Month: August 2022

Offseason In Review: Baltimore Ravens

The Lamar Jackson era has reignited optimism around the Ravens regarding their ability to contend for a third Super Bowl title. Coming off of their third straight postseason appearance — and first playoff victory — during Jackson’s tenure as the starting quarterback, expectations were high for the 2021 season in Baltimore. A myriad of injuries (including to the 25-year-old himself) sparked a six-game losing streak to end the campaign, knocking the team out of the postseason.

This coming season is therefore seen as something of a mulligan in Charm City. A return to health for a number of key players, along with a retooled defense, could once again land the team among the AFC’s elite. The conference has added a number of stars on both sides of the ball, though, including moves which figure to see both Ohio teams remain divisional contenders for the foreseeable future. With Jackson’s Baltimore tenure remaining a point of contention, have the Ravens done enough this spring to make a championship run?

Trades:

General manager Eric DeCosta has shown a propensity to pull off significant trades during his relatively brief time at the helm of the Ravens. Moving Brown represents another sizable deal he executed, a process which involved keeping the likelihood of a swap under wraps for months. Only after the Day 1 draft deal was it revealed that Brown had requested to be traded at the end of the regular season. By honoring that wish, the team ended the up-and-down tenure of only its second-ever homegrown 1,000-yard receiver.

Putting aside the close personal relationship between Brown and Jackson, the deal leaves the team with a significant void in the passing game. Brown eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in 2021 and ranked 10th in the NFL in targets. While 2021 first-rounder Rashod Bateman is poised to take over as the Ravens’ top wideout, the depth chart seriously lacks experience and pedigree. With neither the extra first-rounder they acquired via the pair of swaps made during that night, nor any other selection, did the team add to its WR corps. Baltimore has been labeled a candidate to bring in a veteran, though a move of anywhere near as much significance as the Brown deal is highly unlikely.

Notable signings:

The Ravens haven’t been afraid to spend significant free agency dollars on the safety position in recent years, handing out deals to the likes of Eric Weddle and Earl Thomas. Williams is the latest in that line of acquisitions, though his age (25) should allow for a longer tenure with the team compared to the team’s previous big-ticket safety signings. The former second-rounder established his playmaking ability in New Orleans, where he racked up 15 interceptions across five seasons. The 2021 campaign, in which he played on the franchise tag, also saw him make strides in pass coverage.

Williams will provide the Ravens with a ball-hawking ability which has been lacking recently. The team ranked 26th in the league with just nine interceptions last year, a statistic which was exacerbated by the defense’s overall struggles against the pass (surrendering a league-worst 279 yards per game through the air). At an annual average of $14MM per season, Williams’ contract ranks eighth among safeties, as the position continues to enjoy an upward trend. The degree to which he lives up to the lucrative pact will go a long way in determining the defense’s success for the short- and long-term future.  

The defensive line was identified as an area in need of a youth movement at the end of the 2021 season. While the starting unit will look different this fall, Campbell and Pierce will be familiar faces. The former had contemplated retirement before ultimately committing to play at least one more season, making a reunion with Baltimore a logical choice. The 2010s All-Decade Team member will be 36 this campaign, but he also represents the lone returnee from the 2021 starters along the D-line. Campbell’s level of play against the run in particular has shown little sign of decline in recent years, and his leadership within a relatively young front seven will carry value.

In the middle of the line, Pierce will step back into the starting role he held at the end of his first Ravens tenure in 2019. The deal he signed to return is significantly smaller in value than the one he inked with the Vikings that offseason, but it gives him notable security considering the limited time he has spent on the field in the last two years. A 2020 opt-out, the 29-year-old was limited to eight contests last season, ultimately leading to his Vikings release. Rediscovering the form which earned him that Minnesota deal would add a boost to the defensive front. Urban represents another reunion; the veteran Canadian has started for the Ravens in the past but figures to play a rotational role in 2022.

On the opposite side of the ball, fortifying the offensive line became plainly necessary as the 2021 campaign progressed. While a return to health from left tackle Ronnie Stanley would solve much of the issue in pass protection in particular, finding a veteran bookend was among the team’s top priorities, and something made more financially viable by a reunion with Za’Darius Smith falling through. Moses, 31, figures to provide a steady presence at that spot, having posted a PFF grade of 71 with the Jets last year, a figure roughly in line with his career average.

A recipient of the rarely used UFA tender, Houston remaining in Baltimore was always the likeliest outcome, despite the delay in his decision to re-sign. The Ravens had been connected to a number of veteran pass rushers, and the former NFL sack leader will again be leaned on in at least a rotational capacity within an otherwise young position group facing a number of health questions. Likewise, the one-year investment in Fuller could prove worthwhile. The Baltimore native is coming off of a disappointing season with the Broncos, but he could see significant playing time as part of the Ravens’ retooled CB room.

