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Five Things We Learned from the Ravens’ OTAs and minicamp

From Lamar Jackson's clear but uneven progress to the secondary's collective swagger, here are five things we learned from the Ravens' OTAs and minicamp.

From Lamar Jackson's clear but uneven progress to the secondary's collective swagger, here are five things we learned from the Ravens' organized team activities and minicamp.

Lamar Jackson has progressed, but the overall conversation about him won’t change anytime soon.

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The immediate future of the franchise hinges on Jackson’s development. He’s the starting point for a comprehensively reimagined offense and the face that could inspire a new generation of Ravens fans.

“Box office,” safety Earl Thomas said Thursday, when asked his initial impressions of the second-year quarterback.

None of those grand ambitions will come to fruition, however, if Jackson cannot evolve into a competent NFL passer. So every one of his throws over the past four weeks drew disproportionate scrutiny.

After months of offseason work with his private passing coach, Joshua Harris, Jackson threw with more authority than he did at this time last year. He stepped into his attempts more consistently and found his outside targets more regularly. He saved his best performance for the last day of minicamp, firing a succession of precise scoring throws when the team practiced its red-zone packages.

But Jackson also reverted to some of the troubling habits that have inspired questions about his long-term potential as a passer. His throws still fluttered at times. He still resorted to side-arm flips for no obvious reason. He still risked interceptions with odd decisions, such as the pass he threw against his body on the dead run Thursday.

Coaches and teammates have done nothing but build Jackson up, saying they trust in his will to improve and his ability to win games. “He’s a much better player than he was a year ago,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “And he’ll be a much better player at the end of training camp than he is right now.”

But fans should not expect to see an entirely different quarterback when the Ravens take the field in Miami for the Sept. 8 regular-season opener. For all his inspiring traits, Jackson will make amateurish throws that cause his sharpest critics to bemoan the future. On certain key possessions, he’ll trust his legs more than his arm. And every week, we’ll engage in another debate about how far the Ravens can go with him as their franchise player.

Ravens safety Earl Thomas is interviewed at the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills.
Ravens safety Earl Thomas is interviewed at the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills. (Xavier Plater / Baltimore Sun)

The Ravens secondary might live up to the hype.

The Ravens lost as much defensive talent as any team in the league, from pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith to All-Pro middle linebacker C.J. Mosley to back-end signal caller Eric Weddle.

They responded not by filling all those holes but by doubling down on their heavy investment in the defensive backfield. They targeted Thomas, a potential Hall of Fame safety, as their top free-agent acquisition and made Tavon Young one of the highest paid slot cornerbacks in football. They stuck with veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith when they could have saved $9.5 million against the salary cap by cutting him, meaning they’ll go into another season with three starting-caliber outside corners.

No team is spending a higher percentage of its cap on the secondary. So this group better perform.

Well, so far so good. The Ravens’ vast collection of defensive backs racked up interceptions and played with a collective swagger over the three days of mandatory minicamp.

Thomas showed few ill effects from the broken leg that ended his 2018 season, prowling toward receivers with purposeful menace. He fell into an easy rhythm with his new backfield partner, Tony Jefferson. Smith appeared to be in terrific condition after an injury-free offseason. Second-year safety DeShon Elliott covered huge swaths of ground and talked trash with tight end Mark Andrews during Thursday’s final practice.

Elliott’s performance illustrated the true strength of this group, defined less by a few top-end stars than by wave after wave of quality players. The Ravens know the perils of confronting the pass-happy modern NFL with a threadbare secondary. If they were going to overstock a position group, they picked the right one.

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Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor talks about the first two days of their offseason workouts at the Under Armour Performance Center.
Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor talks about the first two days of their offseason workouts at the Under Armour Performance Center. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Patrick Onwuasor has embraced his role as the team’s only sure thing at inside linebacker.

The Ravens never did sign a veteran middle linebacker to fill Mosley’s shoes. That was partly because the market did not yield an obvious fit, but also because the team’s coaches have faith in Onwuasor to step forward.

The converted safety established himself as a big-play threat beside Mosley last season but seemed out of sorts the one time he was asked to fill in as chief on-field signal caller. Onwuasor, a naturally shy figure in the locker room, said that won’t be a problem this time around.

