Looking at the Questions Surrounding Dez Bryant's Comeback Attempt
On the day the Ravens had their first padded practice of training camp, a player who isn't even on the team dominated the headlines. That would be three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant.
After reports surfaced that Bryant was coming to Baltimore this week to work out with the team, his personal coach, David Robinson, told The Baltimore Sun’s Jonas Shaffer that Bryant arrived in town last night and his tryout is tentatively scheduled for tomorrow.
Robinson said Bryant told him he is "excited about playing with Lamar Jackson and having the opportunity."
"He's thriving and licking his chops for the opportunity to play with a team like the Ravens, who run the ball so well, because that does strengthen his game," Robinson said. "He's an intermediate-route runner, 50-50 jump-ball guy. So, he's going to get those type of matchups — slant routes, outs, fades. He's going to get the matchups that he really wants — and how he made a living in Dallas — being in the Ravens offense. So, he's excited and feels that basically that's the best fit for him."
When asked about Bryant after yesterday's practice, Head Coach John Harbaugh replied: "The only comment I have is that we're not commenting on workouts and who's coming in."
Harbaugh's comment (or lack thereof) was fitting, as there are more questions than answers regarding Bryant, who is attempting to make a comeback after not having played in an NFL game since 2017.
After eight seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, Bryant signed with New Orleans in November 2018 but suffered a torn Achilles in practice two days later and never played a game.
The main question is: How much does the 31-year-old Bryant have left?
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Bryant has looked good without pads on in his workout videos, and NFL Network's Tom Pelissero said Bryant is in a good place mentally and physically.
"He is really motivated to get back on the field," Pelissero said.
Bryant forced the fifth-most missed tackles after the catch among wide receivers in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus, but his overall production declined. Bryant, who averaged 91 catches, 1,312 yards and nearly 14 touchdowns from 2012-2014, missed a combined 10 games due to injury in 2015-2016, and finished the 2017 season with 69 catches for 838 yards and six touchdowns and averaged 12.1 yards per reception – all career-lows for seasons in which he played all 16 games.
There's also the question of whether Bryant would be a good fit in the locker room.
"Bryant’s] fire is what the Ravens need on offense, but that same passion for the game can be an absolute headache on the sideline as well as in the locker room,” [Russell Street Report’s Jermaine Lockett wrote. "We've all seen the blowups."
Robinson told Shaffer that Bryant has shown maturity in how he's approached his new opportunity. He said Bryant "would rather be a No. 3 receiver, a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver" and is eager to embrace a mentor role with young receivers.
Speaking of the young receivers, if Bryant were to make the team, who would he have to beat out?
Baltimore typically keeps six receivers on the 53-man roster. Marquise "Hollywood" Brown, Miles Boykin, Willie Snead IV and rookie Devin Duvernay are locks, and rookie James Proche II is the leading candidate to handle punt returns and was a sure-handed receiver in college. Chris Moore is valuable on special teams, and 2018 fourth-round pick Jaleel Scott had a strong preseason last year to earn a roster spot. Antoine Wesley, 22, also made some nice plays in the preseason and spent the season on the practice squad.
"If you are the Ravens, there is no harm in taking a look," The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec wrote of Bryant. "Miles Boykin is really the team's only bigger receiver and if Bryant still has something in the tank, he could at least be a big and physical red-zone target. The Ravens also don't have much experience in their wide receiver room. Willie Snead IV is the only veteran and now Chris Moore, who is on the roster primarily because of special teams, will miss a few weeks with a broken finger."
It's worth noting that the Ravens have had success in the past signing former Pro Bowl receivers after their 30th birthday. The list includes Steve Smith Sr. (35), Derrick Mason (31) and Anquan Boldin (30).
On a side note, it appears the Ravens no longer have interest – if they ever truly did – in 31-year old former Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
What Is the Ravens' Achilles' heel?
Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson analyzed the Achilles' heel for the teams he perceived to be the top four Super Bowl contenders: the Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, Saints and San Francisco 49ers. For the Ravens, he cited their ability to play from behind as the biggest concern.
"The Ravens are set up to dominate from the front. They crush teams, build sizable leads and then lean on them hard until they crumble," Monson wrote. "By virtue of simply being better, the Ravens rarely find themselves trailing in games, but it hasn't gone well when they have. When trailing over the past two seasons, Lamar Jackson's PFF passing grade is just 62.2, which ranks 32nd out of 47 qualifiers."
To Monson's point, the sample size is small because the Ravens were so dominant last season, and the perception that the Ravens do not play well from behind was magnified by their loss to the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs.
"If the Ravens' playoff game against the Titans last season happens in a random Week 6 game, nobody even remembers it today," Monson wrote. "But it happened on the biggest stage and ended up partly defining their season. Jackson is a singular talent and one of the most difficult players in the league to defend. He made huge strides as a passer in Year 2, but Year 3 needs to see him take another leap in a specific area: when teams know he has to pass to eat into an unexpected deficit."
To be fair, Jackson nearly pulled off an amazing comeback as a rookie in an AFC wild-card round game against the Chargers. Trailing 23-3 with 9:02 remaining in the game, Jackson threw a pair of touchdown passes to pull the Ravens within six points, and they had the ball near midfield with just under 30 seconds left before a turnover ended the rally.
Jackson Among Top 10 in Passing Accuracy in 2019
One of the areas Jackson made huge strides as a passer last season was in his accuracy. According to Football Outsiders, he was the 10th-most-accurate quarterback in the league last year based on CPOE (completion percentage over expected), which measures how much more accurate a passer is than the league average, adjusted for the situations the passer found himself in.
"The reigning MVP saw his CPOE jump from minus-5.5% as a rookie to plus-2.4% in 2019, the second-biggest increase in football after Ryan] Tannehill's,” [Football Outsiders’ Bryan Knowles wrote for ESPN.com.
"To pull that off without an established threat at wide receiver is even more impressive, with Mark Ingram, Hayden Hurst and Miles Boykin his top targets by accuracy. Jackson was in full command of Greg Roman's offense, deadly when given any sort of space to work in. If Devin Duvernay and some of the other reinforcements to the receiving corps work out, Jackson is in line for another bump here next season."
Could Brandon Carr Return in Light of Iman Marshall's Injury?
With second-year cornerback Iman Marshall expected to miss the entire season after suffering a major knee injury, the Ravens could be looking to add depth at the position behind All-Pros Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, veteran Jimmy Smith and nickelback Tavon Young.
Ravens Wire’s Neil Dutton identified five cornerbacks the Ravens could be interested in signing, with former Raven Brandon Carr at the top of the list. Carr has never missed a game in his 12-year career, starting all 192 games in that span.
"Carr would seem to be an obvious choice if the Ravens feel the need to add a veteran," Dutton wrote. "Carr spent the last three seasons with the team, starting all 48 games over that span. He managed 29 passes defended in that time, and also picked off six passes. At 34, Carr is unlikely to command too rich a salary at this stage of the preseason."
The other cornerbacks on Dutton's list were: Trumaine Johnson, Logan Ryan, Dre Kirkpatrick and Morris Claiborne.