You can find Ken (@FansFantasy) and Reeta (@the NFLchick) live each Sunday morning on PressBox Online from 10am to 12pm.
This morning, Sunday August 9th, I joined Ken Zalis and Reeta Hubbard on PressBox's Fantasy and Reality Football Show. My appearance was in the second hour and we chatted about the injury to Matt Elam, the depth (or lack thereof) at the safety position, and who may emerge from the wide receiver competition.
You can find Ken (@FansFantasy) and Reeta (@the NFLchick) live each Sunday morning on PressBox Online from 10am to 12pm.
The season ending biceps injury to the safety Matt Elam has brought a sour mood to the start of training camp. His injury certainly is the highest profile injury, overshadowing the tweaks of rookie cornerback Tray Walker and second year cornerback Rashaan Melvin, the Achilles tendonitis of Elvis Dumervil, and the bruised knee of rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman. None of those injuries are causing any alarm (yet).
Is this a major injury? No. Is it a season thwarting injury? No.
Elam was slated to be the third safety on this team, nothing more. Kendrick Lewis is going to be the starting free safety and Will Hill has had the inside track for the strong safety position. With some uncertainty surrounding the safety position, Elam would have certainly seen snaps. But, the general thinking is that Lewis and Hill, barring injury, would be the mainstays. So really, Elam was more of an insurance policy if Lewis or Hill get injured and he provided some depth.
However, let’s examine the depth issue a little more closely. How much does a third safety actually play?
Looking at the 2012 season, the last regular season when there was stability at both safety positions in Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, the number three safety, James Ihedigbo, played minimal snaps. Ihedigbo played 294 of 936 regular season snaps. He only played one snap in the postseason. When looking at the 2011 season, it wasn’t much different. That year’s third safety was Tom Zbikowski and he played 226 of 1065 regular season snaps, none in the playoffs.
So, we aren’t talking too many snaps here. The Ravens have two experienced players in Anthony Levine and Brynden Trawick. The team also has an intriguing developmental prospect in undrafted free agent Nick Perry. And finally, waiting in the training room is Terrence Brooks. The Ravens will be fine.
What makes this injury to Elam so disappointing was the timing—for Elam and for the Ravens. By all accounts, the light bulb was starting to come on for Elam as he was having a strong offseason. It was a little shocking to hear that his work ethic was just starting to improve, but sometimes year three is when players start realizing their potential—Paul Kruger and Jimmy Smith are two recent players that this was true for.
This is not to suggest that this was going to be true for Elam. And that is why the timing of this injury is disappointing for the Ravens. The clock is ticking on Elam and the Ravens were hoping to get a clearer picture on what they have in Elam. Next year, the Ravens will have to decide if they want to exercise a fifth year option. (Here is an explanation of the fifth year option as it relates to 2012 draft picks.) In essence, the Ravens could have used this year to evaluate Elam further. The feeling here is he would have had to have a breakout year like Kruger and Smith to warrant an injury guaranteed salary in excess of $5 million.
Why has Elam struggled so badly?
Coming into the 2013 NFL draft, there was little debate who the top two safeties were—Kenny Vaccaro from the University of Texas and Elam from the University of Florida. However, there was a player rising on many draft boards and one player I thought was a better fit for the Ravens, Johnathan Cyprien from Florida International University.
Elam had a nice résumé coming from Florida—176 tackles, six interceptions, three forced fumbles, and 19 pass deflections—and he was named captain on the Gators during his junior year. This was the year that the Ravens were targeting leadership attributes in the draft, as four of the ten draft picks were team captains in college—Elam, middle linebacker Arthur Brown, defensive end John Simon, and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore.
There was some intrigue at the safety position because there were some teams at the end of the first round and beginning of the second round that would be targeting safeties. The 49ers were one of those teams. They 49ers traded up from the 31st pick to the 18th pick with the Dallas Cowboys and selected LSU safety Eric Reid. This left the Ravens choosing between Elam and Cyprien, if they were drafting for need at 32. Sure enough, the Ravens selected Elam at 32 and the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Cyprien with the very next pick, the 33rd overall pick and first pick in the second round.
