With the NFL preseason over and Week 1 fast approaching, The Baltimore Sun’s Ravens beat reporters and editor share their thoughts on the departure of rookie fullback Ben Mason, rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman’s absence, training camp revelations and more.
Let’s start off with the biggest story in Baltimore: What’s your takeaway from the Ravens’ four months with Ben Mason?
Jonas Shaffer: Live by the big board, die by the big board. When the Ravens were on the clock at No. 184 four months ago, they had more pressing needs than fullback. Like, say, offensive tackle. They took Mason anyway. He fit their style. He’d proven himself at a Big Ten school. And he had, they believed, the skill set to become a hybrid fullback-tight end.
Now Mason is off to develop in New England, and we’re all left to wonder how much of a wasted pick it really was. On one hand, this was not a deep draft, especially on Day 3. There’s a reason the Ravens worked to swap late-round picks for selections in next year’s deeper draft. On the other hand, the Ravens will enter the season lacking depth at tackle, and knowing that two of the tackles selected after Mason made a 53-man roster.
The process for the pick was always questionable; why take a fullback with three career receptions at Michigan when you already have Patrick Ricard? Unfortunately for the Ravens, the outcome for the pick has obliterated whatever chance their best-player-available approach had of a proper payoff.
Childs Walker: It’s amazing the things hard-core fans obsess over at this juncture of the NFL season, before the real games give us fresh talking points. The Mason pick raised eyebrows when the Ravens made it, and it looks worse now that they’ve cut him and are still in need of young depth on the offensive line.
But there are two mitigating points here. First, Ricard was still recovering from hip surgery, so perhaps the Ravens simply viewed Mason, a punishing lead blocker, as cheap insurance for their running game. If he showed broader skills in training camp, all the better. Second, the Ravens showed us over and over that they did not think highly of the offensive line depth in the draft. If they had, they would have taken a tackle long before the end of the fifth round.
Instead, they went in knowing that they would likely sign a veteran tackle. So they used a low-fifth-round pick on a depth play that did not work out. Given the hit-and-miss track record of players picked at that point, it’s not a big deal.
C.J. Doon: Maybe Jim Harbaugh needs to give his brother a more honest scouting report next time. It’s easy to play armchair expert with the benefit of hindsight, but I’m sure general manager Eric DeCosta and the Ravens would like to have that pick back — especially with all the injuries and instability at more important positions.
Rashod Bateman will miss at least the Ravens’ first three games while on injured reserve. Which matters more: the time he’s missing in practice or his absence from the passing game?
Shaffer: Bateman arrived in Baltimore as one of the most NFL-ready receivers in franchise history, but he can’t get back the valuable time he missed in offseason workouts or in training camp. Now he’s out for at least another month of practice. And whenever he’s healthy, he’ll rejoin an offense with a quarterback who tends to ignore the targets he doesn’t trust.
Bateman has the savvy and the skills to emerge as the Ravens’ top receiver by year’s end. If they want to contend for the Super Bowl, he may have to look like one. But if you want to master a playbook as big as the Ravens’, if you want to develop the timing with Lamar Jackson that helps poke holes in coverages, if you want to fine-tune your blocking and ball-catching — both weaknesses of Bateman’s entering the NFL — repetitions in practice are fundamental. And he won’t get them until at least Week 4.
Walker: Bateman’s groin injury is the lead story in an overall narrative of delayed gratification for a wide receiver group that generated plenty of buzz going into training camp. But with Sammy Watkins and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown both set to play in Week 1, his absence won’t cripple the passing game out of the gate. The Ravens won’t face a killer pass defense in the first three weeks, which helps.
The greater problem is that Bateman will have to start over in many ways after missing so much preparation time. He might be healthy enough to run on the field at the beginning of October, but that does not mean the Ravens will feel comfortable handing him 40 snaps a game. He’ll have to show he’s ready for that, with his first few weeks serving as his version of a preseason. Bateman showed pro-level polish and confidence before he hurt his groin, so he might not need as much ramp-up time as another young receiver would, but this has been a significant setback for him.
Doon: His absence from the passing game. Bateman and Jackson will have plenty of time to develop chemistry once the first-round pick is healthy, and we saw in limited time how effective the former Minnesota star can be in this offense. Watkins and Brown are a nice receiving duo, but they’d look even better with Bateman drawing some of the defense’s attention.
Which position came out of training camp and the preseason worse than you expected? Which came out better?
Shaffer: Unless you believe in curses, no one could’ve predicted the spate of injuries at wide receiver. It was just as hard to imagine the Ravens losing J.K. Dobbins to a season-ending injury in a preseason game. The offensive line’s struggles throughout camp, though? Disconcerting, to say the least. It’s unclear whether Ben Powers can lock down the left guard job for long. Tackle Alejandro Villanueva is still learning how to play on the right side. And Ronnie Stanley might not enter Week 1 with the flexibility that has made him a brick wall on Jackson’s blindside.
On defense, where the Ravens seemed to get better across the board, the most encouraging developments might have come at safety. In hindsight, it’s a minor miracle that DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark made it through the 2020 season without missing a game, given the options backing them up. Now there’s newfound confidence and depth. Behind the unflappable Clark and the markedly improved Elliott, the Ravens have rookie Brandon Stephens, whose athleticism makes him a wild-card contributor, and a pair of preseason playmakers in Geno Stone and Ar’Darius Washington.
