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Editors note II: THANK YOU to the many people who filled in for me and wrote LFW for the last week and a half while I attended to some personal business. Much appreciated! Cliffhanger: I'll have some personal news to share on Wednesday. But you're here for the football, so let's get to it ….
There were several news items from over the weekend that were unexpected, so I've labeled many of the section headlines today as "plot twists." The first is the most surprising.
Plot Twist I: Ravens Pursuing Veteran Free-Agent Corner Bashaud Breeland
If you were to take a poll among reporters about which Ravens position has the most talent up top and depth throughout, my bet is many would point to the cornerback group.
That's why so many are taken aback by reports that the Ravens are pursuing four-year veteran cornerback Bashaud Breeland.
Baltimore hosted Breeland at the Under Armour Performance Center Saturday morning, according to The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec. The free-agent visit reportedly included a physical and meetings with team officials.
Zrebiec added that he wasn't sure where negotiations stood because Breeland is a hot item on the market right now. In addition to Baltimore, the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns have all hosted Breeland on free-agent visits. The New York Jets have also expressed interest, according to ESPN's Josina Anderson.
Breeland, 26, agreed to a reported $24 million contract with the Carolina Panthers in March, but the deal fell apart when he failed a physical due to an infected cut on his foot that required a skin graft. He's had plenty of time to recover and interest is starting to heat up.
General Manager Ozzie Newsome has always said you can never have enough corners (or pass rushers). And, Zrebiec makes a sound point about previous injuries at the position, which have hurt down the stretch during the Ravens' past playoff hunts. Finally, it's rare to have a free agent of Breeland's caliber and young age available in late July, so if there's a chance to get him, why not try?
He has 60 starts under his belt with the Washington Redskins and has shown to be durable throughout grueling 16-game seasons. Breeland's tallied eight interceptions and 60 passes defensed over his four-year career. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the No. 69 corner last year. For comparison, Jimmy Smith was No. 21, Marlon Humphrey was No. 37 and Brandon Carr was No. 72.
The other teams that have shown interest in Breeland either have a greater need for him on their roster or more money to offer, but the Ravens have been described by Anderson as one of the most "aggressive."
"Any team coming on strong late can usually finish the job, but here's the thing about the Ravens: they’re loaded at cornerback," wrote FanSided's Matt Conner. "I mean, sure every team could use more defensive backs in an agreeable way that acknowledges the rigors of the NFL season, but the Ravens have more than most at the position. … So the question for the Ravens is really this: do you know something about your own corners that the rest of us do not?"
"Breeland is a very intriguing player," added Ebony Bird's Chris Schisler. "If Breeland joined the Ravens, it would almost be unfair. Jimmy Smith is about as elite as they come. Humphrey is right behind Smith, he looks like a dominant young cornerback. Putting Breeland in a group with guys like Tavon Young, Maurice Cannady and Anthony Averett would be a dream come true. All we can do now is wait and see, but this is very interesting news coming out of Owings Mills."
Plot Twist II: Joe Flacco Is an Elite Pass Catcher
When reports came out that the Ravens could use Lamar Jackson in two-quarterback sets, national media came unhinged and insinuated that Baltimore was trying to turn him into a full-fledged wide receiver, a position Jackson made clear he doesn't play when asked to run wide receiver drills at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
Of course, that was never the Ravens' intention.
Their intentions are, however, to be more creative than ever on offense, and both Jackson and Joe Flacco are doing things we're not used to seeing from Ravens quarterbacks. Case in point:
Plenty of fans had fun with this one.
My favorite part was when Flacco just launches the football 50 or so yards in the direction of the trees and pond surrounding the Ravens fields. Tight end Maxx Williams was clearly entertained. I was too.
Speaking of quarterback plot twists, here's one more.
After the Ravens listed Jackson as the third quarterback on the depth chart behind Flacco and Robert Griffin III, the national debate pendulum swuuuuuuung completely in another direction. Instead of claiming Jackson will take over Flacco's starting job this season, the folks at Speak for Yourself started questioning whether Jackson will even be the primary backup.
The most accurate characterization of the quarterback situation in this video comes from Bucky Brooks and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who played in Baltimore in 2010. The depth chart, which is put together by the Ravens public relations department, will fluctuate throughout training camp and the preseason. Historically, the Ravens' early depth chart usually puts veterans ahead of rookies, regardless of their draft position.
Plot Twist III: Despite Starting From Scratch With Receivers, Ravens Passing Game is Humming EARLY
I can't put it any better than Baltimore Beatdown's Kyle Barber does here:
"I truly try my best, every season, to not build the excitement of Ravens football too high. Five months without practice leaves us all excited at the notion of Flacco simply picking up the pigskin. We see a completion and over-anticipate success. But this year, after this past week of practices, I cannot help myself. Too many times we've witnessed Joe look deep and hit his receiver in stride.
