NFL Nation: Jacoby Jones

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was at the ESPY Awards in June when he bumped into St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher for the first time. Shortly after meeting the coach whose team he would face in Week 1 of the 2014 season, Patterson presented a request to Fisher.

Patterson
"I told him, 'Just make sure you kick me the ball,'" Patterson said on Thursday. "He told me, 'Just be ready.' The kicker (Greg Zuerlein), he's got a big leg, so I feel like he's going to try to kick it out of the end zone. If he doesn't, I'm going to bring it out."

Few return men in the league were more aggressive about bringing kicks out of the end zone than Patterson last season. Among the 23 returners who brought back at least 20 kicks last season, only five had a higher average distance from the goal line than Patterson, who started an average of 102.2 yards from the end zone, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

The Vikings have given Patterson a green light to return kicks deep in the end zone, believing he will reward them more often than not, and that gamble paid off last season; Patterson brought 79.1 percent of his returns past the 20-yard line, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Only the Ravens' Jacoby Jones and the Jaguars' Jordan Todman were better at delivering a better starting field position than a touchback would provide, and Patterson's big returns provided extra value, too. On average, the Vikings started 69.8 yards from the goal line after a Patterson return, which was the best mark in the NFL.

Patterson will take on a bigger role in the Vikings' offense this season, and the Vikings have tried out a number of different return men in the event they need to reduce the second-year receiver's workload on kickoffs. But after making the Pro Bowl as a kick returner last season, Patterson sounded as eager as ever to keep his special teams role.

"That's my job, man," Patterson said. "I don't feel like I need to get off (kick returns) unless Coach tells me to."

Ravens Camp Report: Final Day

August, 14, 2014
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the final day of Baltimore Ravens training camp:
  • Rookie seventh-round pick Michael Campanaro is making a convincing argument that he belongs on the team. He looked like the best receiver on the field, and he continued to make plays when he was a member of the scout team going against the first-team defense. Campanaro doesn't look like a rookie when he is running routes.
  • In one of the lighter moments of camp, reserve safety Omar Brown was complimented by a fan for keeping up with Torrey Smith on a deep route. The only problem was the fan called him Chykie Brown. "I'm not Chykie," Omar Brown responded with both arms outstretched. "I'm Omar."
  • As Deonte Thompson had one of his better days catching the ball, another wide receiver fighting for a job did not. LaQuan Williams had trouble holding on to passes, which could push him closer to the "long shot" category.
  • It was a big day for athletic interceptions. Rookie third-round pick Terrence Brooks, who is working at nickelback with the first-team defense, tipped an interception to himself. Undrafted rookie Tremain Jacobs picked off a pass by jumping a route. And cornerback Marrio Norman went up high to pull down a sailing pass from Tyrod Taylor.
  • It was fitting how wide receiver Jacoby Jones celebrated one of the final drills of training camp. Practicing the kneel down at the end of a game, Jones did exactly what Ray Lewis did in the linebacker's final home game. Standing five yards behind Flacco, Jones broke into Lewis' signature squirrel dance.
  • Schedule: The Ravens have a walk-through Friday before playing their second preseason game at Dallas on Saturday.
  • Injury wire: The Ravens decided to "rest" Owen Daniels' legs, and it's undecided whether the tight end will play in Saturday's preseason game. ... CB Lardarius Webb (back) missed his 14th straight practice. He last practiced July 25. ... CB Asa Jackson (ankle) was sidelined for his fourth straight practice. ... G Will Rackley (head) remains out ... NT Terrence Cody (hip) is on the physically unable to perform list. ... DEs Brent Urban (torn ACL) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (Achilles) are out for the season.

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. -- Jacoby Jones' connection with offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is stronger than any other wide receiver on the Baltimore Ravens roster. Jones even referred to Kubiak as his "biological father" again because he never knew his own.

"I need to get that DNA test," said Jones, who played under Kubiak from 2007 to 2011 in Houston. "I'm going to steal his coffee and swab the cup and figure it out. I have to make sure. I hope my mother doesn't see this. She'll kill me.”

Whether Jones' familiarity with Kubiak's system will translate into production as a receiver is the more pertinent question.

