Sun, 19 Sep 2021

Kevin Eck

Predictions for How Ravens' Toughest Roster Decisions Will Play Out

With full-team practices set to begin tomorrow, The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec predicted the Ravens' 53-man roster. Here's a look at how he thinks three of the toughest training camp battles will play out:

Quarterbacks

In: Jackson, Tyler Huntley. Out: Trace McSorley.

Toughest decision: Keeping two quarterbacks when the Ravens have needed three in two of the past three seasons.

"I have a feeling the Ravens will find a way to keep three. They've already spent time developing Huntley and McSorley and believe each of them is at least an NFL-caliber backup. Cheap, capable quarterbacks don't traditionally pass through waivers. With COVID-19 still presenting issues, quarterback is the last position where you want to go thin. However, for the sake of this exercise, I just couldn't find the roster flexibility to keep three."

Wide receivers

In: Marquise Brown, Sammy Watkins, Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay, Tylan Wallace, Miles Boykin, James Proche II. Out: Deon Cain, Jaylon Moore, Binjimen Victor, Devin Gray.

Toughest decision: Carrying seven receivers when you have a run-heavy offense.

"It's not ideal to keep seven receivers. Preferably, the number would be five or six. That's why if Brown, Watkins, Bateman, Duvernay, Wallace, Boykin and Proche are all healthy, it makes sense for the Ravens to explore the trade market and see whether they can recoup a draft pick for a guy like Boykin. It's a bit early for that, just like it would be premature to move on from Proche before giving him an opportunity on offense. He flashes too often in practice to not at least see if his play will translate to Sundays."

Tight ends/fullbacks

In: Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Josh Oliver, Patrick Ricard (fullback). Out: Eric Tomlinson, Jake Breeland, Eli Wolf, Tony Poljan, Ben Mason.

Toughest decision: Not finding a spot for Mason, the rookie fifth-round pick.

"They could use Mason as the No. 3 tight end behind Andrews and Boyle. They could carry Mason as a backup fullback/core special-teamer behind Ricard like they did with Kyle Juszczyk in his rookie year. They could try to pass Mason through waivers and hope a league that has largely gone away from fullbacks ignores him and he returns to their practice squad. It's just tough to see them finding room for two fullbacks and three natural tight ends and they need their No. 3 tight end to contribute in the passing game. Oliver is a better bet to do that than Mason."

Why the Offense Regressed in 2020 and How It Can Bounce Back in 2021

The Ravens averaged nearly 30 points per game last season, but the offense was not the record-setting juggernaut it was in 2019.

NBC Sports Edge's Warren Sharp took a deep dive into why the offense wasn't as potent last year. He concluded that opposing defenses took Lamar Jackson out of the run game unless the Ravens were in three-wide sets (11 personnel), and the team missed tight end Hayden Hurst far more than expected. (Hurst was traded prior to the start of the season for a second-round pick that turned into J.K. Dobbins.)

The Ravens couldn't utilize 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends and one wide receiver), which was their most efficient grouping in 2019.

"After a 2019 season which featured Jackson running wild from both 11 personnel and all the heavy sets the Ravens use at the fifth highest rate in the NFL, defenses took all of those runs away from Lamar," Sharp wrote. "If the Ravens were in heavy sets, they tried to stop Lamar on the ground, first and foremost. Even if you add scrambles back to the mix, and look at every run from Jackson out of anything but 11 personnel other than QB kneels and sneaks, it was a huge decline.

"Defenses took away Lamar, left the Ravens RBs to put up well above average numbers, but refused to let Lamar beat them on the ground in personnel groupings that didn't scream pass play." (Jackson still managed to become the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in multiple seasons.)

If Sharp is aware of these issues, one can rest assured that the Ravens' brain trust is as well.

"They have high expectations of this team and so do I. Many of these issues are fixable," Sharp wrote.

Sharp cited the upgraded receiving corps and revamped offensive line as reasons to be optimistic about the Ravens' offense being better in 2021, and he called the acquisition of tight end Josh Oliver a "very underrated move."

"It will be interesting to see if new tight end acquisition Josh Oliver (a second-round pick by the Jaguars in 2019, who has been limited to 117 snaps in his two-year career due to injury) can be effective for the Ravens and help replace the upside that Hurst brought the offense, both in terms of receiving production as well as ability use more 13 personnel," Sharp wrote.

Chuck Clark Projected to Be Ravens' Most Improved Player

The Ravens have one of the best secondaries in the league, but much of the praise goes to cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters. That's understandable, as both players are All-Pros.

Despite his solid play, safety Chuck Clark generally flies under the radar, but his stock is rising according to NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund.

Using her forward-looking data models, Frelund projected the most improved player for each team in 2021, and Clark was her choice for the Ravens.

"I considered including Clark in my list of the AFC's most underappreciated players earlier this offseason, but I saved him for this article, because his trajectory has been upward since he entered the league as a sixth-rounder in 2017," Frelund wrote. "Clark's 10 QB pressures in 2020 ranked third among defensive backs in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats, and my computer vision shows that his change-of-direction speed eroded the second-least among safeties from the first quarter through the fourth (my proxy for fatigue)."

Clark, 26, has started 28 games the past two seasons, including all 16 last season, and has developed into a leader and mentor. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale has referred to Clark as the "heart and soul" of the defense.

In 2019, Clark began wearing the microphoned helmet, relaying play calls from Martindale to the entire defense. This offseason, Clark watched film of rookie minicamp practices before arriving for the first week of OTAs, just to get a feel for the newcomers.

"As both a player and a person, Clark fits the Ravens' culture," Ravens Wire's Kevin Oestreicher wrote. "He plays hard, can line up at multiple different positions when asked, works tirelessly to get better, and sets a good example. He is the glue that holds Baltimore's defense together, and he is extremely valuable to the team both on and off of the field."

Ravens Reportedly Sign Veteran Pass Rusher Chris Smith

The Ravens reportedly signed a veteran pass rusher yesterday. No, it wasn't Justin Houston.

Chris Smith is signing a one-year deal after working out with the Ravens, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Smith, 29, had one sack in eight games with the Las Vegas Raiders last season. He also has played with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns.

In addition to Smith, the Ravens reportedly also worked out pass rushers Dion Jordan and Shilique Calhoun. The Ravens have not confirmed any moves.

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