Brian Baldinger: Ravens Are the Team to Beat in AFC North
No team in the NFL has received more hype this offseason than the Cleveland Browns, who are favored to win their first AFC North title. Just this week, Cleveland wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry adorned the cover of Sports Illustrated along with the headline,[comma] "The Browns Are Back."
Not everyone is buying into the hype, however. NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said on the "Prevent Defense" podcast that the defending AFC North champion Ravens are the team to beat in the division and "can be a final four team." His co-host, Eliot Shorr-Parks said tonight's preseason game between the Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles is a "potential Super Bowl preview."
Ironically, even though Baldinger and Shorr-Parks spent five minutes talking about the Ravens and five seconds on the Browns, the headline for the podcast read: "Too much hype surrounding the Browns?"
"I think anybody that just wants to jump the shark and put Cleveland as the AFC North champion hasn't watched the Ravens," said Baldinger, who attended joint practices between the Ravens and Eagles this week along with Shorr-Parks. "First of all, we know they're well-coached."
Baldinger, a former offensive lineman who played 12 years in the NFL, added that the Ravens "are loaded on defense" despite losing several starters from last year's team.
"[Inside linebacker] C.J. Mosley's a great player, but Peanut Onwuasor is the same player to me. In fact, he's better in coverage," Baldinger said. "[Inside linebacker] Chris Board and [safety] DeShon Elliott look like the future of the Ravens defense. Nobody is going to move Brandon Williams or Michael Pierce off the line of scrimmage this year. … [Cornerbacks] Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey – good luck trying to find a better trio in the league."
Baldinger didn't even mention six-time Pro Bowl selection Earl Thomas and Tony Jefferson, who form one of the elite safety tandems in the league.
After observing joint practices, Shorr-Parks said the Ravens defense "looks absolutely elite."
"The Eagles might have the best set of skill players in the NFL, and the Ravens' secondary shut them down for the most part, so the Ravens are not going to allow a lot of points," Shorr-Parks said.
Shorr-Parks also praised the Ravens' rebuilt offense with Lamar Jackson.
"I really like Lamar Jackson. I think last year he was slightly underrated," Shorr-Parks said. "I think the criticism was a little too loud for what he was. This guy didn't get any reps with the starters in training camp last year, none during the regular season. They completely change offense midway through the year to better fit him.
"Changing the offense midway through the year is almost impossible. The fact they did that and made the playoffs is extremely impressive. So I do think a full offseason of Lamar, being with the starters, building the offense around him, I think he'll be improved."
If you're sensing a "but" coming, you're right.
"But ultimately to win in this league you have to throw the ball," Shorr-Parks added, "and I did not see a quarterback in Lamar Jackson that is ready to throw them to victories when he has to do it."
Baldinger countered that a strong defense and unique ball-control offense will be a tough combination to beat. Maybe the league is changing. Or the Ravens can be the ones to change it.
"Maybe 20 points is enough to win Raven matchups against the Steelers and the Browns and other teams," Baldinger said. "[The offense] gave teams fits and it's going to give them problems again this year. This [running back] Justice Hill they've got is going to be a good rookie. [Running back] Mark Ingram is a good fit. The offensive line is not a great offensive line, but they do know how to play within that scheme. They're going to give you a lot of things to think about and look at.
"Yes, on third downs in this league you've got to convert passes, but I can see this team on any situation of third-and-four-or less from almost anywhere on the field being in two-down territory, knowing how good the defense is, how good the kicker [Justin Tucker] is, and going for it."
Looking at the Tight Ends*'* 'Bromance'
In Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle, the Ravens potentially could have one of the best tight end groups in the league. As noted in an article by The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec, the "three-headed monster" (the moniker given to them by teammate Marlon Humphrey) might also be the closest position group on the team.
"We're eating together. We're lifting together. We're getting taped before practice together," Hurst told Zrebiec. "It's kind of funny. It's a little bromance, you can say."
Zrebiec wrote: "Andrews, Boyle and Hurst have become inseparable, bonded by similar personalities and shared goals. Boyle, Andrews and Hurst meet up semi-regularly to have dinner or play video games. When they're not together, they're often texting one another about a play from practice, a joke from earlier in the day or accusations one of them has violated the bromance."
The three tight ends all have different skillsets, and they learn from each other, Zrebiec wrote.
"Andrews, Boyle and Hurst have regularly stayed after practice to catch balls from the JUGS machine. They watch tape together and they're continually discussing plays and responsibilities," Zrebiec wrote. "They're also not opposed to borrowing from each other's moves. Boyle said he'd learned different releases from watching Andrews and Hurst practice. Boyle, meanwhile, is the example to follow when it comes to his commitment to blocking."
Andrews, Hurst and Boyle are expected to be significant contributors this season for the Ravens, who used more multiple tight end-sets more than any other team last year. The three of them are competitive, but they celebrate one another's successes.
"If somebody makes a play, it gets the whole group going," Andrews told Zrebiec. "That's what it's all about. It's fun to be in that type of environment. It's kind of weird and probably rare for the NFL to have a group that's so close and so tight. We're a bunch of guys that look after each other. We compete with each other, but we also feed off each other. It's one of those things that I think started organically and grew from there. Now, we're all best friends."
Ogden, Yanda Make Team of PFF Era
Pro Football Focus, which has been collecting data and grading every player on every play of every game in the NFL for the past 13 seasons, named the players at each position with the best single-season grades in the PFF era.
Two Ravens made the list: Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden and right guard Marshal Yanda. Ogden received a 95.0 grade for his 2007 season, which is PFF's highest-graded season ever for an offensive lineman. Yanda had a 93.8 grade for his 2015 campaign.
"As dominant an offensive lineman as there has ever been or ever will be. … [In 2007 Ogden] earned elite grades in both pass protection (93.9) and as a run-blocker (91.1), and he graded below 75.0 in just three of his 11 games," PFF's Mark Chichester wrote. "As a pass-blocker, he allowed only eight pressures from 303 pass-blocking snaps."
On Yanda, Chichester wrote: "The best year of his excellent career came in 2015 when he paired an outstanding performance in pass protection (90.3 pass-blocking grade) with a career-best contribution as a run-blocker (92.7 run-blocking grade). Over the last 13 years, there have been only two instances where an offensive guard has played more than 500 snaps yet earned elite grades as both a pass-blocker and run-blocker — Yanda's 2015 season is one of them."
- Humphrey, who was selected 16th overall in 2017, received a B-plus grade from NFL.com's Ali Bhanpuri in his revisiting of the first-round picks from that year's draft.
- Hill was named the Ravens' most promising rookie by NFL.com's Chris Wesseling.
- Zrebiec spent three days with our crew documenting what it takes to put together a preseason broadcast.