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Sizing up the 2019 Ravens roster after mandatory minicamp

Posted on 19 June 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens won’t trim their roster to 53 players until the end of the preseason, but the conclusion of mandatory minicamp offer a much better idea of what the coaching staff has to work with in 2019.

This exercise will carry more meaning as we advance to the preseason, but my all-too-early look at the roster is still based more on track record, contract status, draft standing, and positional need than observations from a handful of non-contact practices this spring. For now, I estimate 44 players to be safely on the roster, leaving nine spots up for grabs. We’ll get a much better idea of where players stand starting with the snap distribution when training camp begins next month.

In other words, don’t read too much into who is deemed a bubble player now as much will change between now and even the start of preseason action. Not all bubble players are on equal footing, of course, with certain position groups lacking quality depth and others enjoying so much talent that could fall victim to the numbers game.

Though general manager Eric DeCosta, head coach John 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. You 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 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 (3)
IN: Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III
BUBBLE: Trace McSorley
LONG SHOT: none
Skinny: McSorley showed growth over the course of the spring and should feel much better about his chances, but I’m not quite ready to say he’ll definitely be on the roster when you look at the logjam at some other positions. I’d still expect a fourth quarterback to be added to share the summer reps.

RUNNING BACKS & FULLBACKS (7)
IN: Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill
BUBBLE: Kenneth Dixon, De’Lance Turner
LONG SHOT: Tyler Ervin, Christopher Ezeala
Skinny: Little has changed with this position group, but Ervin’s return ability at least puts him on the radar to potentially steal a spot. Dixon took issue with how his absences from voluntary workouts were perceived, but he needs a strong and healthy preseason to stick in the final year of his rookie deal.

WIDE RECEIVERS (13)
IN: Willie Snead, Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, Chris Moore
BUBBLE: Seth Roberts, Jaleel Scott, Jordan Lasley, Michael Floyd
LONG SHOT: Sean Modster, Antoine Wesley, Quincy Adeboyejo, Jaylen Smith, Joe Horn Jr.
Skinny: Scott, Modster, and Wesley flashed during workouts, but this group looked very ordinary overall, which wasn’t a big surprise as Brown and Boykin were sidelined. The numbers game will be interesting as you wonder how many receivers the run-heavy Ravens will even feel compelled to keep.

TIGHT ENDS (5)
IN: Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst
BUBBLE: Charles Scarff
LONG SHOT: Cole Herdman
Skinny: Knowing how much offensive coordinator Greg Roman values this position, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fourth tight end with blocking ability stick with the 249-pound Scarff having the current edge. However, the Ravens could also use the versatile Patrick Ricard in that role.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (16)
IN: Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley, Orlando Brown Jr., Matt Skura, Ben Powers, James Hurst, Bradley Bozeman
BUBBLE: Jermaine Eluemunor, Alex Lewis, Greg Senat
LONG SHOT: Randin Crecelius, R.J. Prince, Patrick Mekari, Marcus Applefield, Darrell Williams, Patrick Vahe
Skinny: Eluemunor lining up as the starting left guard this spring was surprising, but Harbaugh saying his conditioning needs to improve keeps me from moving him to the “in” line just yet. Lewis missing the spring program while rehabbing his shoulder on his own leaves him with much to prove.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (8)
IN: Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce, Willie Henry, Chris Wormley, Daylon Mack
BUBBLE: Zach Sieler, Gerald Willis, Patrick Ricard
LONG SHOT: none
Skinny: Sieler is probably safe because of the shortage of 5-technique options on the roster, but Willis is an interesting name to watch as a rookie free agent. Ricard’s ability to play on both sides of the ball always improves his roster chances, but he was a healthy scratch for the final six games last season.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (8)
IN: Patrick Onwuasor, Chris Board, Kenny Young
BUBBLE: Matthew Thomas, Otaro Alaka
LONG SHOT: Alvin Jones, E.J. Ejiya, Silas Stewart
Skinny: There is very little clarity in this group beyond the top three, but you would think the Ravens prefer keeping at least one more inside linebacker. Any lingering doubt about Board’s status was erased this spring as he arguably moved ahead of Young in the competition to start next to Onwuasor.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (9)
IN: Matthew Judon, Jaylon Ferguson, Tyus Bowser
BUBBLE: Pernell McPhee, Shane Ray, Tim Williams
LONG SHOT: Aaron Adeoye, Markus Jones, Michael Onuoha
Skinny: Bowser’s ability to drop into pass coverage gives him an edge over the other outside linebackers vying for a roster spot, but McPhee being able to slide inside in sub packages really helps his chances. Ray flashed during the spring, but the proof will be when the pads come on.

