Baltimore was punished for breaking practice rules, but some think they got off easy. Cleveland plans on making its running game the centerpiece of the offense, and Pittsburgh may have to make a tough choice with Le'Veon Bell.
The Ravens got off easy in their punishment for having rookies wear pads during rookie mini-camp.. To be fair, the original crime they're paying for doesn't seem so severe anyway, but still it is a weird punishment. On top of being fined, a very odd amount of $480,280, the Ravens had to cancel a week of organized team activities. Sean Payton explains that losing a week of OTAs isn't a big deal.
"It doesn’t keep the players from lifting and running and so a week of OTAs would be three on-the-field sessions. You don’t want to lose those opportunities and, shoot, one of those opportunities you might have some type of team building experience set up," Payton told Pro Football Talk. "I think each team does similar things during the OTAs. There’s a lot of offense versus defense. There’s some restrictions regarding one-on-ones but the players are out there in their element, and they’re going though a little bit of a practice format for two hours. So really that equates to about six hours on the field."
Payton went on to explain you'd obviously rather have them than not, but it isn't as serious as some are taking it. If anything, the NFL rewarded veterans who don't have to worry about a roster spot with some early days, and punished the fringe players looking to use any opportunity to show they deserve a spot on the team.
September 2014 was the last time Dennis Pitta played a game in the NFL. It really feels like so much longer. Pitta is recovering from his second hip injury and looking to resurrect his NFL career for the second time. His coach seems to think he's making some real progress.
"He looks like Dennis Pitta to me," Jon Harbaugh told The Baltimore Sun. "If you’re asking for a comparison to what he was when when he was playing to what he was now, he’s removed from football for a couple of years and we’re in — this is nothing. As far as the stability of the hip, how he feels about it, running around, making catches, looking like a football player, it’s all good."
The Ravens didn't wait around for Pitta as they now have a deep tight end depth chart including Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, and free agent Benjamin Watson. Pitta won't have an easy time getting playing time with those guys on the roster as well, but if he can return to form it's hard to deny his chemistry with Joe Flacco.
One of the most frustrating injuries for the Ravens last season was with wide receiver Breshad Perriman. Mostly because it seemed the Ravens held a week to week approach with him for most of the season, until they realized he wouldn't return in 2015 and put him on Injured Reserve. That appears to be behind Perriman and the Ravens now as Perriman says he is 100 percent healthy. After what amounted to a redshirt rookie season, Perriman joins a receiving corp that looks to be completely different than the end of last season. Kamar Aiken was the only constant last season as Baltimore has Steve Smith Sr. returning from injury. The team also signed former Vikings receiver Mike Wallace in free agency.
Over the past couple of weeks, the focus has been on the Browns' quarterback and wide receiver situations, given that they've seriously addressed those two areas this offseason. But Kirby Wilson, the Browns' run-game coordinator (who isn't biased at all) is hoping to make sure no one over looks the run game.
"We are going to be a run-oriented football team," Wilson told the Browns' official site. "Everything starts with the run game, our offensive line and our backs. As coach told us, we are going to be a physically dominant, running football team."
It makes sense though. Even though the Browns drafted four wide receivers, it doesn't mean they will make an immediate impact. We still don't know which Robert Griffin III we'll see in Cleveland, but the best friend to an offense that is in the middle of a major overhauls is a productive running game. If you can run the ball, it opens up the rest of your offense. Suddenly, teams can't keep a safety deep as often, and Corey Coleman can find some more space. And, a good play action fake never hurt an offense.
The Major concern is whether the offensive line will be able to open holes after losing Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz in free agency. Cameron Erving, who is set to start next season, struggled last season. Expect quite a few runs to the left with Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio.
Last season around the trade deadline, the Browns and Broncos almost pulled off a trade that would've sent the Pro Bowler to Denver, but it didn't materialize quickly enough. Now Joe Thomas seems to be singing a different tune, for now. Thomas was extremely happy with the Hue Jackson hiring, which seems to have reignited his spirit to play, but the regime has shown it isn't above cutting ties with veterans. The Browns have let several key contributors walk in free agency and even cut Donte Whitner. It will be interesting to see if the Browns are tempted by an offer for the former third overall pick and look to further stockpile for the future.
However, Thomas' contributions go far beyond his play. He is the longest tenured Brown and has been a cornerstone on the offensive line since his arrival in 2007. Trading him away would likely result is a major morale blow.
Bell has proven to be one of the most talented running backs in the league early in his career, but will the Steelers re-sign him? Bell is entering the final year of his contract and coming off a major injury. It's no secret that running backs have been devalued around the league, but is Bell one of the exceptions? There isn't a doubt that if Bell hits the open market healthy, he'd have a list of teams interested in signing him. The question is, can Bell stay healthy? Many will blame the Bengals for his injury problems, but the fact remains he has missed a lot of time. It isn't like there's no other running back capable of producing for the Steelers' offense. DeAngelo Williams had a very successful sting as the starter during Bell's absence last season. That probably hurts Bell's value to the Steelers more than anything. The Steelers have a long history of letting players walk if they feel they can easily fill the void. Still Bell remains a Steeler for at least one more season, and we may not know if this will be his last year as a Steeler until the offseason.
The Steelers have quite the arsenal at their disposal, and they're looking to do something that only six teams since 2011 have done, average 30 points per game. Carolina did it last season, riding it all the way to the Super Bowl, so it's no wonder the Steelers would like to copy that achievement. Last season, Pittsburgh averaged 25.4 points per game, and that was while missing Bell and Ben Roethlisberger for several weeks each during the season. It is looking like the Steelers' triplets of Roethlisberger, Bell, and Antonio Brown will start the season healthy. That really helps their cause because obviously you almost have to pick your poison as a defense. Do you double Brown and play coverage to slow down the passing game, or load up the box to slow down Bell and the running game.
There are only two things that create a sense of doubt that they can achieve 30 points per game. The first, and most troubling so far, is the triplets staying healthy. Bell and Roethlisberger have been plagued by injuries for the past few seasons and all of those hits could be catching up to the aging Roethlisberger, who spent most of last season dinged up. Bell's injuries seem to be more of the unfortunate variety where it is almost like a freak accident. Still, if those two can't remain on the field, the Steelers have no shot at scoring 30 points per game. The second thing that creates doubt is Martavis Bryant missing the whole season. Whether a receiver can step up and fill the void opposite Brown remains to be seen, but that could end up being the biggest factor for the Steelers to reach this feat.