In five seasons in Kubiak's offense, Jones only caught more than 31 passes in a season once. While he's been a playmaker for the Ravens, he still only has a combined 67 catches in two seasons.

Jones
Getting more passes in the Ravens' offense will be a bigger challenge than ever for Jones. The Ravens added wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels to go along with Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta and Marlon Brown. Jones may find himself No. 6 on Joe Flacco's pecking order, which is even lower than his third-place finish on "Dancing With The Stars" last year.

"[I'm] trying to be one of the best receivers in the league," Jones said. "[I'm going to] try and play my role when they call my number, to show [I can] make that play. We fell short last year not going to the playoffs, and you beat yourself up in the offseason like, 'What did I do wrong? What did I do right?' You look for those types of small things and then build off them."

Jones made two of the biggest and most memorable catches for the Ravens during their Super Bowl championship run a couple of seasons ago. His 70-yard touchdown catch in Denver, also known as the Mile High Miracle, propelled the Ravens' to an AFC divisional playoff win. His 56-yard touchdown grab near the end of the first half was one of the key plays in the Ravens' Super Bowl triumph.

But stretching the field hasn't been a staple of Kubiak's offenses in Denver. In five seasons with the Texans, Jones had 10 catches on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. In two seasons with the Ravens, he had eight receptions on such passes.

Jones' speed makes him a viable downfield threat. His inconsistent hands doesn't make him a dependable target on the quick-hitting passes.

Jones cautioned everyone not to read too much into the perception that Kubiak doesn't throw deep passes.

"Don't sleep on that, but the way he is, he's going to take what you give us," Jones said. "If you're going to sit there and play that all game -- you're going to give it to us -- why not? Just chip away and throw it down the field. It's football. It's a chess match."

Jones, who re-signed with the Ravens this offseason, will make an impact as a returner. Since 2012, his 29.8-yard kickoff return average ranks third in the NFL and his four returns for touchdowns (three kickoff and one punt) is tied for the most in the league over that span.

Even though Jones has reunited with Kubiak, it could be more difficult for him to carve out a major niche as a wide receiver.
PITTSBURGH -- The NFL has quietly closed the book on one of the more controversial chapters of the storied Pittsburgh Steelers-Baltimore Ravens rivalry.

It did so without overstepping its bounds and further punishing the Steelers for Mike Tomlin stepping onto the field and disrupting a Jacoby Jones kickoff return that could have resulted in a touchdown.

The lengthy mea culpa that Tomlin offered -- albeit a little late because he didn’t initially realize the controversy his right foot had ignited -- couldn't have hurt convincing the NFL that a $100,000 fine was punishment enough.

Also, the play in which the Ravens settled for a field goal instead of a touchdown did not change the outcome of the game. Nor did it factor into any postseason tiebreakers.

Above all, it’s hard to believe there was any intent on Tomlin’s part. The man is ultra-competitive but he is not stupid.

No way would he have intentionally interfered during a game that played out on national TV and think he could get away with it. I'd also like to think that sportsmanship would have ever prevented him from even pondering such a thing.

Tomlin's negligence by watching the play unfold on the Jumbotron with his back to it -- and losing track of here he was on the Steelers’ sidelines – resulted in a hit to his checkbook and reputation.

It presumably also led to a stern warning from the NFL to not let something like that happen again or else.

That NFL was right in deciding that the punishment should end there.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- If you couldn't guess by Jacoby Jones' "I Love Bmore" hat that he wanted to stay with the Ravens, the electric Pro Bowl returner proved it by abruptly ending his visit with the New York Giants on Wednesday and taking less money to remain in Baltimore.

"I'm in the [Giants] facility walking around and I think I came to my senses really that this is probably the only place that will let me be myself," Jones said Thursday.

Jones
Jones was getting in a car to go to downtown New York for a dinner with the Giants before he officially pulled a reverse.

"I told the driver, head toward Newark. Take me to the airport," Jones said. "I told my agent that I knew I was coming home."

Jones signed a four-year, $12 million deal that includes $4.5 million guaranteed. How much less was the Ravens' offer compared the one from the Giants?

"I don't know," Jones said with a smile. "I'm not good at math."

One incentive to stay was the addition of Gary Kubiak as the Ravens' offensive coordinator. Kubiak was Jones' head coach for five seasons (2007-11) when both were with the Houston Texans.

