s draft, the two kept their old spots. I hear Newsome enjoyed himself while DeCosta didn’t let the pressure of running his first draft stop him from playing a practical joke or two.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following their pre-draft press conference

Posted on 03 April 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens conducting their annual pre-draft press conference on Tuesday, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Eric DeCosta began by welcoming everyone to the “Liars Luncheon,” which is what many have called this event for years. It was a fun moment of levity to kick off a question-and-answer session that produces few headlines or revelations.

2. DeCosta estimated the Ravens will have roughly 180 “draftable” players on their board by the time the NFL draft begins in three weeks. He labeled safeties, interior offensive linemen, and pass rushers as the deepest position groups. The latter two could certainly help the current roster.

3. Despite owning just one selection (22nd overall) in the first 84 picks, DeCosta said having two choices each in the third and fourth rounds was “gold” with this year’s mid-round talent. You definitely get the sense the Ravens would prefer moving back in the first to add more mid-round capital.

4. Ozzie Newsome remains very much involved in the draft process with DeCosta noting that he’s probably watching more tape than he has in recent years without the burden of the administrative tasks of a general manager.

5. DeCosta again stated the need to “get some at-bats and swing” at wide receiver, which is a delicate balance for someone who’s perceived a sense of inflation with how the position has been valued in recent years. Given the great need there, you hope the necessary adjustments have been made.

6. Reading much into what’s said about prospects is unwise, but DeCosta compared Ole Miss receiver D.K. Metcalf to Terrell Owens in terms of running after the catch while director of college scouting Joe Hortiz compared his size, physicality, and vertical speed to Demaryius Thomas. High praise.

7. While the likes of Nick Bosa and Josh Allen figure to be long gone by the time Baltimore picks, DeCosta confirmed a desire to add pass-rushing help on the edge and inside. That coupled with the versatility of Wink Martindale’s scheme should cast a wide net to address that need.

8. DeCosta said he could see three or four centers being drafted in the first or second round unlike most years when the position lacks high-end talent. North Carolina State’s Garrett Bradbury wouldn’t excite the fan base, but the Ravens have long searched for stability at center.

9. Both Devin White and Devin Bush are expected to be gone by the time the Ravens pick, but DeCosta praised the next tier of inside linebackers. You’d have to think one is added to the mix at some point. N.C. State’s Germaine Pratt was formerly a safety and carries upside.

10. Just how important is Marshal Yanda to the running game? Check out who owned Pro Football Focus’ best rushing grade when going off right guard. There’s been some ambiguity and speculation regarding Yanda’s status, but the Ravens still expect him to play in 2019, the final year of his contract.

11. How much does the long-term roster outlook factor into draft planning? Baltimore is currently scheduled to have 17 unrestricted free agents next offseason, a list that includes Yanda, Jimmy Smith, Justin Tucker, Matthew Judon, Willie Snead, Patrick Onwuasor, Michael Pierce, and Ronnie Stanley if his fifth-year option wouldn’t be exercised.

12. DeCosta expressed his love for the gamesmanship of the draft and throwing teams off the Ravens’ scent. “As a kid, I loved to play Risk, I loved to play Monopoly — all those games. To me, this is a game. But it’s not a game we can afford to lose.” Indeed.

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Want, need, or desperate: Looking at Ravens roster a week into free agency

Posted on 20 March 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens’ roster has undergone massive changes in the last month.

Four of their top seven defensive players in terms of snaps played last season are gone, a group that accounted for nearly 40 percent of their sack total. Two of their top three wide receivers are no longer in the picture, leaving just two wide receivers on the current roster who have caught an NFL pass.

Of course, general manager Eric DeCosta hasn’t just been sitting on his hands, signing six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas to upgrade from highly-respected veteran Eric Weddle and adding two-time Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram to a ground attack that was already the best in the NFL in the second half of 2018. The Ravens also signed veteran cornerback Justin Bethel to enhance the special-teams units that will undoubtedly miss longtime coordinator Jerry Rosburg, whose pending retirement might be the most underrated loss of the offseason.

Understanding the start of the 2019 regular season is still more than five months away, which of the Ravens’ positional groups require the most work and carry the most concern right now? Some value free agents remain and Baltimore has enough cap space to make another notable signing or two, but going into the draft with multiple needs usually leaves an organization in danger of either reaching in lieu of maximizing value or being left out at a key position or two altogether.

