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Ravens-Chiefs: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 21 September 2019 by Luke Jones

What more could you ask for in Week 3?

Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale suggested we could be seeing the next Brady-Manning rivalry as Lamar Jackson and Baltimore travel to Kansas City to take on Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. It’s an exciting thought after last December’s 27-24 classic in which the Chiefs narrowly prevailed in overtime.

In his second season, Jackson has taken a gigantic leap to draw comparisons to Mahomes, whom no one expected to be the 2018 NFL MVP at this time a year ago in his first full season as a starter. These two will be exciting to watch for years to come, and these teams meeting again in January wouldn’t be surprising, regardless of Sunday’s outcome.

It’s time to go on the record as these 2018 division winners meet for the ninth time in the all-time regular-season series. Kansas City holds a 5-3 advantage, but the Ravens have won two of the three regular-season games played at Arrowhead Stadium as well as the 2010 wild-card playoff game.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Willie Snead will be more involved with 75 receiving yards and a touchdown. With rookie Marquise Brown among the league leaders in receiving yards and touchdowns, the lack of production from the other wide receivers — six catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns in two games — hasn’t been an issue so far. However, as opponents focus more on slowing Brown as well as tight end Mark Andrews, Jackson will need to turn to others with Snead’s ability over the middle making him a logical choice. The veteran slot receiver had five catches for 61 yards against the Chiefs last year and will provide an effective safety net for Jackson playing in front of his first raucous road crowd of the season.

2. Kansas City defensive lineman Chris Jones will record two sacks. The Chiefs may not have too many defensive players who scare you, but Jones is among the best inside pass rushers in the NFL, posing a problem for center Matt Skura and left guard Bradley Bozeman. Inside pressure gave the Ravens major problems in last year’s playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, and Jones’ 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame regularly disrupts passing lanes. Controlling the pass rush will be a critical objective for both teams as the Chiefs will be without starting left tackle Eric Fisher, but Jones has the ability to wreck a game inside if you don’t have a good plan to account for him.

3. Jackson and Mahomes will each throw their first interception of 2019 in otherwise strong performances. The early-season comparisons between the two are striking as the young quarterbacks have each thrown seven touchdowns and haven’t thrown a single pick in a combined 134 pass attempts. In fact, Jackson’s last interception in the regular season came against Oakland last Nov. 25 while Mahomes has thrown only one since Ravens safety Chuck Clark picked him off last Dec. 9. With rain in Sunday’s forecast and both quarterbacks eager to put on a show in a big game early in the season, we’ll see a couple turnovers mixed into impressive games from Mahomes and Jackson.

4. Travis Kelce will have over 100 receiving yards and a touchdown reception. The Baltimore defense mixed up its coverages last December as the All-Pro tight end caught seven passes for 77 yards and a touchdown, but Kelce also drew a pass interference call to set up an easy 1-yard touchdown. Tony Jefferson missed last year’s meeting with the Chiefs and figures to match up against Kelce at times, but I just don’t see a particularly encouraging solution to slowing him, a problem Kansas City could also face with Andrews. With Tyreek Hill out this time around and the Ravens focused on limiting big plays, Mahomes will turn to Kelce frequently in the intermediate portion of the field.

5. The Chiefs will pull out a 31-27 win in a close game that lives up to the hype. I like the Ravens’ chances in this one more than I did last year with the improvement of Jackson and the passing game, but there was some leaky coverage Miami wasn’t capable of exploiting in Week 1 and more breakdowns against Arizona last week, a concerning trend when playing Andy Reid’s dynamic passing game on the road. I expect the Ravens to use some ball control like last year to try to keep the Chiefs offense off the field, but the between-the-tackles running game hasn’t been as consistent early on, which will leave the ball in Jackson’s hands more frequently. The 22-year-old quarterback will have a good day, but I’m just not sure the Baltimore defense is on the 2018 group’s level or that a talented but young offense is quite ready yet for a full-blown shootout if that’s what happens Sunday. I’ll give a slight nod to Kansas City, but the Ravens will have no reason to feel discouraged about their efforts in this one.

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Ravens-Cardinals: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 14 September 2019 by Luke Jones

A pair of 22-year-old starting quarterbacks may not produce an instant classic Sunday, but it’s the kind of matchup that makes you ponder an exciting future as the Ravens host Arizona.

Lamar Jackson took a dramatic leap forward with his five-touchdown performance in the season opener while Kyler Murray showed his promise late as the Cardinals rallied to force a Week 1 tie with Detroit last week. Of course, Jackson has a head start in his development after helping lead the Ravens to their first AFC North title since 2012 last season, and one could argue his early success was a factor leading teams to view Murray differently as he was taken first overall by the Cardinals in April.

That story aside, Baltimore aims to begin 2-0 for the third time in the last four seasons before a challenging trip to Kansas City next week.

