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Ravens free-agency preview: In a loaded defensive line class, Quinton Jefferson could be a bargain

The Ravens have had two months to process how the Tennessee Titans ran roughshod over them for 217 yards in a stunning playoff upset. Next week, they’ll be able to do something about it.

On Monday, general manager Eric DeCosta and team officials can start negotiating with pending unrestricted free agents. Signings can be done as soon as Wednesday. The NFL draft is just six weeks away.

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As free agency nears, The Baltimore Sun will take a look at the Ravens’ options at several positions of need, from the players they probably can’t afford to those they can. Along the defensive line, where the Ravens could lose starting tackle Michael Pierce and backups Justin Ellis and Domata Peko Sr. from an inconsistent unit this offseason, there are plenty of choices.

Breaking the bank: Kansas City Chiefs’ Chris Jones, Houston Texans’ D.J. Reader, Pittsburgh Steelers’ Javon Hargrave, Denver Broncos’ Shelby Harris, Seattle Seahawks’ Jarran Reed, New York Giants’ Leonard Williams and Los Angeles Rams’ Michael Brockers

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Jones would be the defensive gem of this free-agent class, but Kansas City plans to designate the defensive tackle with the franchise tag if it can’t work out a long-term deal by Thursday. Reader and Hargrave are expected to reach free agency, but they’ll likely have their pick of multiyear offers worth well over $10 million annually. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Calais Campbell, meanwhile, is still under contract.

Harris and Reed are a tier below, but according to salary database Spotrac, their 2020 value is also over $10 million per year. The Giants traded for Williams last season but are reportedly not close on a contract extension, meaning the defensive end could be tagged, too. Brockers could be within the Ravens’ price range, but he turns 30 in December and played more as an end in recent Rams seasons.

Within budget: Ravens’ Michael Pierce; Detroit Lions’ Mike Daniels, Damon Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson; Dallas Cowboys’ Maliek Collins and Christian Covington; Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Ndamukong Suh and Beau Allen; Carolina Panthers’ Gerald McCoy; Philadelphia Eagles’ Timmy Jernigan; New Orleans Saints’ David Onyemata; Cincinnati Bengals’ Andrew Billings; Broncos’ Derek Wolfe; Buffalo Bills’ Jordan Phillips; and New England Patriots’ Danny Shelton

With the Ravens’ financial commitment to Brandon Williams, who’s signed through 2021 on a deal still loaded with dead money, Pierce seemed well on his way to earning a lucrative contract elsewhere. But after a dominant 2018, he took a step back last season, finishing with just half a sack, three quarterback hits and two tackles for loss. The Ravens might not be his top suitor this month, especially with their need for more pass-rush pop, but don’t rule out a return.

Elsewhere, the free-agent class is overflowing with options. McCoy and Suh have a combined 11 Pro Bowl appearances, but their sack totals have fallen since they reached their 30s. Shelton is a proven run stuffer who finally became a pass-rush presence last year. Daniels and Jernigan are talented but injury-prone. Collins is a gifted pass rusher and lackluster against the run, while Wolfe has the opposite problem. Harrison was named first-team All-Pro in 2016, the same year Robinson was drafted in the first round.

Potential fit: Seahawks defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson

The former Maryland standout took the long way to relevance in Seattle. A fifth-round pick in 2017, Jefferson suffered a rookie-year knee injury, was waived before his second season, joined the Rams’ practice squad, re-signed with the Seahawks in October 2017 as a replacement for the injured Cliff Avril, then broke his hand 20 minutes into his first practice.

But after appearing in just nine games over his first two seasons, Jefferson has quietly developed into a productive and versatile lineman. In 14 games last season, he finished with 26 tackles, 3½ sacks and 16 quarterback pressures. He had three sacks and 23 pressures in 2018, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Not elite, but still plenty impressive.

Consider that Green Bay Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark, a Pro Bowl selection considered among the best pass rushers at his position, had 15 pressures in 16 games last year. Denver’s Harris had 11 in 16 games. Ravens defensive end Chris Wormley has 18 total over the past two seasons.

Jefferson had a “very, very good year,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told local reporters after the season. “I think coming in we didn’t know that he would make another jump [in production]. But he did make a jump forward understanding the game, being flexible enough to play different spots. Playmaking. Knocking balls down in crucial situations. Making short-yardage tackles and plays, as well as causing some problems in pass rush. We thought he did a really good job last year.”

While Jefferson most often played in a three-technique alignment (on the outside shoulder of an opposing guard) last season, he also was deployed in some schemes over the center and out wide. An oblique injury forced him to miss two games, and he still finished second among Seahawks linemen in defensive snaps (589, or 42.1 per game).

Advanced analytics favor Jefferson as well. As both a pass rusher and a run defender, he graded out better on Pro Football Focus than any Ravens lineman in 2019. While he didn’t draw double teams often — for that, he can probably thank teammate Jadeveon Clowney — he had one of ESPN’s highest pass-rush win rates at the position. And when Jefferson did draw attention, he had the No. 17 overall win rate among interior defenders against two or more blockers, according to Pro Football Focus, just a percentage point worse than the Chiefs’ Jones and the Eagles’ Fletcher Cox.

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If Jefferson reaches free agency, his injury history will likely scare some prospective bidders away. (He broke his foot in Seattle’s playoff loss, but he’s expected to be ready for offseason workouts.) Spotrac’s projected market value for Jefferson is $5.1 million annually. Given his strong 2019, that could be a bargain price.

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