NFL Nation: Dennis Pitta

The Baltimore Ravens have traded back in the first round in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Could they do it again in 2014?

The Ravens will likely have the opportunity to do so. In the past, teams have wanted to trade up in the draft because of quarterbacks. This year, teams will be looking to move up to the Ravens' No. 17 spot for a wide receiver, especially if LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. is sitting there.

The Philadelphia Eagles (No. 22), New Orleans Saints (No. 27) and San Francisco 49ers (No. 30) are potential trade partners with the Ravens. What could the Ravens expect to get in return? The Eagles would need to give up a third-round pick to move up five spots, and the Saints and 49ers may need to hand over second-rounders.

Still, is trading back worth it for the Ravens? Let's look at the three previous times they moved back in the first round:

2008 DRAFT

The Ravens dropped from No. 8 to No. 26 and received two third-round picks (Nos. 71 and 89) and a fourth-round one (No. 125) from the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens needed to trade one of those third-round picks (No. 89) to move back up to No. 18 to make sure they got quarterback Joe Flacco.

The net result of moving back was linebacker Tavares Gooden (No. 71 pick overall) and cornerback Fabian Washington (acquired for the No. 125 pick from the Oakland Raiders). Gooden started 12 games in three injury-filled seasons with the Ravens, and Washington started three seasons before being benched.

2010 DRAFT

The Ravens moved out of the first round, going from No. 25 overall to No. 43. In return, the Ravens got a third-round pick (No. 70) and a fourth-round one (No. 114) from the Denver Broncos.

Those extra picks became tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, both of whom were fixtures in the offense for the past three seasons. While Dickson is considered a disappointment, Pitta has become one of Flacco's go-to receivers.

But the top picks didn't work out for the Ravens or the Broncos. Denver traded up to get quarterback Tim Tebow, and the Ravens selected linebacker Sergio Kindle in the second round. Kindle was the worst top pick in Ravens' history.

Still, the Ravens likely wouldn't have fared much better if they stayed in the first round. The Ravens were eyeing pass rusher Jerry Hughes, who struggled his first three seasons before recording 10 sacks last season.

2012 DRAFT

Like the Ravens did in 2010, they moved out of the first round. This time, the Ravens fell just six spots from No. 29 to No. 35 and received a fourth-round pick (No. 98) in return.

The Ravens were still able to get linebacker Courtney Upshaw, their possible selection in the first round, even though they dropped into the second round. That fourth-round pick became center Gino Gradkowski, who started last season but is expected to be a backup this year.
After the Baltimore Ravens announced the signing of tight end Owen Daniels, coach John Harbaugh said, "You guys know football. You can see where this is going.”

The direction of the Ravens' offense is two-tight end formations. It's been a favorite formation of new Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak during his years with the Houston Texans, and it falls in line with the Ravens' philosophy. Harbaugh has always said the best 11 players will be on the field, and that translates to a lot of significant playing time for Daniels and Dennis Pitta.

Lining up two tight ends will be a drastic change for the Ravens. Last season, no team ran fewer plays with multiple tight ends than the Ravens (155 snaps), the result of not having Pitta for 12 games. Under Kubiak, no team ran more plays with multiple tight ends over the past three seasons than the Texans (an average of 625 snaps), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Daniels, who played eight seasons under Kubiak in Houston, predicts the Ravens will have plenty of two-tight end sets in the playbook.

"We've got the guys here to do it," Daniels said. "That always makes things tough on defenses. When you run the ball well, that makes the defenses make decisions on personnel, and you kind of go off that. I would say look for more of that in the future.”

For years, the Ravens were the traditional I-formation, power running team. Their offense revolved around Jamal Lewis and Ray Rice following a fullback and gashing defenses.

The Ravens' game plan changed last year when they were unable to run the ball. The team phased out fullback Vonta Leach and decided to spread out defenses with three wide receivers.

The Ravens' base offense is expected to evolve again after the Ravens re-signed Pitta and added Daniels. The team can go with two tight ends, wide receivers Torrey Smith and Steve Smith and Rice at the skill positions.

The Ravens can be versatile with this personnel grouping. They can split out either Pitta or Daniels (or both) to have a four-wide look because both tight ends are such strong pass-catchers. Or they can line Pitta and Daniels next to the offensive tackles for a more run-heavy formation, which could also set up play-action passes.

The key to running the ball out of a two-tight end formation will be the effectiveness of Pitta and Daniels as blockers. Opening holes for the run game isn't the strength of Pitta and Daniels, although Daniels is considered a functional blocker.

Asked whether the Ravens are still looking for a blocking tight end, Harbaugh looked at Daniels and said they'll take that as an insult.

"You can’t just be one-dimensional. If you’re one-dimensional, and you can’t block, you’ll probably be out there, and you’re basically a wide receiver," Harbaugh said. "That conversation has been had. If you’re in there, and you’re a tight end, and you can’t run a route, you’re basically an offensive tackle. Everybody knows it. The ability to do both well, or at least do one thing great and the other thing adequately, you have to have that."

