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Five Things We Learned from the Ravens’ offseason workouts

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson talks about his preparation for the upcoming season and off-season workouts with teammates.

From the uselessness of evaluating Lamar Jackson and noncontact drills during the spring to the awesome depth of the secondary and the proven professionalism of the offensive line, here’s what we learned from the Ravens’ offseason workout:

Lamar Jackson didn’t perform impeccably, but we’re past needing to evaluate him after every practice.

Jackson’s maturation is so elemental to the Ravens’ chances of becoming a championship team that it’s tempting to grade his every move, as we did in the summers of 2018 and 2019.

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If we’re taking that approach, he delivered a couple of C/C- performances in the practices that were open to media members over the past month. Some of his outside throws wobbled. He resorted to his familiar sidearm flips on attempts that did not seem to demand unusual arm angles. He made a few poor decisions that led to turnovers. At other practices, especially the last one of mandatory minicamp, he unleashed gorgeous throws such as an exquisitely timed bomb to new deep threat Sammy Watkins.

If you were hoping for a radically different Jackson five months after the disappointing end to his 2020 season, no dice.

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And you know, so what?

Jackson’s most remarkable traits have never come across in practice, certainly not in June seven-on-seven drills designed to knock a little rust off. The talk of him developing comfort with his new receivers won’t amount to a hill of beans until we see those bonds tested by full-speed NFL defenses. The questions about his big-game poise won’t be answered until the Ravens face another win-or-go-home test in January. We can speculate whether Jackson did enough to refine his technique in the offseason — he said he focused on his footwork — but the truth is, we don’t know any more now than we did on January 16.

Jackson is a unique creative force who, at age 24, has given his team a near-automatic pass to the NFL postseason. He’s the fulcrum around whom all other Ravens swirl. He’s a work in progress.

We’re past the point where it makes any sense to micro-analyze that progress in June.

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Cornerback Marlon Humphrey, right, and safety Ar'Darius Washington are part of a deep Ravens secondary.
Cornerback Marlon Humphrey, right, and safety Ar'Darius Washington are part of a deep Ravens secondary. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The Ravens have more interesting defensive backs than they can use — exactly what you want in the modern NFL.

It’s a given, now, that Eric DeCosta and John Harbaugh will build their defense from the back line in, but we rarely saw the Ravens’ high-priced, talent-rich secondary in full bloom last season. Injuries and COVID-19 sabotaged their best-laid plans.

When the full group took the field for the first day of mandatory minicamp, we were reminded that this vision merely went on hold. A parade of defensive backs, from reserve corner Anthony Averett to dark horse roster candidate Khalil Dorsey, took over 11-on-11 drills. They barked at the offense, pressed Jackson’s receivers into mistakes and picked off multiple passes.

The stars did star things. In his first practice of the summer, Marcus Peters broke up a pass and draped his arms over Dorsey’s shoulders to offer a moment of counsel. Marlon Humphrey spoke loudly and operated with a swagger reminiscent of past Ravens defensive greats. It might seem strange to compare a cornerback to Ray Lewis, but Humphrey’s passion for football is clear, even in a summer workout no one will remember.

Slot specialist Tavon Young was back, moving well as a limited participant after a lost 2020. Third-round pick Brandon Stephens showed off his versatility at safety. Dorsey, the former undrafted free agent, made play after play as a nickel corner.

You could make decent roster cases for at least 14 defensive backs as we look ahead to training camp. Veteran Jimmy Smith, who was forced to shoulder too heavy a workload in 2020, really might get to be that luxury chess piece he was supposed to be last season.

We know attrition always seems to take a toll on this position group, so we’re tossing around pie-in-the-sky scenarios. But the stockpile looks bountiful.

"I feel like this year, it'll be a really tough decision to figure out who's going to make it," said Humphrey about the Ravens wide receiver group.

Rashod Bateman looks the part as a professional receiver.

Ravens fans have learned to be cautious with their first impressions of the team’s pass catchers. After all, former first-round pick Breshad Perriman strutted into his first NFL summer with a series of highlight-reel catches. Mark Andrews, meanwhile, looked ill-prepared for the professional game as he fought through injuries at the dawn of his Ravens career.

Perriman became one of the greatest draft busts in team history. Andrews evolved into one of the NFL’s best receiving tight ends.

OK, enough with the public service messages. Bateman missed the last practice of minicamp after falling ill with a stomach bug, but before that, he carried himself like a pro. He didn’t make circus catches in the corner of the end zone or fly downfield like an Olympic sprinter. But he did show off the footwork that had Ravens evaluators gushing after they picked him in the first round. Bateman slanted quickly in front of defenders and zipped into his next move as soon as he caught the ball.

