Forget the old positional boxes: Just focus on good Ravens

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - NOVEMBER 03: Fullback Patrick Ricard #42 of the Baltimore Ravens rushes in front of safety Devin McCourty #32 of the New England Patriots during the third quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on November 3, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - NOVEMBER 03: Fullback Patrick Ricard #42 of the Baltimore Ravens rushes in front of safety Devin McCourty #32 of the New England Patriots during the third quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on November 3, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images) /

The Baltimore Ravens must continue to keep an eye out for versatility in their players:

You know that saying you hear about Ravens players who are fighting to either make the team or put enough on tape to interest another team? You know the one I’m thinking of, right? Come on. Like when a receiver prospect shows that he can be a demon on special teams, or an offensive lineman starts taking snaps on both the inside and at tackle, or a running back takes on 270-pound freight trains masquerading as defensive ends intent on causing bodily harm on quarterbacks.

“The more you can do.”

Yep, that’s the one. Players living on the fringes of NFL rosters have long tried to impress coaches by displaying everything they can bring to a team. Be it special teams, swing men, safeties who can step into the slot when needed, corners showing they can return kicks or backup tight ends learning to long-snap — men who are willing to do anything and everything for a shot at living their dreams are not only inspiring, they are often critical.

With restrictions on how many players coaches can suit up on game days, and with salary cap realities limiting who exactly a team can bring back every year, those guys who can do a few different jobs can become awfully handy for an NFL coach. And, don’t look now, but multidimensional players are becoming more important up and down rosters, not just on the back end.

We all know the story of Patrick Ricard, the small-college defensive lineman who also showed an ability to play fullback, cementing his standing on the team. He continued to get more and more comfortable in the role, and this season made the Pro Bowl as an important blocking piece for the most prolific running team in NFL history. And he still found time to make his biggest impact to date on the defensive side.

But it’s not just Ricard. The Ravens, on both sides of the ball, require players to do more than just the old standards of their positions. As a comparison, think of the NBA. For decades, the five on-court positions had very regimented roles. The point guard distributed. The shooting guard, well, shot. The small forward penetrated the paint. The power forward rebounded and posted up high, and the center patrolled the paint, set picks and posted up on the low block.

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But the game changed. The three-point line became a bigger deal, and the game has become more of a “three-and-D”-style, where teams want players who can work together, rotate the ball interchangeably, hit three-pointers and defend the perimeter.

With rule changes in the NFL, the adaptation of the spread game from college and a larger focus put on the ability to either move in space or close in space, the old standards of positional responsibilities in the league have changed.

The term “edge” is now emblematic of an outside pass-rusher, be they hand-in-the-ground or screaming in from the second level. “Swing” men are important cogs on the offensive line, as teams want guard-tackle guys (think James Hurst) or guard-center guys (think Bradley Bozeman). Tight ends are no longer thought of as in-line extra blockers who can break out on play-action for plays up the seam — they are now basically “giant slot” guys, as opposed to the “small-and-shifty slot guys” or “big slot guys.”

Safeties like Anthony Levine, and for big parts of this season, Chuck Clark, now have roles as dime backers, providing second-level defense against the run and flats, while also adding in blitzing and deep drops. Quarterbacks like Taysom Hill and, hopefully, Trace McSorley, are asked to not just stand on the sideline with a clipboard or hold for field goals, but to be offensive weapons, or integral parts of special teams units.

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Spread offenses and rules geared against the defense have changed route trees, as big, tall receivers who used to work solely along the perimeters are now running shallow crosses and three-step slants because they know they aren’t going to get crushed for their troubles, so cornerbacks now have to be more able to play both inside and out, especially in man-centered schemes. And middle linebackers? No, they are now “off ball” and their biggest strength lies in their ability to go sideline to sideline, not to shed interior blocks and play off their linemen.

We haven’t even gotten to how the Ravens use three tight ends on one snap and a track team the next. That is how football is today. You have to evolve from one play to the next, on both sides of the ball.

When you’re watching Combine stuff this week, and you know you will, remember to take a closer look at those guys who aren’t getting mocked in the first round, but have a history of wearing a lot of different hats on the field. Those are the guys that will stick around. Those are the guys who coaches see as pure gold.

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And, if recent history is any indication, these are the guys who might very well end up sporting purple and black when the dust settles.