The Ravens reached the postseason for the first time in four years, but there won’t be much time to enjoy it.
As soon as players started cleaning out their lockers Monday morning after a 23-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in an AFC wild-card-round playoff game, the Ravens had to begin preparing for another turnaround.
The offseason began and a lot of decisions — involving the front office, the head coach, the draft and free agency — have to be made.
There is no time to waste.
First up for the Ravens is negotiating a deal with coach John Harbaugh, who is under contract through the 2019 season. No owner wants to have his coach be a lame duck.
But these negotiations could be tough. Harbaugh won a Super Bowl in February 2013, but his teams and record have been about average since then. It appears unlikely owner Steve Bisciotti would sign a coach to a five-year contract, especially one who just completed his 11th season with the team.
Harbaugh knows he could command a five-year deal worth at least $50 million on the open market, so he might try to leverage the Ravens.
After Sunday’s loss Harbaugh downplayed the negotiations, but a decision needs to be made soon because a lot of the Ravens’ assistant coaches are concerned about missing out on current job openings if Harbaugh isn’t retained or possibly traded to another team.
Power also could be an issue. Eric DeCosta is set to take over as general manager and reportedly does not get along well with Harbaugh. It’s not known whether Harbaugh might use the negotiations to seek more control of the organization.
The best deal for the team seems to be offering Harbaugh a maximum three-year deal with 2021 being a buyout season.
But signing Harbaugh is just one of many priorities. The Ravens have proclaimed rookie Lamar Jackson as their quarterback of the future, but this team cannot go into 2019 with an offense that was an aberration of the Wildcat.
The Ravens have to improve Jackson’s mechanics and make him more comfortable in the pocket and throwing to any spot on the field. His biggest problems are accuracy and ball security. Opposing teams have caught up with the Ravens’ option-style running game. Jackson has to get into more of a pro-style offense for the Ravens to go deeper into the postseason.
“The ballhandling in an offense like this is the thing,” Harbaugh said. “That’s the thing we have to be great at. We’ll become a good drop-back-pass team. We’ll become a good play-action-pass team.”
“All of those things will be very important. But, when you’re basing the offense on the principles on which we’re basing the offense on, you have to be a great ballhandling team. The truth is, we didn’t get enough work at it in the offseason, in OTAs, training camp, all that. To be a great ballhandling team, you can’t put the ball on the ground. That’s something that he knows, the backs know, everybody knows. Even our snaps — our snaps are not where they need to be — [they’re not] consistent enough. They need to be right there, because that goes into the ballhandling on the read option.”
With Jackson as the No. 1 quarterback, the Ravens will seek to trade former starter Joe Flacco, a veteran who still has three years left on his contract. The Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars have been listed as possible destinations.
The Ravens have 20 players who will become free agents, 10 of them unrestricted. Top names include linebackers C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, wide receiver John Brown and defensive end Brent Urban.
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Suggs has long been a favorite of Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens’ longtime general manager and soon-to-be consultant/adviser. But the 16-year NFL veteran wasn’t productive in the second half of the season especially as a pass rusher, which is supposed to be his forte.
“It’s pretty much out of my hands. Like I said, I would like to be a Raven for life. It might not happen that way,” Suggs said. “We’ve had to see some Raven guys line up in other uniforms. I hope that’s not my case. If it is, so be it. I chose nothing. I’m a football player. I was born, and this is what I am. Like I said, I plan on lining up in 2019. So, hopefully it’s in the black and purple.”
The Ravens will put a full-court press on Mosley, one of the top linebackers in the league. He will command top dollar, and Smith will also draw a lot of attention because of his ability to rush the passer.
Ideally, the Ravens would like to sign a big-name free-agent receiver, but that might be hard with Jackson’s reputation as an option quarterback and the offense that was built around him in 2018.
A better route might be through the draft. Other top needs include a free safety, guards, a fast and shifty running back, and outside linebackers, especially if second-year players such as Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams continue to struggle.
But it appears the emphasis will be on building on offense. Jackson was the centerpiece, but he had little surrounding talent.
But before that starts, the Ravens need a leader, and something has to happen with Harbaugh soon. As soon as that situation is resolved, the pieces should start to fit together.