“He looks smooth,” Jackson said. “Crisp route-running, explosive guy.”

After Bateman beat Humphrey with a move, he tapped the Pro Bowl cornerback on the backside and said: “I’ve got a little wiggle too.”

“I like that,” Humphrey said. “It shows that there’s major confidence there.”

If you examine all the great receivers in history, refined technique and healthy self-belief are probably the traits that show up most consistently. It’s way too early to say what Bateman will become for the Ravens, but he’s working with the right tools.

"If you like football and you're a real student of the game, you'll be watching that left guard battle during training camp," said Harbaugh.

The Ravens will trust in the awesome stature and proven professionalism of their revamped offensive line.

It’s largely pointless to evaluate line play based on no-contact workouts. That said, even a novice who’d never watched a snap of football could take in the wall of flesh that will protect Jackson and think: “Hmm, pretty impressive.”

With 6-foot-9, 320-pound Alejandro Villanueva protecting the right edge, 6-foot-6, 357-pound rookie Ben Cleveland competing for the left guard job and 6-foot-5, 325-pound Bradley Bozeman calling out signals from center, All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley might feel like the small guy in the room when he returns from the ankle injury that ended his 2020 season.

The Ravens will need more than bulk, of course, to eliminate the sour taste left by their disastrous blocking performance in a playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills. They spent the second half of last season scrambling to patch their offensive line, and DeCosta sought stability as much as raw power with his offseason moves.

Villanueva and right guard Kevin Zeitler are still getting accustomed to their new team, but they arrive with long track records of success and long lists of plaudits for their craftsmanship.

“All ball, all the time,” Harbaugh said. “Both those guys.”

Bozeman is cut from similar cloth. He wasn’t dominant in his two seasons as the team’s starting left guard, but he gave coaches little to worry about. They’re hoping he’ll bring the same dependability to center, which he considers his best position. The Ravens need such steadiness after a season of debilitating snapping woes.

They still have to settle on a starting left guard. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have spoken glowingly of the mountainous Cleveland, but he’ll have to win a training camp battle against Ben Powers and Tyre Phillips, both of whom started games for the Ravens in 2020. Harbaugh predicted that competition will be a treat for hard-core fans.

The Ravens also need a swing tackle they can trust, whether it’s Phillips, versatile Patrick Mekari or one of the veterans they brought in to compete in training camp.

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Ravens starting quarterback Lamar Jackson, right, had ups and downs during spring workouts. Trace McSorley, left, is in a tight battle with Tyler Huntley for the backup job.
Ravens starting quarterback Lamar Jackson, right, had ups and downs during spring workouts. Trace McSorley, left, is in a tight battle with Tyler Huntley for the backup job. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Roster battles at tight end and backup quarterback will go down to the wire.

Assuming Nick Boyle is ready, the Ravens will go into the season with one of the league’s best blocking tight ends (Boyle) and one of its best receiving tight ends (Andrews). But they’ve yet to find a third tight end to replace the athletic pass catching lost when they traded away Hayden Hurst after the 2019 season.

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If they were hoping a candidate would burst forth this summer, it hasn’t happened yet. Eli Wolf has moved well and showed reliable hands on short routes. Former third-round pick Josh Oliver, a trade acquisition from the Jacksonville Jaguars, could also be a useful pass catcher.

“Those guys are flashing; they look really athletic,” Harbaugh said after the first minicamp practice.

If the Ravens are still worried about Boyle’s knee, Eric Tomlinson would make the most sense as a block-first insurance policy. Then there’s rookie Ben Mason, who won’t be able to show off his blocking prowess until the pads go on for training camp.

Given the array of options, Harbaugh said he’s not worried about the position. He’ll just have to decide what skill set the Ravens need to complement Andrews and Boyle.

At quarterback, the competition between Tyler Huntley and Trace McSorley feels more urgent with veteran Robert Griffin III no longer in the picture. But the terms of the battle have not changed much since last summer. Huntley offers more pizazz as a runner and downfield thrower. McSorley has an extra year in Roman’s offense and has earned the trust of coaches with his command of the position. One did not clearly blow the other out of the water over the past month.

Will the Ravens keep three quarterbacks again? With the NFL approaching post-COVID normalcy, it seems less likely. So Huntley and McSorley will be under the spotlight come training camp and the preseason.

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