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Ravens cut safety Will Hill prior to news of 10-game suspension

Posted on 16 March 2016 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Not long after making their four-year contract with three-time Pro Bowl free safety Eric Weddle official, the Ravens addressed a crowded safety picture by releasing Will Hill.

The news came as a surprise to many fans before ESPN reported a couple hours later that Hill had been suspended 10 games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

Hill had three drug-related suspensions in his first three seasons in the NFL — two related to marijuana — and had other off-field problems in the past. The Ravens signed Hill in the summer of 2014 when he had already been suspended for the first six games of that season and subsequently released by the New York Giants, but he had managed to stay out of trouble — at least publicly — since then.

With his latest ban, Hill will now have been suspended for 24 games in his first five NFL seasons.

Regarded by many as Baltimore’s best safety in 2015, Hill saw his playing time decrease when veteran Lardarius Webb moved from cornerback to safety in mid-December. The 26-year-old did not start the final two games of the season and played just 49 of the Ravens’ 122 defensive snaps over that time.

Hill finished 17th among qualified safeties in Pro Football Focus’ grading system, but the publication noted that he graded 70th over the final nine weeks of the 2015 season when he appeared to begin falling out of favor. Like many members of the secondary, Hill had his share of communication breakdowns and blown coverages that were often overshadowed by his hard-hitting style of play in 2015.

He was originally set to make $2.84 million in base salary for the 2016 season, which means that money is now cleared from the 2016 salary cap.

After signing a two-year, $7 million contract last summer, Hill started 14 of 16 games and collected 64 tackles, one interception, one sack, and six pass breakups while also leading the team in penalties. His 64-yard return for a touchdown off a blocked field goal was the game-winning play in the Week 12 Monday night victory at Cleveland.

Despite being scheduled to carry a $9.5 million cap number for the coming season, Webb has repeatedly been endorsed by both general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh as a starting-caliber safety this offseason. At Weddle’s introductory press conference on Wednesday, Harbaugh indicated that Webb would start next to the former San Diego Charger.

On paper, the 6-foot-1, 228-pound Hill may have been the better fit as a strong safety complementing the undersized Weddle, but the Ravens plan to use Weddle and Webb interchangeably and want more versatility and play-making ability from their safeties.

“You can bring both of these guys down and they can blitz and bring it really effectively,” Harbaugh said. “You’re not going to know who is down and who is deep, and that can be a big benefit for our defense.”

Behind Weddle and Webb on the projected safety depth chart are Kendrick Lewis, Matt Elam, Terrence Brooks, and Anthony Levine. Reserve safety and special-teams player Brynden Trawick agreed to a deal with the Oakland Raiders on Wednesday after the Ravens elected not to tender the restricted free agent earlier this month.

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What’s next at safety after Ravens bring on Weddle?

Posted on 15 March 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens already had a crowded safety group before agreeing to a four-year deal with three-time Pro Bowl selection Eric Weddle on Monday.

The 31-year-old should bring the stability, high-impact play, and leadership that the Ravens have lacked at the position since the days of Ed Reed, but what Weddle’s arrival means for the other safeties on the roster remains to be seen. There was already a prevailing thought that the organization would part ways with at least one safety from a group that includes Lardarius Webb, Will Hill, Kendrick Lewis, and Matt Elam, and the arrival of the longtime San Diego Charger would appear to make that a certainty.

But who would be the likeliest candidate to go?

The Ravens would save $3.5 million in salary cap space by cutting Webb, who only converted from cornerback to safety late last season and is scheduled to carry a $9.5 million cap figure for the 2016 season. However, general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh have both talked up the veteran’s potential at his new position and have spoken with conviction about him being a starter. Of course, that all came before the Ravens gave $13 million in guaranteed money to their new safety, and Weddle and Webb would be a smaller duo compared to most safety tandems around the league.

It’s worth noting that a pre-June 1 release of Webb would leave $6 million in dead money, but a post-June 1 designation would leave his heavy commitment on the salary cap until most offseason activity has already concluded.

Releasing Hill would save $3 million in cap space, but he was the NFL’s 17th-highest-graded safety in Pro Football Focus’ rankings and his 6-foot-1, 228-pound frame would appear to be the perfect complement to the undersized Weddle (5-foot-11 and 200 pounds). The Ravens love having interchangeable safeties capable of playing the free or strong spot, and the combination of Weddle and Hill would appear to fit that vision perfectly.

