AFC North: Chykie Brown

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has taken heavy criticism after the Baltimore Ravens allowed two touchdowns in the final four minutes of Sunday's 34-33 loss to the San Diego Chargers. But general manager Ozzie Newsome and the rest of the Ravens' front office has to take their share of the blame for handcuffing Pees with an undermanned and overwhelmed secondary.

How bad has it become for the Ravens? The Ravens are ranked second-to-last in pass defense (only the Atlanta Falcons are worse) and they're on pace to shatter the franchise record for most passing yards allowed.

Much of the Ravens' struggles in the secondary can be traced back to the team's decisions over the past two years:
  • The Ravens gambled on two cornerbacks developing (Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson) and lost. They put too much faith in a couple of inexperienced cornerbacks to become the No. 3 cornerback, especially with the injury history of starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. Brown was cut earlier this month after getting repeatedly beat, and Jackson went on short-term injured reserve after struggling as well (99th-ranked cornerback by Pro Football Focus).
  • The Ravens didn't sign a proven veteran backup this offseason. It's understandable that the Ravens chose not to retain Corey Graham considering the Buffalo Bills signed him to a four-year, $16 million deal. The mistake was failing to add someone the caliber of Brandon Flowers. The Ravens should've made a big push to get Flowers in June before he signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Chargers. Flowers has three interceptions this season and is currently the fourth-ranked cornerback by Pro Football Focus. The Ravens have since gone through Dominique Franks, Derek Cox and Aaron Ross (injured) with little success.
  • Their drafting at the safety position has not produced immediate results. The Ravens addressed safety with a first-round pick last year (Matt Elam) and a third-rounder this year (Terrence Brooks). That's a major investment for a position that still remains a liability. Elam lost his starting job this season after being the worst coverage safety in the NFL and missing 12 tackles. Brooks has had an up-and-down rookie season and was benched Sunday after giving up a touchdown in New Orleans the previous week. He is not making the same consistent impact as the Ravens' other selections in the first three rounds (linebacker C.J. Mosley, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and tight end Crockett Gillmore).

The Ravens did make some good moves this offseason, signing wide receiver Steve Smith, tight end Owen Daniels and safety Will Hill to bargain deals. They also made the right decision to go with inexperienced Rick Wagner at right tackle.

But the Ravens could tell this summer that the secondary was going to be a major weak spot, and Newsome didn't work his usual magic to add talent there. The season-ending foot injury to Jimmy Smith only underscored the problem.

Pees has tried different combinations to improve the pass defense. The Ravens have started six different cornerbacks and used seven players at safety to no avail.

Now, heading into the final four games of the regular season, the Ravens are going with a struggling Webb (ranks No. 203 out of 214 corners by Pro Football Focus) and converted safety Anthony Levine at cornerback, as well as a constant rotation at safety alongside Hill.

It's easy to rip Pees when the defense gives up 965 yards passing and 61 points the past two games. But you also have to point the finger at Newsome and the front office for the makeshift secondary, which looks like it will be the Ravens' undoing.
PITTSBURGH -- An argument can be made that Baltimore Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith is the most valuable player on the team after Sunday night's 43-23 loss at Heinz Field.

In their first game without their top cornerback, the Ravens allowed Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to throw six touchdown passes, nearly matching the total they allowed in the first eight games of the season (a league-low seven).

Smith

The Ravens' strategy was to drop seven into coverage, but they still couldn't stop the Steelers receivers from running free. Roethlisberger threw five touchdowns against four or fewer pass-rushers Sunday, matching the most in a game in ESPN Stats & Information's data set (since 2006).

"We are missing a great player, but we are capable guys in the secondary," cornerback Dominique Franks said.

On Sunday night, it looked like the Ravens had slow guys in the secondary. Franks and safety Darian Stewart watched Martavis Bryant get open against their zone defense for a 19-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Lardarius Webb was too late to get out of his backpedal and let Markus Wheaton get separation for a 47-yard touchdown in the final minute of the first half. In the fourth quarter, Chykie Brown was easily beaten by Antonio Brown for a 54-yard touchdown, and Franks and Will Hill were late to converge on Bryant for a 18-yard score.

