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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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Ravens bringing back veteran pass rusher Pernell McPhee

Posted on 16 May 2019 by Luke Jones

The man replaced by Za’Darius Smith four years ago is returning to the Ravens to try to reclaim that again-vacated spot.

Veteran pass rusher Pernell McPhee will return to the team which which he won a Super Bowl and played the first four seasons of his NFL career. The 30-year-old is expected to sign a one-year deal to add more competition and depth to an inexperienced group of outside linebackers needing to replace Smith and potential future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs, who both departed as free agents.

McPhee played in 13 games for Washington last season, collecting 11 tackles (three for a loss), eight quarterback hits, two passes defensed, and no sacks in 204 defensive snaps. He spent the previous three seasons with Chicago, who signed the 6-foot-3, 265-pound pass rusher to a five-year, $38.75 million contract in 2015. Prior to playing against the Ravens for the first time in 2017, McPhee acknowledged being disappointed then-general manager Ozzie Newsome didn’t try to re-sign him after he recorded 7 1/2 sacks in his career-best 2014 season.

“It was still in my system — being a Raven, playing like a Raven,” said McPhee, who played in eight postseason games with Baltimore. “That’s how I was bred into this NFL world. That was my birth, just playing like a Raven, being a Raven. Not getting an offer from them, it hurt. But I will always salute Ozzie and coach [John] Harbaugh for giving me the opportunity to be a Raven.”

Knee and shoulder injuries prevented McPhee from living up to the expectations of that monster contract with the Bears as he recorded just 14 sacks in 36 games and was released after the 2017 season.

The 2011 fifth-round pick from Mississippi State was at his best with the Ravens as the coaching staff limited his snaps to keep him healthy and productive. He registered a total of 17 sacks as a situational rusher and played all 16 games in three of those four seasons.

With fourth-year veteran Matthew Judon projected to start at one outside linebacker spot, McPhee will compete with 2017 draft picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams and 2019 third-round rookie Jaylon Ferguson for playing time in the pass-rush rotation. The veteran’s ability to rush from inside and outside positions could give him an edge in securing a roster spot.

Even if McPhee isn’t an ironclad lock to make the 53-man roster after the worst statistical season of his career, his arrival should put more pressure on the likes of Bowser and Williams, who have been disappointments through their first two seasons.

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Ravens defense looking like good case study for coverage-pressure debate

Posted on 13 May 2019 by Luke Jones

With veteran pass rusher and free-agent target Ezekiel Ansah joining Seattle last week, the Ravens defense faces a likely reality with organized team activities set to begin next week.

Barring something completely unforeseen, general manager Eric DeCosta probably isn’t upgrading the current group of pass rushers to a substantial degree. That’s not to say a veteran won’t still be added to the mix as former Los Angeles Ram Matt Longacre reportedly visited the Ravens Monday, but the quality of edge defenders still on the market isn’t dramatically different from the in-house options behind veteran Matt Judon that include third-round rookie Jaylon Ferguson and 2017 Day 2 picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams.

It’s not as though DeCosta hasn’t tried to add a veteran pass rusher after the departures of 2018 sacks leader Za’Darius Smith and the franchise’s all-time sacks leader in Terrell Suggs, but the short-term contracts given to Ansah and Justin Houston — who signed with Indianapolis — were a bit rich for a team trying to maintain an optimal salary-cap situation for 2020 and beyond. Few would argue with the decisions not to pay Smith and Suggs what they ultimately received from their new teams, but the defense is still losing just over 40 percent of its sack production from last year when you include the two combined sacks from fellow departures C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Brent Urban.

Of course, DeCosta hasn’t just stood pat defensively after losing those key players as his first major free-agent signing as general manager was six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas to a four-year, $55 million contract. Injuries limited the 30-year-old to just 29 games in his final three seasons with the Seahawks, but Thomas represents a substantial upgrade — at least on paper — from the 34-year-old Weddle, who was using his intellect to overcome his physical limitations more than ever last season.

That upgrade to a secondary already viewed as one of the NFL’s best and the current concerns about the pass rush spark a fascinating question, one the football analytics community has debated at length in recent years.

Which is more valuable: coverage or pass rush?