There wouldn’t appear to be much use for Lewis in the base defense anymore, but releasing him would save just $933,000, which is very little when you account for the player taking his place in the “Rule of 51” list that counts against the salary cap. He would appear to be a reasonable backup option with just a $1.867 million cap figure for 2016.

Elam might be the most interesting name as the Ravens have never given up on a first-round pick prior to the conclusion of his rookie deal, but he carries a $2.14 million cap figure for 2016 and his release would save $1.33 million in space. Coaches said last summer that the University of Florida product had a strong offseason prior to tearing his biceps in training camp, but Elam didn’t show enough in his first two seasons to make you believe he’s a long-term fit.

The Ravens aren’t in a position where they need to make a decision immediately as Weddle’s signing leaves them with roughly $8 million in cap space for 2016, but this position group has become too crowded and too expensive to not make an adjustment as the offseason progresses.

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Ranking the Ravens’ defensive needs for 2016

Posted on 22 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The Ravens defense needs some work.

Yes, the unit finished eighth in total defense and surrendered the fewest passing yards in the NFL over the second half of the season, but five of the Ravens’ final eight games came against passing attacks ranked 19th or worse and another came against an AJ McCarron-led Cincinnati attack in the season finale.

The improvement was encouraging, but it wasn’t enough to just assume everything is fine, especially after the defense finished with just 14 takeaways, shattering the worst mark in team history. The hiring of former NFL head coach Leslie Frazier to coach the secondary highlights the Ravens’ desire to improve against the pass.

With free agency set to begin in less than two months — March 9 at 4 p.m. — and the draft set for April 28-30, the Ravens are currently evaluating their biggest needs in all three phases of the game. In the second of a three-part series — we’ve already looked at the offense and special teams will follow — I offer my thoughts on the defensive side of the football and rank the positions of greatest need.

1. Cornerback

Some will argue that improving the pass rush is a bigger need than cornerback, but with Shareece Wright scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and Lardarius Webb moving to safety, who will start opposite top cornerback Jimmy Smith?

Even if they’re able to re-sign Wright — who shook off a nightmare debut against San Francisco to play quite well the rest of the way — the Ravens would benefit from having another high-end cornerback. In addition to hoping that Smith is finally over the effects of his 2014 foot surgery, they need another playmaker in the secondary.

That’s the biggest reason why the Ravens have been linked to top cornerback prospects such as Jalen Ramsey from Florida State or Vernon Hargreaves from Florida with the sixth overall pick in this spring’s draft.

Baltimore has some internal options such as Will Davis who carry intrigue, but none have a body of work suggesting you could pencil them into the starting lineup with any great level of confidence.

2. Outside linebacker

Owner Steve Bisciotti spoke at length at the season-ending press conference about how much the Ravens missed Terrell Suggs after he was lost for the year in the 2015 opener, but the six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker will be 34 in October and coming off his second Achilles injury in four years.

Further complicating matters is the pending free agency of Courtney Upshaw, who lacks pass-rushing skills but is effective setting the edge against the run. The Ravens saw promising development from 2015 fourth-round pick Za’Darius Smith late in the year, but they’d love to add another outside linebacker to ease the workload of the 32-year-old Elvis Dumervil, who wore down late in the year as a three-down player.

The defense needs a young outside linebacker who can get after the quarterback, but the top options in the draft beyond Ohio State’s Joey Bosa — Myles Jack of UCLA and Leonard Floyd of Georgia — would likely be considered a reach where the Ravens are picking in the first round.

There’s a lot of uncertainty at this position for 2016 and beyond when your top two options are both well over 30.

3. Safety

Since the departure of Ed Reed, the Ravens have pumped so many resources into improving this position with very underwhelming results.

Though not quite as consistent as you’d probably like, Will Hill has emerged as a solid starter at strong safety, but the free safety position remains a different story. Kendrick Lewis just doesn’t show enough ability to make high-impact plays, and Lardarius Webb’s $9.5 million salary cap figure for 2016 will need to be addressed if he’s even to remain on the team.

Terrence Brooks has flashed his athleticism when given opportunities, but the 2014 third-round pick has battled injuries and has yet to earn the trust of the coaching staff from a mental standpoint.

Unless you draft Ramsey and move him to safety, there doesn’t appear to be a safety in this year’s draft who can bring the type of impact the Ravens are seeking. This could mean another year of hoping an internal option such as Brooks finally emerges as more of a ball-hawking threat.

4. Inside linebacker

Daryl Smith will be 34 and is no guarantee to return, meaning the Ravens should be looking for the inside linebacker of the future next to 2014 Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mosley.

