Predicting the initial 53-man roster for the 2020 Ravens

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Only two weeks of open training camp practices and the absence of preseason games make the exercise of predicting the Ravens’ initial 53-man roster more challenging than ever despite so much continuity from last season.

With no shortage of unknowns that coaches and team officials aren’t exactly eager to discuss and the COVID-19 pandemic looming over the 2020 season, Saturday’s 4 p.m. cut-down deadline could bring a surprise move or two as well as an altered roster-building strategy with virus testing results threatening to disrupt the season at any point. The practice squad has expanded to 16 players with six spots open to veterans of all experience levels, meaning teams could be more strategic than ever trying to keep familiar players in the fold. On the flip side, organizations may be more reluctant to claim unproven players off waivers without as much as a single 2020 preseason snap to evaluate.

“Being on the practice squad this year, in my mind, is like making the team,” head coach John Harbaugh said earlier this week. “I think most teams are going to really want to hold on to their guys for their practice squad because they know the system. They’re kind of schooled up now on the offense and defense. You have to assume that there’s a possibility that those guys will be playing any given week.”

It’s also worth noting that teams may protect four players from their practice squad for a portion of every game week and are permitted to promote up to two players from the practice squad the day before a game to essentially create a temporary 55-man roster. Beginning this year, teams may have up to 48 players active for games — the previous limit was 46 — as long as at least eight are offensive linemen.

These dynamics could lead to Eric DeCosta and other general managers retaining more draft picks and veteran role players with higher profiles around the league and cutting more undrafted rookies — including even the ones they like most — in hopes of passing them through waivers and re-signing them to the practice squad. Such a strategy would be notable with the Ravens having kept at least one rookie free agent on their Week 1 roster for 16 consecutive years.

Below is my final projection of the initial 53-man roster ahead of the 2020 regular season:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
IN: Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III, Tyler Huntley
OUT: Trace McSorley
Skinny: Going solely off the eyeball test from practices open to reporters, Huntley has outplayed McSorley and deserves the No. 3 job. However, the Ravens didn’t want to expose McSorley as a sixth-round rookie to waivers last summer and presumably want to keep both in the organization. Is another quarterback-light team more likely to claim McSorley — who flashed in preseason games last year — or an undrafted free agent without a single snap of preseason tape?  There’s also the question of their respective understandings of Greg Roman’s offense with McSorley having the extra year under his belt. Earlier this week, Harbaugh noted the four quarterbacks are “all in different places right now in their development.” With that in mind, my prediction could change here by Saturday afternoon.

RUNNING BACKS (4)
IN: Mark Ingram, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill
OUT: Kenjon Barner, Ty’Son Williams
Skinny: Missing a portion of summer workouts with an undisclosed injury, Hill is currently a distant fourth in the pecking order, which is a precarious place to be in the event of injuries and roster needs at other positions. However, the 2019 fourth-round pick could be in the kick return mix and is valuable depth for a team that runs the ball more than anyone. In the same way Dobbins was drafted in the second round with an eye toward the future, Hill may have a more prominent role in 2021 and beyond, but he’ll need to be a special-teams contributor to be active on game days. Signed only last week, Williams flashed in last weekend’s scrimmage and could land on the practice squad.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)
IN: Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, Willie Snead, Devin Duvernay, James Proche, Chris Moore
OUT: Jaleel Scott, Jaylon Moore
Skinny: Even after missing all of open training camp with a broken finger, Chris Moore is one of Baltimore’s best special-teams players and still figures to have a roster spot for the regular season. Scott, a 2018 fourth-round pick, just hasn’t shown enough growth in his third summer to make the 53-man roster, but Jaylon Moore, a rookie free agent from Tennessee-Martin, could be a solid developmental addition to the practice squad after making some tough catches in practices.