None of this should come as a surprise. It was more a validation of their worst fears. Webb missed three of the first four games because of a back injury. Franks wasn't in the league for the first five weeks of the season. And Chykie Brown was benched after the season opener when he gave up the winning 77-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green.

There was hope that safety Hill, who was suspended for the first six games of the season, would provide a lift for the secondary. In his first start, Hill didn't make much of an impact and was stiff-armed by Antonio Brown on his long touchdown.

The Ravens forced the Steelers into three three-and-outs in the first quarter because they were able to get pressure on Roethlisberger. There was one series when the Ravens sacked him on three straight plays.

Once Roethlisberger got time, the Ravens' secondary was no match for the depth and speed of the Steelers' receivers. It marked only the second time in his 18 meetings with the Ravens that Roethlisberger threw more than two touchdowns in a game.

"You could have never sold me on that during the week," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "He had a heck of a day, and that is a reflection on us all."

So, when will Smith return? He went through the Ravens' locker room on Friday on crutches with his foot in a protective boot. Even though the Ravens haven't given a specific timetable on Smith, he likely won't be back for Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans. Smith has a better chance of returning after the bye the next week.

CB Webb out again for Ravens

September, 11, 2014
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BALTIMORE -- The Ravens will be without their top cornerback for the second consecutive game.

Lardarius Webb won’t play tonight against the Steelers because of a back injury. Chykie Brown will start at left cornerback in the 8:25 p.m. ET game at M&T Bank Stadium.

Webb is the only starter who won’t play in the first Steelers-Ravens game of the season.

The Steelers are without No. 3 wide receiver Lance Moore (groin) and rookie running back Dri Archer (ankle) because of injuries.

Joining them on the Steelers' inactives list are wide receiver Martavis Bryant, nose tackle Daniel McCullers, guard Chris Hubbard, offensive lineman Wesley Johnson and quarterback Landry Jones.

Joining Webb on the Ravens’ inactives list are linebacker Arthur Brown, guard Jah Reid, wide receivers Deonte Thompson and Michael Campanaro, defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi and guard John Urschel.

Will Lardarius Webb miss the opener?

September, 6, 2014
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Baltimore Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb is not expected to play the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals "barring a surprise," according to the NFL Network.

Webb is listed as questionable with a back injury that sidelined him for the entire preseason, but he had full participation in every practice leading up to Sunday's game. A three-year starter, Webb declined through a spokesman to talk to reporters Friday.

Webb
If Webb is inactive, the Ravens would be down to three cornerbacks: Jimmy Smith, Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson. Smith (chest) and Jackson (ankle) each missed preseason games with injuries, but neither were listed on the injury report.

Losing Webb would be a major blow to the defense because either Brown or Jackson would have to start alongside Smith. In the preseason, the Ravens were more comfortable starting Brown because he has more size to match up on the outside. Jackson typically lined up against the slot receiver.

If Webb doesn't play, it would make Saturday's release of cornerback Derek Cox a peculiar move. Cox, who has 56 career starts, has more experience than Brown and Jackson, who have a combined one NFL start.

Ravens safeties Terrence Brooks and Anthony Levine can each play cornerback as well, which gives the team extra depth at that position.
As Saturday's final cutdown approaches, the news with the Baltimore Ravens might not be who's getting released. It's who might get added.

In his Monday Morning Quarterback column, Peter King mentions he would be "surprised" if the Ravens don't deal for a cornerback this week.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Smith
Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SportsRavens CB Jimmy Smith has been limited since suffering a bruised chest in a preseason game against Dallas on Aug. 16.
This isn't a groundbreaking development. Cornerback is the Ravens' most vulnerable spot because of injuries and depth issues.

Even though Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb are expected to return from injuries to start in the Sept. 7 regular season opener, there is a major question mark at the No. 3 cornerback spot.

The Ravens can't be comfortable with what they currently have, right? Asa Jackson has never taken a defensive snap in a regular season game and hasn't practiced since injuring his ankle on Aug. 10. Chykie Brown isn't much more experienced than Jackson and has been a liability on deep throws. Veteran free agent Dominique Franks has played better recently but he didn't take snaps with the first-team defense until two weeks ago. And Terrence Brooks is currently the nickelback, but he's a third-round rookie who started at safety in college.