Former undrafted free agent Zach Orr showed solid coverage skills while replacing Smith in the nickel package late last season, but it remains to be seen whether he can be a viable three-down linebacker. And 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown is more likely to be cut then to suddenly become a starter after three disappointing seasons in Baltimore.

Considering Mosley has struggled in pass coverage, the Ravens would benefit greatly from having another inside linebacker who can stick with running backs or tight ends in routes.

Whether it’s for 2016 or beyond, general manager Ozzie Newsome would probably be wise to be on the lookout for an inside backer with upside in the middle rounds of the draft.

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Even in rough season, Ravens remind us how fun sports can be

Posted on 01 December 2015 by Luke Jones

It was nice to forget about the Ravens’ big picture for one night in a thrilling 33-27 win over Cleveland.

No, I don’t think Brent Urban’s blocked field goal and Will Hill’s 64-yard return for the game-winning touchdown as time expired will sabotage Baltimore’s 2016 draft position. It was always going to difficult to secure the first overall pick when every game the Ravens play is decided by one possession, leaving too many chances for some breaks to go their way like they did on Monday.

In the same light, the exhilarating victory shouldn’t be viewed as “redemption” or a catalyst that will allow the Ravens to climb back into a mediocre AFC wild-card race. After all, the only thing the Ravens really proved on Monday is that they were better than the perennial doormat of the AFC North.

But that chaotic final play reminded us just how much fun sports can be. Nothing more, nothing less.

It hasn’t exactly been the greatest few months in local sports with the Orioles failing to return to the playoffs, Maryland football being dreadful, and the Ravens in the midst of the most disappointing season in franchise history. It’s easy to become jaded watching a team that’s already out of the race and looking toward next season, especially after losing your franchise quarterback to a season-ending knee injury last week.

In fact, I counted myself among those seeing no benefit to the Ravens winning any games down the stretch as they’d only be worsening their position in a draft in which general manager Ozzie Newsome needs to come away with high-impact talent. But a funny thing happened as I watched the injury-ravaged Ravens take on the hapless Browns in one of the worst matchups of the season.

I enjoyed myself.

Make no mistake, Baltimore and Cleveland did not play a great game, but it was entertaining with big plays, backbreaking mistakes, questionable coaching decisions, and one of the craziest finishes in the long history of Monday Night Football. And as the teams exchanged multiple possessions in the final two minutes and Matt Schaub threw his second interception of the night to set the Browns up in Baltimore territory, I still pondered the most absurd way in which the game could end and decided on the following:

Of course, it was nothing more than a tongue-in-cheek prediction — I’ve been awful in forecasting Ravens games this season — but I couldn’t believe my eyes just a couple minutes later as Urban blocked Travis Coons’ 51-yard attempt and Hill scooped up the football to streak down the sideline for the score.

It was one of those moments that reminds fans — and even cranky reporters — why we watch sports in the first place. Of course, Baltimore’s joy was Cleveland’s agony as the Browns picked the worst time to, well, “Brown” away a game.

You couldn’t help but feel good for Hill, who had blown the deep middle coverage on Travis Benjamin’s game-tying touchdown catch with 1:47 remaining in the game. I felt even better for Urban, a 2014 fourth-round defensive end who was playing in his first NFL game after seeing his entire rookie year and most of his second season lost due to injuries.

Two players the Ravens hope will factor into their future making the game-winning play on Monday night.

It will be fine going back to feeling conflicted about the remaining five games of the season as the Ravens travel to Miami to take on the 4-7 Dolphins on Sunday. I can understand a fan never wanting to root against his or her team, no matter what it means for draft implications. At the same time, the Ravens only stand to benefit in the long run by losing more than winning the rest of the way.

But I hope we all could enjoy what transpired on the final play of Monday night’s game.

The wild win doesn’t make up for a losing season and doesn’t mean the Ravens will fail to come away with excellent players in next year’s draft. It’s also not a sign of an upcoming miraculous run to the postseason.

It was just a really fun moment that we hope to witness from time to time as sports fans.

One in which silly imagination suddenly sprung into fun reality for a team experiencing far too much of the cruel kind this season.

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Canty, Monroe, Perriman out for Sunday’s game

Posted on 25 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Needing a win against one of their biggest rivals to avoid the first 0-3 start in team history, the Ravens will be without three key players for Sunday’s game against Cincinnati.

Defensive end Chris Canty (calf), left tackle Eugene Monroe (concussion), and rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman (knee) were officially ruled out on Friday as the Ravens try to snap a three-game losing streak against the Bengals in Week 3. Canty and Monroe had missed the entire week of practice while Perriman only returned to practice on Thursday after an eight-week absence due to a sprained knee.

