xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Five Things We Learned from the Ravens’ first week of free agency

The Ravens were dissatisfied with the construction of their front seven, but not in the way we thought.

We assumed the Ravens would make their biggest free-agent additions on the defensive side, with an eye on boosting a pass rush that relied too much on relentless blitzing in 2019.

Advertisement

They made good on that prophecy but not by targeting the edge rushers who eat up so much media bandwidth. Instead, they used much of their salary cap space on two long, productive defensive linemen who play the run at least as well as the pass.

Calais Campbell and Michael Brockers did not top speculative lists of Ravens targets. But perhaps we should have seen this coming. The Ravens were upset in the playoffs each of the last two seasons, and in both cases, they were battered along the line of scrimmage. You didn’t have to dig deep into John Harbaugh’s postgame comments to recognize how much this bothered him. Yes, Derrick Henry was a great running back on a historic roll, but the Ravens don’t believe they should ever give up 217 rushing yards as they did in their season-ending loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Advertisement

So general manger Eric DeCosta used most of his remaining salary cap to put a pair of excellent all-around linemen beside stalwart Brandon Williams. He did not bid to keep Michael Pierce, who delivered excellent value for the Ravens but never grew into a productive pass rusher. And on Friday, he traded Chris Wormley, who played solid positional defense but never became a playmaker on par with Brockers, much less Campbell. These moves amounted to a straight-up facelift for one of the franchise’s proudest position groups.

The Ravens also spent substantial money to apply the franchise tag to outside linebacker Matthew Judon. We’ll see if that leads to a long-term extension or a trade. But for now, they’re betting big on inside power rather than outside finesse. Brockers is a durable player who’s averaged 57 tackles (no Ravens defensive lineman had more than 35 in 2019) over the last three seasons. He’s never topped 5 ½ sacks in season, but he’s still a more productive pass rusher than the players he’s replacing. Campbell is 33, but the five-time Pro Bowl selection was one of the best linemen in the league last year, with an elite Pro Football Focus grade as a run defender to go along with 6 ½ sacks and 25 quarterback hits. The Ravens simply did not have a player like him last season.

Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale will be able to roll out either of the new additions in almost any situation and not worry about the results. That means the Ravens improved, even if they took a surprising path.

Baltimore Ravens' Eric DeCosta watches from the sidelines during the third quarter of the AFC Divisional Playoff Sat., Jan. 11, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Baltimore Ravens' Eric DeCosta watches from the sidelines during the third quarter of the AFC Divisional Playoff Sat., Jan. 11, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Eric DeCosta is betting big on his ability to find starters in the draft.

With his emphasis on improving the defensive front, DeCosta left himself plenty of work to do at other positions, most notably guard, inside linebacker and wide receiver. Without much money to spend, he’ll have to fill most of these remaining holes in next month’s draft.

This helps explain why the Ravens traded promising tight end Hayden Hurst for a second-round pick, upping their total to seven picks in the first four rounds. In theory, all those players should be good enough to compete for significant playing time right away.

Fans have speculated that DeCosta might package part of his treasure trove to move up in the first round. But that feels like wishful thinking by those who lust after a star wide receiver. The Ravens have always prized depth in the draft, and this time, they need it to patch holes on a potential Super Bowl contender.

Yes, they need pass catchers, and they’ll likely draft one or two from a talented class. But they also need an interior offensive lineman to compete with Ben Powers for Marshal Yanda’s old job at right guard. They need a young linebacker who can begin to fill the void left by C.J. Mosley. They need developmental pass-rush prospects (assuming the best edge guys will be gone by the time they pick at No. 28 overall).

This is actually a year when the Ravens’ traditional draft philosophy, passed from Ozzie Newsome down to DeCosta, fits their needs perfectly. They love stacking up productive players at positions that don’t draw the most attention from pundits, and that’s exactly what they’ll have to do based on their offseason direction.

Baltimore Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst (81) runs with the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Baltimore Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst (81) runs with the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) (Nick Wass/AP)

The Ravens took a genuine, though understandable, risk in trading Hayden Hurst.

We know how much this team relies on tight ends, and Hurst offered tremendous security as a former first-round pick who could fill in whenever Mark Andrews was banged up. He’s a natural athlete who showed the best hands on the roster down the stretch last season. In an ideal world, the Ravens would have kept him.