Trading is the best option to get someone who can make an immediate impact as the No. 3 cornerback. The alternative is waiting for someone to get cut Saturday, and that means that defender wasn't good enough to be a fifth corner for another team.

The Ravens currently have six picks in the 2015 draft (one in the first, second, third and fourth rounds and two in the seventh). But they are expected to receive three compensatory picks, one of which could end up being a fourth-rounder (for losing either defensive end Arthur Jones or offensive tackle Michael Oher in free agency).

So, the Ravens could be wiling to give up a fourth-round pick because they could recoup it later in the form of a compensatory pick. It's the same rationale the Ravens used last season, when they traded two picks (a fourth- and fifth-rounder) to the Jacksonville Jaguars for offensive tackle Eugene Monroe.

The Ravens have the means to upgrade at cornerback. The problem is finding a team that will part with a quality defender. Teams such as the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints have depth at cornerback, but none of ESPN.com's reporters for those teams believes a trade is likely.

When it comes to needs, cornerback is clearly at the top of the list for the Ravens. Whether they can properly address this position -- and how much it will cost -- is the big question.

BALTIMORE -- Wide receiver Steve Smith's best game of the preseason propelled the Baltimore Ravens to a 23-17 win over the Washington Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday night.

After being quiet in the first two preseason games, Smith caught six passes for 80 yards and a touchdown. His diving 24-yard touchdown catch with 25 seconds left in the first half broke a 3-3 tie, and the Ravens (3-0) never relinquished the lead.

Smith's determination was evident on his 30-yard catch in the first quarter. He essentially broke out of four tackles to turn a short pass into a big gain.

"I am getting more comfortable with the offense," Smith said. "Last week I really didn't play well. I didn't line up well, and my assignments were off. Today was a great opportunity to show that I can be an asset instead of the liability I was last week."

Here are some other thoughts on the Ravens' third preseason game:
  • Joe Flacco showed his resiliency once again. After being under fire for most of the first half, he calmly orchestrated a two-minute drive to end the half, completing 6-of-8 passes for 74 yards and one touchdown. He was not sharp early for a second straight week, throwing behind and late to his receivers. It didn't help that he was hit more than a handful of times. Flacco finished 16-of-23 for 180 yards.
  • Ravens cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown held up well against the Redskins' playmaking receivers. With the Ravens' top three cornerbacks (Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and Asa Jackson) all sidelined with injuries, Franks and Brown limited DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to a combined two catches for four yards. Franks showed good anticipation except for a pass interference penalty on the opening drive.
  • The Redskins did a lot of blitzing (on runs and passes) for a preseason game, and the Ravens' offensive line struggled against it. Right tackle Rick Wagner got roughed up by Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, and left guard Kelechi Osemele got beat as well. Flacco was sacked twice in the first half after not getting sacked in the first two preseason games.
  • How thin are the Ravens at cornerback? The Ravens used safety Anthony Levine at cornerback for the first time. On one third-down play, the Ravens had four safeties on the field: Levine at cornerback, Terrence Brooks at nickelback, Matt Elam at strong safety and Darian Stewart at free safety.
  • The Ravens' athleticism on the defensive line shined in containing Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III. Nose tackle Brandon Williams got into the backfield to drill Griffin and force an incompletion. Rookie Timmy Jernigan ran Griffin down to push him out of bounds for a sack.
  • It was an impressive first series for Brooks. He made an interception that was negated by penalty and then sacked Griffin on third down in the red zone. On that sack, Brooks showcased his speed by covering a lot of ground. Brooks is capitalizing on his time with the first-team defense.
Teams can't play scared and rest every starter for the entire preseason. But there are instances when you have to play it safe.

For the Baltimore Ravens, it's time to be safe and smart with their starting cornerbacks. Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb shouldn't suit up for another game until the Sept. 7 season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. Put a red jersey on them so no one hits them in practice. Heck, put them in bubble wrap if it ensures they'll be able to line up when games matter in three weeks.

