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Cleveland Browns Implications of Ravens’ TE Dennis Pitta’s Latest Injury

The Ravens’ top tight end, Dennis Pitta, suffered another serious hip injury this week. What does that mean for the Browns, and could a former Cleveland standout be in their plans?

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

After two consecutive season-ending fractured and dislocated hips suffered in 2014 and 2015, it appeared that Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta had put poor health behind him in 2016. The favored target of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco returned to the field in 2016 to become the league’s leader in receptions at his position. And though Pitta had to restructure his contract in order to remain safely on the roster in 2017, the Ravens’ otherwise weak receiving corps clearly would need to lean on the tight end in the upcoming year.

But Pitta suffered the same hip injury again in his team’s OTAs on Friday, something that Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome described as “is incredibly disappointing, obviously for Dennis, and for the Ravens,” via the team’s website. Indeed, this could not just be the end of the season for Pitta but also his career; ESPN’s Adam Schefter implied such a future on Friday:

Now, the Ravens must scramble to find someone to replace Pitta, whether a tight end or receiver. Already the Ravens came in ranked 29th in receiving corps according to Bleacher Report’s Doug Farrar (with the Browns ranking 27th), and that was before the loss of Pitta. Baltimore is perhaps in the worst shape in the league when it comes to the passing game support for its quarterback. Maybe a former Brown can come to the rescue?

That man would be Gary Barnidge, the veteran tight end who spent his last four years in Cleveland before being released in late April. So far, Barnidge has met with at least four teams—the Buffalo Bills, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Denver Broncos—but he said last week that he has “no problem waiting” until the right situation arises. Indeed, that could be the case in Baltimore, who has no clear No. 1 tight end after Pitta’s injury.

Over his last two seasons in Cleveland, Barnidge has proven to be a solid pass-catching tight end. In 2015, he had an impressive 79 catches on 125 targets for 1,043 yards and nine scores—a performance that rivals a Pitta-in-his-prime season. In 2016, with the Browns’ quarterback carousel remaining a-turning, his production dipped, with just 55 catches on 82 targets for 612 yards and two scores. But it wouldn’t be shocking to see his numbers rebound should he land in Baltimore, who in Flacco has at least a more stable quarterback situation (if not a stable quarterback from a weekly performance standpoint).

The Ravens do have four tight ends on the roster who could theoretically pick up the slack caused by Pitta’s absence, but there are so many caveats. Maxx Williams is coming off of a serious knee surgery and though he should be ready to practice by the start of training camp, his health still remains no guarantee.

The same can be said for Benjamin Watson, a 2016 free agency signee who was forced to miss the entire year after suffering a torn Achilles tendon. In his last productive season—2015, with the New Orleans Saints—he had 74 catches for 825 yards and six scores. But, again, that was when Watson was healthy; further, he’s now 36 years old.

Baltimore’s two other tight ends, Crockett Gillmore and Nick Boyle, combined for only 14 receptions for 115 yards and one touchdown a season ago. Though Barnidge himself is no spring chicken (he turns 32 years old in September), the Ravens’ void at No. 1 tight end might just be the kind of opportunity Barnidge has been biding his time in wait.

Even if Barnidge doesn’t wind up playing for the Ravens and staying in the AFC North in 2017, one thing should come as cold comfort to Browns fans: Their receiving corps is in no way the weakest in the division this year. The Ravens were already thin with talent before Pitta’s injury. Now, things have entered crisis mode.