We had the opportunity to attend the first “open” stadium practice of the 2014 NFL Season for the Baltimore Ravens. Upon arriving into Baltimore, driving on Russell Street, it felt like a regular season game. There was definitely a buzz in the air, “football is back”, better yet the Ravens are back! The fans were engaged from an hour before the start of practice through the final horn signaling the end of practice. There was a Ray Lewis sighting, a near collision between the owner driving a golf cart and safety Matt Elam, all in all it was a great night!
Now, let’s talk about the football that was played. Obviously, there’s a huge difference between a padded practice behind the scenes versus the padded practice that was open to thousands of fans. Although, there are definitely pieces of information that can be taken away from some of the drills and sessions. The practice was broke into 14 different sections, the sections that offered the most information were the defensive back drills, the 7-on-7 skeletons, full team offense vs defense in the passing game, a blocking drill between Wideouts and Defensive backs, the blocking drill with offensive lineman trying to stay in front of the pass rushers, a blitz pick up drill and some of the “special” situation drills were enjoyable as well. Let’s go through each position group and I’ll share my observations from the evening.
The defensive line was impressive from start to finish, the sheer depth that Baltimore boasts at that position is amazing. As my colleague Turron Davenport pointed out early in the practice, Haloti Ngata was moving very well. Outside of Ngata, the Ravens have Chris Canty, Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, DeAngelo Tyson, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Brent Urban. The group was disruptive during the full team offense vs defense sessions.
Options, options and more options. That is what the Ravens have at the position, not too mention a ton of talent. The battle for inside linebacker should be a great one, Daryl Smith did a good job last season. It will be interesting to see who will be starting next to him when the season starts, will it be second year player Arthur Brown or the first round pick in this year’s draft in C.J. Mosley. Both Mosley and Brown showed their range last night, with Mosley being a bit more impressive. C.J. seemed to always be around the ball, he’s also extremely comfortable in space. While the defense wasn’t allowed to tackle, Mosley did show his ability to play the run as he seemed to beat the ball carrier to the spot several times.
Everyone knows who “Sizzle” is, so it’s no surprise when I share that Terrell Suggs was his usual disruptive self. His most impressive play of the night may have been during the red zone drill; Flacco took the snap and dropped back, he had a receiver running a pivot route. The wideout had beat his man, but Flacco couldn’t deliver the throw as Suggs jumped up to disrupt the passing lane, he then beat his man and flushed Flacco out to his right where he had nothing. The play resulted in a throw-away.
While he doesn’t have a great name like “Sizzle”, Pernell McPhee was very impressive. As a 280 pound outside backer, one would think that he was a little to heavy to play the position. McPhee was tormenting offensive lineman all night long, players aren’t allowed to hit the Quarterback, but Pernell had three sacks by my count. Second year player John Simon was impressive as times as well, he manhandled Mosley in a special teams drill and also did a good job beating his blocker in the team sessions. Baltimore still has Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw, both of which looked solid. It’s definitely a position of strength on this roster.
This is where a lot of the fun occurred, after Ladarius Webb and Jimmy Smith the corner depth chart is wide open! There is definitely an opportunity for third, fourth or fifth year guys like Chykie Brown,Asa Jackson, and Dominique Franks to carve out a role. There are also a few undrafted free agents in the group as well, my favorite being Sammy Seamster from Middle Tennessee State. He’s a six foot, 200 pound corner that has long arms and understands how to use them.
Baltimore has a very interesting set of DB drills, both the corners and safeties participated in. There is one specific drill that is nothing but turns on turns on turns, it caused several of the players to either fall over or have to use their hands to prop or pop themselves back up. Several players stood out in that drill, Jimmy Smith did a great job and he’s a very big corner. Seamster looked good as well, he took advantage of those long arms and used them to keep his balance on the back to back turns. Of all the safeties to do this particular drill, rookie Terrance Brooks did the best. He moves extremely well and is able to flip his hips similar to a corner.
As mentioned about there being spots to be had at corner, there is good competition amongst the safeties. The only lock may be Matt Elam, there is a five year vet in Darien Stewart but he doesn’t have the pure talent that Will Hill possesses. Hill is going to be suspended for the first four games of the season, talent has never been the issue for him, decision making off the field has been. Hill could be a great addition to that back end if he can get on the right track (Hill is a large man, he came out the tunnel with C.J. Mosley and looked to be the same size), he was paired often with Brooks in the full team drills. Brynden Trawick is another youngster to watch, he could definitely add depth to the position.
The first team offensive line didn’t look great in the full team sessions when going against the first team defensive line, but that isn’t an indictment on them. It could just mean that Baltimore’s defensive front is extremely disruptive, which it is. Rookie tackle James Hurst had a tough day, but it’s probably not fun having to deal with Suggs, Ngata, McPhee and company. Kelechi Osemele is huge, Levi Brown was lining up at left tackle at times and “KO” dwarfed him. Osemele stands 6’5, 330 pounds while Brown ins 6’5, 300 pounds. I turned to Turron and mistook Brown for being a tight-end when he lined up next to Osemele. One of the strengths of the Ravens offensive front is the versatility, several of the players can play either Guard or Tackle.
Dennis Pitta is the popular name in this position group, he and Flacco displayed the connection that they have several times last night. At 6’4, 245 pounds he and veteran Owen Daniels (6’3, 245) may just be the smallest players at the position. Baltimore has imported a bunch of giants into this position in Nathan Overbay(6’5, 260), Phillip Supernaw (6’5, 248) and Turron’s favorite in Crockett Gilmore (6’6, 251). Of the three youngsters, Supernaw and Gilmore stood out. Supernaw had a great catch in traffic towards the end of practice, lots of bodies flying around and he displayed a great concentration to lock in on the football and haul it in. Gilmore impressed me the most, he’s the most athletic of the three and has the best hands. I definitely would be shocked if he didn’t make the roster.
Might as well start with the name you’re all thinking of….Ray Rice. The Ravens starting running back got a resounding reception last night, he ran out of the tunnel to an adoring and loving group of fans. When they provided a close up of him on the stadium’s scoreboard, the applause was only second to when fans caught a glimpse of Ray Lewis. Rice is suspended for the first two games of the regular season, but he is allowed to practice with his team.
Behind Rice is third year back Bernard Pierce, he should see the lions share of the carries in those two games without Rice. I was a bit skeptical of the Justin Forsett addition, but in a discussion with Turron, he simply stated “Kubiak”. Forsett had several big runs throughout the night, I can see why he was brought on. Lorenzo Taliaferro was drafted this year in the fourth round, he looked good during practice as well. Towards the end of the night, he was see in a very engaging conversation with the Ravens Owner down on the field. It looked to be the type of “fatherly lecture” from afar, he provides Baltimore with yet another physical back.
The franchise, better known as Joe Flacco didn’t have an impressing outing but it’s just one practice. Also, this is a defensive team, it’s going to be hard to “light” up that defense in any setting. He did seem to show the same type of trust he had in Anquan Boldin with first year Raven Steve Smith. He threw to “Smitty” several times in double coverage, giving him a chance to go up and make a play on the ball. One of Flacco’s best throws of the night came on a fade route to Smith, beautiful route and a great throw resulted in a Touchdown.
Tyrod Taylor looked good from start to finish, very accurate on the evening. He even got a chance to show off that escapability that made him so special at Virginia Tech. He was also the only quarterback to test the defense on every level of the field, calm and in control from start to finish. He also did a great job during the blitz portion of practice in evading the free running defenders. IF, if Flacco was to go down the Ravens are in capable hands.
Rookie Keith Wenning looked…like a rookie. In the 7-on-7 drill as well as the full team offense-defense drill he seemed to lock on to his receivers early on. He also didn’t throw the ball down the field much, most of his completions were check downs. He’ll definitely improve with time, but he looked every bit the part of a first year player.
I could just type Kamar Aiken and leave it like that, he lit up the night. Aiken’s name was called during every drill at least twice and never once for anything negative. He routinely beat defenders for big gains, if the second year player can keep this up thru the preseason games and camp, he should be a lock for a roster spot. Steve Smith showed Baltimore what he was about early on in practice, beating his defender in a second during a blocking drill. Embarrassing another young DB on a fade route and making several catches in the middle of the field.
After the “Smiths” and Jacoby Jones, the depth chart is wide open. Obviously guys like Deonte Thompson, Marlon Brown, and LaQuan Williams have a bit of an advantage over some of the youngsters, but the gap isn’t as large as one would think. The Ravens have a ton of size at the position, so pure measurables won’t be enough to separate from the pack. Williams struggled with drops throughout the evening, Brown looked good and Thompson was solid. They will have to do better if they wish to hold off the group of youngsters: Mike Willie, Michael Campanaro, Jeremy Butler, and Gerrard Sheppard. Campanaro should be a lock for the team, his ability to win at the line was on full display last night. He routinely got open early in his routes (left Elam standing still several times). Butler has good size and great feet for a taller receiver, he may not make the final 53 but should be signed to the practice squad. Baltimore would be foolish to let a 6’2, 218 pound receiver with good feet walk out of the door. If they deem him not ready for this season, he’ll be a great addition next year.
It will be interesting to see how this part of the roster shakes out, the Ravens definitely have more options than they did last season. So many different pieces to use and so many ways to use them.
All in all, it was a great experience. The players stayed after practice to sign autographs for children before calling it a night, keep up with our coverage thru the rest of the preseason.