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The five most important moves the Ravens could make this offseason

With the start of NFL free agency looming in two weeks and draft talk heating up, we’ve officially entered primetime for speculation about how the Ravens will fortify their roster. Coming off the best regular season in team history, they’re in a position most franchises would envy. But they also have holes — some old, some new — and a modest budget to patch them. With that in mind, here are the five most important moves the Ravens could make this offseason:

Figure out whether to commit to Matthew Judon.

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Judon presents the most difficult free-agent dilemma the Ravens have faced in recent years. He was easily their best pass rusher in 2019, and the cupboard at his position would be left almost bare if he signs with another team. Which is why general manager Eric DeCosta will strongly consider using the franchise tag to keep Judon from hitting the open market. But the franchise tag would create another set of complexities and merely delay a more fundamental question: Do the Ravens think Judon is a foundational piece for the next five years, a window in which they expect to be perennial Super Bowl contenders?

Negotiations often become contentious when a team uses a tag, as we’ve seen this week with one of the other top pass rushers on the market, Yannick Ngakoue of the Jacksonville Jaguars. As soon as reports emerged that the Jaguars would use their tag on Ngakoue, he turned to social media to say he hoped to play for a different team in 2020.

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So far, Judon has maintained neutrality worthy of Switzerland in his public comments about next year. We don’t know how he’ll react if the Ravens tag him before the March 12 deadline. But it would not be unprecedented for them to carry a highly valued pass rusher in this manner. Under previous general manager Ozzie Newsome, they used the franchise tag on Terrell Suggs two years in a row before signing him to a long-term extension. As ardently as the Ravens strive to take the long view of their roster, there are short–term considerations. They’re a top Super Bowl contender coming off last season and they don’t want to enter 2020 without at least one proven pass rusher. They might have to grit their teeth and use the franchise tag to keep Judon in that role for at least one more season.

The Ravens will surely try to draft another pass rusher, but early projections of the first round suggest they won’t find a game changer on the edge with the 28th overall pick. Names such as Ngakoue and Jadeveon Clowney cause fans to salivate, but we know the Ravens are reluctant to bid for top free agents at glamour positions or to trade premium draft picks.

Which inevitably brings the conversation back to Judon, who’s in line to make $16-18 million a year as a top-15 free agent. It would be an easy call if the Ravens knew he’d produce like Za’Darius Smith did in 2019 after leaving town to sign a $66 million deal with the Green Bay Packers. But more often than not, this front office has been correct in not paying the going rate for free-agent pass rushers. Does DeCosta think Judon is good enough to break that paradigm? We’ll find out over the next few weeks.

The Ravens could also tag Judon and try to trade him, but they’d have to carry his hefty salary in the interim, limiting their flexibility to address other needs. And the trade payoff likely would not come until the 2021 draft. So again, they’d leave themselves a short-term problem heading into a season framed by Super Bowl ambitions.

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Find a long-term solution at inside linebacker.

The edge guys hog our attention, because they command the biggest contracts and (potentially) neutralize the quarterbacks who make the league’s top teams go.

But in 2019, the Ravens quietly pulled off essential in-season surgery at inside linebacker. And they’d like to avoid the same exercise in 2020.

Last offseason, they overestimated the ability of Patrick Onwuasor, Chris Board and Kenny Young to fill the void left by C.J. Mosley. Onwuasor seemed overwhelmed by calling the defensive signals from middle linebacker while Board and Young simply did not take necessary steps forward at weak-side linebacker. The Ravens had to sign veterans Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort just to stop the hemorrhaging. Bynes delivered terrific work in his second stint with the Ravens, and Fort earned a contract extension. So we largely stopped discussing this position group by the end of the season.

The Mosley-shaped hole remains, however, and don’t be surprised if the Ravens try to fill it with their first pick in this year’s draft. They’ll probably have options at 28, whether you like the coverage skills and college production of LSU’s Patrick Queen or the eye-popping physical traits of Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray.

Even if the Ravens draft an inside linebacker who’s expected to start right away, they’ll probably also sign a modestly priced veteran in the Bynes mold.

Add depth on the interior offensive line.

The Ravens came out of training camp last year with significant questions about their depth along the offensive line. For the most part, they did not have to answer them because their starters proved both durable and effective. The obvious exception was undrafted rookie Patrick Mekari stepping in for the injured Matt Skura at center.

It’s possible the Ravens will start 2020 with the same line that blocked for Lamar Jackson in the 2019 season opener. But that’s no sure thing given the severity of Skura’s knee injury (he’s also a restricted free agent) and the possible retirement of eight-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda.

If Yanda opts to stay home in Iowa, the team’s needs at guard would go from modest to pressing. Ben Powers played decently in limited duty as a rookie, but neither he nor any lineman the Ravens draft would seamlessly replace one of the greatest players in franchise history. Yanda would leave an enormous hole, both on the field and off, and you’d have to think his retirement would prompt the Ravens to go shopping for a quality veteran or use a high draft pick on a guard.

Even if Yanda does come back for the last year of his contract, the Ravens need to ramp up preparations for life without him. As DeCosta said at the NFL scouting combine, they’ll take offensive linemen in every draft. The churn at these positions is too relentless for them not to. But there will be greater urgency this offseason.

The Ravens also have to think about center, when Skura had established himself as a quality starter before he shredded his knee. How confident are they that he can make it back or that Mekari, who held his own, can handle the job long-term?

Draft more talent at wide receiver.

It wouldn’t be a Ravens offseason if fans were not fretting about lack of production from the team’s wide receivers. But hey, they did draft an immediate impact receiver in Marquise Brown, and there’s reason to believe Brown can make a leap forward in 2020 if his feet and legs are finally healthy.

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This year’s draft is again stocked with speedy receivers who will be available throughout the first two days. With just three receivers — Brown, fellow 2019 draft pick Miles Boykin and Willie Snead IV — guaranteed spots on the roster, the Ravens will almost certainly select one or two of them.

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But those who want the Ravens to use a first-round pick or significant free-agent dollars on a pass catcher will probably end up disappointed. They did just fine relying on their tight ends and backfield to power the league’s best offense in 2019. Would they like to add more of a downfield dimension? Sure, but they’re not going to cash out to do it given the other areas they need to address.

Even a second-tier free agent such as Robby Anderson, formerly of the New York Jets, would probably fall outside their price range at $10-12 million per season.

Sign Ronnie Stanley and/or Marlon Humphrey to a long-term extension.

In DeCosta’s dream scenario, the Ravens would hit on all their first-round picks, extend those players before they hit free agency and thrive on a self-sustaining core. This has always been the franchise ethic.

The Ravens picked Stanley in the first round in 2016 and Humphrey in the first round in 2017; both made All-Pro at premium positions last season. Now, the bill to keep them is about to come due.

DeCosta’s aggression in pursuing extensions has been the defining trait of his first year as general manager. He made it clear at the combine that negotiations with Stanley and Humphrey live near the front of his mind. These might well be the most important roster moves he makes over the next year, even though keeping your own players never feels quite as sexy as landing a star in free agency or the draft.

Stanley was perhaps the best pass blocker in football last year and will likely ask to become the highest-paid tackle in league history. Humphrey is a confident, versatile player with every tool needed to sustain as a shutdown cornerback for years to come. Together, they might cost the Ravens about $160 million.

Despite that daunting sum, DeCosta won’t want to go down to the free-agent wire with either player (Stanley would hit the market after next season and Humphrey after the 2021 season). The timing will be difficult to predict, but there won’t be a bigger story for the future of the roster until it’s time to extend Jackson.

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