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Five questions that will shape the Ravens’ season-opening 53-man roster

The Ravens opened training camp in Owings Mills over a month ago with a 90-man roster. By 4 p.m. Tuesday, they’ll have to get down to 53 players. And even then, the roster churn will continue.

Injuries have already weakened the team — starting running back J.K. Dobbins (torn ACL) was placed on season-ending injured reserve Monday — and their specter will hang over the Ravens’ final cuts. If general manager Eric DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh expect a player to contribute this year, he’ll need to be on the season-opening roster. But if his health is a concern, they’d have to wait until at least Wednesday to put him on injured reserve, limiting their roster flexibility.

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Getting from 74 players to 53 won’t be easy. Roster cut-downs never are, even with the NFL’s expanded practice squads and relaxed IR rules. Here are five questions that could shape the Ravens’ decision-making Tuesday.

When do the Ravens expect Rashod Bateman to return?

In mid-August, just before Bateman underwent successful groin surgery, Harbaugh said the team’s top draft pick would return “sometime in September.” If team officials believe Bateman will be cleared to play next month, their decision should be easy: Open the season with Bateman on the 53-man roster and keep him there. The Ravens play the Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions before the calendar flips to October. His presence, if healthy, could be the difference in any of those games.

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But if Bateman’s recovery timetable leaves his availability for September games in doubt, the Ravens would have to consider sidelining him. An IR designation would keep Bateman out until at least Week 4, affording maybe the team’s most talented wide receiver the time to return at full strength.

Bateman, who has started light running, according to social media, could also face a steep learning curve as he works his way back into the offense. He missed time in offseason workouts and, because of his injury and Lamar Jackson’s coronavirus infection, only briefly overlapped with the quarterback in training camp.

Ravens tight end Eric Tomlinson could offer help as a replacement blocking tight end, either as a temporary practice squad call-up or as an active-roster member.
Ravens tight end Eric Tomlinson could offer help as a replacement blocking tight end, either as a temporary practice squad call-up or as an active-roster member. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

How will the Ravens handle injured roster ‘locks’?

Tight end Nick Boyle and cornerback Jimmy Smith will be on the season-opening roster. As with Bateman, the Ravens now just have to determine whether they’re more useful staying there or moving to IR.

Harbaugh said Monday that Boyle (knee) is not expected to play in Week 1, “but I do anticipate him being ready early in the season.” Depending on Boyle’s recovery from a minor offseason procedure — or on Harbaugh’s definition of “early” — he could be available in Week 2, or he could return to practice weeks later. Eric Tomlinson could offer help as a replacement blocking tight end, either as a temporary practice squad call-up or as an active-roster member.

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Smith’s low-ankle sprain, meanwhile, is “just a little slower recovering than [doctors] anticipated,” according to Harbaugh. He won’t return to practice until next week, at the earliest, meaning he’ll have missed at least a month of practice since he was carted off the field early in training camp. A healthy Smith would be a blessing for defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Maritndale, who’s asked the veteran to help cover star tight ends like the Raiders’ Darren Waller and Chiefs’ Travis Kelce.

Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh gives a update on the injures to Jimmy Smith, J.K. Dobbins, Nick Boyle and Marquise Brown.

How will the Ravens handle injured players on the bubble?

There is far more uncertainty surrounding wide receiver Miles Boykin and running back Justice Hill, who played in a combined one preseason game this month.

Boykin has been dealing with a hamstring injury since early August, and Harbaugh said he had no “definitive” update on his or Brown’s recovery when asked last week. Boykin, who has never missed a game in his two-year NFL career, had been rehabilitating with Brown and wide receiver Deon Cain at training camp but seemed to be lagging behind both in his recovery.

Despite Boykin’s disappointing 2020 season and erratic production in camp, the 2019 third-round pick fills a need on offense. The Ravens lack size out wide, and they’re especially vulnerable with Bateman’s injury and Sammy Watkins’ injury history. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Boykin can contribute in the red zone, on special teams and in the running game as a powerful blocker — and teams rarely find healthy receivers with that skill set hit on the waiver wire.

