Daniel Faalele

AFC North Notes: Browns, Monken, Ravens

With Jim Schwartz returning to Cleveland after 28 years, then as a scout, now as defensive coordinator, there are some expected changes to how the Browns‘ defense will get things done. Thanks to Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com, we have a bit of insight into just how things might change in the secondary under Schwartz.

At safety, the team exchanged starter John Johnson III with Juan Thornhill while also bringing in veteran Rodney McLeod, as well. Schwartz brings two interesting factors to the safety position: he likes to play three at one time often and he expects versatility. He doesn’t strictly prescribe to free and strong safety assignments but more often tends to focus on sides of the field. Grant Delpit, Thornhill, and McLeod will be interchangeable and will be asked to line up in many areas.

Versatility will be expected of the cornerbacks, as well, as Schwartz has reportedly been crosstraining all of Cleveland’s defensive backs in the slot. This is welcome news for Greg Newsome II, who reportedly wanted to play more to his strengths on the outside this year. He won’t solely work outside, but with Denzel Ward and Martin Emerson also getting work as nickelbacks this summer, Newsome won’t be asked to shoulder the load in the slot alone.

Here are a few more rumors from around the AFC North:

  • Schwartz is excited to be bringing together two strong pass rushers in Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith on the Browns’ defensive line, according to Cabot. After a year in which Jadeveon Clowney failed to mesh with Garrett, Schwartz is excited about the flexibility that Smith brings to the table. For one, he’s already had the experience of working across from talented pass rushers like Danielle Hunter, Preston Smith, Matt Judon, Terrell Suggs, and Elvis Dumervil. Secondly, Smith provides a versatile attack that allows him to rush from either side, as well as from the interior, when needed.
  • After four years under a huddle-first Greg Roman offense, the Ravens will allow quarterback Lamar Jackson a bit more agency in the offense under new offensive coordinator Todd Monken. According to a report from ESPN’s Jamison Hensley, Jackson will be given more freedom to audible and make adjustments at the line this season. This is not completely foreign to the recently extended quarterback. Baltimore experimented with this type of offense in a Week 2 game last year against the Dolphins as a counter to Miami’s pressure package. In that game, Jackson threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns while adding 119 yards and a touchdown on the ground, as well. The Ravens will hope to see more of that in 2023, as Jackson is presented with more opportunities to truly lead the offense.
  • We mentioned about two weeks ago that Ravens second-year tackle Daniel Faalele was a candidate to replace former starting left guard Ben Powers, who departed for Denver in free agency in March. Knowing Faalele’s importance in his current role as one of the team’s primary backup tackles, we boiled it down to a battle between Ben Cleveland and John Simpson. A recent report from Hensley, though, claims that head coach John Harbaugh spoke highly of Faalele at the position and refused to rule him out as a potential starter. He praised Simpson’s performance in the position, as well, but it may be time to start considering Faalele as one of the top candidates to start next year.

Four In Running For Ravens’ LG Job?

The Ravens will return four starters from last year’s offensive line in right tackle Morgan Moses, right guard Kevin Zeitler, center Tyler Linderbaum, and left tackle Ronnie Stanley. After allowing last season’s starting left guard, Ben Powers, to depart for Denver in free agency, Baltimore has an open spot available on the starting offensive line.

The Ravens are fairly confident in their options to replace Powers. The favorites for the job are utility lineman Patrick Mekari, guards Ben Cleveland and John Simpson, and tackle Daniel Faalele. The team did draft two linemen in Oregon’s Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu and USC’s Andrew Vorhees, but Aumavae-Laulu is considered a developmental prospect who can play all over the line, according to Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic, while Vorhees’s recent injuries will require him to miss most, if not all, of his rookie season. They also recently added former Bears center Sam Mustipher, but Mustipher is expected to act as an experienced backup center behind Linderbaum.

Mekari and Faalele may be too valuable in their current roles to force into a starting guard spot, even if they would be strong contributors at the position. Mekari has excelled in recent years as a sort of sixth-man for the Ravens’ offensive line. The former undrafted free agent out of Cal has started games at every position on the line for Baltimore usually as an injury replacement. He has the talent to start for many teams, but Baltimore paid him in 2021 to stay and be one of the league’s most talented backups. Faalele on the other hand has the perfect frame to develop into a top tackle. At 6-foot-8, 380 pounds, Faalele could surely be a force on the interior offensive line, but the Ravens want to keep that length on the outside and will likely continue developing him as a tackle.

