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Ravens roster roundtable: Five questions to consider as the cut to 53 approaches

Most NFL coaches would gladly trade places with John Harbaugh as they prepare to make their final roster trims by Saturday afternoon. But for all their talent and high expectations, the Ravens still have a few questions, practical and philosophical, to answer about their final 53.

With that in mind, Baltimore Sun beat writers Daniel Oyefusi, Jonas Shaffer and Childs Walker share their thoughts on five outstanding questions facing Harbaugh and his staff.

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With fullback Patrick Ricard stepping further into his hybrid role, do the Ravens need to use a roster spot on a more traditional third tight end?

Oyefusi: None of the three competitors for the third tight end spot have stood out in training camp, and with the increased value of final roster spots, one might agree with giving Ricard more of a hybrid role. But I have two issues with that.

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One, I don’t see Ricard becoming a factor in the team’s passing offense. A luxury of having Hayden Hurst on the team the past two seasons was that not only was he a quality blocker, but he was also a speedy downfield threat with good hands. Inserting Ricard into a tight end role seems almost antithetical to the team’s aspirations of becoming more of a downfield passing offense.

Two, keeping only two true tight ends on the 53-man roster puts the team in a precarious situation if either Mark Andrews or Nick Boyle is injured. With expanded practice squads and new game-week roster rules, the Ravens could keep several tight ends on their practice squad and elevate them to the active roster, depending on matchups. However, I’m not sure if I’d take the risk of leaving myself exposed at one of my offense’s most valuable positions.

Shaffer: In a perfect world, the Ravens would have undrafted rookie Jacob Breeland healthy and perfectly capable of splitting out wide in “heavy” formations. But the former Oregon star couldn’t recover from a knee injury in time for training camp, and Eli Wolf, a more proven blocker, has missed too much time in camp to be fully ready for Week 1. If I’m Eric DeCosta, I’m taking my chances with Ricard and allocating the roster spot elsewhere.

It’s not that I see Ricard developing into a 300-yard receiver this season; if he’s more involved in the passing game, it’ll probably be through simple check-downs or throws to the flat. I just think the Ravens will adopt a more modern approach to their personnel usage. They finally have the talent at wide receiver to rely less on two- and three-tight-end formations. For all the talk about the Ravens’ “medieval” running game last year, they still trotted out three wide receivers on nearly half of their plays. If and when that proportion goes up, the fourth wide receiver becomes more important than the third tight end.

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Walker: After last season, it’s difficult to picture the Ravens offense without three dangerous receivers at tight end. For example, they might not have won in Buffalo last December without Hurst’s big-play ability. But none of the three candidates to fill Hurst’s spot appears immediately capable of bringing that element to the 2020 team. So the Ravens would be better off giving more snaps to Ricard and using the additional roster spot for extra depth on the defensive line or to carry another special teams standout.

Given Wolf’s injuries and the reports that Charles Scarff was on the verge of being cut Monday, it seems Jerell Adams is the leading candidate to make the team if the Ravens keep three traditional tight ends. But blocking is Adams’ standout skill, so you could argue that makes him redundant with Ricard, who’s worked more than ever as an in-line tight end this summer.

If the Ravens think Tyler Huntley is a better quarterback prospect, should they have any reservations about cutting Trace McSorley?

Oyefusi: The third quarterback spot was probably the toughest decision I made in my final 53-man-roster projection. It’s not a hot take at all to say that Huntley outplayed McSorley through stretches of training camp. He looked more comfortable, was more accurate and is also more athletic. I had a hard time believing the team would cut a 2019 draft pick so soon, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they took Huntley over McSorley.

Part of the allure of selecting McSorley in the sixth round last year was the possibility of having him in a Taysom Hill-like role on special teams. Those prospects seem all but gone at this point. Teams don’t have any NFL tape on Huntley, meaning the Ravens could sneak him onto their practice squad. But if they’re that high on Huntley, I wouldn’t take that chance.

Shaffer: The Ravens asked McSorley to split his time in his first NFL training camp between learning special teams and learning the offense. He did the quarterback part of his job well; by the end of August, he’d authored one of the most statistically impressive preseasons for a quarterback in franchise history. But he was a nonentity on special teams throughout the season, and those Trace-as-Taysom dreams looked wildly misguided.

McSorley came into this camp needing only to focus on leading an offense he knew far more intimately than Huntley did. But he’s missed running backs in the flat, overthrown receivers down the seam and gradually eliminated all potential trade value he once had. To me, the more interesting question isn’t whether they should have any reservations about cutting McSorley — every draft yields a slew of decent dual-threat quarterbacks — but whether they can get away with cutting Huntley. In his one camp scrimmage, unofficially, he passed for 3 yards. What GM outside Baltimore would take a risk on that publicized production?

Walker: When he was asked about Huntley and McSorley this week, Harbaugh gave little indication as to which way he was leaning. He said only that all four of the team’s quarterbacks are at different points in their development.

Does that mean Huntley hasn’t had enough time to overcome McSorley’s experience advantage? The undrafted free agent from Utah has looked better than McSorley as a runner and a passer in the glimpses afforded to media members. That doesn’t mean the team’s offensive coaches would feel more comfortable throwing him into a game at the beginning of the season.

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But Robert Griffin III is there to provide a sure hand if anything happens to Lamar Jackson. So the Ravens should not hesitate to use their third quarterback spot on the player with the highest upside. That’s Huntley.

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Where is this roster thinnest and potentially in need of outside help?

