Weak-side linebacker and leading tackler Zachary Orr’s surprising retirement last week because of a congenital neck/spine condition doesn’t change the Ravens’ offseason priorities. What it does is add one more question mark that general manager Ozzie Newsome and his staff have to answer this offseason.
Two starters (Steve Smith Sr. and Orr) have retired. Another five players who were either full-time starters or started a good chunk of the season (fullback Kyle Juszczyk, offensive linemen Rick Wagner and Vladimir Ducasse, nose tackle Brandon Williams and defensive end Lawrence Guy) are unrestricted free agents. A slew of reserves, including quarterback Ryan Mallett, wide receiver Kamar Aiken, cornerback Jerraud Powers, safety Matt Elam and special teams standout Anthony Levine Sr., are also eligible to hit the open market in a little over six weeks.
It’s arguably one of the most crucial offseasons in Ravens’ history. After Orr’s announcement, which the linebacker handled with class and maturity, the Ravens have one more position where they may have to acquire a starter this offseason, whether it’s in the draft or free agency.
The cupboard is not bare. Veteran Albert McClellan can move to inside linebacker. It seems that second-round pick Kamalei Correa will remain at the weak-side linebacker position going forward, rather than being used as an edge rusher. Patrick Onwuasor, an undrafted free agent, has some upside. But the Ravens will certainly look to bolster themselves at the position.
Fans probably get sick of hearing that the Ravens will use their first-round draft pick on the best-player available, but that may never be truer than this April. The Ravens will rank the players as they normally do and it should be pretty easy to stay disciplined to their board, given that they have significant needs now at every level of their defense, along with at several spots on offense.
Failed picks hurting: The struggles of several recent early-round draft picks, like Elam, Arthur Brown, Terrence Brooks, Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams, have been well documented. Their failure to step in and make an immediate impact has forced the Ravens to pour more assets – whether it’s draft picks or salary cap space – into finding solutions at their respective positions, and that has had a trickledown effect on the rest of the roster, leaving them thin in some areas.
The most obvious example is with Elam, the team’s first-round pick in 2013. Drafted to fill the void left by Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, Elam never proved to be a longtime answer. His struggles ultimately led to the Ravens drafting Brooks in the third round in 2014, and signing veterans Darian Stewart, Kendrick Lewis, Will Hill and Eric Weddle. That’s a lot of resources spent on trying to fill one position.
That brings us to Correa, who had a lost rookie season after the Ravens selected him in the second round. Correa played in just nine games, seeing most of his action on special teams. The Ravens did him no favors by moving him around to a few positions in training camp. A few nagging injuries also hindered the rookie’s progress.
Correa, though, is hardly blameless. The Ravens need to do see way more physicality from him. They also need him to respond to coaching better. With Orr down, Correa figures to get a greater opportunity to contribute. The Ravens need him to take a big leap or they’re going to have to put more assets into finding Orr’s replacement. And that will hinder what they have available to fill holes at other roster spots.
Weddle moves up: With the New England Patriots moving on to another Super Bowl, that means that veteran safety Devin McCourty will withdraw from Sunday’s Pro Bowl game in Orlando. That should pave the way for Ravens’ safety Eric Weddle to make the Pro Bowl for the fourth time.
Weddle is the second alternate. The first alternate at safety, former Raven and current Denver Bronco Darian Stewart, has already been added to the AFC Pro Bowl roster, replacing the Kansas City Chiefs’ Eric Berry. So Weddle’s the next man up.
If he chooses to play, he’d join Ravens’ teammates Kyle Juszczyk, C.J. Mosley, Justin Tucker and Morgan Cox. Marshal Yanda has withdrawn from the game because of a shoulder surgery.
Wagner will be expensive: If you were hoping that the Ravens might be able to get starting right tackle and pending free agent Rick Wagner back on a relatively modest deal, you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment. In his rankings of the top-25 NFL free agents, NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal recently suggested that Wagner could be worth “north of $10 million per season” in a market where a ton of teams have a ton of money to spend.
NBC analyst and majority owner of Pro Football Focus Cris Collinsworth listed Wagner as the No. 1 under-the-radar free agent. My guess is Wagner won’t be considered “under-the-radar” by the time the market opens on March 9.
The Ravens would like to keep Wagner, who is a solid player and turned into a fifth-round steal in 2013, but I just can’t see them getting in a bidding war for him and going anywhere near $10 million per year. They have too many needs at other positions.
Plugging the line: For all the talk from decision makers already this offseason about solidifying the offensive line, you wouldn’t expect the Ravens to entrust the right tackle spot to an unproven option if Wagner leaves. But the Ravens do think that De’Ondre Wesley and Stephane Nembot, both of whom spent the 2016 season on injured reserve, have some potential.
They are both raw, but they at least look the part. Wesley, who played two years of college ball at Brigham Young, is 6-foot-6 and 326 pounds and Nembot, who an undrafted free agent out of Colorado, is 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds. Wesley and Nembot are nice projects for new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris.
Possible cap casualties: I get asked on Twitter about the Ravens’ potential salary cap casualties or pay cut candidates on a daily basis. The following list hasn’t and probably won’t change: wide receiver Mike Wallace, tight ends Dennis Pitta and Benjamin Watson, center Jeremy Zuttah, strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil and defensive backs Lardarius Webb, Kendrick Lewis, Kyle Arrington and Shareece Wright. I don’t think all of them will be gone, but several of them certainly will.
When to say 'bye' after London?: With the Ravens-Jacksonville Jaguars game in London set for Week Three on Sept. 24, you have to wonder if the Ravens will ask the NFL to forgo giving them a bye week following the overseas trip in favor of a bye later in the season.
Teams that have played in London have traditionally gotten a bye the following week. However, the Indianapolis Colts, who played the Jaguars in London in Week 4 during the 2016 regular season, requested to not have an early bye after the game and their request was granted.
I’d imagine the Ravens will think long and hard about following the Colts’ lead. A Week 4 bye isn’t ideal and would make for an extremely difficult final 13 weeks without a break.