It’s time to go on the record as the Cardinals play the Ravens for the seventh time in their history with Baltimore leading the all-time regular-season series 4-2. Arizona won the most recent meeting in 2015, but the Ravens are 2-1 against the Cardinals in Baltimore with the only loss coming at Memorial Stadium back in 1997.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. Lamar Jackson will rush for 50 yards and throw touchdowns to Mark Andrews and Willie Snead. Jackson made his harshest critics look foolish with a record-setting performance in Week 1, but you hope expectations haven’t swung too far in the opposite direction as some are already touting him as an MVP candidate. I’m not buying his three rushing attempts becoming the new norm, especially with teams seeing you can’t sell out to take his legs away without consequences through the air. Arizona gave up a combined 13 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns to Detroit slot receiver Danny Amendola and tight end T.J. Hockenson last week. That bodes well for Snead and Andrews.

2. Terrell Suggs will register a strip-sack in his return to Baltimore. Questions about how the 36-year-old former Raven will hold up over a full campaign are more than fair based on the last few seasons, but Suggs was very active in his Cardinals debut with two sacks, one of them resulting in a fumble. Lost in Jackson’s Week 1 passing brilliance was that he didn’t fumble in a game he started for the first time in his career, an encouraging development. Offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. will have their hands full against Suggs and two-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Chandler Jones, and Suggs will have active hands knowing Jackson’s problems with ball security last year.

3. Baltimore will bat three passes at the line of scrimmage, one leading to an interception. Shorter quarterbacks are capable of NFL success, but the 5-foot-10 Murray had four passes batted down at the line of scrimmage last week, which did little to quell concerns about his stature. The rookie didn’t push the ball down the field a ton, but he threw it in every direction, making it critical for Baltimore pass rushers to get their hands up in passing lanes. Pernell McPhee and Chris Wormley have the potential to be big factors as inside rushers since the Ravens must be disciplined on the edge against a mobile quarterback who throws on the run effectively.

4. David Johnson will pick up 110 total yards and a touchdown in Arizona’s four-wide offense. With no disrespect meant toward Larry Fitzgerald, the rest of the Cardinals wide receivers don’t scare you from a matchup standpoint. However, Kliff Kingsbury used four wide receivers on two-thirds of Arizona’s plays in Week 1, which could open things for Johnson as a receiver down the seam. It’ll be fascinating to see how Wink Martindale attacks a unique offense with a group of cornerbacks at less than full strength, but his inside linebackers will be tested more this week against Johnson, who will try to slip out of the backfield to try to neutralize the pass rush against a rookie quarterback.

5. The Ravens will not dominate to the degree they did in Miami, but the outcome won’t be in doubt in a 31-14 win. I have a tough time seeing a path to victory for the Cardinals that doesn’t include multiple Baltimore turnovers or a couple injuries at key positions, but Murray’s performance over the final 25 minutes last week reiterates that the Ravens shouldn’t take this team lightly as the rookie will show his potential on a couple scoring drives. We’ll see a less spectacular but more balanced performance from Jackson, who will make plays with his arm and his legs to the delight of an energetic home crowd. Arizona will be more careful in pass coverage than the Dolphins were, but that will open up more room for Mark Ingram and the Baltimore rushing attack to control the tempo and the clock. The Ravens know they need a 2-0 start with the schedule toughening up considerably beginning next week, and John Harbaugh’s team will take care of business in comfortable fashion.

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After much offseason talk, Ravens offense finally to be on display

Posted on 04 September 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Asked what he hoped fans would be saying about the Ravens offense after Sunday’s opener in Miami, Lamar Jackson paused briefly and smiled.

“Hopefully that it’s the best offense they’ve ever seen,” the 22-year-old quarterback said. “That’s what I’m going for.”

That statement wasn’t made with bravado as much as excitement. After an offseason of discussion, hype, speculation, and probably even some fibbing about the rebuilt system under new coordinator Greg Roman, the Ravens offense will finally be on display against the Dolphins.

So, what exactly can we expect?

Head coach John Harbaugh has alluded to the offense being “revolutionary” while we’ve heard conflicting suggestions even within the organization about how frequently Jackson will run after setting a single-season record for rushing attempts by a quarterback as a rookie. The Ravens will again walk the fine line between keeping Jackson out of harm’s way and not stifling what truly makes him special as a quarterback.

A multiple-look running game, pre-snap movement, and explosive play-action passing were staples for Roman in San Francisco and Buffalo where his offenses averaged close to a 50-50 split of runs and passes and ranked in the top seven in yards per pass attempt in three out of five full seasons. It’s no secret his fingerprints were all over the revamped offense we saw down the stretch last season when Jackson took over for an injured Joe Flacco, but Roman’s history suggests we won’t see the Ravens running at a near 2-to-1 clip like they did over the final seven weeks of 2018. That said, 10 of Baltimore’s 16 games this season come against defenses that ranked in the bottom 10 in yards per carry allowed.

The Ravens consulted with college coaches this offseason such as Paul Johnson, who famously ran the triple option offense at Navy and then Georgia Tech. They streamlined the language within the offense to better align with the way players are taught at the collegiate level, which makes sense with more than half of the offensive players on the current roster in their first or second season.

In a recent national radio interview, Jackson estimated he would throw “probably 30 passes a game,” a number he didn’t reach once in his eight starts as a rookie. The amount of time devoted to the passing game during training camp seems to support that prediction, but effectively practicing the running game can also be difficult in the absence of to-the-ground contact, probably making it unwise to draw strong conclusions from practice structure.