Oyefusi: In a matter of days, safety went from a position of strength to one that could be a glaring weakness if anybody gets injured. Earl Thomas III’s shocking release opened the opportunity for DeShon Elliott to finally assume a starting role. As well regarded as he might be in the locker room, he has played only 40 defensive snaps in his career and has suffered two season-ending injuries in as many years.

Behind Elliott and fellow starter Chuck Clark, the depth leaves a lot to be desired. There’s Anthony Levine Sr., who has mostly thrived in a defensive back-linebacker role, along with any combination of rookie Geno Stone, Jordan Richards and undrafted rookie Nigel Warrior, who’s a strong candidate to make the team but still inexperienced. It wouldn’t hurt to make a move to add some depth.

Shaffer: Running back. Just kidding. Safety is indeed a worry, and so is the interior defensive line, especially with Brandon Williams, Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe all over 30 years old.

My concern would be two specific roles: outside wide receiver and swing tackle. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is a rising star who can line up anywhere, and Miles Boykin has the frame to be a jump-ball threat. After them, the Ravens have a lot of smaller receivers who don’t seem especially well suited for the position’s deeper routes.

As for swing tackle, Ravens coaches will be holding their breath every time Ronnie Stanley or Orlando Brown Jr. gets knocked down. There are emergency options on the roster, including rookie guard-in-training Tyre Phillips and guard D.J. Fluker, a converted tackle. But without a preseason to prepare them, it could be a rough transition.

Walker: As discussed above, the Ravens could use a more dynamic receiver to supplement their tight end room. As long as Jadeveon Clowney remains a free agent, fans will dream about ways to squeeze him into the Ravens’ pedestrian collection of edge rushers. And we know the unexpected release of Thomas left the roster short of experienced safeties.

But one area where the Ravens feel surprisingly thin is defensive line. With Justin Madubuike sidelined by a week-to-week injury and fellow rookie Broderick Washington looking more like a developmental prospect, the Ravens might need to lean on veteran Justin Ellis to start the season. Don’t be surprised if they also look for depth from outside the organization, as they did last season with Ellis and Domata Peko Sr.

How many spots will go to players who help primarily on special teams, and is it too many?

Oyefusi: It’s hard to pinpoint an exact number because I still expect players who have prominent roles, such as inside linebacker L.J. Fort, to contribute on special teams. Even after sliding into a starting role, Clark played about 40% of the Ravens’ special teams snaps last season.

Levine is a roster lock because of his special teams contributions. Wide receiver Chris Moore, inside linebacker Chris Board, cornerback Anthony Averett and safety Jordan Richards would all be earmarked for special teams roles if they make the team. I’d also expect players such as Boykin, inside linebacker Malik Harrison and possibly rookie receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche to see snaps there.

Shaffer: Some of the NFL’s most successful franchises don’t think twice about investing in special teams aces. The New England Patriots have Matthew Slater. The New Orleans Saints have Hill, who, yes, also might be a good quarterback one day. I don’t know how Harbaugh, a former special teams coordinator, could look at the Ravens’ occasional struggles there last year and consider diluting the unit.

The most important criteria for on-the-bubble players should be versatility. Levine is a special teams leader who can play Clark’s dime linebacker role when needed. Moore can help out in any special teams phase and, as a receiver, at least threaten to stretch the field vertically. Board has shown the defensive instincts that made him a contender to start at inside linebacker last year. The Ravens can’t afford to keep much dead weight.

Walker: Harbaugh has always prioritized special teams in making his last few roster decisions, and there’s no reason to expect differently this time around. That means a player such as Richards might make the final 53 over a candidate with more surface appeal, such as wide receiver Jaleel Scott or linebacker Otaro Alaka.

Expect the Ravens to keep Board, Moore, Stone, Levine and Richards, all of whom would likely contribute more on special teams than on offense or defense. Is that too many? Well, it’s hard to say so when there aren’t a ton of hot position battles. The Ravens are looking to win this season, and that means they can’t waste many spots on players who won’t help right away. Say what you will about the special teams all-stars; they’ll be on the field against the Cleveland Browns in 10 days.

Which player has gone from roster lock to wrong side of the bubble over the last month?

Oyefusi: Ben Powers. I don’t think he was necessarily a “roster lock” entering training camp, but I believed that if he showed improvement in team drills, he would make it hard for the Ravens to part ways with a 2019 fourth-round pick so quickly.

That hasn’t been the case, however, as Powers hasn’t really pushed Bradley Bozeman or Fluker for one of the starting guard spots. Phillips looks to be above Powers on the depth chart, and a stint at center didn’t go well. The Ravens have an abundance of options along the interior offensive line, and Powers looks to be the odd man out.

Shaffer: Powers is the only good answer here. But just for the sake of being different, running back Justice Hill has to be displeased with his August. When he was healthy, he struggled to distinguish himself. Now that he’s missing practice, it’s hard to see Hill jumping any of the other backs on the Ravens’ depth chart anytime soon. He could’ve at least used this camp to help his case on special teams, but an injury got in the way. With his roster spot seemingly secure, Hill has a lot of catching up to do.

Walker: It’s not creative, but the answer has to be Powers. He seemed set to compete for a starting job after Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda retired. But Powers has felt like a forgotten man this summer as Fluker and Phillips — both bulkier maulers — have staked their claims to Yanda’s old job. And his attempts to play center have not gone smoothly, putting him at a disadvantage against the team’s more versatile offensive-line prospects.

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