TIGHT ENDS & FULLBACKS (3)
IN: Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Patrick Ricard
OUT: Jerell Adams, Eli Wolf, Charles Scarff
Skinny: Ricard is a Pro Bowl fullback and not a permanent answer behind Andrews and Boyle, but the No. 3 tight end competition never really materialized this summer. Adams has the most experience of the three projected to be on the outside looking in and could be re-signed at any point, but there’s little incentive keeping an underwhelming third option if you can retain another player at a different position for the time being while exploring outside alternatives. Wolf showed some skill in the little bit of time he was on the practice field, but availability has been an issue for the undrafted rookie, making the practice squad a logical place for him.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)
IN: Ronnie Stanley, Orlando Brown Jr., Bradley Bozeman, Matt Skura, Patrick Mekari, D.J. Fluker, Tyre Phillips, Ben Bredeson, Ben Powers
OUT: Will Holden, Parker Ehinger, Trystan Colon-Castillo
Skinny: Skura’s health could determine whether the Ravens keep him on the roster or place him on injured reserve with a designation to return requiring only a three-game absence this year. Powers, a 2019 fourth-round pick from Oklahoma, has been a popular choice to be cut after an underwhelming summer, but the Ravens prefer not to give up on draft picks too quickly and he’s much more likely to be snatched up by another team than the three linemen left out here. Phillips, a third-round rookie from Mississippi State, has built late momentum to start at right guard, which could leave the veteran Fluker as a versatile inside-outside backup. Ideally, you’d like to have a swing tackle to back up both Stanley and Brown, but neither Holden nor Ehinger showed enough to devote a roster spot there as the Ravens will instead lean on the versatility of their interior linemen.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (6)
IN: Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe, Justin Madubuike, Justin Ellis, Broderick Washington
OUT: Aaron Crawford
Skinny: The week-to-week knee injury to Madubuike — another conceivable IR return candidate — eliminates any perceived doubt about Ellis, who has had a good summer and is the primary backup to Williams at nose tackle. The additions of Campbell and Wolfe dramatically upgraded the starting defensive line, but there isn’t a ton of depth here with the rookie fifth-round pick Washington having a quiet camp. The good news is that the Ravens spend very little time in their traditional 3-4 base defense, so there isn’t the need for as many traditional defensive linemen active for games.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS (4)
IN: Patrick Queen, Malik Harrison, L.J. Fort, Chris Board
OUT: Otaro Alaka, Kristian Welch
Skinny: No one in this group improved his roster standing as much as Board, who went from the roster bubble to potentially being in the defensive mix in sub packages. Alaka still shows potential, but trying to keep five inside linebackers is difficult when acknowledging how much dime package defensive coordinator Wink Martindale likes to play. Both Alaka and Welch, an undrafted rookie from Iowa who’s had a solid camp, figure to be good candidates for the practice squad, giving the Ravens additional developmental depth at a position that’s undergone great change since last year.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (5)
IN: Matthew Judon, Jaylon Ferguson, Pernell McPhee, Jihad Ward, Tyus Bowser
OUT: Aaron Adeoye, Chauncey Rivers, Marcus Willoughby
Skinny: Despite the never-ending discussion about the Baltimore pass rush, there’s little to say here from a roster standpoint with the top five seemingly set. McPhee and Ward both have the ability to move inside in certain sub packages, which should quell some of the short-term depth concerns on the defensive line. Keeping an edge rusher or two on the practice squad is a good bet with Judon, McPhee, Ward, and Bowser all scheduled to become free agents after this season.

CORNERBACKS (5)
IN: Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Tavon Young, Jimmy Smith, Anthony Averett
OUT: Terrell Bonds, Khalil Dorsey, Josh Nurse
Skinny: The three young corners may not have seriously challenged an improved Averett for the No. 5 spot, but their quality of play was impressive compared to past summers when the Ravens would struggle to identify a couple passable depth options out of a group of veteran retreads and camp bodies. Some combination of Bonds, Dorsey, and Nurse should be on the practice squad.

SAFETIES (5)
IN: Chuck Clark, DeShon Elliott, Anthony Levine, Jordan Richards, Nigel Warrior
OUT: Geno Stone
Skinny: The Earl Thomas saga allows the Ravens to keep Richards, a veteran special-teams player who won’t offer much on defense. The interesting decision could come down to retaining Stone or Warrior. Stone, a seventh-round rookie from Iowa, had a fairly quiet camp while Warrior, a rookie free agent from Tennessee, has turned some heads with his nose for the football. That said, both young safeties would probably pass through waivers and make it to the practice squad, so there’s no guarantee that either makes the roster, especially with Smith looking good cross-training as a safety this summer.

SPECIALISTS (3)
IN: Justin Tucker, Sam Koch, Morgan Cox
OUT: Johnny Townsend, Nick Moore
Skinny: As usual, there’s nothing to see here with the continuity provided by this trio being more valuable than ever in such an unusual 2020 campaign.