Ravens besieged by injuries, NFL power rankings and more

NFL


Every year, it seems one team is crushed by injuries before the regular season begins. In 2017, it appears to be the Baltimore Ravens.

The Baltimore Ravens are off a tough start this season. A very tough start.

In the spring, Baltimore lost 23-year-old corner Tavon Young to a torn ACL during OTA drills. Young was projected to start in the nickel after a strong rookie showing.  One day later, on June 2, tight end Dennis Pitta sustained his third hip injury in four years, leading to his release.

The summer has fared no better. At the outset of training camp, quarterback Joe Flacco as put on the shelf with a back injury, and while his return should be soon, any injury in that area is of great concern. With Flacco out, backup Ryan Mallett stepped into first-team duties and promptly fell apart both mentally and emotionally on the field. All of this buttressed by the news of running back Kenneth Dixon tearing his meniscus, putting him out for the season.

Then, on Thursday, offensive lineman John Urschel abruptly retired at the age of 26. Urschel, citing other interests, moved on, leaving Baltimore with less competition for starting job at both guard and center. All this coming after All-pro inside linebacker Zach Orr stated his intent to retire in January due to a neck/spine condition, weeks after the Ravens were eliminated from playoff contention.

However, Orr never officially retired. Baltimore believed he was in the process and didn’t offer him a tender as a restricted free agent. In late June, Orr announced his plans to return. Yet because Orr wasn’t tendered, he became an unrestricted free agent, and is now taking visits with other clubs.

In totality, the Ravens have lost their leading pass-catcher from a year ago (Pitta), their leader in receiving yardage (Steve Smith Sr./retirement), their first-string running back, their nickel corner and a potential starter along the offensive line. Other than that, things are going great.

Now, Baltimore faces an even steeper climb in the AFC North. The Ravens have not won the division since 2012, and have only one winning season in the four years since.

Part of the problem is a lack of talent infusion and cap management from general manager Ozzie Newsome. The core of the team has aged, with Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, Brandon Carr, Mike Wallace, Danny Woodhead, Marshal Yanda and Flacco all at least 30 years old. While Newsome did land Tony Jefferson and Jeremy Maclin this offseason, it doesn’t make up his poor drafting record over the recent past.

Since 2009, Newsome has drafted 67 players. Of them, only Cedric Peerman, Tyrod Taylor, Kelechi Osemele, Kyle Juszczyk and C.J. Mosley have reached a single Pro Bowl. Juszczyk and Mosley are the only players to do so with the Ravens, and Juszczyk left this offseason for a four-year, $21 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers.

If Baltimore wanted to make a deep run into January, it desperately needed a healthy campaign from almost all of its offensive weapons. The losses of Pitta and Dixon are especially damaging, considering the lack of depth behind both. If the Ravens have any hope of rallying and making their division a dogfight, they’ll need a virtuoso performance from a defense that is long on talent but short cohesion.

Should things go south in Charm City, one wonders if John Harbaugh is on the chopping block. The Ravens have been one of the most consistent franchises over the past 15 years, with much of that due to the trio of Flacco, Newsome and Harbaugh. Still, everything runs its course, and if Baltimore craters to a third-place finish in the division, perhaps a new voice is needed. After all, the NFL is an unforgiving business, and a single winning season since 2012 is hardly tolerable, even with a Super Bowl trophy in the case.

Times are changing in the AFC North. Ben Roethlisberger is 35 years old and annually contemplating retirement. Flacco is 32 and slowly declining in both health and level of play. The Cincinnati Bengals might be the one constant, stuck in purgatory with a quarterback good enough to stay competitive, but a coach lackluster enough to keep January success as a dream. In Cleveland, the Browns are trying once more to build a winner, and are hoping they have something in the combination of Hue Jackson and DeShone Kizer.

If this season becomes a long, 16-week nightmare for the Ravens, it might be time to blow things up and start rebuilding with an eye on 2020, when the Steelers are without Roethlisberger and, maybe, Le’Veon Bell.

