Beginning in January and continuing through August 2016, a quiet murmur built to a buzz regarding Ravens linebacker Zach Orr. An undrafted free agent in 2014, Orr made the Ravens as a special teams player. After standout play on special teams, with the Ravens looking for a weakside inside linebacker in 2016, they gave Orr the opportunity last summer. He played his way into a starting role, finishing the year with All-Pro honors as the Ravens’ leading tackler.
Earlier this week, there were reports the Ravens were making significant progress on contract extension talks with Orr who was scheduled to be a restricted free agent this off-season. It seemed the Ravens defense would be set at inside linebacker with Orr and CJ Mosley as formidable building blocks inside. After a solid season for the Ravens defense, they appeared positioned nicely for a rebuild with focus on upgrading and adding depth at outside linebackers and improving their cornerback situation.
Things quickly changed last Friday. In a surprising development, at only 24 years old, Orr announced his retirement after a breakout season which was expected to result in a meaningful contract extension prior to the 2017 season. Reports suggest he was working towards an agreement with the Ravens in which Orr would earn more than $2 million in 2017 alone.
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Late in the season, Orr was placed on injured reserve with a neck injury he suffered against the Steelers in week 16. After an initial MRI identified a herniated disk in his neck, a subsequent CT scan revealed a rare spine and neck condition. Orr was born with it, but the condition was never identified. The biggest implication is it could lead to paralysis if he were hit the wrong way. With the significant risk, the decision appears to have been easy, though Orr’s hands may have been tied.
While some reports suggest the Ravens tried to talk Orr out of the retirement decision, in reality, it doesn’t appear he had a choice. It’s also unclear whether the claim regarding the Ravens attempt is true. In an interview following the announcement, Orr explained doctors told him he’s unlikely to ever pass an NFL physical again. He also explicitly stated no one tried to talk him out of it. For him, the decision was clear-cut – to play through the condition and accept the massive risk was not an option.
It’s an unfortunate turn for a linebacker whose effort was off the charts, ascending from an undrafted free agent to All-Pro. However, the CT scan may be a blessing in disguise as he savors his long-term health.
This ultimately leaves the Ravens in a bind, especially considering they thought they struck gold with Orr. Here is how this shakes up IDP values and opportunity:
Zach Orr, LB
He’s a safe drop. Hearing him speak on the topic and knowing the long-term health risks, it’s clear he’s finished with football unless a new surgery surfaces to remedy the condition and mitigate any health risks. I consider rostering Orr a waste of a roster spot.
CJ Mosley, LB
Orr’s breakout in 2016 worked to Mosley’s detriment. Mosley missed a few games midseason due to injury and picked up his play in the last few games of the season – one of which Orr was out – but Orr cannibalized Mosley’s tackle opportunities and production. With the apparent scale back in competition ahead, Mosley should see an increase in production in 2017. He’s back to a LB1 level for me.
Albert McClellan, LB
McClellan was never a consistent producer for the Ravens and is more of a role player than starter, but he should see an increase in opportunities in 2017 if no other options are added via free agency or the draft. However, he’ll compete with two young options who are much more favorable IDP stashes than McClellan.
Kamalei Correa, LB
Correa saw reps at inside linebacker throughout the off-season last year. A 2016 second round pick who possesses a good amount of athleticism and potential, he is versatile enough to play either outside or inside linebacker. With an immediate need inside, Correa is the popular on-roster favorite to replace Orr. In limited action, Correa finished his rookie season with four tackles before being placed on injured reserve late in the season with a rib injury. He played in nine games seeing much of his opportunities on special teams.
Considering he saw time inside in the preseason last year, Correa appears to be a good bet to elevate to the starting role. If available, he should be stashed. However, there’s another rookie who’s a longer shot, but also a worthy stash in deeper leagues.
Patrick Onwuasor, LB
Another undrafted free agent, Onwuasor started for Orr in week 17 against the Bengals finishing with six assists on 68% of snaps. Correa was on injured reserve, so it’s unclear how the snap share would have played out if he were healthy.
Onwuasor played safety at Portland State, but moved to inside linebacker with the Ravens. He impressed throughout training camp with his physicality as reports often spoke of Onwuasor’s big hits. That tough mentality is a prototypical trait of a Ravens’ defense and something they could use more of.
He’s an undersized linebacker at 6’0 and 217 pounds, but with the safety experience and nice interception numbers from college, the three down potential is there. If Correa is not available, Onwuasor should be stashed if you have room.
Knowing how the Ravens develop undrafted free agents and use the hunger and chip on the shoulder type of attitude to their advantage, Onwuasor may not be the long shot he appears to be. I consider him the dark horse, but definitely someone with a realistic shot.
If the Ravens aren’t confident in either of their rookies developing into the starter, there will likely be plenty of viable options on the market. Here are a few names tabbed to be unrestricted free agents who the Ravens could consider if ultimately available: Lawrence Timmons, Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Smith, Zach Brown, Keenan Robinson and AJ Klein, among others.
The draft is also a possibility, especially after the first round, but there are plenty of needs which could be considered more pressing such as offensive line, outside linebacker (Terrell Suggs aging, Elvis Dumervil a potential cut candidate), free safety (Lardarius Webb aging), receiver and cornerback.
With Orr’s retirement, Mosley’s value increases due to a likely increase in tackle opportunities and production. The Ravens other inside linebacker spot needs to be monitored through the off-season to see how it settles. There is plenty of IDP value up for grabs and the best current stash options are Correa and Onwuasor.