NFL training camp winners and losers: Bad news engulfs Ravens

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No team had a worse first week of training camp than the Baltimore Ravens. From a season-ending injury to the team's most talented running back (Kenneth Dixon) to injury clusters at tight end and cornerback to a second early retirement of the offseason (center John Urschel, who exits the stage six months after LB Zach Orr), the Ravens have already hit Bad-Camp-News Bingo. But Joe Flacco's back injury is what should be keeping coach John Harbaugh's staff up at night.

The disc issue, first reported by NFL Network's Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero, was suffered a few weeks ago. Yet Flacco is still not throwing and admitted to struggling to bend over. Perhaps another week or two of rest will solve the issue, but the Ravens and Flacco don't really know. No one ever knows when it comes to back injuries. Even if Flacco returns to practice on the early side of his recovery timeline, it will be a surprise if he plays much in the preseason. That leaves a lot of snaps available for Ryan Mallett and Dustin Vaughan, not to mention a growing need for another veteran quarterback.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, addressing the audience of a fan forum Sunday, mentioned the team had some interest in Robert Griffin III. Ravens president Dick Cass confirmed the team has had direct discussions with Colin Kaepernick and is weighing whether or not to sign him. That calculus includes reaching out to sponsors and fans, Cass admitted. Bisciotti said he spoke to Ray Lewis on Sunday morning about his opinion on possibly signing Kaepernick.

From the outside looking in, this is an incredible amount of background work to put into Kaepernick, unless the coaches had a strong interest in signing him. Harbaugh made as much clear when calling Kaepernick a "great guy" last week and revealing that they've spoken multiple times this offseason. That press conference sounded like the first step in making a public case for Kaepernick to fans and possibly ownership, not that it should be necessary. Kaepernick is a far superior option to Mallett or Griffin based on game film, statistics and Kaepernick's familiarity with Baltimore's coaching staff. (Ravens senior offensive assistant Greg Roman ran Kaepernick's offense in San Francisco.) The decision whether to sign Kaepernick, however, clearly involves more than coaches, going to the ownership level because of Kap's political activism. Bisciotti took a question from a fan about Kaepernick possibly "damaging" the team's brand, as if the quarterback had committed a crime.

"Quantify hurting the brand," Bisciotti responded via the team's website. "I know that we're going to upset some people, and I know that we're going to make people happy that we stood up for somebody that has the right to do what he did. Non-violent protesting is something that we have all embraced.

"I don't like the way he did it. Personally, I kind of liked it a lot when he went from sitting to kneeling. I don't know, I'm Catholic -- we spend a lot of time kneeling."

I've believed all along that Kaepernick will find a team before Week 1 because he can upgrade many backup quarterback situations and NFL teams have proven again and again they'll ultimately act in their own self-interest. The Ravens should be that team. Even when Flacco returns to the practice field in a week or three, the shadow of his back injury will hang over the organization until he proves he can withstand regular-season punishment. Whether Mallett continues to occasionally throw five interceptions in a practice or literally throw up a white flag, Kaepernick is likely to win an open competition over Mallett.

The signing might not happen soon enough to satisfy my desire for this phase of the Kaepernick news cycle to end, but it should happen. It makes too much football sense. To paraphrase Johnny Kerr or perhaps Buddy Ryan, coaches who start listening to the fans wind up sitting next to them.

The Ravens had a brutal week. Here are some of the other winners and losers from the first week of camp:

Winners

Mature holdouts: Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Texans offensive tackle Duane Brown and Raiders OT Donald Penn are all skipping the early portions of training camp in search of new contracts. That's normal. The relative lack of media hand-wringing or threatening quotes from coaches is refreshing. Everyone appears to understand these are grown men doing what they feel is necessary to be paid fairly, and there's a long way to go before Week 1.

Even the Los Angeles Times' mild chastising of the Rams regarding Donald can be seen as a positive. The paper is starting to treat the Rams like any other local team.

Jaylon Smith, LB, Dallas Cowboys: The proof in Smith's recovery resides in his increasing workload. The second-year linebacker participated in full-contact drills for a second straight day Sunday, a terrific sign coming off the devastating Fiesta Bowl knee injury that forced him to miss all of last season.

Cowboys camp is a petri dish of overstatement, but the respect Smith has already engendered from his teammates for his intellect, leadership ability, explosion and instincts is off the charts. Most importantly, his body is responding to every challenge in the early going.

Lovers of daily practice stats for New York Jets QBs: A tradition that started during the titanic Tebow-Sanchez battle of 2012 was continued during the Geno-vs.-Vick and Geno-vs.-Fitz quarterback competitions of the following years. Yes, all Jets beat reporters appear to be contractually obligated to tally daily practice stats, complete with a first-day power ranking of their performance in practice without pads. The New York Post summed up the mood: "No reporters were hit by errant passes on Day 1 of Jets training camp. That's progress."

