OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After emerging as the Ravens’ leading tackler in his first season as a starter, inside linebacker Zachary Orr is walking away from football due to a congenital spinal condition.
The 24-year-old announced his retirement after only three seasons, leaving a hole in the middle of a Baltimore defense that ranked seventh in total yards and fifth against the run in 2016. Orr suffered a herniated disc in the Christmas Day loss to Pittsburgh and missed the season finale against Cincinnati, but further testing and a CAT scan revealed that the top of his spinal column never fully developed, a condition he was told less than one percent of the world have.
Orr said he was unaware of the condition that doesn’t show up in an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging exam, making it difficult to detect unless someone is having more extensive testing for a neck injury. He would not have been able to pass a physical to continue his career and was running a great risk of catastrophic injury by playing.
“I’ve been playing since I was nine years old,” said Orr, who also underwent shoulder surgery for an injury that was unrelated to the spinal condition. “It’s been a blessing that I’ve been able to play the game so long without any major injury happening. When I first found out the news, it was shocking. I was sad, disappointed, upset because football is something I’ve been doing my whole life.”
An undrafted free agent from North Texas in 2014, Orr initially made the 53-man roster as a special-teams player and earned a role in sub packages late in his second season. His arrival was an important development for the Ravens after 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown failed to pan out as a meaningful contributor.
Following the release of veteran linebacker Daryl Smith last offseason, Orr won the starting job next to C.J. Mosley and became one of the Ravens’ most dependable defensive players, ranking 10th in the NFL with 130 tackles in 2016. He also intercepted three passes and forced a fumble on his way to becoming a second-team All-Pro selection by the Associated Press.
“You guys see him on Sunday flying around. This guy is one of the smartest football players I’ve ever been around,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “It makes the job easy for coaches, for position coaches and for coordinators when you have guys like this that you can do so many things with.
“You can tell him on the sideline to make a little adjustment, and this guy can go right out there and get it done. That’s what makes the difference between great football players and football players. This guy right here is a great football player, and I can’t tell you how much we’re going to miss him.”
Orr was the recipient of the local media’s “Good Guy” award last month for his cooperation with reporters and is in the midst of starting the Orr Family Kids and Youth Foundation, an endeavor to which he now plans to devote more time. He now plans to go home to Texas to spend more time with family, which includes two younger brothers in college with NFL aspirations of their own.
Mosley, safety Eric Weddle, and linebacker Albert McClellan as well as linebackers coach Don Martindale attended the press conference as Orr sat with general manager Ozzie Newsome, head coach John Harbaugh, and Pees. Other players used social media to offer their support for a teammate who was popular in the locker room and active in the community.
“I never expected to hear something like that,” said Newsome of Orr’s unfortunate retirement. “Having had the opportunity to sit with a number of players at a press conference like this that have had longer careers, I don’t think there has been any player that has been more inspirational to me over the last three years than Zach.”
Orr’s unexpected departure leaves the Ravens with another need to address after inside linebacker had appeared to be one of their most stable position groups with both starters under age 25. One internal option to replace him could be 2016 second-round pick Kamalei Correa, who practiced at both inside and outside linebacker as a rookie but saw just 48 defensive snaps in nine games.
Signed to a three-year, $1.533 million contract as a rookie, Orr was scheduled to become a restricted free agent this offseason. He was projected to receive the second-round tender — which was worth $2.553 million last season — and likely would have been in line for a nice free-agent payday next offseason with the Ravens or another team.
“I always take a positive outlook in everything,” said Orr, who is interested in coaching in the future. “It’s something I can’t control what happened. I feel like my best football years on the field were ahead of me. I was excited about that, but when I found out the news and how serious it is, it was something I looked at as a blessing.”