Four questions that will shape the Ravens' path in free agency

The last season of Ozzie Newsome’s tenure as Ravens general manager featured one of the most significant benchings in franchise history. Now, with NFL free agency approaching, the decision to start quarterback Lamar Jackson over Joe Flacco seems as if it arose during simple times.

In his first offseason since being promoted to the franchise’s personnel chief, Eric DeCosta has not exactly tiptoed through the NFL landscape. He struck a deal to trade Flacco to the Denver Broncos. He cut safety Eric Weddle, wide receiver Michael Crabtree and running back Alex Collins, the latter after Collins was charged on drug and gun counts. Tight end Nick Boyle and slot cornerback Tavon Young got rich extensions. There were meetings with agents and draft prospects in Indianapolis.

And the Ravens might only be getting started. On Monday, clubs can begin negotiations with free-agent targets. At 4 p.m. Wednesday, players can officially put pen to paper and sign. DeCosta has shortened the Ravens' to-do list considerably. He still must answer a handful of questions that could shape the team’s short- and long-term future.

1. What’s it going to take to sign linebacker C.J. Mosley?

If it were a matter of salary cap space, the Ravens could have made the math work on a long-term extension with Mosley before they cut Weddle. They certainly could have after they cut Weddle.

But the two sides remain at an impasse. Last March, Newsome said he was a few months into preliminary discussions with Mosley’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, about a long-term extension. That offseason came and went. No deal. Then the 2018 season started and ended. No deal. “Game of Thrones” hasn’t aired a new episode since August 2017; the wait for a new contract for Mosley has felt just as long.

Until this offseason, Mosley’s return felt as inevitable as Jon Snow’s. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said two years ago, before the team had even exercised its fifth-year option on the former first-round draft pick, that Mosley would be in Baltimore for “many, many years.” Mosley said the plan has always been to remain a Raven, to leave a legacy so great that he might one day be considered the second-best linebacker in franchise history — after childhood idol Ray Lewis.

Now he’s days away from hitting the open market. The prelude has been strange. Early March 1, Mosley posted a video to his Instagram story — since deleted — in which he all but dared the Ravens to let him walk. "Don't franchise me or sign me, see what happens,” he said into the camera, his jacket and beard flecked with falling snowflakes.

It’s impossible to say whether the Ravens value Mosley more than potential suitors do. Few linebackers have been as durable and acclaimed. One salary benchmark could be two fellow All-Pro inside linebackers: the Carolina PanthersLuke Kuechly and Seattle SeahawksBobby Wagner, considered the NFL’s gold standard at the position, earn $12.4 million and $10.8 million annually, respectively.

But both signed extensions in 2015, when Kuechly’s average compensation accounted for 8.6 percent of the NFL’s salary cap ($143.28 million). Under the NFL’s salary cap for 2019, now at $188.2 million, a similar share would net Kuechly nearly $16.2 million. The Ravens declined last week to designate Mosley with a franchise tag worth $15.4 million.

Their front office now must determine his worth in Baltimore. With Weddle’s release, Mosley’s departure would leave the defense with a gaping on-field leadership void. He has been a role-model teammate. He has been a rock-solid run-stopper.

But he has not been elite in pass defense, despite improvements last season. And while the Ravens have embraced a ground-and-pound style on offense, opponents will continue to favor aerial assaults. In the modern NFL, there is perhaps no more important trait for an inside linebacker than coverage skills. Whichever team signs Mosley must either be willing to live with that shortcoming or believe there’s still room to grow.

2. Will linebacker Terrell Suggs finish his career in Baltimore?

When Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers retired in February, Suggs became the NFL’s active leader in career sacks. All 132½ have come as a Raven. No one has played more games for the franchise than the 2003 first-round pick.

The last two Ravens defensive stars he passed were former teammates: Lewis (228 career games) and safety Ed Reed (160). Suggs has said retirement “hasn’t crossed my mind.” In Lewis and Reed, he has two potential paths to follow.

Lewis retired in 2013 having never played a game for another team. Reed, meanwhile, joined the Houston Texans that offseason on a three-year, $15 million deal. The Ravens did not aggressively pursue the 34-year-old, who was later released by the Texans in mid-November and finished his final NFL season with the New York Jets.

There appears to be more interest in securing Suggs’ return now than there was in securing Reed’s six years ago. DeCosta said at the recent NFL scouting combine that Suggs, who led all Ravens outside linebackers in defensive snaps last season, “is definitely a guy that we want back. … He’s a guy that means a lot to our franchise, I think, as a player but also as a leader. I would love to have him back next year.”

With Za’Darius Smith likely to fetch a handsome contract elsewhere in free agency, the Ravens can ill afford to be thin at edge rusher. They also cannot rely on Suggs to be the star he once was. After opening the season with 5½ sacks in seven games, Suggs twice had four-game stretches (including one lasting into the playoffs) in which he did not have one. He finished the season with his lowest sacks total in a full season since 2007.

Suggs won’t be ignored in free agency, but he also won’t find a landing softer than the one in Baltimore. Harbaugh is back. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale is back. And the golf cart Suggs drives onto the practice field practically has his name on it.

3. Will DeCosta spend big at a position of need?

The Ravens had mixed results in finding value through free agency last season.

The good: Willie Snead IV, a restricted-free-agent signing, thrived as a slot receiver. Quarterback Robert Griffin III seldom played but showed his worth as a mentor for Jackson.

The less good: Crabtree washed out just one year into a three-year deal. Fellow receiver John Brown was up and down in what might be his first and only season in Baltimore.

The lessons the Ravens took from last offseason are still coming into focus. DeCosta has made clear he would rather retain talent than risk overpaying for it. But there are high-quality free agents too good to ignore, especially with only one draft pick at his disposal through the first 84 slots.

The safety class is especially tempting. Among the headliners: Earl Thomas, Adrian Amos (Calvert Hall), Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Tyrann Mathieu, Lamarcus Joyner and Landon Collins, all 29 or younger. Given the intelligence required of Weddle at the position, the Ravens likely would be better served in the secondary with an experienced veteran starter than a fresh-faced rookie.

There is comparably little depth at other positions of need, which should drive up prices. If the Ravens want a center, they’ll have to choose from a group with real talent but worrisome injury problems. Big-money investments in Mitch Morse or Matt Paradis could easily backfire. Same goes for free-agent guards; many are well over 30 years old.

At wide receiver, most of the top players available play in the slot, a redundancy with Snead under contract through next season. Golden Tate, for instance, makes most of his plays close to the line of scrimmage. But Tyrell Williams could be an option out wide, as could Randall Cobb.

4. Which familiar face (if any) will take the Ravens’ backup-quarterback job?

Harbaugh said in January he would prefer having a backup quarterback similar in skill set to Jackson. That doesn’t leave many options.

Griffin, a pending free agent, has expressed an openness to returning as the Ravens’ No. 2 quarterback. He earned his way onto the 53-man roster last summer with an impressive training camp performance and managed the offense capably in the few instances when Jackson was sidelined.

But with Greg Roman’s promotion to offensive coordinator, former Raven Tyrod Taylor, another dual-threat quarterback, would also fit in well. Taylor’s most successful season came in 2015, when he led Roman’s Buffalo Bills offense. The 29-year-old enters free agency after losing his job in Cleveland to Browns phenom Baker Mayfield last season, and he figures to seek out a starting gig somewhere.

If none are available, he could do worse than returning to Baltimore.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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