“I’m encouraged by that, and that’s very important,” said head coach John Harbaugh about Perriman’s limited participation. “It looks like he’s getting close, but what that exactly means, I don’t know. When they tell me he can play, he’ll be out there playing. That’s just the truth. That’s the way it is. It’s a tough injury to judge.”

Second-year lineman James Hurst is once again expected to start in Monroe’s place while Lawrence Guy will likely man the 5-technique defensive end spot in place of Canty.

Running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot) was listed as questionable on the final injury report of the week after he returned to practice on a limited basis Friday. The second-year back made his 2015 debut in Oakland last week following a month-long absence because of a knee injury.

Safety Will Hill missed Friday’s practice with a knee injury, but he was still listed as probable to play against the Bengals.

Rookie cornerback Tray Walker was listed as questionable with a thigh injury after being limited in two straight practices. The return of third-year cornerback Rashaan Melvin and the acquisition of Will Davis make it likely that the fourth-round pick will be inactive anyway.

The Bengals officially ruled out backup nose tackle Pat Sims with a hip injury and listed defensive tackle Marcus Hardison (knee) as doubtful. Four-time Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green (knee) and starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth (back) were both listed as probable after missing one practice each this week.

The referee for Sunday’s game will be Walt Anderson.

The forecast for Sunday’s game in Baltimore calls for temperatures in the high 60s, a 60 percent chance of rain, and winds up to 12 miles per hour, according to Weather.com.

Below is the final injury report of the week:

BALTIMORE
OUT: DE Chris Canty (calf), OT Eugene Monroe (concussion), WR Breshad Perriman (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot), CB Tray Walker (thigh)
PROBABLE: S Will Hill (knee), LB C.J. Mosley (non-injury)

CINCINNATI
OUT: DT Pat Sims (hip)
DOUBTFUL: DT Marcus Hardison (knee)
PROBABLE: DE Wallace Gilberry (thigh), WR A.J. Green (knee), S Reggie Nelson (groin), OT Andre Smith (buttocks), OT Andrew Whitworth (back)

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Harbaugh: “Our defense has to step up and play like the Ravens play”

Posted on 21 September 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — John Harbaugh didn’t mince words in assessing a defense that allowed 37 points in Sunday’s disappointing loss to the Oakland Raiders to drop the Ravens’ record to 0-2.

The performance was out of character for a franchise known for its defensive tradition over 20 seasons in Baltimore. The eighth-year head coach put his players and coaches on notice that the defense needs to be fixed quickly as the Ravens now try to become the 25th 0-2 team to bounce back to make the playoffs since 1990.

“If we’re going to have a chance to be a successful football team, our defense has to step up and play like the Ravens play,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the expectation. That’s where the bar is set, and we’re going to have the guys out there that do that. And it’s on us as coaches to put the right guys out there, teach them to do the right things, and have the right schemes in place.”

Not only were the Ravens playing an Oakland offense that was shut out by Cincinnati through three quarters the previous week, but they was feeling confident about a defense that didn’t allow an offensive touchdown against future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning and a talented Denver offense in the season opener.

Against the Raiders offense, however, everything went wrong as second-year quarterback Derek Carr threw three touchdown passes and Oakland accumulated 448 yards of offense. The Ravens collected just one sack and Pro Football Focus credited them with 11 missed tackles, their highest total since last year’s Week 9 blowout loss in Pittsburgh.

“We had missed tackles. We had missed assignments. We had breakdowns in coverage. We had missed alignments,” Harbaugh said. “We played about as unsound as you can play in a lot of different ways. We had effort for the most part, but I’ll even say we didn’t have the kind of effort we need to have on defense — the kind of all-out, flying-around effort that we expect from a Ravens’ defense.”

Playing without the injured Terrell Suggs, the Ravens struggled to create any semblance of consistent pressure on Carr as Elvis Dumervil played his highest number of snaps (62) since his days with the Denver Broncos and Courtney Upshaw didn’t capitalize on more opportunities to rush. As a result, Carr had a career day through the air with his 351 yards.

Harbaugh was quick to point out that Oakland designed plenty of short passes to neutralize the rush, but he did not forgive the inability of linebackers and defensive backs to neutralize those throws.

“When a team is determined to get the ball out fast, then you’re not going to get a lot of quarterback hits and you’re not going to get a lot of sacks,” Harbaugh said. “What you have to do is defend those quick throws, and we didn’t defend the quick throws as well as we need to because of the missed tackles and some of the missed alignments.

“If you force those throws to be no-gains, one gain, minus-2, 3-yard gains, when the ball is coming out fast, then you force them to hold the ball a little bit longer and to gain some yards and you get to the quarterback. That’s the No. 1 issue there.”

Though there’s truth to Harbaugh’s point, the Ravens didn’t get to Carr when he took deeper drops either, further making the decision to deactivate veteran newcomer Jason Babin puzzling after he was signed to provide more depth behind Dumervil, Upshaw, and rookie Za’Darius Smith.

Against an underwhelming offense, the Ravens showed no sign of being close to figuring out their pass-rush equation without Suggs.

“I think he had way too much time on the [bootlegs],” Harbaugh said. “He was able to stand back there on the keepers and boots almost forever and throw the ball. We have to figure out how to get that changed. But from a pass-rush standpoint, those are the two situations — the quick throws and the boots.”

Penalties on final drive

Two critical penalties hurt the Ravens on Oakland’s game-winning touchdown drive as defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan committed a senseless roughing-the-passer foul that marched the Raiders into field-goal range and safety Will Hill was flagged for holding before he made what looked to be the game-clinching interception with under a minute remaining.

Harbaugh offered a strong opinion on each one, with one player being chastised and the other forgiven.

“The Timmy Jernigan one was a foolish penalty — really inexcusable,” Harbaugh said. “There was no reason for that whatsoever at any time during the game, but especially in two-minute. But that was just a way late hit, and I don’t understand that one. It hurt us.

“The other one, I’m still looking for it. I don’t see it on tape, so I’m not sure what to tell Will on that. It looked like a good play to me.”

Second long trip out west being reconsidered

After previously saying they planned to stay out west for the week between their Oct. 18 game at San Francisco and Oct. 26 contest at Arizona, the Ravens are now reconsidering those plans.

Harbaugh said it would be a “no-brainer” to stay in Phoenix if the week were shorter between games — the second game takes place on a Monday night — but critics will understandably wonder how much the results of their first extended trip between the Denver and Oakland games will factor into a decision expected to be made in the next few days.

“If we stay [out there], it’ll be because we and the players feel like it would be the best thing,” Harbaugh said. “And if we don’t, it would be because we’d rather get back here and be in our home confines. [We’ll decide] which is best, especially in a long week.”

No word on Perriman

Injured rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman (knee) was seen doing some light running during his pre-game workout on Sunday, an increased level of activity shown from previous weeks when he was restricted to making catches from a stationary position.

The Ravens coach added no clarity when asked whether that was a sign of the first-round pick being close to finally returning after he sprained his knee on July 30.

“Not that I’ve been told,” Harbaugh said. “I have no update on it.”

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Ten Ravens prophecies for the 2015 season

Posted on 13 September 2015 by Luke Jones

As many go through the endeavor of making division-by-division forecasts, these predictions focus on the Ravens and their quest to advance to the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years and to possibly win their third Super Bowl title in their 20th season in Baltimore.

A look back at last year’s predictions show a mixed bag — predicting Elvis Dumervil would take a step back before he went on to set the Ravens’ single-season sack record was particularly embarrassing — but it’s fun to envision how the next four months or so will play out.

Below is a new forecast to tear apart:

1. Joe Flacco will finally be named the team’s Most Valuable Player in his eighth season.

The fact that the quarterback hasn’t won a team MVP award from local media — for what it’s worth, I voted for him over winner Justin Forsett last year — illustrates how much he is taken for granted. After having arguably his best statistical season a year ago, Flacco will post similar numbers despite having a slew of inexperienced weapons behind 36-year-old Steve Smith, a testament to his ability.

2. Brandon Williams will play at a Pro Bowl level, but he will not receive that recognition.

The third-year nose tackle is one of the NFL’s best-kept secrets and the Ravens will need him to anchor the defensive line with Haloti Ngata now a member of the Detroit Lions. Williams will be Baltimore’s best defensive lineman by a wide margin, but playing a position where statistics don’t jump out will force him to wait another year to receive a Pro Bowl nod.

3. Rashaan Melvin will be starting over Lardarius Webb by the end of the year.

Even if you can forgive Webb’s play in 2014 because of a back injury, how much can he really bounce back as he turns 30 in October? A hamstring issue prevented the seventh-year cornerback from playing in the preseason, creating more questions about Webb’s durability. Though Melvin’s play in last year’s playoff loss to New England was brutal, the Ravens think they have something with the 6-foot-2 corner.

