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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 continue adding pass-rush competition with Shane Ray

Posted on 17 May 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens still hope 2017 draft picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams emerge as meaningful contributors to their pass rush, but the competition for snaps continues to grow.

A day after reportedly agreeing to a one-year deal to bring veteran pass rusher and Super Bowl XLVII champion Pernell McPhee back to Baltimore, general manager Eric DeCosta has added former Denver first-round pick Shane Ray to the mix. The one-year deal will give the 25-year-old the opportunity to revive his career with a defense needing to replace free-agent departures Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs.

Ray appeared on his way to becoming a mainstay in the Broncos defense with eight sacks in 2016, but a left wrist injury led to multiple surgeries that derailed the remainder of his time in Denver. The Missouri product has registered just two sacks in 19 games over the last two seasons.

After the Broncos declined to pick up his fifth-year option for the 2019 season, Ray totaled one sack, a forced fumble, and 10 tackles in 253 defensive snaps over 11 games last season. According to Pro Football Focus, the outside linebacker recorded only 10 pressures on 138 pass-rushing snaps for the worst pass-rushing productivity rating of his four-year career.

If healthy, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Ray would give the Ravens another speed option to rush the quarterback off the edge while the 265-pound McPhee has the ability to rush from the inside or outside. There are no guarantees with these low-risk signings, of course, but their arrivals should signal to Bower and Williams — and even rookie third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson — that snaps won’t just be handed to them. The competition should be interesting with a mix of unproven youth and oft-injured veterans still carrying intrigue vying for roster spots. Beyond fourth-year veteran Matthew Judon starting at one spot, projecting the rest of the depth chart at outside linebacker is anyone’s guess at this point.

Baltimore begins organized team activities in Owings Mills next week.

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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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Sizing up the 2019 Ravens’ 90-man roster following rookie camp

Posted on 08 May 2019 by Luke Jones

(Updated: Thursday 2:30 p.m.)

The Ravens won’t trim their roster to 53 players for nearly four more months, but the draft and rookie free-agent signings offer a much better idea of what John Harbaugh and his coaching staff have to work with for the 2019 season.

This exercise will carry more meaning as we advance into the preseason, but my all-too-early look at the roster is based more on track record, contract status, draft standing, and positional need than anticipating improvement or regression from any given player. We’ll get a much better idea of where players stand beginning with the snap distribution during organized team activities later this month.

In other words, don’t read too much into who might be deemed a bubble player now as much will change before the Ravens even get to training camp in July. Not all bubble players are on equal footing, of course, with certain position groups lacking as much quality depth and others enjoying an abundance of talent and likely falling victim to the numbers game.

Though general manager Eric DeCosta, Harbaugh, and the rest of the staff and front office are cognizant of the numbers at each position, trying to arbitrarily pinpoint a certain number of tight ends or inside linebackers isn’t the most accurate way of projecting a roster. The Ravens always look for reserves who will excel on special teams, so coaches will look carefully at players’ other attributes in addition to what they bring to their individual position groups when filling out the back of the roster.

The numbers in parentheses indicate how many players are currently on the roster at that position. As we move deeper into the spring and summer, I’ll provide updated looks as well as projections of who’s in and who’s out at different stages of the preseason.

QUARTERBACKS (4)
IN: Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III
BUBBLE: Trace McSorley
LONG SHOT: Jalan McClendon
Skinny: How the coaching staff uses McSorley and how he develops will determine whether Baltimore carries three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster for a second straight year and only the second time in the last decade. Comparisons to New Orleans’ Taysom Hill — who is much bigger — will continue.

RUNNING BACKS & FULLBACKS (7)
IN: Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill
BUBBLE: Kenneth Dixon, De’Lance Turner
LONG SHOT: Christopher Ezeala, Tyler Ervin
Skinny: Suggesting someone who averaged 5.6 yards per carry last year could be on the bubble speaks to the great backfield depth. Dixon could also be a trade chip entering the final year of his contract, but a history of injuries and suspensions could prompt a tough decision. Don’t sleep on Turner either.

WIDE RECEIVERS (12)
IN: Willie Snead, Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, Chris Moore
BUBBLE: Seth Roberts, Jaleel Scott, Jordan Lasley
LONG SHOT: Quincy Adeboyejo, Sean Modster, Jaylen Smith, Antoine Wesley, Joe Horn Jr.
Skinny: With Baltimore expected to again use multiple tight ends and run the ball so frequently, the brass won’t feel compelled to keep more than four or five receivers unless others prove deserving of a spot. This is a critical preseason for Scott and Lasley, who played zero snaps as rookies last year.