Harbaugh added, "Owen Daniels is a good blocker. Put on the tape, and you’re going to see a very good blocker. He understands the blocking scheme. So, I wouldn’t take that away from him. Hey, if we end up with some punishing, dominating, end-of-the-line-of-scrimmage blocker, you’ll see me smiling. But our two guys right now block really well, too.”
MINNEAPOLIS -- As the Minnesota Vikings emerge from the busiest period of free agency with more than $11 million left in cap space, they can begin to turn their attention to the pursuits that will occupy the rest of that money.

Rudolph
They'll need roughly $6.5 million for their 2014 rookie pool, though as Overthecap.com estimates, they'd only need about $3.2 million in salary cap space for those players, assuming many of their cap numbers aren't among the top 51 contracts on the roster. The Vikings could also look in the coming months toward a contract extension for tight end Kyle Rudolph, who will be a free agent next spring, has said several times he wants to stay with the Vikings and reiterated that this week in a pair of remarks (to the St. Paul Pioneer Press and KSTP-TV).

A league source said there have been "no talks whatsoever" between the Vikings and Rudolph's agent about a contract extension, and even though the tight end wants to get a deal done this offseason, it might behoove him to wait. After missing eight games last season with a broken foot, he'd benefit from a full season in Norv Turner's offense (which has been famously friendly to tight ends) and could command more money with big numbers in 2014. The Vikings haven't been in the mode of signing their players to extensions before the final years of their contracts, anyway; they got Brian Robison's four-year deal done last October, and waited until just before free agency to sign Everson Griffen this spring and Phil Loadholt last year.

But while it's probably too soon to assume things will heat up between the Vikings and Rudolph, it does seem like a good possibility the Vikings will reward the former second-round pick for a big season. The team cut John Carlson this spring, further cementing Rudolph's status as their top tight end, and the Vikings have few other major free agents next spring; guard Brandon Fusco could be in line for a new deal, but players like wide receiver Jerome Simpson, defensive end Corey Wootton, safety Jamarca Sanford and fullback Jerome Felton (who can opt out of his deal after next season) would be relatively affordable to keep, if the Vikings did indeed want to retain them.

With a big season, Rudolph might be able to get a deal along the lines of the one the Baltimore Ravens gave tight end Dennis Pitta last month. Pitta, who was drafted a year earlier than Rudolph and caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012 before getting hurt last season, got a five-year, $32 million deal, with $16 million guaranteed. While there's nothing developing between Rudolph and the Vikings in terms of an extension yet -- and there might not be quite as soon as the tight end might like -- he's in a good spot to produce and get rewarded for it.
Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta made a compelling argument Wednesday on why the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham shouldn't be penalized for being given the franchise tag for a tight end rather than a wide receiver.

"He gets labeled as a tight end, and for whatever reason, that somehow decreases his value," Pitta said after signing his five-year, $32 million contract. "I don’t understand that part of it. I think he’s been a top producer in this league, certainly on his team, [and] led his team in catches, yards, touchdowns. Why all of a sudden, because he’s labeled as a tight end, does that devalue his stock?"

Pitta
Even though you would expect a tight end to support one of his peers, it's strange that Pitta spoke out so strongly about this. Pitta's new contract averages $6.4 million per season, which is in line with the franchise tag for a tight end ($7 million) and not a wide receiver ($12.3 million). The deal he signed suggests Pitta agrees with the current value of tight ends.

Pitta ended up with $16 million guaranteed, which is a good chunk of money for a tight end, but it's only $4 million more than what he would've earned in one season if he successfully won a grievance to be tagged as a receiver. Perhaps this is a case where Pitta believes tight ends should get paid more like receivers but he wasn't confident others would feel the same way.

"More power to [Graham], I think it’s something that he should challenge because it's not right that he can catch more touchdowns and more yards than maybe someone who is classified as a wide receiver, yet because he has that tight end label, now all of a sudden his value is cut in half," Pitta said.

Here are some other takeaways from Pitta's news conference:
  • Pitta feels fortunate to sign this type of a deal only seven months after having emergency surgery on his hip. "There were a few weeks after my surgery when I didn't know if I would play football again, which is a tough pill to swallow," Pitta said. "To be able to sit here now, to have an opportunity to be on the field and be with this team for a few more years to come, it's a blessing."
  • There will be no Joe Flacco-like celebration for Pitta after signing his deal. “I probably won't go to McDonald's after this," said Pitta, alluding to the fact that Flacco stopped for some McNuggets after reaching his $120.6 million deal a year ago before adding, "No, I didn't get Joe Flacco money, so he will still be paying for dinners."
  • Pitta acknowledged he wasn't at full strength when he returned in December. "I didn't have any pain and I felt good playing, but kind of that quickness and that explosion wasn't all the way back, which was expected," Pitta said. "Typically, you don’t regain that in four months after surgery, and so that’s something that I continue to work on, and I've been training and trying to get that to 100 percent, which I'm close.”
  • There are plans for Flacco to meet with the receivers and tight ends before the team officially begins its offseason program. "I know that's something Joe wants to get done," Pitta said. "He wants to be able to meet with us and kind of get on the same page and go over some of the new things that we're going to be doing. So, I'm sure we’ll get that ironed out in the next few weeks.”
Let's take a look at the Baltimore Ravens' Twitter mailbag:

 

Nearly a year ago to this day, the Baltimore Ravens signed quarterback Joe Flacco to an NFL-record contract. On Friday, they gave him another valuable gift.

