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A way-too-early Ravens 53-man roster projection: Who makes the cut?

Ravens Eric DeCosta, John Harbaugh and Joe Hortiz on this years draft picks and different draft process.

On Saturday, the Ravens officially filled out their 90-man roster, signing offensive lineman Daishawn Dixon, an undrafted free agent from San Diego State. But their offseason roster tinkering will continue.

If and when the team’s deal for free-agent guard D.J. Fluker becomes official, the Ravens will have to make space for the former Seattle Seahawks starter. There could be more comings and goings, too, as players get released, hurt or traded.

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But the backbone of the 2020 Ravens is already in place. At many positions, next season’s 53-man roster should look a lot like last season’s, even if the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement will change the team’s construction somewhat.

When the regular season begins in September — if it begins in September — rosters will expand from 53 players to 55, with teams allotted two practice squad call-ups. (Practice squad rosters also can now have up to 12 players, two more than in previous years.) On game days, teams will have 48-player rosters, up from 46, provided that there are eight offensive linemen active.

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Over four months from the Ravens’ scheduled season opener, the team’s talent is apparent: There’s a Pro Bowl player at nine position groups and a recent first-round pick at two others. With the draft done and free agency winding down, here’s a way-too-early projection of what general manager Eric DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh’s initial 53-man roster could look like.

Offense (25)

Quarterback (2): Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III

The Ravens went eight straight seasons with two quarterbacks on their initial roster. The past two years, they’ve kept three: Griffin was the veteran backup in Jackson’s rookie year, and Trace McSorley the developmental piece in 2019.

When the Ravens drafted McSorley, they envisioned him as a potential Taysom Hill-esque weapon. With Griffin seemingly well established as Jackson’s backup, this is the offseason for the former Penn State star to prove he’s a two-phase player. He was a fixture in special teams practices last season but never saw a snap there, even when active in Week 17.

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If McSorley shines in the preseason again — or whatever replaces it amid the coronavirus pandemic — he’d be hard to stash on the practice squad. But the undrafted Tyler Huntley, an All-Pac-12 Conference player at Utah, has a similar dual-threat skill set and should fit the Ravens’ scheme well.

Running back (4): Mark Ingram II, Gus Edwards, J.K. Dobbins, Justice Hill

DeCosta has indicated that all three veteran running backs have a place on next year’s team, comparing the team’s depth there to what the Ravens had at tight end last year with Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst.

It’s a lot easier to find playing time for multiple tight ends than multiple running backs, but the Ravens are well prepared in case of injury. That seems DeCosta’s main concern: He told season-ticket holders last week that “you’d be hard-pressed” to find a Ravens team whose starting running back stayed healthy over the course of the season.

If one of the backs wants, like Hurst, a bigger role elsewhere, the market for a productive player coming from the Ravens’ system would be interesting. Of the 13 teams to trade a running back over the past five seasons, only one received better than a fourth-round pick. The Cleveland Brown sent Duke Johnson, an established receiving threat, to the Houston Texans in August for what became a third-rounder.

Elsewhere, Arizona Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake was averaging under 4 yards per carry when he was dealt in October for a fifth-round pick. The Chicago Bears traded Jordan Howard, coming off a career-low 3.7 yards per carry, for a sixth-round pick last offseason. The Miami Dolphins swapped Jay Ajayi midway through the 2017 season for a fourth-round pick despite modest production (3.4 yards per carry).

Tight end/fullback (4): Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Patrick Ricard, Jacob Breeland

It’s hard to see the Ravens, who used at least two tight ends on over 40% of their plays in 2019, according to Sharp Football Stats, entering the season with just two full-time players at the position. If Jackson’s finding targets over the middle of the field, the throws he’s best at, he’s a devastatingly efficient passer.

Hurst’s departure leaves a void; at least his replacement will be cheap. Practice squad player Charles Scarff was solid in training camp last year, but there’s maybe a higher ceiling with the Ravens’ two new undrafted rookies. Before a mid-October knee injury at Oregon last season, Breeland was on pace for almost 850 receiving yards. Georgia product Eli Wolf has good size and potentially elite speed (hand-timed 4.43-second 40-yard dash).

