Preseason 2014: What we Know, What we Don’t

Chykie Brown Asa Jackson

Through one preseason game and most of training camp, there is still plenty of unsettled business en route to the Baltimore Ravens cutting the roster down to 53 players by August 30.

Along with finding the right 53 players comes finding the right roles for the lucky ones to still be Ravens when the calendar turns to September.

Thursday’s preseason opener did offer some clarity at some key positions, and there are some things we know with less than a month until the regular season.

There’s also plenty that we don’t know.

 

WHAT WE KNOW

The cornerback depth is terrible, but Asa Jackson stands above the rest in the second tier.

Going into to the first preseason game, it was a near consensus that Baltimore’s depth and talent at cornerback was average-to-below average. The performances by the cornerbacks on Thursday did nothing to change that.

Third-year nickel candidate Asa Jackson stood out in a Lardarius Webb-less secondary, and his strong performance only further solidified his already strong case to be the team’s third corner.

To roughly quote Brad Pitt in Moneyball: 

“There’s Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s Asa Jackson, and then there’s another 50 feet of crap, and then there’s the rest of the Ravens cornerbacks.”

Jackson’s toughest competition for the nickel corner job is fourth-year player Chykie Brown, whose consistently poor training camp and disappointing first outing of the preseason has made it clear he has done nothing to seize the opportunity he once had, when the nickel corner candidacy was in his favor.

He looked lost and out of place on multiple plays, two concerns that shouldn’t be the case for a four-year veteran.

After Brown, there’s the likes of Dominique Franks, Tramain Jacobs and Deji Olatoye. The latter was easily the worst of the three against the San Francisco 49ers, while Jacobs looks like a potential roster candidate, as does Franks.

Starting right tackle is still Ricky Wagner’s to lose. 

If you’ve been here before, you won’t need another seal of approval for Ricky Wagner as the team’s starting right tackle.

Bringing in a veteran to compete with Wagner would have made sense if he had early-camp struggles, but he didn’t, and he further strengthened his case with a strong 41-snap 2014 debut against the 49ers.

Wagner had a few miscommunications as a run blocker – one notable play in which Steve Smith Sr. saved Wagner after a whiff – but overall, he fared well, particularly as a pass blocker.

His strength proved to be adequate, as he handled outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks on several plays in pass protection, and he looked quite comfortable as the starter.

Jah Reid relieved Wagner, but at this point, it’d be a major surprise to see Wagner let the starting job slip away.

 

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

How will the team handle the poor cornerback situation?

As mentioned above, Baltimore’s depth at cornerback isn’t a pretty sight at the moment. The fact that Webb’s lingering back issue has kept him sidelined worsens the situation, as well as Jackson’s injury on Sunday.

If the Ravens roll with what they have, it’s risky business. Sure, Brown could turn it around and become the nickel corner, and Jacobs and Franks could prove to be roster-worthy contributors and members of the final 53-man roster.

But to expect that to happen, as well as for Webb to be 100% and in full form by the end of the preseason, is a bit Pollyanna-ish.

Now almost midway through August, the free agent market at cornerback is pretty sparse. There are veterans such as Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson – both once very good players but now in the twilight of their respective careers – but that’s about it.

Perhaps the Ravens could make a low-level trade (maybe a player swap?) before the regular season, or simply just wait until final cuts and poach a roster-caliber corner away from a team with an abundance at the position.

Regardless of the route the Ravens take for improvement, it’s safe to say some competition at cornerback would be a logical move.

How the offensive line would fare if any starter suffers an injury. 

Part of Baltimore’s offensive line dilemma last season was that the depth simply wasn’t there, and when players like A.Q. Shipley were called upon, the results weren’t pretty.

That could be the same case this season. The starting five looked about as good as they could for a first preseason game, and on the opening drive, the run-blocking by all five linemen was better than anything Baltimore’s offensive line produced in 2013.

The rest of the offensive line, though, didn’t provide anything to write home about.

On the left side, backup tackle James Hurst and backup guard Ryan Jensen were two of the team’s worst performers on Thursday night, both for different reasons.

Hurst’s strength – or lack thereof – was a major red flag, as was the case when he was an undrafted prospect out of North Carolina. Jensen struggled with leverage – although his strength also wasn’t anything impressive, either – and was a liability when it came to interior pressure.

Backup center Gino Gradkowski didn’t look as bad as he did last season, while Shipley and Reid looked just average. Another expected roster player – fifth-round pick John Urschel – didn’t enter the game until the final minutes as the third-string right guard.

If Baltimore’s starting offensive line stays healthy all year, it could be one of the strong points of the offense. But if any starter goes down, the drop-off between starter and backup at all five positions is quite steep.

How the Ravens will use Terrence Brooks.

Outside of first-round pick C.J. Mosley, it once appeared that third-rounder Terrence Brooks could be the team’s second-biggest rookie contributor. Several weeks into camp and with one preseason game in the books, Brooks still hasn’t done anything to validate that opinion.