Jones referred to Kubiak as his "biological father" because he never knew his own father. He remembered a conversation during his time in Houston when Kubiak sat him down after he was a self-described "knucklehead."

"He told me when you slow down and mature, you're going to have a chance to make a lot of money," Jones said.

Jones was cut by the Texans in May 2012 after he mishandled a punt that led to Houston's playoff loss at Baltimore. He joined the Ravens and redefined himself as one of the top playmakers in the league.

In two seasons, Jones has scored 10 touchdowns in 28 games. Since 2012, his 29.8-yard kickoff return average ranks third in the NFL and his four returns for touchdowns (three kickoff and one punt) is tied for the most in the league over that span.

Coach John Harbaugh insisted that the Ravens brought back Jones to be more than a returner, even though he has caught 67 passes in two seasons in Baltimore.

"He's also a quality receiver," Harbaugh said. "He's a special-teams player, but he's also a guy that can do the things that you need to do to move the chains when you need to move them. It's something that he's probably grown into over the last three or four years as a football player. Without question, we believe his best football is in front of him."
While Jacoby Jones is testing the free-agent market, it will ultimately test how much the Baltimore Ravens value the explosive wide receiver-returner.

On Monday, it was reported that four teams were looking at Jones. On Tuesday, it was revealed that the New York Giants were among those interested teams.

Jones is scheduled to visit the Giants on Wednesday, although the Ravens remain in the mix, according to ESPN's Josina Anderson.

Dexter McCluster may have set the market for returners Tuesday, when he agreed to a three-deal with the Tennessee Titans that's worth up to $12 million, including $4.5 million guaranteed. An argument can be made that McCluster is more of an asset on offense than Jones because he can play running back and receiver.

The Ravens have reportedly made an offer to Jones, but it's likely less than the $4 million salary he earned last season with the team. Why do I say that? I don't believe Jones is making visits if that's the offer on the table from the Ravens.

At about 1 a.m. Wednesday, Jones put up an interesting post on his official Twitter account: "And it begins.........????????"

The Ravens can sign another productive returner in free agency like Devin Hester and Trindon Holliday, and they probably will add another wide receiver who will bump Jones down on the depth chart.

But losing Jones would be significant for the Ravens. That's why I had him rated No. 3 on the Ravens' free-agent rankings.

He was one of the top playmakers in the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run and he ranked among the top five returners in the league last season. Jones is inconsistent and one-dimensional as a wide receiver, but he made a lot of clutch plays for the Ravens in two seasons.

Dan Graziano, ESPN's Giants team reporter, thinks the interest from the Giants is legitimate.

"Jones would serve the dual purpose of solidifying the return game while also being able to help as a wide receiver," Graziano wrote. "He wouldn't necessarily be a Hakeem Nicks replacement at receiver, but he could help add depth at a position that didn't offer much last year."

The Ravens haven't lost Jones yet. But I believe it's a 50-50 proposition that he returns. If another team is willing to pay Jones a premium price for his playmaking skills, I don't see the Ravens overspending to keep him.
In general, I'm not a fan of throwing big money at the top-line, most established free agents out there. Unless you're looking at franchise quarterbacks, NFL careers are too short and players' primes are too fleeting. If you're spending big bucks on a guy who's already done a lot, odds are you'll end up paying for some bad years -- or trying to find a way out of a bad contract.

So in general, I like what the New York Giants did Tuesday on the first day of free agency. I think they still have a lot to do, but the guys they did sign fit a desirable profile when I look at what free agency is at its best. They were looking for players who are somewhat established in the league but still have upside and lots to prove. And I think they may have found it with these three interesting signings:

Guard Geoff Schwartz. A former 16-game starter who's played guard and tackle in the league and only this past year fully recovered from a 2011 hip injury. He was one of the top interior linemen in the league over the second half of 2013 for Kansas City, turns 28 in July and feels like a player on the upswing, the way Evan Mathis was when the Eagles signed him under the radar in 2011. He also has some experience playing tackle, so they could potentially use him there if they decide to rearrange anything with Justin Pugh or Will Beatty.

