Ravens beat writer Jeff Zrebiec talks about the release of tight end Dennis Pitta after he dislocated his hip last week for the third time. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
As the Ravens continued their efforts to land a proven veteran pass catcher with Jeremy Maclin arriving in town Wednesday night for the start of a free-agent visit, they made a difficult but necessary move that likely ends Dennis Pitta’s time in Baltimore and possibly his NFL career.
The team announced Wednesday that it released the popular and productive tight end with an injury waiver after Pitta dislocated his right hip during last week's organized team activities for the third time in four years.
Pitta had been a Raven since 2010 and he was one of the heroes in the team's 2012 Super Bowl-winning season. His comeback from a twice-fractured and dislocated hip to lead the Ravens — and all NFL tight ends — in receptions last season was one of the organization's feel-good stories in an otherwise disappointing 2016 season.
The 31-year-old is now a free agent for the first time in his career. It's possible, if not probable, that Pitta will retire rather than attempting another comeback.
The Ravens filled Pitta’s roster spot by signing undrafted rookie tight end Barrett Burns, who played at Appalachian State. He joins a tight end group that has Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, Darren Waller, Nick Boyle and Ryan Malleck who was signed Tuesday. Watson and Williams are still recovering from injuries, and Waller has also been sidelined from OTAs, which end Thursday.
The Ravens could use the approximate $2 million cap saving on Pitta’s release — the tight end signed an injury waiver and wasn’t eligible for an injury settlement — toward trying to add Maclin or perhaps wide receiver Eric Decker, whose days with the New York Jets appear to be numbered.
Maclin, 29, was a surprise release by the Kansas City Chiefs late last week. One year removed from his second straight 1,000-yard receiving season, Maclin took his first free-agent visit with the Buffalo Bills, arriving in Western New York on Tuesday afternoon. That he stayed for over 24 hours and continued to be recruited by Bills running back and his former Philadelphia Eagles teammate LeSean McCoy figured to be a bad sign for the wide-receiver needy Ravens and any other teams interested in Maclin.
However, he departed Buffalo without a deal and arrived in Baltimore early Wednesday evening, multiple sources confirmed. Maclin joined several Ravens players Wednesday night at a get-together to watch Game 3 of the NBA Finals, and his visit will likely continue with a tour of the Under Armour Performance Center and more meetings Thursday.
The Ravens, who have among the least salary cap space in the NFL and far less financial flexibility than the Bills, have some significant work to do to reach a deal with Maclin. In recent years though, they have been successful closing deals with free agents they covet once they get into the building.
Steve Smith Sr. and Mike Wallace had further free-agent visits planned, but the Ravens were able to finalize deals with them while they were at the facility.
Maclin has played seven NFL seasons, averaging just under 68 catches for 913 yards during those years and totaling 46 touchdowns. He played the first five years for the Eagles before signing with the Chiefs before the 2015 season. His worst NFL season came last year, when Maclin had 44 catches for 536 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games while battling groin injuries.
If the Ravens, who are looking for a complementary receiver to pair with outside speed threats Wallace and BreshadPerriman, lose out on Maclin, they could turn their attention to Decker, who is expected to be released by the rebuilding Jets if they can’t find a trade partner. Decker played just three games last year because of hip and shoulder injuries that required surgeries, but from 2012 to 2015, he averaged just under 82 catches and 1,085 receiving yards per season. He also caught 41 touchdown passes during that four-season span.
General manager Ozzie Newsome has said all offseason he’s trying to add another wide receiver, but the Ravens came up empty in free agency and the draft. The likely season-ending injury to Pitta, who lined up in the slot and often was used like a receiver, only reinforced that need.
Pitta led the Ravens with 86 receptions last year after he missed the entire 2015 season and played in seven combined games in 2013 and 2014. If his time with the Ravens is indeed over, he'll be remembered for his perseverance and how he rose to the occasion in the playoffs after the 2012 regular season.
Over parts of six seasons and in 66 regular-season games, the 2010 fourth-round draft had 224 catches for 2,098 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was at his best during the Ravens’ Super Bowl XLVII run as he had 14 catches for 163 yards and three touchdowns in the playoffs that year.
Pitta fractured and dislocated hip for the first time early in the 2013 training camp, when he landed awkwardly in the back of the end zone while trying to come down with a pass from Joe Flacco. He returned that year in time to play in four games and catch 20 balls for 169 yards and a touchdown.
While knowing that Pitta’s first hip fracture and dislocation put him at risk for the injury happening again, the Ravens were comfortable enough to sign the tight end to a five-year, $32 million extension. After catching 13 balls for 113 yards over the first two games in 2014, Pitta went down without being touched in the first half of the Week 3 game against the Cleveland Browns.
Pitta went through another arduous rehabilitation process and practiced with the Ravens for a couple of weeks during the 2015 season. Neither player nor team felt comfortable enough for Pitta to graduate to game action. When he was shut down for the rest of the season, Pitta acknowledged concern that his career could be over.
However, Pitta wanted to take one more shot at it and his hard work and courage produced one of the biggest positives of the Ravens’ 2016 season. He spoke last month during the Ravens’ organized team activities about how nice it was to have a normal offseason and not have to worry about the hip. A week later, he reinjured the hip while lunging for a pass at a closed practice.
In announcing the injury, Newsome called Pitta “one of the great Ravens.”