Entering training camp with veteran Darian Stewart as almost his only competition at free safety, it would have been a conservative bet to say that Brooks would become the starter by preseason’s end.

But against the 49ers, Stewart took the field alongside Matt Elam as a starter, and the two were relieved by Brooks, Jeromy Miles, Brynden Trawick and Omar Brown. Based on playing time and usage, it’s clear that as of now Brooks is viewed as equal to his fellow backups, and not a clear-cut favorite over his counterparts.

Brooks had a relatively quiet night, totaling 20 snaps and being used near the line of scrimmage, something he did often at Florida State.

The lack of depth at cornerback has even allowed him to work with that unit, which might be a smart way to get him on the field this season.

He’ll certainly get some safety reps with the team this season, but whether those reps come as a starter or backup is still uncertain.

He showed very good coverage ability in college, though, – which makes him a prime starting free safety candidate long-term next to Elam – so perhaps he could be used to help aid the lack of depth at cornerback.

The amount of playing time Brooks gets, and with which defensive units, throughout the remainder of the preseason is a situation worth monitoring.

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About Kyle Casey

Kyle Casey
Kyle's love of pro and college football stems from his passion for the Baltimore Ravens. He has held season tickets in section 542 of M&T Bank Stadium since 2004. He is currently a sophomore Mass Communications student at Towson University....more

7 Raves on “Preseason 2014: What we Know, What we Don’t

  1. James on said:

    I have asked before, but have yet to get anyone to give me an answer. Were we spoiled last season by having Graham as our third corner? Look at most teams and how many don’t have a corner in the same league as Webb and Smith, yet the Ravens have two.

    How many teams have average-above average in the two starting corners but below average after that? I would say that’s the majority of the league. Yet we are in panic mode right now because our third corner could be average. Weren’t we worst off last year? Webb wasn’t able to practice after coming back from major surgery, Smith had yet to live up to his hype and there was nobody after Graham.

    Yes, it would be nice to have another good corner, considering Webb and Jackson are both injured. But Ozzie isn’t about to give away the bank (like most fans expect) to bring in another corner. He will wait and see who is released in the next few weeks, but don’t expect anyone better than Jackson.

    The good thing is Jackson’s injury doesn’t seem to be serious and from what I have read Webb thinks he is ready to come back, but the team will hold him out for a little bit longer

    • matt on said:

      i agree we were spoiled with graham. he made plays and most important fact is that he was our most durable DB we had. webb and smith are injury prone.. i believe the great Oz will make a move to add depth to this spot. and he does have the extra cash at the moment.

    • Tony LombardiTony Lombardi on said:

      That’s ok, we only approved it once ;-)

      Panicking? Let’s call it conservatism.

      If Webb and Jackson aren’t healthy, look out! Better to find reinforcements now IMO.

      • rockymattioli on said:

        of course tony`s right…anybody that thinks our corner rotation is even o.k. needs some therapy….we have webb with an injury that we aren`t sure the true severity….Jackson`s been nicked…..

        if we don`t grab someone off the waiver wire to help our o line depth and at corner,we`re going to run into real real trouble at some point during the season….,

        didn`t last year`s o line/receiver depth issues make any impression on people?…..

  2. TwinkleToes on said:

    I watched Jensen’s film on each snap 3 times. My observations:

    1) He had a rough first series. He played high, and his footwork was not the best.
    On the sack he was charged with, he was clubbed in the head with a forearm that knocked
    him off-balance. He got caught lunging, and that led to bad balance
    2) His run blocking was strong and decisive. He executed 3 very good cut blocks.
    He pulled across the face of the line on the second series and put a shuddering hit on the
    Defensive lineman chasing the play, that contributed to springing that screen for a first down.
    On the very next play, he took Tank 12 yards back and shoved him across the goal line.
    He gets to the second level with bad intent.
    3) He settled down after the first series, and did an admirable job in pass pro. He understands
    the part of the zone he is responsible for, and looks to assist the LT in good double team work
    when it is needed.
    4) He was often yanked by his lower facemask, and one time got pretty upset about it and
    protested to the official. It was subtle, but was effective in pulling his weight forward and
    nullifying his leverage.
    5) He contributed largly in the running game’s effectiveness. The second team piled on
    good yardage between the tackles. That is indicative of good guard play on either side.

    Overall observations: The kid isn’t getting credit for anything than his first series, which
    that credit is is discredit. I don’t thing everyone looked at the complete body of work that evening.
    He had not played a single game for 18 months, so I imagine “rookie jitters” were a bit in play.
    I think many are bagging on him because he was kept on the roster last year, and now expectations of him are a little unreasonable. He has been shifted all over the OL, with the only position he has taken reps at is LT. Got to let him settle in and I think his game will pick up.
    All in all, I say give the young guy a chance the pre-season before saying “next up”.

    TwinkleToes

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