By now, the Ravens’ No. 1 offseason goal should be clear. Coach John Harbaugh said it four days after the disappointing 2017 ended. Owner Steve Bisciotti reiterated it late last week in the State of the Ravens address.
The organization is focused on making meaningful upgrades on the offensive side of the ball.
The Ravens’ top decision-makers know they need to overhaul their receiving corps and add players who can get open, make contested catches and get yards after receptions. They understand that the offense lacks a dynamic tight end that can stretch the field. With center Ryan Jensen and left guard James Hurst heading to free agency, the Ravens want to make sure their offensive line is solidified.
It’s certainly the right approach to put the majority of their resources into an offense that was one of the worst in the league for much of last season. It’s also long overdue.
However, ignoring the defense and depending on the maturation of young defensive players who didn’t play much in 2017 isn’t a wise idea, either.
To be fair, nobody from the organization is saying that neglecting the defense is the plan. Bisciotti said last week that the defense is pretty set from a “personnel standpoint,” and that he’s “looking for increased production” from certain players.
Bisciotti didn’t mention any names, but obviously the Ravens have to hope that young edge rushers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams take a significant step forward in Year 2 and other early draft picks from recent years, including Kamalei Correa, Bronson Kaufusi and Chris Wormley, earn the right to be on the field more in 2018 and contribute accordingly.
But it’s worth remembering that the Ravens weren’t a dominant defense in 2017. They were a solid defense, but they also had a few flaws that were exposed late in the year in games the team needed to win to make the postseason.
The Ravens led the league with 22 interceptions and 34 takeaways, and they allowed the sixth fewest points per game (18.9) in the NFL. They finished 12th in total yards allowed per game (325.1), 10th in passing yards allowed per game (213.8) and 15th in rushing yards allowed per game (111.3). Again, those are solid numbers, but hardly dominant.
It also must be taken into account that the team played a litany of backup quarterbacks. They didn’t have to face Derek Carr, Ryan Tannehill, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson or Andrew Luck.
Even with that good fortune, it was a defense that got very little interior pressure on quarterbacks. The Ravens have had some discussions with defensive end Brent Urban, the lone pending defensive free agent who started a game for them in 2017, about a new contract. Urban showed some signs of development before going down with a season-ending injury in Week 3.
Even if they bring Urban back on a modest, “prove you can stay healthy” deal, the Ravens should be on the lookout for a defensive tackle or end that will push the pocket and apply interior pressure. Nothing bothers quarterbacks more than pressure up the middle.
It was a defense that struggled all year to cover tight ends, and that needs to be rectified or the AFC’s top offensive teams, such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, will continue to find mismatches and expose the Ravens in the middle of the field. Whether it’s an inside linebacker that can play alongside C.J. Mosley or a hybrid safety-type player, the Ravens need to find someone who can cover and upgrade their speed and athleticism in the middle of the field.
It was also a defense that faltered down the stretch for a second straight year after top cornerback Jimmy Smith was lost for the season. It seems Ravens fans would like the team to jettison veteran cornerback Brandon Carr and repurpose the $4 million in salary cap savings such a move would create. However, that would make the Ravens thin at cornerback and extremely vulnerable if Smith (Achilles) and Jaylen Hill (knee) aren’t ready for the start of the season — and it’s quite possible they won’t be — or if Tavon Young takes a while to knock off rust and gain confidence in his surgically repaired knee.
If the Ravens release Carr, adding a starting-caliber cornerback suddenly becomes a much greater priority. If they hold onto Carr, they still should bring in another corner through free agency or the draft. They’ve suffered too many injuries at that position over the years to leave themselves thin.
The problem, of course, is the Ravens don’t have a lot of assets to attack these needs. Despite Bisciotti saying he’s not worried about the team’s salary cap situation, the reality is the team won’t have a ton of flexibility, even with the expected release of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and a few other veterans.
They’ll have a full complement of seven draft picks, and likely an extra third-round compensatory selection for losing tackle Rick Wagner in free agency, but eight picks isn’t a ton if they want to move up in certain rounds to land elusive playmakers. The Ravens could trade a veteran or two to accrue more picks, but teams hang onto draft picks tightly and the Ravens don’t exactly have much excess on their roster to deal.
In other words, it’s hard to see the Ravens becoming one of the more active teams in free agency or during the draft. They’ll have to spend wisely and selectively and draft smartly.
Adding to the offense, which was largely ignored in the draft last year, needs to be the priority. But that shouldn’t mean the Ravens completely neglect the defense, especially after a few defensive flaws contributed to the team’s demise in 2017.