4. Will Hill and Crockett Gillmore will be players to take a step forward.

His troubled history is no secret, but Hill has done everything that Ozzie Newsome asked of him when he came to Baltimore last summer and the Ravens rewarded the 25-year-old safety with an extension through 2016. Gillmore is probably receiving too much hype after a quiet rookie year, but the Ravens would be very pleased if he can match Owen Daniels’ 2014 production (48 catches for 527 yards).

5. Marlon Brown and Chris Canty will be players to take a step back.

It seems unfair to pick Brown for this again, but he had a quiet summer and just never seems to play as big as his frame while the Ravens drafted the 6-foot-6 Darren Waller in May. The 32-year-old Canty was re-signed after being cut this offseason, but Brent Urban receiving the designation to return reflects the Ravens’ vision of him taking over the 5-technique defensive end spot sooner rather than later.

6. Third-round pick Carl Davis will be the Ravens’ most impressive rookie.

Without knowing what injured first-round pick Breshad Perriman can bring to the table after missing the entire preseason, Davis looks to be the most NFL-ready rookie that the Ravens have as he will receive plenty of time in the defensive line rotation and could push Timmy Jernigan to start. At 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, Davis brings impressive size that could eventually make him a poor man’s Haloti Ngata.

7. Free safety Kendrick Lewis will be the disappointing veteran newcomer.

The 27-year-old has received positive reviews from coaches and teammates, but Lewis did not have a good preseason and was merely an average starting safety in Houston and Kansas City. He will be a better free-agent acquisition than monumental bust Michael Huff, but I’m not convinced that he’ll be a noticeable upgrade from Darian Stewart at the free safety spot.

8. Marshal Yanda, C.J. Mosley, Jimmy Smith, and Kelechi Osemele will be Baltimore’s Pro Bowl selections.

The choices of Yanda and Mosley would hardly be surprising, but Smith and Osemele will receive recognition that they deserve. This will be especially meaningful for Osemele in the final year of his rookie deal as he’ll position himself for a payday that’s unlikely to come from the Ravens. Yanda will earn his fifth straight trip to the Pro Bowl to cement his status as one of the top players in franchise history.

9. This will be Terrell Suggs’ final season.

This is a shot in the dark and not at all an indictment of how I anticipate Suggs playing this year, but the soon-to-be 33-year-old admitted this spring that he pondered his football future and didn’t work out in the same way that he would in past offseasons. The six-time Pro Bowl selection knows he’s the last man standing from the old Baltimore guard, so it wouldn’t be stunning to see him call it a career after 2015.

10. The Ravens will qualify for the postseason as a wild card with a 10-6 record and will exit in the second round.

Too many questions on the offensive side of the ball will stunt the Ravens’ growth just enough to prevent them from winning the AFC North. With their questions in the passing game and Pittsburgh’s defensive problems, Cincinnati quietly has the most stability in the division and is built to be a strong regular-season team. That said, Baltimore will top the Bengals in a wild-card round meeting to extend the playoff misery of Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton. The Ravens will then lose a close one at Indianapolis in the divisional round before the Colts go on to win the AFC championship.

Bonus Super Bowl pick that no one asked for: Green Bay will prevail over Indianapolis as Aaron Rodgers wins his second championship in a 34-24 final in Santa Clara.

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Will Hill makes good on second chance with Ravens

Posted on 27 August 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A recent conversation with his father reinforced to Will Hill why he didn’t want to be anywhere else after the Ravens had given the talented, but troubled safety a chance last summer.

“He was like, ‘Look, this is a great fit for you,'” said the 25-year-old, who signed a two-year deal with the Ravens on Thursday. “He said, ‘If you ever come across getting a deal, all that off-the-field stuff, it has got to go. I know you’ve been doing a great job with it, and let’s just keep it up.’

“That has been playing through my head every day.”

He’s come a long way in a little over a year.

After being handed the third suspension of his young career last spring, Hill was promptly released by the New York Giants and faced a six-game ban to begin the 2014 season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Despite facing their own scrutiny with the Ray Rice saga and four other player arrests hanging over their heads at the time, the Ravens signed Hill to a one-year contract last July with the expectation that he would need to stay out of trouble while serving his suspension to receive a chance.

Returning in Week 7 and immediately becoming a meaningful part of the defense, Hill started the final eight games of the regular season, collecting 42 tackles, four pass breakups, and an interception returned for a touchdown against New Orleans in Week 12. Pro Football Focus graded Hill as its 14th-best safety in the NFL in 2014.