Signing tight end Dennis Pitta to a five-year, $32 million contract leaves no doubt that Flacco will have his security blanket for the foreseeable future.

There was never any doubt that the Ravens were going to bring back Pitta for the 2014 season. The Ravens were going to put the franchise tag on Pitta if they didn't strike a long-term deal.

The key here is making certain that Pitta is going to be around for years to come. The theme of this offseason for the Ravens is to improve the NFL's 29th-ranked offense. Securing Pitta is a significant move to making this offense better for the long run.

Pitta
At 28, Pitta is in the prime of his career. He gives the Ravens reliability in the passing game. Pitta doesn't drop passes, converts third downs and finds a way to get open in the end zone.

While Pitta doesn't get mentioned in the same company as Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, he is just as valuable to the Ravens' offense. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Pitta has been one of the most frequently targeted tight ends over the last two seasons. Flacco targeted Pitta on 26.4 percent of the routes he ran in 2012 and 2013. That ranks third among tight ends behind Gronkowski (29.2 percent) and Graham (28.7 percent).

Before his hip injury in July 2013, Pitta tied the Ravens record for touchdowns by a tight end with seven in 2012. In the Ravens' Super Bowl run, he scored a touchdown in three of the four postseason games. His 5-yard touchdown grab in the AFC Championship Game put the Ravens ahead for good in the third quarter. His 1-yard touchdown reception in the Super Bowl staked the Ravens to a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.

"Dennis creates a number of mismatch problems for defenses. He makes it tough on them, and because of that, he really helps out our wide receivers," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Opponents have to always pay attention to where he lines up and where his routes take him."

As much as the Ravens were criticized for trading away Anquan Boldin, they should be applauded for getting a deal done with Pitta. He is a clutch performer who steps up in timely situations. The best way to measure Pitta's impact is this: The Ravens ranked 31st in red zone and 20th on third downs with Pitta out for most of 2013. It would be a shock if the Ravens ranked that low with Pitta in the lineup for a full season.

Flacco is happy. He has that intermediate target he trusts to make the catch in traffic and not drop the ball. That was missing from the Ravens' offense last season.

New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is happy. Tight ends are a big part of his offense. Just look at Owen Daniels' production for the Houston Texans.

Pitta is happy. He has a rapport with Flacco, who is his best friend on the team. They often go out together with their wives, whether it's to get pizza or go to an Orioles game. Before games, Pitta and Flacco are usually the first players on the field, throwing passes to get warmed up.

And the Ravens' front office is happy as well. The other factor to signing Pitta to a long-term deal is the Ravens didn't have to use the franchise tag. That would've taken away at least $6.8 million of the Ravens' salary cap heading into free agency. Although the details of Pitta's deal aren't known, the Ravens reduced his cap number this year.

It's simple math: More cap room, more players. This gives the Ravens more freedom to add a center (Alex Mack?), offensive tackle (Eugene Monroe?) and wide receiver (Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks or Julian Edelman?) in free agency. The Ravens are setting themselves up to be active players in the free-agent market after creating $5 million in cap room by releasing fullback Vonta Leach and linebacker Jameel McClain on Thursday.

Another ramification of signing Pitta is this allows the Ravens to turn their focus toward re-signing Monroe. While the sides are reportedly far apart, the Ravens have 11 days to negotiate with him before he hits the free-agent market. He is now the priority on the offensive side of the ball before free agency begins.

Reaching an agreement with Pitta is an impressive first step toward turning around the Ravens offense. But the Ravens know their work is far from done.
In the past two days, the Detroit Lions have been given an idea of what the team might see when free agency starts March 11.

And they have had to make no moves of their own to do so.

By Philadelphia re-signing wide receiver Riley Cooper and Baltimore hanging on to tight end Dennis Pitta, two of the positions the Lions will potentially look to the most in free agency, Detroit now has a base of what could be expected.

Cooper signed a five-year, $25 million contract after a breakout season where he caught 47 passes for 835 yards and eight touchdowns. In a deep crop of free agents at his position, Cooper was part of a tier of player that the Lions are likely going to look at to potentially fill a need, so this gives them a market value to work off of.

Pettigrew
Pettigrew
Pitta’s signing, as first reported by the Baltimore Sun, does more to shape Detroit’s free agency than Cooper’s will. Pitta’s contract will be five years for $32 million, according to ESPN Insider Adam Schefter, and it could give an idea of what the Lions’ own comparable tight end in the free agent market, Brandon Pettigrew, might want.

It would be logical to think that Pettigrew would at least seek out a deal similar in value to Pitta and depending how Detroit feels about that situation, could give an early indication whether the team might feel that is worth it to pursue.

Pettigrew actually put together better statistics than Pitta during the overlapping parts of their careers -- Pettigrew has one more year of service than Pitta -- but they are capable of doing similar things. Both are tight ends who are considered dual-purpose, meaning they can block and catch, so that helps set the market even further.

The final piece of this, and perhaps the reason why Pettigrew might end up leaving Detroit, is he might now be the top free-agent tight end. With New Orleans using the franchise tag on Jimmy Graham and the signing of Pitta, Pettigrew and Buffalo's Scott Chandler are now the top free-agent tight ends likely to hit the market in less than two weeks.

That could drive the value for Pettigrew higher than it might have been had Pitta not re-upped with the Ravens.

Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew said at the NFL combine a week ago that Pettigrew is a priority free agent for the Lions, but like with every move the team makes, everything will be interconnected both with comparative value through the rest of the league and also how it fits with other free agents the Lions are going to try and acquire.
I don't think there is any doubt that the Baltimore Ravens will use the franchise tag on Dennis Pitta if they can't reach a deal in six days. The only question is how much Pitta should get paid under the tag.

Pitta
Just like Jimmy Graham in New Orleans, Pitta is expected to argue that he should be compensated like a wide receiver even though his official position is tight end. This is a $5 million battle. The tag for a tight end is worth $6.8 million while wide receivers are worth $11.6 million.

From my perspective, Pitta is a tight end and should be paid like one. I understand that Pitta lined up in the slot on 79.7 percent of his routes this past season, the highest of any tight end in the league. But this shouldn't be determined by percentages, and this shouldn't be complicated. As my colleague Paul Kuharsky once said, it should come down to what meeting room you're in. If Pitta attends the tight end meetings, that's his position. It's quite simple.

If you need further convincing, Pitta was drafted as a tight end. He is introduced on game days as a tight end. He is on the Pro Bowl ballot as a tight end. And Pitta runs routes like tight ends and not like Torrey Smith or Jacoby Jones.

The Baltimore Sun's Mike Preston agrees that Pitta should get a tight end's paycheck. He suggests the Ravens make the point that Pitta would line up like a traditional tight end more if he was a better blocker.

How will this issue get resolved? I wouldn't be surprised if there was a compromise because there is a precedent. In 2008, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs filed a grievance, saying he should get tagged as a defensive end instead of an outside linebacker. The sides agreed to meet in the middle on a hybrid defensive end-linebacker designation before it reached arbitration. This could be the same result with Pitta. If there is a tight end-wide receiver tag, it would cost $9.2 million.

The Ravens and Pitta can avoid all of this gray area if they reach a long-term deal. The NFL Network reported Monday that the sides are making progress on a new contract, but a deal isn't imminent. The Ravens aren't going to let Pitta reach free agency. They just don't know how much it will cost them to do so.

Franchise/transition tags: Ravens

February, 17, 2014
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The Baltimore Ravens have used the franchise tag seven times in their 18-year history. If the Ravens tag someone this offseason -- and the window to do so begins Monday -- it'll be tight end Dennis Pitta.

Pitta
The Ravens finished 29th in offense last season and can't afford to let Joe Flacco's security blanket go elsewhere. Pitta is too valuable in the red zone and on third downs to let him hit free agency. At 28, Pitta is reaching the prime of his career. Before the hip injury last season, he set career highs in catches (61), receiving yards (669) and touchdowns (seven) in 2012. During the Ravens' Super Bowl run, Pitta had touchdowns in three of the team's four postseason games.

Plus, tight end is the thinnest position on the Ravens' roster right now. Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark are also free agents. The only ones signed are Matt Furstenburg and Nathan Overbay, both of whom were on the practice squad last season.

The question with Pitta is how much would it cost the Ravens to tag him. Pitta could make the case that he deserves to be tagged as a wide receiver ($11.5 million) and not as a tight end ($6.7 million) because he primarily lined up in the slot last season. The best-case scenario is for the Ravens to reach a long-term deal before the March 3 deadline to use the tag. Pitta is expected to command a contract worth $4 million to $5 million per season if he reached free agency. If the Ravens franchise Pitta, they'd have until July 15 to negotiate an extension with him.

There has been speculation that the Ravens may use the tag on offensive tackle Eugene Monroe. This is considered unlikely because Monroe isn't worth the projected $11 million tag, and the Ravens don't feel pressure to use it on him. The Ravens believe they have a good chance to retaining Monroe in free agency. If they can't, the Ravens have other options such as signing Michael Oher to be their left tackle (which won't be a popular decision) or moving Kelechi Osemele from left guard to tackle.

It makes more sense for the Ravens to tag Pitta.
The Detroit Lions removed themselves from the salary cap crunch last week by releasing two of their veterans, Nate Burleson and Louis Delmas, but it still does not mean the team is planning on using its franchise tag this season.