CORNERBACKS (11)
IN: Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young, Justin Bethel, Anthony Averett, Iman Marshall
BUBBLE: Cyrus Jones, Maurice Canady
LONG SHOT: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Terrell Bonds
Skinny: Barring injuries, Baltimore is almost guaranteed to lose a quality player or two from this group. However, I’m not buying Bethel being on the bubble after the Ravens gave him a $1 million bonus and took a compensatory pick formula hit to sign him despite their established depth here.

SAFETIES (6)
IN: Earl Thomas, Tony Jefferson, DeShon Elliott, Anthony Levine
BUBBLE: Chuck Clark
LONG SHOT: Bennett Jackson
Skinny: The standout play of Elliott was one of the highlights of the spring as he showed impressive range in coverage to go with the physicality he flashed as a rookie last summer. Clark is a rock-solid backup entering his third season, but could the roster crunch at other positions squeeze him out?

SPECIALISTS (5)
IN: Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, Morgan Cox
BUBBLE: none
LONG SHOT: Kaare Vedvik, Matthew Orzech
Skinny: Vedvik really struggled with his kicking accuracy during spring practices open to reporters and will need to rebound in the preseason to build his potential trade value.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following first week of OTAs

Posted on 24 May 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens’ first week of organized team activities in the books, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Making any bold proclamations after one spring practice is irresponsible, but Lamar Jackson showed more oomph with his intermediate passes, especially early in the session. His consistency waned over the final 45 minutes, however, with a few too many inaccurate and wobbly throws. Remember he’s also learning a revamped offense.

2. Being cautious with Marquise Brown (foot) and Miles Boykin (hamstring) is the obvious right call, but they can’t have too many reps with Jackson if they’re to make a meaningful impact as rookies. As we saw with Breshad Perriman, injuries can quickly torpedo expectations for a young wide receiver.

3. The competition at outside linebacker will receive more attention, but the likes of Willie Henry, Zach Sieler, and Pernell McPhee serving as viable interior rushers will be nearly as critical. Sieler is one to watch after he stuck on the 53-man roster all last season despite being active only twice.

4. Many seemed ready to write off Tyus Bowser or suggest he move to inside linebacker after the McPhee and Shane Ray signings, but the shortage of “Sam” outside linebackers capable of dropping into coverage keeps him in good position from a roster standpoint. The pressure is still on, of course.

5. While Kenneth Dixon skipped Thursday’s OTA, Gus Edwards and De’Lance Turner appeared to be in great shape as both looked leaner. It’s been mentioned before, but Turner was promoted to the 53-man roster a full month before Edwards was elevated last year.

6. Several defensive veterans exercised their right to not attend the voluntary workout, but Brandon Carr was present and working just days after his 33rd birthday. Father Time will eventually catch up, but his rock-solid play and understated leadership have made his 2017 signing a very good one.

7. New wide receivers coach and passing coordinator David Culley has immediately become one of John Harbaugh’s most vocal assistants as you hear him offering praise or blunt criticism for Ravens wide receivers. It’s quite a contrast from the quieter Bobby Engram, who is now coaching the tight ends.

8. Asked about his 2019 goals, Marlon Humphrey said he’s interested in “anything that ends with a ‘Bowl.’ It might be a stretch to envision this team in transition winning the Super Bowl this year, but I’m expecting Humphrey to make his first Pro Bowl as long as he stays healthy.

