With NFL free agency set to begin next week and the draft less than two months away, we’re rapidly approaching the heart of the Ravens’ offseason.
Led by quarterback Lamar Jackson and coming off three straight playoff appearances, they’ll start the 2021 season on a shortlist of Super Bowl contenders, but a divisional round loss to the Buffalo Bills re-exposed roster flaws that must be addressed if they’re to get over the hump. With the salary cap depressed by COVID-19 and several of their own key players hitting free agency, the Ravens will have to upgrade on a modest budget.
Here are the five most important moves they could make this offseason.
Sign an established guard or center.
The Ravens never filled the chasm left by the retirement of Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, and their offensive line troubles only multiplied as last season went along. Yes, they patched together a string of dominant rushing performances against overmatched opponents late in the season. Yes, their deep pool of young blockers — from Ben Powers to Patrick Mekari to Tyre Phillips — facilitated the rally that got them to the playoffs. But the loss to the Bills was a nightmare for most of the offensive line, which could not give Jackson the time he needed to make correct reads and could not get him the ball cleanly.
In his postseason news conference, coach John Harbaugh described the offensive line as “priority one.” That doesn’t mean the Ravens will discard interior linemen such as Mekari and Powers, who gave them valuable starts and earned the right to compete for playing time in 2021. It does mean they’re going to shop for upgrades. Harbaugh again: “We built a really effective offensive line; I’m quite sure of that. But yes, we want other guys, too.”
So where do they start? Above all, the Ravens need more certainty on the offensive line. Their stability upfront was an underrated factor in their dominant 2019 regular season, and Yanda was a major part of it. They can’t just magic up an equivalent building block on the free agent market, but they can sign a player they won’t have to worry about.
Center Corey Linsley would be the deluxe-tier solution. Pro Football Focus graded him the top player at his position last season, and he was never less than good in seven seasons as a starter for the Green Bay Packers. He would immediately wipe away the snapping and pass blocking troubles that hampered Mekari and Matt Skura, and he would be more affordable than a top-tier wide receiver or pass rusher. The Ravens could also splurge on a top guard such as Joe Thuney or Brandon Scherff (if Washington does not lock him up), but they might have more luck signing a center and drafting a guard from the deep 2021 class.
The market will also feature a pair of cheaper centers in David Andrews and Alex Mack. Neither played as well as Linsley in 2020 and neither would bring long-term stability, but either would fit the “no worries in 2021” theme.
Sign a second-tier wide receiver and draft an outside pass catcher with significant upside.
If ever we enter a Ravens offseason without significant fretting over wide receivers, we’ll know the apocalypse is nigh. Already, we’ve spent weeks parsing comments from recent Ravens alumni Dez Bryant and Willie Snead IV that seemed to highlight the difficulty of catching passes in Greg Roman’s run-first offense. Imagine the cacophony if the Ravens come out of another offseason without a “true No. 1,” however we choose to define this rare species.
If your heart is set on Allen Robinson or Kenny Golladay, prepare for disappointment. There’s a good chance these guys will not hit the market, and even if they do, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta has said nothing to suggest he’d shop in that neighborhood.
Most fans seem to understand this, so there’s a lot of talk about Will Fuller V and Corey Davis, both of whom produced as deep threats in 2020. The appeals are obvious. Fuller has averaged 15 yards per catch over five seasons. Davis had a breakout year for the run-first Tennessee Titans. On the other hand, neither is a No. 1 receiver; Fuller has not been durable enough, and the Titans thought little enough of Davis that they did not pick up his fifth-year option. So the Ravens could be chasing fool’s gold if they spent $15 million per year on one of these guys instead of signing a top offensive lineman.
They would be better off spending modestly on a consistent veteran such as Marvin Jones Jr. and trying to hit pay dirt with a deep wide receiver class that features big, outside targets such as Terrace Marshall Jr. of LSU and Rashod Bateman of Minnesota. More of the same, skeptics might say, but this is not a team that’s configured to make splashy investments at wide receiver. They drafted their best pass catchers, Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews, and they’ll have to do it again to get Jackson the help he needs.
