How much one can tell about a team’s upcoming season during June mini-camps and OTA’s is yet to be decided. However, if intensity is a measuring stick then the Baltimore Ravens should have a bounce back season in 2014. Some of the hottest temperatures of the early summer hit the Baltimore area just as the Ravens final mandatory mini-camp opened on Tuesday. With the thermostat hitting the mid to upper 90’s and the heat index placing the city on a code red, tempers on the field in Owings Mills, Maryland flared and boiled at times during the three day session.
Veterans and rookies alike have been practicing during the mandatory session with a fire that the team seemed to lack last season when Baltimore became the third team in five years to miss the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl the previous season. On Wednesday, there were two minor “pushing and shoving” incidents between a pair of rookies and veterans that are worth noting. It should come as no surprise as to one of the players involved.
New Ravens WR Steve Smith, who is known for carrying a chip on his shoulder with a mouth to match, became better acquainted with CB LarDarius Webb. Smith became agitated after a play that he though Webb defended him a little too energetically on. According to those in attendance, the players were involved in an exchange of words after Smith caught a slant pass over the middle. They then went to the ground as Webb tried to make a play on the ball over Smith’s back. Smith took exception to the way Webb defended him on the play and both players got in each other’s face, with a little shoving, before teammates separated them. Smith initially jogged over to the sideline after the confrontation, but then Head Coach John Harbaugh made sure everything had calmed down and had him come back on the field for the next play.
The first skirmish of the day on occurred between two of the Ravens higher draft picks. TE Crockett Gilmore and DT Timmy Jernigan, who has been involved in a few heated exchanges throughout the OTA’s, wrestled each other to the ground before being separated. Later, Smith and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs took Jernigan aside to calm him down. "You can't be a pushover, man," said Jernigan, a second-round draft pick. "I played at Florida State and we don't get down like that. It's part of the game. It's over now. Whatever happens on the field stays on the field. We're teammates at the end of the day." According to reporters that have attended every session so far, there haven't been a ton of fights during offseason practice sessions, but Jernigan has been in the middle of a few flare-ups.
"It's a little hot and guys are competing out there," offensive tackle Ryan Jensen said. "We're out here battling. That's part of football sometimes." According to one source, there were at least four minicamp fights throughout the NFL on Wednesday, two in Baltimore, and one each in Atlanta and Seattle. The 21 days of training camp, that begins for the Ravens on July 24 and ends on August 14, should be an interesting and eventful time.
Steve Smith did come with a peace offering to Webb on Thursday, as he brought him a bag with a goodie from Dunkin Donuts. Written on the bag was the following message, “Peace offering from 89”. I wonder what Ken Lucas got from Smith back in Charlotte after their incident in August of 2008?
There were several battles to watch as mini-camp started a few days ago and will continue through training camp in late July and August. As we head into the five week break before training camp starts, who are the leaders in the clubhouse at some of those positions? Let’s find out:
Inside Linebacker: Daryl Smith will start at one of the two spots but who starts next to him is a battle that will play into August between first round draft pick CJ Mosley and second year man Arthur Brown. The Ravens have been impressed with Mosley and he was last seen playing with the first team as camp broke on Thursday. Brown looks improved over a rookie season that saw him struggle but your leader in the clubhouse at ILB is CJ Mosley.
Right Tackle: Ricky Wagner, Ryan Jensen, Jah Reid, & even undrafted free agent signee James Hurst were all considered candidates to have a shot to line up at the position sometime during the preseason. As mandatory camp ended on Thursday, Wagner is still the leader in the clubhouse. Jensen is considered his top competition, as the Ravens love his versatility. Jensen lined up with the second team at right guard and right tackle during a lot of the offseason workouts. He practiced mostly at right tackle for the first two weeks of offseason workouts before taking all of his snaps at guard last week. Jensen found out from Terrell Suggs this week that he may still have a ways to go as Sizzle flattened him during a team drill, according to multiple accounts. Hurst looks to be a longshot, as Elvis Dumervill showed why he may have dropped out of the draft back in May. Elvis ran around, through and over the former Tar Heel.
Safety: Third round pick, free safety Terrence Brooks, is struggling much the same way Matt Elam was this time last year. In the mandatory minicamp, Brooks did not play with either the first- or second-team defense and must outperform Darian Stewart, Omar Brown, and Jeromy Miles when the competition resumes in late July. "It was a little hard at first," Brooks said. "Coming into a new system, it’s definitely going to be challenging. But, for the most part, with more studying and just being more of a student of the game, I feel like I’ve got a good grasp on how this defense is and the schemes. For an update, I would say that I’m doing really well with it, and now it’s just going out there and playing for us." As a result and because he’s not playing too badly in shorts, former Rams safety Darian Stewart is your leader in the clubhouse. Stewart picked off a Joe Flacco pass on the final day of workouts.
