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Mike Preston’s Ravens observations on rehabbing players, COVID-19, Jimmy Smith’s new role and more

The virtual world isn’t always reality in the NFL.

Most of the offseason work, as far as training, conditioning and classroom time, has been done through video conferences, but it is hard to get an accurate assessment of players who suffered major injuries last season and are attempting comebacks.

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Two the biggest for the Ravens are starting center Matt Skura and cornerback Tavon Young. If both return healthy, two of the team’s strongest units from a year ago can be even stronger.

But until players can return to the team facility full-time and practice on the field, the coaching staff can only evaluate through verbal communication.

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“Matt Skura was the biggest injury we had last year, and he looks to me like he’s ahead of schedule,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said earlier this week. “[I’m] really impressed with how hard he’s worked at it, and he really looks good out there. I think it was reported that the workout we did [with] the timing and the conditioning test, he just blew the thing away, so that’s remarkable.”

Skura was part of an offensive line that was the best run-blocking group in the league last year as the Ravens set a single-season rushing record with 3,296 yards and became the first team to average at least 200 yards both passing and rushing.

Skura started the first 11 games in 2019 before suffering a season-ending knee injury against the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 25. If he can return, it allows second-year player Patrick Mekari to serve as a swingman between center and guard and increases the competition in the middle of the offensive line between Mekari, Skura, second-year player Ben Powers and rookie Ben Bredeson.

Young also would give the Ravens a lot of options. He is smart and fast enough to start at nickel but can play outside against a much bigger receiver or against a tight end in the slot.

The Ravens already have two of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey. Young missed all of last season with a neck injury.

What’s the update on Young’s injury?

“He looks healthy on the computer,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said, smiling. “He says he’s healthy. He’s ready to go. Tavon is ready to go, and if he tells me he’s ready to go, I believe in him 100%.”

And right now, that’s all the Ravens have to go on.

COVID-19 impact

Harbaugh recently downplayed a warning from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about the NFL season possibly not being played in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t think Dr. Fauci is the NFL doctor,” Harbaugh said earlier this week. “[Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer] and the doctors put our previous protocols together.”

He then went on to say, “and you can look at it any way you want to look at it, but I’m not going to run for cover and I don’t think the NFL is either.”

I would pay attention to Fauci. He is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on infectious diseases. NFL doctors are usually orthopedics who treat musculoskeletal conditions.

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Since COVID-19 has hit African-American communities hard and the NFL is predominantly black, there is more reason to pay attention to Fauci, especially with the number of linemen in the league who weigh over 300 pounds and are diabetic.

Let’s cut down on the macho talk.

Remember, “Black Lives Matter.”

Judon’s journey

Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon can be surly at times but is well-respected in the locker room.

He led the team in sacks last season with 9½. He isn’t in the class of a Terrell Suggs or Peter Boulware, but you have to respect a players who was selected in the fifth round of the 2016 draft and has become one of this team’s most talented and complete players.

When he signed a one-year tender worth nearly $18 million in late May, nobody was happier than Martindale.

“What a great story — a Division II fifth round draft choice,” Martindale said. “And let’s just call it like we see it, he’s looking at generational wealth down the road here. Signing that [franchise tag] just tells you where he’s at. He works hard. I’m excited to watch him this year. He’s ready to take his pass rushing to the next level, and I just see nothing but great things coming from Matt.”

Jimmy Smith’s new role

The Ravens have finally made the decision to move veteran Jimmy Smith from cornerback to safety, at least in certain situations.

By the end of last season, opposing teams picked on Smith, especially with Humphrey and Peters as the regular cornerbacks.

Smith, if he really is sincere about the transition, should be able to handle the job.

“It’s one of those things where it’s a wait-and-see thing. In my own mind, like I said, you’ve got to wait until you see, until you get to practice and everything else,” Martindale said. “Jimmy [Smith] has already done what Brandon Carr did last year. We put him against good tight ends to cover in special situations — whether it’s a third down, or two-minute [drill], or what have you, or different kinds of packages.

“But the thing that comes out about that is the best 11 in this defense could be … The best 11 will play, but it could be a different set of 11 for every package and match up that we want to do, with whatever situation it is.”

‘Good problems’ at running back

Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman is handling his surplus of running backs in the right way.

He has four, including starter Mark Ingram II, backup Gus Edwards, No. 3 Justice Hill and rookie J.K. Dobbins.

Hill has the toughest job, even though he’ll get plenty of playing time early in the season. But once things settle, the Ravens have to get Dobbins on the field.

Edwards has done everything the Ravens have asked, but Dobbins has a similar style and more breakaway ability. If it goes as planned, the Ravens will start grooming Dobbins for Ingram’s role next season.

“Well, I love good problems,” Roman said. “I think I’ve learned over the years, if you have good problems, bring them this way. And I say that unabashedly. Talented, hard-working players that love football – bring them on. And the fact that we have a lot of guys in our running back stable, if you will, just makes me excited to no end. I don’t think you can have enough really good running backs, and we certainly have a plethora of them.

“I’m really excited to see J.K [Dobbins], and I love the guys we already have – Mark, Gus and Justice. We’ll find ways to make it work, for sure. To have that kind of backfield is a blessing. We definitely want to get into training camp and work through it and kind of evolve as we go. As far as how we are actually going to deploy them, who we are going to emphasis [and] how, I think that’s going to happen on the fly every day in training camp, and [we’ll] get a better feel for that. But I love problems like that. I mean that sincerely.”

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