Notable losses:

Williams and Wolfe headline the front-seven departures. The former had spent his entire nine-year career in Baltimore, while the latter was in line to start alongside him this season before being sidelined with hip issues. Their departures will leave the team short two starting-caliber leaders, and place even higher expectations upon 2019 third-rounder Justin Madubuike to not only take on a permanent first-team role, but develop into an impact player.

Given the struggles on the offensive line, changes were inevitable. Villanueva’s retirement came after an underwhelming final chapter of his Pro Bowl career, but it was expected considering his inconsistent play. Bozeman departing was likewise unsurprising, though the fact that he was only able to land a one-year deal in Carolina was noteworthy. The Alabama product established himself as a dependable starter in the middle of the line, albeit at a position the team had options for regarding a replacement both before and after the draft.

The area of the roster which has seen the most changeover is the secondary. Elliott handled full-time starting duties for the second straight season, proving his worth when able to remain on the field (the infrequency of which throughout his career no doubt hurt his free agent value). Averett shouldered by far the largest workload of his career (with a snap share of 90%) stepping in for a CB room which lost Marcus Peters and, later, Marlon Humphrey as well. The production he managed in 2021 made the position’s remaining depth the source of many questions leading up to the draft.

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Patriots Notes: Parker, Tackles, Cornerback

After seven years with the rival Dolphins, wide receiver DeVante Parker is set to be a difference-maker in the Patriots offense this season, according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss. With the early days of camp in New England focusing on the red zone, Parker’s 6’3″, 219 lb. frame has been on full display.

The Patriots don’t have a traditional No. 1 receiver this season. They return last year’s top-three receivers, Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, and they recently traded away former first-round pick N’Keal Harry. They also drafted Baylor wide receiver Tyquan Thornton in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Without a bona fide star in the receiving corps, they’ll count on each receiver to contribute their own versatile skills to the offense, and Parker’s, it appears, will come in handy in the restricted confines of the red zone.

Here are a few other notes from Patriots training camp, as reported by Reiss:

  • After spending last season with Isaiah Wynn at left tackle and Trent Brown at right tackle, spring ball saw the two swap sides. Head coach Bill Belichick downplayed it as a way to build versatility in his top offensive linemen, a worthwhile trait to shield from injury, but it may end up being a permanent change. As New England opened up training camp this week, Wynn and Brown remained switched at right and left tackle, respectively. Brown has even reportedly been “feeling (at) home” on the left side of the line.
  • According to Reiss, one of the biggest remaining question marks on the Patriots’ roster is at cornerback opposite Jalen Mills. The top-two options so far in camp have been veterans Terrance Mitchell and Malcolm Butler. Mitchell got the first opportunity of camp and received praise from Belichick in early practices. Butler returns to the team this summer after a three-year vacation in Nashville and a one-year retirement after signing to play for the Cardinals. He admits he’s still “getting in shape” after not playing at all in 2021. Reiss reports that rookie fourth-round pick Jack Jones is next in line, ahead of rookie third-round pick Marcus Jones, and returning backups Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams, Justin Bethel, and Shaun Wade.

NFLPA Pledges Not To Appeal Watson Decision, Pleads For NFL To Join

Contrary to what many assumed would occur after disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson delivers her decision, it appears the NFL Players Association will not appeal Robinson’s ruling and it is calling “on the NFL to do the same.” The NFLPA released its joint statement with Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson on Twitter today, leaving no question as to their message. 

In the statement, they emphasize their cooperation and participation in the personal conduct policy investigation. They also underline the credentials of the ruling officer, Robinson, and announce their support for the validity and comprehensiveness of the hearing. They end the statement by asserting that they will choose not to question the legitimacy of their process by appealing Robinson’s ruling, and they ask the League to do the same.

This is an interesting decision by the NFLPA that seems to point out a glaring hole in the league’s appeal process. Many initially saw this as a reason to believe that the Players Association had some early indication of a favorable ruling and wanted to make sure the League won’t fight it by pressuring a statement of its own. But, upon further review of the appeal process, it makes perfect sense that the NFLPA wouldn’t want to appeal the ruling.

In the case of an appeal by either side, the decision leaves the hands of Robinson and falls into the lap of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell is the assigned party to make the determination over any appeals. This makes the words of the NFLPA’s statement a lot more meaningful when they said:

“Every player, owner, business partner and stakeholder deserves to know that our process is legitimate and will not be tarnished based on the whims of the League office.”

