Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has been in this position before — at least from a football standpoint.
The 2011 NFL lockout canceled spring workouts and kept players away from team facilities until training camp in late July, but the temporary obstacles created by a labor dispute pale in comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic that will challenge — and threaten — so many aspects of preparing for a new season, including whether it will take place at all.
Asked what lessons from that unique experience might apply nine years later, Harbaugh was quick to note his brother, Jim Harbaugh, was a first-year head coach in San Francisco and surprisingly took the 49ers to the NFC Championship game that season. The Ravens also advanced to the conference championship game that year despite releasing several key veterans such as wide receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap on the eve of training camp.
“Maybe the biggest lesson is that it can be done,” said Harbaugh about handling an abbreviated offseason and training camp. “You can build a football team as long as everybody is on the same playing field, no matter really what the organization is. The main thing is being able to keep the players safe enough and healthy to prepare them enough where they can protect themselves on the field [and] they can execute the techniques and the game in a way to protect themselves.”
The Ravens must wait a little longer to hit the field as veterans reported earlier this week for virus testing in hopes of clearance to enter the building to take physicals over the weekend and to begin football-related activities in Owings Mills on Monday. An extended acclimation period for strength and conditioning this summer means we won’t see full-contact practices until mid-August.
Such a timetable as well as the cancellation of preseason games will make it even more challenging to sort through an interior offensive line picture in which the Ravens must replace eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, who announced his retirement in March. Bradley Bozeman is expected to start — likely at left guard — and the returning Matt Skura is a strong bet to remain at center if healthy, but offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris must evaluate veteran newcomer D.J. Fluker as well as second-year linemen Patrick Mekari and Ben Powers and rookies Ben Bredeson and Tyre Phillips, who all are vying for Yanda’s old spot.
Further complicating the offensive line discussion is the need to identify a swing tackle to back up Pro Bowl offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. following the offseason release of veteran James Hurst.
“We are going to give reps to different spots, so even our guards are going to be playing tackle some,” Harbaugh said. “You’ll see Tyre Phillips playing some tackle even though he’s still competing for the starting right guard and the backup left guard spots. That’s just going to be how it’s going to go this training camp, and we are going to have to really be flexible.”
Part of that flexibility is the possibility of players opting out due to the pandemic, something veteran offensive tackle Andre Smith did earlier in the week. Harbaugh called the decisions of Smith and return specialist De’Anthony Thomas “surprises,” but it’s part of a new reality in a contact sport not conducive to social distancing.
As of late Thursday morning, Harbaugh wasn’t aware of any other Baltimore players considering not playing in 2020.
“That’s not something I’ve talked to any of the guys about. Nobody has mentioned that to me,” Harbaugh said. “I think that’s a very personal type of a choice. If a guy wants to talk to me about it, I’m happy to talk to him, but I do think it’s such a personal choice. I don’t really know how much you can add from the outside to that decision.”
“We’ll look at any and every player”
The Antonio Brown questions just won’t go away as MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson admitted Wednesday to “still hoping a little bit” that the Ravens will sign the seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver.
Jackson and second-year receiver Marquise Brown worked out with the former Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this offseason and Harbaugh said he respects his quarterback’s opinion, but Antonio Brown’s off-field problems make it unclear whether he would face a suspension from the NFL even if general manager Eric DeCosta would choose to take a chance on the controversial wideout.
“We’ll look at any and every player at all times. Antonio Brown is no exception,” Harbaugh said. “Decisions will be made based on whatever they are made on. I don’t think he’s really available to even sign right now, so it’s not really a conversation that you have until he’s available to sign. Maybe I’m wrong about that. That’s something that I’ll have to ask Eric about — where that stands with the league and the player. But that’s where we stand on it, at least from my perspective.”
Safety or cornerback?
Harbaugh downplayed the notion of veteran Jimmy Smith moving to the safety position as he’s expected to be the No. 3 outside cornerback behind Pro Bowl starters Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters.
That doesn’t mean Smith won’t have a meaningful role in Wink Martindale’s versatile defense.
“If he lines up at safety, it will be for a reason to do a certain specific task or number of tasks,” Harbaugh said. “Any kind of a big-picture transition saying Jimmy Smith is a safety, that’s not really where we are going this year. He’s a corner and he’ll play corner, but he could be out there as a first corner, second corner, the third corner on the field, the fourth corner on the field. We’ll put different groups out there.”
Harbaugh said slot cornerback Tavon Young (neck), outside linebacker Pernell McPhee (triceps), and safety DeShon Elliott (knee) are all in great shape and ready to go after suffering season-ending injuries in 2019, leaving Skura as the Ravens’ only real injury question going into training camp.
Despite suffering a major knee injury in late November, Skura made great progress with his rehabilitation this offseason and could be ready to practice sooner than most anticipated.
“I’m hearing great things. I’m optimistic about Matt; I really am,” Harbaugh said. “That’s a big plus for us if he can do it, but we’ll be careful. We’ll see how he looks and how he feels. A lot of it will be up to Matt too, but he knows himself really well and I know he’s worked really hard to be ready.”