The “Final” 53
Do you remember the heart-warming scene from the Ravens’ Hard Knock series in 2001 when Reggie Wadell called his friends and family to tell them he’d made the team? Reggie played in the Ravens’ opener that season before being released. That 1 game was his entire NFL career.
While nothing’s permanent in this league, this is the best time to reflect on the preseason, how the Ravens got to this point, and what changes may still be in store.
The cut of Troy Smith is no surprise. To make effective use of a player like Smith, the Ravens would have had to use him as the 2nd QB and commit to a substantial number of wildcat snaps. Bulger could have been kept as the 3rd QB (no gameday roster spot) in that scenario and only entered if Flacco was hurt. In 2008, it looked like the Ravens might have intended more snaps for Smith, but the 2010 offense has too many traditional weapons to make the wildcat an attractive option.
Curtis Steele showed more than Parmele as a runner, particularly in terms of elusiveness. I’m hopeful he can be kept on the practice squad. Jalen has additional value on special teams. Steele made several errors in the last game and Parmele had the terrific effort to close out the first half, but I think the decision had already been made.
There was never any competition here. The Ravens’ 3 tight ends are arguably the most talented group in the league. Davon Drew was a wasted pick.
Under normal circumstances, the release of Demetrius Williams would be a very standard decision to stay young at a position where the current skill levels are not terribly different. Williams is in his 5th season and the Ravens will have to pay significantly more in 2010 and beyond than they will for Reed. With Stallworth out and the timing of Clayton’s return unknown, I think this is a position where the Ravens will be looking carefully at available street talent or perhaps a trade. Marcus Smith, while he won’t be the 4th receiver, is a more obvious choice to be the 4th healthy receiver kept due to his contributions on special teams. The surplus of talent at TE may have contributed to the Ravens willingness to start the season with a thin receiving corps.
The Ravens are hurting at tackle and the competition didn’t become clearer on Thursday night. To summarize:
· Michael Oher will start at LT vs. the Jets and showed improvement over the 3 games.
· Gaither will presumably be back at some point in 2010 and take a starting spot
· Cousins seems to be the team’s choice as the backup at RT, but has also been hurt
· Tony Moll played well in the 2nd exhibition game at RT with the 1s, then moved inside to guard. In the 3rd exhibition game, he allowed a sack (Justin Tuck) among 35 first-half passing plays by the Ravens. In game 4, things got a little weirder as Moll entered for the injured Rodgers at RG, rather than moving outside to RT where he is more likely to be needed. At RG, he didn’t look good, failing to pick up a rusher in the jailbreak (Q4, 1:04) which resulted in a 15-yard sack on the final drive. If he’s in the team’s plans to play RT on an emergency basis, shouldn’t he have seen time there in the final preseason game? The argument that Tyler can’t play guard isn’t particularly compelling, since he can’t play tackle either.
· Ramon Harewood displayed some physical skills In the Rams game, particularly in the way he’s able to propel a pass rusher some significant distance when defending against the outside rush. He pancaked Sims (Q4, 4:47) on Smith’s 18-yard saunter down the left sideline. He also managed to get beat cleanly several times, had two more penalties, and is often unsure who he is supposed to block. The Ravens announcers blamed the protection scheme for having Curtis Steele “responsible” for Cudjo (Q4, 15:00), but Harewood should have picked him up. It looks like it will take Ramon at least a full season to learn the position and the game in general, but he has identifiable upside.
· Devin Tyler and Joe Reitz played so poorly that they can’t be considered options even if the Ravens’ injury situation worsens significantly.
Less news is good news. This is the strength of the Ravens offensive line with 3 solid starters and a decent backup in Chester. Grubbs was awful vs. Carolina, Birk allowed a sack to the Giants, and Yanda has been penalized twice, but I don’t think there is anything that can’t be corrected. Chester remains somewhat undersized at guard, but he’ll be of value in 6-man line formations should they be needed with the Ravens tackle situation in the early weeks. One way to weaken two positions would be to move Yanda to RT, where he was not nearly as effective in 2009.
The Ravens retained 9 players at positions where they might have kept just 7. I’d guess that the Ravens hope to move a pure DT (McKinney or Divens) before the opener and didn’t want to expose either to the waiver wire. Is there another team out there with a surplus at OT or WR that needs a DT? If Cody and/or Kruger are unavailable for 9/13, the Ravens may stand with 9 temporarily, but that won’t last the entire season. The Ravens generated nothing in the way of pass rush in the first half vs. the Rams, but that can be largely explained by 2 numbers, 35 and 1, which are the number of players who did not play for the Ravens and Rams respectively on Thursday.
Dannell Ellerbe had an outstanding game vs. the Rams, which should earn him the start at ILB vs. the Jets. The departure of Barnes and retention of both Phillips and Gooden opens an opportunity for Jameel McClain to take more snaps as a down lineman. Jason Phillips has looked good as a pass rusher and against the run, but hasn’t been an asset in coverage. It’s not clear to me how Gooden will be used in this defense. In the preseason, he was a frequent passing-down substitution, but like every other linebacker, he struggled in coverage. Antwan Barnes had a good preseason, but he’s in his 4th year and would have been more expensive to retain going forward. He has developed from a pure speed rusher to display an occasional inside move, but he’s still not a good or productive tackler. The Ravens will miss Barnes on special teams, but they retained Burgess, who was one of the Ravens’ most productive in kick coverage in 2009. It’s also evident the team decided Edgar Jones was also worth keeping over Barnes. Jones had shown some ability to apply pressure this preseason, but mitigated it with 2 personal fouls. He finished strong vs. the Rams. Because they retained Edgar Jones, I don’t believe it’s productive to draw a conclusion about the prognosis for Sergio Kindle from the Barnes trade.
The Ravens are set for the first 6 weeks with their 4 safeties. I think it’s possible they’ll keep 5 when Reed returns if they can develop one of them into a dime that can cover given the failure of the linebackers to get it done this preseason. Based on his experience and size, Hamlin could be the one to take a 2000 Corey Harris role. If Nakamura can effectively cover a slot receiver like a nickel, he’d be one of very few safeties in the NFL that can do so.
Cary Williams stepped forward this preseason and should see starting time at some point this season. Unlike Fisher, Hawkins, and Dutch, Williams had only a few poor plays with several exceptional ones. He played a key role in 3 of the team’s interceptions, including stripping Gibson on Ellerbe’s TD (Q2, 13:16). His size gives the Ravens some matchup options. Josh Wilson should be a fine addition whether he plays outside or nickel, but with his ball skills and the havoc caused by the Ravens’ blitz, I think he’ll get more opportunities for big plays on the inside. The team needs Washington to play well. It’s not clear to me whether Webb will return on the outside or inside. He is similar to Wilson in terms of speed and the coaches seemed to like the versatility he gives the pass rush when lining up opposite the slot. Miller is a stopgap who should be cut after no more than 2 weeks. He’s likely to go unsigned and may end up on the practice squad.
The kicking competition was reasonably close and therefore tremendously overblown in terms of its effect on the 2010 Ravens. To me it’s like the decision to hit or stick with hard 16 against a dealer 10. Whatever decision you make might help or hurt you in a particular instance, but there is very little difference in expected value over a number of decisions. Billy Cundiff will miss some kicks this season and some of them will probably be painful, but I’m confident this selection was made with the best available information.