By July 28, when training camp is scheduled to open in Owings Mills, the Ravens should have some clarity on the future of their offseason’s biggest investment, as well as some of their newest faces. They might also have some uncertainty over how to proceed in a league — and with a roster — diminished by a pandemic.
As the Ravens step back from football for a few weeks, forces inside and outside the Under Armour Performance Center will continue to shape their season. Here are four key questions to follow in the lead-up to training camp.
Can the Ravens stay healthy in a pandemic?
Players have nearly four weeks to relax, recover and rejoice in having no more teamwide Zoom calls. But Ravens coaches and officials, wary of the coronavirus, no doubt left the team with a stern warning: Be safe.
While COVID-19 infections tend to be less severe for young people, the specter of the virus continues to hang over pro sports. The NBA and its players’ union agreed to resume play this season only after settling on a 113-page protocol for health and safety measures. Two Washington Nationals veterans opted out of baseball’s 2020 season Monday because of family concerns. Fans have been barred from attending competitions in almost every sport across the globe.
In the NFL, Denver Broncos edge rusher Von Miller, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton have all contracted the virus. Even with the league’s commitment to enforcing social distancing in team facilities and testing players for COVID-19, it will be hard to keep everyone safe. Especially when players and coaches are away from the facility.
“Unless players are essentially in a bubble — insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day — it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN last month. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”
Several Ravens standouts, including NFL Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson, live in coronavirus hot spots like Florida and Texas. Tight end Mark Andrews, who has Type 1 diabetes, could be especially at risk. The team has no known COVID-19 cases, but ESPN reported last week that about 10 other teams have had at least one player test positive.
As training camp nears, the league’s hope is that those numbers don’t surge. The NFL needs not only its stars healthy, but its rank and file, too. Jackson could miss a week of August practices and return with his 2020 ambitions unchecked. An undrafted rookie on the roster bubble wouldn’t have that safety net.
Will Matthew Judon get a long-term deal done by the deadline?
Barring the unforeseen, Judon will play in Baltimore in 2020. The Ravens have until July 15 to agree to a contract extension with their Pro Bowl outside linebacker. If they can’t, he’ll play the season on the franchise tag.
In an alternate universe where the coronavirus was contained and NFL teams were still expecting packed stadiums this season, perhaps a deal would already have been struck. But the pandemic’s financial implications are far-reaching. No one knows how far short of its projected revenue the league will fall this year, just as no one knows how far the league might go to ease next year’s salary cap bumpiness.
On paper, the Ravens are better prepared than most teams to endure hardship. Coach John Harbaugh said last week that he’s “very optimistic about the fact that we have a good cap situation going forward,” an important distinction from previous years. If Judon signs an extension, the Ravens would likely have the cap space to sign another player before camp or take on a modest midseason contract.
But he’s far from the only big-ticket player the Ravens have to make space for in their theoretical budgets. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is entering the last year of his rookie contract. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey will follow suit in 2021. Then there’s Jackson’s looming megadeal.
“I’m happy to be a Raven,” Judon said in a conference call last month. “I want to stay here for as long as I play, but I understand that it’s a business and that they’ve kind of got a ‘bad-good’ problem to have. We have a lot of young talent, and unfortunately, we can’t all stay on the rookie deal our whole careers. So they have stuff that they have to address, and obviously, I have needs as well. If we can meet and work on that, I’m A-OK with it.”
Will the Ravens have to wait even longer to sign their draft class?
At this point last year, the Ravens had signed all but one member of their 2019 draft class — wide receiver Miles Boykin, who ended up agreeing to his rookie deal in mid-July.
More than two months after the 2020 draft, general manager Eric DeCosta is at once behind that pace and ahead of much of the NFL’s. The Ravens have signed seven of their 10 draft picks; only No. 28 overall selection Patrick Queen and third-rounders Devin Duvernay and Malik Harrison do not have deals yet.
In a virtual offseason, the Ravens’ front office has managed to do what many others’ have not. Elsewhere in the AFC North, the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have combined for zero signings. The Cleveland Browns have signed just three of seven. In all, 15 NFL teams have not signed a single pick.
An NFL Player Association memo last week said 186 of 255 draft picks, or about 73%, remain unsigned. Only five of the 32 first-round picks have their contracts done. (The three teams that have signed their entire draft class — the Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots — did not have a first-round pick this year.)
Even with the coronavirus set to wreak havoc on the NFL’s books over the next year, rookie deals will likely be unaffected, as the wage scale is tied to a player’s draft slot. Expect a wave of signings when rookies finally report for training camp, where team officials can conduct physicals before deals are finalized.
How will the altered offseason affect the Ravens’ lesson plans?
Greg Roman has one of the NFL’s deepest playbooks. Now he has to try and teach it to a young offense that won’t take the field together until late July.
With organized team activities and mandatory minicamp nixed this offseason, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, special teams coordinator Chris Horton and Roman face a compressed installation period ahead of the regular season. Players can grasp only so much over a computer screen. In the NFL, the best lesson plans include on-the-job training.
Now even scheduling that will be dicey. The uncertainty over how the pandemic will affect training camp and the preseason — how long will quarantined players be sidelined for? Will all four preseason games really be played? — could force coaches to adopt a minimalist approach.
“We kind of have our internal process every year,” Roman said in a conference call last week. “We get rid of this; we might add something. … We haven’t had the luxury of the OTAs and whatnot to really kind of test-run certain things, so we have to be really judicious with how we use that time in training camp to experiment.
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“I think experimenting this year is going to be very selective. So, yes, definitely, we’ve tweaked [the playbook]. We’ve added, updated. But how much we experiment in training camp, we’re really going to have to be selective with that.”