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jacksonharbaugh

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Harbaugh ready to finally lay eyes on 2020 Ravens

Posted on 30 July 2020 by Luke Jones

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has been in this position before — at least from a football standpoint.

The 2011 NFL lockout canceled spring workouts and kept players away from team facilities until training camp in late July, but the temporary obstacles created by a labor dispute pale in comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic that will challenge — and threaten — so many aspects of preparing for a new season, including whether it will take place at all.

Asked what lessons from that unique experience might apply nine years later, Harbaugh was quick to note his brother, Jim Harbaugh, was a first-year head coach in San Francisco and surprisingly took the 49ers to the NFC Championship game that season. The Ravens also advanced to the conference championship game that year despite releasing several key veterans such as wide receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap on the eve of training camp.

“Maybe the biggest lesson is that it can be done,” said Harbaugh about handling an abbreviated offseason and training camp. “You can build a football team as long as everybody is on the same playing field, no matter really what the organization is. The main thing is being able to keep the players safe enough and healthy to prepare them enough where they can protect themselves on the field [and] they can execute the techniques and the game in a way to protect themselves.”

The Ravens must wait a little longer to hit the field as veterans reported earlier this week for virus testing in hopes of clearance to enter the building to take physicals over the weekend and to begin football-related activities in Owings Mills on Monday. An extended acclimation period for strength and conditioning this summer means we won’t see full-contact practices until mid-August.

Such a timetable as well as the cancellation of preseason games will make it even more challenging to sort through an interior offensive line picture in which the Ravens must replace eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, who announced his retirement in March. Bradley Bozeman is expected to start — likely at left guard — and the returning Matt Skura is a strong bet to remain at center if healthy, but offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris must evaluate veteran newcomer D.J. Fluker as well as second-year linemen Patrick Mekari and Ben Powers and rookies Ben Bredeson and Tyre Phillips, who all are vying for Yanda’s old spot.

Further complicating the offensive line discussion is the need to identify a swing tackle to back up Pro Bowl offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. following the offseason release of veteran James Hurst.

“We are going to give reps to different spots, so even our guards are going to be playing tackle some,” Harbaugh said. “You’ll see Tyre Phillips playing some tackle even though he’s still competing for the starting right guard and the backup left guard spots. That’s just going to be how it’s going to go this training camp, and we are going to have to really be flexible.”

Part of that flexibility is the possibility of players opting out due to the pandemic, something veteran offensive tackle Andre Smith did earlier in the week. Harbaugh called the decisions of Smith and return specialist De’Anthony Thomas “surprises,” but it’s part of a new reality in a contact sport not conducive to social distancing.

As of late Thursday morning, Harbaugh wasn’t aware of any other Baltimore players considering not playing in 2020.

“That’s not something I’ve talked to any of the guys about. Nobody has mentioned that to me,” Harbaugh said. “I think that’s a very personal type of a choice. If a guy wants to talk to me about it, I’m happy to talk to him, but I do think it’s such a personal choice. I don’t really know how much you can add from the outside to that decision.”

“We’ll look at any and every player”

The Antonio Brown questions just won’t go away as MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson admitted Wednesday to “still hoping a little bit” that the Ravens will sign the seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver.

Jackson and second-year receiver Marquise Brown worked out with the former Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this offseason and Harbaugh said he respects his quarterback’s opinion, but Antonio Brown’s off-field problems make it unclear whether he would face a suspension from the NFL even if general manager Eric DeCosta would choose to take a chance on the controversial wideout.

“We’ll look at any and every player at all times. Antonio Brown is no exception,” Harbaugh said. “Decisions will be made based on whatever they are made on. I don’t think he’s really available to even sign right now, so it’s not really a conversation that you have until he’s available to sign. Maybe I’m wrong about that. That’s something that I’ll have to ask Eric about — where that stands with the league and the player. But that’s where we stand on it, at least from my perspective.”

Safety or cornerback?

Harbaugh downplayed the notion of veteran Jimmy Smith moving to the safety position as he’s expected to be the No. 3 outside cornerback behind Pro Bowl starters Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters.

That doesn’t mean Smith won’t have a meaningful role in Wink Martindale’s versatile defense.

“If he lines up at safety, it will be for a reason to do a certain specific task or number of tasks,” Harbaugh said. “Any kind of a big-picture transition saying Jimmy Smith is a safety, that’s not really where we are going this year. He’s a corner and he’ll play corner, but he could be out there as a first corner, second corner, the third corner on the field, the fourth corner on the field. We’ll put different groups out there.”

Injury report

Harbaugh said slot cornerback Tavon Young (neck), outside linebacker Pernell McPhee (triceps), and safety DeShon Elliott (knee) are all in great shape and ready to go after suffering season-ending injuries in 2019, leaving Skura as the Ravens’ only real injury question going into training camp.

Despite suffering a major knee injury in late November, Skura made great progress with his rehabilitation this offseason and could be ready to practice sooner than most anticipated.

“I’m hearing great things. I’m optimistic about Matt; I really am,” Harbaugh said. “That’s a big plus for us if he can do it, but we’ll be careful. We’ll see how he looks and how he feels. A lot of it will be up to Matt too, but he knows himself really well and I know he’s worked really hard to be ready.”

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fluker

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Ranking best veteran bargain signings for 2020 Ravens

Posted on 01 June 2020 by Luke Jones

Expectations for the 2020 Ravens couldn’t be higher, but even the best seasons don’t go exactly as planned.

A longtime starter begins to decline more rapidly than anticipated. Promising young players expected to fill prominent roles don’t always take the proverbial step forward. And, of course, some injuries are inevitable. That’s why it’s important to identify some veteran bargains — especially when you’re tight against the salary cap as the Ravens often are — to fill rotational roles and to serve as insurance behind higher-priced starters or unproven youngsters.

Prior to the 2012 Super Bowl season, Baltimore signed former Chicago Bears cornerback Corey Graham to a two-year, $3.95 million contract primarily for his special-teams prowess after the relative unknown had started just 10 games in his first five NFL seasons. Beginning the year fourth on the cornerback depth chart, Graham played only seven defensive snaps over the first five games before a season-ending injury to Lardarius Webb and the multi-week absence of Jimmy Smith propelled him to the starting lineup for the second half of the season. The 27-year-old was Baltimore’s top cornerback down the stretch and intercepted two Peyton Manning passes — returning one for a touchdown — in the epic divisional-round double-overtime win at Denver.

You just never know.

Considering positional value and the depth at different spots on either side of the ball, I’ve ranked the veteran bargains (making less than $2 million in 2020 and not on a rookie contract) signed or re-signed by general manager Eric DeCosta this offseason:

1. G D.J. Fluker
2020 base salary/cap number: $1.05 million/$775,000 (veteran salary benefit)
Outlook: Ideally, one of several first- or second-year candidates with long-term upside would emphatically move to the front of the line to replace retired eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, but offensive line development is tricky even without a pandemic wiping out the normal spring workout program. That’s why the addition of the 29-year-old Fluker and his 88 career starts was a smart investment to raise the position’s floor at just 0.4 percent of the total salary cap for 2020. Pro Football Focus graded him just 51st among qualified guards last season, but his past experience working with offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris in San Diego made this signing even more logical.

2. OLB Pernell McPhee
2020 base salary/cap number: $1.05 million/$887,500 (veteran salary benefit)
Outlook: A triceps tear in Week 7 derailed what had been a renaissance for the 31-year-old, who still finished tied for third on the team with three sacks and tied for fifth in quarterback hits with six in just seven games. Even better than his pass-rush contributions was his ability to set the edge as PFF graded him the best run defender among the Ravens’ edge players. Averaging a career-high number of snaps per game prior to the injury, McPhee should be in more of a situational role at this point in his career, but that could hinge on the development of second-year outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson.

3. OLB Jihad Ward
2020 base salary/cap number: $910,000/$887,500 (veteran salary benefit)
Outlook: Much like McPhee, Ward showed the ability to effectively set the edge and line up at multiple spots along the defensive front, earning praise from coaches and teammates after his October arrival. Those comments prompted some to expect the 26-year-old to see more interest in free agency, but the Ravens were able to keep him around at outside linebacker and as a situational inside rusher. McPhee is the more proven player, but youth is on Ward’s side to fill a bigger role if necessary.

4. DB Anthony Levine
2020 base salary/cap number: $1.675 million/$1.1875 million (four-year qualifying player)
Outlook: The 33-year-old saw his role diminish in the second half of 2019, but the longtime dime back has the versatility coaches like in this age of increasing “positionless” defense. He may no longer play 250-plus defensive snaps per season like he did from 2017-18, but Levine’s leadership and ability on special teams alone justify the signing for a team that struggled some in that area down the stretch last year. How he still might fit into Wink Martindale’s various packages remains to be seen.

5. DT Justin Ellis
2020 base salary/cap number: $910,000/$887,500 (veteran salary benefit)
Outlook: The selections of Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington in April’s draft added young depth to the defensive line, but the unproven Daylon Mack is the only other notable backup to starting nose tackle Brandon Williams, making the Ellis re-signing more important with the free-agent departure of Michael Pierce. Upon arriving last November, Ellis, 29, didn’t play much, but he graded out favorably when he saw action in the defensive line rotation.

Other veteran value signings this offseason: WR Chris Moore, WR De’Anthony Thomas, OT Andre Smith, ILB Jake Ryan
Outlook: 
Moore remains one of the better special-teams players on the team while Thomas will compete for the return specialist role he held late last season. Smith’s career has been in a steady decline for a few years now, but the lack of depth behind Pro Bowl offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. makes him someone to monitor this summer. Ryan’s roster chances looked promising until the selections of inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison in April’s draft.

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McPhee, Ravens agree to one-year deal for 2020 season

Posted on 05 May 2020 by Luke Jones

After not adding an edge rusher during the 2020 draft, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta turned to a familiar face to add viable depth to the position.

Baltimore announced a one-year agreement to re-sign outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who returned to the team who originally drafted him last year and started seven games before a torn triceps against Seattle ended his 2019 season. McPhee, 31, finished tied for third on the team with three sacks and tied for fifth with six quarterback hits while effectively setting the edge against the run.

McPhee’s injury pushed 2019 third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson into a starting role in the second half of the season, but the veteran was able to revitalize his career after failing to register a sack in 13 games for Washington a year earlier. Selected by the Ravens in the fifth round of the 2011 draft out of Mississippi State, McPhee relished the opportunity to return to the place he won a Super Bowl and spent the first four seasons of his career, signing a one-year, $1.03 million last May.

“He wanted to prove himself. He wanted to get back on track and demonstrate that he still could play,” said head coach John Harbaugh after McPhee’s season-ending injury last October. “And to do it here, to be the leader that he was, he’s been instrumental. He’s been instrumental with the young guys. He’s been a very good player for us.

