A day after learning his team received three compensatory NFL draft selections, bringing the Ravens’ total to 10 picks, head coach John Harbaugh made clear the organization isn’t waiting until next month’s draft to fill their roster holes.
While the Ravens have signed just one outside unrestricted free agent — safety Kendrick Lewis — Harbaugh said they’ve been extremely active on the open market and team officials are hoping that work will pay dividends soon.
“We’re staying on top of it every second,” Harbaugh said Tuesday during the AFC head coaches breakfast on day two of the league owners meetings at the Arizona Biltmore resort. “It’s not like we’re sitting back and just relaxing. We’re monitoring it and we’re talking to guys and agents. We want to be proactive.”
To this point, the Ravens’ free-agent activity has consisted of adding Lewis and re-signing six of their own players: running back Justin Forsett, defensive linemen Chris Canty, Lawrence Guy and Christo Bilukidi, defensive back Anthony Levine and long snapper Morgan Cox.
Meanwhile, salary cap issues forced the team to trade defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and prevented them from making a significant contract offer to key performers Torrey Smith, Owen Daniels and Pernell McPhee. Their departures, coupled by the free-agent losses of Tyrod Taylor and Darian Stewart, have left the Ravens’ roster thin at various spots.
At different junctures of his 51-minute talk with reporters, Harbaugh rattled off positions where he’d like to see the Ravens add depth: backup quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and cornerback.
“We’d be interested in adding any position right now, wide receiver being one of them if it’s the right guy,” Harbaugh said. “Again, it’s got to fit. It’s got to fit as far as the player, the personality, the talent obviously, a fit for our offense, and of course the financial part of it.”
Harbaugh feels there are still some intriguing free agent options, but the market has thinned considerably. And that’s just one of the deterrents to the Ravens making a late foray into free agency.
Even after cornerback Lardarius Webb restructured his contract, the Ravens have about $8 million of salary cap space. That provides some flexibility, but they’ll also need a chunk of that money to do other things, including signing draft picks.
The Ravens’ fondness for compensatory selections — no team has been awarded as many as they have (44) — is well-documented. They have all but secured three or four compensatory picks for next year’s draft after losing several players in free agency, and putting a couple of them at risk by signing second or third-tier free agents to replace them runs contrary to the normal behavior of the Ravens’ front office under general manager Ozzie Newsome.
Then again, the Ravens also don’t traditionally enter the draft with a host of needs, preferring to have the flexibility to draft the best player available.
“It would be really helpful for us to do that,” said Harbaugh when asked about the importance of making a couple of moves in free agency. “Obviously, the more you can add before the draft, it takes pressure off of the draft to chase a position need. The more we can do that, obviously, the better off we’ll be.”
If there is one team need that stands out over the others, it’s more targets for quarterback Joe Flacco, who lost his second- and third-leading receivers from last season in Smith and Daniels. Harbaugh predictably didn’t mention any of the team’s wide receiver or tight end targets, saying “there’s still talent in both those pools that we can add, if it works.”
Harbaugh said the Ravens are confident that young receivers Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown and Michael Campanaro (River Hill) will take a step forward next season, but that hasn’t stopped the team from continuing to mull adding an accomplished free agent wide receiver, such as Greg Jennings or Michael Crabtree.
Beyond the free agent options, the Ravens have done considerable homework on the wide receiver draft class and seem poised to use an early-round pick on an outside target.
“The wide receiver draft class is deep,” Harbaugh said. “I think there are options for the Ravens in rounds one through seven.”
The solutions at tight end, where 2014 third-round pick Crockett Gillmore sits atop the depth chart, are not as clear. Ideally, the Ravens would like to add a solid blocking tight end with reliable hands, but the draft isn’t exactly overflowing with players who fit that criteria.
Two of the top free agent options — Jermaine Gresham and Zach Miller — have some health concerns that could allow the Ravens to pick them up at a discounted rate later in the offseason, if they prove they’re healthy. That was the scenario that led to the Ravens getting Daniels last season.
The Ravens have been aggressive in trying to add a free-agent cornerback, but they’ve been outbid for veterans Cary Williams, Tramon Williams and Perrish Cox. Most of the remaining cornerbacks, guys like Alan Ball, Tarell Brown and Terence Newman, are considered low-level starters.
That could prompt the Ravens to rely on the draft and the healthy returns of Webb, Jimmy Smith and Asa Jackson, and the continued development of young cornerback Rashaan Melvin.
“It’s a position of interest, yes,” Harbaugh said. “I like the [cornerback draft] class a lot. I think there are really good corners in the first round and I think there are really good corners throughout the draft. Obviously, the surer bets are early, but there are prospects throughout the draft, absolutely.”
As for backup quarterback, the Ravens haven’t had to worry much about that position, as Flacco has started every game over the past seven seasons and Taylor served as an affordable backup for the past four. However, Taylor’s departure to the Buffalo Bills has left Keith Wenning, a sixth-round pick who spent his rookie season on the Ravens’ practice squad, as the de facto backup.
The top free agent backup quarterbacks available are Jason Campbell, Michael Vick, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Schaub.
“I want the best guy. I want the best players that we can get,” Harbaugh said. “Keith Wenning’s got a good future. I like Keith, but we’re looking to upgrade everywhere at all times.”