Every year at this time, word gets out that a player fails his conditioning test and is placed on the non-football injury list and people get all worked up. Last year, it was Bryant McKinnie, Courtney Upshaw and Haloti Ngata. This year, it’s Jacoby Jones and there will probably be a couple of more players to falter in the days ahead.
I’m not absolving Jones at all. I’d say it’s slightly alarming that a player who is trying to prove to coaches and executives that he should be the No. 2 wide receiver – and a guy that spent significant time away from the team facility in the offseason because he was appearing on Dancing With the Stars – wouldn't be raring to go once he arrived at training camp. For whatever reason, Jones wasn’t. But let’s keep things in perspective here, too. If he shows up today, passes the test and then is on the practice field for the first full-team workout Thursday, yesterday’s failed test would be a distant memory.
Jones has always joked about his conditioning. Just watch him on the sidelines after he returns a kick or punt for a touchdown. I’m told – I didn’t watch the show so I can’t confirm – that his Dancing With the Stars partner Karina Smirnoff would needle him about what kind of shape he’s in. I’m guessing head coach John Harbaugh wasn’t as amused when he heard about it, but I doubt he and general manager Ozzie Newsome scurried to their phones and started dialing the agents of free agent wide receivers either.
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Speaking of Ngata, Harbaugh said yesterday that the big defensive tackle “blew away the conditioning test” which should be pretty encouraging considering Ngata still looked a little tentative on his knee at last month’s minicamp. Harbaugh also said that Ngata was in “great shape.” Even with all the additions the Ravens made this season, I still think Ngata could be the most important player on that defense. One, a healthy and in shape Ngata would go a long way to fixing a run defense that was uncharacteristically poor last year. Two, the combination of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil applying pressure on the edges and Ngata getting penetration up the middle would leave quarterbacks with very few options.
The Ravens placed both guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder surgery) and linebacker Jameel McClain (spinal cord contusion) on the physically-unable-to-perform list but the outlook looks pretty good for Yanda. He’s making steady progress. My guess is he won’t play in the first one or two preseason games but that will be because he has nothing to prove and the Ravens will proceed with caution with him.
As for McClain, until he gets a clean magnetic resonance imaging test that shows he’s completely healed, he won’t be cleared to fully participate in practice. At this point, you have to feel bad for McClain who has long been one of the most respected Ravens by his teammates. He worked his butt off this offseason to get in good shape. He feels good, and the Ravens, who are thin at inside linebacker, need him. But you can’t be overly cautious with a spine injury so McClain is forced to sit and wait.
Speaking of sitting and waiting, there’s been no recent development with the Ravens and their former Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach. The Ravens still have some interest in bringing him back. Leach is still weighing his options. As enticing as sitting out a couple of weeks of training camp could be for a veteran like Leach, the Ravens will probably pull their initial offer at some point. And if rookie Kyle Juszczyk looks stout as a lead blocker early in training camp and the preseason, the Ravens could be more resolute about moving forward without Leach.
Harbaugh, by the way, said yesterday that the team continues to monitor the free-agent market but the top decision markers don’t see a move out there right now that is going to better the team. “That move is not imminent right now,” he said. Harbaugh also said that he’s plenty comfortable with the depth and talent that the team has at wide receiver. I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘What is he going to say? I don’t like our wide receivers.’ Decent point, but the fact of the matter is that everything the Ravens have done this offseason – or more appropriately what they haven’t done in bidding on veteran wide receivers – tells you that the team is serious about giving their young pass catchers an opportunity.
I spoke to former Ravens defensive lineman Trevor Pryce recently for a story that I’m working on, and he marveled about the team’s ability to get Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown in the second round of the draft. Price, who still lives in Howard County and follows the Ravens closely, watched Brown extensively in college and was really surprised that he wasn’t picked earlier.
“I think that kid is a monster,” said Pryce who will co-host a new show on Fox Sports 1 along with Regis Philbin and others. “Holy mackerel. Teams need middle linebackers and nobody took a look at that kid? Have they watched this kid play football? It boggles the mind some of the stuff that I see other teams doing.”