Running back Rashad Jennings. Hasn't had much opportunity to start in the NFL, but as a result he also has a bit more tread on his tires than your typical 29-year-old running back. The Giants have some underlying numbers to indicate Jennings is capable of big things if given more carries than he's been given at this point in his career. If they choose to rely on him as a starter, he could explode. If David Wilson is viable and they use Jennings as a complementary back, they could find him useful for a long time to come. Another guy who may be ready to take off.

Linebacker O'Brien Schofield. This one's kind of a wild card. Schofield hasn't done much as an outside linebacker in the NFL so far, but he was a pass-rusher in college at Wisconsin and finished second (to Ryan Kerrigan) in the Big Ten in sacks in 2009. So you look at the two-year, $8 million deal and wonder what this guy has done to earn it. But (a) let's see what the contract numbers really look like once we have details and (b) the Giants appear to be trying to pay guys for what they think they will do for them, rather than for what they've done for their former teams. So if they look at Schofield as a player who can contribute to the pass rush, and they plan to use him that way, the money starts to make more sense.

Some other notes:

The Giants also have brought back four of their own free agents -- running back Peyton Hillis, safety Stevie Brown, kicker Josh Brown and cornerback Trumaine McBride. All depth moves, though McBride and/or Brown could end up starting if other things don't work out.

Linebacker Jon Beason remains someone the Giants hope to re-sign, but because he's acting as his own agent, he wasn't allowed to have any contact with teams until 4 p.m. Tuesday (as opposed to noon Saturday, when agents were allowed to talk to teams but players weren't). So Beason is only 17 hours into his market, and he's wise to find out what that market is before just accepting what the Giants have to offer.

Two of the Giants' own free agents left -- defensive tackle Linval Joseph to the Vikings and safety Ryan Mundy to the Bears. As I wrote Tuesday night, I think they'll miss Joseph. At 25, I think he fits the profile of the kind of free agent you look to sign, rather than the kind you let walk out the door. But the Giants didn't feel like spending $6 million a year on a defensive tackle, so Joseph is gone.

With DeMarcus Ware and Julius Peppers getting cut Tuesday, the market for veteran pass-rushers is suddenly flooded with huge names. That would seem to mean Justin Tuck isn't likely to strike gold elsewhere. There was industry sentiment that Tuck won't find enough on the market to convince him to leave the Giants, and that he'd re-sign and try to play out his whole career with the same team. However, Adam Schefter reported late Tuesday that Tuck had a visit scheduled with the Raiders today, and no one has more to spend right now than the Raiders. They're also hosting pass-rusher LaMarr Woodley, but there's nothing to stop them from signing both Woodley and Tuck if they choose. So stay tuned on that.

I still think they need to add a center, and I don't think bringing back Kevin Boothe is the answer. They need to think about long-term solutions on the offensive line, and if Boothe and Chris Snee are two of their starters next year, I don't see how they're doing that. None of the free-agent centers signed Tuesday, though Evan Dietrich-Smith is visiting Tampa Bay today, so he could be off the market soon.

NFL Network reported that cornerback Tracy Porter was in for a visit Tuesday night. Ran back an Eli Manning interception for a touchdown for the Raiders in Week 10 last year. Along with his game-sealing interception touchdown in Super Bowl XLIV, that made him the first player to return both an Eli Manning interception and a Peyton Manning interception for a touchdown. Porter doesn't turn 28 until August and fits that same model of guys who have done something but may be on the cusp of more. He doesn't strike me as the answer if what they wanted was a top corner to pair with Prince Amukamara, but maybe they really see McBride as the outside starter again. I think they should be thinking bigger.

Other needs still to be addressed include wide receiver, tight end, middle linebacker (could be Beason), defensive line (Tuck or his replacement and a low-priced free-agent defensive tackle) and kick returner (could be Jacoby Jones, who's in for a visit Wednesday). The Giants entered the offseason in need of a full-on roster rebuild, and they've only been at it one day. Expect them to continue to be busy.

Giants looking at Jacoby Jones

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
7:30
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The New York Giants' kick and punt return units were among the worst in the NFL last year, and improving them ranks among their priorities as they undertake a major offseason roster rebuild. According to ESPN's Josina Anderson, Baltimore Ravens free agent Jacoby Jones is scheduled to visit the Giants on Wednesday, and that could help solve this particular problem.

