Ravens Q&A With Harley Sherman, Pro Football Focus
The Baltimore Ravens are just over a Month (July 19th) from the beginning of their Training Camp. The 2018 season is now approaching on the horizon.
To preview what looms ahead, Baltimore Sports and Life (BSL) has reached out to Harley Sherman, who covers the Ravens for Pro Football Focus.
Our thanks to Harley for his thoughts!
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Baltimore Sports and Life: 2008 was the first year of Coach Harbaugh, Joe Flacco, and Ray Rice. Over the next 5 years through 2012 the Baltimore Ravens reached the post-season each year; winning the Franchises 2nd Super Bowl and reaching the AFC Championship Game two other times. In the last 5 years, the Ravens have reached the post-season once.
The Super Bowl victory also saw the end of Ray Lewis’ career, and Ed Reed’s tenure in Baltimore.
We know how Rice’s career ended.
’18 will be the last year for Ozzie Newsome as GM, and architect of the franchise.
Seemingly it will be Flacco’s last year in Baltimore as well, with the heir apparent on the roster, and the Ravens having the ability to get out from Flacco’s contract next year.
To us, it feels like a year of transition before a new era begins. Do you see it similarly?
Do you think Harbaugh can and/or should be part of what comes next?
Sherman: The selection of Lamar Jackson in the draft, the first QB taken in the first round since Flacco in 2008, certainly makes it feel like the Ravens are entering a period of transition. It could be argued that the team has been in transition for a few years now; veterans like Terrell Suggs and Marshal Yanda are approaching the tail end of their careers and Newsome hasn’t done the best job of filling out the roster with talent in the mid and late rounds of the draft. Despite missing the playoffs for three straight years, I would still stick with Harbaugh. One losing season in ten is a record that many other teams would gladly take.
Baltimore Sports and Life: We don’t have to rehash the Flacco / Elite discussion, to appreciate what he has been. Entering his 11th NFL season, he’s played all 16 games in 9 of his 10 prior seasons. That durability should be respected. He’s consistently been a reliable NFL starting QB, and that certainly has value. Aside from the very beginning of his career; he’s also been a guy that has tended to play his best in the games which mattered most. On the negative side, after his contract extension he has ate up a sizable portion of the cap, without being able to regularly improve the performance of those around him. The team depth suffered with his deal. After his ACL injury in ’15, he dealt with sub-par mechanics which lasted until nearly the end of last year.
All reports this Spring / early Summer have Flacco in the proverbial ‘best shape of his life.’ With the selection of Jackson, and the criticism he has faced; I feel like Flacco has something to prove. Especially with the idea that the Ravens are likely to move on to Jackson to begin ’19. Historically Joe has played his best, not just in the games which matter most, but when he’s had a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
Would it be surprising to you, to see his play take a jump? Completion percentage drop some with less checkdowns, and his Yards per Attempt raise with a return to attacking more down field? Overall being a leading reason why the Ravens win, vs. a component of why they don’t?
Absolute best case scenario…. a season similar to Alex Smith last year, which allows the Ravens to trade Flacco for a 3rd round pick next year?
Sherman: After a strong season grade of 82.7 in 2014, Flacco has flat lined at 75.2, 75.4 and 76.7 in the following years. It’s clear that his career is on a downward slope and I’d be surprised if there was any major improvement in 2018. What once was his calling card was his deep passing; he posted a 107.4 QB rating on pass attempts targeted 20 yards or more downfield in 2014. This dropped to 52.7 in 2017. The addition of speedster John Brown could help in that department but it doesn’t seem like a quick fix.
Baltimore Sports and Life: I’m excited by the addition of Jackson for a number of reasons. He can sit and learn at the professional level here in ’18 (though I think we all believe it’s likely we see him in some sets, and possibly starting later in the year if Joe doesn’t perform). Coach Petrino at Louisville runs a pro style offense. I thought Jackson improved in the pocket this past year. He seems to be a guy willing to work and to continue to learn. Maybe most importantly, having been selected in the 1st Round, the Ravens gaining that potential 5th year on his contract is huge. Jackson doesn’t have to become an All-Pro for this to work extremely well. Should he take over in ’19, and be a productive starter during the ’19,’20,’21, and ’22 seasons; the Ravens will be positioned to be a perennial contender. That’s the opportunity you gain, if you have a cheap QB providing giving you something. You can build a deep roster around him.
What are your thoughts on the selection?
Sherman: Jackson is definitely an exciting addition to the team. There are concerns over his accuracy, but he earned the No. 3 grade against pressure and the No. 2 overall among draft eligible QBs in 2017. His dual threat ability also offers something more, and as long as the team builds an offense to suit his skillset then he has potential.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Alex Collins was a bright-spot in an otherwise depressing 2018 season. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry, and also had 23 receptions. He’s coming off a 212 carry season, which was good for 15th most league wide. How many carries are realistic in ’18? If the carries don’t drastically increase, can the receptions? Should he ever stay on the field, Dixon also has ability. How you do you feel about the Ravens backs?
Sherman: Collins was a real find, and will without a doubt be the lead back heading into 2018. He was well-proven in avoiding contact, averaging 2.98 yards after contact per attempt and forced 34 missed tackles. Aside from Collins, the position looks thin. Dixon ranked second in elusive rating in 2016, but obviously he needs to stay clean off the field to make any consistent impact on it.
