The family portrait became a ritual late in the 2018 season, just in time for the holidays, and even the weeks after that. The Ravens would force a fumble, or grab an interception, or make a big stop, and the defense would rapidly assemble in an end zone for a team photo, their muscles flexed, their smiles wide.
It was a snapshot of a unit built to win a championship. The Ravens finished No. 1 in the NFL in total defense, second in yards per play allowed and second in scoring defense. If rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson was the face of the franchise’s ride to its first AFC North title since 2012, the defense was its turbocharged engine.
But on the eve of the official start of free agency, the celebratory photographs feel like a relic of a bygone era, many of the faces now faded away. Four defensive starters are gone. Another one could be on the way out. With Eric Weddle having already signed elsewhere and the pending departures of free agents Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley and Za’Darius Smith, the Ravens are set to lose a combined 59 starts, 17 sacks, 2,000-plus defensive snaps and 252 tackles from last season.
Even the loss of wide receiver John Brown felt like an afterthought in the wake of the defensive defections, the latest chapter in a dramatic year that has reshaped the Ravens’ roster and front office.
In less than 18 hours spanning Monday night and Tuesday afternoon, three linebackers who underpinned their defensive success proved unwilling or unable to be retained. Taken together, their exits suggest a new era of Ravens defense. Even separately, their contributions were no less impressive.
According to reports, the Arizona Cardinals will give Suggs, the Ravens’ longest-tenured player and career sacks leader, a one-year, $7 million contract. Mosley, a four-time All-Pro selection and the Ravens’ leading tackler, agreed to sign with the New York Jets for $17 million annually over five years, with $51 million guaranteed. Za’Darius Smith, their reigning sack king, lined up a four-year, $66 million deal from the Green Bay Packers, with $34.5 million paid out over the first two years.
Weddle, who signed a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Rams on Friday worth up to $12.5 million, led the defense in snaps and helped Mosley orient the defense. Defensive end Brent Urban, an unrestricted free agent, rated as the team’s third-best run defender, according to Pro Football Focus.
This was always a possibility. First-year general manager Eric DeCosta has acknowledged that the front office would be mindful of salary cap considerations as it built around Jackson’s team-friendly rookie contract. But the speed of the teardown, and the apparent lack of replacement pieces already secured, has raised questions about the team’s short-team plans.
“I think we want to have the best players we can, that we can fit in under the parameters of the salary cap,” DeCosta said at his introductory news conference in late January, where he echoed the “Right player, right price” philosophy of his predecessor, Ozzie Newsome.
“We want to have a great mix of young players and veteran leadership and guys that can help us win games. There are a lot of different formulas for that. We’re not, as of right now, we’re not tied to cutting anybody, and we’re not tied to playing with anybody. We just want the best team we can field to play in September 2019.”
No player was as important to the defense’s future as Mosley. The 2014 first-round draft pick has missed just three games in his NFL career and finished with at least 105 tackles in all but one season. Despite concerns about his ability in pass coverage, he posted career bests last year in passing yards allowed (408) and yards per reception allowed (9.3), according to PFF.
His late interception against the Cleveland Browns in Week 17 secured the Ravens’ first playoff appearance since 2014 but not his future in Baltimore. The team had been engaged in contract negotiations since January 2018, but talks reached an impasse. The Ravens declined to place the franchise tag on Mosley last week, allowing him to hit the open market. There, he earned the richest contract ever for an inside linebacker, almost $5 million more per year than Carolina Panthers star Luke Kuechly’s.
That Smith is also headed out of Baltimore is less of a surprise. He led the Ravens with 8½ sacks last season and finished with 60 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, 17th most among edge defenders in the NFL. DeCosta was once hopeful that the Ravens might have a “chance” of re-signing the 26-year-old, but he cautioned that “the market is usually out of control” for pass rushers early in free agency.
The Ravens are better equipped to replace Mosley than they are Smith and Suggs, who will earn more in Arizona than he did in his 16th season in Baltimore. Neither task will be easy.
Patrick Onwuasor closed out the season strong next to Mosley, while Kenny Young showed flashes as a rookie. It’s unclear whom the Ravens will count on to collapse the pocket with returning starter Matthew Judon. Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams were far from consistent contributors last season, and the team’s first-round pick might be better spent on another position.
Wide receiver, for instance, could be addressed with the No. 22 overall pick. The offense lacks a big-play threat out wide, especially with Brown reportedly agreeing to a three-year, $27 million deal with the Buffalo Bills. In his one year with the Ravens, an up-and-down season that tracked with the rise and fall of Joe Flacco, the speedster had team highs in receiving yards and touchdown catches.
The Ravens’ attrition is expected to continue. Running backs Buck Allen and Ty Montgomery, quarterback Robert Griffin III, cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste and tight end Maxx Williams all will be free to sign late Wednesday afternoon. So will wide receiver Michael Crabtree, cut last month after a disappointing first season, and running back Alex Collins, waived after a recent arrest and narcotics and gun charges.
The Ravens are expected to add to their roster before April’s draft. But for now, even after extensions for cornerback Tavon Young and tight end Nick Boyle, their offseason has been defined by who they’ve lost — and how fast they’ve lost them.