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Five things we learned from Ravens OTAs and minicamp, including the irrelevance of Lamar Jackson's absences

Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Football

The Baltimore Ravens are done with their official offseason preparations. The next time we see them, they’ll be ramping up in earnest for the 2024 season.

That will mean fierce, physical competition for a few open jobs. It will mean talk about the last steps that must be taken to reach an elusive Super Bowl. It will mean unrelenting scrutiny on the men — particularly quarterback Lamar Jackson and coach John Harbaugh — expected to get the Ravens there.

All those stories were in the air during three weeks of organized team activities (OTAs) and the concluding week of mandatory minicamp. They just wren’t as pressing as they will be come late July.

With that in mind, here are five things we learned from the last month of Ravens activity.

We can always find reasons to get frustrated with Lamar Jackson. Most of them don’t mean a whole lot.

The attendance hawks had their talons sharpened for Jackson’s absences from several OTA sessions. The loudest of those, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, reported that Jackson sacrificed a $750,000 bonus by failing to appear at 80% of voluntary workouts.

Jackson brushed past a question about the bonus after the Ravens’ minicamp practice Wednesday, saying, “I never discuss my contract up here.”

The real question is whether any of this will matter when Jackson leads the Ravens’ offense against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 5 or, more importantly, when playoff time arrives in January?

The answer is unknowable. Could a Jackson-led offense be 3% tighter if he attended every workout or gathered his receivers more religiously for informal pitch-and-catch sessions in South Florida? Maybe, but it’s such an easy point for his critics to harp on because the premise is impossible to measure.

Harbaugh would prefer that Jackson show up for every OTA session. As he’s said many times, he’s a coach; his natural instinct will always be to want his players present and stacking reps. He’s not, however, going to scold his franchise quarterback for missing a few voluntary workouts. There’s no percentage in it.

We would all do well to keep that same big-picture view of the situation.

Jackson has a nonconformist streak. It’s part of the reason he became a unique, brilliant quarterback in the face of a doubting chorus that said he couldn’t throw precisely enough or that he’d get hurt dancing outside the pocket. His version of preparing for a season might not fit the standard (though Tom Brady skipped plenty of voluntary workouts in his later years with the Patriots, and Aaron Rodgers just blew off minicamp with the Jets).

The bottom line is we can count on two hands the players who, when healthy, almost guarantee their teams will play in the postseason. Jackson is one of them. His teammates have never not rallied to him, even after he was injured for the 2022 playoffs and uncertain to sign an extension with the Ravens. Imperfect OTA attendance isn’t going to change any of that.

The Ravens’ offensive line will remain a mystery until at least a few weeks into training camp

Almost all of the Ravens’ unclaimed starting jobs are on the offensive line, with both guard spots and right tackle up for grabs. That was true coming out of free agency and the draft. It’s true after four weeks of offseason workouts.

Minicamp and OTA alignments are often misleading. Recall that rookie Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu often lined up as the team’s starting left guard last summer only to lose that status quickly during training camp and become a guaranteed inactive for most of the regular season.

Harbaugh said repeatedly that candidates would not separate themselves during these noncontact workouts, some of which did not even feature helmets. It was a time for teaching plays, honing basic techniques, experimenting and running laps as punishment for false starts.

The Ravens seem to be considering many possibilities, with Ben Cleveland, Daniel Faalele, Aumavae-Laulu, Josh Jones, Andrew Vorhees and Roger Rosengarten competing for snaps, some of them candidates for all three open jobs.

With Cleveland and Faalele still in states of developmental limbo in years four and three, respectively, coaches would probably love Vorhees to cement himself as a starting guard and Rosengarten to show he’s ready to handle right tackle. But we can’t make such pronouncements based on anything we saw over the last month. The number of variations the Ravens tried only added to the sense that we’re talking about an incomplete puzzle.

So when will we know?

“The earlier the better,” Harbaugh said. “It would be nice if we could kind of [know] by the first into the second week of training camp; [that] would be a goal to have a good idea. If it goes into the [preseason] games, it could go into the preseason games, but maybe just one spot up for grabs or something like that.”

The guess here is Vorhees will seize one of the guard jobs and Jones, with 24 NFL starts under his belt, will factor, much as John Simpson did last year. But it really is a guess.