“I see no reason why he can’t recover from a triceps injury and be back next year stronger than ever.”

With Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon continuing to man the strong side after receiving the franchise tag earlier this offseason, the trio of McPhee, Ferguson, and Jihad Ward are likely to compete for the starting rush linebacker job. Regardless of how the rotation plays out, the Ravens would like to keep McPhee on a more limited snap count after he averaged a career-high 42.5 defensive snaps per game through the first six weeks of 2019 as an edge defender and an inside rusher in passing situations.

Over nine NFL seasons, McPhee has collected 34 sacks, six forced fumbles, and 15 pass breakups in 116 games.

In other roster news, the Ravens have signed 2020 fifth-round defensive tackle Broderick Washington, the first of their 10 draft picks to ink his rookie contract.

Baltimore also signed the following undrafted free agents: Utah defensive back Josh Nurse, Elon defensive end Marcus Willoughby, Tennessee-Martin wide receiver Jaylon Moore, Northern Arizona cornerback Khalil Dorsey, Tennessee safety Nigel Warrior, and Georgia tight end Eli Wolf. The Ravens have officially added 14 rookie free agents since the conclusion of the draft.

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Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews (89) celebrates with quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) after they connected for a touchdown pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

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Fewest adjusted games lost on offense helped pace 2019 Ravens

Posted on 22 April 2020 by Luke Jones

The Ravens envision adding several key pieces in this weekend’s draft to what they hope will be a Super Bowl run, but continuing another recent trend might be more important for success in 2020.

Concluding last season with only 10 players on injured reserve and just four of those individuals projected to play extensive offensive or defensive snaps entering training camp, Baltimore certainly couldn’t complain about its overall health en route to a franchise-best 14-2 campaign. That came after one popular metric deemed the Ravens the healthiest team in the NFL in 2018.

“We had our best year, injury-wise,” said head coach John Harbaugh about the 2019 Ravens. “I have to give a lot of credit to [head certified athletic trainer] Ron Medlin and to [head strength and conditioning coach] Steve Saunders and to [director of sports nutrition] Sarah Snyder and everybody involved there. We were great. I’d like to find a way to try to replicate that next year.”

You often see the number of players on IR cited in these types of discussions, but that alone doesn’t provide a great picture from team to team. How many were starters compared to rotation players, special-teams contributors, or training camp bodies who had no chance of making the roster before getting hurt? How many went to IR at the end of the summer as opposed to the closing weeks of the regular season? And what about teams that had more individuals playing through injuries than those with relatively clean injury reports many weeks?

Football Outsiders uses a metric called adjusted games lost to try to quantify just how much teams were stricken with injuries. Instead of simply counting the number of games lost for each player on IR, the metric weighs the projected role of each injured player (starter, key reserve, bench-warmer, etc.) and also considers those listed on weekly injury reports who ended up playing at less than 100 percent. In other words, the metric doesn’t treat the absence of a Pro Bowl player or starter the same as a developmental player who was stashed on IR and weighs those players battling through injuries that could impact performance.

Football Outsiders’ data indicates Harbaugh’s 2019 assessment wasn’t entirely accurate as the Ravens finished 16th overall in adjusted games lost (68.7), but he was definitely on the right track regarding one side of the ball. The record-setting Baltimore offense had the fewest adjusted games lost in the NFL with center Matt Skura being the only key contributor to miss more than two games. That fortune and the retirement of eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda reinforce why general manager Eric DeCosta should continue adding talent to that side of the ball this weekend.

Meanwhile, the 2019 Ravens finished with the NFL’s second-most adjusted games lost on defense with the secondary especially hit hard. Baltimore lost slot cornerback Tavon Young to a season-ending neck injury in August, strong safety Tony Jefferson to a year-ending knee injury in early October, and starting cornerback Jimmy Smith for the better part of two months with a sprained knee. Of course, the in-season acquisition of Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters and the emergence of safety Chuck Clark proved to be upgrades that helped the Ravens become one of the league’s top defenses by season’s end.

There are always single-season exceptions and outliers with NFC champion San Francisco (27th in adjusted games lost) clearly fitting that description in 2019, but the team with the fewest overall adjusted games lost (Minnesota), the fewest on offense (Baltimore), and the fewest on defense (New England) all qualified for the postseason. In contrast, just one of the nine teams with the most overall adjusted games lost made the playoffs, reinforcing how important health is to success. “Next man up” is a nice t-shirt slogan and sentiment, but there are only so many injury hits most teams can take before any realistic chance for success goes out the window.

Below is a look at where the Ravens have finished in Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost in recent years:

2019 — 68.7 (16th fewest in NFL)
2018 – 29.7 (fewest in NFL)
2017 – 101.6 (sixth most in NFL)
2016 – 62.0 (11th fewest in NFL)
2015 – 96.1 (third most in NFL)
2014 – 52.6 (seventh fewest in NFL)
2013 – 49.8 (ninth fewest in NFL)
2012 – 57.4 (13th fewest in NFL)
2011 – 18.8 (fewest in NFL)
2010 – 50.9 (15th fewest in NFL)
2009 – 28.8 (seventh fewest in NFL)
2008 – 95.0 (third most in NFL)

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mcphee

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Taking a look at remaining Ravens free agents

Posted on 08 April 2020 by Luke Jones

The NFL draft is two weeks away with the Ravens undoubtedly looking ahead to the nine selections they’re scheduled to make to augment a roster with clear Super Bowl aspirations.