There just isn’t reason to. The team locked up center Dominic Raiola to a one-year deal. It won’t use the tag on defensive end Willie Young. The only player who could conceivably earn the tag is tight end Brandon Pettigrew, but considering the likely price on that will be more than $6 million for one year, it seems unlikely the team would use it.

When general manager Martin Mayhew was asked about the franchise tag at the Senior Bowl, he gave his usual noncommittal answer about potentially using it, saying the team needed to evaluate various things with its unrestricted free agents.

And as good as Pettigrew has been at times in the Detroit system, he is not one of the top five tight ends in the NFL, so he isn’t going to be worth that type of price tag. While the tight end market might not be massive -- Dennis Pitta from Baltimore could be the top option out there -- there are players who could fit what Detroit wants and who would come at a potentially cheaper rate.

One of those is Pettigrew, which is another reason to not tag him. But Dustin Keller is an intriguing free agent if he can return from his knee injury suffered last preseason. Also, Pitta has experience with Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell.

The draft has some intriguing tight end options as well. So those avenues could be the way the team maneuvers when it comes to filling that spot.

Meanwhile, and not to jump too far ahead, but the talk of the franchise tag will likely be much heavier a season from now, especially if defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh does not sign a long-term extension this offseason. Then, this conversation would reach an entirely different category.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Throughout last season, Brandon Pettigrew didn’t want to talk about the looming offseason and where things could be headed.

He preferred to stay focused on the present, on his fifth year with the Detroit Lions and trying to turn himself into one of the NFL’s top multi-purpose tight ends. He was in a contract year, but tried not to worry much about that.

He would deflect all of those questions and say he wasn’t concerned about it. That he would deal with it after his season ended. Now he has no choice. Free agency is a month away and the team’s decision on whether to pursue re-signing Pettigrew is one of the biggest left for the team after they chose to bring back center Dominic Raiola on a one-year deal.

[+] EnlargeMatt Elam
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesBrandon Pettigrew is the type of well-rounded tight end that new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi covets.
Throughout his five years in Detroit, Pettigrew has gained the trust of Matthew Stafford, but has also had streaks of inconsistency where he dropped passes. He improved in that area last season. He had a career-low in drops in 2013 (four) but that also came with the fewest receptions, targets, yards and touchdowns since his rookie season in 2009.

It wasn’t that he was being shuffled out of the Lions' offense as he played 925 of 1,158 snaps according to Pro Football Focus and started every game until an ankle injury in Week 15 against Baltimore ended his season. But with a young offensive line and more of a focus on the running game with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, the team needed him to run block and pass protect just as much as they needed him to run routes.

His dual ability could lead Detroit to decide it wants to try and keep the 28-year-old Texan. He was, by far, the most well-rounded tight end on the Lions' roster last season as rookie Joseph Fauria was more of a route-runner and pass-catcher and Dorin Dickerson was a fill-in replacement when Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, who was released, were injured.

And Lions new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi values what Pettigrew is able to do.

“It’s important to have a guy that can block the point of attack,” Lombardi said. “That’s important. A lot of teams are going to back-or-forth these days and you need a tight end that can hold up against those guys. And then, you want a guy who can be a pass receiver so you’re always looking for those well-rounded guys.

“But, again, I’ve never been in a mode of I want to define exactly what this player is and then you have to go find him for me. Go find the best player you can. And if it is Jimmy Graham, we’re going to find a way to make it work. We’re going to find plays to help him be successful . When it was Jeremy Shockey, we might have had a little different philosophy with his strengths and weakness. So you want a guy who is a great blocker and a great receiver, obviously, and those guys are rare and hard to find.”

Pettigrew, theoretically, is one of those guys and his potential free-agent value could force the Lions to look somewhere else to replace him.

That could be in the draft, although Detroit has bigger needs than addressing the tight end spot in the first round. But if North Carolina’s Eric Ebron or Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins were available in the second round, it could be worth a pick investment. Same with Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro, Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas and Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz in the third or fourth rounds.

Of these players, Seferian-Jenkins and Niklas could be the two most intriguing prospects -- although Ebron is the most talented pass-catching tight end in the draft.

If the Lions choose to re-sign Pettigrew, it would be unlikely the team would also draft a tight end.

The other option, of course, is free agency. While Graham could be the marquee name there, it is highly unlikely he reaches free agency. Even if he did, he would be well out of the Lions' price range. The non-Graham options in the free-agent pool aren't huge names, but there are some players who could fit.

Dennis Pitta played for Jim Caldwell in Baltimore and has shown to be a combination tight end when he was healthy in 2011 and 2012. Dallas Clark also played for Caldwell, but he is 33 years old and probably not worth an investment at this point.

Dustin Keller, the former New York Jet and current Miami Dolphin, is a free agent and after the knee injury that ended his 2013 season in the preseason, he could be available cheap on a one-year deal. That would give the team a chance to figure out whether or not Fauria or Michael Williams, the seventh-round pick last year that ended up on injured reserve, could grow into the full-time starter role. Keller had a $4.25 million cap number in 2013, but after the injury he could be looking for a spot to prove himself again.