On the other hand, they needed draft stock to address holes at other positions. And with Andrews around, they were probably never going to give Hurst the targets his talent merited. Any good fantasy owner would tell you that’s a scenario in which you explore trade options, and DeCosta found a sensible deal with the Atlanta Falcons. Good for Hurst and good for his former team, which could draft a starting offensive linemen or a ready-to-play wide receiver with the 55th overall pick.

Advertisement

But let’s not pretend this move was all upside. Lamar Jackson depends on tight ends as much as any quarterback in the league, and Andrews, his top target, battled leg and ankle injuries last season. If Andrews misses time in 2020, the player filling in for him (whether it’s Charles Scarff or a new addition) won’t be as talented as Hurst. Meanwhile, Hurst could break out as one of Matt Ryan’s chief targets in Atlanta.

DeCosta made a calculated gamble, which is what you have to do when building a balanced NFL roster. But it was a gamble.

Baltimore Ravens receiver Miles Boykin, a Providence graduate, battles for the ball in the fourth quarter of a game against the Tennessee Titans during an NFL playoff game on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020.
Baltimore Ravens receiver Miles Boykin, a Providence graduate, battles for the ball in the fourth quarter of a game against the Tennessee Titans during an NFL playoff game on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. (Ulysses Mu-Oz / Baltimore Sun/Baltimore Sun)

The anxiety fans feel about wide receiver is overheated.

Wade just a little into Ravens-fan social media and you’ll find wild speculation about how the team might finally acquire a superstar wide receiver.

Whether that entails trading multiple picks to jump up in the first round or signing a loose cannon such as four-time All-Pro Antonio Brown, no scenario seems off the table. This hysteria, a familiar trope of Baltimore offseasons, revved up again when the team’s receivers (other than 2019 first-round pick Marquise Brown) struggled to get open downfield against the Titans.

It’s not that such concerns ring false. The Ravens really do need more talent at a position where Marquise Brown, Willie Snead IV and Miles Boykin are the only players guaranteed to make their 2020 roster. But they’re not likely to upend their tenets to chase a player such as Antonio Brown, with domestic violence allegations in his recent past, or dump their draft depth in pursuit of a single college receiver.

The Ravens led the league in scoring last season without a glitzy receiving corps. They love this year’s wide receiver class and believe they can add a quality pass catcher at No. 28 or lower. If you’re expecting them to address this problem with a shock move rather than through steady roster building, you’re likely to end up disappointed.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady tosses the football on the sideline in the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Tennessee Titans, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady tosses the football on the sideline in the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Tennessee Titans, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) (Charles Krupa/AP)

Tom Brady’s move only adds to the sense that it’s the Chiefs’ and Ravens’ time in the AFC.

Advertisement

After almost two decades of Patriots hegemony, the obituaries rolled quickly when Brady’s 2019 season ended with an interception against the upstart Tennessee Titans.

Advertisement

Those burial rites felt hasty at the time, given the lack of appealing free-agent destinations for the 42-year-old quarterback. Surely, he and Patriots owner Robert Kraft would reach some resolution. Right?

Wrong. As we learned last week, too many bridges had been torched in the New England power structure. We don’t know who did the torching or why, but the result spoke plainly; Brady packed up his six Super Bowl rings and fled for Tampa Bay.

The Patriots’ empire was decaying, if not crumbling, even with Brady in the fold. But as long as he and coach Bill Belichick were around, backed by one of the league’s best defenses, New England could not be dismissed as a Super Bowl contender. Just look at the last 19 seasons, a span in which the Patriots missed the playoffs just twice and made it as far as the AFC championship 13 times. We’ve never seen anything like it in the modern NFL.

So what does this mean for the rivals left behind?

It will make the road through January a little easier for the remaining AFC contenders, including the Ravens and the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. Both teams beat the Patriots in 2019, and both would have entered 2020 with more talented rosters than the Patriots, even if Brady stayed. But that doesn’t mean any sane coach wanted to travel to Foxborough, Massachusetts, for a playoff game.

We learned to assume the narrative of every season would flow through Brady and Belichick. They were the standard, the closest we’ve seen to an NFL version of the old New York Yankees or Boston Celtics. That dynamic died a little the day the Patriots lost to the Titans and a lot the day Brady signed with the Bucs. The crown now rests with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs; the Ravens and others will have their chances to seize it. Either way, a distinct era has passed.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement