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Mike Preston

Mike Preston’s Ravens mailbag on contract questions for Roquan Smith and Lamar Jackson, James Proche II’s role and more | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston will answer fans’ questions throughout the Ravens season. With Baltimore entering a Week 10 bye after defeating the New Orleans Saints, 27-13, on “Monday Night Football,” plenty of questions remain before a Week 11 matchup against the Carolina Panthers.

Here’s Preston’s take:

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(Editor’s note: Questions have been edited for length and clarity.)

Whatever happened in the locker room at halftime for the Tampa Bay game must have been one heck of a meeting because the Ravens came out in second half like someone else started calling the plays. Are you confident the coaching staff has finally seen the light for the rest of the season now on the way to attack?

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— Paul in Orlando

Preston: Each year, every team has to develop its own identity. Regardless of tradition or what has happened in recent years, it takes time to develop one, especially since the Ravens started the season without their two top running backs, J. K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, and their Pro Bowl left tackle, Ronnie Stanley. They also had a new center in rookie Tyler Linderbaum.

So, realistically, I expected the Ravens to be all over the place for a while before things settled down. I think at halftime of the Tampa Bay game, the Ravens figured out they weren’t going to win with quarterback Lamar Jackson throwing 30 times in the first two quarters. Contrary to what coach John Harbaugh said, the Ravens didn’t go into the game thinking they were going to throw that much so early. No way.

Logic has prevailed, and the Ravens are back where they need to be. They have an offense built around Jackson and the running game, and they want to limit Jackson’s passing attempts to increase their chances of winning.

Do you think the Ravens overpaid for inside linebacker Roquan Smith, especially since they love draft picks? If the Ravens cannot sign him to a long-term contract, he will become a midseason rental. With Lamar Jackson being owed a massive contract, and Smith hitting free agency at the same (not to mention other Ravens), how can they possibly satisfy everyone?

— Bob K.

Preston: I like the deal and what Smith has brought to the Ravens. They are only paying him $575,000 this season and gave the Chicago Bears second- and fifth-round draft picks. Between now and April’s draft, I’m sure the Ravens will be able to secure at least another fifth-round pick.

Overpaid?

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If this deal continues to work out, there is no price too high for what Smith brings to this team. Even before he left Georgia, he was known as a player who studied a lot of film. He has enough strength to engage and get off blocks, as well as the ability to run sideline to sideline. When watching him play against New Orleans on Monday night, I liked the way he could slide, leverage blocks and get big in the gaps. On one play, he covered Saints star running back Alvin Kamara and made the tackle. The Ravens haven’t had that type of presence in the middle for nearly 10 years.

By the second half, he was aligning the other linebackers. This defense has been short on playmakers for several years now. The Ravens have some good players, but not that special player who makes those around him better.

If Smith’s performance against New Orleans was an aberration, then I can’t wait to see what he does in the other eight games.

Inside linebacker Roquan Smith, who the Ravens acquired from the Bears before the Nov. 1 trade deadline for second- and fifth-round draft picks, is a pending free agent after the season.

Do you think that there is any possibility that the Ravens franchise tag Lamar Jackson so they can sign Roquan Smith to a new contract?

— Jim Lahman

Preston: I’m sure general manager Eric DeCosta thought this out before acquiring Smith, who is a pending free agent, and I would assume putting the franchise tag on Jackson is an option.

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To be honest, I’m not sure Jackson wouldn’t mind going back to play in his home state of Florida. It’s apparent that neither side wants to budge off Jackson asking for a fully guaranteed contract, but let’s see how far the Ravens advance in the playoffs this season. That could change the dynamics of the negotiations.

If the Ravens place the exclusive franchise tag on Jackson, he would make a projected $46 million in 2023, which would put him in the range of the Cleveland Browns’ Deshaun Watson and the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen as far as average annual salary. That certainly might free up money for Smith, but that move might not be welcomed in Baltimore.

For those who traveled to New Orleans, did anyone catch how many fans were wearing Jackson jerseys? Since the team moved to Baltimore in 1996, I’ve never seen the Ravens have a larger fan base on the road.

Whether you like it or not, Lamar mania is real.

If the Ravens ultimately determine that signing Lamar Jackson to a long-term contract is not an option, what is Plan B?

— Alan Robinson

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Preston: Plan B and Plan C would be for the Ravens to trade Jackson. Can that happen? Anything can happen in pro sports. Anything.

After the bye week, I believe the Ravens will need to decide on Charlie Kolar. If he is activated/added to the 53-man roster, who do you expect to be the odd man out of the tight end corps? On the face of it, based on playing time so far this season, one would assume Nick Boyle.

— Paul in Orlando

Preston: Paul, I think you are correct. Boyle is a favorite of Harbaugh’s and the entire organization respects the progress he has made in coming back from several major leg injuries, but he was never a good receiver and has lost power as a blocker. That was his forte. Kolar is big and strong and the Ravens could use him in the running game.

Starting tight end Mark Andrews is the top receiver on the team and a lot of his injuries are the result of being asked to block. If Kolar can handle some of those assignments, that might help keep Andrews healthier.

Ravens wide receiver James Proche II, a sixth-round draft pick in 2020, could take on a bigger role in the second half of the season.

Do you think James Proche II will have a bigger role? You know Harbs has gotta sell his projection that Proche was in the plans all along and he is slated to get more targets and become a bigger part of the game plan.

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— Turtle Dove

Preston: Proche and Harbaugh have a weird relationship. Sometimes I think Proche is still around because he is protected by DeCosta, who drafted him in the sixth round in 2020. I’ve always liked the kid. He doesn’t have great speed, but has enough suddenness to get a one- or two-step advantage against a defender going in or coming out of a break. He might have the best hands on the team.

But Harbaugh coaches and sees Proche on a daily basis, and there might be something we’re missing. If he leaves Baltimore, I still think he could be a good fit as a slot receiver for a lot of teams, especially the New England Patriots or the Los Angeles Rams. But here in Baltimore, Proche is like No. 4 option behind Andrews, Devin Duvernay and Rashod Bateman — when Bateman is healthy.

If Proche helps the Ravens in the second half of the season, it would not be a surprise to me.

As we face the bye week and a softer schedule looming, what are the top 1-2 areas that the Ravens really need to improve in order to maximize their chances of making it to the big dance? Include play calling, use of specific players, areas where we still need help (e.g., wide receiver, etc). You have the magic wand, Mike, so what do you do?

— Mike

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Preston: Mike, I am planning on writing about that either Monday or Tuesday next week. You won’t be surprised, but tune in anyway. I’ll be waving the wand.

Have a question for Preston? Email sports@baltsun.com with the “Ravens mailbag” in the subject line and they could be answered in The Sun.


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