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Five Things We Learned from the Ravens’ first week in the free-agent market

From little regard for mass appeal to the difficulty of finding a wide receiver, here are five things we learned from the Ravens’ first week in the free-agent market.

Eric DeCosta doesn’t care about managing for the masses.

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This turned into an angst-ridden week for Ravens fans who were desperate to see DeCosta add the final touches to a potential Super Bowl champion.

Some threw up their hands as it became apparent there would be no No. 1 wide receiver, no double-digit sack specialist on the NFL equivalent of Christmas morning. Would the Ravens’ top football decision-maker ever push all his chips to the middle of the table?

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As DeCosta has made clear in his recent utterances, he never intended to “win” the third week in March.

It seems increasingly likely that the 2019 signing of Earl Thomas III will go down as a formative event in his development as a general manager.

The Ravens had taken a pasting on the first day of DeCosta’s first free-agent period as top decision-maker. He was, by his own later admission, eager to make a big move. Thomas was a great player who could not find a team eager to sign him to a long-term deal. He was not at the top of the Ravens’ shopping list, but the team needed a safety to replace Eric Weddle, so DeCosta pounced. He bid against himself for a player who initially struggled with the team’s defensive game plan and who became such a poor cultural fit that the Ravens abruptly released him before last season.

DeCosta might not put it exactly this way, but the Thomas experience seemed to push him back toward the Tao he learned during his long apprenticeship to Ozzie Newsome: patience.

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The first week of this offseason buying period could have been orchestrated by the Great Oz himself. Confronted with a surplus of free-agent wide receivers, a top tier of expensive offensive linemen and a deluge of cap casualties, DeCosta largely waited.

By not splurging, he delivered a refresher in Ravens philosophy — prioritize re-signing your own, don’t get into bidding wars at premium positions, don’t rob the future to load up for the present.

This approach was bound to frustrate fans who’ve enjoyed just two playoff victories since the Ravens won the Super Bowl eight years ago, but it was precisely what DeCosta promised when he ascended to the job.

The Ravens didn’t sign the best offensive lineman, but they might have signed the offensive lineman who best fit their situation.

We knew the Ravens would make an interior offensive lineman their first priority in free agency. John Harbaugh said as much in his season wrap-up with Baltimore-area reporters. Thus it seemed natural to focus our attention on Joe Thuney and Corey Linsley, the best guard and center available, respectively.

Instead, the Ravens made their move before free-agent flirting even kicked off, signing veteran guard Kevin Zeitler, who had been released by the New York Giants. Zeitler came at a modest cost — three years, $22.5 million with $16 million guaranteed — and will bring the size and pass-blocking dependability the Ravens coveted. Because he was released, he will not cost the Ravens one of the precious compensatory picks they added by waving goodbye to Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue. As soon as the move was announced, it produced knowing nods from those who’ve studied this team’s modus operandi. It just made sense.

The Ravens could have paid Linsley; he signed a $62.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Chargers, but only $17 million of that is fully guaranteed. Perhaps DeCosta telegraphed a lack of interest in the All-Pro center when he said recently that smaller offensive linemen don’t fit the Ravens’ power-oriented, man-blocking scheme. At right around 300 pounds, Linsley is no bruiser. Maybe Harbaugh’s staff sees greater upside in shifting 325-pound Bradley Bozeman to center and drafting a guard who could compete with Ben Powers and Tyre Phillips for immediate playing time.

Thuney, meanwhile, signed an $80 million deal with about $32 million guaranteed with the Kansas City Chiefs. Combine that price with the compensatory draft pick the Ravens would have lost, and he was simply out of their shopping range.

Thuney outplayed Zeitler in 2020, and he’s almost three years younger, but it’s not clear the Ravens lost much in the short term by going with the more affordable option. Above all, they needed dependability after a season in which they never adequately replaced retired Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda. Zeitler is Mr. Dependable. He graded as a top-20 guard every year from 2014 to 2019, according to Pro Football Focus, and he’s missed just one game in the last six seasons. The Ravens faced him for seven years in the AFC North, so they know he fits the way they play.

With plenty of young, versatile offensive linemen on their roster and a well-stocked draft class awaiting them next month, the Ravens did not lock in on a high-priced target. Their flexibility led to a signing that solved one problem without creating another.

The Ravens ran up against their own limitations in pursuing a wide receiver.

Here we go with the eternal pebble stuck in the shoe of Ravens nation. Why can’t this team find a star wide receiver to help Lamar Jackson? Why didn’t DeCosta take advantage of a market with plentiful options and a paucity of enthusiastic bidders?

Again, we can’t be surprised given his comments in January and earlier this month. We know DeCosta does not view a shiny new receiver as the be-all, end-all for an offense that has scored plenty of points without a prolific passing game.