However, it’s impossible to forget the emphasis general manager Eric DeCosta has placed on continuity as the Ravens have re-signed or placed the franchise tag on nine of their unrestricted agents since mid-January. That activity came after Baltimore had already awarded contract extensions to several players last year.

According to the NFL Players Association’s public report, the Ravens currently have $9.163 million in salary cap space for 2020, but the rookie draft pool and the need for a rainy day fund for inevitable regular-season roster maneuvering roughly cost that much. In other words, it appears unlikely we’ll see any other major signings without substantial restructuring of current contracts.

But are there any remaining Baltimore free agents who could still be in the plans for 2020?

Below is a look at those individuals who remain unsigned or were released for cap-related purposes:

Unrestricted free agents

DB Brandon Carr — The Ravens’ silence in declining the 33-year-old’s $6 million option for 2020 was surprising considering how they typically handle a respected veteran’s departure with a statement of praise from management. Baltimore could use a backup safety, but the re-signings of veterans Jimmy Smith and Anthony Levine eased the urgency for veteran secondary depth entering the draft.

OL Hroniss Grasu – With separate stints in Baltimore in each of the last two years, the 28-year-old could be classified as an in-season emergency option and was active for the final four games of last season, but the Ravens are aiming for better and younger options at this point. Grasu has played in only four NFL games over the last two seasons.

OLB Pernell McPhee The 31-year-old played in seven games before tearing his triceps last season, but he recorded three sacks and six quarterback hits while setting the edge effectively and providing inside-outside versatility. His return at a cheap rate could still make sense, but the Ravens already re-signed depth piece Jihad Ward and want to add more youth and upside at the edge in the draft.

DT Domata Peko – Noncommittal about his football future at the end of last season, the 35-year-old seems likely to approach 2020 in the same way he did last year when he initially passed on signing with the Ravens before changing his mind in November. The re-signing of defensive tackle Justin Ellis further diminished the chances of Peko returning as the Ravens need more youthful depth up front at this point.

S Brynden Trawick Though he’s a good special-teams contributor, the market for a player like Trawick on the wrong side of 30 is always going to be slow. Counting the postseason, the reserve safety appeared in just seven games last year, but the way Baltimore values special teams means a reunion shouldn’t be ruled out at some point between now and the start of the season.

Released for cap-related purposes

OL James Hurst — The Ravens valued Hurst’s versatility for a long time, but there’s little urgency to bring back a depth option who will be suspended for the first four games of the 2020 season for a performance-enhancing drug violation.

S Tony Jefferson — The veteran safety continues to rehab and work his way back from a serious knee injury, but it’s difficult for potential suitors to get a strong feel for his progress due to the free-agent environment created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Non-tendered restricted and exclusive-rights free agents

OL Randin Crecelius – A 2018 practice-squad member, Crecelius sustained a concussion early in training camp and was placed on injured reserve at the end of the preseason.

OL Parker Ehinger – Active in four of the last five regular-season games, the 27-year-old was never going to receive a restricted tender, but he earned some praise in limited action late last year. Depending on how the draft plays out, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Ehinger back in the mix to compete for a regular-season roster spot.

DB Fish Smithson – The Baltimore native was signed late in the 2019 preseason and ended up on IR only a few days later.

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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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New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, right, tries to make a pass while taking a hit from Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce (97) during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Want or need? Assessing Ravens position groups entering offseason

Posted on 21 January 2020 by Luke Jones

Need is a relative term when assessing the Ravens roster after a franchise-best 14-2 regular season that set all kinds of franchise and NFL records.

The sting of their divisional-round loss to Tennessee will linger for a long time, but perspective is critical when sizing up a roster that included the best offense in the league and one of the top defenses by season’s end. That’s not to say improvements aren’t in order and change isn’t inevitable with 17 Baltimore players set to become unrestricted free agents, but the Ravens would easily remain a playoff-caliber team on paper after even a ho-hum offseason of free-agent departures and only pedestrian additions. Having an MVP quarterback, an innovative offense with no unrestricted free agents of real consequence, and a great secondary will go a long way in covering up any deficiencies elsewhere.

Yes, the early playoff exit was a bitter disappointment and a missed opportunity as the AFC’s No. 1 seed, but this isn’t a roster in need of major surgery as much as some fine-tuning after having a bad game at the wrong time. It’s an enviable place when you have close to $30 million in salary cap space and a fresh batch of draft picks in April. But as John Harbaugh often likes to recite the quote attributed to former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, “Every day you either get better or you get worse; you never stay the same.”

Below is a look at what positions the Ravens absolutely need to address or simply would like to upgrade between now and the start of the 2020 season:

Edge defender/outside linebacker — NEED

Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale made it work after the departures of Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, but this position group remains a major concern with 2019 Pro Bowl selection Matthew Judon and depth pieces Pernell McPhee and Jihad Ward set to become free agents. Tyus Bowser took a step forward with five sacks in his third season and 2019 third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson showed growth as the year progressed, but viewing either as a definite 2020 starter would be too optimistic based on the body of work. Even if Baltimore gives Judon a blank check or the franchise tag to keep him, finding an additional impact outside linebacker is a clear objective. The Ravens blitzed more than any team in the NFL to create pressure in 2019, but more impactful four-man rushes would make this defense even more dangerous. Setting the edge against the run was also an inconsistency that was often masked by Baltimore holding so many big leads that forced opponents to abandon the ground game.