"I don't place Joe's recent play-making success on Lamar Jackson's arrival. It may have contributed, but I'm far more under the belief of Flacco having multiple starting receivers on the offense being the cause."
It's remarkable to see the progress of the offense when you consider all the new targets. The list is long with wide receivers Michael Crabtree, John "Smokey" Brown, Willie Snead IV, Jaleel Scott, Jordan Lasley, Hayden Hurst, Mark Andrews and more.
Take in some of the eye witness accounts.
NBC's Peter King in his Football Morning in America column this morning: "One longtime Ravens observer told me here Thursday that this first week of camp for Flacco has been ‘far and away’ the best he’s looked in camp in his 11 years as a Raven. Quite a thing to say for a former Super Bowl MVP, for a guy who's been the no-doubt starter almost since he walked onto campus as a rookie in 2008. But on my visit to training camp Thursday, Flacco made, by my accounting, six beautiful medium-to-deep throws right on the money in team drills. Two traveled more than 40 yards in the air to former Card wideout John Brown (a big star in early camp) and nestled perfectly in his hands—and Brown was covered tightly both times. Another zippy shot went up the seam, deep, to precocious rookie tight end Hayden Hurst. Vintage Flacco bombs.
"There's another factor in how impressive this is. It is very possible that Baltimore's top three (maybe four) receivers this year will be new … It is possible his top two tight ends, eventually, will be rookies … That makes Flacco's performance so far in camp more remarkable; the vast majority of his throws are to men he didn't know five months ago. The Ravens are starting from near-scratch at receiver and tight end, like an expansion team."
Plot Twist IV: Ravens Implementing RPO Plays After Finishing With Fewest in the League Last Year
It was just last season that the Ravens finished with the fewest run-pass option (RPO) plays (11) in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
Based off what we've seen in training camp, it's possible that the Ravens will make a big jump in that category this year.
While having two running quarterbacks like Jackson and Griffin on the roster is certainly a motivating factor behind the new wrinkles in the offense, it's not the only reason.
"A couple of months after the Philadelphia Eagles took apart the New England Patriots defense to win Super LII with a creative and diverse offensive approach that relied partly on run-pass options, Ravens coach John Harbaugh invited a group of college coaches to his team's training facility," Zrebiec wrote.
"The Ravens had used RPOs sparingly in 2017, but Harbaugh understood that his struggling offense would need to be better at attacking team's weaknesses and keeping defenses off balance. Harbaugh also knows the NFL is a copycat league and the Eagles' offensive success would surely spur other teams to mimic some of their schemes. The Ravens defense had better be primed to stop RPOs as well."
Several NFL offenses have found success using RPOs, and they're not just teams with running quarterbacks. There are traditional pocket passers too. Last year, quarterbacks Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers led their offenses, the Kansas City Chiefs (168 RPOs) and Green Bay Packers (143), to the second and third-most RPOs behind the Eagles (181), according to PFF.
As such, it won't matter who is under center. All four of the Ravens quarterbacks can and will run the plays.
"The Ravens figure to be one of those teams [to use RPOs more often] — although how often they'll use RPOs isn't something they're prepared to broadcast in late July," Zrebiec wrote.
Plot Twist V: Confident Marlon Humphrey Told to RELAXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
With the passing game humming, there's obviously going to be defenders on the other side who aren't going to be happy.
Second-year Marlon Humphrey was the corner that got beat on handful of plays Saturday, including two deep throws to Breshad Perriman and Brown. Humphrey also got beat a few times, including twice by Brown, two days earlier.
Of course, the defenders are at a disadvantage because they're told not to get too physical with their own teammates to avoid injuries, but the usually confident Humphrey wasn't happy with himself.
Luckily, he has two veteran teammates who helped him keep a couple off-plays in perspective.
"Got to practice better... a long camp ahead to get it right," Humphrey tweeted.
Too Early to Be Concerned With Kenneth Dixon
Okay, enough with the plot twists. Just news.
Running back Kenneth Dixon hasn't returned to practice since leaving about a half hour early with a trainer last Thursday. When asked about his health Friday, Harbaugh said the team doesn't have any serious injuries at this point.
There was already a blog that told fans to "abandon our high hopes and expectations" for Dixon, but that's premature. Dixon missed all last season with a knee injury, which was his third since being selected in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
But if this injury isn't serious, and given Dixon's talent and explosiveness, it's way too early to give up on him.
Harbaugh on Pressure of 2018: 'It's a One-Year League'
Harbaugh gave the perfect answer when asked by King about the pressure he feels in the 11th year of his coaching tenure in Baltimore. King pointed out that the Ravens are 41-41 in the last five seasons, with just one playoff appearance since winning Super Bowl XLVII.
"It’s a one-year league," Harbaugh told King. "It's all what you do for me this year. My agent, Bob LaMonte, told me that a long time ago. Three years is a career. Ten years is a lifetime. That's the NFL."