Baltimore won its Super Bowl with this braintrust, but bad drafting, a lengthy injury ledger and an aging roster eventually take their toll.

Power rankings

Top 10 defenses heading into 2017

1. New York Giants
2. Seattle Seahawks
3. Houston Texans
4. Denver Broncos
5. Kansas City Chiefs
6. New England Patriots
7. Atlanta Falcons
8. Minnesota Vikings
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
10. Carolina Panthers

Quotable

“Right now, I can’t even think long term,” he said. “I have to take it one day at a time. Like I said, within the blink of an eye, it was taken away from me. Right now, I have to just focus on Teddy. Try to get healthy, and the rest will take care of itself.”

– Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on his recovery from a horrific knee injury

It would be surprising if Bridgewater played at all this season, but there remains a real chance he comes back in 2018. If that materializes, the Vikings have a real decision to make. Bridgewater and Sam Bradford are both slated to be free agents, leaving Minnesota without a quarterback. Does general manager Rick Spielman tag one of them, and if not, who goes?

If Bridgewater leaves, he’ll have ample interest despite the injury and two years of inactivity. He’s only 24 years old, the same age of Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz. He would have suitors across the league, with the Arizona Cardinals, Washington Redskins, Jacksonville Jaguars and New Orleans Saints as logical teams in the mix.

Podcast

Last week, I break down why training camp is excited, but beware the hype. Plus, Melissa Jacobs stops by to explain her thoughts on Colin Kaepernick. We also go in-depth on the Chiefs, why Martellus Bennett might not be a star in Green Bay, and what Carson Wentz must do to live up to expectations.

This Monday, I’ll be talking about the Patriots, and asking who can challenge them? Plus, Russell Baxter join us to talk expectations across the NFL, and Sayre Bedinger gives us the skinny on the battle between Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian in Denver.

Random Stat

The New York Jets have twice been the opponent when a player has gone over the 2,000-yard single-season threshold. In 1973, O.J. Simpson of the Buffalo Bills became the first player to ever hit the mark, doing so in Week 14 at Shea Stadium. In 1997, it was Barry Sanders making history at the Pontiac Silverdome, vaulting his Detroit Lions into the playoffs.

Info learned this week

1. Steelers have busy opening to camp

The Pittsburgh Steelers are expected to win the AFC North, but things are off to a bumpy start. Pittsburgh and All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell couldn’t agree on a long-term deal, leaving the 25-year-old to sign the franchise tag. However, Bell hasn’t yet, and has held out from camp. Meanwhile, general manager Kevin Colbert released a statement that wide receiver Martavis Bryant has only been partially reinstated, saying he isn’t eligible for practice or games yet.

Pittsburgh needs Bell and Bryant if it wants to make a Super Bowl push. With Ben Roethlisberger in the twilight of his career, the Steelers can’t afford a wasted opportunity. It would be surprising if Bell doesn’t return prior to Week 1, but will he be in playing shape? Additionally, will Bryant be able to go come September? These are huge questions yet to be answered.

2. Donald Penn, Aaron Donald want more dough

The Oakland Raiders reported for camp on Friday … well, most of them. Left tackle Donald Penn was a surprise no-show, as the veteran is looking for more money. Penn, 34, signed a two-year, $11.9 million deal before the 2016 season, something that is considerably below market value at this point.

General manager Reggie McKenzie has a tough decision to make. On one hand, Penn is 34 years old and if he loses any foot speed or power, additional years on the contract could be a disaster. On the other, Penn allowed only one sack last season — unfortunately resulting in a broken leg for Derek Carr — and anchors what is a very good offensive line.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams are starting their season without standout defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald, 26, is in the fourth year of his five-year rookie deal. If he plays it out, he would be paid $10 million over that span.

General manager Les Snead has some leverage currently, knowing Donald can be controlled for the next four seasons at a good price (rookie deal and two years of the franchise tag). Still, the Rams need to make Donald happy. He’s one of the league’s most dominant players entering his prime. If Donald and the Rams find common ground, expect the largest contract in terms of both guarantees and total value in NFL history for a defensive player.