Ricard, meanwhile, is a Pro Bowl fullback who can help out along the defensive line. It’s hard to see the Ravens keeping a second fullback, but undrafted rookie Bronson Rechsteiner (Kennesaw State) should be a fan favorite.

Wide receiver (6): Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Willie Snead IV, Miles Boykin, Devin Duvernay, James Proche, Chris Moore

As with the team’s top four running backs, the Ravens’ top four receivers are seemingly well established. There are high hopes for second-year players Brown and Boykin. Snead is a reliable slot receiver and tireless blocker. Duvernay is a third-round pick with field-stretching speed.

The depth chart after that is up for grabs. Team officials have raved about Proche’s hands, and he’ll enter training camp as one of the favorites at punt returner. But if the Ravens find a better option there and the sixth-round pick struggles to adjust to the speed of the game on offense, his 2020 role becomes less certain.

Given Harbaugh’s roster priorities, Moore could turn out to be this season’s Justin Bethel, a skill position player whose primary contributions are on special teams coverage units. De’Anthony Thomas ended last season as the Ravens’ starting kickoff and punt returner, and that remains his path to a job in 2020.

Jaleel Scott can contribute on special teams, too, and it’s too early to rule out contributions as a receiver. But time is running out for the former fourth-round pick, who had a strong 2019 preseason, then got just 17 offensive snaps all season.

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Offensive tackle (3): Ronnie Stanley, Orlando Brown Jr., Tyre Phillips

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Even with a pair of Pro Bowl tackles protecting Jackson, the Ravens need reliable backups. James Hurst is gone, and Andre Smith’s ability at age 33 is a question mark. Phillips, who played tackle at Mississippi State but might fit best as an NFL guard, can cross-train at the positions while the team figures out his future.

The Ravens entered last season with four offensive tackles but had them only briefly; Greg Senat was waived after Week 1 to make way for cornerback Maurice Canady. There should be emergency options on the roster, too, most notably Patrick Mekari, who started 22 games at left tackle for California.

Interior offensive line (6): Bradley Bozeman, D.J. Fluker, Matt Skura, Patrick Mekari, Ben Powers, Ben Bredeson

If the Ravens expect Skura to play at some point this year, they’d have to keep him on their initial roster. After that, they could place him on injured reserve and free up a roster spot. (With three players now allowed to return from IR, there’s more wiggle room for teams.)

Of course, if there’s a unifying theme at this position, it’s that anything could happen. Other than Fluker and perhaps Powers, every player could start anywhere along the interior. Skura and Mekari started at center last season but have experience elsewhere. Bozeman started at left guard but played mainly center in college. Bredeson started at left guard for Michigan but could move to center.

If injuries or inconsistency leave an opening here, an undrafted rookie could find his way onto the roster. Trystan Colon-Castillo (Missouri), Sean Pollard (Clemson) and Evan Adams (Syracuse) were all longtime starters in college.

Defense (25)

Defensive line (5): Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe, Justin Madubuike, Broderick Washington Jr.

The numbers game here is tough to predict. In 2018, the Ravens kept six defensive linemen on their initial roster. Last year, they had just four — plus Ricard. This allotment splits the difference.

After adding Campbell and Wolfe this offseason, the Ravens’ starting front is all but locked in. Madubuike should be in the mix early as a rotational lineman. Then it gets complicated.

Williams will return to nose tackle this season, but can the defense get away with not having another big body behind him? Daylon Mack, a fifth-round pick in 2019, played in just one game last season and spent half the year on injured reserve. Midseason acquisition Justin Ellis played in four of seven overall in Baltimore. Campbell has experience as a one-technique (lined up over the center’s outside shoulder), but mainly on passing downs.

Washington is not a dynamic pass rusher, but he can help replace Chris Wormley’s run-stopping contributions at defensive end. If the Ravens had to pick between him, Mack and Ellis, it’d be hard to fault them for going with the one lineman who doesn’t have a knee injury in his medical history. (It might be easier to sneak Mack onto the practice squad, too.)