At running back, Ty’Son Williams has seized a roster spot — “If you do the math, he’s there,” Harbaugh said Monday — and perhaps put Hill’s job security in jeopardy. A sprained ankle has sidelined Hill for two-plus weeks, his second straight preseason in which he’s missed significant action. It’s unclear when Hill’s set to return; he was limited to working out at camp last week, and the Ravens are keeping practices closed until the roster deadline passes.

Given the league-wide churn at running back, the Ravens could find a possible replacement on the waiver wire. Harbaugh acknowledged the possibility of a signing Monday. “I’d be surprised if there was a back that became available that’s better than what we have for us,” he said. “But if that were to be the case, or some veteran out there made sense, I’m sure we would do it.”

Ravens wide receiver Miles Boykin can contribute in the red zone, on special teams and in the running game as a powerful blocker — and teams rarely find healthy receivers with that skill set hit on the waiver wire.
Ravens wide receiver Miles Boykin can contribute in the red zone, on special teams and in the running game as a powerful blocker — and teams rarely find healthy receivers with that skill set hit on the waiver wire. (Julio Cortez/AP)

How will the Ravens’ vaccination situation affect their roster?

NFL players are not required to get vaccinated, nor are they obligated to comment on their vaccination status. But the risks of the coronavirus pandemic are baked into the roster-building calculus of every general manager.

In Baltimore, that could be most obvious at the quarterback position. Jackson has tested positive for COVID-19 twice since November, and all indications are that he remains unvaccinated. Under league rules, an unvaccinated player who tests positive must self-isolate for at least 10 days. Unvaccinated players also remain subject to quarantines as high-risk close contacts; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz will miss at least five days while on the reserve/COVID-19 list after reportedly coming in close contact with a staff member who tested positive.

The Ravens have entered the season with three quarterbacks on their initial roster every year since Jackson’s arrival, but roster needs elsewhere have made that a more dubious consideration. The Ravens could also feel confident about their chances of McSorley clearing waivers, if he’s released, and returning to Baltimore on the practice squad. The former Penn State standout struggled during the 2020 season and in his lone preseason appearance this month, and he’s coming off a minor back injury.

Tyler Huntley, who secured the team’s backup job after an impressive preseason, has his own injury history, having missed eight games over his college career at Utah. Still, Jackson’s vulnerability to the virus and the league’s COVID-19 rules will be by far the position’s most persistent concern.

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Will the Ravens get any help from their vested veterans?

The Ravens have a lot of young players on the roster bubble they’d like to keep. Help could come from the team’s older players.

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In the NFL, fully vested veterans — players who’ve spent at least three years on an active roster or injured reserve — are not subject to waivers after being released during the season. That means veterans cut one day can re-sign with the same team the next, provided there’s space.

So if the Ravens want to make room on their roster Tuesday, whether it’s for a rookie they don’t want to expose to waivers or for an injured player who could contribute down the road, they wouldn’t need to get too creative. They’d just need a little cooperation.

Imagine a scenario in which team officials believe Bateman won’t be ready until at least Week 4, cornerback Chris Westry won’t make it through waivers, and special teams standout Anthony Levine Sr. is too important to release. On Tuesday, the Ravens could name Bateman and Westry to the season-opening roster, protecting both, and release Levine with the understanding that it would be only a temporary separation. A day later, they could move Bateman to IR, opening a roster spot to re-sign Levine.

Given the team’s depth in the secondary and at outside linebacker, Levine and Pernell McPhee are obvious re-signing candidates. Tomlinson and defensive tackle Justin Ellis could also be pieces in the Ravens’ roster maneuvering.

Season opener

RAVENS@RAIDERS

Sept. 13, 8:15 p.m.

TV: ESPN, Chs. 2, 7

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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