Adding speed was a clear priority in the draft with the selections of wide receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin and running back Justice Hill, but the most substantial free-agent acquisition on offense was two-time Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram to pair with Gus Edwards, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry as a rookie last season.

Carrying the ball just four times in the preseason, Ingram said those exhibition games offered only “a little gist” of what the Ravens will show. Jackson attempted only 16 passes and ran the ball just twice, not counting his spectacular 18-yard touchdown against Green Bay that was negated by a penalty. The preseason offense was vanilla and basic like most teams around the league.

Yes, much mystery remains — even for the Ravens.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen on Sunday,” Harbaugh said. “We don’t know how certain things are going to look or how guys are going to respond. We might have confidence. Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it. But that’s the beauty of it. That’s what’s exciting. That’s the drama.

“We’re going to go out there and find out a lot on the first Sunday.”

Of course, all eyes will be on Jackson, who looked in command of the offense and showed more consistency as a passer throughout the summer. The Ravens are optimistic the improved footwork and mechanics — and subsequent tighter spirals and better accuracy — he displayed during training camp will carry over to the regular season, but it remains to be seen whether his progression is more a giant leap or a modest step forward when the bright lights come on. After all, there’s a lot of previous muscle memory to overcome in the highly competitive environment of games that count.

Baltimore would be wise to continue to play to Jackson’s passing strength over the middle of the field while picking spots to test secondaries outside the numbers, the area where the young passer still isn’t as proficient. That’s why second-year tight end Mark Andrews is the popular pick to have a breakout season after he and Jackson consistently made plays over the middle in summer practices and showed a promising rapport last season.

As a rookie, Jackson was at his best on first down, completing just under 68 percent of his passes, averaging 9.0 yards per attempt, and posting a 100.6 passer rating on 56 throws. The football analytics world implores teams to pass more on first down and to be more aggressive on first and second downs to not just set up manageable third-down situations but to avoid them altogether. Those numbers alone lead you to believe the Ravens will be more aggressive passing on first downs this season.

Still, there are questions and concerns that can’t be overlooked, ranging from Jackson’s league-high 15 fumbles last season to a still-uncertain left guard situation that contributed to Baltimore’s demise in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Three of the six wide receivers on the current roster have never caught an NFL pass and only Willie Snead has registered more than 45 receptions in a season, leaving a very low floor to go along with an intriguing ceiling at the position.

The Ravens must find a way to improve inside the red zone, an area in which the offense really struggled with Jackson at the helm. They scored touchdowns on just 11 of 26 trips inside the 20 after Week 9 last year, a percentage that would’ve ranked 31st in the NFL over the full season. A top-ranked Ravens defense helped cover up that deficiency a year ago, but settling for too many field goals inside the red zone will cost you sooner than later.

No, there are no guarantees. This offense could be a revolution or an eventual flop, but you have to respect the Ravens’ willingness to zig while everyone else zags in today’s game. They’ve embraced having a mobile quarterback and have tried to build an offense to suit his unique strengths and account for his weaknesses. If nothing else, Jackson and this offense will be fun to watch while continuing to give opposing defenses headaches with an unconventional brand of football.

Just how different it looks remains anyone’s guess, but Jackson is focused on the end result, which worked out pretty well for the Ravens during his rookie season.

“I’m just looking to win. That’s the goal: win games,” Jackson said. “Win every game you’re in, and it starts with Miami. That’s the goal. I don’t really care what the critics say. They’re going to always be there.”

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Breaking down the 2019 Ravens’ initial 53-man roster

Posted on 31 August 2019 by Luke Jones

Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta will continue to explore other additions and tweaks to the roster with at least a move or two likely before the Sept. 8 opener in Miami, but below is a breakdown of the 53-man roster as it stood Saturday evening:

QUARTERBACKS (3) — Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III, Trace McSorley
Analysis: In a perfect world, the Ravens would have McSorley on their practice squad to use his roster spot elsewhere, but the backup quarterback movement around the league Saturday had to worry DeCosta that the rookie wouldn’t make it through waivers. The growth McSorley showed from spring workouts to the end of the preseason makes you believe he could be the primary backup to Jackson at some point down the road, potential value that couldn’t be ignored.

RUNNING BACKS (3) — Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill
Analysis: Ingram was guaranteed $6.5 million at signing to be the feature back, which is why the popular notion that the Ravens needed more than three running backs never really jived. The interesting story line is how involved Hill will be early on after he showed surprising physicality to go with his impressive speed this summer. There are more popular backfields around the league, but there’s plenty to like about this trio, especially with opponents always needing to account for Jackson’s rushing ability.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6) — Willie Snead, Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, Chris Moore, Seth Roberts, Jaleel Scott
Analysis: Snead and Roberts help raise the floor of a group that includes three youngsters who’ve never caught an NFL pass, but you get the sense the Ravens are eager to see Brown and Boykin play and grow with Jackson as much as possible — even early in the season. That’s exciting in theory and there’s more potential here than we’ve seen in some time, but the bright lights of the regular season are a different ballgame than training camp and exhibition games, a reality that should temper expectations.