The battle likely boils down to Cleveland and Simpson. Cleveland was drafted in the third round two years ago with the expectation that he would develop into a starting guard. He lost the battle last year to Powers, but at 6-foot-6, 357 pounds, Cleveland could be an imposing physical presence on the left side of the line. He’s had five starts over his first two years in the league and dealt with a knee injury his rookie year.

Simpson was a late-season addition to the Ravens’ practice squad last year who was signed to a futures contract at the end of the season. He found his way to Baltimore after being waived by the Raiders but is only a year removed from his role as a full-time starting left guard for Las Vegas.

No battles will be won in May, but the Ravens are well set up to use this summer to determine who will be starting in between Linderbaum and Stanley in Week 1 vs. Houston.

AFC North Notes: Mixon, Browns, Steelers

Nearly three weeks into free agency, Joe Mixon remains on the Bengals‘ roster. The team having seen Samaje Perine turn down an offer to stay and instead choose Denver thinned out its running back room. But Mixon’s status for a seventh Bengals season is not yet a lock. Bengals executive VP Katie Blackburn stopped short of guaranteeing the six-year Cincinnati starter will be back, reminding of comments player personnel VP Duke Tobin made at the Combine.

Right now, he’s on the team and we are going count on him until that wouldn’t be the case,” Blackburn said, via the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Kelsey Conway. “Right now, he’s our starting guy. You’ve seen other teams have to make moves. Could we get to that point? Maybe. But it would be down the road here and we’d have to see if that’s what makes sense or not.”

This situation could hinge on how the Bengals approach the position in the draft. Mixon, 26, is due a $9.4MM base salary and is tied to the third-highest cap figure ($12.8MM) on the team. Blackburn did not rule out the possibility of a post-June 1 cut designation, which would save Cincy $10MM, and ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler indicated recently (h/t Bleacher Report) the Bengals are looking to add at running back. (They were linked to Ezekiel Elliott, but little has emerged on that front since.) The Perine offer may have been indicative of Mixon plans. The team could still pair Mixon with a rookie, but it does have some pricey deals — most notably for Joe Burrow — on the horizon. Mixon’s $12MM-per-year deal could be used to create more cap space.

Here is the latest from the AFC North:

  • The Browns attempted a bigger swing at defensive tackle in free agency. Dalvin Tomlinson became an expensive consolation prize, with Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer noting the team was one of the final two suitors for Javon Hargrave. The standout D-tackle signed a four-year, $84MM 49ers deal, denying the DT-needy Browns one of this year’s biggest free agency fish. Cleveland regrouped with Tomlinson, who signed a four-year, $57MM pact. The Browns, who did little at D-tackle ahead of a poor run-defense season in 2022, preferred Tomlinson to fellow target Dre’Mont Jones, Cabot adds. Tomlinson’s acumen as a run defender attracted the Browns more, as Jones profiles as an inside pass rusher rather than a run stopper.
  • Staying in Cleveland, the Browns no longer have a second-round pick thanks to the Elijah Moore pick-swap trade. The Browns eyed Moore since his trade request emerged last year, GM Andrew Berry said (via Cabot). After a dispute with then-Jets OC Mike LaFleur, Moore requested a trade. The Jets were adamant they did not want to trade Moore at the time, but after they signed Allen Lazard and Mecole Hardman, the Ole Miss alum became expendable. Still, Cabot adds Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh vouched for Moore’s character to the Browns ahead of the trade.
  • The Steelers traded Chase Claypool for a second-round pick last year, and given their reputation for selecting Day 2 wideouts, it should not surprise the team is being connected to such a move once again. The team will seek an upgrade in the slot, GM Omar Khan said (via The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly). Hopeful slot weapon Calvin Austin III missed his entire rookie year due to injury. The team should be considered likely to address this need by Round 3, Kaboly adds in a separate piece. From 2013-22, the Steelers chose eight wideouts on Day 2. Both their current top two receivers — Diontae Johnson and George Pickens — were Friday-night draftees.
  • It does not sound like the Ravens will use a notable resource to replace Ben Powers. John Harbaugh alluded to another competition — one featuring former third-round pick Ben Cleveland, ex-Raiders draftee John Simpson, swingman Patrick Mekari and 2022 fourth-round tackle Daniel Faalele (who is 6-foot-9) as options — being how the team will replace Powers, who won a left guard battle last year. Powers, who scored a four-year Broncos deal worth $52MM, beat out Cleveland in training camp. A draft choice could be added here, but The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec does not anticipate a high pick going to this spot.

Ravens Sign Two Of Three Remaining Unsigned Rookies

One of the few teams who still have unsigned rookies from this year’s draft, Baltimore continued to chip away today, signing two of their three remaining unsigned players. Offensive tackle Daniel Faalele and cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis signed their rookie contracts today with a little under two months to go until their first regular season commences.

Faalele is an Australia-native who moved to the states with no football experience. Faalele was discovered by recruiting staff at the University of Hawai’i while playing basketball and rugby. He had tremendous athleticism for someone his size and, after attending a Jim Harbaugh satellite camp, Faalele was recruited to learn the game of football at the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. IMG’s football team is notorious for taking five-star high school athletes from remote areas of the country and exposing them to some of the highest levels of high school football. After joining the football team in 2016, Faalele became a starter for IMG in 2017 and enrolled early at the University of Minnesota in 2018.

After beginning his freshman year as a backup, Faalele started the final eight games of the season, holding onto his starting job as a sophomore, as well. When Faalele announced he would sit out of the 2020 college football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many assumed he would declare for the draft. Instead, Faalele came back for his senior year and helped return the Golden Gophers to a winning season.

Faalele could potentially see a situation similar to his freshman year during his rookie season. Right now the Ravens are set to trot out Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses as their starting tackles. Moses is competing with Ja’Wuan James for the starting right tackle position currently. Moses and James both have plenty of starting experience, but Moses graded out as only the 40th best offensive tackle last season according to Pro Football Focus and James hasn’t played in an NFL game since the 2019 NFL season. Not to mention, Stanley is expected to start the season but has only played in one game since signing an historic contract back in 2020. Any number of situations could play out that see Faalele force his 6’9″, 400 lb. frame into the starting lineup.

Armour-Davis had extremely limited playing time during his first three years at Alabama, spending his freshman season taking a medical redshirt and the next two seasons as a special teamer. As a redshirt junior, Armour-Davis was named a starting cornerback and led the team with three interceptions on the year, adding four passes defensed and not allowing a single touchdown. He played mostly on the outside but has the scheme versatility to fit in with any system.

Baltimore’s secondary is one of the most-talented in the NFL but a lack of depth bit the team hard in 2021 when starting cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey both suffered season-ending injuries. With the departures of Tavon Young and Anthony Averett, Armous-Davis immediately slots in as the team’s No. 3 or 4 cornerback behind Peters, Humphrey, and, possibly, free agent addition Kyle Fuller. Armous-Davis’ playing will likely come on resting downs for Peters or Humphrey. Due to the team’s enviable depth at safety, a nickel- or dime-package might feature three or four safeties, unless Fuller can cement himself as a slot-cornerback.

With Faalele and Armous-Davis now under contract, Michigan second-round pick David Ojabo remains as Baltimore’s only unsigned rookie. Ojabo announced an early departure from Ann Arbor after one year of starting opposite the second-overall pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, Aidan Hutchinson. Considered by most to be a first-round talent, Ojabo slipped into the second round after tearing his Achilles tendon while working out for scouts at the Wolverines’ Pro Day.

Ravens Eyeing Ja’Wuan James As Ronnie Stanley Insurance

Ronnie Stanley has played one game since an October 2020 ankle injury sidetracked his career, suiting up for the Ravens’ opener last season but missing the rest of the 2021 campaign due to more ankle trouble. The Ravens are hoping their highest-paid offensive lineman returns to start this season, but after Stanley said he was rushed back in 2021, the team is proceeding cautiously.

The former top-10 pick has undergone three ankle surgeries since the initial injury, and he is coming off a 68-snap season. The Ravens’ backup plan, however, looks to be a player who has dealt with worse injury trouble. If Stanley is not ready to return to start this season, Ja’Wuan James is the favorite to be Baltimore’s left tackle starter, Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic notes (subscription required).

James, 30, has Stanley beat for unavailability. Making their biggest attempt to address a long-troublesome right tackle position, the Broncos gave James a four-year, $51MM deal in 2019. James played all of 63 snaps in Denver, suffering a knee injury in Week 1 of the 2019 season. That malady kept James out most of that year. After the ex-Dolphins first-rounder opted out in 2020, an offsite Achilles tear last May led him out of Denver. The Ravens signed James shortly after the Broncos cut him, giving him a two-year deal for stashing purposes. The team will be expecting a return on investment in Year 2 of this deal.