Rob Ninkovich, DE, New England Patriots: His retirement press conference was so packed with former teammates and coaches that Bill Belichick had to sit on the ground. Belichick told Ninkovich he's never coached a more unselfish player, and Tom Brady was there for an emotional embrace with the former fifth-round pick. Ninkovich mentioned how he nearly gave up on football after failing to stick with the Saints or Dolphins early in his career before settling in for eight seasons in Foxborough. Roughly 40 players and coaches showed up for the press conference, a reminder that it's possible -- if rare -- to go out on top in professional football.

Had a rough week

Denver Broncos pass rush: Denver owned the deepest group of pass-rushing linebackers in football last season. Now the team could be starting Kasim Edebali -- a player who couldn't stick with the Saints defense -- in Week 1. Von Miller's supporting cast is quite depleted, thanks to DeMarcus Ware's retirement followed by injuries to Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett. With Ray (wrist) and Barrett (hip) expected to be sidelined into the regular season, the team's "No Fly Zone" secondary will be asked to carry too heavy a burden.

Broncos coach Vance Joseph already faced the difficult task of fitting into Wade Phillips' considerable cowboy boots. Now Joseph has to deal with these pass-rush concerns in addition to figuring out a defensive line with two starting jobs open. There will be no easing into the season, not with the Chargers' and Cowboys' offenses up first on the schedule.

The Arizona Cardinals' cursed No. 2 cornerback spot: Little-known second-year cornerback Ronald Zamort started drawing attention early in training camp after lining up as a starter opposite Patrick Peterson.

"You guys keep asking about individual guys, and they keep getting hurt," coach Bruce Arians said via the Arizona Republic when queried about Zamort on Saturday.

Hours later, Zamort tore his ACL. The Cardinals' front office responded Sunday night by signing veteran Tramon Williams -- and Arians might respond by refusing to answer any questions about individual players for the rest of camp. Justin Bethel, currently out with what's believed to be a minor knee injury, is the favorite for one of the toughest jobs in the NFL.

OTAs, minicamps and early camp "Winners and Losers" columns: Belichick essentially poured a gallon of gasoline on all of those writerly evaluations of who has "flashed" in pads-free practices during the offseason and early in camp. Then he lit a match:

All that delicious New England sarcasm aside, Belichick's point is well taken. The practicing that has gone on in shorts and T-shirts all summer into the first days of camp does not resemble the sport that's played on Sundays.

"We play football tomorrow," a fired-up Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said on the eve of Pittsburgh's first full-contact practice. The first meaningful evaluations of football being played this season starts in earnest this week.

Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars: This late addition to the column comes after news of left tackle Branden Albert's surprise retirement broke on Monday morning. The veteran left tackle was lining up ahead of rookie second-round pick Cam Robinson early in camp and would have provided a stabilizing presence for an offensive line that is forever in transition. Now, the Jaguars will sink or swim with Robinson and hope he performs better than Luke Joeckel, the last left tackle the team drafted early.

Injuries to watch

Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers: The team's statement on Sunday that Williams wouldn't practice throughout training camp is a sign he's not even close to hitting the field, making Williams a strong candidate to miss the start of the season on the PUP list. In fact, first-year coach Anthony Lynn didn't provide the most comforting assessment when asked about whether Williams' back issue could be a season-ender.

"I'm hopeful that it's not, but who knows?" Lynn said of the No. 7 overall pick, per ESPN. "It could be. I don't know. You'd like to have him out [there], but fortunately we have depth at that position, and we're going to be OK."

Malik McDowell, DT, Seattle Seahawks: Injured in an ATV accident, the second-round pick is staying near his Michigan home as he recovers. Consider it a troubling sign that coach Pete Carroll wouldn't rule out McDowell missing the entire season. Seattle was hopeful that McDowell's versatility could add some needed pop to the team's interior defensive line.

John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals: Just one day after venerable AZCardinals.com writer Darren Urban wrote that speedy receiver John Brown "looks past his health concerns," Brown suffered a quad injury.

Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins: Coach Jay Gruden said that Reed "may have twisted an ankle" overcompensating for a toe issue, which sounds like a Mad Lib of Rotoworld posts on Reed from the last four seasons.

Marcell Dareus, DT, Buffalo Bills: After an injury-plagued 2016 campaign, Dareus started this year in familiar fashion with a hamstring issue.

Pernell McPhee, OLB, Chicago Bears: Theoretically Chicago's most disruptive defender, McPhee underwent surgery to start camp after playing fewer than 300 snaps a year ago. With McPhee due more than $7 million, it's worth wondering if he and the similarly paid Lamarr Houston are both locks to make the team.

Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers: He's out on the field practicing after shoulder surgery, but Supercam hasn't yet returned.

"It seems to me he doesn't have that fastball back. He doesn't have that trademark zip we are used to seeing," Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer said over the weekend.

Newton also sat out some portions of practice Sunday to rest his arm. On the plus side, there's plenty of time for Newton to get right.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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