TIGHT ENDS (3) — Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst
Analysis: How offensive coordinator Greg Roman deploys this talented trio will be fascinating to watch with Boyle regarded as one of the NFL’s best blocking tight ends, Andrews poised for a breakout year, and a healthy Hurst eager to live up to his first-round billing after an injury-plagued rookie season. Considering the inexperience of the wide receiver group and Jackson’s passing strength being over the middle of the field, the Ravens need the tight ends to be a major part of the passing game.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9) — Ronnie Stanley, James Hurst, Matt Skura, Marshal Yanda, Orlando Brown Jr., Bradley Bozeman, Ben Powers, Patrick Mekari, Greg Senat
Analysis: The Ravens have plenty of inventory here, but the question is the quality of that depth behind their four established starters. Left guard is the biggest concern on the offensive side of the ball, but the Jermaine Eluemunor trade also raised the question of a reserve left tackle with the hope that Senat will develop behind Stanley. Mekari, a rookie free agent from Cal-Berkeley, had a strong summer to make the team, but this group seems ripe for an outside addition if the right player becomes available.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (5) — Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce, Chris Wormley, Patrick Ricard, Daylon Mack
Analysis: The light number here reflects the disappointing summer showings from Willie Henry and Zach Sieler that led to them being waived, but it also speaks to an evolving NFL in which Wink Martindale used his “base” 3-4 defense just 16 percent of the time last season, according to Football Outsiders. The Ravens are expected to move Pernell McPhee inside in obvious passing situations, but who among this group is going to consistently make quarterbacks uncomfortable? 

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (4) — Patrick Onwuasor, Chris Board, Kenny Young, Otaro Alaka
Analysis: Onwuasor transitioning to the “Mike” spot and Board receiving the first real defensive snaps of his career make this an interesting group to watch after the Ravens stayed in-house to replace four-time Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mosley. Alaka is the latest in a long line of undrafted rookie inside linebackers to make the team over the years, so his development will be something to monitor, especially as Onwuasor plays out a contract year. This group lacks experience, but there’s no shortage of speed and athleticism.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (5) — Matt Judon, Pernell McPhee, Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams, Jaylon Ferguson
Analysis: McPhee will start at the rush linebacker spot, but he still figures to be more of a situational rusher than a three-down player like Judon, meaning there are plenty of snaps up for grabs among Bowser, Williams, and the rookie Ferguson. All three showed some promise at different points this summer and Martindale is talented enough as a coordinator to make it work, but the Ravens have to be concerned with this group and the pass rush in general, making an outside addition still possible.

CORNERBACKS (7) — Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, Anthony Averett, Justin Bethel, Cyrus Jones, Iman Marshall
Analysis: Most teams around the NFL would kill to have Baltimore’s top four at this position, but the deep depth took a significant hit with the season-ending neck injury to slot corner Tavon Young. It will be interesting to see how Martindale handles the nickel spot with Carr, Averett, Jones, or even a reserve safety all being options. Already confirmed not to be ready for Week 1, the rookie Marshall could be a candidate for injured reserve with the option of returning later in the season.

SAFETIES (5) — Earl Thomas, Tony Jefferson, Anthony Levine, Chuck Clark, DeShon Elliott
Analysis: You won’t find a better overall group of safeties in the NFL, which you would hope to be the case considering the cap dollars devoted to this position. The Ravens envision Thomas’ range allowing the cornerbacks to be even more aggressive in pass coverage, leading to more interceptions than last season when they were tied for 18th in the league with 12. Levine remains one of the best dime backs in the league while Clark and Elliott could factor into certain sub packages.

SPECIALISTS (3) — Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, Morgan Cox
Analysis: This trio enters its eighth consecutive season together, a remarkable and rare example of continuity in the NFL.

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Twelve Ravens thoughts following 26-13 preseason win over Green Bay

Posted on 16 August 2019 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens topping Green Bay in a 26-13 final for their 15th straight preseason win, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Established veterans often coast through the early weeks of the preseason, but Matthew Judon reminded everyone he’s playing for a contract with two back-side pursuit plays resulting in a sack and a third-down stop on a screen pass. The closing speed he showed was very impressive.

2. Tavon Young’s neck injury brings much attention to the nickel corner position, but neither Cyrus Jones nor Anthony Averett impressed in that spot Thursday. I’m confident defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will make it work, but the Ravens will miss Young’s talents in that important role.

3. Jermaine Eluemunor’s strong performance is why coaches have been patient with him despite the well-documented growing pains. He rebounded from last week’s struggles in a major way, even if he still needs to block through the whistle more consistently. Eluemunor also held up pretty well as the backup left tackle.

4. The lack of separation at outside linebacker behind Judon was telling as Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams, Jaylon Ferguson, and Shane Ray all saw action into the fourth quarter. Ferguson seeing action much earlier than last week speaks to his stock rising while Ray still hasn’t distinguished himself.

5. We knew about the speed with his 40-yard dash time, but Justice Hill continues to show physicality not indicative of a 200-pound running back with so many broken tackles. Hill, Lamar Jackson, and a healthy Marquise Brown all on the field together could be an unsettling sight for defensive coordinators.

