For the past couple of years, the Ravens have remained in the background during the early stages of free agency, choosing to take care of their own, target a few complementary players and be selective with the little salary cap space they have.
But with this year's marketplace flush with teams that have money to spend, the Ravens acted quickly Tuesday to fill one of their needs. A day before the free-agent market officially opens and just hours after learning that Kelechi Osemele was unofficially headed to the Oakland Raiders on a record-breaking contract, the Ravens reached a tentative agreement with tight end Benjamin Watson on a two-year deal. The 12-year veteran had 74 catches for 825 yards and six touchdowns last year for the New Orleans Saints.
Watson's agreement, which won't become official until new contracts can be signed at 4 p.m. Wednesday, capped a busy Tuesday for the Ravens, who continue to solidify their roster ahead of free agency.
The Ravens on Tuesday placed a second-round tender on restricted free-agent wide receiver Kamar Aiken, who had a breakout 2015 season with 75 catches for 944 yards and five touchdowns. The tender costs $2.553 million and makes it likely that Aiken will be back with the team in 2016. If another team signs Aiken to an offer sheet, the Ravens will have the choice of either matching it or letting him go and getting a second-round pick in return.
The Ravens also extended offers to their extended rights free agents, a group that includes running back Terrance West (Northwestern, Towson), wide receiver Daniel Brown and cornerback Sheldon Price.
Those moves, along with the free-agent departure of Osemele, were considered formalities at this point. The agreement with Watson, however, came as a moderate surprise, even after coach John Harbaugh recently talked up the need to acquire a tight end with starter Crockett Gillmore rehabbing two surgically repaired shoulders and Nick Boyle facing a 10-game suspension in 2016 after he violated the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
It also could be an indication that the Ravens are prepared to be much more aggressive in free agency than they have been in the past.
"We have cap room this year, believe it or not," Harbaugh said late last month at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. "There's more flexibility in our cap this year than we've had. This year, from a coaching standpoint, we're in a better position to do business than we have in the past. I'm excited about that."
The Ravens had never before reached an agreement with an unrestricted free agent during the exclusive negotiating window before the start of free agency. Over the past six offseasons, the Ravens have signed only five true unrestricted free agents: safety Kendrick Lewis (2015), safety Darian Stewart (2014), cornerback Corey Graham (2012), safety Sean Considine (2012) and running back Ricky Williams (2011).
Just once during that span have the Ravens given an outside free agent more than $4 million in guaranteed money and that went to outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who became available late in the process after the infamous fax machine snafu with the Denver Broncos, in 2013.
That they acted quickly with Watson shows how much they valued the veteran, who the Saints also wanted to retain. According to the NFL Network, Watson will sign a two-year, $8 million deal.
The 35-year-old and 2004 first-round pick is coming off the best season of his career, as he set personal highs in receptions and receiving yards, along with tying his career high in touchdowns, and earning his first Pro Bowl berth. The Ravens will be his fourth NFL stop, following stints with the New England Patriots (2004-09), Cleveland Browns (2010-12) and Saints (2013-15).
Watson has 434 catches for 4,963 yards and 46 touchdowns in his career. His experience should serve the Ravens' tight end group well. The team's primary three tight ends — Gillmore, Boyle and Maxx Williams — are all 24 years of age or younger. Veteran tight end Dennis Pitta remains on the Ravens' roster, but it's unlikely that he'll play again after twice fracturing and dislocating his hip.
When the Watson deal becomes official, the Ravens can turn their attention to filling other needs in free agency. They are still looking to add a wide receiver, left tackle, pass rusher, cornerback and safety. Some of those positions will undoubtedly be left to be filled during the draft. With others, like left tackle, there might be a greater sense of urgency.
The Ravens really wanted to keep Osemele, a starter on their offensive line for the past four years. According to Harbaugh, the team made an "aggressive" offer to the pending free agent last month. However, they couldn't compete with what Osemele was able to get on the open market.
The 26-year-old, who was considered the top free-agent offensive lineman, will reportedly sign a five-year deal with the Raiders that could pay him $50 million or more. It's the largest contract for a guard in league history.
His departure means that the Ravens, who planned on playing him at left tackle if he re-signed, likely will hold onto Eugene Monroe — a release candidate after struggling through two injury-plagued years, for the time being. Their only other two left tackle options on the roster are former undrafted free agents James Hurst and De'Ondre Wesley.
The Ravens are also expected to lose strongside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, with the Indianapolis Colts being his likely landing spot. If the deal gets done, Upshaw would reunite with his former position coach in Baltimore, Ted Monachino, now the Colts' defensive coordinator.
Upshaw's pending exit is expected as well, and was foreshadowed by Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome at last month's NFL scouting combine.
"If we can bring back our full team from last year, we would. But we just don't know," he said. "History says we'll get some signed and then some will go to some other clubs. When that happens, you know what, I wish them well."
Newsome also mentioned that the Ravens have enough cap space to be aggressive in free agency, which would, again, be a departure from the organization's norm. However, they do have a host of needs, coming off a 5-11 season.
And judging by the deals for players like Osemele and defensive lineman Malik Jackson (who signed a reported six-year, $90 million deal to go from the Denver Broncos to the Jacksonville Jaguars), the Ravens will need to be aggressive to compete when the market opens at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
According to the site overthecap.com, 17 teams have $20 million of salary cap space or more. All but five teams — one of them being the Ravens — have more than $10 million in cap flexibility. According to the site, the Ravens have the least amount of cap space in the NFL at $4.5 million. However, team officials have said repeatedly that they have enough money to make the additions that they need.