“It kind of is enjoyable,” he said of his enhanced role. “The guys look up to you, and the guys, everybody turns to you for direction if they need to know where they need to go and things like that, and you have to be able to show them. I kind of like it.”

When defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale discussed his inside linebackers this week, he listed Onwuasor as the lone sure thing, a remarkable vote of confidence in a player who came to the Ravens as an undrafted free agent with no sure path to playing time.

Harbaugh said Kenny Young and Chris Board will likely rotate at weak-side linebacker, with Anthony Levine Sr. also providing support in some packages.

Board has drawn praise from teammates and coaches for the speed with which he’s played over the past four weeks.

“He can run. I mean, my goodness, he can run,” Martindale said. “He played out in a lot of space at North Dakota State really as a nickel, and now he’s starting to … His instincts are really showing up as an inside ’backer.”

Don’t be surprised if Board, another former undrafted free agent, ultimately beats out Young.

From left, Ravens defensive tackle Willie Henry, offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and defensive tackle Michael Pierce (97) jog during warm ups shortly before Pierce was removed from the field during minicamp at the Ravens' training facility June 11, 2019.
From left, Ravens defensive tackle Willie Henry, offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and defensive tackle Michael Pierce (97) jog during warm ups shortly before Pierce was removed from the field during minicamp at the Ravens' training facility June 11, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Contract years produce divergent experiences, as Michael Pierce and Matthew Judon demonstrated.

Neither Pierce nor Judon showed up for voluntary OTAs. And though neither player gave a specific reason, it’s common practice for impending free agents as they seek to avoid risk and hasten contract negotiations.

As it turned out, however, the two standout defenders handled their time away from the Ravens’ training facility very differently.

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After Pierce walked on the field to warm up Tuesday, Harbaugh took one look at his bulging physique and deemed him unfit to participate. Pierce did not show his face at practice the rest of the week, and he’ll probably have to lose substantial weight to convince the Ravens he’s ready for training camp in late July.

It’s the worst start possible for Pierce as he pushes for a contract that could set him up for the rest of his life. He has established himself as a potentially dominant interior defender but only in a part-time role. Now, the most important season of his career will be framed by questions about his dedication and fitness. No one wishes this on the former undrafted free agent, who’s been a pleasure to deal with since the day he set foot in Baltimore. But Pierce’s experience reminds us how tenuous an NFL ascent can be.

Judon, by contrast, arrived looking lean, strong (credit daily workouts on his Peloton bike) and ready to fill his expected role as the team’s top pass rusher. He deflected questions about his impending free agency but left little question he’s focused on the prize.

“This is our job,” he said when asked how he kept himself in shape while he was away. “This is our life. I have a daughter, a wife, and I have to take care of them. This is what I do.”

Ravens wide receiver Antoine Wesley runs a drill during practice Thursday, June 6, 2019, in Owings Mills.
Ravens wide receiver Antoine Wesley runs a drill during practice Thursday, June 6, 2019, in Owings Mills. (Gail Burton / AP)

Antoine Wesley and Terrell Bonds made early splashes as overlooked free agents.

Every year, the Ravens’ offseason practices seem to produce a short list of unexpected candidates to compete for roster spots in training camp.

Wesley went undrafted despite his massive production as an All-American wide receiver at Texas Tech last season. He’ll face an uphill battle to earn a roster spot given the presence of fellow rookie receivers Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Miles Boykin. But the 6-foot-4 Wesley certainly did all he could to imprint himself on coaches’ minds with a series of spectacular catches and downfield dashes.

On the other side of the ball, the 5-8 Bonds made himself the talk of camp when he intercepted Jackson twice Wednesday. He played most recently for the Memphis Express of the defunct Alliance of American Football and had to try out to earn his spot on the Ravens’ 90-man roster. Bonds faces an even steeper challenge than Wesley given the team’s secondary depth. But Martindale praised him for making an impression at multiple backfield positions.

One important caveat — these no-pads practices offer limited opportunities for power-oriented players to shine. For example, rookie linebacker Jaylon Ferguson thrived primarily as a bull rusher at Louisiana Tech. Deprived of the chance to play that way in minicamp, he did not stand out.

But of the many receivers and defensive backs given ample chances to excel, Wesley and Bonds improved their stock the most.

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