On the plus side, left tackle Ronnie Stanley was an engaged participant in every voluntary workout, looking trim and healthy as he prepares for a pivotal season that could extend his career.

 

Trenton Simpson is ready for his shot to fill Patrick Queen’s shoes

Simpson pops the eyes as a physical specimen. This we’ve known since the Ravens drafted him in the second round out of Clemson. He somehow looked even bigger and faster over the last four weeks, lining up next to Roquan Smith in the spot vacated by Queen.

It’s not difficult to picture him roaming sideline to sideline, blitzing and dropping back to make plays in coverage. Queen was on the field for almost every defensive snap, and the Ravens seem to have faith Simpson can handle a similar role, because they haven’t signed a veteran to compete with the second-year linebacker.

Just as importantly, Smith, who leads the defense by words and example, has embraced the affable 23-year-old as a partner.

“I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Smith said. “He’s still learning for sure, but I think the way that he doesn’t make the same mistakes over and over every day — he learns from his mistakes, and I think that’s crucial when you’re young, being able to not make the same mistakes twice. I know he doesn’t understand how fast, how explosive and how powerful he is, but once he actually understands that, which I think will be very soon, watch out.”

They’re building an off-field rapport as well, with plans to travel to Spain together.

“Whenever I have a question, he’s there to answer it,” Simpson said. “Off the field, the relationship has grown a lot, also. Just every single day, [I’m] learning something from him and matching his energy.”

Smith’s presence sets Simpson up for a gentler transition than the one Queen experienced when he was asked to be the team’s middle linebacker after he’d started just one full season at LSU.

Simpson will make mistakes once the games begin, but his development could be one of the most entertaining subplots for first-year coordinator Zach Orr’s defense.

Lamar Jackson’s targets stack up about as we thought they would

OTAs and minicamp are made for pass catchers, with no contact to dissuade them and reduced emphasis on the running game. The defense often seems more organized than the offense, but the most spectacular plays invariably belong to the receivers.

We saw big, fast rookie Devontez Walker grab balls downfield as the Ravens hoped he would when they drafted him in the fourth round. We saw Malik Cunningham, a star quarterback at Louisville, take to wide receiver easily and earn attention from coaches who now seem intrigued by his potential. We saw steady production from 6-foot-3 Sean Ryan, who signed a futures deal with the team after he spent last season on the the practice squad.

Did any of this change the pecking order we’ll see in September? Probably not.

Tight end Mark Andrews, fit and intense as ever, remains Jackson’s first option when a play breaks down. Andrews’ running mate, Isaiah Likely, makes the most spectacular catches in the middle of the field. Zay Flowers is a threat at multiple levels and the most trusted wide receiver. Nelson Agholor is the wise veteran who communicates easily with his quarterback. And Rashod Bateman is the gifted wild card — solitary and hanging his head when he’s ignored, most dynamic playmaker on the field the next day.

We’ve watched Jackson long enough to know Andrews and Flowers will see the ball plenty, as will Likely if coordinator Todd Monken cracks the code to using him and Andrews as complementary threats. Bateman will have his best chance to break out, but until we see Jackson look for No. 7 consistently, week after week, we’ll wonder if it’s ever going to happen for him in Baltimore.

Injuries will undoubtedly shape the Ravens’ season, but so far, so good

A few key players sat out minicamp or did not participate fully. Safety Kyle Hamilton had surgery to clean what Harbaugh described as “loose bodies” from his elbow. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey, coming off an injury marred 2023, is still dealing with nagging issues. Outside linebacker David Ojabo is building strength as he comes back from a partially torn ACL in hopes of finally getting his career on track.

Hamilton and Humphrey are expected to be ready for the start of training camp. Ojabo might not be a full go right away.

Running back Keaton Mitchell is the only Raven ruled out for the start of the season, though Harbaugh said he’s on track to come back in 2024.

Bateman and Stanley, who had to worry about significant injuries as they prepared for recent seasons, seem to be feeling great. So do Andrews and safety Marcus Williams, who played through pain last season.

All things considered, the Ravens will gladly accept this medical outlook. Injuries will arise when the pace and physicality of play pick up in training camp. They always do. The season will bring other unwanted surprises; see Andrews hobbling off after a hip-drop tackle last November. But they’re on track to go into training camp as the team Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta designed, which is one mark of a successful offseason.

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©2024 Baltimore Sun. Visit baltimoresun.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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