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Why 2019 will be a make-or-break season for these 10 Ravens

Why 2019 will be a make-or-break season for these 10 Ravens
Ravens running back Kenneth Dixon has shown flashes of promise when he has been able to stay on the field. He is one of a number of Ravens facing make-or-break camps. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

A year is a long time in the arc of a typical NFL career or team. Think back to the Ravens at this time in 2018. Players we now take for granted as building blocks — Patrick Onwuasor, Orlando Brown Jr., Mark Andrews — were seen as uncertain prospects. Others whom we viewed as essential — Joe Flacco, C.J. Mosley, Michael Crabtree — are long gone.

So as we prepare for the beginning of another training camp this week, let’s guess which Ravens will face the greatest prospects for change over the next year. These aren’t necessarily players fighting for their NFL lives in camp, though some of them are. Rather, they’re the make-or-break candidates who could alter their own fates and the fate of the defending AFC North champions.

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Running back Kenneth Dixon has played in just 18 games in three seasons for the Ravens.
Running back Kenneth Dixon has played in just 18 games in three seasons for the Ravens.
Kenneth Dixon

By signing free agent Mark Ingram and drafting speedy Justice Hill, the Ravens sent a clear signal they were not satisfied with their mix at running back last season, despite the backfield’s stellar production down the stretch. Their moves kicked off immediate speculation that Dixon would have to fight for his roster spot this summer, even after he averaged 5.6 yards per carry in six games last season. The doubts about Dixon are understandable given that he’s played just 18 games in three seasons because of injuries and suspensions. But he’s only 25, and he can really run. Don’t forget he was the team’s best back in its tense, playoff-clinching win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 17. Dixon could end up on another team, or we could see him grinding out key yards at M&T Bank Stadium in December. He’s a true wild card.

Ravens wide-receiver Chris Moore catches a pass during OTA at the Under Armour Performance Center.
Ravens wide-receiver Chris Moore catches a pass during OTA at the Under Armour Performance Center. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)
Chris Moore

He spent much of 2018 as an afterthought after the Ravens re-tooled their receiving corps with a trio of free agents. But with Crabtree and John Brown out of the picture and first-round pick Marquise Brown slowed by a Lisfranc injury, Moore will finally have a chance to show what he can do as a featured NFL receiver. To his credit, Moore made himself essential to the Ravens as a productive special-teams performer. He yearns to continue in that all-around role. But for the first time, he perceives an opportunity to assert himself as a veteran in the receivers’ room. With free agency looming next offseason, the stakes could not be higher.

Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce showed up out of shape to offseason team workouts.
Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce showed up out of shape to offseason team workouts. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)
Michael Pierce

He probably would have been on the list anyway, because he’s entering a contract year and because he played like a burgeoning star last season. But Pierce put a bull’s-eye on himself when he showed up for mandatory mini-camp overweight enough that Ravens coach John Harbaugh felt compelled to pull him off the practice field. His conditioning will be a story entering training camp, and he could cost himself millions of dollars if he doesn’t erase the questions quickly. Not to mention the Ravens need Pierce mashing in the middle if they’re to repeat their defensive excellence from 2018.

Matt Skura

He played well enough in his first season as a starting center that the Ravens felt comfortable entering 2019 with him as the projected regular. But the perception lingers that Skura is an adequate solution who could be upgraded in any given offseason. The Ravens favor powerhouse interior blockers such as their previous starting center, Ryan Jensen. Skura doesn’t fit that mold, though he’s an intelligent, versatile player. Can he take a step forward and dissuade competition? Or will the Ravens have moved on by this time next year?

Linebacker Matthew Judon has shown flashes of brilliance for the Ravens defense.
Linebacker Matthew Judon has shown flashes of brilliance for the Ravens defense. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)
Matthew Judon

He’s already made it in the sense that we all know how essential he is to a defense that lost its other top pass rushers in free agency. But Judon could earn himself an enormous amount of money — look at the $66 million former teammate Za’Darius Smith bagged — if he increases his production just a bit in 2019. He could become an institutional Raven or a hot free-agent commodity. To do either, he’ll have to play consistently throughout the season instead of dominating in bursts as he did in 2017 and 2018.

Tyus Bowser/Tim Williams

It’s impossible to talk about one of these third-year linebackers without talking about the other. The Ravens thought they’d restocked their pass rush with a defense-first draft in 2017. Early returns seemed promising as Bowser flashed his all-around talent and Williams zipped by blockers coming off the edge. But neither player has produced in games, and Williams has struggled to convince coaches he even belongs in their plans for Sundays. The Ravens could certainly use a breakout season from either linebacker after Smith and Terrell Suggs took their pass-rushing talents to other cities. Coaches have said Bowser and Williams will have their chances. If they don’t emerge now, then when?

Veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith enters training camp with the Ravens the healthiest has been in years.
Veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith enters training camp with the Ravens the healthiest has been in years. (Wade Payne / AP)
Jimmy Smith

Some assumed the Ravens would cut their longtime No. 1 cornerback to save money for other needs. Instead, they opted to maintain an enormous investment in their secondary, which for a second straight season will feature three starting-caliber outside corners. As he approaches his 31st birthday, Smith doesn’t have to prove his talent, but this has been his quietest, healthiest run-up to a season in several years. And he would surely like to play well enough to earn himself one more substantial NFL contract. Marlon Humphrey is the rising star and Brandon Carr the reliable veteran, but at his best, Smith still might be the Ravens’ best option to shadow a superstar receiver one-on-one.

Kenny Young

He adapted quickly enough as a rookie to mark himself a potential NFL starter. But Young must improve in his second season or risk being passed by Chris Board, who had coaches buzzing with his performance in offseason workouts. Harbaugh said both players will see time beside Onwuasor as the Ravens adjust to a post-Mosley world. Young particularly needs to improve in coverage, where he often looked out of sorts, if he wants to be an every-down player.

Hayden Hurst

The Ravens will give their 2018 first-round pick every chance to blossom over the next few seasons. And it’s important to remember that Hurst did not get a fair shot at his rookie season because of a foot injury. But if he doesn’t step forward quickly, he could become third man in a tight-end rotation that features an incredibly promising receiver in Andrews and a stellar blocker in Nick Boyle. Hurst put on 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason and seems eager to leave last season behind. Will he reassert himself as the rising talent who impressed so many of us during training camp last summer?

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