Essentially, the Players Association has every reason in the world to avoid a precedent being set wherein the ruling of the independent hearing officer is easily overruled by the League and its commissioner. It would be most beneficial for the NFLPA to ensure that Goodell has no involvement in the final decision. The only way to do that is to honor the ruling made by Robinson.

Watson and the NFL continued their engagement in settlement talks in the days leading up to this ruling, but apparently the two sides were never able to get close, according to Dan Graziano of ESPN. Watson’s side was willing to accept a ban of six to eight games. The League’s initial punishment was “an indefinite suspension with (the) right to apply for reinstatement after a certain number of games.” At the end of settlement negotiations, the League’s final offer was a 12-game ban with heavy fines, nearing the range of $8MM, with the fines taking the place of the indefinite ban.

Since no settlement was reached, the ruling will hold precedence, unless either side appeals. The only way neither side can appeal is if Robinson rules that Watson did not violate the league’s personal conduct policy. It appears the NFLPA is, at least, under the impression that Robinson won’t reach that conclusion, and they’d rather an appeal doesn’t allow Goodell to side with the League.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if this wrinkle in the league’s disciplinary process becomes a focal point in the next CBA negotiations when the current active agreement expires at the end of the 2030 season. Until then, it appears the Players Association will have to hope they can set a precedent wherein the two parties choose to respect the decision of the independent arbiter, keeping the final say out of the hands of the League’s commissioner.

49ers, WR Deebo Samuel Agree To Deal

After months of precarious conversations and rumors, the 49ers and star wide receiver Deebo Samuel have finally agreed to a new deal. Samuel has landed a three-year extension worth $71.55MM, with a potential maximum value of $73.5MM, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. 

Samuel’s annual average value of approximately $23.85MM per year ranks eighth among wide receiver contracts in the league behind Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, DeAndre Hopkins, Cooper Kupp, A.J. Brown, Stefon Diggs, and recent fellow hold-in participant D.K. Metcalf. As expected, Samuel joins the trend of wide receivers breaking the $20MM per year threshold.

Samuel’s feud with the team that drafted him stems back to the early days of the offseason. General manager John Lynch had readily admitted that the team had an extension budgeted for Samuel and defensive star Nick Bosa, but San Francisco’s initial offer was out of range enough for Samuel to request a trade. Several teams reached out in hopes of trading for the 26-year-old, with the Jets making a dramatic push around the draft, but, ultimately, no trade unfolded.

At one point, Samuel had removed all references to the team on social media, indicating that the relationship was all but deteriorated, but eventually refollowed the team on Instagram and liked a post in which Lynch claimed the issues between the two parties could be worked out. The team’s communication with the media after that seemed to insist that a deal would get done, but as training camp approached, questions on the imminence of a new contract still pressed.

Samuel’s “hold-in” can now come to an end. While he had reported to training camp earlier this week, Samuel refused to practice amid his then-ongoing contract dispute. He had reported to minicamp, as well, but didn’t participate in any on-field work then either. The “hold-in” was a new concept, a result of the CBA’s crackdown on holdouts that would fine Samuel $40,000 for each day he was absent from camp.

With contract discussions in the rearview, Samuel can return focus to continuing his meteoric NFL development. Samuel impressed as a rookie amassing 57 receptions for 802 yards and three touchdowns en route to his teams run to a Super Bowl loss against the Chiefs. Samuel also showed that his impressive athleticism could provide an extra tool as he rushed for three more touchdowns on 14 carries for 159 yards. Samuel’s sophomore season was derailed a bit by injury as a fracture in his left foot forced him to miss the first three games of the season. He would miss nine games total that year due to a mix of COVID-19 and a hamstring injury.

Finally healthy again, Samuel exploded for a breakout year last season. Samuel more than doubled his career total recording 1,405 receiving yards on 77 catches for six touchdowns. He continued his dual-threat nature by rushing 59 times for 365 yards and a team-leading eight rushing touchdowns. Some reports indicated that one of Samuel’s gripes was his overuse in the run game, but the team supposedly addressed it by adding some depth to the running backs room.

But, now, all the gripes and issues will hopefully be behind the two parties. Samuel got his payday and the 49ers aren’t forced to deal one of their most valuable offensive weapons. Between signing Bosa and Samuel to massive extensions, Lynch and the 49ers’ brass have had one heck of an offseason.

Latest On Deshaun Watson Decision

A little over a month after the Deshaun Watson hearing wrapped, a decision from disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson is finally expected. Robinson’s ruling is set to be delivered “by roughly 9 a.m. Eastern” tomorrow (Monday) morning, according to Aaron Wilson of Pro Football Network. 