Jones
Jones would serve the dual purpose of solidifying the return game while also being able to help as a wide receiver. He wouldn't necessarily be a Hakeem Nicks replacement at receiver, but he could help add depth at a position that didn't offer much last year. (i.e., he probably offers more than Louis Murphy does)

Josina reports that Baltimore is still in the mix to re-sign Jones, so this isn't like the Geoff Schwartz or Rashad Jennings deals that are agreed to and need only signatures to complete. But if the Giants and Jones can come to an agreement, he'd be a nice pickup.

Jones ranked sixth in the league with 892 kick return yards last year and fourth with an average of 28.8 yards per kick return. He split punt return duties in Baltimore with Tandon Doss, but his 12.5-yards-per-punt-return average also ranked among the league leaders. He also caught 37 passes for 455 yards and two touchdowns in just 12 games as a receiver. He has at least 30 catches in four straight years, with his career high of 51 coming in Houston in 2010.

Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan are the only two wide receivers on the Giants' roster right now for 2014. They're likely on the lookout for a top wide receiver in free agency or the draft, though it's possible that Randle could develop into Nicks' long-term replacement.
Alex MackAP Photo/David RichardCleveland Browns center Alex Mack is the top free agent in the AFC North.

It's not a particularly strong free-agent class in the AFC North, although the top ones rank among the best in the NFL.

The free-agent group in the division took a hit when tight end Dennis Pitta, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson all signed before the official start of free agency.

So who's left? ESPN's four team reporters in the division -- Scott Brown, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon -- compiled a list of the top 15 free agents in the AFC North.

The Baltimore Ravens have the most free agents on this list with eight players. The Cleveland Browns have two of the top three free agents in the division, and the Cincinnati Bengals have two of the top five. The Pittsburgh Steelers placed one free agent in the top 10.

Here are the top 15 free agents in the AFC North:

1. Alex Mack, Browns center: At 28, the two-time Pro Bowler is in the prime of his career. Mack was so coveted by the Browns that they placed a $10 million transition tag on him. It will be interesting whether another team can pry him away from Cleveland.

2. Michael Johnson, Bengals defensive end: He was better in 2012 (11.5 sacks) than he was in 2013 (3.5 sacks). Still, his size, athleticism and age (27) will make him one of the most coveted pass-rushers this offseason.

3. T.J. Ward, Browns safety: Considered one of the top 10 safeties in the NFL, Ward will draw interest from teams looking to get more physical in the secondary. He makes an impact on run defense and has improved in coverage.

4. Eugene Monroe, Ravens offensive tackle: Some believe Monroe is the top offensive tackle in free agency, but ESPN's Bill Polian has five tackles ranked ahead of him. His athleticism and upside will command a big-money contract even though he's never been to a Pro Bowl.

5. Anthony Collins, Bengals offensive tackle: He is an underrated left tackle who didn't allow a sack last season. The question mark with Collins is how he'll play as a full-time starter. He made seven starts last season and has 25 starts in six seasons in Cincinnati.

6. Jacoby Jones, Ravens receiver-returner: He was one of the top playmakers in the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run, and he ranked among the top five returners in the league last season. Jones is inconsistent and one-dimensional as a wide receiver, but he made a lot of clutch plays for the Ravens in two seasons.

7. Art Jones, Ravens defensive end: His impact as a run defender and interior pass-rusher makes him one of the top defensive tackles available. Teams, though, have to wonder whether he'll be the same type of player without Haloti Ngata drawing double-teams next to him.

8. Daryl Smith, Ravens linebacker: He was quietly one of the NFL's top comeback stories. In his first season with the Ravens, Smith led the team with 123 tackles and finished with five sacks, three interceptions, 19 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. His age (32 this month) could be a drawback.

9. Michael Oher, Ravens offensive tackle: His play never reached the expectations placed on a first-round pick. Oher is a throwback type of player whose strengths are durability and toughness. The biggest knocks against him are mental mistakes and pass protection.

10. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers wide receiver: He is almost 27, brings a lot of quickness and is coming off a season where he dropped just two passes (according to ESPN Stats & Information). What works against Sanders is the fact that he's never had more than 740 yards receiving in a season and averaged a career-low 11 yards per catch last season.

