The Detroit Lions’ re-signing of veteran center Dominic Raiola last week reaffirmed my belief that finding a quality center might be one of the biggest challenges for the Ravens front office this offseason.
There will still be a few of them available on the free-agent market, with Cleveland’s Alex Mack, New Orleans’ Brian de la Puente and Green Bay’s Evan Dietrich-Smith likely heading that list. But there are several teams in need of a center, so the competition for those guys could get expensive. With potential holes at both offensive tackle spots, it’s hard to see where the money will be for the Ravens to make a significant upgrade at center.
Perhaps they’ll sign a serviceable veteran, like the San Francisco 49ers’ Jonathan Goodwin or the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Fernando Velasco, on a relatively cheap one-year deal. If not that, they may not have much of a choice but to hope another year in the weight room and in the offense does wonders for 2013 starter Gino Gradkowski, or either A.Q. Shipley or Ryan Jensen seize the opportunity and establish themselves as the undisputed starter.
The Ravens are widely considered one of the best organizations at finding gems in the undrafted free-agent class. In comparison, thirteen players on their 53-man roster at season’s end came into the NFL as undrafted free agents. That list includes Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker and wide receiver Marlon Brown.
** Could the Ravens take a chance on a troubled free-agent linebacker for a second straight offseason? They did last year with Rolando McClain, who was arrested shortly after signing with the Ravens and then retired before even participating in a practice with his new team. The Ravens still hold his contractual rights, but there hasn't been any indication so far that he plans to return for the 2014 season.
The McClain experience alone probably makes it unlikely that the Ravens would gamble this offseason on former University of Maryland standout Erin Henderson, who was released by the Minnesota Vikings last week after repeated off-the-field indiscretions. Henderson, 27, was arrested on drunken driving charges twice in a six-week span last year.
Signed by the Vikings as an undrafted free agent, Henderson established himself in the NFL with his work on special teams. He then developed into a solid linebacker, but his recent off-the-field issues have marred his career. He clearly needs to get his life in order before even resuming his NFL career.
As for the Ravens, it may not be a great fit, but they clearly have some questions at inside linebacker, and they’ve shown in the past that they are not afraid to take a risk on a player with off-the-field questions. They also have the type of locker room that would probably help Henderson get his career back on track.
** I caught a replay of Super Bowl XLVII on NFL Network on Saturday, and it reminded me of one of the popular questions that came up after Gary Kubiak’s hiring to run the Ravens’ offense. Is quarterback Joe Flacco mobile enough to succeed with bootlegs and some of the other things that Kubiak likes to do?
Anybody who remembers Super Bowl XLVII probably has a strong opinion on that. Flacco is at his best when he’s moving around and getting out of the pocket. Some of the throws he made on the run against the 49ers were ridiculous. He’s a big guy who is tough to bring down, and he’s a little more athletic than most people think.
The questions about Flacco’s accuracy and decision-making are fair and those are the things that Kubiak will need to work on. But I have little doubt that he’s athletic enough to do the things that Kubiak will want him to do.
** When Bobby Engram’s hiring as the new wide receivers coach becomes official, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh will have completed the biggest overhaul of his coaching staff in his six-season tenure. Engram will be the fifth external hire, joining Kubiak, quarterbacks coach Rick Dennison, running backs coach Thomas Hammock and tight ends coach Brian Pariani.
While some of Harbaugh’s coaching hires have been scrutinized, even his biggest critic would have to admit that the head coach has put together a diverse staff. Harbaugh has never worked with any of those five hires before and two of them (Engram and Hammock) have never been primary position coaches above the college level. It also is a testament to the quality of staff that the Ravens have had that every coach who departed got another job in the NFL.
** Free agency opens a month from tomorrow and there is already some buzz about Ravens strong safety James Ihedigbo. The veteran had a breakout season in 2013, and it remains unlikely the Ravens make a significant bid to bring him back, given the desire to move Matt Elam to strong safety and add an athletic and playmaking free safety.
Beyond that, every offseason, the Ravens watch solid contributors get plucked off their defense and signed to sizable deals elsewhere. It happened to Cory Redding, Jarret Johnson, Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura two offseasons ago and Redding is really the only guy who they struggled to replace. It happened with Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Cary Williams and Ed Reed last year, and I’d say that Ellerbe is the only one whose on-field production was missed. I’d expect that pattern to continue this offseason, which would mean that guys like Ihedigbo, Arthur Jones and Corey Graham will get nice contracts elsewhere.