Relatively quiet over the first 10 days of free agency, the Ravens dipped into the open market [Friday], signing four players in moves that will upgrade the team's linebacking and secondary depth and bolster special teams coverage units that struggled last season.
The Ravens' biggest move was re-signing Jameel McClain, a starting inside linebacker the past two seasons, to a three-year deal. They also re-signed veteran linebacker and long-time special teams standout Brendon Ayanbadejo to a three-year pact, and agreed to terms with defensive backs Corey Graham and Sean Considine.
Pro Bowl last year because of his work on special teams for the Chicago Bears, agreed to a two-year deal. The Ravens signed Considine, a safety who has played seven NFL seasons, for one year.
"Obviously, we've been very patient and we've been working, trying to do things that will put us in position to make our team better," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I think we're kind of methodical in our approach. We want to make smart decisions. We want to make wise decisions. And no one is better at that than [general manager] Ozzie Newsome. In announcing these four moves, we're giving the indication that we're shoring up our team in certain areas, areas we think we need to improve, in some cases by just keeping the guys we got, which is not easy to do as we all know."
Before Friday , the Ravens, who entered the day less than $5 million under the salary cap, had re-signed veteran center Matt Birk and young linebacker Chavis Williams, their only moves since free agency started last Tuesday. During that stretch, they lost five players, including Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs, linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive end Cory Redding.
But Friday'sacquisitions solidify the linebacking group, fill holes in the secondary after both reserve safeties Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski bolted last week in free agency, and add to the Ravens' special teams core.
"It's a good day for the Ravens," Newsome said. "Getting Jameel and Brendon back is very important for us. They both know the standard we have around here, and they have helped set that. With Corey and Sean, we have improved our special teams, plus they give us quality and proven depth for the defense. When we ended the season, John and I talked about the need to get better players for special teams, especially with kick coverage. Corey and Sean will improve that area for us."
Though it appears that the Ravens are up against the salary cap, Harbaugh said that "further moves are possible." There remains a hole at left guard after Grubbs left, but Harbaugh acknowledged that he'd be comfortable starting the season with Jah Reid at that spot.
Harbaugh also is comfortable with his group of linebackers, and relieved to be able to retain McClain who took just one free agent visit to Denver on a day when some of the top Broncos' decision makers were in North Carolina to watch quarterback Peyton Manning work out. However, the free agent market for some of the better inside linebackers never really materialized.
"Of course, it was frustrating," said McClain. "To be a person that believes in taking things into control, I work hard, I put my heart into everything that I do, because that's what I can control. But free agency is something that you can't control, and it shakes out the way that it shakes out at the end of the day. So it definitely was frustrating, but it was what it was … It's an honor to be back, to be able to represent these fans, this city. So, it's great. It's a good time for me and my family right now."
McClain originally signed with the Ravens as a rookie free agent and emerged as a regular, starting 31 of the Ravens' 32 regular-season games the last two seasons. This past year, McClain was second on the NFL's third-ranked defense with 81 tackles to go along with one sack, one interception, a career-high five passes defended and two fumble recoveries, including one in which he returned for a touchdown.
McClain was at his best during middle linebacker Ray Lewis' four-game absence with a toe injury. In those four games, McClain made 32 tackles while making all the defensive calls in victories against the Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts.
"It was big to be able to showcase what I can do," McClain said. "Still, at the end of the day, there are speculations on everything. 'You did it a little bit, can you really do it?' It's always going to be something to keep that chip growing on your shoulder. It's going to keep growing every day. It was a good experience, but I am looking forward to having the chance to be able to run the show."
Graham, 26, is just looking for an opportunity to get on the field more. The fifth-year pro played three games as the Bears nickel back this past season and had an interception in each game. But he made nine starts at cornerback in 2008, recording 91 tackles, eight pass deflections and one interception. He could get an opportunity to play in certain passing situations for the Ravens, who released cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr earlier this month.
"Honestly, when it comes down to it, they said that they'll make places for guys that earn it. I'm not asking for a spot or anything like that. I just want to compete," said Graham who made free agent visits to Seattle and Detroit, but said he was swayed by the Ravens' defensive tradition and an opportunity to play with guys like Lewis and Ed Reed. "If I go out there and I play well, then I'll get a chance. That's all you can ask for from a team."
Graham also made it clear he takes pride in his work on special teams, where he serves as the outside "gunner" on the coverage units. He said special teams means "everything," to him, and that his coverage skills have kept him in the league.
"I want to be the best special teams player in the league," he said.
Graham went to the Pro Bowl after leading the Bears last season with 22 special teams tackles. He has 104 special teams tackles in his career and since Graham entered the league in 2007, the Bears have permitted an NFL-low 6.5 yards per punt return.
Meanwhile, the Ravens allowed 29.2 yards per kickoff return, the second highest total in the NFL, and 11.9 yards per punt return, the ninth highest total in the NFL. They also permitted three return touchdowns while mostly using younger players on their coverage units for the early part of the season.
"I think the biggest failure is that the players failed the coaches," said Ayanbadejo, 35, and a former teammate of Graham's with the Bears. "It was purely on the players. And what was different last year, you'd have to ask yourself. The main thing that was different was that we didn't have that offseason time to gel as a special teams unit and to really learn how to play as a special teams unit. When these young guys come in, they have to understand that they're going to cover a kick before they go out there and cover a receiver. I don't think last year's group got that. They felt like they were going to come in and surpass special teams and go play defense. Their priorities were in the wrong place."
Ayanbadejo, who was also used as a linebacker in certain substitution packages, finished second on the Ravens last year in special teams stops despite getting regular double teams. He's led or shared his team lead in special teams tackles in six of his past nine seasons.
Considine, 30, played four games with the Carolina Panthers last season and eight games with the Arizona Cardinals. Over seven seasons that includes stops with four different teams, Considine has 253 career tackles, 2 1/2 sacks, four interceptions, five fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and 93 special team stops.
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