6. Coverage is his primary focus, but Marlon Humphrey shedding a block from veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga to make a tackle for a loss is another reason why he’s becoming one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks. His dominant play on the outside is even more critical now after the Young injury.

7. I wasn’t positive Chris Moore was a lock to make the roster after his quiet start to camp and Seth Roberts’ early performance, but Moore likely removed any lingering doubt Thursday. Meanwhile, Roberts isn’t helping his case being sidelined with an injury while Jaleel Scott pushes for a job.

8. The Ravens may forgo keeping a fourth inside linebacker, but Otaro Alaka continued to position himself nicely with a game-high six tackles and two for a loss. Alaka shows good closing speed and would be an obvious practice-squad candidate if he doesn’t make the 53-man roster.

9. Miles Boykin not catching a pass on three targets isn’t alarming, but his failure to curl toward the line of scrimmage on Jackson’s third-down rollout on the first drive reminds that he still needs polish, which is OK. Despite the summer hype, he wasn’t drafted as a finished product.

10. Justin Bethel missed two tackles on special teams and was playing cornerback late in the second half. I’ve dismissed previous questions about his roster status since the Ravens guaranteed him $1 million early in free agency for his special-teams ability, but Thursday wasn’t a good showing.

11. Many were critical of the illegal blindside block penalty on Willie Snead that negated Jackson’s highlight touchdown run, but the call seemed to be in line with the NFL’s expanded blindside block rule (2:00 mark). We’ll see just how vigilant officials are about calling this in the regular season.

12. If you need a reminder of how little the preseason resembles real games, Jackson has yet to target Mark Andrews in two games with the pair not even being on the field together that much. The rapport they’ve shown in camp suggests that’s some sandbagging from Greg Roman.

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Earl Thomas provides first big practice highlight with Ravens

Posted on 31 July 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Early practices had mostly looked like a feeling out process for new Ravens safety Earl Thomas.

In addition to returning from a fractured lower left leg suffered last fall, Thomas has acknowledged a learning curve with Wink Martindale’s complex defensive system after nearly a decade of running mostly Cover 3 looks with Seattle. That’s not to say there was any reason for concern this early in training camp, but the six-time Pro Bowl safety had yet to really make a splash play to remind why the Ravens gave him a four-year, $55 million contract that included $32 million guaranteed in March.

That changed Wednesday morning with Thomas breaking in a flash on a Lamar Jackson pass intended for slot receiver Willie Snead over the middle and returning the interception for a long touchdown. Thomas played to the crowd in celebration after his return and flashed the same play-making ability that made him the NFL’s best safety since former Raven Ed Reed, who will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend.

“He caught it so in stride [that] I thought he was a receiver at first,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “But I think that’s going to be the story this year — Earl making plays, the whole secondary just flying to the ball. That got me going. I said on Twitter the other day, the energy he brings, I can just already tell. I cannot wait to be on the field with him.”

Already sporting one of the league’s deepest and best secondaries last season, the Ravens identified Thomas as a way to take the group to another level after parting with former Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle. Viewed as a clear upgrade from the 34-year-old Weddle from a physical standpoint, Thomas, 30, is looking more and more comfortable in his new surroundings after a quiet spring.

That was evident when Thomas broke in front of Snead for the highlight pick.

“I think the communication has been smoother and better,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Hey, he’s in this defense for the first time. These are new calls for him, but they’re also football. They’re football calls and he understands football, so he’s picking it up really quickly and doing a great job.”

Roster shuffling

Quarterback Joe Callahan made his Ravens practice debut in the wake of the thumb injury sustained by backup Robert Griffin III last weekend.

Callahan, 26, was coached by offensive coordinator Greg Roman at Holy Spirit High School in Absecon, N.J. 11 years ago and will share the reps behind Jackson with sixth-round rookie Trace McSorley. The journeyman quarterback has spent time with Green Bay, New Orleans, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay since going undrafted from Division III Wesley in 2016 and has appeared in just one regular-season game in his NFL career.

“Greg takes full credit for his career by the way,” said Harbaugh as he laughed. “Not really. He moved him from safety to quarterback. He said, ‘This kid can really throw. Let’s give him a shot.’ They won the state championship that year in New Jersey, so that was a good one.”

The Ravens also signed linebacker Nicholas Grigsby, who spent part of the 2017 season on their practice squad and has appeared in 23 games with the Los Angeles Rams, New England, and Detroit, mostly in a special-teams capacity. Grigsby took the roster spot of wide receiver Jordan Lasley, who was waived just a year after being drafted in the fifth round of the 2018 draft.

Wednesday’s attendance report

Rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown’s practice debut drew the attention, but nickel cornerback Tavon Young and guard Jermaine Eluemunor returned to the field after missing two straight practices with minor muscle issues.

Both Eluemunor and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. took some snaps with the first-team offense after being relegated to the second string for failing the conditioning test at the start of training camp. Eluemunor split reps with rookie Ben Powers at left guard while Brown shared time with veteran James Hurst.