While these are some of the potential options, the main thing for the Lions in the next few days and weeks is figuring out how much Pettigrew is worth to them as an organization and whether or not they can find someone to replace him.

A look at the AFC North

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The lone AFC North team in the playoffs made another early exit Sunday when the No. 3 Bengals lost to the No. 6 Chargers, 27-10, at Paul Brown Stadium. With all four division teams now in offseason mode, here is a quick look at them by order of finish in the AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals

2013 record: 11-5, 3-3 in division

Key free agents: DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins

Biggest question: Have coach Marvin Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton taken the Bengals as far as they can?

Biggest reason for hope: Despite losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season, the Bengals have a very good nucleus. Rookie Giovani Bernard showed enough to think his time splitting carries with the plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis is over.

Why they might disappoint: Dalton has faltered too many times in big games to think he can take the next step, and just making the playoffs is no longer good enough in Cincinnati.

Overall state of the franchise: The Bengals find themselves at a crossroads, but they have little choice but to stick with Dalton -- for now -- unless they want to draft a quarterback in the first round and hand over a veteran team to him.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 record: 8-8, 4-2

Key free agents: OLB Jason Worilds, WR Emmanuel Sanders

Biggest question: Will the Steelers re-establish themselves as Super Bowl contenders while re-tooling their defense?

Biggest reason for hope: The offense will be able to mask some of the issues the Steelers have on defense if it builds on its strong second half of the 2013 season.

Why they might disappoint: The defense could get worse before it gets better if younger players don’t emerge in the secondary and Worilds signs elsewhere.

Overall state of the franchise: The Steelers are facing a lot of uncertainty, but a 6-2 finish and the way the offense has come together point to them returning to postseason play in 2014 after missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

Baltimore Ravens

2013 record: 8-8, 3-3

Key free agents: TE Dennis Pitta, LB Daryl Smith

Biggest question: Did the Ravens suffer through the dreaded Super Bowl hangover or are they in decline?

Biggest reason for hope: Joe Flacco is a franchise quarterback, and there is still plenty of talent on both sides of the ball.

Why they might disappoint: The Ravens, like the Steelers, are clearly in transition on defense. Two cornerstones of that defense -- outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata -- no longer dominate on a consistent basis.

Overall state of the franchise: Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh are as good as any general manager-coach tandem in the NFL, and they have to be given the benefit of the doubt even though the Ravens slipped this season.

Cleveland Browns

2013 record: 4-12, 2-4

Key free agents: C Alex Mack, S T.J. Ward

Biggest question: Will a new coach and a quarterback finally stabilize an organization that has floundered, often spectacularly, since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999?

Biggest reason for hope: There are some pieces in place, most notably wide receiver Josh Gordon, cornerback Joe Haden and left tackle Joe Thomas, and the Browns have a pair of first-round picks, including the fourth overall selection.

Why they may disappoint: Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden are the quarterbacks the Browns have drafted in the first round since 1999. Why should Browns fans think they will get it right in this draft?

Overall state of the franchise: The Browns dumped coach Rob Chudzinski after just one season, and unless they find the right replacement and, oh yeah, a quarterback in the draft, the Browns will continue to bottom feed in the AFC North.

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect Sunday's results.]

For the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions, the playoffs are beginning well before the actual postseason starts. In reality for both teams, they begin Monday night.

Both the Ravens and Lions are fighting for playoff berths and are hanging on to those spots by head-to-head tiebreakers -- in the Lions' case for the NFC North title and for the Ravens, the No. 6 seed in the AFC.

The Ravens need to win to keep pace with Miami, which beat New England on Sunday, for a wild-card berth. The Lions need a win to keep pace with Chicago, which won Sunday at Cleveland.

ESPN.com Detroit Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Baltimore Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley break down what might happen Monday and who might leave "Monday Night Football" still with a playoff berth in their hands.

Rothstein: Up until Sunday, Detroit's run defense had been very, very good. Add to that Ray Rice appears to be struggling this season. What's going on with Rice and does the Lions' stout run defense mean more of Monday night's game is on the shoulders of Joe Flacco?

Hensley: Rice's best two games over the past eight weeks have come against NFC North teams, but a lot of backs have had success against the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings this year. The Ravens would love Rice to duplicate what LeSean McCoy (217 yards rushing) did against the Lions, but I'm pretty sure there's not going to be any snow in Ford Field. Getting the run game on track has been the biggest challenge for the Ravens, who are averaging a league-worst 3.0 yards per carry.

Baltimore hasn't abandoned the ground attack. The Ravens, though, haven't shown much confidence in it either. They have put the ball in the hands of their $120.6 million quarterback to win games. Flacco has thrown over 30 passes in nine of the past 10 games. The problem with that strategy has been the increase in turnovers. Flacco has thrown a career-worst 17 interceptions, including three Sunday. Only two quarterbacks -- Geno Smith and Eli Manning -- have thrown more.

Speaking of turnovers, why have the Lions had so much trouble holding onto the ball this year?