Wide receiver — WANT

I have been a broken record about Baltimore’s deficiency at wide receiver for years and noted during the Tennessee loss that another impact option would be really useful, but classifying wide receiver as a want goes back to keeping the proper perspective. You wouldn’t expect offensive coordinator Greg Roman to move away from featuring the tight ends with the success Lamar Jackson has passing to that trio between the numbers, and rookie first-round wide receiver Marquise Brown showed unique ability despite being hampered by foot and ankle issues. When you add the presence of veteran Willie Snead and the potential of 2019 third-round pick Miles Boykin, the requisite floor and upside are there — even if barely — to think the Ravens can win a Super Bowl. Still, adding a dynamic wide receiver to make plays when Baltimore trails and to have a presence outside the numbers would take Jackson and the NFL’s leading scoring offense to another level, a frightening thought for opponents.

Interior offensive line — WANT*

The asterisk is connected to eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and his decision whether to return for a 14th season. If Yanda comes back, the Ravens remain in good short-term shape on the offensive line as undrafted rookie Patrick Mekari filled in respectably at center for Matt Skura, whose major knee injury makes him a question mark until at least training camp. However, Yanda’s retirement would make this a significant need with 2019 fourth-round guard Ben Powers not exactly making an impact as a rookie and the Ravens losing a Hall of Fame talent in a position group not sporting a ton of experience. You feel more confident about Skura or Mekari at center, Bradley Bozeman at left guard, and Orlando Brown Jr. at right tackle because of Yanda’s presence and elite play. Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley may help fill the leadership void, but you just don’t replace a special player like Yanda.

Inside linebacker — NEED

This year marked only the seventh time in 24 seasons in which the Ravens didn’t receive a Pro Bowl invitation at this position, speaking to the impossible standard created by Ray Lewis and the commendable run from C.J. Mosley before his free-agent departure last March. General manager Eric DeCosta deserves credit for the in-season additions of Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort to stabilize the position, but that came after the organization underestimated the problems Patrick Onwuasor, Kenny Young, and Chris Board would have stepping into larger roles. Martindale effectively mixed and matched Bynes, Fort, and Onwuasor while often dropping safety Chuck Clark into the box in sub packages, but finding a complete three-down linebacker would decrease the likelihood of the defense getting caught with a second level that’s either too light against the run or too slow in coverage. Re-signing Bynes would certainly be on the table, but a younger every-down option would be preferable. Baltimore doesn’t need an All-Pro inside linebacker to have a great defense, but substituting so frequently was less than ideal.

Interior defensive line — NEED

Giving a big contract to Michael Pierce wouldn’t appear to be in the plans with Brandon Williams still having two years remaining on his deal and Pierce not making a strong argument for the Ravens to commit to him after weight concerns in the offseason and a solid but unspectacular 2019 campaign. Baltimore’s pursuit of six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy last spring highlighted a desire to find an interior pass rusher, but Chris Wormley and 2019 fifth-round pick Daylon Mack are the only other defensive linemen under contract for the 2020 campaign beyond the soon-to-be 31-year-old Williams. In other words, the Ravens have much work to do here to fortify their depth against the run while trying to find an inside option or two who can also get after the quarterback.

Cornerback — WANT

No one would classify cornerback as a need with 2019 Pro Bowl selections Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey both under contract and slot cornerback Tavon Young expected to be ready for the offseason program after a season-ending neck injury suffered in August. However, you can never have enough depth at this critical spot with Jimmy Smith set to become an unrestricted free agent and Brandon Carr carrying a $6 million price tag for his 2020 option and transitioning to more of a safety role this past season. A modest short-term extension could make sense for Smith, but committing substantial money to someone who will be 32 in July and has played in more than 12 games in a season only twice in nine years doesn’t sound appealing. Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall bring some upside as recent fourth-round selections, but relying on either as the first wave of depth would be risky.

Special teams — WANT

The Ravens signing unrestricted free-agent cornerback Justin Bethel in the first week of free agency last March reinforced their commitment to this phase of the game that goes beyond specialists Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, and Morgan Cox. With that in mind, Anthony Levine, Chris Moore, Brynden Trawick, Jordan Richards, and De’Anthony Thomas will all be unrestricted free agents after playing at least 120 special-teams snaps apiece for Baltimore this season. Whether re-signing a few members of that group or using resources to sign a veteran or two on the open market, the Ravens seem likely to address special teams after being underwhelming in that department — at least by their lofty standards — down the stretch.

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Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon (99) reacts while holding a smartphone after an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Baltimore. The Ravens won 28-10. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

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Examining Ravens’ 2020 class of free agents

Posted on 15 January 2020 by Luke Jones

The start of free agency is just under two months away with the Ravens entering the offseason sooner than anticipated after a franchise-record 14-2 regular season that ended with shocking disappointment in the divisional round of the playoffs.

The Ravens currently have an estimated 2020 salary cap commitment of just over $166 million to 41 players (not including pending free agents or players recently signed to reserve-future contracts), according to OverTheCap.com. The 2020 salary cap has not been officially set, but it’s projected to rise from $188.2 million in 2019 to an estimated $200 million.

General manager Eric DeCosta seems likely to create additional cap space by extending, renegotiating, or terminating the contracts of a few veteran players. That list could include the likes of safety Tony Jefferson, offensive lineman James Hurst, and defensive back Brandon Carr, who all have 2020 cap numbers that may exceed how the Ravens value their services at this point. Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley is a logical candidate for a long-term contract extension as he’s set to carry a $12.866 million cap figure in his fifth-year option season.