Baltimore Sports and Life: I always like teams built from the inside out, so maybe one of the reasons for my increased optimism with the Ravens overall, is that I’m excited about the O-line’s potential. Orlando Brown was a mess at the combine, but his tape showed why he was an All-American at the collegiate level. What type of shape does he show up in? How focused is he? If he can grab the RT spot, this line has a chance to be really good. Ideally, I think the line left to right would be Stanley, Hurst, Lewis, Yanda, and Brown. That’s a pretty massive group. If that group can stay on the field, they’d have the chance to maul opposing lines. How does that group look to you?
Sherman: The Ravens have struggled to retain quality linemen in recent years, losing Ricky Wagner, Kelechi Osemele and now Ryan Jensen, the No. 9 center in the league last season. A bonus for them is that PFF Top 50 member Marshal Yanda returns from injury to bolster a unit that ranked fifth in Pass Blocking Efficiency in 2017. Stanley is a solid LT and Orlando Brown has the raw potential to be a starter at RT.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Crabtree, Brown, and Snead represent new faces at WR. Moore is entering his third year, and he had some positive moments as last year progressed. At TE, the Ravens have guys in Hurst, Andrews, M. Williams / Boyle who should be able to provide something. Not a group that will strike fear in the opposition, but more productive vs. what we’ve seen in recent years?
Sherman: That seems a fair assessment. With Mike Wallace the highest grading player in 2017 at 74.5, it was clear that the Ravens had no major threat at the position. While that may still not be the case, the three players added provide good balance – Crabtree as a possession receiver, Brown as a deep threat and Snead operating in the slot.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Defensively, the Ravens are very stout up the middle with Brandon Williams, Willie Henry, and Michael Pierce. Curious what you think of Williams’ contract? Do the Ravens have too much money invested in a guy that doesn’t get to QBs, or do you like his presence as a run-stuffer?
Sherman: Williams ranked fifth among interior defenders with a 85.3 run defense grade in 2017, so he lives up his reputation in that regard. Despite that, getting pressure on pass plays is a far more valuable skill in today’s NFL, and Williams just doesn’t offer enough in that phase to warrant the Ravens allocating that much cap space to him. He projects to have the fourth highest cap hit among defensive tackles in 2019, above more productive pass rushers such as Gerald McCoy and Jurrell Casey.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Pass rush off the edge is a question. Terrell Suggs had 11 sacks last year, but he’s 36 in October and entering Year 16. Matt Judon broke out some last year with his 8 sacks. The question with him is consistency. Can he bring it every game? I was hoping for more out of Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser as rookies last year. To me, the defense looks different if they emerge in ’18. How do you see this group?
Sherman: Judon is an interesting case. In 2017 he ranked fourth among edge defenders with 27.3% of his pressures resulting in sacks, which may or may not be sustainable. Suggs posted a 87.0 overall grade, his best since 2011, but how much does he have left in the tank? Outside of those two, there are a lot of question marks. With Zach Sieler the only edge defender drafted, the defense will be hoping that Bowser and Williams have strong sophomore seasons.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Soon to be 26 year old CJ Mosley is a 3x Pro Bowler, who unfortunately for him; plays in the immense shadow that Lewis left. He has the reputation of being excellent vs. the run, and struggling a bit in pass coverage. How do you see Mosley? Where does he rank for you amongst ILB’s across the game? Russell Street Report reported that Mosley is seeking a 5 year, $68M deal, with $34M guaranteed. If the Ravens were to extend him, what contract makes sense to you? At what level, does a deal for him become too much?
Sherman: Ranking as the 35th best inside linebacker in 2017, Mosley was underwhelming to say the least. His 85.5 grade in 2016 and strong rookie campaign indicate that he does have the quality to remain at the heart of the Ravens’ defense. The quoted numbers are perhaps a bit rich, particularly considering that he doesn’t play in a premium position. Something above the 5 year, $50m deal Eric Kendricks recently earned would be fair.
Baltimore Sports and Life: Jimmy Smith suffered an Achilles injury December 3rd. Despite Coach Harbaugh being on record that Smith his ahead of schedule; I’m a bit skeptical. I wonder that if he is back on the field, how long it will take until he’s ‘back’ to the level he was at prior to the injury. That said, with Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young, etc; there is good depth at CB. I’m less excited about the Safeties, as I didn’t think Weddle and Jefferson worked that well together. Clearly an improved pass rush in-front of them would only help. Do think Jefferson played better when the Ravens got him more in the box in the 2nd half of the year. Weddle is a 5x Pro Bowler, including the last two years, and four of the last five; but it appears his free lancing cost the Ravens at times last year.
How do you see the Secondary?
Sherman: The secondary is clearly the strongest group on the team. Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey have both graded in the top 35 of CBs, and the return of Tavon Young could give them great depth. At safety, Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson both graded at 82.4, although Weddle struggled against the run.
Baltimore Sports and Life: After missing the post-season the last 3 years; do the Ravens return to the Playoffs this year?
Sherman: There are lots of ifs and maybes to throw out there. What Joe Flacco will we get? Was Alex Collins a one-season wonder? Will time catch up with Suggs and dry up the pass rush in the process? If the Ravens see some return from this year’s draft class and get more production from what was a lackluster offense in 2017, then they can compete for a wild card spot.