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Ravens positional review: Special teams

Special teams have been a source of pride and stability for the Ravens over John Harbaugh’s 11 years as head coach. This oft-overlooked area of football factors into the team’s draft picks and serves as a tiebreaker when Harbaugh and his staff determine the final few spots on their 53-man roster. None of that seems likely to change in 2019, but the special teams operation will have a new leader, with coordinator Jerry Rosburg planning to retire in June and hand the reins to his assistant, Chris Horton.

2018 in review

The Ravens began 2018 in a relative special teams slump as returners Janarion Grant and Tim White struggled with ball security and other players committed notable lapses in coverage and blocking. Rosburg acknowledged that his unit, which in 2017 had ranked No. 1 in special teams defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) according to Football Outsiders, was not playing up to its usual standard. But the Ravens eventually got their house in order, reducing their mistakes and finding an effective punt returner in Cyrus Jones (Gilman), who averaged 14.4 yards per run-back and broke a 70-yard touchdown in Week 12 against the Oakland Raiders.

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Other prominent special teams performers included Anthony Levine Sr. (232 snaps), Chuck Clark (347 snaps), Chris Board (356 snaps), Chris Moore (297 snaps), Tyus Bowser (260 snaps) and Buck Allen (189 snaps). Moore tailed off from his 2017 production as a kickoff returner but still averaged a decent 22.3 yards per run-back. Board, an undrafted free agent from North Dakota State, established himself as a potential successor to longtime special teams stalwart Albert McClellan, who ended up on the New England Patriots after the Ravens cut him midway through last season.

Kicker Justin Tucker delivered his usual excellent work, making 35 of 39 field-goal attempts. He did cost the Ravens a chance to go to overtime with the New Orleans Saints when he missed an extra point for the first time in his career. He also missed a field-goal attempt in the team’s playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. But fans were nonetheless outraged when he was snubbed for the Pro Bowl in favor of New York Jets kicker Jason Myers. Tucker subsequently made All-Pro, and his standing as the league’s best kicker remained intact.

Punter Sam Koch did not have his best statistical season, finishing 16th in net average and tied for 13th in kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard-line. But Koch remained a master craftsman who befuddled returners with his vast array of heights, spins and placements.

Norwegian kicker Kaare Vedvik was a training-camp star who seemed in line to become a useful trade chip. But he spent the entire season on the reserve non-football injury list after he suffered an early morning assault in East Baltimore that sent him to Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

2019 outlook

The Ravens reaffirmed their commitment to special teams when they signed free-agent cornerback Justin Bethel to a two-year deal. Bethel made three Pro Bowls as a special teams star for the Arizona Cardinals before moving to the Atlanta Falcons in 2018. He’ll join Levine and Clark among the players who give the Ravens depth in the defensive backfield while also leading the special teams unit.

Of the Ravens who played at least 100 special teams snaps in 2018, only McClellan, Allen and Maxx Williams aren’t on the current roster. Horton, a former safety with the Washington Redskins, could hardly ask for a more experienced, talented group as he succeeds Rosburg.

Jones will likely reprise his role as the primary punt returner. But with Moore presumably headed for more snaps at wide receiver, it’s possible the Ravens could look to someone else for kickoff returns, something they tried to do early last season.

The kicking “Wolfpack” of Tucker, Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox will return for an eighth straight season. Tucker has often credited the stability of that group for his individual success, and Rosburg has always praised the trio as one of the organization’s bedrocks. Tucker will be a free agent after next season, and it will be interesting to see how quickly the Ravens move to negotiate an extension with their All-Pro kicker. He’ll likely command the largest contract for a kicker in league history, but it’s hard to imagine the Ravens moving on from one of their best and most popular players. With the departure of linebacker Terrell Suggs in free agency, Koch is now the dean of the Ravens’ roster heading into his 14th season.

As for Vedvik, he remains an intriguing talent, and Harbaugh recently said he expects the young kicker to become a trade target again this summer.

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