It was announced when the hearing concluded after its third day that the decision would likely be delayed as Robinson called for post-hearing briefs, which were set to be due by July 11. When these summaries were finally submitted, Robinson planned to deliberate for at least a week with some from USA Today predicting that a decision may still be weeks away from then.

Predictions for the length of Watson’s ban have been rampant for awhile now, ranging anywhere from as little as six weeks to as long as a full season. The most recent reports have disclosed that Cleveland is “privately bracing for an eight-game suspension.” While it’s nearly certain Watson will be missing some time, it’s still unclear just how much.

The longer the Browns have been clueless to how long they’ll be without their new starting quarterback the longer the Browns have had to wait to address the situation. For now, they feel confident in letting newly signed backup Jacoby Brissett fill in during a short Watson-absence, but they reportedly would plan to sign another quarterback to back up Brissett if Watson receives a lengthy suspension. After months of waiting, the Browns should finally be able to act on a plan moving forward tomorrow.

Following Robinson’s ruling, the appeal process is likely to begin. Unless Robinson rules Watson did not violate the NFL’s personal conduct policy, both sides can appeal. The final result will almost certainly not be known until the Browns begin camp, and it could come well into the team’s preseason workouts.

Minor NFL Transactions: 7/31/22

Here are the minor moves to wrap up the weekend:

Los Angeles Chargers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • Activated from active/PUP: CB Don Gardner

Surratt went undrafted last year after opting out of the 2020 college football season, an option given to all football players that year due to COVID-19. He considered entering the 2020 NFL Draft after an impressive redshirt sophomore season at Wake Forest, but ultimately decided to return before eventually opting out. Despite only playing in 9 games with the Demon Deacons in 2019, Surratt totaled 66 receptions for 1,001 yards and 11 touchdowns. Unfortunately, averaging 111.22 receiving yards per game in 2019 didn’t build his draft stock enough for the 2021 Draft. Surratt has spent time on the practice squads for the Lions and the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL but hasn’t seen the field for either. The Chargers will hope to tap into that explosive play from three years ago.

Latest On DeAndre Hopkins’ PED Suspension

In an offseason filled with headlines at the receiver position in particular, one newsworthy item of a different nature was the six-game suspension handed down to DeAndre Hopkins. The cause of the ban – a prohibited substance being found in his bloodstream – remains a talking point for multiple reasons. 

Hopkins was suspended for having Ostarine in his system. It was originally reported, however, he had also tested positive for a diuretic or masking agent. A statement from the NFLPA refutes that allegation, though. It reads in part: “Hopkins never tested positive for any diuretic or masking agent and there was absolutely no evidence of any attempt to substitute, dilute or adulterate any specimen or any attempt to manipulate a test” (Twitter link via Pro Football Network’s Aaron Wilson).

Hopkins – who at one point considered appealing his suspension in large part due to the fact that a fraction over 0.1% of the substance was found, and maintains that he is unsure how it entered his body – is using his situation as a means to speak out against the NFL’s PED policy writ large. “I’ve never taken any of that kind of stuff,” he said, via ArizonaSports’ Alex Weiner“If you know about what it is, it can be in shampoo, it can be in a lot of different things. Obviously the NFL is very black and white, so of course, I wish the rule wasn’t so black and white. It is what it is.

“It’s hard to know what you can eat, what you can do when you’re not in control of manufacturing anything or what goes through a conveyor belt… So, obviously, I do think that rules should change. But like I said, that stuff, it’ll work itself out, and I’ve never taken anything. I barely take vitamins.”

The 30-year-old is also rehabbing from an MCL injury which cut his 2021 campaign short. He is expected to recover in time to take the field after his ban ends, but at least until then, his absence and the circumstances surrounding it are likely to remain contentious.

Ezekiel Elliott To Remain The “Focal Point” Of Cowboys’ Offense?

After their respective performances last season, many have envisioned a change in workload for Cowboys running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard going forward. While the latter could be in line for a more varied usage in 2022, the former is still viewed as being central to the team’s success. 

Owner Jerry Jones doubled down on Dallas’ reliance on Elliott yesterday, saying that he “has to be the focus” of the Cowboys’ run game (Twitter link via NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport). The 27-year-old has been a full-time starter since his rookie season, though he logged the lowest snap share of his career (66%) last season. Slowed for the latter stages of the campaign in particular by a knee injury, the former top-five pick still recorded 1,000 rushing yards and 12 total touchdowns.

His efficiency (4.2 yards per carry) compared to Pollard (5.5), however, led to questions about which back deserved more opportunities – which continues in the build-up to this season, one in which Elliott is expected to be healthier. Jones insists that he “has to be the focal point” of the offense, as he has been in years past, including the three-year stretch to begin his career in which he led the league in rushing yards per game.

In the absence of Amari Cooper and, at least early on in the seasonMichael Gallup, Dallas’ passing game figures to look much different in 2022 and faces the possibility of being less productive than last season. Especially in that event, a return to form from Elliott would be sorely needed. From a financial perspective, it would also ease concerns about his future; Elliott has five years remaining on his current deal, but no guaranteed money is included after this season.

On the other hand, Pollard is entering the final year of his rookie contract and could play his way into a sizeable free agent deal with another career-year. As Jones added, “there is room for Pollard while Zeke is in there,” but if he has his way, the much-maligned veteran will still shoulder a heavy load as the Cowboys look to make another postseason run.

Latest On Aaron Donald’s Playing Future

Among the many moves made this offseason by the Rams was a re-working of Aaron Donald‘s contract. No new years were added to his existing pact, but the future Hall of Famer received a record-setting raise in the process. 

That provided more clarity on Donald’s immediate playing future – something which was in question especially after the Rams won the Super Bowl, and has been speculated on in conjunction with that of head coach Sean McVay. Recent comments from the d-lineman confirm that their football fates are in fact intertwined.

When asked if he still would have played in 2022 had McVay stepped aside in favor of a broadcasting role, Donald said (via NFL.com’s Bobby Kownack), “not at all. I told Sean when he first got here. We came up with some things early and I first told him as long as he’s the head coach here, I want to continue to build my legacy with him. As long as he’s here and I got the ability to still play at a high level, I’m going to be here.”

McVay will coach for at least the upcoming season, though progress is being made on an extension which will keep him in the fold for several years beyond that. The end of his Rams tenure could very easily be the end of Donald’s as well, though, as he also said, “when [McVay’s] gone and it’s all said and done, that probably will be when I’m hanging it up, too.”

Donald, 31, is under contract for another two years, but he has hardly slowed down with age. Now the league’s highest-paid non-QB under his new deal, he is set to earn $95MM over that term. McVay is likewise in line for a raise when his extension is finalized, setting the pair up to continue the success they have enjoyed together. How long they will remain in their current positions will be a consistent storyline in the short- and medium-term future.

Browns Unlikely To Re-Sign C J.C. Tretter

The Browns released center J.C. Tretter in March, and he has lingered on the free agent market ever since, with no concrete reports of interest in his services. However, even if Cleveland was able to re-sign its five-year starter to a team-friendly pact, Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com does not envision such a reunion.

Per Cabot, the Browns would only consider re-signing Tretter if presumptive starter Nick Harris suffers a serious injury. Harris has started only two games in his two-year professional career, but the team is high on his ability and expects the transition from Tretter to Harris to be a smooth one. Indeed, while Tretter’s release saved Cleveland $8.2MM against the cap, the Browns — who currently boast a whopping $48MM+ of cap space — would not have made that move if they were not completely comfortable with Harris at the pivot.

Cabot speculates that teams that might otherwise be interested in Tretter, the NFLPA president, may have soured on him because of the hardline stance he has taken in negotiations with the league over the offseason program (among other things). Still, it is somewhat surprising that a player who has missed only one game since 2017 — a COVID-related absence in 2021 — and who has consistently rated as a high-end starter in the eyes of Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics has not gotten any bites.

One wonders if Tretter, who is 31 and who has dealt with ankle and knee ailments over the past three seasons, is simply waiting for the right opportunity, or if he is contemplating walking away from the game. His $44MM+ of career earnings would certainly allow him to do that, although Cabot does believe he will eventually sign somewhere.

Echoing her earlier reports on the matter, Cabot says that the Browns are unlikely to add a veteran wideout unless David Bell‘s foot injury lingers. Bell, a third-round rookie, had an impressive spring and is currently penciled in alongside Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones at the top of Cleveland’s WR depth chart. But he was recently put on the PUP list and is not expected back for another couple of weeks. If players like 2021 third-rounder Anthony Schwartz or sixth-round rookie Michael Woods II should fail to impress while Bell is sidelined, the Browns could look to the FA and/or trade markets.

One member of the team’s receiver mix, rookie Isaiah Weston, was carted off the practice field yesterday, as Tony Grossi of 850 ESPN Cleveland tweets. As a UDFA, Weston was a longshot to make the team anyway, and even if his injury is serious, it’s unlikely to alter the Browns’ decision-making too much.