The most exciting part of the preseason is upon us — : the end. There are a few final few spots on the opening day roster still up for grabs with the Ravens set to square off in the (somewhat) annual “Battle of the Beltway” on Saturday. These are the current battles to watch for.
With cornerback Shaun Wade being traded to the New England Patriots for draft capital, we’ve been given some clarity, but the questions remain the same. Between cornerback Chris Westry and safeties Ar’Darius Washington, Nigel Warrior, Geno Stone and Anthony Levine, who do you keep?
With rookie defensive back Brandon Stephens certainly looking the part of a rotational contributor, the Ravens will likely have one or two spots for “safeties” on their depth chart. While Levine is much more a special teams contributor than on defense, the only question pertaining to his roster security is how much the Ravens feel they need Levine for special teams. Westry possesses high-end traits: length, speed, quickness. However, he still appears to lack a feel for dissecting route combinations and keeping vertical leverage in lieu of allowing plays underneath. Washington lacks size, but has been rock solid in the slot throughout camp. Washington has a slightly leaner frame than cornerback Tavon Young, but appears to play with similar tenacity and ball skills. He’s also made at least one open-field tackle in kick coverage. Stone has played with consistent execution in assignment, showing off range, ball skills and the ability to come downhill and thump in space. Warrior is the biggest hitter of the group, possesses size, versatility and likely could be a strong contributor on special teams because of his athleticism and physicality. The performance of Washington, Westry, Stone and Warrior on Saturday will be key in providing more clarity, particularly for Warrior, who missed a large chunk of practice and the first preseason game due to injury.
Outside linebacker/Defensive line
There may only be two spots between defensive linemen Justin Ellis, Aaron Crawford and outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson. The conversation for Jaylon Ferguson likely comes down to the defensive coaching staff’s preference to either keep a run defending outside linebacker, which would make six outside linebackers, or keep a sixth defensive lineman. Ferguson has come on strong as of late, crashing weak-side run concepts with ferocity and generating pressure with his bullrush.
Crawford and Ellis appear neck and neck, with Ellis’ experience potentially giving him a slight advantage. This decision might’ve been made already, with the coaching staff attempting to set up a showcase Saturday for one of the players to boost their trade value prior to roster cut downs.
This cluster is one that’s contrastingly difficult to outsiders but may appear much easier internally. With tight end Nick Boyle still working back from a cleanup surgery, his timetable for return is unknown. The Ravens appear to be enthralled with third-year tight end Josh Oliver, who has been stood alone as the Ravens’ top receiver in preseason action. Oliver is the closest thing the Ravens have to star tight end Mark Andrews, with similar ability to create mismatches as a receiver with his size and athleticism in the passing game. Beyond that, Baltimore has an odd scenario.
They have a high-end starting fullback in Patrick Ricard, who was a pivotal blocker in the backfield and came on strong down the stretch in 2020 as a receiver, — namely in the Ravens’ Wildcard win over the Tennessee Titans. They also drafted fullback Ben Mason, who possesses a similar skillset to Ricard. With Ricard in the final year of his deal, Mason could be the contingency plan. This leaves undrafted free agent tight ends Tony Poljan and Eric Tomlinson as likely practice squad options.
The star of the preseason has been second-year running back Ty’Son Williams, who has displayed a well-balanced and multifaceted game. He’s displayed confident ability in pass protection as well as a receiver, with contact balance, vision and quick jump cuts in the run game. Undrafted free agent running back Nate McCrary has also flashed speed and looks to be a cut above the third- and fourth-string defenders, although he looks more like a developmental player to keep on the practice squad. Baltimore’s offensive coaches will need to weigh keeping a fourth back such as running back Justice Hill, Williams, or Mason against keeping six receivers on the active roster.
Although Baltimore seems to like his ability on special teams Hill’s roster spot has been threatened by Williams. Losing Hill may not be a devastating loss for a team that has running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. However, they’d love to have their cake and eat it too.
The most mysterious room for Baltimore is likely the receiving one at this point. With wide receiver Miles Boykin missing most of training camp and all of the preseason, outsiders have no perspective into where Boykin is currently. Wide receiver James Proche II has made hay throughout practice, but failed to garner much traction in an erratic offense led by quarterback Tyler Huntley over the last two weeks. Wide receiver Deon Cain looked like a serious professional in training camp and will hopefully make his return for the final preseason game. Cain is a smooth operator who confidently tracks the ball and plays with rhythm and timing in practice, but can it translate to games? Wide receivers Jaylon Moore and Binjimen Victor have both flashed, and appear to be strong practice squad depth if they make it through waivers.
The wide receiver room is another that might already be virtually locked up for the Ravens coaching staff, but Cain could make some noise and throw a wrench into things.
Without A22 reviewing All-22 film due to it being inaccessible, it’s been difficult to properly gage the quality of the offensive line play throughout the preseason. Guard Ben Powers has taken quality reps in the first half against second- and third-team defenses, with some coming against a mixed bag of starters. Center Trystan Colon appears to be a confident backup who could man the role with some level of quality. The Ravens haven’t given undrafted free agent tackle Adrian Ealy many reps, opting to trot out tackle Andre Smith, who they cut, tackle Michael Schofield, a veteran backup journeyman and guard/center Patrick Mekari, who is a jack-of-all-trades without a specialty in any. Guard Ben Bredeson lacks length and size, but makes up for it by switching up his pass sets and playing with tenacity. He doesn’t have the physical gifts to counter once beaten, so he must win initially.
With this in mind, I believe the Ravens should value Stone, Warrior, Washington, Williams and Cain. Westry is a difficult case. He has the highest end traits of any player on the bubble, yet lacks the discipline and aptitude to execute his assignments consistently. He’s more of a long-term investment to gain consistency as opposed to a ready contributor. Westry may be the most likely of any bubble player to be claimed off waivers, so his value is evident. Perhaps the Ravens, a team whose defense builds back-to-front should consider retaining 12 defensive backs initially to give themselves the best shot at depth. Purely speculating, one of Wshington or Warrior will likely clear waivers.
The Ravens have many decisions to make over the next few days as they trim the roster. It will be exciting, especially because it means the preseason is over, and the regular season is upon us.