Elam was known as a playmaker in college, but many wondered just how high his ceiling would be in the NFL. He was known to be a solid tackler coming out of college too, but that hasn’t exactly been the case in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus’ tackling efficiency rating, Elam was the 23 ranked safety in 2013 and the 96 ranked safety in 2014 (he barely qualified as a safety in 2014 as he took less than 50 percent of his snaps as a safety).
When looking back at the 2013 draft, none of these safeties have truly blossomed. Reid has made a Pro Bowl and Cyprien had a respectable rookie year. Both took a step back in year two, but both fared better than Elam. Highlighted in this great article from Gordon McGuinness from Pro Football Focus, safety is a difficult position to learn on the fly.
Thrust Into Early Action
That last part, learning on the fly, is something that hindered Elam’s development. The 2013 season didn’t go as planned for the Ravens, on any level. The Ravens had hoped to start Ihedigbo at strong safety and they hoped to start free agent signee Michael Huff at free safety. Huff was horrendous in the season opener against Denver, saw less playing time in week two, and was cut by the Ravens after week four.
Elam was eased into the game plan for the Denver game, playing 13 of 74 snaps. After week one, Elam played 1034 of 1039 snaps—all as a free safety.
In reality, Elam was not terrible his rookie year. Per PFF, he graded in the middle of the pack in terms of coverage and the bottom third in tackling efficiency.
The real issue is that Elam has been miscast since his arrival in the NFL. He played free safety in his rookie year and he was mostly a nickel cornerback last year. In fact, of his 652 defensive snaps in 2014, Elam played 231 coverage snaps from the slot versus 171 snaps as a safety with run stopping responsibilities—79 of those snaps as an in-the-box safety. With all of the injuries to the secondary last year, Elam played more from the slot than Lardarius Webb—231 snaps to 135 snaps.
Not having Elam play his natural position, strong safety, has been the biggest issue in Elam’s lack of development. He has never been that coverage type of free safety ever since college. And here he is, playing free safety his rookie year and slot cornerback his second year. Maybe over thinking in coverage caused him to take some poor angles in open space which caused poor tackling.
Overall, there is no doubt; Elam has been a disappointment thus far. He was thrown into the NFL fire early and has been playing out of position ever since he came into the league. Keep in mind; he was a late first round draft pick which means he wasn’t bustling with talent to begin with. That first round status has certainly caused extra frustration among Ravens’ fans. Had he been a second round draft pick there would not be as much of an uproar. In essence, he is performing like a second round pick.
In the end, the 2015 season is going to be okay. The Ravens will endure this minor setback. As for Elam, let’s hope for a speedy recovery so that he can recapture the momentum he had this past offseason.
Unfinished business. That seems to be the theme which runs through these quotes from the Ravens.
Unfinished business. Is this phrase pure rhetoric? Probably. Is it just a cliché? Most likely.
All 31 teams that don’t hoist the Lombardi trophy the previous season feel like there is unfinished business the following season. In fact, with quarterback Tom Brady’s four game suspension and the Deflategate controversy still swirling, last year’s Super Bowl winner the New England Patriots probably feel as though there is unfinished business.
So yes, this is mostly rhetoric.
That being said, even before reading these quotes, this upcoming season for the Ravens was starting to feel familiar.
Yesterday I had the fortunate opportunity to attend the Ravens’ first day of training camp out at the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mill. Though it is a far cry from having training camp held at McDaniel College in Westminster, the team is doing a nice job of providing the fans with a fun experience. They have provided more bleachers (albeit not under shade like out at Westminster) so that more fans can attend and there was a Fans’ Zone this year. The Fans’ Zone provided free popsicles on this hot afternoon, a food truck, and games and bouncy houses for the kids. The staff was very attentive and accommodating. It is a nice attempt to try and re-create the feel of training camp experiences out at McDaniel College.
Here are my observations from day one of training camp.
*The offense had some timing issues in 11-on-11 situations. Quarterback Joe Flacco was less January Joe, and more regular season Joe. Balls were a little off the mark, some double clutching took place, and there were a lot of check downs. That being said, many of the perceived check downs were clearly designed plays to get the ball to the running backs out in the flat in open space, a staple of offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s attack.
On the precipice of training camp, it is obligatory to have a 53 man roster prediction. However, when one actually examines this roster, there are going to be some really tough decisions for the Ravens’ brass. There will be some very talented players cut that will make another team. These players may not be practice squad players for the Ravens because other teams may swoop in and sign them. There is that much talent and depth on this team.
When examining the roster, barring injury, there are 46 secure spots. One could make a case that there are even more spots that are secure, but to illustrate the difficulty the Ravens are going to have when selecting players for this team, we will start at the 46 spots and start to whittle the other players down to arrive at 53. Below are what I consider to be the locks to make the final team.
By my count, there are 17 legitimate players who have a legitimate chance of making the final 53-man roster.
“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”
Friday Night Lights. One of the more excellently made TV shows just so happened to be about football. The full, well-drawn and defined characters are what I loved about this show, and it is why I was a faithful watcher to the bitter end. The relationships were mature, fully fleshed out, intricate, yet not too sensationalized. The presentation of the marriage between Eric and Tami Taylor was the most accurate portrayal of a real-life marriage ever captured by Hollywood.
But that is not why I am using Coach Taylor’s famous mantra and battle cry, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” This captures the Ravens’ vision as they have overhauled their roster since winning Super Bowl XLVII.
ESPN’s John Clayton is on record of saying that a team needs to find two or three starters from every draft if that team hopes to stay competitive. (ESPN’s Future Power Rankings) To fully understand the Ravens transition, we will look at how the team used the draft from 2013 through 2015 and see if Clayton’s theory will hold true for the Ravens. The term “starter” is arbitrary in today’s NFL. With teams using many sub-packages on both offense and defense, there really is no starting 11 on either offense or defense. For this exercise, we will take into account “key contributors” when analyzing the drafts.
To get a fuller picture of upcoming change, the 2012 draft class that will be eligible for free agency needs to be considered. While an overall disappointing draft class, this draft class found starters at the top of the draft in outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw and guard Kelechi Osemele. When forecasting the roster beyond this season, one has to take into account whether or not the Ravens will re-sign these two players. The feeling here is that Ravens will not. Looking at the 2015 draft, possible replacements are waiting in the wings. More on that below.
Following Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens began to rebuild the roster by focusing on the defense. The team drafted defensive players with their first three picks, hoping to fortify the middle of the defense. While it appears that the team missed on first-round pick safety Matt Elam and second-round pick middle linebacker Arthur Brown, they found Clayton’s three prerequisite starters in the later rounds of the draft in nose tackle Brandon Williams, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and right tackle Rick Wagner. In reality, the 2013 draft was a bonafide success.
In terms of finding starters and key contributors, the 2014 draft seems to be the draft that has brought the most value. The Ravens have easily found three starters in middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, and tight end Crockett Gilmore. Looking into the crystal ball, safety Terrence Brooks, defensive end Brent Urban, and center/guard John Urschel might be possible starters down the line. They will certainly be key contributors this year (health pending). In addition, the Ravens found great value in offensive tackle James Hurst in their undrafted free agency class.
While re-stocking the defense was the main focus of the draft in 2013 and 2014, the Ravens used free agency to patch together the offense. Following the Super Bowl, the Ravens relied on veteran free agents in the skill positions such as tight end Dallas Clark, wide receiver Brandon Stokley, tight end Owen Daniels, and wide receiver Steve Smith. Trades for tackle Eugene Monroe and center Jeremy Zuttah reshaped the offensive line.
Clearly it is too soon to evaluate the 2015 draft (the players haven’t even taken the field yet!), but there is much excitement and anticipation in this class making an impact. In fact, if these players pan out as hoped, there are potentially four or five future starters or key contributors. This is the draft the Ravens drafted heavily on the offensive side of the ball. The hope, unlike the 2013 draft when the Ravens invested early picks on defensive players that have not developed (Elam and Brown), is that the Ravens found offensive weapons in wide receiver Breshad Perriman and tight end Maxx Williams.
In a parallel of the 2013 draft where offensive players (Juszczyk and Wagner) were found in what was thought of as a defensive draft, the Ravens may have found defensive help in what is considered a top-heavy offensive 2015 draft. Drafted in the later rounds were defensive tackle Carl Davis, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, and cornerback Tray Walker.
Below are two charts showing the transition from the Super Bowl XLVII roster to what may be this year’s starting roster.
There is a plethora of home-grown talent on this year’s roster on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. From just the drafts since 2013, there are 12 “starters,” which outperforms Clayton’s theory. I am not really sure why he comments that the Ravens don’t have much young talent in his analysis in the Future Power Rankings. To further emphasize how the Ravens rely on the draft, there are a total of 20 Ravens-drafted “starters” on this ream. This team builds through the draft and uses free agency to quietly plug holes—Steve Smith, Elvis Dumervil, Kyle Arrington, Kendrick Lewis, and Daryl Smith to name the recent signings.
Now, in a futile yet fun, exercise--what if the 2015 draft picks contribute, develop and are not busts? What might the roster look like next year, 2016?
Sure, there are some reaches on both sides of the ball. James Hurst may not be a starting-caliber offensive tackle as he may be more of a swing tackle. Darren Waller may not even make this year’s team. And without a doubt, the secondary is unsettled at best. The team still needs existing players to develop (Terrence Brooks, Matt Elam and Tray Walker) and more players need to brought into the fold. This is a make-or-break year for Elam.
However, the Ravens have clearly had an eye to the future since drafting after their recent Super Bowl win. John Urschel and Robert Myers, two later round picks that have and will benefit from offensive line coach Juan Castillo, may be the heirs apparent to free agent guard Kelechi Osemele and cap causality center Jeremy Zuttah. The Ravens are starting to address the veteran outside linebacking corps of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil with Za’Darius Smith and waiver wire pickup Steven Means waiting, learning, and developing in the wings.
Good gracious. There is an overabundance of young talent on this team—21 potential “starters” recently drafted since 2013. I am not sure which roster Clayton was reading when he added his analysis to the Future Power Rankings.
The Ravens and Coach Eric Taylor: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”
While last year’s hire of Gary Kubiak to be the Ravens’ offensive coordinator was a slam dunk, there is a reason to give pause before celebrating this year’s hire of Marc Trestman. To his credit, Trestman comes highly recommended by players who have played under him and he is known to be a student of the game with a high acumen of offensive concepts. He has coached under great offensive minds like Bud Grant, Marty Schottenheimer, George Seifert, Bobby Ross, and Jon Gruden. In addition, he is known as the “Quarterback Whisperer,” as he has maximized the talent from quarterbacks he has worked with over the years.
These are reasons to celebrate his hiring. But what should give Ravens fans pause is how he orchestrates his offenses. More on that in a moment.
The Ravens open the season against the defending AFC North champion, Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens get a chance to put the turbulent offseason behind them. They get a chance to try out there new offensive scheme and its new additions—receiver Steve Smith, center Jeremy Zuttah, right tackle Rick Wagner, H-back Kyle Juszczyk, and tight end Owen Daniel. They get a chance to see the infused youth on defense in action—linebacker C.J. Mosley, defensive tackle Brandon Williams, cornerback Asa Jackson, and safety/nickelback Terrence Brooks. Like every other NFL franchise, the Ravens get a chance to start anew.
And most importantly, they get a chance at redemption. Missing the playoffs for the first time in five years stung last year, and the Ravens are looking to right the ship. The Ravens get a chance to make a statement over the next three weeks as they open against divisional foes Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cleveland Browns—a crucial stretch of games that will set the tone for the rest of the season.
The NFL offseaon and training camp rhetoric ends today at 1pm. Hallelujah. Who’s ready for the 2014 NFL season?
Here are today’s plotlines.
Defensive Line Needs to Control the Line of Scrimmage
In my mind, this is the pivotal matchup of the game. The Ravens must do what they can to make the Bengals, and Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton, one dimensional. With Bengals’ new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson calling the plays, the Bengals look to employ a more balanced offense which means a return to the run game. The Bengals have a multi-dimensional backfield in Gionvani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and Cedric Pearson. The Ravens will need to control the line of scrimmage with Chris Canty and Courtney Upshaw setting the edges, and Brandon Williams clogging the middle. Terrell Suggs needs to stay disciplined and Haloti Ngata has to be disruptive. If the line can dictate play, it will allow linebackers C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith to make plays from sideline to sideline in helping corral the Bengals’ run game.
In addition, with the giant question marks surrounding the Ravens’ secondary, the defensive line—and entire front-seven—needs to get pressure on Dalton. If the Ravens can turn the screws on the Bengals’ offensive line without a heavy usage of blitzes, we could see “Bad Dalton” today. If not, Dalton will be able to disperse the ball to his wide array of offensive weapons—tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, the aforementioned running backs, and superstar receiver A.J. Green and underrated receiver Mohamed Sanu.
Revamped Offensive Line
This is a chance for the Ravens to show progress has been made in the running game. The new pieces on the offensive line, and the tweaked zone blocking scheme, get a chance in a real game, in a game that matters. This is not a make or break game for the offense, or the offensive line. If the line struggles, all is not lost. The Ravens face a very stout defense in the Bengals. However, you would like to see the Ravens keep the running game relevant. I am not looking for a necessarily dominant day for the offensive line, but I will be looking for Ravens to create opportunities for the running backs and help keep Joe Flacco clean in the pocket.
Wrinkles vs. Wrinkles
Both teams enter the contest with changes on the offensive side of the ball, scheme-wise. Offensive coordinator Jackson for the Bengals looks to bring a clearer vision to the Bengals with an emphasis to the run game, and Ravens’ offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak brings his version of the West Coast Offense. Whose offensive wrinkles will catch the other’s defense off guard? With these teams knowing each other so well, a little unpredictability could go a long way in deciding today’s outcome.
Who Wins the Big-play Battle?
The Ravens would love to bring the big plays back to their offense. Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, and Steve Smith have the speed to stretch defenses. Expect a few rollouts and misdirection bootlegs to get one of these players open deep down the field.
The Bengals want to get superstar receiver Green, a Raven killer, the ball deep. They also have budding star Bernard, who is dangerous in space.
Unsung Player of the Game
In lieu of a prediction of the score of the game, I will pick a Raven player each week that I think will have an impact on the game. I won’t pick an obvious player (like Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, etc.), but a player that flies a bit under the radar. Think of this as the “Corey Graham 2012 Postseason Award.” Who would have predicted that Graham would have been that year’s postseason-player-of-the-game in Denver?
The Swiss Army knife, H-back Kyle Juszczyk will make his presence felt. The Waggle play was a staple in the preseason, but I look for “Juice” to get open down the seam. I see him having a much bigger impact than tight end Owen Daniels.
The questions swirling around the Ravens’ running back corps will be a story throughout training camp, preseason games, and at least the first two games of the season. I believe this would have been the case even if Ray Rice would not have been suspended for the first two games of the season.
(Skip the next two paragraphs if you just want on-the-field football analysis.)
For the record, my stance on the Rice situation is that a two game suspension is too lenient and it sends a horrible message about the NFL’s view on domestic violence. Two games for domestic abuse? Four games for a positive drug or PED test? One game for an illegal high hit? Something doesn’t compute here. Rice’s actions deserved a minimum of a four game suspension, if not a six to eight game ban. The NFL desperately needs a specific and transparent review board that addresses misconduct among the players. The punishments, or presumed deterrents, of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell are too inconsistent.
That being said, Rice’s case was complicated in the sense that how he was perceived before the incident—a stalwart in the community—and how he has tried to change his life since the altercation may have played a part in the light suspension. Rice’s abhorrent actions deserved a much harsher consequence than two games. Rice, the man in his entirety, may be the reason for the head scratching two-game suspension. For what it is worth, I have been taught (and experienced myself) to hate the sin but love the sinner—that helps provide hope for redemption.
Back to talk of football that takes place on the field. In today’s NFL, a team needs diversity in their running back corps. Very few teams use a one back system, as most utilize a multi-back system. Teams need their running backs to get the tough yards between the tackles, hit the edge with speed on power runs, be elusive in open space, catch balls out of the backfield, break tackles, and pass block when called upon. Not many backs can perform all of these tasks with proficiency, so coaches like to plug different players into their offensive systems and schemes. This allows coaches to create mismatches for the opposing team’s defense.
Just where do the stable of Ravens’ running backs stack against the rest of the AFC north? Here are my team rankings of the division’s projected running back corps for the 2014 season.
1) Pittsburgh Steelers: Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Dri Archer (R)
This group of running backs is the most impressive in the division. There is speed, power, youth, experience, elusiveness, and bull rushing. Bell, a second year player from Michigan State, is a budding star with speed and power. And, he is versatile because he is a threat in the passing game as well. The Ravens were reportedly interested in Blount during the offseason, but backed off and he then signed with Pittsburgh. He is a tough inside the tackle runner and according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Blount was a top seven back in yards after contact per attempt. The dude breaks tackles. Archer adds another element to the Steelers’ corps of running backs. More to the point, both Bell and Blount shredded the Ravens last year. In two games, Bell amassed 163 rushing yards on 35 carries (4.7 yards per carry), 63 receiving yards, and one rushing touchdown. Blount rushed for 76 yards and two touchdowns. What the rookie Archer lacks in size and power, he more than makes up for in speed, acceleration, and explosiveness. He has been compared to a lighter version of Jamaal Charles. This group of running backs has it all—speed, power, elusiveness, and explosive potential—and will create mismatches against most defenses.
2) Cincinnati Bengals: Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill (R), BenJarvus Green-Ellis/Cedric Peerman
If Pittsburgh has the best, most versatile group of backs in the AFC North, then Cincinnati comes in at a close second within the division. Like Bell, Bernard is another player on the rise. By week eight of the 2013 season, Bernard claimed the majority of the snaps from the Bengals’ 2013 free agent acquisition Green-Ellis. The second year player from North Carolina was often compared to in-his-prime Ray Rice during the draft process. Though not a major breakaway threat, Bernard is elusive and he is dangerous in space. This plays well with his excellent receiving skills. In addition, he did well when gaining yards after contact as he averaged 2.26 yards per attempt. Hill, a rookie second-round draft pick from LSU, is pushing Green-Ellis further down the depth chart. In fact, what lands the Bengals after the Steelers on this list is the uncertainty at the third running back position. There are reports surfacing that Green-Ellis may struggle to make the team. But Hill is the real deal. He is another player that was connected to the Ravens, as he was supposedly a prospect that the Ravens were interested in during the draft. He went a little higher than some expected, but he is big back that will pick up yards after contact. He also has some passing catching ability and pass blocking skills, so he may develop into the Bengals’ third down back. The Bengals have two impressive, young backs that will be a thorn in the Ravens’ side for years to come.
3) Cleveland Browns: Ben Tate, Terrance West, Edwin Baker/Isaiah Crowell/Dion Lewis
Though he struggled last year for the Houston Texans as he became more of a full-time starter after Arian Foster’s injury, Ben Tate was a nice free agent pick-up for the Browns. According to PFF, he had a high elusive rating (a metric used to determine a runner’s effectiveness independent of the blocking in front of him) and he averaged 2.38 yards after contact. He may be a nice fit in Cleveland. West, the rookie third-round pick and local product from Towson University, is pushing Tate for the starting position. West is big, has good vision, and finishes plays. He isn’t a speedster by any means, but he will be that tough inside-the-tackle runner. (Now, if Tate and West could just get along…) Crowell, the undrafted free agent rookie, is the wildcard. Had he not had off-field issues, he would have been drafted. He is strong, has good vision, and can get to the outside if needed. He doesn’t have much speed, but that is true for all of the Browns’ projected running backs unless Lewis makes the squad. Lewis, the Philadelphia Eagles’ fifth-round pick in 2011 that was acquired by the Browns via trade this offseason, is lauded for his quickness, elusiveness, and his ability to make defenders miss in the open field. He played sparingly last year for the Eagles, but he may provide something different than Tate, West, and Crowell. Because of the issues pertaining to speed, the Browns’ running backs rank third on my AFC North list.
4) Baltimore Ravens: Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, Lorenzo Taliaferro (R), Justin Forsett
The Ravens rushing woes in 2013 are well documented. The blocking from the offensive line was atrocious, but even when the Ravens had good blocking Rice and Pierce struggled mightily. Rice had a PFF elusive rating of 7.2—57 points lower than the league leader (Adrian Peterson), and 8 points lower than the next rated running back (Chris Johnson) with at least 50 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. In addition, Rice only averaged 1.52 yards after contact, the league low for backs with at least 50 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. To be fair, Rice hasn’t really excelled in either of these categories since 2009. But there was a sharp decline from his average numbers in these categories from 2010 through 2012 to 2013. There may be something to notion that Rice has little left in the tank. Pierce, who battled a barrage of injuries, wasn’t much better—a 23.4 elusive rating and he only averaged 1.75 yards after contact. Last year’s third running back, Bernard Scott, barely saw the field and he was released. The Ravens did surprisingly little to upgrade the position for the 2014 season. Taliaferro has a nice blend of size (height and weight), vision, downhill power, and pass blocking skills. But coming from a small school like Coastal Carolina, he was a bit of a reach in the fourth round of this year’s draft. Forsett has the benefit of knowing offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s running scheme from their time together in Houston, but he would have been a roster bubble player if not for the Rice suspension. Does anyone feel really secure with this year’s crop of backs? Rice is coming off his worst year, Pierce has durability issues, Taliaferro is an unheralded rookie, and Forsett is little more than a journeyman. Maybe a motivated Rice has a bounce-back year. Maybe Pierce stays healthy. Maybe Taliaferro and Forsett provide a spark. However, that’s too many maybes for my liking.
While the other teams in the AFC North used free agency and/or the draft to upgrade and diversify their offensive backfield, the Ravens chose to mostly stand pat and hope that a rookie and a journeyman take advantage of early-season opportunities.
Last night at M&T Bank Stadium, in front of a reported 28,000+ fans, the Ravens held their first open free practice to the public. Though it is a far cry from having training camp held at McDaniel College (aka Western Maryland College), it is still a nice gesture having an open practice for those who didn't win the training camp lottery, or for those who cannot get to the stadium for regular season games.
Here are my observations from the evening's practice. This was just one isolated practice towards the beginning of training camp, so take these observations with a grain of salt.
Overall, the defense was the overwhelming star of the night. If it is true that a good front seven makes a secondary’s job that much easier, then the impact felt by the Ravens’ shaky secondary situation might be lessened. The defensive line and linebackers are quick, strong and they move fast to the ball. The starting offense had its moments, but for the most part, in team drills, they struggled to move the ball, became stagnant in keeping drives alive, and failed to consistently convert when faced with key situations (red zone, goal line, 3rd and short, 4thand short, etc.).
C.J. Mosley: This dude is awesome as advertised. He quickly diagnoses run plays, was in the backfield multiple times, and he was even effective when he rushed the quarterback. He stood out in every way possible—and for all the right reasons.
Arthur Brown: Brown played quick and instinctive.
