There are difficult preseasons, and then there is what has happened to the Baltimore Ravens.
On Thursday, according to NFL Network, Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters and running back Gus Edwards were injured on successive plays. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the team fears both players tore their ACLs, which would mean that both are out for the season.
To repeat, Peters and Edwards were hurt on back-to-back plays, after which Baltimore coach John Harbaugh called off the rest of the practice.
The good news is that both Peters and Edwards renegotiated their contracts in Baltimore and had guarantees for this year. The difficulty for the Ravens is that both players were significant parts of the team’s plans for 2021. And their injuries are hardly the only major ones to test the Ravens’ depth heading into their season opener Monday night.
If Peters and Edwards require season-ending surgery, they would join running back J.K. Dobbins, who tore his ACL this preseason, on injured reserve. Linebacker L.J. Fort suffered the same injury in the second preseason game. Rookie receiver Rashod Bateman, one of the team’s first-round picks, had groin surgery last month and will begin the season on injured reserve as will receiver Miles Boykin. Justice Hill, another running back, tore his Achilles this summer but was waived as a result.
Good teams have depth. The trouble is that Edwards was the Ravens’ depth in the running back room. He was the reason Baltimore didn’t make a major trade or signing after Dobbins went down. Now it’s likely both are out for the year, and the two primary members of the backfield in the top-ranked rushing offense from last season are gone in the span of two weeks. All before the first regular-season snap.
The Ravens currently have Ty’Son Williams and Trenton Cannon on their roster at running back. Williams was an undrafted free agent in 2020. Cannon was a sixth-round pick of the Jets in 2018 and spent last season with the Panthers before getting cut last week. Baltimore signed Cannon on Wednesday. Williams has never played in the regular season, and Cannon has 146 career rushing yards.
Baltimore does have two more prolific options on the practice squad: Le’Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman, who signed with them Thursday following Edwards’s injury, according to ESPN. Other veteran running backs including Latavius Murray are available as free agents and players including Houston’s David Johnson could be available as trade targets.
It’s almost inevitable that the Ravens’ running game will suffer after losing three players, but Baltimore’s scheme is well-suited to make up for some of the difference. The Ravens had the fourth-best run-blocking offensive line last season and have quarterback Lamar Jackson, who forces defenses to play 11-on-11 on basically every snap.
Their coverage scheme, however, may have more trouble accounting for the loss of Peters. The Ravens need good man-to-man players (like Peters) in the secondary so that their defensive front is free to blitz to defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s heart’s desire. The loss of Peters puts pressure on corner Marlon Humphrey, who will be the clear no. 1 instead of part of a tandem of multi-time Pro Bowlers. Baltimore has some depth in slot corner Tavon Young and Jimmy Smith, though Smith is 33 and has not played a full season since 2015 due to injuries.
If there is a silver lining for Baltimore, it is that the NFL adopted the 2020 rules change that allows teams to bring an unlimited number of players back from the injured reserve list. The change also allows them to bring a player back after they’ve missed three games, not the previous requirement of eight weeks, meaning the Ravens could have Bateman and Boykin back in early October. Baltimore was already hoping to develop a more explosive passing game in 2021; that task now comes with added pressure to account for the losses on defense and in the running game.
This is first and foremost a difficult blow to the injured players, then to the Ravens, and then to everyone who appreciates good football. Every NFL team deals with injuries, but every season there’s a team or two that is hit so badly it genuinely changes the landscape of the league. Baltimore, in the competitive AFC North, may have passed the tipping point before the season even begins.