The Ravens gave James some late-season practice time last year, opening his IR-return window. Months later, James participated at Baltimore’s minicamp. John Harbaugh said last month he did not notice the veteran tackle’s Achilles issue, but padded practices will certainly reveal more about James’ viability with the Ravens. The Dolphins used James as their right tackle from 2014-18, and the Broncos had no intention of moving him. A left tackle gig, following this extensive run of absences, would be an interesting development. If James is not ready to go come September, the Ravens could also cut their losses and save $3MM.

While James looms as an atypical fill-in option, the Ravens also re-signed their primary 2021 right tackle — Patrick Mekari — and drafted mammoth Minnesota tackle Daniel Faalele in Round 4. The team was linked to earlier-round tackles but waited until Day 3 to address the spot. Mekari, who has primarily played center and right tackle, appears an ideal swing option for Baltimore. The Ravens signed Morgan Moses to replace Mekari at right tackle.

The team also would prefer to give the 380-pound Faalele a redshirt year of sorts, Zrebiec adds. Given the injury toll teams take up front, that might be difficult to do, as the Ravens will need to carry Faalele on its 53-man roster. But it appears the ex-Golden Gopher is viewed more as a project, with Zrebiec referencing the Eagles’ Jordan Mailata developmental program.

Release Candidate: Ravens OT Alejandro Villanueva

In the week before the 2021 NFL Draft, the Baltimore Ravens gave in to the wishes of Pro Bowl offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and traded him away to the Chiefs. This trade left a hole on the Ravens’ offensive line opposite All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley. To address this issue, the Ravens signed Alejandro Villanueva, a free agent whom the Steelers felt ready to move on from

After not falling in love with any of the tackles the Draft had to offer at their position in the early rounds, Baltimore opted for a stopgap solution, signing Villanueva to a two-year deal worth $14MM. Villanueva had performed admirably over his sevens years in Pittsburgh, but was never really considered an elite tackle. His best years saw him make consecutive Pro Bowls in the 2017 and 2018 NFL seasons.

As a Raven, Villanueva did his job, and then was asked to do more. After four years of starting at left tackle as a Steeler, Villanueva struggled initially when asked to fill in at right tackle. He got to go back to his more natural position after ankle surgery sidelined Stanley for the all but one game of the 2021 season.

Villanueva had an up and down year. Often Villanueva’s age showed during some rough outings, but the 33-year-old showed some resiliency, playing through some discomfort knowing that another absence for the injury-devastated Ravens could spell disaster. He seemed to find his footing with time, though, playing a pretty good stretch of football to end the season.

But was Villanueva’s performance in 2021 worthy of a $9.25MM cap hit in 2022? Likely not. The Ravens will hope for a strong return for Stanley and they signed Ja’Wuan James to a low $9MM, two-year contract knowing that he likely would be out with a torn Achilles tendon for much of the 2021 season. The likeliest scenario sees Baltimore cutting Villanueva loose to rely on a combination of Stanley and James to bookend the offensive line. The Ravens also recently signed utility offensive lineman Patrick Mekari to a three-year extension. The former undrafted free agent has started at all three offensive line positions for Baltimore and could continue to fill in at right tackle until the next franchise tackle shows up.

Baltimore could also opt to address the position in the 2022 NFL Draft. While, with the 14th overall pick, the Ravens are not in a position to take one of the Draft’s more exciting tackle prospects like NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu or Alabama’s Evan Neal, if Mississippi State’s Charles Cross were to fall to Baltimore, the Ravens, who are known for drafting for value over fit, would likely find it hard to pass on Cross’s potential. Cross, who ranks as the 8th best Draft prospect on The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s Top 100, impresses many evaluators, but, reportedly, hasn’t convinced the entire league that he’s a top ten draft pick. If the Ravens were to trade back later into the first round, another common move by the draft-savvy franchise, they could find smaller school prospects like Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning or Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann falling into their laps. They could even wait until their second-round or third-round selections come up and opt to take a flyer on Minnesota’s massive Daniel Faalele or Ohio State’s Nicholas Petit-Frere, respectively.

Regardless, most paths that make sense for Baltimore don’t entail the team stomaching a $9.25MM cap hit for a tackle that struggled much of the year for them. Turning 34 at the beginning of the 2022 season, Villanueva could save the Ravens the trouble and simply retire. Whether retired or released, it wouldn’t be a surprise if we don’t see Villanueva in purple and black next season.