The first week of free agency brought surprises, both good and bad, to Baltimore: a playmaking safety, Marcus Williams, signed to a long-term contract; the arrival of two mammoth starting linemen, right tackle Morgan Moses and defensive tackle Michael Pierce; and a disappearing deal with another former Raven, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith.
General manager Eric DeCosta was never expected to patch up the holes in the Ravens’ roster during the first wave of free agency, or even by the second or third wave. The team has 10 picks in the NFL draft, including four in the top 100, and salary cap constraints. Ravens officials must spend what capital they have wisely.
But as the pool of free agent dwindles, 90-man rosters take shape and next month’s draft approaches, DeCosta will have to decide where to focus the Ravens’ team-building efforts. Will he spend to fill a need in free agency, or does a rookie offer better value for a franchise with Super Bowl aspirations? Here’s a look at where the Ravens can turn at five key positions.
Center: Free agency
The market for top-tier centers didn’t take long to develop. Former Raven Ryan Jensen rejoined Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a three-year, $40 million contract extension. Ben Jones re-signed with the Tennessee Titans on a two-year, $14 million deal. Brian Allen returned to the Los Angeles Rams on a three-year, $21.8 million deal. And Bradley Bozeman, coming off his best season in Baltimore, agreed Friday to a one-year, $2.8 million deal with the Carolina Panthers.
That’s left the Ravens with slim pickings in free agency. Their best option is JC Tretter, the longtime Browns stalwart whom Cleveland released last week as it cleared salary cap space for a potential acquisition of quarterback Deshaun Watson. Tretter, 31, has been one of the NFL’s most consistent centers since arriving in Cleveland in 2017, missing just one game in that span — because of the coronavirus. His health is a question mark, however, with ankle and knee injuries rarely allowing him to practice fully.
The Ravens’ in-house options, Patrick Mekari and Trystan Colon, should figure prominently in their plans. Other free agents include former Carolina Panther Matt Paradis, who’s coming off a torn ACL, will turn 33 in October and is better suited for a zone-running scheme. In the draft, the Ravens have been linked to Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum, a first-round talent who likely offers less value than the team’s other options at No. 14 overall.
Defensive line: Both
Pierce’s three-year, $16.5 million deal will be the Ravens’ biggest move up front, but it won’t be their last. Between the possible departures of Brandon Williams, Justin Ellis and Calais Campbell — and considering Pierce’s injury-filled 2021 season — the front office will have to replenish the depth chart with young, capable linemen.
Campbell’s return would help stabilize the Ravens’ interior, and his availability after a week of free agency suggests a smaller market than expected. But with Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington developing into solid pieces, Campbell is more luxury than necessity. The Ravens also need depth at nose tackle, where it shouldn’t be hard to find rotational players for cheap. Ellis never cost the Ravens more than $1.1 million over any of his three seasons in Baltimore.
With Pierce’s arrival, Georgia’s Jordan Davis, a nearly immovable, 341-pound defensive tackle, makes less sense for the Ravens in the draft at No. 14. But other Bulldogs teammates could fit the bill. Travon Walker, who can also line up as an edge defender, has more potential than production but likely won’t fall out of the top 10. Devonte Wyatt, who like Walker soared up draft boards after a breakout NFL scouting combine, has explosive pass-rushing potential and could be targeted in the middle of the first round.
Edge rusher: Draft
The Ravens have been active in free agency, but not necessarily effective. They showed interest in Emmanuel Ogbah (18 sacks since 2020), but he re-signed with the Miami Dolphins on a four-year, $65.4 million extension last Monday. Then they had an agreement with Smith, a two-time Pro Bowl pick released by the Green Bay Packers, but their four-year, $35 million deal fell apart Thursday as the market for pass rushers ramped up.
Now the Ravens may have to thread the needle in free agency. Edge rushers like Jadeveon Clowney, Melvin Ingram III, Jerry Hughes, Derek Barnett, Jason Pierre-Paul and recent Raven Justin Houston are proven veterans but unlikely targets for multiyear deals. While one-year deals commit less guaranteed money, they also offer less flexibility to teams with as little cap space as the Ravens.
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The Ravens can find elite pass-rush talent in the draft, but there’s likely one less first-round option. Michigan’s David Ojabo could miss a significant portion of his rookie season after reportedly tearing his Achilles tendon at the Wolverines’ pro day Friday. Even if he slips, Purdue’s George Karlaftis and Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson II are expected to be top-25 picks and could be instant-impact contributors.
Inside linebacker: Both
The Ravens’ most impactful moves of the offseason here could be staffing decisions. New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald was the Ravens’ linebackers coach for three seasons before leaving to take over as Michigan’s defensive coordinator in 2021. Zach Orr, a beloved defender during his short-lived playing career in Baltimore, replaced Rob Ryan as the team’s third inside linebackers coach in as many seasons.
A new voice could help smooth out former first-round pick Patrick Queen’s game, but there’s still a void next to him. Josh Bynes, 32, is an obvious re-signing candidate, and he’s expressed a desire to remain in the city where he started his NFL career. Bynes wouldn’t be a big-money signing — certainly not as expensive as perennial Pro Bowl selection Bobby Wagner would be — and he’d lend the group a veteran voice. Special teams standouts Chris Board and L.J. Fort, who’ve often stepped in on passing downs, also fit the mold as potential depth additions.
In the draft, the Ravens probably won’t spend one of their top picks on an inside linebacker. But with Malik Harrison’s disappointing 2021 leaving the team short on young, starter-level players, the Ravens will have to invest in at least one Day Two or Day Three prospect.
With Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Stephens’ inside-outside flexibility, the Ravens don’t need to worry too much about who’ll replace slot cornerback Tavon Young. That’s a good thing. If the team wants to add a free agent, there’s a wide range of skill sets available, from outside corners like Steven Nelson to nickel backs like Bryce Callahan to aging but versatile veterans like Joe Haden.
But in an AFC North that now has two potential All-Pro quarterbacks on the schedule — the Browns’ Watson and the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow — the Ravens are better off finding long-term solutions in their back end. Humphrey and Williams are signed through 2026. Stephens has three more years on his rookie deal. Safety Chuck Clark is set to hit free agency in 2024.
Considering the Ravens’ recurring injury woes, that’s not enough secondary security. If DeCosta doesn’t sign Marcus Peters to a contract extension before next offseason, the team will need to find a new outside cornerback soon. The best help is in the draft. Cincinnati’s Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner likely won’t make it to No. 14, but LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. is a potential star with serious injury questions. Washington’s Trent McDuffie is a lower-risk, lower-reward prospect. Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr. is another first-round talent who could fall because of injuries.