Harbaugh said veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith was excused from practice to take care of “a family-business situation” Wednesday. Offensive linemen Alex Lewis (shoulder) and Randin Crecelius also remained absent from practice.

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Jackson looking comfortable, consistent in early days of Ravens camp

Posted on 28 July 2019 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Whether forcefully directing a teammate where to line up or offering a few words to the second-team offensive line after a rash of pre-snap penalties, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson looks in charge over the early days of training camp.

After leading Baltimore to a 6-1 finish and its first AFC North championship since 2012 last season, the 22-year-old isn’t deferring to anyone in his first full year as a starter. Despite a personality devoid of bravado or focus on individual accolades, this is his team now after last season’s soft opening that resulted in Jackson becoming the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start a playoff game.

“I wouldn’t say he didn’t know what he was doing, but it was his first couple of games in the NFL. Everything was just coming at him full speed,” wide receiver Willie Snead said. “A year later, he’s comfortable. He’s comfortable with the guys around him. He has command of the huddle, and we believe in him. I think that’s all that matters at this point. We just have to continue to grow with each other.”

Of course, the bulk of the attention will continue to be on the speedy Jackson’s development as a passer, the biggest key to his long-term success as a professional quarterback. Learning offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s new system built around his unique skill set this spring, Jackson’s passing was a mixed bag in the handful of practices open to reporters with periods of success offset by head-scratching inaccuracy on even the most basic throws. That pattern carried over to the first full-squad workout last Thursday with an ugly first 90 minutes followed by a more respectable finish to the day.

But after knocking off that rust — it was his first full-team practice in six weeks after all — Jackson has looked as steady as we’ve seen him throw the ball over the last three days. That’s not to say you’d confuse him with a 5,000-yard, 40-touchdown passer, but growth is evident while reminding ourselves it’s still July, a time of year that can serve as a great fooler around the league.

Practicing against arguably the best secondary in the league, Jackson hasn’t thrown an interception since the first practice when an errant throw on a rollout was picked off by reserve safety Chuck Clark. To suggest he’s picked apart the Ravens defense would be hyperbole, but he’s taking what’s there and giving his receivers chances to make plays, which is exactly what the coaching staff wants to see from its young quarterback.

“It’s consistency. Not just with production, but also with fundamentals, techniques, footwork, release,” said head coach John Harbaugh about the evaluation process. “I want to see a good release. Fewer and fewer of the not good releases — we all know what they look like — and more of the solid releases. We’re really seeing that.”

Asked Friday to describe how he’s evolved the most as a quarterback since his rookie season, Jackson was reluctant to delve into too many specifics, recognizing he has a long way to go. He did, however, acknowledge hearing his many critics this offseason and expressed the desire to “make them eat their words” by winning games and continuing to improve.

“Play-calling, timing,” Jackson said. “I’m just trying to get better right now. I don’t want to talk too much.”

His early practices have done the talking as his chemistry with Mark Andrews continues to grow with the second-year tight end making plays down the middle and easily looking like Baltimore’s best pass catcher. With first-round wide receiver Marquise Brown still not practicing, fellow rookie Miles Boykin has shown good speed and reliable hands while making plays — even some long ones — against starting members of the Ravens secondary. Jackson’s passing strength remains the middle of the field, but he’s even showing some improvement outside the numbers with much more work to be done there.

Yes, it’s very early, but the early success is better than the alternative for Jackson and his developing weapons.

Even his spiral — or lack thereof as doubters would scoff — looks better early on. Though he’s unlikely to ever spin the ball as seamlessly as Joe Flacco in his prime, the “ducks” — Jackson’s own description of his “horrible” passing last year — have been fewer and farther between. His passing remains a work in progress, of course, but the key is there being growth while understanding development isn’t always linear.

“We work on [his spiral] a lot, and it has improved dramatically,” quarterbacks coach James Urban said. “Some of it was adjusting to an NFL ball. Some of it was footwork and getting the body all connected, and that’s a continual process. I think that’s a continual process for many young quarterbacks.

“We would like the nice, tight, pretty spiral, but I don’t get overly concerned as long as it’s on time and in rhythm and an accurate throw. That’s way more important than how it looks.”

In a controlled practice setting where no one is allowed to touch the quarterback, you almost forget about Jackson’s special athleticism until he suddenly takes off and even a speed linebacker like Patrick Onwuasor can only shake his head and give the quarterback a fist bump after he effortlessly turns the corner to move the chains. That scrambling ability could easily become a crutch that could hinder his development if Jackson didn’t appear so focused on improving his throwing.

But that’s where we approach the fine line the Ravens and Jackson must navigate between trying to become a better passer — protecting himself in the process — and not shying away too much from what makes him special as a quarterback. Even owner Steve Bisciotti said this spring that Jackson would no longer be running 20 times per game, but Baltimore is sensibly going to do what it takes to win without any self-imposed quota of rushing attempts.

Ultimately, Jackson needs to be himself for the Ravens to thrive.

“My thing for him is I just don’t want him to get caught up in, ‘You have to be a pocket passer. You have to do this,'” said six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas, who noted that Jackson has been “dropping dimes” early in camp. “You be who you are. You be special. If you have to take off, take off. Make the defense work. When you make a defense tired like that, then the game opens up, play-action opens up, the run game opens up. Everything opens up.”

