Ahead of the Ravens’ preseason finale Thursday night, a reminder: It takes more than just one good game to make an NFL roster.
Take no less a force than defensive tackle Michael Pierce. In the last of four 2016 preseason games, the then-anonymous Ravens rookie pushed through the New Orleans Saints’ line, sacked quarterback Luke McCown, then pounced on his fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. As he ran to the sideline in celebration, Pierce held on to the ball as if his NFL future depended on it.
Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said Sunday that Pierce “made the team” with that performance. Not exactly, coach John Harbaugh explained Tuesday. Pierce already was “definitely a consideration” for a roster spot before the game, and an injury to defensive tackle Carl Davis in that finale no doubt helped his case.
So as the Ravens start to trim their roster to 53 players by Saturday’s 4 p.m. deadline, they probably have already gotten their surprise move out of the way: Wednesday’s trade of offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor to the New England Patriots for an undisclosed draft pick. A month-plus of practices and preseason games has otherwise culled the list of on-the-bubble hopefuls to just a handful of names. Thursday night’s game at Fedex Field against the Washington Redskins is one more data point to consider. Here are three questions that could separate those who make the cut from those who don’t:
1. Will Seth Roberts play?
It’s easy to forget just how different the Ravens’ wide receiver situation was a month ago, in the early days of training camp. Miles Boykin had only started making plays. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown wasn’t cleared to practice. Chris Moore seemed like a player bound for the bubble. Jordan Lasley hadn’t yet hurled a football into a body of water.
But at a position of weakness, Roberts looked, at the very least, like a worthwhile investment. The former Oakland Raiders receiver had signed a one-year deal with the Ravens in early April, and for a $2 million salary the Ravens seemed to be getting a likely starter. He caught just about everything quarterback Lamar Jackson threw his way, even when Jacksonville Jaguars Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey was in coverage.
Then Roberts missed over two weeks of practice after suffering an undisclosed injury in the Ravens’ preseason opener. When he returned Saturday, his spot on a much-improved receiving corps was no longer such a sure thing.
If Roberts is healthy — Harbaugh said Tuesday that he’s “looked good” since returning — and does play Thursday, it’s because his job is on the line, especially with the emergence of Jaleel Scott and Michael Floyd. If Roberts doesn’t play, it’s either because the Ravens want to rest him for Week 1 or because he’s not fit to play.
And this offense can’t afford to have a veteran receiver who might not contribute.
2. How will the offensive and defensive line rotations shake out?
Other than a couple of series for the Redskins’ offensive line, not many first-stringers will play. The Ravens who’ll start Thursday will be backups behind established starters and top contenders at unsettled positions.
With Eluemunor traded, the lead candidate at left guard won’t be hard to identify Thursday. He’ll be the one starting at left guard. This is the last chance for Ravens officials and coaches to evaluate players in pads before roster cuts are due, and the best test for a potential starter will be snaps against NFL-caliber defensive linemen. The longer it takes a player to get in, the more his competition will resemble practice squad fodder.
How open is the competition? The eventual starter could be any of four players (or five, depending on any future moves). James Hurst entered this offseason as the incumbent, though he might be more useful as a backup. He shared late-season snaps with Bradley Bozeman, who, with Eluemunor unavailable Thursday, started at left guard against the Philadelphia Eagles. Fourth-round pick Ben Powers played probably the most first-string repetitions at guard of anyone in training camp. And undrafted free agent Patrick Mekari has come on strong after recovering from an offseason back injury.
On the defensive line, there are almost no roster openings but still a couple of curiosities. End Zach Sieler, who’s not likely to make the 53-man roster, has one final chance to distinguish himself. Rookie tackle Gerald Willis, another probable cut, returned to practice Tuesday after missing about a week. The Ravens would like to keep both in Baltimore, but needy teams will be watching with interest.
3. Who will stand out on special teams?
The Ravens do not have the kind of problems that, say, the Vikings do. More than two weeks after acquiring preseason star Kaare Vedvik, Minnesota still doesn’t know who’ll be kicking and punting in its season opener. The Ravens’ starters are who they’ve been since 2012: Justin Tucker at kicker and Sam Koch at punter.
Elsewhere, though, there are important special teams battles to be won. The most closely watched will be at punt returner, where incumbent Cyrus Jones (Gilman), now an important slot cornerback, and running back Tyler Ervin are in a dead heat. Asked Sunday whether he’d gotten any clarity on the competition, special teams coordinator Chris Horton said, “Not yet.”
While the Ravens defense has provided plenty of punt return opportunities — Ervin has been more productive, though Jones has had more fair catches — kickoff returns have been infrequent. Through three games, the Ravens have just four, with Ervin accounting for all but one.
A big return Thursday could save Ervin from the waiver wire. A misplay by Jones could, too, especially given his fumbling habit last season. But if there’s no separation Thursday, look for the Ravens to keep Jones returning punts and have Moore or running back Justice Hill handling kickoffs.
Other end-of-the-roster answers could be apparent well before kickoff Thursday. Harbaugh said Saturday that the team’s special teams starters won’t play. That means a night off for Tucker, Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox — but what about gunner Justin Bethel? The cornerback didn’t participate in some punt return drills during joint practices last week against the Eagles, ceding his reps to less proven players.
Defensive back Brynden Trawick’s roster fate seems less certain than Bethel’s, but his preseason workload offers hope. Despite signing less than a month ago, Trawick has led the Ravens in special teams snaps in all three preseason games. He was on the field for 17 of the team’s 24 special teams plays last Thursday, and played a third of the defensive snaps, too.
Thursday, Aug. 29, 7:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 7, NBCSWA
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