Pernell McPhee: McPhee was impressive coming off the edge. He was in the backfield for a couple of sacks.
Terrell Suggs: T-Sizzle must have paid for a time share in the backfield—he lived back there. That being said, he needs work on fielding punts.
Chykie Browm: He may have made a couple of plays breaking up passes, but he still struggled. He is picked on by quarterbacks on a regular basis.
Jimmy Smith: Smith was curiously working one-on-one with secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo. They worked off to the side focusing on Smith’s footwork while keeping inside leverage. Smith would backpedal, turn to the inside—but rolling away with his back to the quarterback— and then mocked trailing a receiver on an inside route. Smith needs more repetitions with this type of footwork. When this drill was done with the whole secondary, you could tell Smith was over-thinking this and not moving instinctively. This made me think about one of the comments made about Smith during the draft process. It was noted that he wasn’t challenged much by opposing teams because of his talent compared to others at the college level. So in reality, he was getting by mostly on raw talent and he didn’t need to rely on technique. It still appears that Smith’s technique needs refinement so that it can match his wealth of physical talent.
Haloti Ngata: He looked quick, light on his feet, and energized.
Darian Stewart: Stewart made a couple of nice plays while playing centerfield.
Matt Elam: Other than the pick thrown right to him from Joe Flacco (reminiscent of his pick of Matthew Stafford last year in Detroit), Elam wasn't too noticeable on the night. Good thing he avoided owner Steve Bisciotti’s golf cart on the return.
Deji Olatoye (undrafted free agent DB): Olatoye played well. He had good closing speed and seemed to be able to find the ball. If the Ravens don’t sign another DB and he continues this type of play, Olatoye may play himself onto the roster. At worst, he will be a surefire practice squad candidate.
Asa Jackson: Jackson was aggressive and played fast.
Joe Flacco: Flacco seemed slow in his decision making, and he made curious decisions because of it. In addition, he can still be off target in ball placement on the easier throws and this was on full-display last night. Not one of his best practices.
Ray Rice: Rice looked quick, elusive, and he was cutting on a dime.
Bernard Pierce: If Pierce can stay healthy, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's rushing scheme is a good fit for this one cut, downhill runner.
Justin Forsett: Though not big by any means, Forsett is bigger than I expected. He is also quick and shifty, as he made a great reception from the slot and burned to the end zone. However, he needs some help in pass protection.
Lorenzo Taliaferro: Taliaferro is a tall, big, powerful looking back. He is an intriguing prospect.
Jeremy Zuttah: This dude is athletic, great in space, and he will excel on screens and pulls.
Eugene Monroe: I am not sure if he was always the culprit, but Flacco was consistently pressured from the blindside—numerous times by Suggs, a couple of times by McPhee, and possibly once or twice from Elvis Dumervil (not certain if it was Dumervil).
Rick Wagner: I didn't notice Wagner throughout the night, and that might be a good thing.
Marlon Brown: The reported OTA and early training camp drops continued last night.
Owen Daniels: The reported early training camp drops continued last night.
Kyle Juszczyk: Juice will most certainly catch balls this year. His blocking has improved.
Torrey Smith: The play of the night.
Steve Smith: His excellent hands and speed were on display last night. He made a great catch in the end zone over rookie undrafted DB Tramain Jacobs. I still think Smith may be miscast as a slot receiver (avoid comparing his skill-set to Anquan Boldin), and I still think he has the speed to beat people over the top.
Michael Campanaro: The rookie is really quick and has good acceleration. He had a nicely Chykie-contested drop in the end zone that he could have caught (though it would have been a great catch), but he was lethal in the return game.
Gino Gradkowski: Gradkowski still struggles mightily.
Special Teams: Either the kickoff return team is awesome or the kickoff coverage is brutal. Or it's training camp and there are players that are playing that won’t be playing once the season starts. I couldn't tell.
Justin Tucker: He’s good—really good.
An avid sports fan, and a passionate Ravens fan. However, I don't always wear the purple-shaded glasses.