You can find the regular hosts of PressBox's Fantasy and Reality Football Show with Ken (@FansFantasy) and Reeta Hubbard (@the NFLchick) live each Sunday morning on PressBox Online from 10am to 12pm.
This morning, Sunday August 30th, I joined Ken Zalis, Jamie Watson (@teeoffwithjamie), and Kyle Ottenheimer (@KOttenheimer) on PressBox's Fantasy and Reality Football Show. My appearance was in the first hour and we discussed the Raven’s uneven performance in last night’s preseason game against the Washington football team. We also discussed the return game, secondary issues, and the underwhelming wide receiver competition. We all agreed that the same questions that the Ravens entered training camp with have not been answered.
You can find the regular hosts of PressBox's Fantasy and Reality Football Show with Ken (@FansFantasy) and Reeta Hubbard (@the NFLchick) live each Sunday morning on PressBox Online from 10am to 12pm.
Usually, the third preseason game is the final dress rehearsal for the starters to establish themselves before the start of the regular season. The story of the 2015 Ravens season will not be written if things do not go well this evening, just like last week was not an indication of how the team will perform this year. We are talking about the preseason (said in my best Allen Iverson voice). I repeat, the preseason.
Moreover, this game against the Washington football team will not be your typical week three preseason game. Both teams have been hit by the injury-bug and will be without several key players.
Washington will be without two of their starting pass rushers in Junior Gallette (good riddance) and Ryan Kerrigan. In addition, quarterback Robert Griffin III will be held out of the game. Though, he may just be the backup quarterback anyway.
The Ravens will also be playing this game shorthanded. For the second straight week, the offensive line week will be without starters. This week it will be without left tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele (Is Osemele’s injury becoming a concern? Is his injury history affecting contract negotiations between the team and him and Marshal Yanda?) The secondary will be without Lardarius Webb (what’s new) and now Rashaan Melvin, who has a soft-tissue injury.
Because of the litany of injuries, I am expecting another somewhat sloppy game. And, I am not sure how much one will be able to read into this game.
Since the first cut down is on Tuesday, rosters will be trimmed from 90 to 75 players , it will be interesting to watch how the team uses roster bubble players, both veteran and young players. How will the Ravens utilize players such as Cassius Vaughn, Quinton Pointer, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Christo Bilukidi, Ryan Jensen, Darren Waller (more on him later), Marlon Brown, Jeremy Butler, and DeAndre Carter? It could be a telling indication of where they stand as far as making the team.
Here are tonight’s other plotlines.
There is a reason that I write about football and not coach football. A coach might have found some redeeming quality or teachable moment from last weekend’s game. I would have said, “Burn the tape and let’s move on.”
This is the Reality Assessment, and reality is that the Ravens were horrendous on every level against the Philadelphia Eagles.
However, I am an educator, so most things in life can be used as teachable moments. Here are things that I have zeroed in on that I am sure have been, and will be, addressed at the UA Performance Center.
Preseason game number one is all about getting your feet wet. Whether it is a rookie or a veteran, game one is about getting acclimated, or re-acclimated, to NFL game conditions. You can expect jitters, communication issues, and even some confusion as 90 players are on the sideline versus the normal 46.
However, game two takes on a new level of urgency. Starters take games two and three more seriously (though not that seriously), and younger players are beginning to run out of time to make an impression on the decision makers. In addition, games two and three are when position battles start to become a little clearer.
With a relatively controversy-free set of practices with the Philadelphia Eagles this week, the Ravens get to see the Eagles’ up-tempo brand of football in a new setting. The Ravens will also face an actual starting caliber NFL quarterback in Sam Bradford. My Eagles’ friends are nervously hoping he survives without tearing another ACL.
Here is what I will be watching for tonight during the Ravens’ week two of preseason football.
There is a reason why I call this post the Reality Assessment. It is not some quick, knee-jerk reaction to last Thursday’s preseason game against the New Orleans Saints. Hence, the full week of reflection between the game and this post. As we all know, this was the first preseason game and what can one truly glean from it?
In the first week of preseason, the starters barely play. In fact, some starters don’t even enter the game (e.g. Saints quarterback Drew Brees dressed but did not play). The backups see the majority of time on the field, and the “threes” see more than just mop up duty.
Sure, it was a good start for both first teams. The starting offense opened the game with a nice 80 yard drive that resulted in a touchdown; albeit, with a 17 yard scramble by quarterback Joe Flacco that sustained the drive. The starting defense had two three and outs; albeit, the Saints were without All-Pro quarterback Brees.
And of course the game concluded with a comeback win led by Bryn Renner and the backup offense, giving fans (like this one and his six year old son) an exciting finish.
Even though first round draft pick Breshad Perriman did not play, the Ravens’ 2015 rookie class had an impressive debut. Maxx Williams had his crushing 4th and 20 catch and run to keep alive the final drive of the game. According to Pro Football Focus, defensive tackle Carl Davis played 41 of 69 snaps, played great against the run, had a batted down pass, three tackles, and a quarterback hit. Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith had four quarterback hurries and a sack. Running back Buck Allen ran hard, missed some opportunities, had a dropped pass, but he did rumble off a 12 yard run. Cornerback Tray Walker gave up a three catches on four targets, but only 5.3 yards per reception, and he had a couple of nice open field tackles in run support. Tight end (personal favorite of Baltimore Sun’s Mike Preston and mine), Nick Boyle had an up and down day but still posted four receptions for 25 yards. Sixth-round pick wide receiver Darren Waller had two catches for 22 yards and showed more in-game speed than people were expecting—he drew a couple of interference penalties.
This impressive batch of rookies has had me thinking. How has this rookie class compared to past rookie classes? Have the Ravens ever had a deeper draft class?
Ok, I know I am breaking several rules here. You can’t judge a rookie class this soon—three years down the road is the golden rule. As I have stated, it is training camp and these are good rules to follow during training camp and preseason. And finally, this is the Reality Assessment, not the Knee-Jerk Assessment. And what I am about to do is more knee-jerk in nature.
The Ravens have a reputation of being stellar drafters. I wanted to test that theory against what I have seen from this year’s rookie draft class.
This is an exercise in depth of draft class, not necessarily all-star power. When deciding if a player was a justifiable draft pick, I considered these criteria: games played in the NFL, longevity of career, and role on the team (starter or significant contributor). Accolades (Pro Bowl selections, 1st and 2nd team All-Pro selections, individual awards earned, and status as a significant Super Bowl team contributor) were considered, but only in the larger picture (e.g. If four of six players from a draft were contributors, this would be more significant than if one of eight players from a particular draft made several Pro Bowls while the other seven players did not materialize).
Taking a cue from football video games both past and present, I have broken down the draft classes into five categories. Paying homage to one of the most incredibly fun video games of all-time, Tecmo Super Bowl gets the highest honor (go find the NFL Films awesome documentary on the current Tecmo Super Bowl craze). The other categories, from highest of honor to lowest, are taken from the classic levels of play from EA Sports Madden NFL game: All-Madden, All-Pro, Pro, and Rookie.
Tecmo Super Bowl Drafts
1996 (4 of 7 picks): Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, DeRon Jenkins, Jermaine Lewis
Comment: It is fitting that the first draft in Raven’s history is also one of its best. Two surefire Hall of Famers (current HOF Ogden and soon-to-be Ray Lewis), a combined 26 Pro Bowl selections (Ogden- 11, Ray- 13, Jermaine- 2), and 20 All-Pro selections (Ogden- 9, Ray- 10, Jermaine-1) make this draft a slam dunk. Adding three players that had a direct impact on Super Bowl XXXV doesn’t hurt either. You might question Jenkins on this list, but he managed close to 100 games in his career, and he was a two-year starter.
1999 (3 of 4 picks): Chris McAlister, Brandon Stokley, Edwin Mulitalo
Comment: An unusually odd year in that the Ravens only had four picks. Even though Stokley never accomplished much for the Ravens (he found his success with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and Denver), this draft was quite impressive. Three of the four picks had highly successive career, and without Mulitalo we wouldn’t have this.
2001 (5 of 7 picks): Todd Heap, Gary Baxter, Casey Rabach, Ed Hartwell, Joe Maese
Comment: This was a great draft haul. Though Baxter and Hartwell only played their first contracts for Baltimore and fizzled out after they left Baltimore, they were both starters for the majority of their time with the Ravens. Rabach also played his first contract with Baltimore, but had a very productive career in Washington. Maese was the long snapper for four years. This was a deep and productive draft. Considering this was the draft that followed Super Bowl XXXV makes it even more impressive.
All-Madden Level Drafts
1997 (5 of 12 picks): Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper, Kim Herring, Jeff Mitchell, Cornell Brown
Comment: A great draft as nearly half the picks were major contributors. Add in Boulware’s accolades (4 Pro Bowls, one All-Pro, and Defensive Rookie of the Year), Sharper’s Super Bowl impact, Mitchell’s longevity at center, and Brown’s reserve and special teams’ role and you have a deep draft. Sure there were misses (Jay Graham, Ralph Staten, Wally Richardson, and Steve Lee-who?), but in this instance the sum is greater than the parts.
2002 (5 of 10 picks): Ed Reed, Anthony Weaver, Dave Zastudil, Chester Taylor, Chad Williams
Comment: Reed heads this rookie class, but major contributors were found in Weaver, Zastudil, Taylor and Williams. Weaver had a solid Raven career and he also played pretty well when he left for the Texans. Notable misses were Ron Johnson, Lamont Brightful, and Javin Hunter.
2003 (7 of 11 picks): Terrell Suggs, Kyle Boller, Jarret Johnson, Ovie Mughelli, Aubrayo Franklin, Tony Pashos, Gerome Sapp
Comment: Boller makes this a controversial draft, but six of the eleven drafted players were starters and Sapp was a key reserve and special teams’ player.
2014 (6 of 9 picks): C.J. Mosley, Timmy Jernigan, Crocket Gilmore, Lorenzo Taliaferro, John Urschel, Michael Campanaro
Comment: This draft class is still too early to call. But at the moment, there seems to be quite a bit of talent in starters and contributors. Mosley has already made a Pro Bowl and Jernigan looks like to be the next on the list. If Gilmore, Campanaro, and Urschel continue to stay healthy and progress, this draft might bump up to platinum status.
All-Pro Level Drafts
2006 (5 of 10 picks): Haloti Ngata, Chris Chester, Dawan Landry, Sam Koch, Derrick Martin
Comment: Ngata is the obvious star of the draft, and he should be because of his first round status. Chester (who had a nice career in Washington), Landry, and Koch were all starters in Baltimore. Martin, a surprise name on this list, carved a nice eight year career spanning five teams.
2007 (4 of 7 picks): Ben Grubbs, Marshal Yanda, Antwan Barnes, Le’Ron McClain
Comment: The middle of the line was solidified in the picks of Grubbs and Yanda. Grubbs just missed a Super Bowl when he cashed out in free agency the year of Super Bowl XLVII. McClain was a nice player for a short time in Baltimore—he also found success in San Diego and Kansas City. Barnes has had a nine year career as a pass rushing specialist.
2008 (4 of 10 picks): Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Tom Zbikowski, Haruki Nakamura
Comment: Again, if we were basing this on pure value, Flacco and Rice make this draft platinum. But when looking at the overall depth, this draft doesn’t look as good. Linebacker Tavares Gooden never developed. Wide receivers Marcus Smith and Justin Harper could never have their practice play translate to actually games.
2009 (4 of 6 picks): Michael Oher, Paul Kruger, Laradrius Webb, Cedric Peerman
Comment: Though Oher was a frustrating player because of his lack of consistency, he started every game of his career in Baltimore. That is impressive. Kruger finally put things together during the Super Bowl run, and up until recently Webb has had a positive career in Baltimore. Peerman was one of two drafted players cut by the Ravens in his rookie year (the other was tight end Davon Drew), but Peerman has now found a consistent home in Cincinnati.
2010 (4 of 7 picks): Terrence Cody, Ed Dickson, Dennis Pitta, Arthur Jones
Comment: You may be shaking your head at seeing Cody on this list, but he was a starter for one year and a key contributor for three other years. The others speak for themselves. Would this have been a better draft if not for a flight of stairs? Probably not—the stairs were not at fault.
Pro Level Drafts
2000 (3 of 6 picks): Jamal Lewis, Adalius Thomas, Cedric Woodward- 6th round pick who had a few decent seasons in Seattle after leaving the Ravens
Comment: Lewis and Thomas make this class a solid draft, and one could argue that these two picks could make the whole class higher on this list. Woodward had a very quiet career in Seattle after having a non-descript tenure in Baltimore. However, in my eyes, Travis Taylor and Chris Redman cause this class to be more bronze than silver.
2005 (3 of 7 picks): Mark Clayton, Jason Brown, Derek Anderson
Comment: Conversely, you could argue that this draft be lower on the list. Brown and Anderson went on to have marginal success and careers after leaving the Ravens. Fullback Justin Green and offensive tackle Adam Terry were serviceable in Baltimore, but not enough to warrant making the list. Overall, a “meh” draft class.
2011 (3 of 8 picks): Jimmy Smith, Torrey Smith, Pernell McPhee
Comment: Three major contributors to Super Bowl XLVII in the Smiths and McPhee. That being said, five misses in this draft, including Tandon Doss, Chykie Brown, and Jah Reid. Reid, playing well in training camp this year, might just extend his career.
2012 (3 of 8 picks): Courtney Upshaw, Kelechi Osemele, Bernard Pierce,
Comment: This is a tough draft to classify—I originally had this in the silver category. Upshaw and Osemele have been practically starters from day one. During his rookie year, Pierce was major contributor during the Super Bowl year; however, he has flamed out in a big way since. Asa Jackson is at the make-it-or-break-it point of his career and DeAngelo Tyson has been a small time role player for three years. Ultimately, this is a bronze level draft.
2013 (3 of 10 picks): Brandon Williams, Kyle Juszczyk, Rick Wagner
Comment: If this were based on value and impact, this draft would be a gold star draft. Wiliams, Juszczyk, and Wagner are solid starters. Each could be on the cusp of a Pro Bowl. However, missing on seven picks causes this draft to plummet.
Rookie Level Drafts
1998 (1 of 7 picks): Duane Starks
Comment: A truly dud of a draft. Patrick Johnson may warrant a spot on the list because he played 70 games, but that would be a stretch. The other five players in this draft class combined for 85 games, two never played a game (Ron Rogers and Cam Quayle).
2004 (1 of 7 picks): Dwan Edwards
Comment: The redemptive wide receiver draft failed. Devard Darling and Clarence Moore never made it. Linebacker Roderick Greene had an okay career after leaving the Ravens, but not really. When second round pick defensive end Dwan Edwards is the highlight of this draft class, you know things could be better.
This brings us back to what I was watching in last week’s preseason game against the Saints. The 2015 draft class had an impressive debut. There looks to be talent from top to bottom. We aren’t sure what we have in Perriman, but he has the makings of a Torrey Smith, not a Travis Taylor. Tray Walker and Robert “Snack” Myers might be others that are questionable, but maybe not.
If Perriman is legitimate and either Walker of Myers develops as hoped, this draft could look like the following:
2015 (8 of 9 picks): Breshad Perriman, Maxx Williams, Carl Davis, Za’Darius Smith, Buck Allen, Nick Boyle, Darren Waller Robert Myers or Tray Walker
Comment: If this holds true, this draft would surely be placed in the Tecmo Super Bowl category, earning it the distinguishment as one of the best in Ravens’ history.
Football officially returns to Baltimore tonight. Albeit, it is preseason football which equates to fans paying full price to watch backups, backups to the backups, and players who may be out of football completely in another two weeks.
With the starters seeing little action and vanilla play calling by the coaches, very little will be gleaned. I do not believe the wide receiver, tight end, middle linebacker, and cornerback issues will be resolved after one game. Nor do I believe we are going to see the coaching staff tip-off their ideas on strategy (blitz, route combinations, etc.), sub-packages, or formation. These decisions will need more time.
However, as a football junkie, I am excited to watch the second, third, and fourth quarters, as there are players I am interested in seeing play in live action games. These players will either have a larger role on the team this year, or they are flat-out fighting to make the 53-man roster and/or practice squad. It will be interesting to see who gets time with “ones,” the “twos,” and who is purely in during mop-up duty.
Some of the players below are players looking to push themselves up the depth chart, and some are fringe players hoping to make a positive impression. This team is fairly set, but injuries the last week are opening up doors of opportunity for some of these players.
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.
An avid sports fan, and a passionate Ravens fan. However, I don't always wear the purple-shaded glasses.