Webb
Even if Smith (bruised chest) and Webb (back) can return in the preseason, the Ravens can't take the risk of getting either one banged up. The situation would be different if the Ravens had depth at that position. But they don't.

The Ravens are looking at 0-2 if they have to line up Chykie Brown and Dominique Franks as their starting cornerbacks against the likes of A.J. Green and Antonio Brown. This makes you yearn for the days of Frank Walker. Well, almost.

The Ravens' cornerback position has been as snakebitten as the drummers for Spinal Tap. Aaron Ross, who may have ended up as the Ravens' No. 3 cornerback, tore his Achilles in a conditioning test before training camp started. Webb hurt his back July 25 and hasn't practiced since. Asa Jackson, who had been the team's top backup, hurt his right ankle Aug. 10 and wore a protective boot at Saturday's preseason game.

The last injury the Ravens needed was one to Smith. Five plays into Saturday's preseason game, there was Smith landing on his back, hitting the back of his head against the turf and spitting up blood.

While Ravens coach John Harbaugh believes Smith "should be fine," the 2011 first-round pick was more concerned about his health status.

Smith

"I don't know what is wrong with me," Smith told The Baltimore Sun. "On the field, I was throwing up blood. The X-rays came back negative, but I still don't know what is the problem. I don't want to say I'm OK, or it is one thing, and then it is something else. I really don't know."

It only took one series for Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to take advantage of Smith's absence. Wide receiver Dez Bryant elevated over Franks to pull in a Romo pass for a 31-yard touchdown.

The Ravens don't have many other options on the team. Tremain Jacobs is raw, and fellow undrafted rookie Deji Olatoye got beat on consecutive passes, including a 5-yard touchdown throw.

There are really no easy fixes here. If free agents like Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson could help, each would be in some team's training camp by now. The best bet is looking at the cornerbacks who get cut when teams trim their rosters to 53 before the regular season. Teams don't release good cornerbacks, but there could be a player who is better than what's on the Ravens roster right now.

Come the season opener, the Ravens may be in decent shape at cornerback if Smith, Webb and Jackson are all healthy enough to play. Harbaugh has never described any of those injuries as major.

But if either Smith or Webb can't start, there's going to be a vulnerable spot in the Ravens secondary that Andy Dalton and Ben Roethlisberger will look to exploit.

Ravens Camp Report: Day 9

August, 2, 2014
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Baltimore Ravens training camp:
  • This practice resembled many of the Ravens' games last season, when quarterback Joe Flacco was under constant pressure. Some of it had to do with starting guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele getting the day off. Left tackle Eugene Monroe has to be looking forward to the preseason, so he will get to face someone other than Terrell Suggs, who has had his number in camp.
  • Cornerback Chykie Brown has been the lightening rod of this year's camp. After struggling mightily in the first week of camp, Brown drew headlines for a different reason Saturday. He was thrown out of practice briefly after kicking a ball, and he returned in enough time to trade swings with wide receiver Steve Smith.
  • Jacoby Jones had his best day of what has been an uneventful camp. He might have caught more passes Saturday than in the previous eight practices combined. With Marlon Brown struggling to catch the ball, Jones needs to assert himself as the No. 3 wide receiver.
  • Kamar Aiken, who has been released by three teams (Buffalo, Chicago and New England) in his career, continues to stand out in what has become an interesting battle for the last few wide receiver spots. He caught two passes in the back of the end zone in a red zone drill, showing off his strong hands again.
  • On a day when emotions ran high, guard Ryan Jensen and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore got into a fight. It didn't escalate, but Jensen did end up on his back.
  • Along with the starting guards, tight end Owen Daniels and linebacker Pernell McPhee all got the day off. Jensen and A.Q. Shipley filled in at guard with the first-team offense.
  • Schedule: The Ravens have a 1 p.m. ET practice Sunday.
  • Injury wire: WR Michael Campanaro bruised his ribs after falling on the ball during practice. ... CB Lardarius Webb (back) missed his seventh straight practice. He will be sidelined for at least the first two games. ... ILB Daryl Smith (groin) was sidelined for a fourth consecutive day. ... DT Timmy Jernigan (back spasms) should return soon, according to coach John Harbaugh. ... G Will Rackley (head) also didn't practice. ... NT Terrence Cody (hip) is on the physically unable to perform list.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. --When John Harbaugh threw cornerback Chykie Brown out of practice Saturday, the Baltimore Ravens coach wasn't just upset. He was in teaching mode.

The previous night, Harbaugh talked to his team about the importance of discipline. So, when Brown kicked a ball in frustration -- which would've drawn a 15-yard penalty flag in a game -- Harbaugh knew he had to take action.

"It's an opportunity to make a point on something that is important," Harbaugh told reporters after practice. "It's not really as much for the guy; he knows. It's for everybody. That gets everybody's attention."

Harbaugh allowed Brown to return to the field after being inside for about five minutes. Brown later traded swings with wide receiver Steve Smith.

"The thing I loved about it is he responded with a great practice," Harbaugh said. "He played really well. To me, that's a sign that he's going to be just fine."

Brown wasn't the only one who received a message. The Ravens' defensive coaches, led by linebackers coach Wink Martindale, ran onto the field after a big play, which didn't go unnoticed. Harbaugh asked the official to throw the flag on what he described as "a little over-exuberance."

"It's practice and you want to have fun," Harbaugh said. "But, as a head coach, when you have an opportunity to make a point that they'll remember in a situation like that in practice, I feel that's really important."

The Harbaugh brothers have been making headlines recently by booting players out of practice. On Friday, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh told Anquan Boldin to leave the field after the wide receiver took a swing at a cornerback.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said this wasn't the first time he's thrown out a player, and it likely won't be the last.

"It happens every year," John Harbaugh said. "If it only happens once, it'll be a record."
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Emotions ran high at Baltimore Ravens training camp on Saturday, when cornerback Chykie Brown was temporarily thrown out of practice by coach John Harbaugh.

Harbaugh
Brown dropped an interception along the sideline and kicked the ball nearly 30 yards downfield in frustration. Harbaugh screamed at Brown to leave the field, and Brown ran to the locker room.

"Are we going to be a disciplined defense or a [expletive] outfit," Harbaugh yelled over to the sideline, where all the defensive players stood. "Dean [Pees, defensive coordinator], that's on you."

This riled up the defensive players, especially linebacker Terrell Suggs. The defense went on to dominate the rest of the drill.

"Coach, we got your back," Suggs told Pees. "We can take it and we can dish it out."

Suggs continued to talk back loudly, and Harbaugh called the linebacker for a quick chat on the field. Brown was asked to return after being inside for about five minutes, and he explained his actions to the coach before returning to practice.

This was just the second issue between Harbaugh and his defensive staff on Saturday. Earlier in practice, Harbaugh asked an official to throw a flag for the defensive coaches being out on the field of play.

Ravens Camp Report: Day 5

July, 28, 2014
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Baltimore Ravens training camp:


  • Wide receiver Torrey Smith made the catch of camp, when he pulled in a high Joe Flacco throw with one hand. For most of camp, Steve Smith had stolen the spotlight from Torrey Smith. But Torrey Smith showed off his athleticism with that catch during the red zone drill.
  • Safety Matt Elam became the first to intercept Flacco in this year's camp. He nearly paid a price for it, though. Owner Steve Bisciotti playfully drove his golf cart onto the field and nearly hit Elam to stop him from reaching the end zone on the return.
  • Running back Justin Forsett has an impressive burst. If you didn't know it, he put it on display when he caught a short slant and beat four defenders to score a touchdown. Forsett is a smallish back who is competing with rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro for the No. 3 running back spot.
  • Cornerback Chykie Brown struggled mightily in the first week of camp. After sitting out yesterday with a tweaked hamstring, he came back and broke up two passes. The extra rest may have helped him refocus mentally. His biggest mistake of the night was a defensive holding penalty.
  • A little more than 28,000 fans attended the Ravens' practice at M&T Bank Stadium on Monday night. It was the team's first workout at the stadium in this year's camp.
  • Ray Lewis made an appearance at the stadium and revealed what his statue may look like during an on-field interview. He said the statue, which will be placed in the same plaza as Johnny Unitas, will feature him doing his signature dance. It will be unveiled at some point this year.
  • Schedule: The Ravens have their first day off on Tuesday. They return to practice Wednesday at 1 p.m.
  • Injury wire: Brown (tweaked hamstring) returned after missing one day of practice. ... CB Lardarius Webb (back) missed his third practice. ... DE Chris Canty (family issue) was the only other starter who didn't practice. ... Will Rackley (head) and OT Parker Graham (groin) also didn't practice. ... NT Terrence Cody (hip) is on the physically unable to perform list.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The biggest concern on defense heading into training camp was cornerback, and that hasn't lessened with the early play of Chykie Brown.