TIGHT ENDS (5)
IN: Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst
BUBBLE: none
LONG SHOT: Cole Herdman, Charles Scarff
Skinny: Offensive coordinator Greg Roman may prefer having another blocking tight end in the mix to replace Maxx Williams, but it’s premature to handicap the chances of these candidates. Keizer spent much of last year with the organization, giving him a slight experience edge over the two rookies.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (16)
IN: Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley, Orlando Brown Jr., Matt Skura, Ben Powers, Bradley Bozeman
BUBBLE: James Hurst, Alex Lewis, Jermaine Eluemunor, Greg Senat
LONG SHOT: Randin Crecelius, R.J. Prince, Patrick Mekari, Marcus Applefield, Darrell Williams, Patrick Vahe
Skinny: Bozeman’s ability to play center makes him a safe bet while Hurst’s $4.75 million cap number and injury-riddled 2018 leave his status in at least some question until he proves his back problems are behind him. Time could be running out for Lewis, who just hasn’t been able to stay on the field.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
IN: Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce, Willie Henry, Chris Wormley, Daylon Mack
BUBBLE: Zach Sieler, Gerald Willis, Patrick Ricard
LONG SHOT: Kalil Morris
Skinny: This is a tough group to handicap after the duo of Williams and Pierce, but Henry is the best interior rusher on the roster despite missing most of 2018. Sieler is a good bet to make it as a 5-technique end, but the talented Willis could be the wild card after surprisingly going undrafted.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (8)
IN: Patrick Onwuasor, Kenny Young, Chris Board
BUBBLE: Matthew Thomas, Alvin Jones, Otaro Alaka, E.J. Ejiya, Silas Stewart
LONG SHOT: none
Skinny: Board leading the team in special-teams tackles as a rookie leaves him safe at this point. The competition for a potential roster spot behind him is wide open, however, with Thomas, a former Pittsburgh Steeler, headlining a group lacking experience. They’re listed as bubble players by default.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (7)
IN: Matt Judon, Jaylon Ferguson, Tyus Bowser
BUBBLE: Tim Williams
LONG SHOT: Aaron Adeoye, Markus Jones, Michael Onuoha
Skinny: Contributions on special teams and the shortage of strong-side or “Sam” backers give Bowser a clear edge over Williams, who appeared in only seven games in 2018 and was a healthy scratch by season’s end. There should be opportunities for the long shots to try to put themselves on the radar.

CORNERBACKS (11)
IN: Jimmy Smith, Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, Tavon Young, Justin Bethel, Anthony Averett, Iman Marshall
BUBBLE: Cyrus Jones, Maurice Canady
LONG SHOT: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Terrell Bonds
Skinny: There isn’t a deeper group of corners in the NFL, leaving the Ravens with a good problem trying to decide which ones to keep. Jones returning kickoffs in addition to punts would cement his spot — he only did the latter last year — while the oft-injured Canady is in the final year of his rookie deal.

SAFETIES (6)
IN: Earl Thomas, Tony Jefferson, Chuck Clark, Anthony Levine
BUBBLE: DeShon Elliott
LONG SHOT: Bennett Jackson
Skinny: Elliott is the one to watch in this group as he showed promise before breaking his forearm in the preseason last year and could potentially push Clark for some playing time in sub packages. Levine’s positional versatility remains an invaluable part of Wink Martindale’s defense.

SPECIALISTS (5)
IN: Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, Morgan Cox
BUBBLE: none
LONG SHOT: Kaare Vedvik, Matthew Orzech
Skinny: The Ravens will hope Vedvik kicks the football like he did last summer to improve his trade value at the end of the preseason. Beyond that, there’s little to see here.

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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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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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Seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Suggs leaving Ravens after 16 seasons

Posted on 11 March 2019 by Luke Jones

If you weren’t convinced the Ravens defense was entering a new era, Monday brought the biggest sign yet as one of the best players in franchise history is saying goodbye.

After seven Pro Bowls, a Defensive Player of the Year award, a Super Bowl championship, and three times as many career sacks as all but two other Ravens, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is expected to sign with Arizona, ending an incredible 16-year run with the organization that selected him with the 10th overall pick of the 2003 draft. The 36-year-old free agent often expressed hope of staying with the Ravens for the remainder of his career, but he acknowledged the possibility of that not happening at the end of last season. The Cardinals provide Suggs the opportunity to return home as he attended high school in Arizona and was an All-American standout at Arizona State.

New general manager Eric DeCosta said last month he wanted Suggs to return for a 17th season, which would have tied Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis for the longest tenure in Ravens history. It remains unclear how far apart the sides might have been in contract talks.

“I think Sizz is definitely a guy that we want back,” DeCosta said at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. “This is a good opportunity for us to meet with his agents this week, which will happen in the next few days. He’s a guy that means a lot to our franchise as a player, but also as a leader. I would love to have him back next year.”

Suggs is the second key veteran to leave Baltimore’s top-ranked defense after Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle was released last week and signed with the Los Angeles Rams. Free-agent inside linebacker C.J. Mosley would become the third Pro Bowl defensive player to depart if the Ravens can’t strike a new deal with their 2014 first-round pick.