Rothstein: It's a combination of factors, starting with Matthew Stafford. In some ways -- and yes, weather is an excuse here -- Sunday's "fumbleathon" against Philadelphia can be attributed to the weather because so many of those miscues happened when visibility was nil and in blizzard-like conditions. But Stafford has thrown a lot of interceptions in the second half of the season and some of those are just poor reads with which he should be doing better. Others are the fault of his receivers, who lead the league in drops with 41, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Reggie Bush has had some fumbling issues, too, and that has been a major problem for the Lions' top free-agent acquisition. It really comes down to Bush improving his ball security and Stafford making smarter decisions.

You mention the Jimmy Smith-Calvin Johnson matchup in the video. Every team has kind of schemed differently for Johnson this season. What do you think the Ravens will do?

Hensley: The Ravens don't have their cornerbacks shadow the same receivers, but they will want Smith on Johnson as much as possible because he's their most physical defender. Smith is going to have to play better against Johnson than he did in the 2012 preseason. In the game, Smith was beaten by Johnson on a leaping, 18-yard touchdown. He later held Johnson when the receiver went past him on the next drive.

But Smith is playing with more confidence and more aggressiveness in his first full season starting. He has allowed only 22 catches over his past 10 games. That is an impressive total when you consider he has covered the likes of Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown during that time.

The Ravens have some speedy receivers as well with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Of course, Flacco will need time to get the ball to them. How difficult will it be for the Ravens to slow down the Lions' pass rush?

Rothstein: Depends which pass rush shows up. If it is the one that played in the last Green Bay game (seven sacks), then Flacco's success will be predicated on whether he can make the first read correctly. If the pass rush is less successful, then Flacco could have a big day. Much of it will depend on how many people Baltimore keeps home besides the five offensive linemen.

If Baltimore decides to try to block Ndamukong Suh one-on-one, it'll be a long night. The pass rush's success also will depend on rookie end Ziggy Ansah. If Ansah is healthy enough to play, he becomes a huge difference-maker for the Lions as teams have really struggled to deal with Suh on the inside and Ansah outside. If Ansah can't play -- he injured his shoulder against Philadelphia -- then that's a big bonus for the Ravens.

The Ravens were a Super Bowl team last year. Now, they appear to be very much in the middle of the pack. Did Ray Lewis and Anquan Boldin make that big of a difference?

Hensley: I would argue that the Ravens have missed a healthy Dennis Pitta (out 12 games with dislocated hip) and Jacoby Jones (injured knee in season opener) more than Boldin and Lewis. You can throw in there that the Ravens have missed the same production from Ray Rice as well. Offensively, the Ravens haven't had as much of a void with Boldin as previously thought. Torrey Smith has assumed the No. 1 receiver job, and rookie Marlon Brown has been a weapon in the red zone with six touchdowns. And defensively, there hasn't been much talk of the loss of Lewis because Daryl Smith has played so well in the middle. The Ravens defense is statistically much better than last year's group.

So, why has there been so much of a drop-off this year? The offensive line and Rice have been major disappointments. There have been too few running lanes and too many sacks allowed. The lack of a running game and the inability of Rice to make plays in the open field have hamstrung this offense. The other problem has been coming up short in close games. Last year, the Ravens had the NFL's most wins in games decided by three points or fewer. This year, Baltimore has the second-most losses (four) in such games. The Ravens have begun to find a way to win those close games recently, which is why they're back in the playoff race.

The Ravens have historically come through in these December games, which is why they've made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons. Do the Lions feel added pressure in times like these because they've made the playoffs only once since the 1999 season?

Rothstein: I don’t think they do, but there is a lot at stake for Detroit over these last three games. Besides the Lions' second playoff appearance in three seasons, this is a chance at Detroit’s first division title since 1993 and if the Lions don’t make the playoffs, there probably will be at least a conversation about Jim Schwartz’s future in Detroit.

So there are, without question, a lot of things weighing on the Lions. But for them it has been all about the mistakes they have been making and what they need to correct. Whether they do that over the last three games will essentially decide their fate.

BALTIMORE -- In a game that featured the most incredible final two minutes of any NFL game, the ultimate comeback was delivered by Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta.

It was less than five months ago when Pitta dislocated his hip on the first contact practice of training camp. Ravens coach John Harbaugh originally declared Pitta out for the season, and Pitta actually feared the worst.

[+] EnlargeDennis Pitta
AP Photo/Nick WassThe return of tight end Dennis Pitta, right, from a hip injury is good news for Joe Flacco and the Ravens.
This is why Sunday's 29-26 win against the Minnesota Vikings was the perfect time for Pitta's first game back. It was an unbelievable game for an unbelievable return.

"I remember when I got injured, I didn’t know if I was even going to play football again," said Pitta, who was activated from the injured reserve-designated for return list. "So being able to stand here and talk about a victory and being a part of that is special for me. And just being a part of this team and being able to fight the way we did today is pretty remarkable.”

Pitta didn't simply play "a part" in the Ravens' third straight victory. He led the charge, finishing with six catches for 48 yards.