3. Andrew Luck says he’ll be fine

Luck started training camp on the PUP list, still recovering from offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder. Still, the former first-overall pick entering his sixth season is telling people not to be alarmed despite the long recovery.

Still, there is reason for serious concern moving forward. been injured in each of the past two seasons now, mostly because of his carefree playing style and a horrid offensive line. The former may change this season, but the latter most certainly won’t. One has to wonder if Luck can stay healthy without significant changes both internally and externally.

4. Bills see Marcell Dareus sustain injury

On Friday, the Bills had a scare with stud defensive lineman Marcell Dareus tweaking his hamstring, per the Buffalo News. Dareus is easily the best player on the roster, anchoring a defense that must improve if the Bills have any hope of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

While it appears to be a minor injury, Buffalo fans have a right to worry. Dareus missed four games last year due to lower-body muscle injuries, including a balky hamstring.

For the Bills to challenge the Miami Dolphins for second place in the AFC East, they must get a monster year from their 27-year-old superstar.

5. Rob Ninkovich retires from NFL

On Sunday morning, the New England Patriots gathered in the media room to honor Rob Ninkovich, as the 33-year-old walked away from football. Ninkovich, a two-time Super Bowl champion, was one of the more underrated players of the Bill Belichick era. During his 11-year career, the 2006 fifth-round selection notched 46 sacks, all with New England.

Last year, Ninkovich served a four-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs, starting a personally-disappointing season that saw only four sacks. Still, Ninkovich was an important part of the pass rush, something that is one of the few weak spots on the 2017 Patriots.

History lesson

The American Football League was formed in 1960, comprised originally of eight teams. Of those eight, the Tennessee Titans (originally the Houston Oilers), Los Angeles Chargers and Buffalo Bills remain without Super Bowl wins.

However, all three were champions at one time. The 1963 Chargers were one of the finest teams of their era. In fact, head coach Sid Gillman offered to play against the NFL-champion Chicago Bears after that season, believing he had the finer club. George Halas and the Bears refused, even with Gillman offering to use the NFL football.

Buffalo boasted a tremendous defense in the mid-60s, led by linebacker Mike Stratton. Buffalo won a pair of AFL titles in 1964 and ’65, defeating the Chargers both times.

Houston was the original powerhouse of the AFL, winning the first two championships in ’60 and ’61 before losing the 1962 title game in double overtime against the Dallas Texans. Months later, the Texans would become the Kansas City Chiefs, leaving Dallas due to the presence of Tom Landry and the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.

Parting shot

Bad teams stay bad, because they make bad decisions. Seems simple right? The Jacksonville Jaguars have been a pathetic excuse for a football team over the last decade. They have not had a winning record or reached the playoffs since 2007, and if Saturday night was any indication, that won’t streak won’t end this year.

Blake Bortles is entering his fourth season, and yet threw five interceptions in his first padded practice of the summer. Believing training camp storylines is for the fool, but five picks is five picks. Considering Bortles has been in the top four of interceptions thrown each year of his career to this point, it’s alarming at best.

But this stretch of futility is not about only Bortles. It’s about a failure to understand how teams are built. Jacksonville has spent wildly in free agency on veterans like Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, Julius Thomas, Dan Skuta, Devon House, Tashaun Gipson, Chris Ivory, A.J. Bouye and others. Occasionally, one of those contracts will work out. Most won’t.

Any sustainable NFL success must be built through the draft. Since 2008, the Jaguars have used their first-round choices to select, in order, Derrick Harvey, Eugene Monroe, Tyson Alualu, Blaine Gabbert, Justin Blackmon, Luke Joeckel, Blake Bortles, Dante Fowler, Jalen Ramsey and Leonard Fournette. Outside of Fournette (unknown) and Ramsey, all of those players range from utter disaster to middling.

General manager David Caldwell has been making the personnel decisions since 2013, with his first draft being the Joeckel year. At some point, Jacksonville must drastically change its talent evaluating system, and perhaps the men making those evaluations, if things are ever going to change in the standings.





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