OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens defense was always going to win the battle this spring.
Not only has the Baltimore offense been completely revamped under coordinator Greg Roman, but a run-first system isn’t going to operate with full effect in non-contact practices. As you’d expect, a passing attack with a quarterback entering his first full year as a starter and veteran wide receivers with limited ceilings hasn’t produced many big plays against arguably the best and deepest secondary in the NFL.
But the Ravens — and their fans — must maintain the proper perspective knowing some intriguing upside is on the way in addition to quarterback Lamar Jackson and the rest of the offense simply increasing their comfort level in the new system. General manager Eric DeCosta selected two wide receivers with his first three picks of April’s draft to address the very concern observers have witnessed this spring.
Third-round rookie Miles Boykin missed a large portion of organized team activities with a hamstring injury and is still taking limited reps during this week’s minicamp, but first-round pick Marquise Brown has yet to make his practice debut for the Ravens. The speedy 5-foot-9, 170-pound receiver has increased his activity level this week by doing agility work on a side field, catching passes from the Jugs machine, and even taking a couple reps in an individual position drill Wednesday, but the real show won’t begin until the start of training camp in late July. Brown was selected with the 25th overall pick to make an immediate play-making impact, but the Ravens knew they’d have to be patient after the Oklahoma standout underwent Lisfranc surgery on his foot in January.
“He gets a little extra meeting time because he doesn’t get to do the stuff on the field that some of the guys get to do,” wide receivers coach David Culley said. “He spends a little bit of extra time going over those kinds of things. For the most part, he gets extra film work in, just watching everything in practice. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t get to see himself to be able to correct things.”
Taking nothing away from complementary veteran wide receivers such as Willie Snead, Seth Roberts, and Chris Moore who will receive their share of opportunities, the Ravens are counting on Brown to be a difference maker, something they’ve rarely had at the wide receiver position over their history. The combination of speed and athleticism with which Brown consistently burned Big 12 defenses is exactly what Jackson needs to help fulfill his potential as a franchise quarterback.
The wait is almost over to see Brown in action, but he’ll have plenty of catching up to do after missing valuable spring reps.
“When I think about what I saw when we drafted him from Oklahoma, I get really excited about it,” Culley said. “Hopefully, he can do some of those same things that he did. He was a big-play guy for them, and one of the reasons why we got him where we got him was because of his big-play ability. We’re looking forward to him bringing that to us.”
In addition to Brown, defensive tackle Michael Pierce (conditioning), guard Alex Lewis (shoulder), cornerback and return specialist Cyrus Jones (illness), and guard Patrick Mekari did not participate in Wednesday’s minicamp practice. Safety Tony Jefferson increased his activity level in only his second practice since having ankle surgery in January.
Elliott shines again
Second-year safety DeShon Elliott continues to be a surprising standout performer this spring as he snatched another interception during Thursday’s practice, victimizing backup quarterback Robert Griffin III during a 7-on-7 period.
The 2018 sixth-round pick from Texas showed physicality in his first training camp before being lost for the season with a broken forearm last August, but his range in pass coverage has turned plenty of heads with a diving interception last week being the highlight play of the spring. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Elliott has the size to be used in different capacities even if he’s stuck behind six-time Pro Bowl selection Earl Thomas and established veteran Tony Jefferson on the depth chart.
“He’s just picked up where he left off right before he got hurt, and it’s just going to be another fun piece,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “We play a bunch of different personnel and everything else. I know we have two really good safeties right now, but we’ll find spots for the good football players. Obviously, specials teams play a big part in that.”
Elliott’s development could impact snaps for reserve safeties Anthony Levine and Chuck Clark, who both saw plenty of action in sub packages last season.
Rough day for quarterbacks
Even with some inconsistency and the overall shortage of big plays in the passing game, Jackson had done a commendable job avoiding turnovers this spring with only one interception over the first four practices open to media, but that changed Wednesday.
The 22-year-old quarterback was picked off by reserve defensive back Bennett Jackson in a 7-on-7 period and was later intercepted twice by rookie cornerback Terrell Bonds in the red zone, an area of the field in which the offense has struggled. Griffin also threw two interceptions during the morning practice.
Jackson also threw a touchdown to tight end Mark Andrews as the two continue to build on the encouraging chemistry they showed down the stretch last season.
“I’m not looking to win the practices. I’m looking to get ready for the training camp and get ready for the season,” Roman said. “Every opportunity, whether a good result or a bad result, on a play this time of year is a great thing because it gives us an opportunity to grow from it.”