Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s pronouncement Tuesday that James Hurst sits atop the depth chart at right tackle caused consternation among some fans who either are hung up on Hurst’s past struggles as a fill-in left tackle or haven’t forgiven the 2014 undrafted free agent for getting pushed back into quarterback Joe Flacco’s knee during the 2015 season.
Hurst, who eschewed the open market to sign a four-year deal with the Ravens this month, seemed to find a home at left guard this past season, so it’s fair to question whether this is the right move for both the player and team. But there are two things worth remembering: One, Hurst is a different player than he was earlier in his career when he was overmatched at times on the edge; and two, just because a player is No. 1 on the depth chart now doesn’t mean that’s where he’ll be in mid-July when the Ravens report for training camp.
To the first point, Hurst has worked extremely hard to get bigger and stronger. He’s also a more confident player who benefited this past year from regularly preparing as a starter and knowing where he was going to line up every Sunday. Whether he’s developed more quickness and improved footwork to deal regularly with some of the top edge rushers remains to be seen, and that obviously is what will matter. However, he should be better equipped and prepared for this assignment than he was earlier in his career.
As for the second point, starting spots aren’t decided in late March. Harbaugh has always said the team will play the best five offensive linemen. Right now, Hurst is clearly one of the team’s five best linemen. That could change, though, in the weeks ahead.
The Ravens could re-sign Austin Howard, a 16-game starter at right tackle last season. It’s tough to imagine that Howard would come back as a reserve. There’s also a decent chance the Ravens take a tackle in next month’s draft, possibly as early as the 16th overall pick. If they snag Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey or Texas’ Connor Williams in the first round, it’s probably a safe bet that either would be lining up as the starting right tackle in September.
Challenge of RFAs
Staying true to general manager Ozzie Newsome’s vow to “turn over every stone” in an effort to rebuild the receiving corps, the Ravens hosted restricted free-agent wide receivers Willie Snead of the New Orleans Saints and Cameron Meredith of the Chicago Bears last week. The team didn’t immediately sign either to a contract tender, but that doesn’t mean they won’t.
Restricted free agents can sign offer sheets with teams all the way up until a week before the draft. The problem — and it’s especially pertinent to the Ravens, who don’t have a lot of salary cap space — is structuring a deal the free agent’s original team won’t match.
The Ravens are said to be high on Meredith, but the Bears, who have nearly $30 million of salary cap space compared with the Ravens’ $11 million, probably wouldn’t have much trouble matching whatever the Ravens could offer. That, of course, is assuming Chicago wants to retain the player, and if it doesn’t, that’s probably telling as well.
The best bet might be for the Ravens to see whether they can entice the Bears with a draft pick for Meredith, but that might not work either.
Ten quick thoughts
1) Harbaugh saying that cornerback Jimmy Smith is probably a bit ahead of schedule in his return from December Achilles tendon surgery and could be ready for training camp is great news for the Ravens. Given Smith’s injury history, it’s also far too early for the Ravens to breathe a sigh of relief.
2) Good stat from Pro Football Focus: The Ravens no longer have on their roster players who combined for 189 targets last season. That’s the most “unaccounted for targets” in the NFL. The Bears have the second most at 171.
3) Mike Wallace didn’t have a great reputation when he arrived in Baltimore, but it’s amazing how quickly the wide receiver changed that perception. Wallace was a huge favorite among teammates, coaches and reporters for his honesty, sense of humor, friendly disposition and on-field competitiveness. In signing a modest deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, Wallace again did something that contrasts with the perception of him earlier in his career. He left money on the table elsewhere because he wanted to go where he felt he had the best chance to win that elusive Super Bowl. Kudos to Wallace, who will be missed in the Ravens locker room.
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4) Tight end Clive Walford, who was released Tuesday by the Oakland Raiders, has some upside and decent speed, and he wouldn’t cost the Ravens a compensatory draft pick to sign. Assuming the price is right, I’d have to think the Ravens will at least kick the tires on him.
5) With the owners meetings in the rearview mirror, expect the Ravens to start bringing in some players on predraft visits in the very near future.
6) With Harbaugh acknowledging that the team still isn’t sure what it will do at backup quarterback and the team failing to sign one of the many veteran signal callers who have been plucked off the free-agent market, the Ravens sure are acting like an organization that plans on taking a quarterback at some point in the 2018 draft. If I’m a betting man, I’d predict that it happens in the range of the third to fourth round.
7) According to ESPN, Ravens free-agent tight end Benjamin Watson recently had a visit with the New Orleans Saints after reports arose last week that he was talking about a deal with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Ravens love what Watson brings, but his return wouldn’t fit with the team’s desire to get more speed onto the field. Watson signing elsewhere should result in the Ravens being in position to get a second compensatory pick.
8) Full disclosure: I wasn’t at the owners meetings and while I listened to Harbaugh’s session with reporters, I certainly don’t feel comfortable analyzing it aggressively having not been there. I did find it interesting, though, that he mentioned on a couple of occasions the importance of Flacco building chemistry with his new receivers and how that doesn’t need to wait until practice. I’d imagine Ravens fans who have criticized Flacco not getting together with his receivers in the offseason for years now, would agree.
9) Those questioning why the Ravens could target a pass-catching running back while they already have Buck Allen on the roster probably should know that Allen has averaged under 5.5 yards per reception over his past two seasons. That’s not meant as a knock on Allen, who has become a strong special teams player and was a good between-the-tackles runner last year. However, the Ravens really need an elusive and quick back who can take a swing pass and pick up 30 yards. That’s not really Allen’s game.
10) Are the Ravens really better off along the offensive line than they were at this time last year, as Harbaugh asserted? Decide for yourself: At this time last season, the Ravens’ top seven offensive linemen were probably Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley, Lewis, John Urschel, Ryan Jensen, Hurst and De’Ondre Wesley. Now, they are Yanda, Stanley, Lewis, Hurst, Matt Skura, Nico Siragusa and Jermaine Eluemunor.