From a greater than expected shortage of proven pass rushers to an emphasis on quantity over proven quality along the offensive line, here are five things we learned from the Ravens’ roster cuts.
The Ravens are even shorter on pass rushers than we thought five weeks ago.
We’ve talked about the team’s paucity of proven pass rushers since the second week in March, when Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith departed in free agency.
But as the Ravens reported for training camp on July 24, we thought fourth-year defensive tackle Willie Henry and free-agent acquisition Shane Ray would be part of their solution. Instead, Henry and Ray were victims of the team’s roster purge.
Unless they make another move, the Ravens will enter the season pinning their pass-rush hopes on a 30-year-old who failed to record a sack last year (Pernell McPhee), two third-year linebackers who’ve failed to live up to their draft billings (Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams) and a rookie who lost precious preseason reps to a concussion (Jaylon Ferguson). Only fourth-year linebacker Matthew Judon, who produced 15 sacks over the last two seasons, resembles a sure thing.
Henry’s vulnerability became apparent on Thursday night, when he started the fourth preseason game and played deep into the fourth quarter. Ravens coach John Harbaugh probably would not have asked for such a workload if he was counting on Henry for the regular season. But this amounted to a startling fall for a player expected to give the Ravens interior pass-rushing punch. Henry, a former fourth-round pick, blossomed in a part-time role in 2017 before a back injury cut his 2018 season short. He arrived to camp trim and eager for action but failed to make any impact once the preseason began. In four games, he produced just one assisted tackle and one quarterback pressure. The Ravens had seen enough and opted to use Henry’s roster spot on a younger player with more time to develop before hitting free agency.
Ravens linebacker Tim Williams is satisfied with his improvement in the run defense.
The Ray signing was a low-risk move with modest upside, but there was at least some reason to think he might mitigate the losses of Suggs and Smith. He was only 26. Four years earlier, the Denver Broncos had traded three picks and a player to move up in the first round and draft him. Yes, Ray failed to meet expectations in Denver, but he did manage to produce eight sacks in his second season. Harbaugh and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti both spoke optimistically about what Ray might do with a fresh start. He was two years removed from wrist surgery that derailed the second half of his tenure with the Broncos.
But the Ray experiment never really worked. He sat out the first day of training camp after failing the team’s conditioning test, and by the third preseason game, he was buried on the depth chart behind Bowser and Williams. The Ravens cut him Friday in a batch of 11 players thought to have little chance of making their final 53.
It’s not as if anyone expected Henry and Ray to become Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack. But their releases highlight just how short the Ravens are on pass rushers and how much the team will rely on defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale to scheme up pressure with his creative blitzes.
The Ravens are content to roll with a youth movement at wide receiver.
After much speculation that they might go with five wide receivers, the Ravens kept six.
Three of those, Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin and Jaleel Scott, have never played a regular-season NFL snap. The plan is almost opposite to what the Ravens did last year, when they signed a ready-made veteran receiving corps to pair with veteran quarterback Joe Flacco.
But it makes sense for them to let their wideouts grow up with second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Jackson will have a pair of veteran slot receivers, Willie Snead IV and Seth Roberts, and three familiar tight ends as trusted targets. But when he looks long, he’ll presumably look to the youth brigade.
We still don’t know how much Brown, the team’s first-round pick, will play at the start of the season. He lined up at wide receiver for just one preseason game and shared no in-game reps with Jackson after missing the start of training camp as he recovered from Lisfranc surgery on his foot. But we’ve seen glimpses of his rare acceleration in practice. Boykin has been one of the team’s most impressive young players this summer, proving he’s more than a collection of jaw-dropping physical traits.
Finally, Scott made it easy for the Ravens to choose him over veteran Michael Floyd, whom they released Friday. Coaches had always loved Scott’s 6-foot-5 frame and gift for breaking free downfield. But the former fourth-round pick out of New Mexico State piled up productive performances this summer, prompting Harbaugh to gush about his work ethic after Thursday’s preseason finale. The Ravens would be wise to use Scott early in the season to see how his potential translates in games that count.
As with any group of young receivers, there’s bust potential here. There’s also greater room for boom than we’ve seen since the Ravens traded for Anquan Boldin and drafted Torrey Smith in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
The Ravens went with quantity over established quality on their offensive line.
We’ve seen the desperate state of NFL line play in recent days, as teams have sacrificed draft picks to acquire marginal talents such as former Ravens guard/tackle Jermaine Eluemunor.
With demand exceeding supply, the Ravens opted to keep nine offensive linemen instead of their usual eight. That lot includes developmental tackle prospect Greg Senat and four contenders to start at the unsettled left guard spot: veteran James Hurst, second-year guard/center Bradley Bozeman, fourth-round pick Ben Powers and undrafted rookie Patrick Mekari.
Had any of those players seized a starting spot, the Ravens might have stuck with eight linemen. Instead, they’re keeping their options open.
They should be fine if their two essential linemen, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right guard Marshal Yanda, remain healthy, and if their other two starters, right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and center Matt Skura, take modest steps forward.
But if any of those four falter, they’ll be forced to rely on young blockers who did not exactly ace their auditions this summer. It’s an anxious reality given the line’s essential responsibility for protecting Jackson.
"It all come downs to who can play the best and run the best," said running back Kenneth Dixon.
Kenneth Dixon’s odd NFL path continues after the Ravens placed him on injured reserve.
We all know Dixon’s story by now. He averaged 4.8 yards on 148 NFL carries and was at times the Ravens’ featured runner during their playoff push last season. But between injuries and suspensions, he’s missed more games than he’s played over three seasons in Baltimore.
That trend continued this preseason, when Dixon missed time with a knee injury but returned to deliver a strong closing argument: 13 carries for 66 yards on Thursday against the Washington Redskins.
On Saturday, we learned he will miss yet another full season on injured reserve.
Dixon seemed at peace after his effort against the Redskins, convinced he had put enough good work on film that some team would give him a chance. He said he felt healthy. Now, he’ll spend another season in limbo as the Ravens rely on just three running backs, Mark Ingram II, Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill.
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We’ll presumably learn more over the next few days about why Dixon went to injured reserve, but it’s another puzzling turn for a talented runner.
Never underestimate the Ravens’ devotion to special teams.
Few will celebrate Justin Bethel as a glamorous addition to the 53-man roster. He’s unlikely to see the field often on defense. But Bethel has made the Pro Bowl as special teams standout, and there are few quicker paths to Harbaugh’s heart.
We often joke about this because of Harbaugh’s background as special teams coordinator for the Eagles. But his attention to detail in the most overlooked phase of the game is an essential subplot to his success as an NFL head coach. The Ravens have consistently ranked near the top of the league in special teams efficiency, according to FootballOutsiders.com. And with his trusted lieutenant, Jerry Rosburg, now retired, Harbaugh’s involvement is more direct than ever.
So don’t be shocked that Bethel stuck over more hotly debated names or that players such as Bowser and wide receiver Chris Moore were never really in jeopardy (while Henry, a non-contributor on special teams, lost his job). Also, don’t be shocked if the Ravens bring back special teams standout Brynden Trawick, who was released Saturday but could fill a spot if the Ravens put rookie cornerback Iman Marshall on injured reserve with the option to return.