One of the lasting images of the first three days of camp has been Brown getting beat on deep passes. It happened twice Saturday, when Jacoby Jones and Steve Smith both caught throws downfield against Brown.

On the first big play allowed, Brown got burned by Jones, who outran him for a 65-yard touchdown. On the second one, Brown ran with Smith but couldn't finish the play.

"He's coming along," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "He's fighting for a job at corner. They have their good days and their bad days. One of the things that we have to take care of is we can't give up big plays."

Cornerback is the weakest area on the defense beyond starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. The top backups are Brown, Asa Jackson, Dominque Franks (who has yet to pass the conditioning test) and undrafted rookies Deji Olatoye and Tramain Jacobs.

With Webb nursing a minor back injury, Brown has been running with the first-team defense. Brown only played 3 percent of the defensive snaps last season.

"Chykie has [grown] leaps and bounds," secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "We really need to detail some of the things he’s doing. But he was blessed with long arms and great ability. We’re looking for him to just keep progressing, and he’ll be fine."

What's it going to take for Brown to put all of his tools together?

"It’s kind of that point of confrontation when the ball is arriving that we really need to work at, and he knows that," Spagnuolo said. "He needs to be able to turn and find the football and make a play when the situation calls for him to do that. He has all the ability in the world, and he works his butt off, and anytime you can work with a guy like that, we’ll get somewhere.”

The Ravens had the luxury of having veteran Corey Graham as the third corner last season. He signed a four-year, $20 million contract with the Buffalo Bills in free agency, a contract the Ravens couldn't match.

It wouldn't be surprising if the Ravens signed a cornerback when the final major cutdown occurs at the end of the preseason. For now, the Ravens are hoping Brown rebounds from a rough start to camp.

"I think what people don’t know about Chykie is Chykie really understands football – like he understands," Jimmy Smith said. "He’ll be in the meeting and he’ll tell you, ‘Hey, this is about to come, this is about to come, this is about to come.’ All he has to do now, when he’s out there, is calm down, focus and get right with that.”
When the calendar hits June 1, it usually means the Baltimore Ravens are preparing to making one additional move.

This is a significant date because any free-agent signing past it doesn't count against a team's compensatory picks. The Ravens love their extra picks, and they're officially in line for three in the 2015 draft after losing four unrestricted free agents and signing one.

Baltimore has had some moderate success with its June signings. The Ravens landed inside linebacker Daryl Smith, who became one of their best defensive players last season, on June 5 of last year. They signed guard Bobbie Williams, who started six games during their Super Bowl season, in 2012, and added kicker Shayne Graham in 2010.

Will this June trend continue for the Ravens?

"We’re aware of the guys that are still out there, free agents that would be more favorable to sign after June 1 and all that," coach John Harbaugh said. "We’re going to be watching the waiver wire real close. We’re going to try and get better. We had a conversation, Ozzie [Newsome] and I, and I like to think on principle that we really believe this: We want to build as strong of a 53-man roster as we possibly can, and as we do that, try to get stronger every chance we can get. We’ll be looking.”

The two biggest positions of need for the Ravens are offensive tackle and cornerback.

There has been a lot of speculation about the Ravens signing offensive tackle Eric Winston. It makes sense because Winston played six seasons under Gary Kubiak, who is now the Ravens' offensive coordinator, and fits in the zone-blocking scheme. But, based on what the Ravens are saying, the team wants to see what Rick Wagner can do at right tackle before adding a veteran like Winston. There is also no guarantee that Winston, at the age of 30, is that much of an upgrade over what the Ravens already have.