Walker: Running back is the obvious answer to the first question, given the loss of Dobbins, but the offensive line might prove to be a more enduring concern. The Ravens made this unit a focus of their offseason activity, and they were confident it would be vastly improved from the version that faltered in the playoffs.
Injuries have complicated this story. Stanley played a series in the preseason finale, but he’s still working to regain full mobility on his surgically repaired ankle. Zeitler, signed to be a dependable rock at Marshal Yanda’s former position, has battled nagging injuries. A concussion kept mammoth rookie Ben Cleveland from competing for a starting job in the preseason, leaving Powers, who was part of the problem in the playoffs, as the likely starter at left guard. The Ravens still don’t have a dependable swing tackle. The pieces are there for everything to work out, but there’s more uncertainty at this stage than they would have liked.
As for which position group came out smelling of roses, it’s the secondary. We knew this was the strength of the team going into camp, but the talent ran so deep that the Ravens could have kept 12 or 13 defensive backs if they had 10 more roster spots. We weren’t talking about players such as Chris Westry and Washington going into the summer, and they forced their way onto the final 53 by winning heated competitions. Given the history of attrition in this unit, the Ravens have to be thrilled with their full suite of options.
Doon: The offensive line is disappointing, if only for the fact that it remains a bit of a question mark. The trade of Orlando Brown Jr. is going to loom over this team all season, especially if the Kansas City Chiefs look much improved up front and Villanueva struggles at right tackle. Not seeing Cleveland healthy and taking charge of the left guard spot was also a bit of a letdown.
As for a unit that exceeded expectations, how about the secondary? Of course the top-end talent is there, but it’s encouraging to see Stephens play well at safety and Stone (a seventh-round pick in 2020) and Washington (undrafted this year) make the roster. Westry played so well that the Ravens traded fifth-round cornerback Shaun Wade. There’s some depth here.
Which player raised his stock the most from the start of camp to the end of preseason?
Shaffer: No one had Ty’Son Williams making the Ravens’ practice squad last year, because running backs who sign in late August generally don’t hang around. And no one had Williams making the 53-man roster this year, because Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill gave the Ravens a pretty well-established trio.
Then Hill went down in camp with an ankle injury, Dobbins tore his ACL, and Williams just kept on running through and by defenders. The former undrafted free agent didn’t seem overcome by the occasion this week — neither did Williams’ mother, apparently, whom he’d half-expected to comment on his new job — but the speed of his ascent has been remarkable. In a matter of weeks, he’s transformed from a potential practice squad player to a potential fantasy football pick. Not bad for someone who never rushed for more than 471 yards in a season in college.
Walker: Ty’Son Williams went from a practice squad running back to a significant part of the team’s offensive plans in just a few weeks. Dobbins’ injury created a massive opportunity for him, but Williams had already seemingly moved ahead of Hill in the pecking order. His punishing style fits offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s designs, and we know the Ravens like to spread their carries around. So don’t be shocked if Williams’ production approaches what we’ve seen from Edwards in recent seasons.
Doon: Jaylon Ferguson was a healthy scratch for four of the Ravens’ final six games last season and didn’t suit up in the playoffs. Now he looks like a potential force at outside linebacker. The 2019 third-round pick earned rave reviews from coaches during the lead-up to the regular season, and first-round pick Odafe Oweh is still finding his way in his rookie season. If Ferguson can solidify himself as a reliable pass rusher this season, that’s a big win for the Ravens.
We know what the Ravens’ roster and practice squad should look like. What’s the biggest thing we still don’t know about this team?
Shaffer: Can the pass rush get to the quarterback on third-and-7 without sending the house? Because of injuries to the offensive line, it was hard to gauge where the Ravens’ edge rushers stood in camp. Rookies Daelin Hayes and Oweh won on the edge regularly for the first few weeks, then leveled off somewhat. Justin Houston’s workload was carefully managed. Ferguson saved his best performances for the preseason. Tyus Bowser impressed with his consistency, but he’s not yet the kind of outside linebacker you double-team.
They’ll get help, of course. Justin Madubuike and Calais Campbell played with bad intentions throughout camp. Patrick Queen’s speed makes him a pain to block. And it’s in defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and Harbaugh’s DNA to blitz (or at least simulate a pressure). The litmus test might come in Week 2. The Ravens couldn’t sack Patrick Mahomes last year, and they have just four in three career meetings with the superstar. If the Chiefs indeed have a Super Bowl-caliber line, the Ravens need to show they’re up for the challenge.
Walker: We have not seen the starting offense play together much, so it’s fair to wonder how quickly Jackson’s crew will come out of the gate. That goes for the offensive line, the wide receivers and the backfield now that Dobbins isn’t at the head of it. The Ravens put up 38 and 59 points in their past two season openers, so perhaps it’s folly to wonder whether they’ll be out of sync on Sept. 13 in Las Vegas. But their defense has been ahead of their offense since the first day of training camp, so until we see Roman’s whole machine working, we’ll wonder where it stands.
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Doon: Is the Ravens offense good enough to win in the postseason? As long as Jackson is taking the snaps, it’s good enough to run roughshod to a playoff berth. That much we know. But without a full complement of receivers during training camp and the preseason, the next evolution remains a mystery. Dobbins’ season-ending injury means the offense might never reach its full potential in 2021.