Rounding Up the Latest Baltimore Ravens Offseason Buzz
It’s the dog days of the NFL year, but this is where champions are built. The pads aren’t on yet, but OTAs and training camp are where young players get better, old players turn back the clock and new pieces develop a sense of comfort with their new surroundings.
So what’s the word out of the Baltimore Ravens camp?
As is the case in every offseason, all these tidbits should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it’s still exciting to get our first glimpse of this year’s team.
These are most recent headlines from Owings Mills, and they will be the most intriguing storylines to monitor over the rest of the preseason.
Timmy Jernigan Is Coming Along Well
C.J. Mosley has been (rightfully) attracting all of the attention devoted to the rookie class so far because he’s so far ahead of the curve. But the Ravens need contributions from their other first-year players as well, and Timmy Jernigan has been impressing his coaching staff and teammates—especially the ones trying to block him.
Left tackle Eugene Monroe was impressed with Jernigan’s explosiveness, per ESPN’s Jamison Hensley:
That kid is really quick-twitch, really explosive and strong. When they introduced all of the rookies in our first meeting, they put on a clip of him, and he just bench pressed a guy, threw him off and made a tackle. Hopefully, we can get a lot of that out of him.
Kelechi Osemele seconded those comments to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun:
Jernigan, the young guy, he's flashing a lot. He's playing fast, especially for being a young guy, and being thrown in there with the [first-teamers] every now and then and it being a new system and everything. He's coming along really well. We really need him to contribute this year, and I think he has the ability to do that.
Jernigan will have every chance to step into Arthur Jones’ shoes at defensive end, but he suited up at nose tackle for the Seminoles and looks strong enough to handle that responsibility in the NFL as well.
Wherever he lines up, Jernigan should be an impact player in the near future. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees just has to hope it’s this season.
Steve Smith Has Been Better Than Advertised
This is the portion of the offseason where the vets get a pass. The Ravens had a very good turnout at OTAs, but veterans like Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty have earned the right to skip the voluntary sessions, and they all took advantage of that.
Steve Smith did not do so, however.
Part of that is obviously because he’s joining a new team, but it’s clear from all reports that he’s not taking these practices lightly. In fact, he’s doing just the opposite—and he’s already proving why general manager Ozzie Newsome made a wise move by signing the 35-year-old receiver.
An underwhelming 2013 season prompted Smith to consider retirement after this year, per Don Banks of Sports Illustrated, but his release from the Carolina Panthers seems to have given him a second wind, as he’s attacking workouts with unrivaled ferocity.
In fact, Hensley went so far as to opine that Smith is practicing harder than the one and only Ray Lewis did (blasphemy, I know):
He runs every drill at full speed, which rubs off on his fellow wide receivers and tests the Ravens' cornerbacks. The Ravens have had intense players in the past like Ray Lewis and Anquan Boldin, but neither practiced at this level during their last few years with the team.
New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak echoed those sentiments, marveling at Smith’s competitiveness, according to Wilson:
Each day he's getting more comfortable with what we're doing. He's just so competitive. He brings an edge to practice all the time. He challenges people as far as how you play, how you go about doing things.
He challenged coaches, too. Every good offense that I've been around has had a few of those guys saying, 'Get me the ball, coach.' And that's a good thing. That's what you want. He works to get the ball, so that's what's impressive to me.
What’s amazing is that he’s been so valuable, even if you don’t consider his on-field performance. Entering his 14th season in the league, Smith has been through it all and will serve as a very valuable mentor to young bucks like Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown, among others.
Torrey Smith talked to Bo Smolka of CSN Baltimore about the elder Smith’s impact:
He’s always pulling me aside, telling me something even if I already knew it. He’ll tell you, ‘Man, I’m going to be on you. I’m going to be on you.’ You can never be good enough, and I appreciate that. I’m picking his brain and learning, and he’s a great teacher as well.
It’s still early on, but the Smith signing looks like another feather in Newsome’s very cluttered GM hat.
Chris Canty Isn’t a Lock to Make the Roster
In his most recent chat, Hensley was asked if Chris Canty’s job is in jeopardy. Hensley’s answer was revealing, as he responded that “there's no guarantee that defensive end Chris Canty makes this team. He was a disappointment last year, and the Ravens can create cap room by cutting him ($2 million this year and $2.6 million in 2015).”
Hensley went on to clarify that his release is unlikely, but he points out a couple of good reasons for why Canty’s roster spot isn’t guaranteed.
Canty was solid last season, but he routinely got pushed around in the running game and didn’t generate much of a pass rush. He was still one of the better (at least more reliable) defensive linemen on the roster, but that may not be the case this season, as there is a plethora of young, emerging talent on the team.
DeAngelo Tyson is the most experienced of the “others” and was an underrated contributor on the line last season in 153 snaps. Then there are last year’s rookies that have now a year of experience under their belts, including Kapron Lewis-Moore and Brandon Williams.
On top of that, this year’s rookies, which include Brent Urban and the aforementioned Jernigan, also have the physical size and strength to contribute right away if they can wrap their heads around the mental adjustments necessary to make the transition to the big leagues.
Even with all that talent, however, the Ravens still need to replace Arthur Jones, so it would take at least two of those players (probably three) to really impress the coaching staff enough to make Canty expendable.