11. Jameel McClain, Ravens inside linebacker: He isn't among the most talented linebackers, but he prides himself on outworking others. Even though he came back from a spinal cord contusion last season, some teams will be wary of a player who had such a serious injury.

12. James Ihedigbo, Ravens safety: Known more for his special-teams play, Ihedigbo finished as the team's second-leading tackler. He'll try to find a team that will give him an opportunity to play defense now that the Ravens moved Matt Elam to his strong safety spot.

13. Ziggy Hood, Steelers defensive lineman: He never became the difference-maker the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him in the first round, but it would be unfair to call him a bust. One of the strongest players on the team, Hood lost his starting job to Cameron Heyward last season.

14. Corey Graham, Ravens cornerback: He was a starter on the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl team and led Baltimore with four interceptions last season. Graham has proved to be a dependable nickelback, but he doesn't have the size or speed to be a full-time starter.

15. Brett Keisel, Steelers defensive lineman: He had four sacks last season and 26 quarterback pressures, third most on the Steelers, despite missing four games and playing sparingly in another because of a nagging foot injury. His age (35) will scare away a lot of teams.

Free-agency primer: Ravens

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
11:00
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

 
Key free agents: OT Eugene Monroe, DT Arthur Jones, WR-KR Jacoby Jones, LB Daryl Smith, OT Michael Oher, SS James Ihedigbo, CB Corey Graham, TE Ed Dickson.

Where they stand: The biggest hole on the team is offensive tackle. Monroe and Oher, the Ravens' starting tackles from last season, are both unrestricted free agents. The Ravens want to get bigger on the interior of the offensive line, which indicates they want to upgrade from center Gino Gradkowski. The other need on offense is a wide receiver or tight end who can convert third downs and make yards after the catch. In other words, they are looking for someone to complement wide receiver Torrey Smith beyond tight end Dennis Pitta, who was re-signed this week. On defense, the priorities are at middle linebacker and free safety. The Ravens want to bring back Smith, but they will need to replace him if they can't. With the Ravens moving Matt Elam to strong safety, they need to add an athletic safety whose strength is coverage.

What to expect: With $26 million in salary-cap space, the Ravens need to get a left tackle, center, wide receiver, middle linebacker and free safety in free agency. Baltimore is trying hard to keep Monroe and Smith before free agency begins. If the Ravens fail to retain Monroe, left tackle has to be the focus early in free agency. The contingency plan is to either re-sign Oher (which isn't ideal because he's better at right tackle) or move Kelechi Osemele from left guard to left tackle. The options at center aren't as appealing after Cleveland put the transition tag on Alex Mack. The other free-agent centers are 20-something and middle of the road: Green Bay's Evan Dietrich-Smith, New Orleans' Brian De La Puente and New England's Ryan Wendell. At wide receiver, the top targets should be Denver's Eric Decker, New England's Julian Edelman, Seattle's Golden Tate and New York Giants' Hakeem Nicks, who has been linked to the Ravens since the end of the season. When it comes to free safety, the biggest name is Buffalo's Jairus Byrd. But Miami's Chris Clemons and Indianapolis' Antoine Bethea are solid starters as well.
Let's take a look at the Baltimore Ravens' Twitter mailbag:

 
INDIANAPOLIS -- The start of the free agency is less than two weeks away. Receiver is one of the positions that the Indianapolis Colts need to address through free agency, trade or the draft.

It’s about the present and the future for them at that position.

Decker
Depth was an issue for the Colts at the start of last season. It was a bigger issue when Reggie Wayne crumbled to the ground with a torn ACL against Denver in Week 7 and it remained an issue when the season ended last month.

The Colts can't get away with not adding any players at receiver. All indications point to Wayne returning from his knee injury, but you have to be realistic, too. Nobody knows what type of player he’ll be when he returns because he’s 35 years old. That leaves T.Y. Hilton and young receivers like Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill and Griff Whalen.

This takes us to the free-agent market. There was a report Wednesday that the Colts have interest in Denver receiver Eric Decker.

Decker is looking for a big payday like all free agents do. He told SiriusXM NFL Radio in an interview earlier this month that he needs to do what is the “best for my family.”

