Eisenberg: Pernell McPhee Is the Old-School Raven They Needed

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Scattershooting about the Ravens during two days of joint practices with the Jacksonville Jaguars at the Under Armour Performance Center, all leading up to Thursday night’s preseason opener between the teams at M&T Bank Stadium:

Apologies for using a financial metaphor on the day after such a precipitous market decline, but if asked to identify one member of the Ravens whose stock is up, I’d point to Pernell McPhee.

The veteran linebacker sat unsigned on the open market for two months before the Ravens grabbed him in May for a bargain price. The rest of the league obviously had doubts about how much he could contribute at age 30, but the Ravens, who know a few things about defense, really like what they’re seeing.

On the team’s initial depth chart of 2019, McPhee is listed as the starting rush-end linebacker – Terrell Suggs’ old job. Practicing against the Jaguars Monday afternoon, he McPhee lined up mostly right where Suggs did for so many years.

He was brought in primarily to bolster the pass rush, or so we thought. But the Ravens believe he can contribute just as much as an edge-setter against the run, an underrated aspect of replacing Suggs.

“He’s really a tone-setter in terms of the run game. He’s strong. He’s powerful setting edges,” Joe Cullen, the team’s defensive line coach, said Monday. “He’s also going to work inside in some sub-situations, as you’ve seen before.”

Defensive Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale called McPhee one of the Ravens’ “pillars.”

“He’s the old-school Raven that we need,” Martindale said.

As for the other pass-rush candidates, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams took some snaps with the top-tier defense Monday, an indication that they might be able to carve out roles. Bowser delivered the defensive play of the day, grabbing a tipped pass for an interception and racing untouched to the end zone.

At this point, Bowser and Williams seemingly are ahead of veteran Shane Ray and rookie Jaylon Ferguson, both of whom are listed as third-teamers on the depth chart. But McPhee is ahead of them all.

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For the record, I’m a fan of these joint practices, which have become popular with many teams, Ravens included.

It’s a long haul from the start of training camp in July to the start of the regular season in September. Important things are happening, but all those hours on the practice field can become, cough, a bit monotonous.

I know the players welcome the change. “I’m very excited. I’m tired of hitting the same guys. It gets boring very fast,” Ravens linebacker Kenny Young said.

And even though contact is limited, I’m sure the coaches and front office get a lot out of seeing how certain players, especially young ones, fare against league-caliber competition.

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Count me among those surprised by the decision to part ways with Alex Lewis. I though he was a viable candidate to start at left guard. He looks great physically. But the Ravens obviously didn’t think he was a long-term answer.

How does his departure impact the competition at left guard? Jermaine Eluemunor is listed as the starter on the depth chart, with rookie Ben Powers as the backup now that Lewis is gone. James Hurst, who manned the position in 2018, isn’t even listed. But my guess is Hurst will end up starting.

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For 15 straight years, at least one undrafted rookie free agent has made the Ravens’ 53-man roster out of training camp – quite a testament to the organization’s ability to identify and attract talent. But I sense a challenge to the streak this year.

It’s not for a lack of viable candidates. Wide receiver Antoine Wesley seems to do something noticeable just about every day; he had several nice catches Monday. Defensive tackle Gerald Willis was an accomplished college player. Wide receiver Sean Modster and guard Patrick Mekari have turned heads.

“There’s candidates, for sure,” Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday.

But all those players are facing tough roster crunches at their positions, as are several other UDFAs.

We won’t know until the roster is finalized next month, and of course, one injury could change everything. For now, though, the streak is in a tenuous spot.

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Some quick takes from Monday’s practice:

  • The Ravens’ offense had more good than not-so-good moments, but if I’m Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman, I’d be happiest with how his unit functioned. The pace was quick, the mechanics sure. It’s a positive sign given all the changes in the offense.
  • Harbaugh admitted he said a prayer when Miles Boykin briefly left the field with a trainer. My translation: The coaches continue to be excited about the rookie receiver’s potential.
  • The Michael Pierce scare is over. His weight and conditioning seemingly are no longer issues. Pierce is ready for 2019.

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