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Mike Preston: Players like Fort are of vital importance for Ravens | COMMENTARY

National Football League teams don’t make a big deal about signing players such as inside linebacker L. J. Fort, but they are just as important in winning a championship as the stars.

Fort, 31, is a grunt guy, which is why the Ravens signed him to a one-year contract worth $1.1 million Thursday. NFL teams can’t win without them because they do the dirty work and hardly get any notoriety. That’s been the story with Fort, who is about to enter his ninth season, the past three with the Ravens.

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Last season, players such as middle linebacker Patrick Queen, outside linebacker Matthew Judon and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey were highly praised, but Fort finished sixth on the team in tackles with 53. Occasionally, he’d make a big play such as recovering a fumble, which he did for a 22-yard touchdown in Week 2 against Houston.

These are the players who help shape and develop the strong work ethic needed to win a title. Fort worked in a three-player rotation at inside or weakside linebacker with Chris Board and Malik Harrison, but it was Fort who started eight games. He was also the team’s best inside linebacker as far as coverage. The Ravens failed to pick up the 2021 option on his contract in mid-March which helped the team as far as the salary cap and made Fort a free agent.

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But they made a good move in re-signing him. He doesn’t have the physical presence of either Board or Harrison, but he has stronger instincts and gives the Ravens depth as well as competition at the position. Harrison seems destined to be the starter in the near future but was too inconsistent to be full time.

Regardless, it’s hard to find players such as Fort, who is selfless, dedicated and doesn’t care about recognition.

Keep an eye on

Besides Harrison, two other first year players to keep an eye on if the Ravens have any offseason minicamps will be defensive tackle Justin Madibuike and running back J. K. Dobbins.

The assumption here is that both Queen and Harrison will have strong offseasons in the weight room, which they desperately need. Madibuike’s early development was slowed because of injury but he has excellent potential with the size, strength, quickness and burst. He’ll push ends Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and nose guard Brandon Williams for more playing time.

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Dobbins had a strong rookie season rushing for 805 yards on 134 carries but struggled catching the ball out of the backfield late in the season. Coach John Harbaugh wants a complete running back and pass-catching and blocking are requirements.

Defensive conversations

It would be interesting to sit in on a meeting with Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and new linebackers’ coach Rob Ryan. There could be some salty and foul language coming out of those conversations.

An even better treat would be sitting at a table with Martindale, Rob Ryan and Rex, Ryan’s brother, after a few beers at a social event. Wow. Let the good times roll.

Quality opponents

One of the major advantages for the Ravens this season is that six of the nine teams that play in Baltimore in 2021 made the playoffs last season including Kansas City, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

This should get them ready for a long postseason run because they will be playing a string of quality opponents, which hasn’t always happened in the past two years. There is not a lot of concern for Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, especially since Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have arm problems again if they still ask him to thrown 40 times a game.

But if iron indeed sharpen iron, then this schedule works well for Baltimore.

As for the new implementation of the 17-game schedule, that wasn’t shocking because it’s more money for the owners. I was just glad they dropped one game from the four-game preseason format. Actually, they should have dropped one more.

Wilson’s deal

There is no sympathy here for Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson complaining about the lack of protection in the Seahawks offense the last couple of years.

Wilson signed a four-year, $140 million contract in April of 2019 and when a team pays out that much money to a quarterback, other areas on the team are left lacking, especially on offense. Seattle has good receivers, but the offensive line play has been poor.

Somewhere, you are wondering if the Ravens are thinking about this in their contract negotiations with quarterback Lamar Jackson. I wonder if Jackson is aware that signing such a deal such as Wilson’s might also be hazardous to his health.

Fresh start

Receiver A.J. Green used to be a Ravens killer when he was with the Bengals for 10 years, but he has a fresh start in Arizona this season.

It will be interesting to see how he plays because he won’t be drawing the top cornerback every week. That’s job goes to DeAndre Hopkins, but Green could put up some good statistics working in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s pass-happy offense led by quarterback Kyler Murray.

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