Re-sign Tyus Bowser and draft an outside linebacker.
And we come to the next pool of pricey free agents. DeCosta has more decisions to make at outside linebacker than any other position, with only Jaylon Ferguson guaranteed to return in 2021. Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue feature prominently on those free-agent raking lists that proliferate every March. In a perfect world, the Ravens would bring Judon back; his versatility and infectious intensity have been essential to Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense. After a year of paying Judon premium money under the franchise tag, however, they probably can’t win a bidding war for him on the open market. Ngakoue simply did not produce like an elite pass rusher during his brief time in Baltimore, so why would the Ravens pay him like one?
Martindale would love to have an edge superstar who could create consistent pressure without the aid of blitzes, but he’s proved that he can design a championship-level defense without one. Instead, he’s relied on deception created by players such as Judon and Bowser, who drop into coverage as easily as they fire off the line. This is why Bowser feels like a linchpin of the Ravens’ offseason. He won’t draw superstar money on the open market, but we know he can deliver much of what Judon did. If the Ravens bring him back along with veteran Pernell McPhee, who played well in 2020 and has said he’d like to keep going, they’d at least keep their defense on track.
That said, they need to draft an edge rusher in the first three rounds. Ferguson did not step forward in 2020, leaving them dangerously bereft of young outside linebackers. There’s no Judon or Za’Darius Smith waiting to fill the breach. DeCosta’s scouting staff needs to find the guy in a class that features intriguing talents such as Zaven Collins of Tulsa, Joe Tryon of Washington and Jayson Oweh of Penn State.
Reach extensions with their 2022 free agents.
Jackson has understandably been the focus here, because he’s the single most important person in the franchise. Reports have already swirled that he and the Ravens are nowhere close to an extension. Despite the gloom-and-doom tone of such headlines, there’s no reason to worry at this point. The Ravens will pick up his fifth-year option one way or another, and they’ve never balked at paying market price for foundational players. The success of this offseason will not rise or fall on the status of a Jackson extension.
There’s more urgent work to be done with the 2018 draft class, specifically Andrews, left guard Bradley Bozeman and safety DeShon Elliott.
It’s not clear how Andrews views his market value compared with the league’s elite tight ends, Travis Kelce and George Kittle. But as Jackson’s favorite target in a proudly tight end-centric offense, he’s indispensable to the Ravens. Why, for example, would they bother to sign a big-ticket wide receiver only to let Andrews go?
Amid the aforementioned uncertainty on the offensive line, Bozeman again proved to be a rock on the left side, starting all 16 games and holding up well in the Bills loss. He offers affordable stability — exactly what the Ravens need. He can also play center in a pinch.
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Elliott wasn’t perfect in his first season as a starter, but he brought a big-hitting swagger the Ravens had lacked. For a team that loves to invest in its defensive backfield, he could provide another modestly priced building block.
DeCosta has made good on his promises to hunt early extensions. No matter how quickly his talks with Jackson progress, he’ll have ample targets over the next six months.
Draft more offensive linemen.
We haven’t touched on Orlando Brown Jr., whose stated desire to play left tackle will frame the Ravens’ approach to constructing their offensive line. If the two-time Pro Bowl selection was content at right tackle, he’d be a top extension priority. Instead, reports have said Brown’s representatives are pursuing trade possibilities as he enters the last season of his rookie contract.
The Ravens will want to settle the Brown issue fairly quickly. If he’s going to be back, they’ll be set at tackle for 2021 with an eye on adding depth in the draft. If he’s not, they’ll need to use whatever pick they receive in a Brown trade on a day-one starter at right tackle.
Either way, they need to draft a tackle who could slot in by 2022 and a guard or center to supplement their efforts in free agency. Phillips is a massive, ornery lineman who played well enough as a rookie to put himself in the team’s future plans. The Ravens could live with him or Powers starting at right guard and Mekari floating as a versatile backup. What they can’t do is stand pat with left tackle Ronnie Stanley as their only lineman who’s guaranteed to start in 2022. The good news for the Ravens is that by all accounts, this draft class is stacked with linemen who could contribute from day one. It would be a shock if they don’t add at least two.