The same argument could be made at cornerback, where the Ravens have two unproven defenders (Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson) battling for the No. 3 spot. The Ravens didn't sign or draft a cornerback after losing Corey Graham in free agency.

"Ozzie knows he has two great, young guys that are coming up," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "You’ve got Asa Jackson who can play the nickel and outside, but mostly better inside. And Chykie Brown has been playing good. He’s had his chance to get out on the field, but now he gets thrown in, and it’s his. He’s going to get to show you all what he’s capable of."
The top cornerbacks available are: Terrell Thomas, Drayton Florence, Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson. Thomas is 29 and has dealt with multiple knee surgeries while with the New York Giants. Samuel, 33, was relegated to being a backup at the end of last season for the Atlanta Falcons, and Robinson, 32, lost his nickelback job to a rookie last season with the Kansas City Chiefs. The best of this group seems to be Florence, a journeyman 33-year-old defender who started five games last season for the Carolina Panthers.

Considering these options, the Ravens may wait to add a veteran cornerback at the end of the preseason, when the final major cutdown is made and a more viable defender hits the market. With only four corners with NFL experience, the Ravens will have to either sign a veteran corner or keep an undrafted rookie.

Mailbag: Doubts about Browns' brass

February, 24, 2013
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I will provide my take on all things NFL combine Monday. For now, it's time to tackle some questions sent to the AFC North mailbag ...

Justin from Canton, Ohio: I have no confidence in (Browns vice president of player personnel) Mike Lombardi. I still do not have a clue why the Browns hired him. What will have to happen for him to get fired?

badbrown4life from Honolulu: I'm a true-blue Browns fan, born in Cleveland, living in Hawaii. Imagine all the jokes I suffer. Here are my questions: What has Mike Lombardi done to earn his current job with the Browns? I like the coaching staff, but can they overcome the bumbling of (chief executive officer Joe) Banner & Lombardi combined?

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters: Justin and badbrown4life, you're not alone in your skepticism of Lombardi. But you're going to have to get used to him for a while. When Banner introduced Lombardi at the introductory press conference, Banner showed his commitment to this hire when he said, “There’s no question he’s near or at the top of quality talent evaluators.” So it would look bad on Banner if this marriage ended quickly.

My skepticism of Lombardi is based on a couple of instances. When he was with the NFL Network, Lombardi bashed Tom Heckert's last draft as well as the addition of wide receiver Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft. This is the same draft that produced seven promising prospects (and three immediate starters): running back Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden, offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, defensive linemen Billy Winn and John Hughes, linebacker James-Michael Johnson and wide receiver-returner Travis Benjamin. The other part that puzzles me is the fact Lombari has only received one interview over the past five years and that was the 49ers two years ago. It just doesn't add up for me.




Dave from Kensington, Md.: Which position do you think the Steelers feel most confident with their current (non-free-agent) personnel, and consequently are least likely to spend a early-to-mid-round draft pick on: inside linebacker, nose tackle, quarterback or safety?

Hensley: Dave, in order of least importance, this is how I see it: quarterback, nose tackle, safety and inside linebacker. Yes, it would be beneficial to get a younger backup to develop behind Ben Roethlisberger, but it's nowhere close to being the same need as nose tackle, safety and inside linebacker. At nose tackle, the Steelers lose Casey Hampton but still have Steve McLendon and Alameda Ta'amu (even though he screwed up majorly last season). Pittsburgh should improve its depth at safety considering the age of Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu (and Polamalu's injury history). The biggest need is inside linebacker because, even if Larry Foote comes back, you're not sure if Stevenson Sylvester can start in this league and when Sean Spence can come back from that brutal knee injury.




Ryan from Salt Lake City, Utah: I was wondering about the Bengals' potential linebacker moves coming up to the draft. With Vontaze Burfict's fantastic rookie season and Thomas Howard coming back from knee surgery, I feel like there is potential to get a big, run-stopping middle linebacker that would have a great chance to thrive his rookie season between our leading tacklers for the last two seasons. Thoughts?

