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Ravens add 'complete player' in TE Benjamin Watson, add more cap space, remain disciplined

Ravens add 'complete player' in TE Benjamin Watson, add more cap space, remain disciplined
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, new tight end Benjamin Watson, and coach John Harbaugh during Watson's introductory news conference on March 10, 2016 at the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills. (Jeff Zrebiec)

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome first called agent Drew Rosenhaus to express interest in Rosenhaus' client, Benjamin Watson, at around 3 p.m. Monday. A little more than 24 hours later, a verbal agreement had nearly been reached.

The two-year deal with the veteran tight end worth a maximum of $8 million became official Thursday when Watson signed his contract and was introduced at a late-morning news conference at the Under Armour Performance Center.

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"When we set out in the offseason, in free agency, we looked at probably eight tight ends, as coaches and scouts, and I think he was probably next to the last one that I got a chance to watch," said Newsome, seated alongside Watson and Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "After the first 10 plays, I go, 'That's the guy we want.' I already knew about the intangibles, but to see him, how productive he was on the field, I knew he was the guy we should target."

Through the first two days of free agency, Watson, who is coming off a career-best season with 74 catches for 825 yards and six touchdowns for the New Orleans Saints, has been the Ravens' only free-agent addition.

They did entertain journeyman offensive guard Vladimir Ducasse, who has started 21 games for three different teams over the past three seasons, on a visit free-agent visit Thursday. A deal wasn't immediately reached, but the visit is seemingly an indication that the Ravens are looking to add a veteran guard after Kelechi Osemele's departure in free agency.

Otherwise, Newsome and the Ravens continue to show discipline in a fast-moving free agent market as is their custom. But one difference this year is that they do have some money to spend.

Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith became the latest veteran to adjust his contract as he lowered his 2016 base salary from $7 million to $1 million by converting it into a $6 million bonus, according to NFL Players Association records. The change, which comes a day after All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda adjusted his contract and veteran cornerback Kyle Arrington accepted a $1.2 million pay cut to stay with the team, created $4.5 million of cap space.

As things stand, the Ravens have a little less than $12 million of salary cap space, more than enough to make two or three additions.

They'd like to add an offensive lineman — whether it's a guard, a tackle or both — and are still searching for playmakers for Joe Flacco. Wide receiver Mike Wallace, released earlier this week by the Minnesota Vikings, is clearly a player of interest.

On defense, the Ravens are targeting a pass rusher, a cornerback and a safety this offseason.

But on Thursday, the Ravens were focused on what they did add. Harbaugh called Watson a perfect fit for a Ravens' offense that relies heavily on multiple tight end sets.

"He's a run blocker. He's very productive in the passing game. He can run all the routes. He makes plays in both areas. He makes third-down conversions," Harbaugh said. "Every type of offense that he's played in, he's been productive as a pass catcher and as a blocker. He's a complete player."

Watson said that he chose to sign with the Ravens because he has long respected the organization and its ability to contend every year. He also is excited for an opportunity to work with Flacco after spending much of his career catching passes from Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

Watson played with the Patriots from 2004-09 before going to the Cleveland Browns for three seasons. He then spent the past three seasons with the Saints, making his 12th NFL campaign his most productive.

"Having watched [Flacco], obviously win that Super Bowl, he's definitely one of the elite quarterbacks," Watson said. "I can tell my grandkids that I played with Drew Brees and Tom Brady, and Flacco will definitely be added to that list."

Watson also joked that he was happy to not have to face the Ravens' defense anymore. He told a story about how his mother sent him a text message the night before he was about to play the Ravens that said, "Watch out for those guys."

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"Having played against the Ravens for many years, there's definitely respect there," Watson said. "There are certain teams in the NFL who have a certain aura about them, and there's a certain respect level that, even if they didn't have the greatest year or whatever, you know that that team is going to be competitive overall. … To be here and to be part of that is exciting for me."

Watson is one of nine tight ends currently on the Ravens' roster. That list includes Crockett Gillmore, who will have two shoulder surgeries this offseason; Nick Boyle, who is facing a 10-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances; Dennis Pitta, whose career may be over because of his twice dislocated and fractured hip; Chase Ford, who got a $1.67 million tender despite not playing a game with the team last year; and Darren Waller, a wide receiver in his rookie year who will likely move to tight end.

"We just feel like a 250-pound wide receiver who can run like he can has a chance to maybe grow into a tight end," Harbaugh said of Waller. "He's embraced it and he's working on that right now in the offseason."

Newsome also said that the team got a positive health report on Gillmore last week and he's hopeful that the starting tight end will be ready for the start of the 2016 season.

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