Inside the NFL  


John Harbaugh's Ravens only know one speed; NFL-wide notes


NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» An offseason concern for Peyton Manning.
» A potential starting quarterback nobody's paying attention to.
» The steal of free agency?

And much more, beginning with a look at how one successful franchise has navigated an extreme makeover while remaining highly competitive. ...

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In 25 NFL locales, Thursday was a symbolic last day of school. And in many of those places, the coach had the players feeling that.

Maybe he took them bowling. Or to the movies. Or called the workday off all together.

That didn't happen here.

John Harbaugh scheduled a 150-minute practice for this June day in muggy Maryland, and the Baltimore Ravens went hard for well over two hours. Things wrapped up, maybe 10 minutes early, with spirited 11-on-11 work that was simulated to game conditions as close as they can be three months from kickoff -- offensive subs and coaches filling one sideline, with their defensive counterparts opposite them, and a swift pace of play ensuing between them.

The idea wasn't lost on anyone.

"You can go to the movies anytime -- we only get three of these practices," Harbaugh said, smiling broadly in a private moment after practice. "Guys get four weeks to go to the movies if they want. You don't have those four weeks to practice and be together like this. I just think we have guys that love football. I want guys that would rather practice than go to the movies."

That's the program here, and it's one that's withstood a lot of change of late. The same way rival New England turned over its roster at the turn of the decade, and archrival Pittsburgh did the same more recently, the Ravens have spent the last 28 months rebuilding on the fly.

With the best franchises, it can sometimes be hard to tell that there's an overhaul underway -- Baltimore went 8-8 two years ago, and 10-6 last season, beating the Steelers on the road in Round 1 of the playoffs, then twice holding 14-point leads on the eventual champion Patriots before bowing out.

But there has, indeed, been a pretty extreme makeover here.

Just five guys (three on offense, two on defense) who started Super Bowl XLVII remain on the roster. Gone are franchise cornerstones Ray Lewis, Ray Rice, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed, as are all offensive players who logged a carry, all but one guy who caught a pass and nine of the 10 leading tacklers from the win over Harbaugh's brother's 49ers.

Harbaugh took over an established juggernaut that had fallen a little off-kilter in 2008. The core pieces of his first team provided continuity that was a major strength over the coach's first half-decade here. And now, that continuity is gone.

"Every team faces it," Harbaugh said. "Nowadays, free agency exacerbates it even more. The natural fact that football is a tough game, and usually short-lived. Most guys don't play that long. So we were blessed with the top core leaders -- five or six or seven guys -- that were together for five or six years, which is an incredible thing, especially with the quality of the guys we had. But underneath that, we turned the whole thing over."

Harbaugh took stock, and continued, "Now, after '12, that group is pretty much gone. Terrell (Suggs) is left. Marshal Yanda is left. I'd put Joe Flacco in that category, even though he was a rookie in '08. That's something every team has to do. And hopefully we do it well."

And it's impossible to mistake this: The Ravens do believe they've done it well.

Internally, the offensive line is expected to be a major strength, with depth to boot. The emergence of young guys like Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan and Brent Urban has the team optimistic it'll be better on the D-line, even with Ngata now in Detroit. The secondary needs a couple breaks health-wise, but has had a strong spring -- as has Flacco, fitting into his third offense in as many years.

Harbaugh's teams have made the playoffs in six of his seven years, and advanced at least a round in each of those six trips to the postseason. And the expectations haven't slipped in the slightest, even with a new-look group filling the roster of this old powerhouse. Nor has the sense of urgency waned, even if the group is a little younger -- which explains why Harbaugh keeps pushing with real football still months away.

"We're to the point where there's a lot of momentum," the coach explained. "After eight years of certain principles and methods and beliefs, it becomes our way of doing it. And the older players, it's their way. Terrell Suggs was talking to the guys the other day about how we practice in training camp, saying that nobody practices like us in training camp. That's not coming from the coach. That's coming from Terrell Suggs. And that obviously is powerful."

So no one was complaining afterwards.

And sure, maybe Harbaugh's in the minority in thinking June work is central to an NFL team's fortunes in the fall. He explained to me that, as he sees it, the shortening of training camp and elimination of summer two-a-days has elevated the importance of advancing player and scheme development before you get there.

But most of all, there's this: For over seven years, it's worked. It worked for Lewis and Reed and Ngata and Rice, and Harbaugh's pretty sure it will for C.J. Mosley, Jimmy Smith and Eugene Monroe, too.

"We work hard," he said. "We work hard. We work smart. I think we're really creative. And we do the important things, I think. But everybody thinks they do that, you know?"

Not everybody gets the same results, though.

And with that, here are a few more nuggets as the league gets set to shut down for the summer ...

Four downs

1) Slow with Sam. Sam Bradford's comeback from his second ACL surgery in as many years will be a major story come July, and the expectation is that he'll be into the third and final phase of his rehab -- "prepare to play," as Chip Kelly calls it -- at the start of camp. Caution will remain important, though. As one prominent orthopedic surgeon explained it, an ACL tear is 15 times more likely in a football player's first year back (that already bit Bradford last August), and a second consecutive tear not only increases that risk but also necessitates more time for the graft to solidify and usually involves more swelling (the Eagles shut down Bradford for a week at one point in the spring). The bottom line here is the team probably won't have a handle for a while on where Bradford will be at in September, which makes the longer-term future a little murky as Bradford enters the final year of his rookie deal. To that end, sources on both sides of the table have indicated several attempts to spark contract talks have failed, which makes sense since a) there's uncertainty about the knee and b) Bradford doesn't need to do any negotiating to get his $12.985 million for 2015. It is worth reiterating, though, that the Eagles do get a 2016 third-round pick back for Bradford if he doesn't play this year, and a fourth-rounder if he plays less than half the season.