The Pass Catchers:
With Steve and Torrey Smith, as well as Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown, the depth chart at wide receiver seems to be set. But there are several performances, good and bad worth noting over the last few days. Last years undrafted rookie sensation, WR Marlon Brown, who caught seven touchdown passes in 2013, struggled to hold onto ball at times, and was the most inconsistent of the projected pass catchers. Both Smith’s and Jacoby Jones seemed to have good off season sessions, all making acrobatic catches at one time or another. Each seemed to hold onto to most of their pass attempts. Undrafted rookie Jeremy Butler could be this year’s Marlon Brown, as he turned a few heads. The rookie from Tennessee-Martin made more catches than the other players who are competing for one of the last receiver spots on the team such as seventh round selection Michael Campanaro, Deonte Thompson and LaQuan Williams. It is also worth noting that Butler's shot to make the squad got a little easier this week when the Ravens waived Aaron Mellette.
JOE COOL HEATS UP:
What about the guy throwing the passes? Ravens QB Joe Flacco, according to all published reports, got better each day in new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s offense. Flacco has consistently lauded the ease of the offense and the use of more timing patterns which could help him complete more than 60 percent of his passes for the first time since 2010. During a day 2 session, there was a long stretch where the ball didn't hit the ground in full-team and seven-on-seven drills with is best throw coming on a deep middle completion to Steve Smith, who beat Matt Elam. Kubiak’s offense appears to be tailor made for Flacco who seems to struggle when he’s forced to progress through options which causes him to hold onto the ball longer in the pocket. According to ESPN Ravens beat writer Jamison Hensley, in Kubiak's new system, Flacco likely will be asked to get the ball out quicker. Kubiak is teaching him to throw when he hits the ball of his foot on the three-step drop. The West Coast offense is predicated on rhythm and quick releases. Hensley writes, “Based on last season's numbers, the Ravens may be on to something. Flacco was better when he had less time in the pocket, according to Pro Football Focus.” With less than 2 seconds in the pocket, Flacco completed 68.3 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and six interceptions. His passer rating was 80.5. With more than 3 seconds to throw, he connected on 46.2 percent of his passes for two touchdown and four interceptions. His rating was 61.1. Getting Flacco to throw the ball quicker also will help with his longevity. He was sacked a career-high 48 times last season, and he was limping in the final two games because of a knee sprain. During the past six seasons, Flacco hasn't missed a start, but he has been sacked 222 times. Only the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger (240) and the Packers' Aaron Rodgers (223) have been sacked more. While many want the seventh year signal caller to be an elite regular season performer, Joe Cool only needs to execute an offense that thrives on running the ball through a zone blocking scheme. Former Texans QB Matt Schaub got plenty of opportunity to seize the moment under Kubiak and threw for 4,000 two years in a row and three times while under center in Houston. Ironically, those were the only three years Schaub played all 16 games while in Houston. He also threw 29, 24, and 22 touchdown passes during those seasons, making the Pro-Bowl in 2009 & 2012. Flacco has never eclipsed the 4,000 yard mark or made the Pro-Bowl. While Schaub has never won a Super Bowl, Flacco has, winning MVP honors of the game in 2013. Many believe that if No.5 can hit the magic mark of 4k in 2014, the Ravens will return to the top of the division.
WHAT ABOUT NO-SHOWS?
The veterans that failed to show up during voluntary OTA’s, all showed up during this mandatory session. Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Chris Canty, and Marshall Yanda all participated during the mandatory workouts. All risked being fined $69,000 per day if they didn’t but Ravens fans fears were put to rest when all not only showed but all appeared to be in solid shape.
