*Rich Eisen: ‘AFC North is Ravens’ Division to Lose’ *
With the new-look Cleveland Browns garnering attention this offseason as the perceived favorites in the AFC North, there’s been plenty of bulletin board material available for the Ravens.
But count NFL Network’s Rich Eisen as a believer.
Eisen said he’s high on the Ravens heading into the 2019 season, and still believes they’re the team to beat in the division.
“I think the AFC North is the Ravens’ division to lose,” Eisen said on “The Rich Eisen Show.”
When asked if he trusts Jackson and the Ravens’ passing offense this season, Eisen remained confident.
“The whole doubting Jackson thing, I’m over it, I’m tired of it,” Eisen said. “... They reconfigured their offense on the fly last year and made the playoffs.… I think [Jackson is] going to absolutely improve throwing the football. I think the offense is going to be tight end and running back heavy with now [Marquise] ‘Hollywood’ Brown taking the top of the defense off.”
Jackson reported to training camp Friday with the rest of the quarterbacks and injured veterans as he prepares for his first offseason as the unquestioned starter under center.
Along with Eisen, USA Today’s Doug Farrar is also optimistic about the Ravens. Baltimore landed at No. 9 in Farrar’s training camp power rankings, ahead of the Browns (13), Steelers (19) and Bengals (27).
“The only questions about Baltimore is how things will work out when Lamar Jackson needs to throw the ball at a high-volume rate, and how the coaching staff will handle a defensive exodus in free agency,” Farrar wrote. “... This is still a top-three secondary, and could be even more if [Earl] Thomas stays healthy, but it’ll take some kind of coaching to make up for the defensive losses, and to bring Jackson forward in advancement to the point where he’s ready for the ‘crux of the biscuit’ moment when it comes.”
Yet, the Browns were predicted by Bleacher Report’s NFL experts to win the AFC North this season. Cleveland received seven of eight possible votes, while the Steelers earned the lone remaining vote.
The reigning division champs didn’t receive a single vote. However, BR’s Connor Rodgers backed his support for the Ravens on the “Stick to Football” Podcast and still sees them at the top of the division.
Rodgers pointed to the help Jackson will have around him on both sides of the ball.
“I’m still a believer in this team,” Rodgers said. “... I like Baltimore. I think they have the best secondary in football. … They’re very, very deep at corner. Their safety tandem of Tony Jefferson and Earl Thomas can take away the football. Yet, we have to see growth from Jackson as a passer. They can’t just run the football every single play. I think Brown, if he can stay healthy, can really help out there, not just as a receiver, but once again clearing out space for the run game.
“I think the Ravens are going to win this division at 11-5. I still like the core they have and the experience the coaching staff has in Baltimore.”
Most Interesting Training Camp Battles to Watch
With the Ravens’ first training camp practice set for Thursday, The Baltimore Sun’s Jonas Shaffer outlined the four most interesting position battles to watch over the next few weeks.
Offensive line continuity has been highlighted this offseason, but left guard is “the most wide open” of any position battle, according to Shaffer.
“[James] Hurst has valuable starting experience across the line and, assuming his nerve root issue is no longer limiting, should be stronger physically,” Shaffer wrote. “[Jermaine] Eluemunor took first-team repetitions in minicamp and could raise his game with a better-conditioned body. [Ben] Powers is physical and smart but must prove himself in run sets. [Alex] Lewis’ ability, meanwhile, is a question mark after he missed the Ravens’ offseason practices while rehabilitating a shoulder surgery.”
Lewis started 10 games last season, but PennLive’s Aaron Kasinitz tabbed Hurst as the favorite to begin the summer. Both have recently dealt with injuries and the Ravens will hope to establish a full 16-game starter.
After NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling named the Ravens’ pass rush as one of the thinnest groups in the league, perhaps the most exciting position battle comes at outside linebacker.
The Ravens are tasked with finding a starter opposite Matthew Judon. Shaffer pointed to the young trio of Tim Williams, Tyus Bowser and third-round rookie Jaylon Ferguson.
“If he proves strong enough to set the edge in run defense, Williams could seize the job and give the defense a second dynamic edge rusher,” Shaffer wrote. “Bowser, a second-round pick in 2017, has contributed more than Williams, but mainly on special teams. He flashed his playmaking ability and athleticism during minicamp a year ago but has been mostly anonymous in pads. Ferguson looks the part of a future rush linebacker — at a well-built 275 pounds, he’s 10 pounds heavier than Suggs — but first-year struggles are expected, even for a sack artist as prolific as him.”
A similar situation has developed at inside linebacker with C.J. Mosley gone. The heavy competition features Kenny Young and Chris Board, who Shaffer noted could split time alongside Patrick Onwuasor.
“The label of starter could prove inconsequential, as they’re likely to share playing time to some degree,” Shaffer wrote. “But Young has a head start, and Onwuasor’s familiarity with him could prove decisive.”
Under first-year Special Teams Coordinator Chris Horton, who will be returning punts also remains in question.
Cyrus Jones finished the season as the Ravens’ primary returner but has not participated in any team activities this offseason. Shaffer acknowledged that Jones’ absence could open the door for competition, and running back Tyler Ervin may be the leading candidate.
“Of the three, Ervin is by far the most experienced,” Shaffer wrote. “Snead has returned just one punt in his NFL career, while Young’s last punt return in a game setting came in high school. (He did get practice reps as a returner early in his Ravens career, as Horton pointed out.) Ervin returned 56 punts for 496 yards (8.9-yard average) in three years with the Houston Texans, with a long of 57 yards. He had two fumbles in 25 games, losing one on a muffed catch.”
Could Bears Target Justin Tucker?
The thought of Justin Tucker wearing another uniform sounds crazy, but that was the questioned posed to NFL.com’s Dan Hanzus during a weekly mailbag series.
When asked about the possibility of the Chicago Bears trading a first-round pick to acquire Tucker, Hanzus didn’t write it off.
“I imagine most would find such a trade offer laughable, but I don't,” Hanzus wrote. “Tucker is without a doubt one of the greatest kickers in the history of the sport, if not the greatest. At 29 years old, he should have another 6 to 8 years of excellence in that supremely gifted right leg. If you're Bears GM Ryan Pace, and you believe your team has enough talent to win the Super Bowl right now, and you know Robbie Gould is no longer an option, Tucker makes a lot of sense. Again, most people don't believe any kicker is worth a late first-round pick. But people need to stop sleeping on how important a kicker really is.”
The Bears’ glaring kicking woes could warrant an unprecedented trade, but the Ravens are fully committed to Tucker after signing him to a four-year, $23.05 million contract extension this offseason.
One Chicago sports blog believes it would be a dangerous gamble.
Second-year kicker/punter Kaare Vedvik has been mentioned as a possible trade candidate for the Bears, who tried out eight kickers during their rookie minicamp, but it’s highly unlikely Tucker is going anywhere.
· In more record predictions, USA Today’s Nate Davis has the Ravens finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs.