After 15 practices in front of fans and a 14th straight preseason win last week, the Ravens have moved on from training camp. That doesn’t mean the work stops or slows; it just means that preseason games are the only public venue for roster battles.
When the Ravens take on the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium, it will be as much a showcase for the team’s preseason standouts as it is for players on the roster bubble. Quarterback Lamar Jackson’s solid passing performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week was worthy of praise, but kicker Kaare Vedvik’s four-field-goal game, which helped get him traded to the Minnesota Vikings for a fifth-round draft pick, merited just as much attention.
On a 90-man roster, there are only so many roster spots and starting jobs up for grabs. No preseason game is more important than any other, but the Aug. 29 matchup against the Washington Redskins could prove the most crucial, especially with few starters expected to play.
If training camp set the table for the two-plus weeks to come, here’s whose stock is rising and falling:
CB Marlon Humphrey: It’s a testament to Humphrey’s unrelenting excellence that he ended training camp with an interception in three straight days, including two potential pick-sixes, and no one seemed all that surprised. His emergence as the Ravens’ top cornerback has been steady enough that it’s reached boiling-frog-parable status: He’s cooking offensive game plans so regularly, it’s hard to remember a time when he didn’t blot out opposing receivers.
Humphrey had only two interceptions last year, after two as a rookie, and he has no say over how often quarterbacks will throw his way this season. There’s also the matter of how much the Ravens’ current outside receivers can truly prepare him for the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. and A.J. Green. But with Humphrey’s durability (just two career games missed) and playmaking progress, he could double his career interceptions mark this season.
TE Hayden Hurst: There aren’t a lot of other teams on which Hurst would be the second-best second-year tight end. There might not be any. But at the end of a training camp in which Mark Andrews shined from start to finish, the Ravens’ top 2018 draft pick found a groove as good as any offensive player’s.
Hurst might have saved his best for the last day of practices. There was a one-handed catch in the end zone against safety Earl Thomas III, a contested jump-ball grab over safety Tony Jefferson and a Gronk Spike to punctuate a touchdown. His red-zone presence cannot be overlooked: After Jackson took over as starting quarterback last season, the Ravens fell from ninth in red-zone scoring (touchdowns on 66.7% of their trips) to 20th (55.7%).
OL Patrick Mekari: Every offseason, it’s the same question in Owings Mills. No, not the wide receiver one. The other one: Which of the Ravens’ undrafted free agents will make the 53-man roster this time? The streak reached 15 seasons last fall after linebacker Chris Board, wide receiver Janarion Grant and cornerback Darious Williams made the cut. In the past week, Mekari has put himself on the short list for 2019.
After missing mandatory minicamp with a back injury, the former California tackle has worked himself back to strength and into first-team looks along the offensive line. Against the Jaguars, he came on in the second quarter as a right guard, then moved to center later. (Only tackle Greg Senat played more snaps.) Mekari ended camp sharing first-string snaps with Jermaine Eluemunor at left guard, site of the line’s most open competition.
FB/DL Patrick Ricard: Ricard entered camp with fading prospects on both sides of the ball. At fullback, he’d fallen out of favor late last season, his snaps seemingly snatched by tight end and fellow human hammer Nick Boyle. At defensive tackle, he was staring at the end of a deep bench.
But after 15 practices and one impressive game, it’s hard to imagine the Ravens not saving a spot for the 300-plus-pound Ricard at both spots. On offense, he embodies coordinator Greg Roman’s “medieval” approach to the running game. Defensively, he was the Ravens’ most disruptive player against the Jaguars. In just 14 defensive snaps, he had four tackles, three quarterback hurries, two sacks, a tackle for loss and a pass defended.
RB Kenneth Dixon: The Ravens proved last season that, with Jackson starting, they could run on teams. Passing was the problem. The offense’s training camp timeshare reflected that imbalance, as quarterbacks spent far more time dropping back than they did handing off. For veterans Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill, a scarcity of touches is not much to worry about; their spots on the roster are secure.
Dixon has comparable talent — running backs coach Matt Weiss said Dixon, who led the Ravens in yards per carry last season, “has probably the most pure talent as a runner of the group” — but no such assurances. The fourth-year pro played just 10 snaps against the Jaguars, the fewest among five Ravens running backs, and mixed a 16-yard run with carries for 0, 2 and 3 yards. It’s offense or bust, too, for Dixon, who hasn’t played a special teams snap in his career.
DL Gerald Willis: The undrafted free agent was a popular dark-horse pick to make the Ravens’ 53-man roster in offseason mock-ups. Here was an All-American from Miami projected by some to be off the board before the third day of the NFL draft. And with defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Willie Henry both entering the final years of their rookie contracts, where better to establish a foothold than in Baltimore?
But after flashing early in camp, Willis has looked at times like just another big body against an unimposing second- and third-string interior line. He had 18 tackles for loss last season with the Hurricanes, among the most in the nation, and needs to show he has play-busting material in the Ravens’ final three preseason games. If the defense can’t trust him to be part of a potential short-term succession plan, it won’t need him on the roster this year.
G Jermaine Eluemunor: Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris said Eluemunor “has been a work in progress,” which is not the descriptor you’d ideally want for a potential starting left guard, someone charged with protecting Jackson’s blind side. Physically, Eluemunor seems to have lost weight since mandatory minicamp, and he moves well enough in space for someone his size.
It’s his in-game awareness that needs the most fine-tuning. Eluemunor led the Ravens in false-start penalties in camp and paid the price for each, often a lap around the field. Against the Jaguars, he failed to recognize a second-quarter stunt by defensive end Dawuane Smoot. Quarterback Trace McSorley got his throw off in time, but he watched it fall incomplete while picking himself off the ground.
CB Iman Marshall: The fourth-round pick had an inconsistent first two weeks of training camp, then sat out the last three practices with an undisclosed injury. With cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young and Anthony Averett also sidelined in recent days, a healthy Marshall would likely play a good amount of snaps Thursday, but his availability is unclear.
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Against Jacksonville, Marshall was mostly unbothered in pass coverage, and his best play was a shoestring tackle of Josh Robinson on a 2-yard punt return. Given his size and open-field ability — he had the best tackling grade among cornerbacks in his draft class, according to Pro Football Focus — Marshall has the makings of a potential special teams contributor. The Ravens seem committed to keeping special teams ace Justin Bethel, and Marshall’s roster spot is safe. But if the rookie’s healthy and producing on returns, it could complicate the roster math.