The Colts will have money to spend – the fourth-most salary cap space – but they’re going to be frugal spenders with all their money. That's bascially what general manager Ryan Grigson said last week at the combine.

Decker caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.

My issue with Decker is that you can't pay him like he’s a No. 1 receiver because he’s not a No. 1 receiver. He's more of a solid No. 2 receiver. He put up those nice numbers while not having to face the other team's best cornerback. Things could be different if Decker's asking price isn’t too much.

And if that’s the case, why leave Peyton Manning and Denver when you have a chance to make at least one more run at winning the Super Bowl?

Here's a look at some 2013 stats of some notable wideouts who are set to hit the free-agent market:

NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


There can be no complaints from the Baltimore Ravens after placing seven players on the All-AFC North team. This tied the Cleveland Browns for the most representation on the team. Not bad for the defending Super Bowl champions who failed to make the playoffs and finished a disappointing third in the division.

Not surprisingly, five of the Ravens players on the All-AFC North team are on defense. A big reason why the Ravens ranked in the top 10 in defense for most of the year was the contribution from two new veteran starters. Inside linebacker Daryl Smith, who replaced Ray Lewis, filled up the stat sheet with 123 tackles, 5 sacks, 19 passes defensed, 3 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles. Safety James Ihedigbo, a special-teams player for most of his career, stepped up in a starting role to finish second in tackles (101) and interceptions (three).

The Ravens' defense also got a boost from two former draft picks who elevated their games. Art Jones emerged as the Ravens' best defensive lineman, leading that group in tackles (53) and sacks (four). Jimmy Smith made a case for not only being the Ravens' top cornerback but the second best in the division. He held his own this year in matching up with four of the top five receivers in the NFL: Cleveland’s Josh Gordon (first), Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown (second), Detroit's Calvin Johnson (third) and Cincinnati's A.J. Green (fifth). Besides Smith, the only Ravens selection on defense who wasn't a unanimous pick was linebacker Terrell Suggs, who led the division with 10 sacks.

The Ravens' other two players on the All-AFC North team were on special teams. A first-time Pro Bowl player, kicker Justin Tucker made 33 straight field goals this season, the longest streak of the year, and hit three game-winning field goals this season, including a 61-yarder in Detroit. Jacoby Jones was the most dangerous returner in the division, averaging 28.8 yards on kickoffs (fourth in NFL) and 12.5 yards on punts (fifth in the NFL).

The Ravens didn't have any players on the all-division offense, and rightfully so. Baltimore ranked 29th in total yards (307.4), and the rest of the division's offenses finished in the top 20.

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect Sunday's results.]

For the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions, the playoffs are beginning well before the actual postseason starts. In reality for both teams, they begin Monday night.

Both the Ravens and Lions are fighting for playoff berths and are hanging on to those spots by head-to-head tiebreakers -- in the Lions' case for the NFC North title and for the Ravens, the No. 6 seed in the AFC.

The Ravens need to win to keep pace with Miami, which beat New England on Sunday, for a wild-card berth. The Lions need a win to keep pace with Chicago, which won Sunday at Cleveland.

ESPN.com Detroit Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Baltimore Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley break down what might happen Monday and who might leave "Monday Night Football" still with a playoff berth in their hands.

Rothstein: Up until Sunday, Detroit's run defense had been very, very good. Add to that Ray Rice appears to be struggling this season. What's going on with Rice and does the Lions' stout run defense mean more of Monday night's game is on the shoulders of Joe Flacco?

Hensley: Rice's best two games over the past eight weeks have come against NFC North teams, but a lot of backs have had success against the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings this year. The Ravens would love Rice to duplicate what LeSean McCoy (217 yards rushing) did against the Lions, but I'm pretty sure there's not going to be any snow in Ford Field. Getting the run game on track has been the biggest challenge for the Ravens, who are averaging a league-worst 3.0 yards per carry.

Baltimore hasn't abandoned the ground attack. The Ravens, though, haven't shown much confidence in it either. They have put the ball in the hands of their $120.6 million quarterback to win games. Flacco has thrown over 30 passes in nine of the past 10 games. The problem with that strategy has been the increase in turnovers. Flacco has thrown a career-worst 17 interceptions, including three Sunday. Only two quarterbacks -- Geno Smith and Eli Manning -- have thrown more.