Hensley: Ryan, the plan is to move Burfict inside in 2013. There was a report last week that the Bengals would only consider bringing back Rey Maualuga as an outside linebacker because the preference is to go with Burfict in the middle. It's uncertain whether the Bengals will re-sign Howard, who is a free agent in March. He has to prove he is healthy enough to play this season after going down with a season-ending ACL injury in a Week 2 practice.




Dirk from Everett, Wash.: What are the chances the Browns use some of that salary-cap space to try to lure LaRon Landry in at free safety? I'd love to see an experienced playmaker next to T.J. Ward.

Hensley: Dirk, the Browns should be active in free agency. I just don't think Landry is a good fit. He's too similar to T.J. Ward in that he is a physical presence who can make an impact in run support. The Browns need someone who is a free safety and be a factor in coverage. Also, with the amount of money it will take to get Landry, it's a gamble considering his injury history.




Hans from Bel Air, Md.: With the likely departure of Bryant McKinnie (unless he comes back as a bargain basement free agent), does this mean a return of "The Human Turnstile" aka Michael Oher to the Blind(ed) Side?

Hensley: Hans, I know you're not going to like this answer, but I see Oher going back to left tackle. The Ravens won't have the money to go after a legitimate left tackle like Jake Long and they don't draft high enough to get a tackle who can start immediately on the left side. Sure, there is a chance that McKinnie could come back, but the Ravens can't depend on him after his weight issues in minicamp and his absence at the start of training camp. General manager Ozzie Newsome has repeatedly said how much he likes the young guys on the offensive line. I believe he's telling everyone that the guys on the roster now will be the guys who will will start on the offensive line.




Charles from Augusta, W.Va.: So when Mel Kiper's and Todd McShay's second mock drafts came out, I found their picks for the Browns to be interesting. I had no problem with Mel's selection, but in Todd's draft he had Jarvis Jones falling to the Jets. Now I ask you: if Jarvis Jones falls to the Browns at No. 6, why wouldn't they take him? With the Browns' well-documented switch in defensive philosophy, it would seem like Jones would be a perfect fit in our defense now as a pass-rushing outside linebacker opposite of Jabaal Sheard who can also stop the run and drop-back and cover someone. What are your thoughts on this?

Hensley: Charles, I'm in total agreement with you. If Jarvis Jones, the linebacker out of Georgia, is there at No. 6, the Browns would be crazy to pass him up. The big question is his medical history. Jones suffers from a condition called spinal stenosis, which is the narrowing of the vertebrae in his neck. The only way the Browns pass on him is if they're concerned that this condition will hinder his playing career.




Jody from Hastings, Pa.: Should the Steelers consider waiving LaMarr Woodley and keeping James Harrison? I know Woodley is younger but has been more injury-prone. Harrison had surgery late last season and played more games than Woodley. Your thoughts?

Hensley: Jody, there is a zero percent chance of this happening. The Steelers are disappointed in Woodley's season in 2012, but they're not giving up on him this quickly. Plus, the cap hit would be more than $8 million. The Pittsburgh coaching staff wants to keep Harrison. The front office, however, likely won't do it at his current $6.57 million salary. Harrison said he won't take a pay cut. The Steelers have to either be creative with some restructuring or part ways with the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.




Vince from Virginia Beach, Va.: If Ed Reed doesn't come back, what do you think of the idea of Jimmy Smith moving to safety? Lardarius Webb will be back and, with Corey Graham and Chykie Brown stepping up, wouldn't it be a cheaper option to just move Smith to safety?

Hensley: Moving a corner to safety is what you do to an aging player to get a few more years out of him, like a Rod Woodson or Charles Woodson (or anyone named Woodson, it seems). The Ravens still believe in Smith as a cornerback. If they didn't, he wouldn't have been on the field in the Super Bowl when they were backed up against their goal line. Shifting Smith to safety would be a desperation move. Even though Smith has been a disappointment so far, the Ravens are far from that point with him.




Karl from Rapid City, S.D.: Just a note to thank you for blogging the AFC North. I'm a Bengal fan and would prefer the division still be called the AFC Central.

Hensley: Thank for the note. Just hearing AFC Central, it makes me think of Three Rivers, Riverfront and Cleveland Municipal Stadiums. Those places housed good memories, but I don't think even the die-hard fans would like to go there.

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