The Ravens were encouraged with his play, but head coach John Harbaugh laid down the challenge to Hill at the end of the season to focus on what was important after he received two marijuana-related suspensions in his first three years and dealt with other off-field issues. After character concerns led to him going undrafted in 2011, Hill was suspended for Adderall use as a rookie with the Giants in 2012 and was arrested in 2013 for failing to pay child support.

“We put it on his plate a little bit. We’re challenging him for the next three or four months,” Harbaugh said in January. “‘Are you going to come back a better player than you were when you left here in January, and is that slate going to be clean?’ We fully expect it to be. He just had a baby. He’s doing great with his family, and we fully expect him to do a great job with that, and we’re going to try to help him anyway we can with that.”

Upon signing his restricted free-agent tender, Hill regularly attended spring workouts in Owings Mills and became more and more comfortable with defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ system. His family members came to training camp practices on a daily basis this summer while the University of Florida product worked exclusively with the starting defense after Matt Elam suffered a torn biceps during the first week of camp.

After five different safeties received extensive snaps a year ago, the Ravens hope Hill and veteran newcomer Kendrick Lewis will provide stability in the back end of the secondary. With some long-term security in hand, Hill says the focus is solely on winning a championship as he looks forward to making plays with Lewis, who has started 66 games in his first five NFL seasons with Kansas City and Houston.

“I think we’re a deadly combo, because we complement each other well,” Hill said. “I can play in the box and play deep, and he can do the same thing. You never know what you’re going to get.”

The 6-foot-1, 228-pound safety has done everything that the Ravens have asked of him to earn an extension as general manager Ozzie Newsome spent much of the offseason solidifying a maligned secondary by signing top cornerback Jimmy Smith to a long-term extension, inking Lewis to a three-year deal, and restructuring Lardarius Webb’s contract.

Hill made no secret about it being a dream to make money — terms of the deal were not immediately made available on Thursday — but he also can’t help but feel like he’s found a home with a support system that cares about him beyond what he can do on the football field.

Now, it’s up to him to prove that the Ravens made a wise investment.

“You go to most places, and it is just a business,” Hill said. “Even though it is just a business, it is more family-oriented around here, and I know I have a good rapport with all my coaches — the offensive coaches, too. I talk to Ozzie every day, and Mr. [Steve] Bisciotti — we have good conversations. They mingle with my family, so everybody is really family-oriented around here.”

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Ravens hoping they’ve finally found stability at safety

Posted on 05 August 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — In the 30 months since the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII, no position has experienced more change than safety.

Free agents like Michael Huff and Darian Stewart have come and gone and draft picks such as Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks haven’t worked out exactly as planned — at least not yet — as the only constant in the back end of the defense over the last few years has been flux.

This was never more evident than a year ago when five safeties played at least 245 defensive snaps, leaving a weekly guessing game of who would line up for defensive coordinator Dean Pees on a given Sunday. More attention fell on the list of cornerbacks going down with injuries in 2014, but the constant rotating and unrest at the safety position was a major factor contributing to the Baltimore pass defense finishing 23rd in the NFL.

“We rotated because we had to rotate. It wasn’t because I sometimes wanted to,” Pees said. “I don’t really care, but I really do think that if you have two guys that establish themselves, they get used to playing together, they get used to communicating together, and guys get used to hearing the communication from them. When that’s a rotation all the time, guys communicate differently.”

The Ravens are hoping they’ve finally solved that problem with the free-agent signing of Kendrick Lewis in March. The former Houston Texan and Kansas City Chief doesn’t carry overwhelming credentials, but the 27-year-old started 66 games in his first five seasons and has been praised for his intelligence in both the meeting room and the field.

Communication was a major problem in 2014, often leading to long pass plays over safeties’ heads. Lewis is viewed as a better center-field defender than the ex-Raven Stewart or any of the safeties still on the roster, which should allow cornerbacks and linebackers to play more aggressively in coverage.

The Ravens secondary has spoken at length this spring and summer about developing more trust than the group had a year ago when a new combination of cornerbacks and safeties was lining up almost every week and there was often more finger-pointing than plays being made.

“Those are the things we talk about when we’re watching film,” Lewis said, “whether we see something, [we’re] communicating, ‘Hey, listen, I’m jumping this one. Protect me here.’ That’s the type of chemistry we’re building in the secondary when we’re in meetings going over the [film], preparing and transferring it to the practice field.”