Below is a look at Baltimore’s 2020 class of free agents:

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

The Ravens will have the opportunity to extend any of the following unrestricted free agents before they may officially sign with any team beginning March 18 at 4 p.m.

LB Josh Bynes The 30-year-old was one of Baltimore’s best in-season signings in recent memory and graded sixth among linebackers by Pro Football Focus, but long-term solutions will be explored.

DT Justin Ellis The 350-pound run-stopping lineman was a healthy scratch in three of the last four regular-season games, but the status of other defensive linemen may help his chances for a return.

OL Hroniss Grasu His second stint with Baltimore led to him being a game-day reserve late in the season, but you’d expect the Ravens to aim to improve their interior offensive line depth.

OLB Matthew Judon The Pro Bowl selection will be paid lucratively by someone, but does the lack of depth at this position force Baltimore to step outside its financial comfort zone to keep him?

DB Anthony Levine – Though still a special-teams standout, the 32-year-old played in just 17 percent of defensive snaps as his particular role in the dime package diminished in 2019.

OLB Pernell McPhee A torn triceps ended what had been a productive start to his ninth NFL campaign, so McPhee returning in a situational role at a cheap price seems plausible.

WR Chris Moore – The 2016 fourth-round pick hasn’t developed into the deep-threat wide receiver some hoped he would be, but he’s been one of Baltimore’s best special-teams players since his arrival.

ILB Patrick Onwuasor Considered an ascending player poised for a 2019 breakout, Onwuasor struggled at the “Mike” and saw his role diminish as the year progressed, leaving his future in doubt.

DT Domata Peko The 35-year-old left open the possibility of playing a 15th NFL season, but Baltimore would probably prefer more youth and long-term upside for this position group.

DT Michael Pierce Pierce worked his way back into shape after well-documented weight problems in the spring and is in line for a substantial payday despite not having a standout contract year.

DB Jordan Richards Until being deemed a healthy scratch in the playoff loss to the Titans, Richards was a regular on special teams and only turns 27 later this month.

WR Seth Roberts He ranked third among Baltimore wide receivers in snaps and blocks well, but his costly drop in the first half of the playoff loss reinforces the need for more play-making ability here.

OT Andre Smith Signed as a depth piece last week, the former Cincinnati Bengal and 2009 first-round pick has 98 career starts under his belt and probably isn’t in the organization’s long-term plans.

CB Jimmy Smith In an ideal world, Smith would re-sign as part of an outside trio including Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, but his likely asking price and injury history are deterrents.

WR/RS De’Anthony Thomas – He showed little as a returner and was flagged for blocking after calling a fair catch in the playoff loss, a costly penalty he committed more than once this season.

S Brynden Trawick An elbow injury limited him to just six games, but the 30-year-old is a good special-teams player, which always leaves the door open for a return to Baltimore.

DE/OLB Jihad Ward Coaches and teammates spoke highly of the 25-year-old edge defender this season, making his return to be part of the rotation quite possible at a reasonable price.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

The following players have accrued three years of service and have expiring contracts. The Ravens can tender each with a restricted free agent offer, but other teams may then sign that player to an offer sheet. If that occurs, Baltimore has the right to match the offer and keep the aforementioned player. If the Ravens elect not to match, they would receive compensation based on which restricted tender they offered that player.

There are three different tenders — the values won’t be set until the 2020 salary cap is finalized — that can be made: a first-round tender ($4.407 million in 2019) would award the competing team’s first-round selection, a second-round tender ($3.095 million in 2019) would fetch the competing team’s second-round pick, and a low tender ($2.205 million in 2019) would bring the competing team’s draft choice equal to the round in which the player was originally drafted. For example, a restricted free agent selected in the fifth round would be worth a fifth-round pick if given the low tender. If a player went undrafted originally and is given the low tender, the Ravens would only hold the right to match the competing offer sheet and would not receive any draft compensation if they chose not to.

With less-heralded restricted free agents, the Ravens often elect to forgo a tender and will attempt to re-sign them at cheaper rates.

The original round in which each player was drafted is noted in parentheses:

OL Parker Ehinger (fourth) – The 27-year-old was active in four of the last five regular-season games, but signing him to anything more than a league-minimum deal would be surprising.

C Matt Skura (undrafted) – The second-round tender seemed likely for the starter before a serious knee injury in late November, but the Ravens gambling with the low tender isn’t impossible now.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

These players have less than three years of accrued service and can be tendered a contract for the league minimum based on their length of service in the league. If tendered, these players are not free to negotiate with other teams. The Ravens usually tender all exclusive-rights free agents with the idea that there’s nothing promised beyond the opportunity to compete for a spot. Exclusive-rights tenders are not guaranteed, meaning a player can be cut at any point without consequence to the salary cap.

OL Randin Crecelius After spending 2018 on the practice squad, the former rookie free agent sustained a concussion early in training camp and was placed on IR at the end of the preseason.

RB Gus Edwards The second-year backup to Mark Ingram averaged 5.3 yards per carry and would start for plenty of teams around the league, making him a great value to the organization.

DB Fish Smithson The 25-year-old Baltimore native was signed late in the preseason and ended up on IR just a few days later.

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Revisiting 2019 Ravens predictions coming out of bye week

Posted on 28 October 2019 by Luke Jones

Looking back at preseason predictions can be an amusing or embarrassing exercise, but that’s what makes it fun, right?

If we truly knew how the Ravens’ 2019 season would play out, I’d spend less time writing about it and more time pondering my retirement plans at the nearest sportsbook. As it relates to the present, I originally envisioned Baltimore being 4-3 at the bye with the result of the Cleveland and Pittsburgh games flipped and a loss at Seattle in Week 7. I certainly didn’t anticipate the rest of the AFC North being a combined 4-17 entering Monday, which bodes very well for the Ravens the rest of the way.

Let’s review how my 10 Ravens predictions for 2019 are holding up through the bye week and adjust where necessary:

1. Lamar Jackson won’t break Michael Vick’s season rushing record for a quarterback, but his 3,000 passing yards and 60-percent completion percentage will be positive steps in his development.

Remember Week 1 when Lamar Jackson ran the ball only three times, one of those being an end-of-half kneel? The 22-year-old quarterback has registered double-digit carries in four of the last six games, leads the NFL in yards per carry (6.9), and is 10th overall in rushing. He’s not only going to shatter Vick’s record (1,039 yards in 2006), but Jackson will finish with just over 3,400 passing yards and a completion percentage over 60 percent. We’re watching a special talent who has shown marked improvement from his rookie year and is firmly in the MVP discussion halfway through the season.

2. The defense will register 37 sacks and see its pressure rate fall to the bottom half of the league.

I was too generous in the sack department as Baltimore is currently on pace to finish with 27 quarterback takedowns, but there is at least some evidence suggesting the pass rush is better than the sack total indicates if you look at quarterback hits and ESPN Analytics’ pass rush win rate. Of course, Pernell McPhee’s season-ending injury complicates that argument and puts more pressure on Eric DeCosta to land a pass rusher by Tuesday’s trade deadline. The biggest factor helping the pass rush could be the acquisition of Marcus Peters and the return of Jimmy Smith, who should provide better coverage in the secondary. Put me down for 30 sacks by season’s end.

3. Mark Ingram will give Baltimore its first 1,000-yard rusher since Justin Forsett.

The former New Orleans Saint has been as advertised with a 4.7 yards per carry average and is on pace to gain 1,074 rushing yards. However, it’s fair to note that opposing defenses have been more successful slowing the Baltimore ground game between the tackles in recent weeks as Ingram has averaged only 3.2 yards per attempt over the last three contests. Opponents must make a conscious choice between accounting for runs between the tackles and trying to prevent Jackson from killing them off the edge. With that push-pull dilemma, Jackson and Ingram will become the first teammates to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season since Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams for Carolina in 2009.

4. Mark Andrews and Patrick Onwuasor will take a step forward.

If there was one prediction I was confident about prior to the season, it was Andrews breaking out as one of the NFL’s top tight ends. Even with some nagging injuries and a nightmare Week 7 showing against the Seahawks, Andrews is on pace to become the first tight end in team history to go over 1,000 receiving yards. Meanwhile, Onwuasor has taken a step back after struggling at the “Mike” linebacker position and missing the last two games with a high ankle sprain. How that impacts his value going into free agency will be interesting, but his return to the weak-side spot should be a plus for him and the pass rush when considering Onwuasor’s ability to blitz and the 5 1/2 sacks he collected last year.

5. Gus Edwards and Jimmy Smith will take a step back.

Since averaging an underwhelming 3.35 yards per carry in the first two games, Edwards has been very productive at 5.2 yards per carry over the last five contests. The problem continues to be few chances when you’re behind arguably the most dynamic running quarterback in NFL history and a two-time Pro Bowl back in the pecking order. Edwards could see a few more carries here and there, but there’s only one football to go around. Smith’s knee injury on the sixth defensive snap of the season was unfortunate in a contract year, but it’s the story of his career as he’s now missed at least four games in seven of his nine seasons. The 31-year-old does have time to rebuild some value and give the Ravens a boost the rest of the way, but we’ll always wonder how much better Smith might have been with good health.

6. Ben Powers will be starting at left guard by the bye week.

Based on comments made by offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris last week, there’s little reason to believe Bradley Bozeman won’t be starting at left guard against New England. The second-year lineman hasn’t been great every week, but Pro Football Focus has graded him 42nd among qualified guards, a reminder that there just isn’t as much quality around the league as fans and some media want to believe when scrutinizing individual teams. Powers has been a healthy scratch every week and received a lengthy look at left guard early in training camp before falling out of the starting race, factors leading one to believe the 2019 fourth-round pick isn’t beating down the door for a starting gig at this point. If anything, fellow rookie Patrick Mekari would seem to be the first in line to replace Bozeman.

7. A rough November will cost the Ravens their chance at winning the AFC North.

This month’s schedule remains challenging with three of the four opponents sporting no worse than a 5-3 record and even lowly Cincinnati coming off its bye to host the Ravens in Week 10, but John Harbaugh’s team clearly has some room for error with the rest of the AFC North under .500. Even a disastrous November coupled with Pittsburgh or Cleveland reeling off a perfect month would leave the Ravens in the thick of the division race entering December. More importantly, the convincing road win over the Seahawks provided much confidence that the Ravens can at least hold their own with five of the next six games coming against teams owning winning records.

8. Miles Boykin will tie the franchise rookie record for touchdown receptions with seven.

If you’d told me at the start of the season that one of Baltimore’s two rookie wide receivers would have 21 catches for 326 yards and three touchdowns at the bye, I would have picked Boykin after Marquise Brown missed the entire spring and a large portion of the summer recovering from Lisfranc surgery. Boykin does have two touchdowns and has recorded his two longest catches over the last two games, but he has much work ahead to match the record shared by Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown. If fully healthy — a fair question after a two-game absence — Marquise Brown has the better chance to break it.

