First, it was wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Then, it was tight end Eric Ebron. The Ravens’ focus then shifted to wide receivers Willie Snead, Cameron Meredith and Allen Hurns.
Crabtree, Ebron and Hurns all hit the free-agent market after they were released by their former teams. Snead and Meredith are restricted free agents. Thus all five had something in common: If they were signed, they would not factor into the compensatory-pick formula.
No team in the NFL takes advantage of the compensatory formula more than the Ravens, who have received 49 extra selections since the system was put into place in 1994. That’s seven more than the next-highest team, the Green Bay Packers.
The Ravens weighing whether to sign a true unrestricted free agent with the impact it would have on their compensatory selections has become an annual rite of March. And the front office’s desire to secure another 2019 draft pick or two appears again to be affecting the team’s approach to free agency.
Thus far, the only true unrestricted free agent the Ravens have signed is wide receiver John Brown. Meanwhile, they’ve lost two of their own free agents with center Ryan Jensen signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and wide receiver Mike Wallace agreeing to join the Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles.
The Brown and Wallace moves essentially cancel each other out, meaning the Ravens are currently in position to get either a third- or fourth-round pick for Jensen, who the Buccaneers made the highest-paid center in the league.
The Ravens still have needs they’d like to fill before the draft, which is less than five weeks away, and they have a little bit of salary cap space with which to address them.
They are still looking to add a receiver even after signing Brown and Crabtree. A tight end who can make plays downfield is probably the team’s No. 1 need. The Ravens have questions at center and right tackle and the team is still in the market for a backup quarterback and pass-catching running back. Defensively, an inside linebacker, additional cornerback depth and an interior pass rusher should all be on the wish list.
But if the team’s history is any indication, it will avoid signing any unrestricted free agent who could cost it that third- or fourth-round pick they’ll likely get for the Jensen loss. That means it’s probably unlikely the Ravens will pursue a wide receiver such as Jordan Matthews or Dontrelle Inman or a tight end like Antonio Gates.
They figure to continue to explore salary-cap cuts or maybe look at another restricted free agent or two after both Snead and Meredith left Baltimore without immediately signing a contract tender. That doesn’t mean they can’t agree to a deal in the days ahead.
The Ravens also could change their philosophy if another of their unrestricted free agents sign elsewhere. Right tackle Austin Howard, tight end Benjamin Watson and wide receiver Michael Campanaro (River Hill) all could affect the compensatory formula. One or two of them signing with another team — Watson and Campanaro look like long shots to return — could result in the Ravens dipping back into the “true” unrestricted free-agent market.
For now, though, the Ravens appear to be valuing that third- or fourth-round pick from the loss of Jensen over anything that’s currently available.