2) New York state of mind. In a new place, the key with Brandon Marshall will always be whether he can sustain -- things got off to a good start in Miami and Chicago, too -- but so far, so good in the five-time Pro Bowler's tenure with the Jets. He's been a solid citizen in the locker room, according to those in New York, and has flashed the kind of ability that's put him over 100 catches in five of his nine NFL seasons. And there are a couple reasons why the Jets feel like he'll continue to toe the line. First, this obviously has potential to be his last chance. Not too many players with his talent play for four different teams before their 32nd birthday. Second, the presence of Todd Bowles should not be undersold. Marshall and the new Jets coach had a great relationship in Miami. Marshall stayed on board when the ship sunk in 2011, Tony Sparano was fired, and Bowles was thrust into the head coach's office for the final three weeks of the season -- a sign of the mutual respect there. And so it would seem that Bowles' ability to work with star-crossed players (Tyrann Mathieu is a great example of another one he helped) is already paying off.

3) Rookie quarterbacks impressing. This time of year, there'll always be glowing reports about the job first-round quarterbacks are doing -- so here's this year's edition, on Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. Tampa Bay Buccaneers officials are thrilled with how Winston has moved his pro career forward over the last six weeks, with the coaches focusing largely on the rookie's decision-making. The idea is to move him away from forcing throws, with the acknowledgement he'll always have some gunslinger in him. Worth noting, too: He's won over his teammates quickly. In fact, some of them have expressed to team shot-callers how impressive Winston's football intelligence has been (we all saw some of that during the draft process), and believe he's genuine. As for Mariota, Tennessee Titans officials have been impressed -- but not necessarily surprised -- at how he's absorbing the mental load. "Excellent worker," one team source said. "Once we went through the scouting process with him, we knew he would be fine."

4) Peyton bears watching. Last week, Gary Kubiak explained to me that he'd given Peyton Manning one of every three OTA sessions off; and during mandatory minicamp, Manning was among 19 veterans to leave practice 45 minutes early, a measure (per Kubiak) to get younger players more reps ahead of training camp and save mileage on vets' bodies. Here's the thing about that: Manning has been maniacal about reps over the course of his career. And the reason why, his coaches say, is because he values every chance to build chemistry with the players around him. Consider that, and consider now that Denver will be breaking in a new left tackle, has moving parts across the O-line, is replacing tight end Julius Thomas, and still is waiting for star receiver Demaryius Thomas to report, and there's enough to wonder how Manning (who wouldn't outwardly complain) feels about all the change this offseason. John Elway made it clear to me last season that he was guarding the team against mortgaging the future -- saying the plan was not just to "win now" but to "win from now on" -- and it's obvious now looking at the team's actions that being ready for life after Peyton is a priority.

... and six to go

1) Keep an eye on AJ McCarron in Cincinnati. While he's still afflicted by some rookie mistakes, the coaches there now believe he's fully capable of becoming a starting-quality player. And with his shoulder healed, McCarron is throwing the ball better than he ever has, showcases top-notch pocket presence and -- as you would expect from a guy who led Alabama to back-to-back national championships -- is displaying that the NFL stage isn't too big for him.

2) Replacing DeMarco Murray -- and his 1,845 rushing yards -- won't be a one-man task in Dallas. It, of course, includes the five guys comprising football's best offensive line. But more than just that, it'll likely include more than one back. After 10 weeks of spring work, indications inside Valley Ranch are that a three-man platoon of Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar is a definite possibility.

3) I wouldn't rule Tyrod Taylor out in Buffalo. Rex Ryan tried to trade for him in New York, so he's had eyes for the shifty QB for some time. And when I asked Ryan about the competition in May, he eliminated Jeff Tuel (who's since been released), but left Taylor in the conversation. No matter what, Ryan told me he's committed to carrying the derby into preseason games to see the guys in live action: "Some guys can look great in shorts, and something-down-his-leg when the pads come on."

4) One free-agent acquisition to watch: Bears OLB Pernell McPhee. Even without pads, the Chicago offense has had all kinds of issues dealing with the outsized edge rusher. He can play all over Vic Fangio's multiple-front defense, and was only let go by Baltimore because of the Ravens' investments in Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. If his knees hold up, it looks his $7.75 million per-year average could be a bargain.

5) One unit to watch: the Rams' defense. Lots of focus on Nick Foles in St. Louis of late, but perhaps the biggest internal takeaway from the Rams' offseason program was the enticing possibility that the final pieces of a potentially dominant defense are falling into place. Janoris Jenkins was outstanding through the spring, and he and T.J. McDonald could be the leaders of a secondary that's catching up to St. Louis' imposing front seven.

6) One team to watch: the defending champ. No one's had a more tumultuous offseason than the New England Patriots. And no one handles such circumstances better than Bill Belichick. Word from inside the building is the 16th-year Pats coach has kept his foot on the throats of the players. Remember, no matter how you feel about Deflategate, the Patriots are resourceful in using these things to color themselves as persecuted. This team certainly could have a "screw everyone" edge to it -- like the 2007 edition did.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.



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