Undrafted rookie Aaron Crawford doesn’t have the size to play nose tackle, but he was one of college football’s best run-stopping interior linemen last season for North Carolina.

Outside linebacker (5): Matthew Judon, Jaylon Ferguson, Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee, Jihad Ward

The Ravens have entered the past three seasons with five outside linebackers on their roster, and it’s setting that way up again. If Bowser’s productive and McPhee’s healthy, it’d be hard to keep them out of the rotation. Ward might not be a pure outside linebacker, but that’s not a handicap in this system.

With Judon not signed to a long-term deal and only Ferguson under contract beyond this year, the Ravens could have as much turnover at outside linebacker next offseason as they’ve had at inside linebacker in 2020. Finding some talented newcomers would help. Undrafted rookie Chauncey Rivers was a versatile edge rusher at Mississippi State last season, and John Daka earned All-America honors for Football Championship Subdivision power James Madison.

Inside linebacker (4): L.J. Fort, Patrick Queen, Malik Harrison, Otaro Alaka

Adding two of the draft’s top linebacker prospects should help shore up the position, in both the short and long term. It should also make the veteran battles for a roster spot even more competitive.

The Ravens haven’t had more than four inside linebackers on their initial roster since 2015, when Albert McClellan and Zachary Orr’s special teams value made them indispensable. With safety Chuck Clark’s ability to play in the box, the front office might even consider taking just three, as it did in 2016. (Chris Carter and McClellan were considered outside linebackers that year but had experience inside.)

Among the team’s veterans, Fort has a leg up; he has the most starting experience in the Ravens’ system, though it’s just eight games. Health and special teams contributions will be important. Fort had more special teams snaps than defensive snaps in seven games last season, and Board has been a steady presence there since 2018. Offseason signing Jake Ryan, who’s played just two games over the past two seasons, has significant special teams experience, too.

The Ravens aren’t bound by positional conventions, but if they want a second strong-side linebacker paired with weak-side linebackers Queen and Fort, Alaka could be the favorite. Like Harrison, he has the size (6 foot 3, 239 pounds) to take on bigger blockers, and DeCosta praised him in the call with season-ticket holders last week. Unlike Board, he missed most of last season with a hamstring injury and hasn’t played an NFL snap.

Kristian Welch, an All-Big Ten Conference honorable mention at Iowa last season, could be a dark horse here.

Cornerback (6): Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Tavon Young, Jimmy Smith, Anthony Averett, Iman Marshall

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The Ravens are investing nearly $34 million in their cornerbacks in 2020, according to salary cap database Over The Cap. Their top four corners will rival those of any team. Averett and Marshall, both fourth-round picks, might not be needed often on defense this season, but they can make a mark on special teams.

Given the injury history at the position, don’t rule out an unfamiliar name making the roster. Terrell Bonds was a practice squad player last year. Josh Nurse (Utah) has good size for an outside cornerback, and fellow undrafted rookie Khalil Dorsey (Northern Arizona) could find a role as a slot corner.

Safety (5): Earl Thomas III, Chuck Clark, DeShon Elliott, Anthony Levine Sr., Geno Stone

If the worst of Thomas’ offseason is behind him, he’ll still have a job in Baltimore this season. Clark’s role this season might change with the Ravens’ additions at inside linebacker, but he’s a versatile, intelligent safety.

The pecking order behind them is still to be determined. Elliott is coming off a season-ending knee injury and has played just 40 defensive snaps over two NFL seasons. Levine is a reliable special teams performer and, at age 33, a durable defensive back-linebacker hybrid. Stone’s average athleticism could limit his rookie-year contributions at safety, but the seventh-round pick should battle Jordan Richards for a special teams role.

Nigel Warrior, the son of former Ravens cornerback Dale Carter, earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors last season at Tennessee and is another undrafted rookie to watch.

Special teams (3)

Specialists: Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, Morgan Cox

If there’s a force that can break up the “Wolfpack” — time, competition, natural disaster, a witch’s curse — the Ravens haven’t seen it yet. They’ve been together for eight years now. Expect a ninth.

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