This is when we once again remind ourselves that it’s early. Roman describes the first nine days of training camp as “a big period of pouring concrete” with the offense still being installed. There are sure to be setbacks with Jackson only a series of inaccurate “ducks” or a few interceptions away from his critics saying, “I told you so,” but that’s the crucible of the NFL, especially for anyone breaking the norm.

Opinions are widespread about his ability and overall ceiling, but the prevailing sense within the organization is that Jackson will become as good as he’s capable of being. From his work ethic to his on-field maturity, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner is described as wanting to be great by countless people inside the building.

That drive and his vivacious personality are what have made teammates — and coaches — gravitate to him so quickly.

“I look back at being 22 years old and could only have hoped to have Lamar Jackson’s poise and balance, sense of proportion,” Harbaugh said. “He just is who he is, and he doesn’t get flustered, doesn’t get fazed. It’s never too big for him. He keeps it about what’s important.

“I’m kind of blown away by that part of it with him.”

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2019 Ravens training camp preview: Wide receivers

Posted on 22 July 2019 by Luke Jones

With training camp beginning Thursday and the preseason opener only a few weeks away, we’ll look at each Ravens position group before veterans begin reporting to Owings Mills for the first full-squad practice.

Cornerbacks
Running backs
Defensive line
Tight ends
Safeties
Offensive line
Inside linebackers

We continue at wide receiver, the position that’s been a problem spot over much of the Ravens’ existence. In his first offseason as general manager, Eric DeCosta appeared determined to find second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson more pass-catching targets with which to grow by taking two wide receivers in the first three rounds of the draft, equaling the number selected in the first three rounds over Baltimore’s previous 11 drafts combined. That focus comes after two tight ends were selected in the first three rounds a year ago, leaving Jackson no shortage of young receiving candidates.

How quickly and effectively the youth at this position develops will go a long way in setting the overall ceiling of the passing game as just four of the 13 wide receivers on the preseason roster — two of which weren’t on the team last year — have registered a catch in the NFL. Those four veterans help raise the floor of this group, but none provide much upside, objectively leaving this wide receiver group as one of the weakest in the league on paper entering the preseason. Unlike past years, however, there is more raw talent and athleticism for new wide receivers coach and longtime NFL assistant David Culley to cultivate.

Below is a look at the wide receivers who stand out for various reasons:

The ManPending
Skinny: With the revamped system under new offensive coordinator Greg Roman expected to use the ground game as its foundation, expecting any wide receiver to be “the man” in a conventional sense of catching 80 or more passes or registering 1,000 yards would be unrealistic. However, Willie Snead is the clear candidate if we’re picking from the pool of veteran options while first-round pick Marquise Brown was drafted with visions of fitting this exact description in the coming years.

Old Reliable — Willie Snead
Skinny: John Brown, Michael Crabtree, and Snead all saw their production crater when Jackson took over after the bye week last year, but the slot receiver and lone holdover from the trio did have three games with at least five receptions and 50 receiving yards with the young quarterback, a sign that some chemistry was developing. Snead was at his best running slant routes in 2018 and works the middle of the field, the area where Jackson looks most comfortable passing at this stage of his development. The 26-year-old is unlikely to post big numbers, but he has the highest floor of any Ravens wide receiver.

Under Fire — Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley
Skinny: Neither Scott nor Lasley was expected to do much as rookies after the Ravens had already signed three veteran free agents, but DeCosta drafting two more receivers early this spring didn’t say much for the 2018 fourth- and fifth-round picks. Scott turned some heads with his work in the spring and has unique size while Lasley had substantial college production and worked out with Jackson in the offseason, but both are firmly on the roster bubble and need to produce in the preseason.

Up-and-Comer — Marquise Brown
Skinny: After registering 2,400 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in two seasons at Oklahoma, Brown became the fourth wide receiver drafted in the first round by the Ravens in their 24-year history. Even at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, Brown has the unique speed and athleticism to be a difference-maker, but he must first show he’s fully recovered from undergoing left foot surgery in January. The organization did its homework and was comfortable with his prognosis, but the effects of a Lisfranc injury sometimes linger and Brown was placed on the non-football injury list upon reporting for training camp. You’d have to think he needs to begin practicing soon if he’s realistically going to make a big impact as a rookie.

Sleeper — Chris Moore
Skinny: The raw numbers didn’t suggest a significant step forward from Moore in 2018 as he caught only one more pass and registered 52 fewer receiving yards than the previous year, but he caught 19 of his 25 targets and saw more snaps as an effective blocker in the run-first offense down the stretch. The 2016 fourth-round pick is a strong special-teams contributor and has occasionally flashed some big-play ability, so the time is now for Moore to shine as a receiver if it’s ever going to happen. Brown’s uncertain status to begin training camp only increases the likelihood of Moore getting more playing time.