With the Ravens trailing by five points (12-7) with about four minutes remaining, Pitta converted a third-down in the red zone with a six-yard catch, and put Baltimore back ahead four plays later with a one-yard touchdown reception on fourth-and-goal.

Going back to the sideline, Pitta was met with a big bug from coach John Harbaugh.

"I think we all appreciate Dennis Pitta being back and what he means to our team," Harbaugh said. "When you see the work a guy puts in in rehab in this league to get back from an injury like that, then you appreciate a moment like that.”

Pitta had a slow start, which is understandable for a player who hadn't suited up since the Super Bowl. He dropped one pass -- which is virtually unheard of for a tight end who had three drops in his previous two seasons -- and had a slightly off-target throw go off his fingertips.

It took four passes to Pitta for quarterback Joe Flacco to finally connect with his one-time security blanket. The "Pitta is finally back" moment came midway through the third quarter, when Pitta made a diving six-yard catch in which he stretched out horizontally to make the grab.

In just one game, Pitta showed the Ravens what they've been missing with him being on the sidelines for the first 13 weeks of the season. He moved the chains with two third-down catches and delivered a touchdown in the red zone.

"I felt good throughout the game and didn’t think about my hip, which is encouraging going forward," Pitta said. "[I] was able to just go out and play.”

This was reminiscent of the past. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Flacco has completed 75 percent of his attempts to Pitta in the red zone the past two seasons, but only 44.6 percent to all other Ravens (including playoffs).

"There is some kind of a chemistry there between those two guys that is probably hard to explain," Harbaugh said of Flacco and Pitta.

Flacco and Pitta are good friends, and it comes through on the field and in the locker room. Asked about Pitta's game, Flacco couldn't help to take a playful jab, saying, "He looked a little goofy on a couple catches."

It looked like the same old Pitta in the final minute of the game. On the winning drive, he drew an 18-yard pass interference penalty and caught an 18-yard pass, which set up the touchdown pass to Marlon Brown.

"Obviously, he’s going to get better and better as the weeks go on," Flacco said. "He’s a huge player for us. He knows how to get open, he knows how to run routes, and he catches the football. He means a lot.”
BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens knew Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings was a must-win in terms of their playoff hopes. They just didn't know they would have to win it three times in the final 2 minutes, 5 seconds of the game.

The Ravens took late-fourth-quarter leads on touchdowns from tight end Dennis Pitta and kickoff returner Jacoby Jones, but it wasn't until Joe Flacco hit Marlon Brown in the back of the end zone with four seconds remaining that Baltimore could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Jones
AP Photo/Gail BurtonJacoby Jones returned a kickoff for one of five touchdowns in the final 2:05 of Sunday's game.
By the time the dust cleared -- actually, it was a few inches of snow at M&T Bank Stadium that needed to be cleared-- the Ravens had won 29-26 and held onto the No. 6 and final seed in the AFC by coming out on top in a fourth quarter that featured 42 points and six lead changes.

"Will we ever see another game like that again?" Ravens coach John Harbaugh asked after the game.

It's going to be hard to top a finish that included five touchdowns in the final 125 seconds:

  • With 2:05 remaining, the Ravens went ahead 15-12 on a 1-yard pass from Flacco to Pitta (in his first game back since dislocating his hip) on fourth-and-goal.

  • After the Vikings took the lead back on a 41-yard touchdown run by Toby Gerhart, Jones returned the ensuing kickoff 77 yards down the Ravens' sideline (Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was not here to interfere this time) to put Baltimore up 22-19.

  • Minnesota rebounded with a spectacular 79-yard catch-and-run by Cordarrelle Patterson to jump back ahead, but Flacco marched the Ravens 80 yards on five plays in the final 45 seconds of the game. His 9-yard pass to a leaping Brown sealed a victory that had often proved elusive.

"I don't know if there has ever been a crazier minute-and-40-some seconds ever," Flacco said.

The day began with both teams struggling to move the ball because players had trouble with footing on a snowy field. The conditions got so bad that a plow got stuck at the 20-yard line because too much snow had accumulated.

"This was just a really crazy game under really crazy conditions," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said.

The Ravens (7-6) needed this win if they were to have any hope of winning the AFC North or capturing a wild-card berth because the Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) and Miami Dolphins (7-6) had both won. That just heightened the drama of what became a one-of-a-kind, back-and-forth finish for the Ravens.

"You couldn't even really get emotional," said Jones, who scored his first touchdown off a return since the Super Bowl. "It was too confusing."

The Ravens have had memorable finishes in 2013. There was the Mile High Miracle in the AFC divisional playoff game in Denver and the late fourth-down stand in the Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers.

"I've never seen a game like that before," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Besides the Super Bowl, that's probably the most special win I've ever been a part of."

While the finish was scintillating, the final score shouldn't come as a surprise. This was the Ravens' eighth game decided by three or fewer points this season, and the Ravens have now won four of them.

"That was like playing 'Madden,'" wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "If you have a heart condition, you can't watch the Ravens."

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