We are stuck in the lull that is the NFL off season. Guys will watch men running and jumping around in their skibbies at the scouting combine for hours, just to get that football fix that eludes them. Lucky for us, there is more to look forward to than that. Baltimore Sports and Life’s Ravens Analysts Mike Randall, Matt Jergensen, Chris Worthington, and Dan Bryden, chat about the latest topics facing Baltimore as we try to bridge the gap from one season to the next.
Enjoy, and feel free to provide your thoughts or your own answers on our message board.
1. Let’s take a look back at the 2013 draft class. Other than Matt Elam, not many guys saw a lot of action. Who do expect to take the biggest step forward in 2014?
Mike Randall – Aaron Mellette. He missed his rookie season with the ACL injury. I think he’ll be given every opportunity to battle Marlon Brown for the #2 receiver spot. Mellette showed home run potential in the preseason. Getting on the field and making an impact would be a giant step for him. This might change depending on who the Ravens draft, the situation at middle linebacker as Arthur Brown would be expected to step up in a big way if Daryl Smith isn’t retained. But today, I’ll say Mellette.
Matt Jergensen – Arthur Brown. He didn’t get nearly as many opportunities that I would have thought last season but he may now get them out of necessity. Jameel McClain could be a potential cap casualty and the Ravens are at least in talks to retain Daryl Smith so Brown may have to get time either way.
Chris Worthington – Kyle Juszczyk and Ricky Wagner are at the top of my list. FB Leach and RT Oher are likely gone this offseason (although lately there have been rumors of the team re-signing both Oher and Monroe at the tackle positions) and Juice and Wagner could be the ones who step up into their positions. As Mike pointed out in his recent article, the Ravens have talked to a ton of skill position players at the combine. This makes it seem less likely that they want to take a tackle early, and more likely that they like what they have in Ricky Wagner.
Dan Bryden – I expect Arthur Brown to take the biggest step forward. He is a young guy who played in spot packages last season but is now filling a position of need for the defense. I also think he shows the most promise of all of the 2013 rookies. Brown has lateral agility and the mobility to allow the Ravens to play more man-coverage underneath. Assuming Brown will gain some additional upper body bulk, he can play all three downs in 2014.
2. Do you see a player from that class that you just can’t see putting it all together here? Not all draft picks pan out.
MR – Kyle Juszczyk, probably at no fault of his own. He’s sort of in between positions. He’s a hybrid FB/TE but didn’t appear in the preseason against other second and third stringers to play either position really well. He doesn’t run or pass block well. Looks to have good hands, but would be good for at most ten catches a year? Maybe? And that is if Leach is not retained. Looks like a solid special teamer, loves to hit people, has a mean streak on the field. But I wouldn’t expect to see him in black and purple after his rookie contract is up.
MJ – It seems too early to single one player out at this time but I’ll play along. I’d say Brandon Williams. I was very surprised that a player who received such raves for his athleticism was a healthy scratch so many times in 2013 while Terrence Cody played ahead of him. Maybe walking on your hands doesn’t translate to the football field?
CW – There was a lot of excitement about John Simon after we drafted him. He was a two-time captain at OSU, a real effort guy who took zero plays off. His intangibles seemed a perfect fit for the Ravens, plus he was a huge gym rat. But I was underwhelmed by his college tape when I looked at it last year. I didn’t think he had the size or length to be a DE or the versatility and range to convert to SAM linebacker. I felt then and I feel now that he might be a guy who slips through the cracks.
DB – I don’t have much faith in John Simon. The Ravens clearly saw something in Simon that I didn’t. Perhaps the Ravens saw a mold-able try-hard guy who will fill multiple roles on the defense. I saw an average 4-3 edge rusher who lacks counter moves and can be displaced in the run game. They could potentially move Simon to an interior linebacker spot, but he would need to be far more mobile than his tape has shown previously.
3. With the signing of Terrell Suggs to his extension, let’s talk about the OLB unit. What’s expected of Suggs now?
MR – I’m expecting him to not regress from where he is now. Yes, we saw a large drop off in sack numbers in the second half of the year. But being the best 3-4 OLB in stopping the run makes that forgivable. Suggs still does a lot of things well, sets the edge, pass defense as well. Plus, the entire defense had trouble getting to the QB so it’s possible this was a scheme issue pertaining to Dean Pees. Aside from his Achilles tear in 2012, we haven’t had to worry about his conditioning or shape coming into camp. Those days of him showing up heavy in August seem to be well behind him and that needs to continue. Ray Lewis was always training harder each offseason than he did the year before because he’s getting older, and young guys are getting faster. Suggs needs to take that page out of Lewis’ book.
MJ – Suggs will be still be the face of the defense even if he isn’t the best defensive player. He should continue to set the edge against the run and the tone for what should be an aggressive unit in 2014. He should be able to get to the quarterback as well. Even with a second half drop-off he still led the team in sacks.
CW – I think the best case scenario is Suggs gives us two more solid years of football. I don’t think his pass rushing skills are ever going to bounce back to the level we expect of him, but he’s a great edge setter and a very smart player. It would’ve been extremely difficult to find a player of Suggs’ caliber (even now) for the price we paid, so I think the team made the right move. Still, fans will be disappointed when they see more of the last half of the season (not many sacks from Dumervil/Suggs), and that’s what I expect it to look like. A stout edge setter, occasional pressures from Suggs, but not many flashy strip sacks. The team will need to get more creative to get pressure consistently.
DB – Suggs plays 3-4 OLB as a complete package. Suggs can rush the passer although he will need to progressively use more power moves relative to speed moves. Suggs can impact the run game by closing down interior holes and funneling plays to the inside. Suggs can also drop into a Curl/Flat zone to take away hot-reads too. Suggs is not DPOY caliber any longer but his versatility within his role is something the Ravens covet.
4. With Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw, Pernell McPhee, and John Simon, it’s the deepest position on the roster. What are your thoughts on those other four men behind Suggs?
MR – You know what you’re getting with Dumervil. He’s a dynamic pass rusher, but not a three down guy. Upshaw really needs to take this offseason seriously. He was grossly, noticeably overweight in OTAs, but apparently was back to where he should have been by camp. Either way, he regressed in 2013. It’ll be interesting to see where McPhee fits in. He’s a pass rusher who moved from DE to OLB. If Art Jones finds a home on another team, can we see more of McPhee back on the line again like 2012? I think Simon is a project in the works. I don’t think 2014 will be his breakout year because he won’t see the playing time behind the others. I have thought since day one that he would follow to path of Paul Kruger. He is a raw talent in need of refinement. Just a couple years of coaching, learning, look out for Simon in 2015 and 2016.
MJ – The Ravens got what they expected from Elvis, a professional ball player to pair with Suggs in chasing the opposing quarterback. Courtney Upshaw checked in with a disappointing 2013 and needs to improve in almost every phase to avoid bust status. McPhee was at least healthy last season and gave the Ravens some flexibility moving to OLB after a productive rookie season with his hand in the dirt. He feels like a player without a true position but he has shown a knack for being around the ball when given the chance. Coach Harbaugh singled out Simon by name as a player to watch for next season. They love his work ethic but where does he find time? He still looks stuck in this depth chart unless he can overtake the slumping Upshaw.
CW - Maybe I should read all of the questions before I start answering. Unfortunately I don’t think that this position is as deep as it sounds just from the name recognition. I’m happy we resigned Suggs at a discount, but the group has some question marks as a whole. I still think Upshaw is the player with the most upside at this point, and you saw above how I feel about John Simon.
DB – The OLB unit appears to remain relatively unchanged. Dumveril stood up against the run far better than I expected (and rushed the QB far better as well). Upshaw’s tape from his sophomore season was disappointing relative to the expectations I placed on him. That said, Upshaw is still a stout edge presence who generally excels at keeping his “hips to the heat” (attacking a blockers outside hip vs. the run). I mentioned my lack of trust in John Simon in Question #2. McPhee is an underrated piece but his greatest impact has been at Defensive End in pass rush situations. I characterize McPhee as a penetrator with a lot of upper-body strength. I can see McPhee replacing Arthur Jones in the middle.
5. Which players do the Ravens need to grow/mature the most next season?
MR – Brandon Williams. He was disappointing in a year where some pundits believed the third round pick could be a starter alongside Haloti Ngata. There were a couple times though that when he got his hands on someone he looked like a menace, shoving them down like rag dolls. He’s definitely going to hurt some guys. I’d like to see him play more often to gauge what he’s really made of. After 2014, the Ravens face a big question pertaining to Ngata, much like they did with Suggs this year. They would save $8.5M by releasing Ngata, but face possibly $7.5M in dead money. That really becomes option if Williams is forcing his way into his spot by out playing him.
MJ – Gino Gradkowski is the first name that comes to mind. If the Ravens run game is to improve he will need to pick up his play and show he belongs in the NFL. Bernard Pierce may also need to be healthy and ready to play a bigger role if the Ray Rice situation doesn’t work out.
CW – All of the wide receivers.
DB – I think the wide receivers will need to mature in an on-the-field sense. An emphasis on timing and precision in Kubiak’s West Coast variant should play a big role here. Marlon Brown has the most talent at wide receiver in my opinion but he has route-running and spacing issues to work out. Torrey Smith should be utilized more efficiently under Kubiak but Smith still runs flawed routes and struggles to come down with the ball in contested situations. The other receivers simply need experience.
6. The salary cap gets an unexpected jump up to $130M or more. At least $3.7M more than estimated. How does that impact things for the Ravens?
MR – I wouldn’t expect them to sign any high profile FAs. It’s just not Ozzie’s style since it costs them coveted draft picks. The Ravens always let the FA market come to them instead of making big splashes. I would like to give one of our message board posters, Mackus, a shout out for mentioning that they should try to extend Jimmy Smith and Torrey Smith. I echo that sentiment. It doesn’t lower their numbers for 2014, but it also doesn’t allow them to challenge the open market meaning they would be retained at a cheaper price. The extra space would allow room for the Ravens to give in a little bit more in negotiations to get deals done. Even without the raise in the cap, and after the Suggs savings, there should be plenty of room to get Monroe, Pitta, maybe Daryl Smith done.
MJ – It should allow the team to hold on to a few more players than expected. Maybe Sam Koch gets to stick around and perhaps there is enough space to re-sign Monroe, Pitta, and Daryl Smith. The extra space should allow the team to keep the players they really want. I will be even more interested to see how they play free agency this season though I’d expect they will look for salary cap cut players from other teams to ink at a bargain.
CW – Well, it should make re-signing some of their FAs a little less of a hassle. It makes it more likely they can bring back the trio of Monroe, Pitta, and Daryl Smith. I suppose it puts bringing Oher back into the conversation but I’m strongly against that move. It also possibly opens the door to keep Jacoby Jones, which I’d be more than okay with.
DB – The Ravens are one of the many teams that are impacted positively. The Ravens have efficiently handled the salary cap throughout their history. If the Ravens can hang onto an extra player with their increased cap, it will be a big boost. The cap increase really only negatively impacts teams that don’t spend to the cap ceiling consistently (Cleveland, Cincinnati).
7. Anyone tuned into the Underwear Olympics…I mean, NFL combine? Has anything you have seen, such as TE, Eric Ebron running a 4.50 40-yard dash made your decision easier on which way to go with the first pick?
MR – Meh, its one day. Having a great showing at the combine doesn’t mean you’re a great football player. Having a poor showing doesn’t mean you’re not a good player either. I revert back to Keenan Allen last year. He was a solid first round pick in all mock drafts. Allen skipped the combine as he recovered from an injury, and ended up going in the third round to San Diego. Then was R.O.Y. runner up to Eddie Lacy. So because he didn’t run a 40 yard dash in gym clothes, his stock takes a hit? How about the hours of game film he’s performed in? So I guess Ebron running a 4.5 is impressive. But can he do it with pads on, after catching a ball in stride? Kelvin Benjamin had nearly a 4.6 if I’m not mistaken. Not good. But maybe his technique was slightly off. Maybe he had a cold and was mouth breathing. Who knows? Crisp routes and body control can be more important than speed. Nothing at the combine has made me say, “The Ravens really need this guy.”
MJ – Lots of speed. The 40 times are off the charts and regardless of position there are so many fast ball players out there for the taking. You’d love to see the Ravens be able to get a game changer in the round one but with the receiver position being so deep you’d have to think that they can still get value in the later rounds. I will say that the more I see of Ebron, the more I like. It will be tough not grabbing him if he’s still available when the Ravens pick.
CW – I kind of abhor the combine. It’s a lot of hype, really. Especially the attention paid to the 40 times. But anyway… it seems like Mike Evans is pretty much hitting it out of the park and into the next county. He’s probably priced himself out of our pick, unfortunately. I’m against taking a TE, even Ebron, in the first round, as long as we re-sign Pitta. We can find a decent blocking tight end with good-enough speed and hands much later in the draft, and that’s really what the team could use. I think there are many other positions of need, such as safety and wide receiver, so I hope the team addresses them.
DB – The combine will not sway my opinions about draftees. The advantage of the combine for most coaches is that they come away with detailed medical histories and an idea of character. Without being privy to this information, I can’t change my decision. I do think that taking Ebron early would be a mistake. If the Ravens are serious about keeping Pitta (which we should know prior to the draft), there is no need to use a pick for a flex tight-end that could be used elsewhere.
8. We kind of have to bring this up, so I’ll keep it short. Define each of the following in one word.
MR – Ray Rice – Disappointing. Deonte Thompson – Idiot. Michael Sam – Courageous
MJ – Ray Rice – Fallen. Deonte Thompson – Cut. Michael Sam – Courage
CW – Ray Rice – Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Deonte Thompson – Exonerated (in my mind).Michael Sam – Brave
DB – Ray Rice – Declining. Deonte Thompson – Immature. Michael Sam – Average