Which positions do the Ravens want to upgrade, need to address, or desperately must improve between now and the start of the season?

Backup quarterback – NEED

Starter Lamar Jackson is the only quarterback currently on the roster as the Ravens have yet to strike a deal with Robert Griffin III to return. It’s difficult to feel good about anyone replacing Jackson’s unique skill set for an extended stretch of time in an offense being specifically built for the 22-year-old, but Griffin would certainly fit better than most quarterbacks out there. Perhaps more important than the system fit is Griffin’s presence as a mentor as it was no secret the two hit it off last season. Ultimately, we’re still talking about a very young quarterback here who can benefit from an experienced veteran. Josh Johnson could be a backup to the backup plan, but it’s difficult to find too many logical fits for the job in terms of both playing style and intangibles.

Edge defender/outside linebacker – DESPERATE

The short-term and long-term outlooks at this position are very concerning with Matthew Judon being the only proven commodity and scheduled to hit the open market himself next offseason. Expectations were high for 2017 second-round pick Tyus Bowser and 2017 third-round pick Tim Williams when they were drafted, but they’ve been non-factors in their first two seasons. Sure, the presence of Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith cut into potential opportunities, but the Ravens would have loved nothing more than to put the aging Suggs on more of a pitch count these last two seasons, making this a critical year for Bowser and Williams. With Smith receiving a big payday in Green Bay, the Ravens also lost his versatility to rush the passer from the inside, another issue needing to be addressed. Free agents such as Justin Houston and Ezekiel Ansah are still available, but DeCosta very much needs to add a veteran and draft a pass rusher to adequately address the void here.

Interior offensive line – WANT

Make no mistake, the Ravens would benefit greatly from finding at least one upgrade at guard or center, especially with seven-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda entering the final year of his contract and turning 35 in September. However, the Ravens had the NFL’s best running game over the final two months of last season and finished 10th in Pro Football Focus’ end-of-year offensive line rankings and eighth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate. With a full offseason for recovery and improvement, the Ravens finding a solid left guard out of the trio of James Hurst, Alex Lewis, and Bradley Bozeman isn’t unreasonable and Matt Skura improving in his second full season at center isn’t out of the question. Baltimore will have the option to use the same Week 1 starting offensive line in consecutive years for the first time since 2014 and 2015. An upgrade or two would be great, but don’t dismiss the value of continuity along the offensive line.

Inside linebacker – NEED

Regardless of your feelings on C.J. Mosley’s true worth or ability, you don’t lose a four-time Pro Bowl selection in his prime without having significant questions about replacing him. Patrick Onwuasor emerged late last season and Kenny Young flashed in his 369 defensive snaps as a rookie, but the two played in a platoon — along with dime back Anthony Levine — that enhanced their strengths and masked their weaknesses. The Ravens might be able to get by with Onwuasor and Young in starting roles, but it would certainly deviate from the value they’ve put on the inside linebacker position historically. DeCosta could still look to sign a veteran such as Zach Brown or Brandon Marshall, but it’d be surprising if the Ravens aren’t at least aiming to add an inside linebacker in the first three or four rounds of the draft.

Wide receiver – DESPERATE

With apologies to the solid Willie Snead and special-teams standout Chris Moore, you’d have a difficult time arguing against this current group of wide receivers being the worst in the NFL on paper. Yes, I know the Ravens want to run the ball and arguably value tight ends more than anyone in the league, but that won’t help as much when facing a strong run defense, falling behind multiple scores, or trailing late in games. There’s also the question of Jackson’s development and wanting to maximize the return on that investment for the long haul, something that will be easier to do with a standout wide receiver at his disposal. The problem is this wasn’t a particularly good free-agent class of wide receivers to begin with and most of the top names have already come off the board with options like Dontrelle Inman not getting anyone excited. Like at outside linebacker, the best course of action appears to be adding a veteran and using some meaningful draft capital — not late-round fliers — for a receiver or two. No matter what happens, it’s tough envisioning this position not being a concern going into the season, but that’s hardly unfamiliar territory.

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Ravens waive pair of former preseason standouts

Posted on 19 March 2019 by Luke Jones

Former undrafted free agents Jaylen Hill and Bam Bradley were feel-good stories of the 2017 preseason, making the Ravens’ initial 53-man roster before injuries derailed the start of their NFL careers.

Their time with Baltimore came to an end Tuesday with both being waived with failed physical designations, according to the NFL transaction sheet. Hill, a slot cornerback from Jacksonville State, and Bradley, an inside linebacker from Pitt, missed the entire 2018 season while recovering from ACL injuries sustained during their rookie campaign.

Hill’s strong preseason play put him on the radar two years ago as the Ravens were searching for a replacement for nickel back Tavon Young, who had suffered a torn ACL that spring. The 24-year-old Hill appeared in six games before tearing his ACL in Week 16 and began the 2018 season on the physically unable to perform list while recovering from the injury. Soon after returning to practice last November, Hill suffered a hip injury that ended his season.

Even if healthy, Hill would have faced a steep climb to earn a roster spot as general manager Eric DeCosta officially signed veteran special-teams standout Justin Bethel Tuesday to add to a deep group of cornerbacks that already includes Young, Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Anthony Averett, Maurice Canady, and Cyrus Jones.

Bradley, 24, suffered a significant knee injury in only his second NFL game and was slow to recover, spending all of last season on the PUP list. If healthy, Bradley could have been a name of interest as the Ravens move on from four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who signed a record $85 million contract with the New York Jets last week. Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young currently project as Baltimore’s starting inside linebackers with special-teams contributor Chris Board also expected to be in the mix.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts after first wave of free agency

Posted on 14 March 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens making significant additions and enduring substantial losses in the first wave of free agency, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. I don’t think the departure of Terrell Suggs has sunk in as most expected one of the franchise’s most iconic players to return for a 17th season. While Ray Lewis had the storybook ending and Ed Reed’s free-agent exit played out more gradually, Monday’s news was so abrupt.

2. Adding 29-year-old Mark Ingram made less sense if 2019 were shaping up to be more of a transition year with an eye toward the future, but he’s a well-rounded upgrade and has lower mileage as a timeshare back. His pass protection is also an upgrade over incumbents. Solid signing.

3. Ingram’s perception suffers from an “Alvin Kamara effect” as well as the infatuation some had with signing Le’Veon Bell, but he ranks first in yards per carry (4.71) and fourth in yards after contact per attempt (2.90) among backs with 550 carries since 2014, per Pro Football Focus. He’ll help.

4. Talent and on-field production are paramount, but I couldn’t help but think Ingram’s reputation in New Orleans and Earl Thomas’ winning pedigree in Seattle carry extra weight with the level of experience and leadership leaving Owings Mills this offseason.

5. The Thomas signing certainly reinforced Baltimore’s philosophy at safety after the organization failed with early draft picks and “value” signings early in the post-Ed Reed era. The Ravens have now given out a safety contract of $26 million or more in three of the last four offseasons.

6. Those with a longer-term viewpoint may not have cared for Eric DeCosta forgoing potential third- and fifth-round compensatory picks to sign Thomas and Ingram, but you can’t hold yourself prisoner to what still amounts to lower-percentage draft choices if the right free agent is available. There’s a middle road.

7. An optimistic outlook would say Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams haven’t had enough snaps to show what they can do, but coaches would have loved to have eased Suggs’ workload last year if either were deemed worthy. Either way, these 2017 draft picks have much to prove.

8. Adding a pass rusher or two must be a top priority for a front seven that’s endured substantial losses. That said, I think a great secondary carries more value in today’s game with more quick-drop passing and run-pass options that can really neutralize edge pressure.

9. More snaps are in order for the 2018 platoon of Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young, but a Daryl Smith-like stopgap would make me feel better about inside linebacker rather than expecting both to fill a full-time role without a hitch. We’ll found out how much Baltimore will miss C.J. Mosley.

10. Matt Skura received an additional $533,558 — a league high — in 2018 performance-based pay, a collectively-bargained program that compensates players based upon their playing time relative to salary levels. Making a $555,000 salary last year, Skura has provided good value making 28 starts the last two seasons.

11. Wink Martindale deserves much credit for last year’s defensive success, but losing Eric Weddle, Suggs, and Mosley will challenge the coordinator who gave those veterans so much freedom to make modifications before the snap. Thomas’ arrival helps, but there will certainly be an adjustment.

12. How does a Sunday night or Monday matchup of Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., and the Cleveland passing game against Thomas, Marlon Humphrey, and the Baltimore secondary sound? Dismissing Pittsburgh would be very unwise, but Ravens-Browns sounds pretty darn interesting now.

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