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Five Things We Learned as the Ravens prepared for the official opening of NFL free agency

From the Ravens' decision not to break the bank for C.J. Mosley to the surprising departure of all-time franchise great Terrell Suggs, here are five things we learned in the run-up to NFL free agency.

The last few weeks have given us a telling glimpse of how Eric DeCosta will operate.

Go back to DeCosta’s introductory press conference at the end of January and the first question he was asked about his operating vision as the Ravens’ new general manager. After describing the fast, punishing, disciplined team he hoped to see on the field, the first thing DeCosta said was, “I think we want to be financially responsible when it comes to the salary cap.”

Now that DeCosta has allowed C.J. Mosley — the homegrown 26-year-old leader of the NFL’s incumbent No. 1 defense — to walk instead of paying him a record-smashing $17 million per year (as the New York Jets reportedly will), we know how serious he was.

It’s not that fiscal responsibility is a new credo for the Baltimore front office. “Right player, right price,” was a favorite saying for DeCosta’s predecessor and mentor, Ozzie Newsome, who was always loath to engage in the overcaffeinated bidding wars that characterize the opening of free agency.

But the Ravens have traditionally locked up players such as Mosley, whom they drafted in the first round and immediately cast as a foundation piece for their post-Ray Lewis defense.

It’s hard to know whether the Ravens could have moved more aggressively to extend Mosley’s contract at this time last year. If that possibility was on the table and they let it slip away, the fault lies as much with Newsome as DeCosta.

DeCosta also could have used the franchise tag, $15.44 million for a linebacker, to keep Mosley off the market and continue negotiations. That price hardly sounds ridiculous relative to what Mosley will actually get.

Between his approach to Mosley, his decision to release 34-year-old safety Eric Weddle and his refusal to bid too high on a one-year deal for 36-year-old linebacker Terrell Suggs, DeCosta seemed to be preparing for a patient rebuild around second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson. But then he flipped that script Wednesday, spending a reported $70 million to add safety Earl Thomas and running back Mark Ingram, both 29 years old.

So perhaps the conclusion is simply that DeCosta, like Newsome before him, has a clear idea what each player is worth, and he’s not going to budge, regardless of sentimentality or shifting market enthusiasm. The Ravens have a terrific opportunity to rebuild their roster around a low-cost starting quarterback, especially after the dead money from Joe Flacco’s deal disappears from their salary cap next year. But they’re not punting on 2019, even if it looked that way for a few hours on Tuesday.

The Ravens wanted to keep C.J. Mosley, but the price didn’t make sense.

At that same news conference where he explained his governing philosophy, DeCosta made it clear he wanted and expected to re-sign Mosley.

“We’re in the business of keeping our good football players,” he said. “Talent wins in the NFL, and he’s a Pro Bowl linebacker, so we’re going to do everything we can to make sure C.J. is back on the team.”

Mosley gave the Ravens everything they could have hoped for when they drafted him in the first round five years ago. He anchored the team’s run defense, called the signals, remained productive through a series of injuries, mentored younger teammates and delivered his best games as the team’s playoff hopes hung in the balance. Coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale wore their love for him on their sleeves.

So why won’t he go down as an institutional Raven in the line that ran from Ray Lewis to Ed Reed to Suggs to Haloti Ngata?

The basic answer is that the Ravens did not want to pay Mosley like one of the top 10 or 15 defensive players in the NFL. As good as he is, it’s extremely difficult for a middle linebacker to impact the air-dominated modern game as powerfully as an elite pass rusher or cornerback. That’s what the market tells us year after year. It’s why Luke Kuechly, the brilliant inside linebacker for the Carolina Panthers, makes an average of $12.4 million while Aaron Donald, the all-world defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, makes an average of $22.5 million.

It was never fair that Mosley had to build his career in the enveloping, dancing shadow Lewis cast over Baltimore. He didn’t need to be Lewis to be a heck of a player. But the comparison is instructive at the moment. Lewis was an all-time talent at middle linebacker, playing in an era when stopping the run was more essential to winning. Mosley, for all his virtues, did not reach that level. He was never a candidate to win Defensive Player of the Year. Pro Football Focus graded him as the 22nd best linebacker in 2018, well behind Kuechly and Bobby Wagner of the Seattle Seahawks. Perhaps if he really was Lewis reincarnated, the Ravens would have defied prevailing wisdom about positional values and paid him $17 million a year. But he wasn’t and they didn’t.

Cold logic aside, Mosley deserves nothing but best wishes as he moves on to the Jets. He did everything he could to earn his pay day, and he’ll likely be a very good player and citizen of the NFL for years to come.