9. Marlon Humphrey, Marshal Yanda, and Earl Thomas will be named to the Pro Bowl.

Despite being a little less consistent than last season, Humphrey has made enough splash plays to keep himself in position for his first Pro Bowl invitation with a strong finish to the season. The 35-year-old Yanda is no longer the best guard in football, but he continues to play at a high level to presumably receive the nod for the eighth time in his career. Thomas hasn’t been spectacular, but he has played well and benefits from a strong reputation around the league in the same way Eric Weddle did. I’ll add Jackson and Andrews to my list of Pro Bowl picks with Ronnie Stanley being a first alternate.

10. A December rally will lead to a 9-7 finish and another trip to the playoffs.

With the current state of the AFC North and the Ravens off to a 5-2 start, anything less than a division championship and a home playoff game would be a big disappointment, but the final month of the season does look more difficult than it did several weeks ago with San Francisco still undefeated and playoff-hopeful Buffalo likely having much to play for in Week 14. I thought throughout the offseason that the Ravens had a higher ceiling — and a lower floor — than in recent years because of their youth, but Jackson’s development was always going to be the biggest factor determining their fate. With the second-year quarterback playing like a legitimate MVP candidate, I see the Ravens going 11-5 and advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs. A deeper postseason run no longer feels farfetched if they can stay healthy the rest of the way.

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Five Ravens players to watch for rest of 2019 season

Posted on 25 October 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens are 5-2 atop the AFC North and are enjoying their bye week with a winning record for the first time since 2014, but unknowns remain that will surely impact the rest of this season and beyond.

Which individuals a bit more on the periphery than budding stars such as Lamar Jackson and Marlon Humphrey could have a significant impact on the second half of the season as well as future decision-making?

Below are five players to watch for the remainder of the season:

WR Miles Boykin

It’s no secret that production from wide receivers not named Marquise Brown has been less than stellar this season, in part because of the lack of opportunities in a run-first offense prominently featuring tight ends. But the last few weeks have illustrated the need for another dependable option to emerge for the Ravens to alleviate some of the pressure on Jackson, who’s accumulated 56.7 percent of his season rushing attempts over the last three games in which Brown was either out or limited. Boykin has reeled in nine of his 13 targets, a percentage high enough to warrant more looks. After experiencing some growing pains, the 6-foot-4 wideout stepping up would improve the Ravens’ chances the rest of the way while easing some of the urgency for general manager Eric DeCosta to add more help at the position in the offseason.

S Chuck Clark

Since losing Tony Jefferson to a season-ending knee injury in Pittsburgh, the Ravens couldn’t have asked for more from Clark, who has played well in Jefferson’s absence and seamlessly assumed the responsibilities of relaying calls in the defensive huddle. Pro Football Focus has graded the 2017 sixth-round pick from Virginia Tech as the NFL’s 17th-best safety this season and much more favorably in pass coverage than Jefferson. Clark proved his worth as a valuable backup filling in for Jefferson last season, but a strong finish to the season could give him the inside track on the 2020 starting job with Jefferson entering the final year of his contract and scheduled to make $7 million in base salary while recovering from a major knee injury. Clark’s challenge now is to show week-to-week consistency.

OLB Jaylon Ferguson

Whether or not the right pass rusher at the right price becomes available for a successful trade before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline, the Ravens will be depending on the third-round rookie from Louisiana Tech to step up with the versatile Pernell McPhee gone for the season with a triceps injury. Defensive line coach Joe Cullen confirmed Ferguson will be used in McPhee’s hybrid role in which he’ll line up as an edge defender or as an interior rusher in sub packages. That’s a lot to ask of someone who was a healthy scratch at the start of the season, but the silver lining is the Ravens will get a long look as how effective Ferguson can be at the next level, which contrasts how the first couple years played out with Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams. That knowledge should assist in how to attack the pass rush this offseason.

TE Hayden Hurst

His rookie year was a lost cause because of a foot injury that lingered throughout the season, but the former first-round pick has remained a bit player in Baltimore’s offense so far while fellow 2018 draft choice Mark Andrews is rapidly becoming one of the best tight ends in the NFL. Hurst has caught 14 of his 18 targets this season — the team’s highest percentage from any non-running back — but PFF has graded him as the worst run-blocking tight end in the league entering Week 8 while Andrews has shown marked improvement in that area. Hurst’s name has reportedly been mentioned in trade discussions, but there’s still time for him to carve out a more meaningful role in this offense, especially with the Ravens looking for a more prominent No. 3 pass-catching option behind Andrews and Brown.

CB Marcus Peters

The trade sending linebacker Kenny Young and a 2020 fifth-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams paid immediate dividends with Peters returning an interception for a touchdown in the impressive 30-16 win over Seattle. Leading the NFL in picks (25) and interceptions returned for touchdowns (five) since his rookie season in 2015, Peters has a propensity for making big plays while also giving up some of his own, a high-variance quality that will be interesting to watch the rest of the way. He’ll be a free agent in March, which gives DeCosta another decision to make with Jimmy Smith also hitting the market and the team holding a 2020 option for Brandon Carr. There’s also the matter of planning for the massive extension the 23-year-old Humphrey will very likely command in the not-too-distant future.

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