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As free agency nears, Ravens stick to roster-building philosophy — for better or worse

The Ravens’ offseason makeover is going according to plan, which means Monday’s activity might’ve registered as somewhere between a comfort and a fright.

In the early-morning hours before the start of the NFL’s legal tampering window, the Ravens agreed to a three-year, $22 million deal with Kevin Zeitler, who’s expected to fortify the team’s right guard position and bolster an offensive line that struggled to protect quarterback Lamar Jackson at times last season.

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Over the next 12 hours, the Ravens watched as their top two edge rushers, Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, agreed to big-money deals with the New England Patriots and Las Vegas Raiders, respectively. Both departures were expected, but any reward for their exits won’t materialize in time to help a pass rush lacking high-end talent.

In between, the Ravens re-signed inside linebacker Chris Board to a one-year deal, keeping one of the team’s top special teams players in Baltimore and off the market before the NFL’s new league year begins at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

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It was a day when calculated risks, roster holes and salary cap realities converged. The market forces that will constrain the Ravens’ spending this offseason are the same ones that led them to their biggest addition of 2021.

Zeitler, one of the top guards available on the market, was only there because the New York Giants cut him last week to save salary cap space. With the cap falling 8% this offseason, to $182.5 million, the Giants couldn’t make room for their best offensive lineman and his $14.5 million hit.

So Zeitler found a new home with the Ravens, whose deal is worth $22.5 million and includes $16 million in guaranteed money, according to ESPN, and will be finalized once the 31-year-old passes a physical.

The 6-foot-4, 330-pound Zeitler fits the Ravens’ offseason plans in two important ways. First, he’ll be expected to stabilize the team’s right guard position, where the team lacked consistency last season, its first since the retirement of All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda. The Ravens started young linemen Ben Powers and Patrick Mekari and rookie Tyre Phillips at the position, but all struggled.

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With left tackle Ronnie Stanley set to return from a season-ending ankle injury and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. still in the Ravens’ 2021 plans — for now, anyway — the team’s offensive line is poised to bounce back from a disappointing 2020. After allowing pressure on a league-best 21.7% of passing snaps in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus, the Ravens dropped to a 34.8% pressure rate last season (25th overall).

Zeitler had an 88.7% Pass Block Win Rate last season, according to ESPN, which ranked 23rd among guards. He committed four penalties and allowed just two sacks and 28 total pressures on 630 pass-blocking snaps, and he should be a good fit for their rushing offense’s gap-blocking schemes.

“I do believe that the offensive line is very important to us,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said at his season-ending news conference in January. “It’s very important to any offense. If you don’t have a good offensive line, I don’t think you’re winning any games in this league, and your quarterback better be getting the ball out super-fast — and there are some teams that do that.

“But it’s very limiting to your offense to be forced to throw the ball in a three-, in a quick five-step rhythm, all the time, and not be able to run the ball. So our offensive line is, to me, a primary piece to what we try to do, and we need to build the very best offensive line that we can.”

Zeitler’s signing also helps the team potentially preserve compensatory picks. The Ravens already have one extra third-round pick lined up next year courtesy of the NFL’s minority-hiring initiative, which awarded them a pair of selections for the Houston Texans’ hire of former Ravens assistant coach David Culley.

Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon (99) celebrates a forced fumble by defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (91) during a game agaisnt the Jaguars on Dec. 20, 2020, in Baltimore.
Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon (99) celebrates a forced fumble by defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (91) during a game agaisnt the Jaguars on Dec. 20, 2020, in Baltimore. (Terrance Williams/AP)

With Judon headed to the Patriots on a reported four-year, $56 million deal and Ngakoue reportedly set to sign a two-year, $26 million contract with the Raiders, the Ravens could be in line for two more compensatory picks in 2022. Each would likely result in at least a fourth-round selection for the Ravens, but the team could, in turn, negate that compensation by signing an unrestricted free agent of comparable value this offseason.

Judon, a Pro Bowl selection each of the past two years, played last season under the franchise tag, on a one-year deal worth $16.8 million. The 28-year-old had 34 ½ sacks over five years in Baltimore, including six last season, but the Ravens declined to tag him again this offseason.

A beloved teammate and versatile chess piece in defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s blitz-heavy system, Judon is one of six players with a minimum of 200 pass rushes to generate a pressure rate above 10% and a sack rate above 2% in each of the past three seasons, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.

Ngakoue, a Maryland native and former Terps star, didn’t make much of his homecoming over his two-plus months in Baltimore. In late October, the Ravens sent a 2021 third-round pick and a 2022 conditional fifth-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings for Ngakoue, a 2017 Pro Bowl selection, in hopes of complementing their star-studded secondary with bookend pass rushers.

Ngakoue had his moments — three sacks in 11 games, including the playoffs — but he played just 20 snaps in the team’s season-ending loss playoff to the Buffalo Bills.

“I love the guy, and he wants to contribute,” Harbaugh said in January. “We had a unique situation here with all the outside ‘backers we had.”

They’re going fast. Pernell McPhee, a veteran leader and rotational outside linebacker, has reportedly agreed to a one-year extension with the Ravens, but Tyus Bowser and versatile defensive end Jihad Ward are both free agents. Outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson is the only notable returning edge rusher currently under contract, and he played less than a third of the defense’s snaps in 2020.

The Ravens can at least rely on stability at inside linebacker. Board’s one-year deal is worth $1.6 million in guaranteed money, according to the NFL Network, with another $1 million possible in incentives. A right-of-first-refusal tender for Board, a restricted free agent, would have been worth $2.1 million, but Board was not tendered a qualifying offer.

The former undrafted free agent from North Dakota State set career highs last season in starts (two), tackles (31), sacks (2 ½) and defensive snaps. Board struggled somewhat with tackling (a unit-worst 22.5% missed-tackle rate, according to Pro-Football-Reference) but forced eight quarterback pressures. On special teams, Board finished with 331 snaps, second most on the Ravens.

He finished behind rookie Patrick Queen, veteran L.J. Fort and rookie Malik Harrison in defensive snaps last season, all of whom are set to return. The Ravens have also tendered exclusive-rights free agent Kristian Welch, another inside linebacker who contributed on special teams as a rookie in 2020.

The Ravens’ move to shore up their special teams wasn’t a sexy one, not on a day when Corey Davis reportedly agreed to a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the New York Jets, the first domino to fall in a wide receiver market the Ravens might not probe too deeply. But it was a move consistent with their roster-building philosophy, for better or for worse.

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