The Rest — Seth Roberts, Michael Floyd, Miles Boykin, Quincy Adeboyejo, Sean Modster, Jaylen Smith, Antoine Wesley, Joe Horn Jr.
Skinny: Roberts gives the Ravens another veteran option in the slot and has 158 receptions and 13 touchdowns in his career, but he also dropped 23 of the 182 catchable passes over his first four seasons, per Pro Football Focus. … Floyd is the only receiver on the roster with a 1,000-yard season in the NFL, but he’s registered only 20 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown in 24 games over the last two seasons. … A 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame and above-average speed made Boykin an enticing third-round pick in April’s draft and a strong candidate to be an immediate red-zone target. … Smith caught a total of 13 touchdowns playing in his sophomore and junior seasons with Jackson at Louisville, but he didn’t do much to stand out during spring workouts.

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New Ravens safety Thomas “in the right spots” at this week’s OTAs

Posted on 30 May 2019 by Luke Jones

(Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — New Ravens safety Earl Thomas returned to an NFL practice field this week for the first time since a fractured lower left leg abruptly ended his nine-year run with Seattle last September.

The six-time Pro Bowl selection has taken part in this week’s voluntary organized team activities and has already made a strong impression with head coach John Harbaugh. Thomas, 30, will not only patrol center field for what could be the NFL’s best and deepest secondary, but his leadership will be needed to help fill the void of departed defensive veterans Eric Weddle, Terrell Suggs, and C.J. Mosley.

The former Seahawk showed aggressiveness during his full-team reps, nearly colliding with slot receiver Willie Snead on one play in a non-contact session. Thomas is practicing with a compression sleeve on his left leg, which had a rod placed in it last October after his tibia was fractured for the second time in three seasons. That injury didn’t stop the Ravens from signing Thomas to a four-year, $55 million contract in March.

“He’s had a great week. He’s looked really good,” Harbaugh said. “Great anticipation, and then great ability to cover ground. He shows up in the right spots on a regular basis, so to me, that’s what great safeties do, and he’s doing a great job.”

Thomas wasn’t the only veteran present for Thursday’s voluntary workout after not taking part in last week’s practice open to reporters as cornerback Jimmy Smith and defensive tackle Brandon Williams were also participating. Safety Tony Jefferson (ankle), cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Cyrus Jones (illness), outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Pernell McPhee, defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Gerald Willis, and inside linebackers Alvin Jones and Otaro Alaka were not taking part.

Rookie wide receivers Marquise Brown (foot) and Miles Boykin (hamstring) and guard Alex Lewis (shoulder) remain sidelined for health-related reasons while guard Marshal Yanda, offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, and running back Kenneth Dixon were other offensive players absent from the practice field Thursday.

Slot receiver Willie Snead was practicing with a red non-contact vest over his practice jersey, a precautionary measure stemming from finger surgery earlier this offseason. His activity level was ramped up Thursday after he participated in only the first half of last week’s workout open to reporters. Harbaugh quipped that the red jersey was the compromise from needing to lock Snead in the locker room to keep him off the field for what are still only voluntary sessions.

The youthfulness of the wide receiver group — and the offense as a whole — has made Snead’s presence on the field more important, according to the 26-year-old who’s only in his fifth season himself.

“I feel like my role on this team has grown a little bit more — not as a No. 1 receiver, but as a leader on the team,” said Snead, who also lost 10 pounds this offseason to try to improve his speed. “I definitely just wanted to be here with the guys and grow with the guys and learn the offense as they learned it. Just still be around the guys, bring that energy, bring that life, and just continue to get better.”

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Veteran receiver Michael Floyd signs one-year deal with Ravens

Posted on 17 May 2019 by Luke Jones

The Ravens added youth at the wide receiver position during the draft, but another veteran has joined a growing competition for roster spots.

Former first-round pick Michael Floyd signed a one-year deal Friday to become just the fourth wide receiver on the offseason roster to have caught an NFL pass, joining Willie Snead, Chris Moore, and Seth Roberts. The 29-year-old tried out for the Ravens last spring before ultimately catching 10 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown in 13 games for Washington last season.

The 13th overall pick of the 2012 draft, Floyd caught 242 passes for 3,739 yards and 23 touchdowns in his first five seasons with Arizona, but alcohol problems have contributed heavily to his decline. An extreme DUI arrest in 2016 led to his release from the Cardinals, jail time and house arrest, and a four-game suspension. Floyd was also suspended for a DUI at Notre Dame prior to his senior season and has had other alcohol-related incidents in the last decade.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound receiver will try to offer quarterback Lamar Jackson another big target on the outside, but Floyd will be competing with another Fighting Irish product — third-round rookie Miles Boykin — sporting a similar profile. Floyd’s best season came in 2013 when he caught 65 passes for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns, but he has registered just 24 receptions for 220 yards and two touchdowns in 26 games since being released by the Cardinals late in the 2016 season. He has since spent time with New England, Minnesota, New Orleans, and Washington.

In other words, Floyd is far from a safe bet to make the roster as the Ravens would prefer younger options such as Boykin and first-round rookie Marquise Brown to prove themselves to be ready to contribute at the next level. Floyd figures to be competing with Roberts and young receivers like Jordan Lasley and Jaleel Scott for an undetermined number of jobs this summer.

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