Speaking of turnovers, why have the Lions had so much trouble holding onto the ball this year?

Rothstein: It's a combination of factors, starting with Matthew Stafford. In some ways -- and yes, weather is an excuse here -- Sunday's "fumbleathon" against Philadelphia can be attributed to the weather because so many of those miscues happened when visibility was nil and in blizzard-like conditions. But Stafford has thrown a lot of interceptions in the second half of the season and some of those are just poor reads with which he should be doing better. Others are the fault of his receivers, who lead the league in drops with 41, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Reggie Bush has had some fumbling issues, too, and that has been a major problem for the Lions' top free-agent acquisition. It really comes down to Bush improving his ball security and Stafford making smarter decisions.

You mention the Jimmy Smith-Calvin Johnson matchup in the video. Every team has kind of schemed differently for Johnson this season. What do you think the Ravens will do?

Hensley: The Ravens don't have their cornerbacks shadow the same receivers, but they will want Smith on Johnson as much as possible because he's their most physical defender. Smith is going to have to play better against Johnson than he did in the 2012 preseason. In the game, Smith was beaten by Johnson on a leaping, 18-yard touchdown. He later held Johnson when the receiver went past him on the next drive.

But Smith is playing with more confidence and more aggressiveness in his first full season starting. He has allowed only 22 catches over his past 10 games. That is an impressive total when you consider he has covered the likes of Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown during that time.

The Ravens have some speedy receivers as well with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Of course, Flacco will need time to get the ball to them. How difficult will it be for the Ravens to slow down the Lions' pass rush?

Rothstein: Depends which pass rush shows up. If it is the one that played in the last Green Bay game (seven sacks), then Flacco's success will be predicated on whether he can make the first read correctly. If the pass rush is less successful, then Flacco could have a big day. Much of it will depend on how many people Baltimore keeps home besides the five offensive linemen.

If Baltimore decides to try to block Ndamukong Suh one-on-one, it'll be a long night. The pass rush's success also will depend on rookie end Ziggy Ansah. If Ansah is healthy enough to play, he becomes a huge difference-maker for the Lions as teams have really struggled to deal with Suh on the inside and Ansah outside. If Ansah can't play -- he injured his shoulder against Philadelphia -- then that's a big bonus for the Ravens.

The Ravens were a Super Bowl team last year. Now, they appear to be very much in the middle of the pack. Did Ray Lewis and Anquan Boldin make that big of a difference?

Hensley: I would argue that the Ravens have missed a healthy Dennis Pitta (out 12 games with dislocated hip) and Jacoby Jones (injured knee in season opener) more than Boldin and Lewis. You can throw in there that the Ravens have missed the same production from Ray Rice as well. Offensively, the Ravens haven't had as much of a void with Boldin as previously thought. Torrey Smith has assumed the No. 1 receiver job, and rookie Marlon Brown has been a weapon in the red zone with six touchdowns. And defensively, there hasn't been much talk of the loss of Lewis because Daryl Smith has played so well in the middle. The Ravens defense is statistically much better than last year's group.

So, why has there been so much of a drop-off this year? The offensive line and Rice have been major disappointments. There have been too few running lanes and too many sacks allowed. The lack of a running game and the inability of Rice to make plays in the open field have hamstrung this offense. The other problem has been coming up short in close games. Last year, the Ravens had the NFL's most wins in games decided by three points or fewer. This year, Baltimore has the second-most losses (four) in such games. The Ravens have begun to find a way to win those close games recently, which is why they're back in the playoff race.

The Ravens have historically come through in these December games, which is why they've made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons. Do the Lions feel added pressure in times like these because they've made the playoffs only once since the 1999 season?

Rothstein: I don’t think they do, but there is a lot at stake for Detroit over these last three games. Besides the Lions' second playoff appearance in three seasons, this is a chance at Detroit’s first division title since 1993 and if the Lions don’t make the playoffs, there probably will be at least a conversation about Jim Schwartz’s future in Detroit.

So there are, without question, a lot of things weighing on the Lions. But for them it has been all about the mistakes they have been making and what they need to correct. Whether they do that over the last three games will essentially decide their fate.

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