The phrase “you win in the trenches” being drilled into ours heads for decades may have you laughing at the very notion of pass coverage being more important than pressure, but that’s a growing stance in today’s pass-happy NFL in which quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball more quickly and teams are using more play-action calls to neutralize defensive fronts. To be clear, pressure remains very important as the two feed off each other — you want both in a perfect world — but an edge rusher getting stonewalled by an offensive tackle typically brings less potential consequence than a defensive back faltering for even a fraction of a second in coverage on a given pass play.

Asked about which was more precious earlier this offseason, head coach John Harbaugh offered an answer seemingly agreeing with the analytics community’s position of coverage being more valuable than pass rush. It reflects Baltimore’s greatest defensive strength going into OTAs.

“I think coverage in the back end because I think you can create pressure,” Harbaugh said at the league meetings in March. “Pressure breaks pipes. You don’t have to be a one-dimensional, one pass-rush type guy. But the more good pass rushers you put into a pressure scheme, obviously, the better off you’re going to be. And you have more options. You can rush four, you can rush three. You can rush different people.

“I do believe you have to cover people in this league, but I can go the other way if you really squeeze me on it. But I don’t like not being able to cover people in all honesty. Maybe that’s just my own bias — I played defensive back a little, coached it. I really do believe you have to be able to cover people.”

It’s not as though the Ravens don’t desire good pass rushers, but they’ve made quality and depth in the secondary a priority over these last few years. After enduring draft disappointments Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks and underwhelming “value” signings in the three seasons following Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore has awarded big contracts to safeties in three of the last four offseasons. Last month also marked the fifth consecutive year in which the Ravens drafted a cornerback in the fourth round or earlier, creating a talent pipeline to avoid a repeat of 2014 when street free agent Rashaan Melvin was starting playoff games due to the lack of secondary depth entering that campaign. The recent investment of draft capital in cornerbacks coincided with signing veteran Brandon Carr to a four-year, $24 million contract two years ago and making Tavon Young the highest-paid slot cornerback in the NFL in February.

Perhaps the best indication of their current philosophy is the Ravens retaining cornerback Jimmy Smith despite having two other starting-caliber — and cheaper — cornerbacks in Marlon Humphrey and Carr and talented young options behind them. Smith will turn 31 in July and carries the highest 2019 cap number on the team at $15.85 million, which led many to view him as a likely cap casualty this offseason. Injuries and suspensions have limited him to 12 or fewer games in six of his eight NFL seasons and he was coming off an uneven 2018, but Baltimore has expressed little apparent interest in compromising its deep depth in the secondary, even if the $9.5 million saved by releasing Smith could have helped land a free-agent pass rusher like Houston or Ansah.

It remains to be seen how the pass rush fares without Za’Darius Smith and Suggs, whose combined 150 career sacks are more than twice as many as the 64 career takedowns produced by the entire current roster. Does a secondary potentially better than last year force opposing quarterbacks to hold the ball longer to create more pressure and sack opportunities for young rushers? Does the potential lack of pressure from inexperienced edge defenders cause more coverage breakdowns than we witnessed last year? Or, as Harbaugh suggested, are the Ravens confident in their ability to scheme pressure — as defensive coordinator Wink Martindale did last year — as long as the secondary performs at a high level?

The Ravens are pretty clearly betting on the coverage side of the give-take relationship, which should provide an interesting case study in the overall debate. Baltimore is depending on that philosophy minimizing what some fear could be a substantial drop-off on the defensive side of the ball.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts ahead of 2019 NFL draft

Posted on 23 April 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens making final preparations for the start of the 2019 NFL draft on Thursday night, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. We’ll finally have a resolution after months of mock drafts, but this is the first time the Ravens own just one pick in the top 80 since 2004, the year after they traded up to select Kyle Boller. Lamar Jackson should be considered as part of this draft class indirectly.

2. Saturday marked 23 years since Ozzie Newsome made Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis the first picks in franchise history while a 25-year-old Eric DeCosta held an entry-level position filling various roles, including getting the oil changed in Ted Marchibroda’s car. This week represents the true changing of the guard.

3. If the Ravens don’t trade back from No. 22 to accumulate more picks, my prediction — really a guess — is they’ll select Clemson edge rusher Clelin Ferrell, which means he’ll probably be long gone by the time they choose. As others have noted, he feels like a Baltimore kind of pick.

4. Why Ferrell? If you count draft bust Craig Powell — Art Modell’s final first-round pick in Cleveland — the Ravens have always had a first-round edge defender on the roster as they took Peter Boulware in 1997 and Terrell Suggs in 2003. You can’t do much better than those two.

5. Then again, inside linebacker has been manned by a first-round pick — Lewis from 1996-2012 and C.J. Mosley from 2014-18 — for all but one year of their existence when the Ravens still took Arthur Brown in the 2013 second round. Michigan’s Devin Bush figures to be gone, however.

6. I’m a broken record talking about wide receiver, but this is a reminder that the Ravens have drafted only two in the first three rounds in the entire John Harbaugh era. They can’t repeat the mistakes they made with Joe Flacco if they want to maximize Jackson’s development.

7. Cornerback is the roster’s deepest position group, but Brandon Carr will be 33 next month and Jimmy Smith turns 31 in July and is entering the final year of his contract. In other words, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Ravens take a corner in the middle rounds.

8. With multiple needs on both sides of the ball, is there a position you’re strongly against the Ravens drafting early? Unless you’re convinced Alabama’s Josh Jacobs is the next Saquon Barkley, a running back is a tough sell. Defensive tackle is another spot where they’ve found good value much later.

9. The Ravens entered Tuesday with $13.649 million in salary cap space, according to the NFL Players Association. I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of a weekend trade for a veteran or a notable signing after the draft. It’s unrealistic to expect this draft to address all of their needs.

10. Looking at draft capital in the AFC North, Cleveland has two picks in the top 80 (49th and 80th), Pittsburgh three (20th, 52nd, and 66th), and Cincinnati three (11th, 42nd, 72nd). Of course, the Browns traded their first-round pick for Odell Beckham Jr. last month. This division should be fun.

11. Picking up the fifth-year option on Ronnie Stanley was a no-brainer, but determining his value and working out a long-term extension could be tricky. He’s been solid to good over his first three seasons, but I’d be uneasy resetting the market at left tackle to keep him.

12. I wish the draft didn’t coincide with the “Avengers: Endgame” opening, but it prompts an important question. Who would be your top pick from the Marvel superhero team? I’d consider Thor — he’s a god! — or Black Panther and the resources of Wakanda, but I just can’t pass on Iron Man.

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Ravens to play three prime-time games as part of 2019 schedule

Posted on 17 April 2019 by Luke Jones

Aiming to defend their AFC North championship and make the playoffs in back-to-back years, the Ravens are scheduled to appear in prime time three times during the 2019 season.

Baltimore opens the season at Miami on Sept. 8, but the schedule is headlined by a Sunday night encounter with defending Super Bowl champion New England on Nov. 3. This marks the first time the Ravens will host Sunday Night Football since 2012, which was also against the Patriots. It’s worth noting, however, that three other originally-scheduled Sunday night games — one in 2013 and two in 2015 — were flexed out of the prime-time spot over that time.

The Ravens will also host the New York Jets for a Thursday game in Week 15. They are 6-0 in Thursday home games under 12th-year head coach John Harbaugh.

Making their first trip to the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Ravens will take on the defending NFC champion Rams on Nov. 25 for their lone appearance of the season on Monday Night Football.

Surprisingly, this marks the first time since 2006 that the Ravens and Pittsburgh aren’t scheduled to square off in a prime-time game — if including the 2016 Christmas Day classic that kicked off in the late afternoon — but these AFC North rivals will play in the regular-season finale for the first time since 2007 and the fourth time ever, which could create some captivating drama.

After a few daunting stretches of road games in recent seasons, the Ravens are the only team in the NFL who will alternate home and away games throughout the season, the first time that’s occurred in franchise history. The most challenging stretch of the season appears to be Week 7 through Week 12 when the Ravens play four playoff teams from a year ago, but even that run includes their bye week.

The Ravens will play five games against playoff teams from last season: Houston, Kansas City, the Los Angeles Rams, New England, and Seattle. They have nine games against opponents who finished below .500 in 2018: Arizona, Buffalo, Cincinnati (twice), Cleveland (twice), Miami, the New York Jets, and San Francisco.

For now, 12 of Baltimore’s 16 regular-season games are scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday starts, but most games are subject to flexible scheduling (see below).

2019 SCHEDULE

Sunday, Sept. 8 at Miami Dolphins — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: As road openers go, the Ravens can’t be too unhappy with an opponent considered an early favorite for the first pick in the 2020 draft as these teams meet for the sixth time in the last seven years.

Sunday, Sept. 15 Arizona Cardinals — 1:00 p.m. (FOX)
Skinny: Ed Reed played against the Ravens as a New York Jet in 2013, but Terrell Suggs walking into Baltimore as “the bad guy” after 16 seasons in purple will be surreal.

Sunday, Sept. 22 at Kansas City Chiefs — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny:  A trip to Arrowhead Stadium is always a daunting task, but these teams played one of the best regular-season games of the season there last year.

Sunday, Sept. 29 Cleveland Browns — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: The Browns have four all-time wins at M&T Bank Stadium, but last season’s Week 17 meeting between Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson left everyone excited for more.

Sunday, Oct. 6 at Pittsburgh Steelers — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: For the first time since 2013, the Ravens will not play be playing under the lights at Heinz Field, which will make everyone in Baltimore happy.

Sunday, Oct. 13 Cincinnati Bengals — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: You can make reasonable arguments for Baltimore, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh to win the AFC North, but it sure feels like the Bengals are “drawing dead” with Andy Dalton at this point.

Sunday, Oct. 20 at Seattle Seahawks — 4:25 p.m. (FOX)
Skinny: You know six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas has been thinking about this one since before the ink was dry on his four-year, $55 million contract with his new team.

Sunday, Oct. 27  BYE
Skinny: Baltimore’s break falls no earlier than Week 8 for the eighth consecutive year.

Sunday, Nov. 3 vs. New England Patriots — 8:20 p.m. (NBC)
Skinny: Times have definitely changed as just six players remain who were with the Ravens the last time they beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, which was in the 2012 AFC championship game.

Sunday, Nov. 10 at Cincinnati Bengals — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: For the second year in a row, the Ravens will not close the regular season against the Bengals. New Year’s will never be the same.

Sunday, Nov. 17 Houston Texans — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: Deshaun Watson went down with a knee injury weeks before the Texans’ last trip to Baltimore, but seeing him match up with the man who beat him out for the 2016 Heisman Trophy should be a blast.

Monday, Nov. 25 at Los Angeles Rams — 8:15 p.m. (ESPN)
Skinny: After going against the speedy Jackson in practice for a year, former Raven Eric Weddle will certainly share his tendencies with his Rams teammates for this attractive prime-time game.

Sunday, Dec. 1 San Francisco 49ers — 1:00 p.m. (FOX)
Skinny: The 49ers finished 4-12 last year, but a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo would make this late-season encounter far from a layup for the Ravens, who will be playing on a short week.

Sunday, Dec. 8 at Buffalo Bills — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: The Ravens are 0-2 in their previous trips to western New York with neither of those being played in December when the weather can be major factor.

Thursday, Dec. 12 vs. New York Jets — 8:20 p.m. (FOX/NFL Network)
Skinny: Four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley returns to Baltimore as the Ravens will hope to be jockeying for postseason positioning on a short week, which is always a test.

Sunday, Dec. 22 at Cleveland Browns — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: The upstart Browns have four prime-time games on their schedule, but I’m honestly surprised the Ravens’ trip to Cleveland wasn’t one of them.

Sunday, Dec. 29 Pittsburgh Steelers — 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
Skinny: How exciting would it be for this one to be flexed to Sunday Night Football if the division title happens to be on the line?

Notes: Flexible scheduling can be applied for all Sunday games in Weeks 5 through 17. A flex-scheduling change would be announced at least 12 days before the game except in the final week of the season. For Week 17, the Sunday night game is announced no later than six days prior to Dec. 29.

Another wrinkle implemented in recent years is a select number of games being “cross-flexed,” moving between CBS and FOX to bring certain games to wider audiences.

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Yanda, Ravens agree to one-year extension through 2020

Posted on 11 April 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens have taken a meaningful step to subdue persistent speculation about seven-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda’s future.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the sides have agreed to a one-year extension that keeps the veteran lineman under contract through 2020. Yanda was entering the final season of a four-year, $32 million contract and was scheduled to make $7 million in base salary and carry a $10.125 million salary cap number, but it’s unclear how the additional year might impact those numbers for 2019.

Asked about Yanda at the pre-draft press conference last week, general manager Eric DeCosta made it clear he wanted to keep his best offensive lineman beyond the coming season. A 2007 third-round pick from Iowa with 162 career games under his belt, Yanda tied former teammate Terrell Suggs for the fourth-most Pro Bowl appearances in franchise history last year behind only Ray Lewis (13), Jonathan Ogden (11), and Ed Reed (nine), a trio of Hall of Famers.

“We love Marshal. We’d love to see Marshal continue to play for us for years,” DeCosta said. “He’s a great player; he’s still playing at a high level. He’s a Raven. I mean you could define a Raven and put a picture of Marshal Yanda up there, and that’s him.”

Yanda’s continued presence provides much-needed stability for an organization in great on-field transition with key veterans such as Suggs, Joe Flacco, C.J. Mosley, and Eric Weddle departing this offseason. Despite missing most of 2017 with a broken ankle and undergoing the third shoulder surgery of his pro career last offseason, Yanda returned to start every game last season, finished second on the team in total snaps, and graded fourth among all qualified NFL guards, according to Pro Football Focus.

Introspective comments he made last summer had led many to wonder this offseason whether he would ultimately return for a 13th campaign, even as team officials said they expected him to continue playing. Speaking to reporters at an Ed Block Courage Award Foundation event last month, Yanda noted how great it felt to be healthy in the offseason for the first time in a few years, but he didn’t say definitively whether he would continue his playing career.

“A general rule of thumb is once you get to 10 years, I feel like every year you have to reassess and reevaluate,” Yanda said last August. “Me not playing pretty much at all [in 2017], there was no question I definitely wanted to play this fall and get after it and be a part of it. You reassess and reevaluate. I’ll take my time after the season, but right now I’m focused on this year and doing my part.”

Yanda is one of just six remaining players who were with the organization when the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII at the end of the 2012 season.

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Now or never for Bowser, T. Williams to boost Ravens pass rush

Posted on 29 March 2019 by Luke Jones

John Harbaugh wasn’t using coach speak when discussing Ravens outside linebackers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams at the league meetings in Arizona this past week.

Sure, this is the time of year NFL coaches tend to talk up even the least deserving of young players with meaningful games still months away. But when a team has lost its 2018 sacks leader (Za’Darius Smith) as well as a potential future Hall of Famer who recorded nearly twice as many quarterback takedowns as anyone else in franchise history (Terrell Suggs) and hasn’t replaced either a few weeks into free agency, the in-house candidates to replace them become more prominent.

A veteran could still fall into Baltimore’s lap and perhaps a high-impact prospect will be sitting on the board when Eric DeCosta makes his first draft pick as general manager next month, but the odds suggest at least one of Bowser and Williams must take a meaningful step forward if the Ravens don’t want their pass rush to fall off a cliff in 2019. You can only ask so much of incumbent starting outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who is also scheduled to become a free agent next winter.

“The two young guys, Tyus and Timmy, need to step up. It’s their job to do that,” Harbaugh said. “They’re very committed to doing it. I’ve talked to both of them. Both are excited about their opportunities. They have it, and let’s roll. Then, whatever young guys we add or if someone gets added as a veteran — there’s a possibility of that still — we’ll just see.”

Bowser and Williams were drafted two years ago for this very scenario with Suggs no longer in the picture, but their development has been a source of disappointment with neither having played more than 162 defensive snaps in a season. The optimist would point to the lack of opportunities behind Suggs, Judon, and Smith — a trio who combined to register 22 1/2 sacks last season — as the reason for Bowser and Williams accomplishing so little to this point. But defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s propensity for rotating players at every level of the defense and the 36-year-old Suggs registering only 1 1/2 sacks after Week 7 make it difficult to believe the Ravens wouldn’t have preferred keeping the seven-time Pro Bowl selection on more of a pitch count if Bowser or Williams were deemed ready.

Williams, a 2017 third-round pick from Alabama, was active for just eight games as a rookie, but he showed promise last preseason with 2 1/2 sacks and collected two more over the first four regular-season games before sustaining a minor hamstring injury. The 25-year-old appeared in just three more games before hurting his ankle and being inactive for the final nine contests, which included the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. The ankle injury wasn’t the only problem, however, as the rush specialist struggled to maintain his playing weight and seemingly fell out of favor with the coaching staff as Harbaugh bluntly stated in Week 16 the need for a healthy Williams to be one of the best 46 players in order to be active. Another obstacle has been Williams’ inability to make an impact in other ways as he’s taken part in just 60 plays on special teams in two seasons.

