By Jeff Zrebiec
The Baltimore Sun
8:02 AM EDT, March 17, 2014
New Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith is confident. But if you listen to every interview that he’s done since signing with the team, it’s clear that he wants everybody to know that he doesn’t view himself as the final piece to the Ravens’ puzzle. The 34-year-old has been refreshingly honest about the fact that he’s in the twilight of his career. He’s acknowledged that he’s no longer a No. 1 receiver at this stage, and he admitted that one of the draws of signing with the Ravens was that they have several established players on offense – he specifically mentioned Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Ray Rice – so there’s not as much pressure on him. Then, when he spoke about Gary Kubiak’s offense with the Houston Texans, he said he saw himself not in the role of perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson, but in the role of Kevin Walter, who never caught more than 65 passes in a season. Whether it was intentional or not, it was absolutely the right message for Smith to send. He’s a great fit for the Ravens offense, and he has a lot to offer on the field and in the locker room. But at this stage of his career, he’s a nice complementary piece. He should help quarterback Joe Flacco, but the success of the Ravens’ passing game in 2014 will still depend primarily on Flacco improving his accuracy and decision-making, and the offense line doing a better job of keeping him upright.
With a top four of Torrey Smith, Steve Smith, Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown and a tight end in Dennis Pitta who regularly lines up as a wide receiver, I’d be very surprised if the Ravens make any more additions from the free-agent receiver market even if the prices on guys like James Jones, Miles Austin and Sidney Rice drop significantly. However, I do think the Ravens address the position at some point in the draft. The Ravens have selected at least one wide receiver in nine of the past 10 drafts, with the exception being 2009 when they made only six picks. This year’s draft is billed as having one of the top receiver classes in years, and the bet here is that the Ravens won’t be able to resist taking one.
Will the Ravens move Kelechi Osemele to right tackle or they will keep him at guard? That’s the non-free agency question that I’m probably getting more than any other these days, and I honestly don’t think even the Ravens are 100 percent sure of the answer. They feel that a healthy Osemele could succeed at both positions, but where he ends up will depend on what else the Ravens are able to do in free agency and the draft. If they’re able to sign a veteran guard who they really like -- and there’s not a whole lot available -- that would lead to Osemele going out to tackle. If they sign or draft a tackle, then Osemele stays at guard, where he has said that he’s more comfortable. A lot could happen between now and the assorted minicamps, so the Ravens really don’t have to make that decision immediately. They are getting a little tight on salary cap room -- they are around $9 million under the cap -- and guards are cheaper and easier to find than starting-caliber tackles, so that figures to impact the decision as well.
When arguably the top running back on the free-agent market, Ben Tate, gets only a two-year deal for around $7 million from the Cleveland Browns, and when there’s been virtually zero buzz for backs like Knowshon Moreno and Maurice Jones-Drew, it seems pretty obvious that the Ravens could get pretty good value at some point on a veteran running back. Guys like James Starks, LeGarrette Blount, Michael Bush and Justin Forsett are all available as well. With the uncertainty surrounding Ray Rice’s legal issues and potential suspension, and Bernard Pierce’s offseason shoulder surgery, the Ravens are going to have to address the position at some point, and it shouldn’t cost much when they do.
The Ravens’ seeming lack of aggressiveness in trying to sign a free safety makes you wonder what general manager Ozzie Newsome has up his sleeve. He said finding a playmaking safety was one of his offseason priorities at the “State of the Ravens” address in January, and Newsome usually delivers on such talk as he’s already done on his vow to find a chain-moving receiver. Perhaps, the Ravens are resigned to the fact that their starting free safety will come in May’s draft as Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor are expected to go in the middle of the first round, and Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward and Washington State’s Deone Bucannon are considered second-round talents. Perhaps, the Ravens are still considering bringing back free agent James Ihedigbo, who played well last year, or are waiting on another free agent’s price to drop even further. Or perhaps the Ravens are looking at other options, like signing a veteran cornerback like Champ Bailey -- pure speculation, of course -- and transitioning him to safety. Either way, there are still a handful of veteran centers available, along with some solid offensive linemen. But safety right now may be the hardest hole for the Ravens to fill with what’s left on the free-agent market.
If you’re counting, of the 16 unrestricted free agents to end last season with the Ravens, seven remain unsigned. That group includes Ihedigbo, running back Bernard Scott, fullback Vonta Leach, wide receiver-kick returner Tandon Doss, tight ends Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark, and nose tackle Terrence Cody. Dickson and Ihedigbo are among the top remaining free agents at their positions, so I’d expect them to sign deals real soon. Doss is a solid return man, so I wouldn’t think he’d have a hard time finding a job either. Cody will sign somewhere to be a rotational defensive lineman, and it wouldn’t even surprise me if the Ravens brought him back if the price was right. As for Leach, the only fullback to really sign in the first week of free agency was Henry Hynoski by the New York Giants. Leach may be in for a bit of a wait this offseason.
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