Baltimore Ravens' Offseason State of the Union
The Baltimore Ravens are enjoying their last break before the season starts, which makes it the perfect time to sit back and reflect on the team’s offseason so far. The roster is mostly set and this is the team (for the most part) that will be taking the field in Week 1.
General manager Ozzie Newsome isn’t going to pass up a talented player that can come in and contribute if one becomes available, but this is the 2014 version of the Baltimore Ravens.
How is the offense acclimating to life under Gary Kubiak? What are some of the key storylines to keep an eye on over training camp and preseason (and even into the regular season)? How is the rookie class progressing?
All these questions and plenty more are answered in this recap of Ozzie Newsome’s summer.
Ricky Wagner Looks Like the Man to Replace Michael Oher
It was expected that there would be a lot of competition brought in to challenge Ricky Wagner for Michael Oher’s right tackle spot. The Ravens could have turned to the draft to add another young big man to compete with the Wisconsin product.
On the contrary, they could have chosen to go with a proven veteran from the free-agent pool. They could have even looked within and given Kelechi Osemele some snaps at his initial position.
But we’re more than halfway through the offseason and Wagner has given Newsome no reason to bring in outside help and none of the internal candidates have been able to unseat him.
Wagner has run exclusively with the starters and drawn plenty of positive feedback from the coaching staff—including new coordinator Gary Kubiak. Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com reported what Kubiak had to say in one of his OTA press conferences:
To me, Ricky has been—I don’t want to say he’s a surprise, because I expected him to play well—but I think we put a lot on his plate early walking in here as a starter, new scheme and those types of things.
He has responded and hasn’t missed a rep. He plays very hard in what we’re doing, so we just have to keep going. But I’ve been very pleased with Ricky.
It’s hard to truly gauge any of the “big uglies” without the pads on, but Wagner has performed well in practice against the likes of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.
Looking back on his first NFL action in Week 1 against the Denver Broncos, it’s hard to imagine that Wagner has grown so substantially, but he’s become more familiar with his teammates and has adjusted nicely to the new blocking scheme, in addition to becoming leaner and stronger.
This was supposed to be one of the more drama-filled aspects of the Ravens offseason, but there has been zero drama at all. We’ll still have to wait and see how he fares when the intensity is cranked up a notch, but his starting spot doesn’t appear to be in jeopardy.
C.J. Mosley Delivering on First-Round Hype
There has been nothing but good news about C.J. Mosley from the minute he stepped onto the practice field.
From the very beginning, he has impressed the coaches with his knowledge of the defense and his high football IQ. That was the first impression head coach John Harbaugh had about the first-round pick, according to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com:
Probably the first impression is that he seems very comfortable in a defense. He understands the game very well. So, he’s been really well-coached, obviously, down [at Alabama]. It’s not like he doesn’t know what gap he is fitting in. It’s not like he doesn’t know what adjustment to make. That’s a long way ahead for a rookie.
He continued to leave positive impressions thanks to his athleticism, which “stands out” on the practice field in the eyes of John Eisenberg from the team’s official site.
Despite his standing as a first-round pick, he wasn’t handed the starting job and was made to run with the second-team defense initially. Finally, Bo Smolka of CSNBaltimore.com reported that he started to run with the first-team toward the end of OTAs.
It came as a slight shock to see Newsome select Mosley with every safety still on the board, but Mosley has delivered on the hype and has shown all the tools (physical, mental and the intangibles) to become a fixture in the middle of the Baltimore defense—starting this season.
Joe Flacco Is Comfortable with the New Offense
These offseason practices have been vital for an offense trying to install Kubiak’s new system, and the early signs have been good. Joe Flacco, in particular, has displayed a good grasp of the new offense and has looked comfortable with the footwork and going through his progressions.
Flacco talked about his fondness for the new offense in an OTA presser (h/t to John Eisenberg of BaltimoreRavens.com):
Throughout the last couple of weeks, I’ve been able to get really, really comfortable, get back there, go through my reads and have a lot of fun. I feel great. Everything is fresh, new. It’s been enjoyable.
Flacco then went on to go into more detail about the structure of the offense:
There’s a lot of play action and stuff like that. It is definitely, ‘Get the ball out of your hands because there’s always a route somewhere you can get the ball out to. As a quarterback, you have to know when you have a problem and when you need to get it out.
That’s the biggest thing as far as going through your progressions and having a set progression for this and for that. There’s no real guesswork. There’s no real gray area. It allows you to get the ball out real quick.
That type of offense will certainly be a change, but the players have adapted well so far. The true test will come in the preseason as the Ravens unveil their new scheme (albeit a vanilla version) against a real defense.
Darian Stewart Has the Inside Track to Starting Job
No offence to Darian Stewart, but his signing hardly filled Ravens Nation with excitement. Instead, the more common response to the news was: who?
Stewart went undrafted and was then a role player for the St. Louis Rams, but he couldn’t stay healthy long enough to carve out a permanent role with the side.
With no real track record, it seemed unlikely that he would be the starting free safety alongside Matt Elam—who is making the transition to strong safety this season.
The positions are certainly not final, but Stewart’s experience (both in the NFL and with secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo) gave him the first chance to lock down the starting role.
He’s done more than just look pretty in the defensive backfield, however. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees told reporters in a press conference about Stewart’s intelligence and how he’s picked up the defense.
[Stewart]’s picking it up really well. Talking to him early on, it was a lot different than what he had been accustomed to, but he’s picked it up really well. He’s a smart football player, very conscientious, great in the classroom. I think he’s picking it up just fine. I’m pleased with where he is right now.
There’s still a lot of competition out there. We’re a long way from naming the guys that are the starters, but I feel good about the guys that are back there.
Pees went on to emphasize that the preseason will be a big factor in determining the starter, but there isn’t much competition for Stewart unless rookie Terrence Brooks has a strong finish to the offseason.
Depth on Defensive Line Is Promising
Haloti Ngata has been a fixture in the middle of the Ravens defense for a number of years, but it looks like he’ll have a lot of young talent beside him this year thanks to a glut of bodies along the defensive line.
What’s most exciting about that fact is the age of all those bodies.
Timmy Jernigan and Brent Urban have shown flashes of the physical tools that made them forces in college, and Jernigan in particular has opened eyes with his athleticism.
Eugene Monroe said he is “really quick-twitch, really explosive and strong,” via Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun.
According to Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com, Lardarius Webb noticed the same thing, observing that “Jernigan has been in the backfield, I know we don’t have pads on, but his explosiveness and power [are impressive].”
It’s not just the rookies, however. Second-year players Kapron Lewis-Moore and Brandon Williams have also enjoyed strong offseasons so far and Williams looks like the favorite to replace Arthur Jones in the starting lineup. In one of his press conferences, Coach Harbaugh told reporters how Williams had impressed him:
Brandon has looked really good. He’s explosive, he’s quick, but he’s playing [good] fundamentals. The way he’s built—you’re not going to see that body-type too much. The amount of muscle he has packed on that frame of his is pretty incredible.
The strength and talent of those young linemen is very exciting for the defense moving forward and a number of those players will be key pieces to the defensive front this season.
Ravens Are a Healthy Bunch
Go knock on some wood right now.
Are you done? Good.
It is a pleasant surprise that the Ravens have gotten to this point in the offseason without any major injury concerns to worry about.
Last year, it was Marshal Yanda and Jameel McClain that began training camp on the PUP list. Terrell Suggs was unavailable the season before.
As of right now, there are no major health issues on the roster. Only six players missed the last week of minicamp practice and all were backups. Furthermore, ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley reported that all six of them should be ready to suit up by the time training camp rolls around.
It’s a refreshing change of pace in the Ravens practice facility, and it’s even more important on offense this year as they try to install the new system.
Secondary Is a Work-in-Progress
Darian Stewart has already been discussed, but he’s part of a patchwork secondary that is still coming together—one that is certainly not immune to more personnel moves.
Three starting spots are in good shape. The duo of Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith showed the promise to be one of the better corner tandems in the league. Over the second half of the season, when Webb looked more comfortable with his knee and Smith looked more comfortable in general, the duo looked unbeatable at times.
Then there’s Matt Elam, who is primed for a breakout season thanks to a better understanding of the defense and the switch to his natural position of strong safety. With the position change, Elam will get to spend more time near the line of scrimmage where he can be a force against the run with his speed and power.
But the free safety spot and No. 3 cornerback spot are still very much up for grabs. Darian Stewart and Terrence Brooks (and Omar Brown to a lesser degree) are competing for the starting safety spot, but both are unknown quantities.
Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson weren’t impressing the coaching staff enough to prevent the addition of Dominique Franks and Aaron Ross, but any of the bunch will most likely be a downgrade from Corey Graham.
Perhaps some of these players will come into their own when training camp arrives, but the secondary is very much a work-in-progress at the moment.
Offensive Line Coming Together Nicely
Entering the offseason, Marshal Yanda was the only known starter on the O-line. Right now, however, the group has shown potential.
Eugene Monroe was re-signed to protect Joe Flacco’s blind side, and Newsome traded for Jeremy Zuttah—an athletic and intelligent center that is a perfect fit for Kubiak’s zone scheme.
And then there’s Kelechi Osemele, who has completely put his back issues behind him. He’ll need to be monitored closely once the pads are on, but he is in terrific shape and is poised to deliver on the breakout year we were all expecting in 2013.
It’s impossible for the O-line to be worse than last year, but there is cause for optimism about what this unit can accomplish this season.
The Ravens have the chance to be a physically imposing football team with all the power they have in their trenches.