Bowser’s inability to carve out a meaningful role in the rotation is more curious since the 2017 second-round pick from Houston is more versatile than Williams and has been active for all but one game in two seasons, playing extensively on special teams. The 23-year-old seemed on his way to a successful rookie season when he registered a sack and an interception in his second NFL game, a 35-snap performance that earned him the NFL’s rookie of the week award. The problem is Bowser followed that with a poor eight-snap showing the following week in the Ravens’ ugly loss in London, giving up a touchdown pass in coverage and failing to set the edge on several runs. Bowser has been chasing playing time ever since, seeing more than 15 defensive snaps in a game just four times since Week 2 of 2017 and rarely distinguishing himself when he’s been on the field.

The urgency is high with both as they enter their third season in Baltimore, but neither should be written off because of the lackluster start to their careers. Former second-round pick Paul Kruger recorded one sack and appeared in only 20 games — special teams being a substantial reason why — in his first two years before registering 14 1/2 quarterback takedowns over the next two seasons to fetch a $40 million contract with Cleveland after Super Bowl XLVII. Both Smith and Pernell McPhee were inconsistent over their first few seasons before ultimately breaking out in their contrast year and cashing in as free agents.

On the other hand, Baltimore gave up on 2016 Day 2 picks Kamalei Correa and Bronson Kaufusi after two disappointing seasons, meaning Bowser or Williams shouldn’t assume anything despite the current lack of depth at the position.

Yes, DeCosta still has the time and resources to add more competition at outside linebacker, but the Ravens have other needs and there is no guarantee the right veteran will shake free or a rookie pass rusher selected in even the first round will be ready to make an immediate impact. The Ravens’ best chance of keeping their pass rush on the right track in 2019 is getting an appropriate return on the investments made in Bowser and Williams.

Few young players on the roster should be feeling more pressure this spring and summer.

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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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Former Ravens defensive tackle Ngata announces retirement

Posted on 18 March 2019 by Luke Jones

A week after free-agent departure Terrell Suggs said farewell to Baltimore after 16 years, another former Ravens defensive great is calling it a career.

Five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata announced his retirement via Instagram by posting a video of himself standing at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. The 35-year-old spent nine of his 13 NFL seasons with Baltimore and was a member of the Super Bowl XLVII champions. After being traded to Detroit in 2014, Ngata played three years with the Lions and spent last season with Philadelphia, appearing in 13 games and making nine starts.

Selected with the 12th overall pick of the 2006 draft from the University of Oregon, the 6-foot-4, 340-pound defensive tackle has a strong claim as the fourth-best defensive player in Ravens history behind Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and Suggs, who is also likely to wind up in Canton. Ngata not only served as the immovable anchor of strong run defenses for nearly a decade, but his 25 1/2 sacks with the Ravens reflected his ability to pressure the quarterback, a trait that distinguished him from other notable defensive tackles in team history.

Only five Ravens — Lewis, Jonathan Ogden, Reed, Suggs, and Marshal Yanda — were named to more career Pro Bowls as Ngata was invited every year from 2009-13. He signed a five-year, $61 million contract in 2011 that made him one of the highest-paid athletes in the world over a 12-month period.

In addition to his superb individual play, Ngata helped bring some stability at an uncertain time for the organization. The second act and eventual storybook ending to Lewis’ Hall of Fame career with the Ravens may have never materialized had general manager Ozzie Newsome not drafted Ngata in 2006. In the months leading up to that draft, it was no secret that a disenchanted Lewis — who was also rumored to be seeking a new contract — had requested to be traded and voiced his displeasure about the Ravens lacking a beefy defensive tackle to keep blockers away from him. Ngata became an immediate impact starter for a defense that led the NFL in total yards allowed and total points allowed and set team records for interceptions (28) and sacks (60), and the Ravens finished a franchise-best 13-3 in the regular season with Lewis’ spirits and play improving from the previous year.

A slam-dunk choice for the Ravens’ Ring of Honor sooner than later, Ngata finishes his NFL career having played in 180 games and collected 515 tackles, 32 1/2 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and five interceptions.

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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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