The loss of Suggs stings individually but perhaps more as a blow to the team’s overall makeup.

The run-up to free agency streaked by with such a rush of unsettling news for the Ravens that the departure of a top-five player in franchise history felt almost lost in the haze.

Suggs played more games than any other Raven. At his best, he combined a quick burst off the edge, powerful stability against the run and one of the sharpest football minds on the team. That’s an awesome force to depend on week after week, and he belongs just behind Lewis and Reed in the pantheon of Ravens defenders. Suggs also had a unique gift for animating the locker room and the dreary practices of August. Listen to young players such as Matthew Judon describe what his counsel meant to them, and you know he won’t soon be forgotten.

After the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, Suggs said he liked the idea of finishing his career with the team that drafted him. Less than two weeks ago, at the NFL scouting combine, DeCosta said he wanted to re-sign the veteran linebacker.

So again, what happened?

Perhaps the Ravens did not anticipate the Cardinals would offer $7 million, a significant raise from the 36-year-old linebacker’s previous deal in Baltimore. Maybe they assumed Suggs would be a bargain pass rusher and were not prepared to treat him as anything more.

It’s true that Suggs is no longer the every-down, every-game force he was in his prime. He came to training camp in excellent shape last summer and produced nine tackles for loss in the Ravens’ first seven games. But then he managed just 1 ½ sacks over the last 10 games (if you count the playoff loss). In a narrow sense, the loss of such a player should not be devastating.

When you consider that the Ravens also watched their best pass rusher, Za’Darius Smith, sign with the Green Bay Packers on Tuesday, it becomes a bigger deal. We knew the Ravens were unlikely to bid competitively for Smith, who’ll make a whopping $16 million per year. (He joins a line of departed pass rushers that includes Paul Kruger and Pernell McPhee, and the Ravens have generally gotten those calls right.) With Suggs in the fold along with Judon, they would not have needed to shop on the inflated market for edge defenders. But with Suggs and Smith both gone, they’re extremely thin at one of the NFL’s premium positions. Martindale’s creative blitzes can only produce so much pressure if he’s short on talent.

This is why it was so important for either Tyus Bowser or Tim Williams to take a step forward at outside linebacker in 2018. Neither player did.

For all the losses on defense, the Ravens have made a bold decision to build around their secondary.

We knew the Ravens would need to replace Weddle and that the market was deep in quality safeties. But few guessed that DeCosta would let Mosley walk and essentially fill his salary slot with Thomas, one of the best defenders of the past decade. Thomas will turn 30 in May and has missed 19 games over the past three seasons, so he comes with some risk. But when healthy, he’s a rare combination of hitter and ballhawk.

Beyond Thomas, the Ravens have retained their unusual depth at cornerback with rising star Marlon Humphrey, veterans Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr and recently re-signed slot specialist Tavon Young. More than Mosley or Smith or any individual player, this group was the star of the team in 2018. And now it will be the foundation around which DeCosta reconstructs the defense.

That makes a lot of sense in 2019, when the rising Cleveland Browns just paired big-play target Odell Beckham Jr. with star quarterback Baker Mayfield and when surreally gifted Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes seems poised to torment the AFC for the next decade.

Whether the Ravens replace Mosley with a veteran middle linebacker or with second-year candidate Kenny Young, they should maintain an effective run defense based on the inside power of defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce (presuming his second-round tender scares off suitors for the restricted free agent). We don’t know if they’ll lose defensive end Brent Urban, but they have in-house options to mitigate that loss in Chris Wormley and Zach Sieler.

At linebacker, the Ravens still have rising talents in Judon and Patrick Onwuasor, and they should be able to restock in free agency and the draft.

Martindale’s crew has certainly taken its share of body blows over the last week, but all is not lost.

The Ravens’ locker room will be a very different place next year.

When you write about an NFL team, you get used to certain gravitational bodies around whom the entire culture rotates.

It’s hard to imagine the locker room without Suggs barking good-natured insults in the background of a younger teammate’s interview, Weddle dispensing insights worthy of a general manager or Flacco and Mosley standing up to take responsibility through good times and bad.

These were the essential characters who took over in the wake of Lewis and Reed. They were important players, yes, but also beacons of professionalism. There are a few of those figures left — Marshal Yanda on the offensive line, Carr and Tony Jefferson in the secondary, Anthony Levine Sr. on special teams.

But this burst of departures emphasizes how important it will be for the next generation — Jackson, Judon, Humphrey, left tackle Ronnie Stanley — to take on greater responsibility.

The Ravens are truly entering a new era.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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