In all likelihood, Canty’s experience makes releasing him tough, but the cap savings could be alluring for reasons that will be explained on the next slide.
Are the Recent Cornerback Roster Cuts Around the League Worth Exploring?
The roster looks mostly settled, but the team's cornerback depth is worrisome after Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith. That duo should be one of the league’s best, but there’s a steep drop-off when it comes to the No. 3 corner—which, right now, would be either Chykie Brown or Asa Jackson.
Both are high-quality special-teamers, but neither one has played enough on defense to give us any idea of what to expect. That’s terrifying.
With the prevalence of spread offenses and three-WR sets in today's NFL, the nickel corner is becoming more and more like a starter on the defense. In fact, that was the case last season based on the snap distribution among Baltimore’s corners, via Pro Football Focus (subscription required):
- Jimmy Smith: 1,068 snaps
- Lardarius Webb: 997 snaps
- Corey Graham: 705 snaps
With such an important position up for grabs, it would not at all be surprising if the Ravens pursued a veteran corner on the market. The free-agent market is relatively stale, but it could be populated by new names based on roster cuts around the league.
Two such options that were recently cut are Brandon Flowers and Chris Houston. Houston’s medical status is unclear, which makes him a no-go for the Ravens, but Flowers is a very talented corner that could give the Ravens a superb trio.
Flowers is coming off the worst season of his career, but that can be attributed to the poor fit he was in the Kansas City Chiefs defense last season. He was frequently forced to cover the slot, but he wouldn’t need to do that in Baltimore with a proven slot specialist like Lardarius Webb on the roster.
He’s just the type of player that Ozzie Newsome has pounced on in the past: a very talented player looking for a change of scenery.
Even if Flowers isn’t brought in, the Ravens are sure to be closely monitoring which training-camp cuts could help them when the season rolls around.
Keep an Eye on the Punter Battle
Training camp is the setting for position battles, and the Ravens have an under-the-radar competition on their hands. Sam Koch has been a steady punter for a while now, but he had an inconsistent 2013 season and now has a training camp challenger for the first time since 2011.
That competition is undrafted rookie Richie Leone, and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg has been impressed with the rookie’s work, according to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com:
Richie is a talented young man. He’s getting better at some of the things we’re trying to help him with. There are a lot of things he needs to continue to get better at. But this is a really good camp for him.
Koch’s performance improved over the second half of the season, but he was still an average punter overall and not worth his $2.8 million cap hit, per Spotrac.com.
That cap hit may be a factor in the Ravens' decision if they see a free agent they like at another position, as the financial implications could be Leone’s ticket onto the roster. This will be an interesting battle to keep an eye on over the rest of the offseason.
Don’t Forget About Arthur Brown
When Ozzie Newsome spent this year’s first-round pick on C.J. Mosley, the general consensus was that it was an admission that last year’s second-round pick Arthur Brown wasn’t panning out. While it’s true that Brown didn’t set the world ablaze in his debut season, that was to be expected.
He was making the transition to playing inside linebacker, and it was clear from the very beginning that his body needed some work—specifically in regards to bulking up—in order to be an effective run defender at the next level.
Furthermore, his transition was hindered because he missed much of OTAs and training camp due to sports hernia surgery.
Mosley and Daryl Smith are the presumed starters at inside linebacker, but Brown figures to play a role in the middle of the defense because he’s looking much better so far this offseason. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees raved about Brown in his post-OTA press conference (h/t Hensley):
Art Brown has improved light years from a year ago—light years. This guy has really had a great camp. He still has a moment like all of them do, but he is so improved from a year ago.
He’s been playing fast and instinctive football. That is a promising sign, because he has the athleticism to be a tackling machine if he can grasp the mental complexities of playing in an NFL defense.
Daryl Smith’s job is probably not in jeopardy this season, but Brown’s time is coming and he should team up with Mosley to form one of the best (and most athletic) inside linebacking duos in the league before long.
Be Prepared to See More of Kyle Juszczyk
Kyle Juszczyk was purely a special-teamer last season, but his role on the offense is set to expand after the release of fullback Vonta Leach. Juszczyk and Leach are very different players, however, and the Harvard product should find different ways to make his impact on the field.
According to Mink, Gary Kubiak could see the fullback catching 40 to 50 passes this season, making him a very significant part of the offense.
Likewise, Juszczyk is incredibly optimistic about the upcoming season, per Mink:
This season has already been so much better for so many different reasons. I love the new offense, I love what they have me doing, I love that I’m getting more time with the first team. But this is also my second year, and, man, what a difference a second year makes.
I’m just so much more comfortable with the guys, how things are run around the facility, just playing at this level. I just feel way more like I can be myself and play and not think as much.
He expanded on the new offense when speaking to Wilson:
I like this offense way better than last year's. I think it's really going to pay off. I think we're going to be very explosive. I like how it's concept-based. We don't run a ton of different concepts, but we run a lot of different formations and a lot of different looks. You can get a lot done with a small amount of install.
Juszczyk was drafted to be a Swiss Army Knife for the offense, and it looks like he’s set to fulfill that role this season.
Shehan Peiris is B/R's Lead Featured Columnist covering the Baltimore Ravens and a co-host of Ravens Central Radio, a weekly podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network that focuses on all things Ravens-related. For the latest Ravens news, draft analysis and links to episodes of Ravens Central Radio, follow me on Twitter: