Return of Ja'Wuan James to Practice Is Good News, But Expectations Should Be Tempered
There was some positive news on the Ravens' injury front for a change Wednesday, as offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James practiced for the first time since suffering a torn Achilles tendon in May. The Ravens have 21 days to decide if they want to activate James.
With starting right tackle Patrick Mekari dealing with a hand injury that could keep him sidelined for a few weeks, according to Head Coach John Harbaugh, James' return to practice, especially as a full participant, is a welcome development.
That said, expectations for James to make an impact or even play in a game this season should be tempered.
"There's no guarantees that he factors this year or is even activated to [the] 53," The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec tweeted.
"With the offensive line struggling, the designation for James to return can be a good sign, if and when he is ready to play," Ravens Wire's Steve Ruden wrote. "Depending on if James gets activated and plays this season, he could suit up at the right tackle position. That could mean Patrick Mekari moves to the left tackle position if he returns from his hand injury. However, the team could want Mekari as the sixth offensive lineman, while playing Tyre Phillips at left guard instead. That should be an improvement from where the Ravens have been lately at the position."
James, a 2014 first-round pick, started 65 games at right tackle in five seasons with the Miami Dolphins and one with the Denver Broncos, but he hasn't played in a game since 2019. A knee injury limited him to three games in 2019 and he was a COVID-19 opt-out in 2020.
James signed with the Ravens in June after he had been released by the Broncos.
Ravens' Track Record Shows Counting Them Out Would Be Premature
The Ravens (8-4) are currently in first place in the AFC North, the No. 3 seed in the conference, and only three teams in the league have fewer losses.
But as we all know, Lamar Jackson and the offense have been struggling for weeks, the absurdly long list of starters suffering season-ending injuries keeps growing, and the team has a tough remaining schedule that includes games against the Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. Every team remaining on the schedule is at .500 or above.
The writing on the wall says the Ravens' playoff aspirations are doomed.
However, given the Ravens' track record of overcoming adversity, not only this season but in years past, that writing had better be in pencil. The challenges facing the Ravens are undeniable, but so is the franchise's grit.
Zrebiec said there's no better lesson on why it is premature to make a final determination on a team's Super Bowl chances at this stage than the 2012 Ravens.
"That team started fast and then was fading just as quickly," Zrebiec wrote. "They lost three consecutive games to start December. Joe Flacco and the offense were such a mess that [Head Coach John] Harbaugh fired Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron after a Week 14 loss.
"Everybody knows what happened next: Flacco got scorching hot, the Ravens got a few players back from injury, including middle linebacker and team leader Ray Lewis, and they embarked on a Super Bowl run. That team didn't look any more championship-worthy at this point of the season than the current Ravens do."
The Ravens weren't in the best place heading into the final stretch the past two seasons either, but they finished strong and made the playoffs both times.
"The 2020 Ravens were 6-5, beset by a COVID-19 outbreak, and seemingly going nowhere fast, when they won their final five games of the regular season," Zrebiec wrote. "Two years earlier, the Ravens entered Week 15 with a 7-6 record, a rookie quarterback learning on the fly and questions on both sides of the ball. They won their final three games and an AFC North title."
ESPN analyst and former Raven Robert Griffin III acknowledged that concern about Baltimore's offense and injuries is warranted, but he said the team shouldn't be counted out.
"They're 8-4. You know how many teams wish they could be 8-4 right now with what the Ravens have been through?" Griffin said on "Get Up." "They're the most beat-up team in the league and they keep finding ways to win games.
"I think they have earned the trust and they always figure it out this time of year. And I bet you they are going to win some games down the stretch that you aren't expecting them to win."
John Harbaugh Has Done Some of His Best Work After Tough Losses
One of the main reasons for optimism about the Ravens the rest of the way is that Harbaugh is their head coach.
Last Sunday's 20-19 loss at Pittsburgh was a gut punch. This Sunday's game in Cleveland will be a gut check. In other words, the type of game in which Harbaugh's teams always show plenty of fight.
"Harbaugh has done some of his best work during his Ravens' tenure steadying his team amid tough times and after bad losses," Zrebiec wrote. "Nobody should be surprised if the Ravens come out Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium and play one of their better games of the season or just figure out a way to win ugly and dramatically. That's been their specialty on most Sundays."
As was discussed in Late for Work a couple weeks ago, a strong case can be made for Harbaugh to be the leading candidate for Coach of the Year.
Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer wrote yesterday that Harbaugh has to be in the running at this point.
"I'd say we need to see how they finish, but Harbaugh's got a case," Breer wrote. "He's doing this without his top two tailbacks (a huge deal, based on how the Ravens' offense is built), his starting left tackle, starting free safety (DeShon Elliott) and now he'll go forward without his top two corners (he's been without his No. 2 corner all year, and his No. 1's now done for the year, too). They also had a rash of receiver injuries that made it hard for Lamar Jackson to build chemistry with a position group that was almost completely turned over.
"And yet, if T.J. Watt hadn't affected Jackson's throw on the two-point conversion early Sunday night, the Ravens would be the AFC's No. 1 seed today. As it stands, they're even in the loss column with the Patriots, Chiefs and Titans for first place. Again, we'll see if that stands. But for now, all things considered, that's pretty good."
Bleacher Report Names a Cornerback As Ravens' Top Early Draft Target
The Ravens' long-held belief that a team can never have too many cornerbacks has never seemed more appropriate considering the team's current injury issues at the position.
With that in mind, Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox named University of Washington cornerback Trent McDuffie as the Ravens' early top target in the 2022 draft.
"McDuffie, the No. 3 corner on B/R's board, would provide Baltimore with an excellent insurance plan at the position while being a future mainstay in the secondary," Knox wrote. "The 5'11", 195-pound defender accumulated six passes defended, four tackles for loss and a sack in 11 games this season."
Knox speculated that All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters, who suffered a torn ACL in the preseason, could be a cap casualty this coming offseason.
Ravens Wire's Kevin Oestreicher agrees that McDuffie would be a good fit for the Ravens.
"Although he is a bit on the smaller side in some aspects, McDuffie plays in control and can mirror receivers to perfection on their routes. He has great ball skills and is good at the catch point," Oestreicher wrote. "The Ravens are getting a tad bit older at the cornerback position, and if Peters or even Jimmy Smith is on the way out, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Ravens target a cornerback with one of their early selections."
- Tight end Mark Andrews and kicker Justin Tucker were named to Pro Football Focus' All-Pro Team heading into the final quarter of the season. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell made the second team.
- The son of Head Strength & Conditioning Coach Steve Saunders, Stone Saunders, is a freshman quarterback leading his Bishop McDevitt Crusaders into the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) 4A state championship against Aliquippa.