9. Jaylen Smith and Joe Horn Jr. have received attention as undrafted rookie receivers for obvious reasons, but 6-foot-4 Texas Tech product Antoine Wesley flashed multiple times Thursday, including when he caught a long bomb from Robert Griffin III. He lacks great speed, but you like the height.

10. That praise aside, please spare me the narrative of there being so much competition at wide receiver for one year, especially with an offense that so highly values the running game and tight ends. I’ve heard it — and sometimes fallen for it — too many times in the past.

11. Reports have linked six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to the Ravens, but it’s tough seeing a financial fit if he’s receiving offers as high as $11 million per year from interested teams. The 31-year-old has collected five or more sacks in seven straight seasons, however.

12. I don’t want to make too much out of it, but Jackson saying he came into the spring not knowing the Ravens would have “a totally different offense” was odd after rebuilding the system “from the ground up” was such a strong talking point this offseason.

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Ravens defense begins OTAs sporting different look

Posted on 23 May 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens’ first open organized team activity didn’t offer a great look at a defense that’s undergone substantial change this offseason.

As if the offseason departures of Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, Za’Darius Smith, and Brent Urban weren’t enough, six other notable defensive players weren’t participating in Thursday’s voluntary workout, leaving only a few established veterans, role players, and unproven young talents on the practice field. The list of absentees was headlined by six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas, the blockbuster free-agent acquisition handpicked to help fill voids in leadership and play-making ability. Other defensive players not taking part were cornerback Jimmy Smith, defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, and safety Tony Jefferson, who is still working his way back to full strength from offseason ankle surgery and was a sideline observer.

Though led by one of the NFL’s best and deepest secondaries, the Ravens defense faces major questions at the inside and outside linebacker positions ahead of the 2019 season

“There are a lot of stories you’ve seen about new faces on the Ravens, but you guys see a lot of new faces and I see a lot of new opportunities,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “A lot of guys, especially in my [2017] draft class and the class last year, are stepping into bigger roles — including myself — so I look forward to that as an opportunity and for new guys to make plays and make names for themselves and to become those household names.”

As expected, Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young were lining up as the starting inside linebackers after sharing time at the weak-side inside backer spot next to Mosley last year, but trying to project the starting outside linebacker opposite Judon is anyone’s guess after Suggs manned the spot for the last 15 years. The Ravens hope some combination of third-round rookie Jaylon Ferguson and 2017 draft picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams will emerge, but the low-risk signings of Pernell McPhee, 30, and Shane Ray, 26 last week delivered the message that young players won’t be handed snaps without first earning them.

McPhee, who played for the Ravens from 2011-14, and Ray combined for only one sack with their former teams last season, but they rank first and third, respectively, among current Baltimore players in career sacks, illustrating the lack of established edge rushers on the roster.

“That certainly made it more interesting over there, and those two guys are both in really good shape,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “They both came in, and obviously, they were preparing and training for when their opportunity would come. You get in a situation like that, and you don’t always know when it’s going to come and not everybody does a good job of that. They did a good job of that. They were out there today. You saw them competing, so they looked good.”

Absences on the offensive side of the ball were more related to health as rookie wide receivers Marquise Brown (foot) and Miles Boykin (hamstring) only observed and guard Alex Lewis continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery. Right guard Marshal Yanda was not present, but the seven-time Pro Bowl selection has skipped voluntary OTAs in the past.

The most interesting absence Thursday was running back Kenneth Dixon, who likely stands fourth in his position’s hierarchy behind free-agent addition and two-time Pro Bowl selection Mark Ingram, 2018 leading rusher Gus Edwards, and rookie fourth-round pick Justice Hill. Despite averaging an impressive 5.6 yards per carry upon returning from a knee injury late last season, Dixon is entering the final year of his rookie contract, a variable that often leaves a player’s job security vulnerable when competing at a deep position. His history of injuries and drug-related suspensions also works against him.

“He was here the last few days,” Harbaugh said. “Where was he today? I don’t know. They don’t have to tell us. There’s no rule.”

Cornerback and punt returner Cyrus Jones and rookie defensive tackle Gerald Willis were also absent, but Willis did sustain an apparent leg injury during rookie camp earlier this month.

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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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