When we thought the top-tier receivers would score multiyear deals at a rate of $15 million or more, this reluctance was understandable. The Ravens did not come into the week with a bulging purse. If they started by spending a hefty chunk on a pass catcher, they might not have signed Zeitler or brought back defensive end Derek Wolfe.

In reality, a robust market never developed for the top receivers. Will Fuller V, a dynamic if injury-prone deep threat, signed a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins. JuJu Smith-Schuster took a one-year deal to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Marvin Jones Jr., a dependable veteran frequently linked to the Ravens in free-agency previews, signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars for a mere $9 million guaranteed. Kenny Golladay, the consensus top receiver on the market, did not reach a deal until the weekend with the Giants.

This seemed the perfect setup for a patient DeCosta to pick up a badly needed player at a reasonable price.

We can’t accuse of him of not trying. The Ravens reportedly made the highest offer on Smith-Schuster and also reportedly expressed interest in Golladay. Free agency is a two-way street, and this is where the Ravens, despite their protestations to the contrary, run into trouble with their low-volume passing offense. Receivers betting on themselves with one-year deals covet targets. How else are they to pump up their value for future markets inflated by the NFL’s new media deal?

Perhaps the Ravens would have needed to blow competitors out of the water with a godfather offer, a difficult call for players such as Davis or Smith-Schuster, who aren’t guaranteed game-changers. You can argue that point with the 6-foot-4 Golladay, who has multiple seasons of star-level production under his belt at age 27. The rest come with flaws that would prevent us from calling them true No. 1s.

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The story is not over. With cheaper options such as T.Y. Hilton and Sammy Watkins still available, the Ravens might make a move if the price is right. If they don’t, fans will have good reason to shake their heads.

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The opportunity was there to improve one of the team’s weakest position groups, but the pebble remains in the shoe for reasons that go beyond mere dollars and cents.

The Ravens took the prudent path at outside linebacker.

A few national commentators raised eyebrows when the Ravens let Judon and Ngakoue walk without a fight, but it’s hard to imagine any student of this franchise being surprised.

Ngakoue was a reasonable midseason acquisition for a team that expected to contend, but he’s a one-dimensional pass rusher who’s already three years removed from his one great NFL season. After two months of watching his work, the Ravens treated him as a part-time player in the postseason. They were happy to add a comp pick rather than pay even the modest $21 million guaranteed Ngakoue took from the Las Vegas Raiders.

Judon was a tougher loss — a boisterous locker-room presence who built himself from a fifth-round pick into the team’s most productive pass rusher. Even so, the Ravens knew his departure was likely for at least a year. They used the franchise tag to keep Judon for one more season as a vital cog on a potential championship defense, but with so many core players signing or approaching extensions, he was destined to become the odd man out.

Instead of wasting time on their highest-priced free agents, the Ravens targeted a pair of outside linebackers who were just as important to their defense in 2020.

Tyus Bowser is Judon lite, a player just as comfortable dropping into coverage as he is chasing quarterbacks from the edge. His lack of pass-rush production kept his price — four years, $22 million with $12 million guaranteed — down, but his versatility will make him essential to defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s plans.

At age 32, Pernell McPhee can still crash the pocket (second on the Ravens in quarterback hits last season), but he’s more valuable as the team’s top edge setter. Martindale found the right formula for managing McPhee’s workload in 2020, and he played an essential role in bottling up Derrick Henry as the Ravens defeated the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs. Bringing him back on another one-year deal was an easy call.

The Ravens might not be done shopping for a veteran edge rusher (Melvin Ingram III or Carlos Dunlap would fit), and they’ll probably draft a young outside linebacker. No matter whom they bring to training camp, they’ll trust Martindale to keep opponents off-balance with schemed rushes. They were never going to violate their long-standing philosophy by bidding on a high-priced pass rusher, nor should they have.

The status of Orlando Brown Jr. remains the biggest question without an answer.

Brown’s name came up infrequently over the last week, suggesting interest in the Ravens’ Pro Bowl tackle was less than rabid. All indications are that DeCosta would trade Brown but feels no pressure to do so. If a satisfactory market never develops, he and Harbaugh have made it clear they’d trust Brown to do his customary good work in 2020. In fact, that might be best for the Ravens’ immediate Super Bowl chances.

There are still half a dozen teams that could look to upgrade at left tackle over the next month, so interest in Brown could intensify rapidly. DeCosta said he wouldn’t put a deadline on the issue, but it’s hard to imagine he’d take it past the week of the draft. If the Ravens move Brown, they’ll want to use a high pick on his potential replacement. The first round projects to be rich with options.

For all our talk about wide receivers, pass rushers and interior linemen, the search for a starting tackle would immediately become the most important business of the offseason if Brown is dispatched to some left-tackle promised land.

We didn’t learn much about his situation in the first week of free agency, but it looms over everything.

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