I held off on this blog earlier in the week because I knew that things would be going down with the start of the new NFL league year, and I was right — there’s a lot to unpack. With surprising departures and additions, the Ravens are bound to look much different this year, and the past week or so has been Eric DeCosta’s first stretch of multiple moves that will play a part in defining his success as the team’s GM.
Starting first with the departures, the Ravens cut Eric Weddle before losing Terrell Suggs, CJ Mosley, and Za’Darius Smith in free agency. Needless to say, each of those players had immense roles in the league’s top defense last year, and their leadership, even more than their production, will be sorely missed. As disappointing the first few days of free agency were, I stand by each of DeCosta’s moves not to bring these guys back. First, looking at Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs, both players ended up being liabilities and non-factors on the playing field, outside of the cerebral benefit they brought in organizing the group. Sure, they were well-liked in the locker room and were important to holding the unit together, but at their price-points, it didn’t make any sense to keep them.
That factor — money — is the same reason why letting Mosley and Smith walk was the right choice, as well. Clearly, the franchise tag cost was too much for the Ravens to commit to CJ Mosley over a week ago. With the Jets offering him around $3 million more, why would that stance change? He is a good player, not a great player, and in reality, he isn’t a true 3-down linebacker. As for Za’Darius Smith, he was the player I thought would be most valuable to bring back because of his ability to rush from both the interior and outside of the line. With that in mind, the money that he received from Green Bay was far too much for the Ravens to match, and therefore I can’t complain about the decision.
I believe the reaction around Baltimore, which was one of desperation, was a relatively fair response to DeCosta’s lack of aggression in the market while franchise stalwarts left to go elsewhere. I even felt like the Ravens needed to do something. Those feelings were only heightened when the Cleveland Browns made a colossal move in trading for Odell Beckham Jr. What a job by them, I must say — it put tremendous pressure on the rest of the division, particularly the Ravens, to keep up. After that Week-17 matchup, everyone was talking about how it’d be Browns/Ravens in this division for the next few years, but at that point, it was just the Browns.
Almost immediately, I became certain of one thing: the Ravens would retaliate by making a last-ditch offer to Le’Veon Bell. Here was my thinking — if the Browns bring in a superstar, there’s no better time for the Ravens to do the same than when their QB is on a rookie deal. Of course, we no know that Bell chose to sign with the Jets, and it has even been rumored that the Ravens did not even extend an offer. Looking at what the Jets paid for Bell’s services, I do sort of wish that Baltimore had gone all-in, even if it is unlike them to pay big money in free agency, much less for running backs.
Ultimately, the Ravens did make a splash, but instead of adding it to the offense, it was made to revamp the defense that had recently been decimated. In acquiring Earl Thomas, the Ravens answered a lot of questions about the state of the defense. If healthy, Thomas will be a bonified playmaker who will help Tony Jefferson flourish as an in-the-box safety in a way that Weddle could not. The Ravens now have a safety who can cover, and I am extremely hopeful that this will bring a major improvement to the coverage of tight ends and slot receivers over the middle. Sure, it’s a lot of money invested into a safety, but as stated by Maurice Jones-Drew on the NFL Network, Thomas is the closest thing to Ed Reed we’ve seen since Ed Reed. I love this move.
The move I am less supportive of is that to bring in Mark Ingram. I get that Ingram is a productive runner who may be an upgrade over Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon, but as much as pundits want to say that he does, I don’t believe that he brings a new dimension to the Ravens’ rushing attack. In Le’Veon Bell, the Ravens would have gotten a great runner, but more importantly a great receiver out of the backfield. Analysts will say that Ingram can catch the ball in space, but can he actually change the game in space the way that other Ravens backs can’t? Throw in his age and the toll taken on his body after 10 seasons as a bruising back, and I can’t imagine that the Ravens got something the platoon of Edwards and Dixon can’t give them. Even if it is for a smaller salary, I felt that if the Ravens should have spent on a RB in free agency it should have either been Bell or Tevin Coleman, both of which have breakaway skills. Otherwise, they should have addressed the position in the draft — which I still feel that they may do.
The biggest question at this point is where these additions and subtractions leave the Ravens front office now. Obviously, the two most glaring holes remain at wide receiver and interior offensive line, with new holes at the EDGE and the middle linebacker positions surfacing. In all likelihood, some of these positions will be addressed in the later waves of free agency, with others being filled through the draft.
If I were Eric DeCosta, my first priority would be working through the pool of players who are cut after their former teams sign free agents. Where I trust the Ravens the most in this way is in answering the questions at interior O-line. In my opinion, Baltimore should look to find a starting-caliber player at either guard or center, filling the other position with a potential starter through the draft in April.
With wide receiver, I think it makes sense for the Ravens to target a complementary guy, most likely someone who can play outside, though I fully expect DeCosta to double-dip at the position relatively early in the draft.
At edge rusher, I do see the sense in bringing in a player like Justin Houston (mostly because he would not affect the comp-pick formula for 2020), though I don’t know if he will price himself out of the Ravens’ range. Instead, a player like Shaquille Barrett could make sense, as he will likely command a less lucrative deal because of his situation playing behind Von Miller and Bradley Chubb in Denver. Again, this is a position I expect to address early in the draft, potentially even in the first round, and I believe they may end up putting a great deal of pressure on young rushers Tyus Bowser and Timmy Williams to step things up this coming season. If one of those guys can become what Za’Darius Smith was, any addition of another solid rusher through the draft or free agency would offset any other losses at this position and give the Ravens the ability to get a solid rush off at opposing QBs.
The last glaring position of need here is inside linebacker, and this is the spot in which the Ravens’ loss in free agency could loom the largest. CJ Mosley was undoubtedly a leader of the team and did have a great impact on each game that he played in, so the team could certainly look to mitigate that loss by signing someone like Zach Brown from Washington. However, if I were Eric DeCosta, this is the position in which I would rely the most on younger players who are given their shot to make an impact. Compared to pass rush, safety, or wideout, this position seems to have the most promising combination of youth in Peanut Onwuasor and Kenny Young, and I believe that Bam Bradley could fill in a rotational role in rushing downs while Anthony Levine and Chuck Clark fill in on passing downs. Both Peanut and Young showed great flashes last year — I feel DeCosta could be doing the team a disservice if he attempts to find a stop-gap at the position. The Ravens have always been good at developing late-round or undrafted linebackers, let’s see if they can do it again.