With Suggs set to join the Cardinals and fellow free agent Za’Darius Smith likely departing as well, the Ravens’ top remaining options opposite starting strong-side outside linebacker Matthew Judon are Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, a pair of 2017 Day 2 draft choices who have yet to live up to expectations at the next level.

Suggs started 16 games last season, collecting 34 tackles, seven sacks, seven pass breakups, a forced fumble, and a fumble return for a touchdown. However, he registered just 1 1/2 sacks over the last 10 games of the season, which included the home playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Pro Football Focus graded Suggs as the 36th-best edge defender in the NFL in 2018.

The 2011 Defensive Player of the Year and owner of seven double-digit sack seasons is first on the Ravens’ career sacks list with 132 1/2 while the next two on the list — Peter Boulware and Michael McCrary — combined for 121. Suggs’ 33 career forced fumbles also top the franchise career list.

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How did Ravens linebackers stack up to rest of NFL in 2018?

Posted on 08 February 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, but where did their players stack up across the NFL in 2018?

Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl 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 extensively enough to form any type of an authoritative opinion.

Truthfully, how many times did you watch the offensive line of the Detroit Lions this season? What about the Oakland Raiders linebackers or the San Francisco 49ers cornerbacks?

That’s why I appreciate the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging these rankings shouldn’t be viewed as infallible or the gospel of evaluation. I can respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when most of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis.

Below is a look at where Ravens linebackers ranked at their positions followed by the positional outlook going into 2019:

Offensive linemen

Terrell Suggs
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 744
PFF ranking: 36th among edge defenders
Skinny: The 36-year-old appeared on his way to another double-digit sack season with 5 1/2 through the first seven games, but he slowed considerably with just 1 1/2 the rest of the way. Suggs remains a solid player, but his price tag as a free agent will likely determine whether he stays a Raven.

C.J. Mosley
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 875
PFF ranking: 22nd among linebackers
Skinny: His PFF grade didn’t align with a fourth trip to the Pro Bowl in five years, but Mosley remains one of the NFL’s top inside linebackers. Eric DeCosta has made it clear retaining him is a top priority, but are the Ravens willing to potentially have to pay Mosley upwards of $14 million per season?

Matthew Judon
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 674
PFF ranking: 54th among edge defenders
Skinny: Judon never seems to grade favorably in PFF’s eyes, but he’s become a well-rounded starter on the Baltimore defense over the last two seasons and played very well late in the season. The Ravens should at least explore a long-term deal this offseason as Judon is scheduled to hit the market after 2019.

Za’Darius Smith
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 690
PFF ranking: 33rd among edge defenders
Skinny: His steady improvement over the last few years resulted in a breakout campaign as he led the Ravens with 8 1/2 sacks and had PFF’s 15th-best pass-rushing grade. Smith is the kind of free agent who has usually departed in the past, but does the lack of an heir apparent for Suggs force Baltimore’s hand?

Patrick Onwuasor
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 434
PFF ranking: 40th among linebackers
Skinny: Most expected Onwuasor to lose his starting job in favor of rookie Kenny Young, but the former was one of the defense’s best players down the stretch. The former undrafted linebacker is a restricted free agent and will likely receive a second-round tender to keep other teams from pursuing his services.

Kenny Young
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 369
PFF ranking: 67th among linebackers
Skinny: The fourth-round pick appeared to hit the rookie wall as the season progressed, but he still contributed and has flashed enough upside to become a legitimate starter in the future. Young needs to improve in coverage and to play faster in general, but much of that will come with more experience.

Tyus Bowser
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 162
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The 2017 second-round pick managed to play only one more defensive snap than he did as a rookie and hasn’t established himself as anything more than a special-teams player. Opportunities will remain in 2019, but time is running out for Bowser to avoid being Baltimore’s latest second-round bust.

Tim Williams
2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 119
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The 2017 third-round pick appeared to be establishing himself as a situational pass rusher with two sacks over the first four games before he hurt his ankle and fell out of favor in the second half of the season. Like with Bowser, the clock is ticking on Williams, who wasn’t active again after Week 8.

Chris Board
2018 offensive snap count (including postseason): 14
PFF ranking: n/a
Skinny: The rookie free agent from North Dakota State was one of the feel-good stories of the preseason and essentially replaced former special-teams pillar Albert McClellan. Board will now try to develop into a versatile depth option at linebacker in addition to maintaining his prominent role on special teams.

2019 positional outlook

No position group holds as much potential volatility right now as you can envision plausible scenarios for the Ravens keeping or losing any of Mosley, Suggs, and Smith. How DeCosta proceeds at this position will be fascinating when considering the other needs on each side of the ball, but you wouldn’t expect Baltimore to allow all three free agents to exit with so many unproven options waiting in the wings. Regardless of what happens with Suggs or Smith, the Ravens need to be looking for another edge rusher in this year’s draft because of the lack of progress from Bowser and Williams. Of course, Mosley accepting a lucrative payday elsewhere would instantly move inside linebacker up the list of positional needs.

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