While the Ravens hope Lewis will bring stability to a free safety position they haven’t been able to fill adequately since the free-agent departure of Ed Reed, strong safety Will Hill might be the bigger factor in determining how much the secondary can improve. A year ago at this time, Hill was just learning his way around the Ravens’ Owings Mills training facility while waiting to serve a six-game suspension, but a full and trouble-free offseason has the 25-year-old primed for a breakout season.

Even before the season-ending biceps injury suffered by Elam on the third day of training camp, most expected Hill to win the competition for the starting strong safety job based on his solid play in eight starts last season.

Hill’s talent has never come into question as the New York Giants only parted ways with the University of Florida product after he drew the third suspension of his young career, so the Ravens are eager to see what the 6-foot-1, 228-pound safety can accomplish with a full year in Baltimore under his belt. His combination of size, speed, physicality, and ball skills is a recipe to become an impact player in the secondary as long as he keeps himself on the field.

“Last year, I just came in and had to hurry up and learn quick, quick, quick,” Hill said. “I had a whole offseason to learn the plays. In training camp, it’s just picking up as we go along. I’m just trying to be that assertive guy out there that they need and [to] produce.”

With so much turnover at the safety position over the last couple years, the Ravens have often relied on players lacking experience or the necessary credentials to lead the secondary. But they hope Lewis’ experience and Hill’s upside will finally bring stability for the foreseeable future while younger players such as Elam and Brooks recover from injuries.

After being spoiled by having a future Hall of Famer at free safety for the first five years of his tenure in Baltimore, head coach John Harbaugh likes what he’s seen from Lewis’ leadership.

“You don’t hear him talk too much,” Harbaugh said. “You see him, and the thing that strikes me is I see him on tape, and he knows what he’s doing, and he has been in this defense for just a couple of months now. He and Will are really taking charge in the back end. I love our communication back there. We’re a lot better than we were last year with that, and we just have to keep building on it.”

It remains to be seen how well this latest safety combination works as the Ravens seek their seventh trip to the postseason in eight years, but the secondary isn’t shying away from its stated goal of creating more turnovers after it came way with just 11 interceptions in 2014. Illustrating how little impact the defensive backfield had in making game-changing plays, the 350-pound Haloti Ngata and rookie inside linebacker C.J. Mosley led the team with two interceptions apiece while no defensive back had more than one.

Lewis has made it clear to the rest of the secondary in his short time in Baltimore that interceptions must become a part of what the Ravens defense creates again. And there can be no excuse for missed opportunities.

“‘You’re dropping that money. You’re leaving that money on the field,'” said Lewis about the urgency to pick off passes during practice. “We feel like there’s money in [those] balls. Those are money balls — that’s what we call them. You drop one, you owe us 10 pushups, and that’s money you left out there on the grass.”

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Harbaugh “not optimistic” with prognosis for Elam’s biceps injury

Posted on 02 August 2015 by Luke Jones

(Updated: 8:30 p.m.)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens safety Matt Elam suffered what is feared to be a season-ending arm injury during the first full-contact practice of training camp on Saturday.

The 2013 first-round pick underwent a magnetic resonance imaging exam to determine whether he suffered a torn biceps when he reached awkwardly for a wide receiver. Head coach John Harbaugh did not have the final results of the MRI when he addressed reporters on Sunday evening.

“I’m not real optimistic right now,” Harbaugh said. “I haven’t heard a final word, but it wasn’t very optimistic yesterday talking to the doctors [about] his biceps.”

After injuring his arm on Saturday afternoon, Elam walked inside the Ravens’ training facility with head athletic trainer Mark Smith. He did not appear to be in serious pain as he walked without any assistance.

After a disappointing start to his NFL career, Elam was expected to compete with Will Hill for the starting strong safety spot this season. Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome made it no secret this offseason that the organization expected more from the University of Florida product, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees had praised Elam for his performance during spring workouts.

“I’m sure it’s very disappointing for him and he told me that,” Harbaugh said. “Here’s a guy who came back with a renewed attitude. He had a better approach than he’d had the first two years. He just had grown up a lot. He was very serious. He was in tremendous shape and then he gets a fluke injury. That’s a disappointment.”

Should Elam be sidelined for an extended period of time, depth at the safety position would become a concern behind projected starters Hill and Kendrick Lewis. Terrence Brooks remains on the active physically unable to perform list while recovering from a knee injury, which would leave Anthony Levine, Brynden Trawick, and rookie free agent Nick Perry as the only other healthy safeties on the 90-man preseason roster.

In two seasons, Elam has played in 32 games (26 starts), accumulating 127 tackles, one interception, and seven pass breakups.

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