Actually, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs showed up in great shape and sizzled during workouts in the hot sun. Suggs, who is likely to retire a Raven after he was given a four-year extension, and received an $11 million signing bonus, was his old trash talking self throughout the three day camp. Suggs deal is also guaranteed for $16 million over the next two seasons, which could be why he was relaxed and performing at a high level in June. However, showing up in anything but less than great shape would have raised serious questions. Suggs appeared to be heading towards another Defensive Player of the Year Award last season when he began the season with 60 tackles and nine sacks in his first eight games. However, and to be fair, like the rest of his team, the sizzle smoldered to a puff of smoke, as Suggs finished with 20 tackles and one sack during the seasons second half. At 31, Suggs has a lot to prove this season—the key word there being season, as in the whole season. But—so far so good from No.55. INJURIES: The Ravens were far more fortunate than the Giants and Cowboys, who lost starting linebackers in their teams OTA’s this spring. Dallas LB Sean Lee tore his ACL and is out for the season. The Giants got lucky with LB Jon Beason, who broke a bone and tore ligaments in his foot. He is expected back by the start of the season. Of the 88 active-roster players, 83 took the field for the final session on Thursday. Only four players have been absent from all three days of minicamp: offensive lineman Jah Reid (calf), nose tackle Terrence Cody (hip surgery), wide receiver Kamar Aiken (knee) and defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore (hamstring), who suffered his injury during practice June 17. Undrafted rookie tackle Parker Graham was missing after having returned for the second session. Graham had been absent for the opening practice with an undisclosed issue.
According to the Ravens web site, after the three-day mandatory minicamp, the Ravens are reportedly signing multiple veteran players who participated in practice on a tryout basis. The Ravens are expected to sign linebacker Austin Spitler, cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Aaron Ross, and defensive end/outside linebacker Nick DiMarco, according to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun The Ravens had two open spots on the 90-man roster after waiving wide receiver Aaron Mellette and outside linebacker Adrian Hamilton earlier in the week because they failed physicals. The Ravens would have to cut two other plays to make room for all four additions, but the team has not announced those transactions.
Spitler, 27, spent the first four seasons of his career with the Miami Dolphins. He has been a backup linebacker and special teamer during that time, and has racked up 31 tackles throughout his career. Spitler is an inside linebacker who will join a tight competition with players like Josh Byne and Albert McClellan. Franks, 26, played for the Atlanta Falcons the last four years. He has been a special teamer and reserve cornerback, notching 30 tackles and three interceptions during his career. Franks had a solid week at minicamp, including a nice pass breakup during Thursday’s practice. Ross, 31, is an eight-year veteran who has spent most of his career with the New York Giants. He also played one season for the Jacksonville Jaguars and will provide solid veteran depth on a fast young secondary. Ross has been a starter during his career, including in 2011 when he started 15 games for a Giants team that went on to win the Super Bowl. Ross has 250 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 11 interceptions in his career.
RAVENS FANS WOULD LOVE TO HAVE FLOWERS DELIVERED:
Brandon Flowers is still on the market with Atlanta & Minnesota emerging as front runners. Flowers visited San Diego on Thursday. Just some food for thought. Signing Flowers would really give opposing offenses something to think about. Flowers could take LarDarius Webb’s spot with Webb moving to the slot / nickel corner position. Webb’s snaps would not be reduced as much as one would think and to have Webb, Flowers and Jimmy Smith on the field for 60 to 70 percent of the games snaps would really create possibilities for a defensive scheme that could potentially be downright scary. Imagine the possibilities and blitzing schemes and putting teams into constant second and third and long situations, which then allows defensive backs the luxury of making plays they otherwise wouldn’t take chances on. I’m almost positive that the team that allowed 352 points in 2013 with 134 of them coming in the fourth quarter wouldn’t be so vulnerable late in games in 2014, with that combo on the field.
Every NFL head coach and executive will tell you the scariest part of the calendar year is the five weeks between the end of the final mini-camp and the start of training camp in late July. The Ravens are particularly concerned about the time frame after their winter / spring offseason. Since the end of the final gun in Cincinnati last December, four Ravens players were arrested for various crimes. Running back Ray Rice (assault), wide receiver Deonte Thompson (drug charges), offensive lineman Jah Reid (assault), and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (destruction of property), all created major headaches for the Ravens this offseason. Rice and Reid were accepted in pretrial diversion programs, and Thompson’s charges were dropped. Taliaferro’s day in court is next week, as he will face a judge on June 26.
While many feel the Ravens and Ray Rice botched his first media appearance on the Friday afternoon prior to the Memorial Day holiday weekend, following the incident with his now wife— head Coach John Harbaugh didn’t botch his final message to the team before he cut them loose on Thursday. Harbs reminded his players about how each should think about how their actions could affect the team and those that want to win and play football. "We have really good guys," Harbaugh said after the final session. "Football matters to them. The more it matters to you, I would think the less inclined you are to do anything that would jeopardize that." The Ravens open camp on July 24 in their Owings Mills Maryland facility known as “The Castle”—hopefully with everyone in attendance and no charges pending.