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The Ravens have tough decisions to make in free agency. Will their own history be a guide?

Every NFL offseason is different, and every NFL offseason is the same. There are players to draft, sign, re-sign, release or convince to take a pay cut. There’s a salary cap to manage and a 90-man roster to build. The names of the players (and the millions in their contracts) change from year to year. The cost-benefit analysis does not.

The Ravens did not expect to get to their offseason homework this early. A week after a stunning, season-ending playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, they’re now less than two months from the start of free agency. The return of quarterback Lamar Jackson on the third year of his rookie deal grants the Ravens enviable salary cap flexibility, but there are key decisions to make, especially on defense.

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If history is a guide, general manager Eric DeCosta can look to the team’s own front-office history for insights. From pending free agents to potential cap casualties, there’s a useful analogue for the five Ravens with maybe the most interesting offseason scenarios. DeCosta is not Ozzie Newsome, of course, but will his calculus be the same?

The rising-star pass rusher

The Ravens need to improve their pass rush in 2020, and their best option might be the pending free agent most familiar to them: outside linebacker Matthew Judon. The Pro Bowl selection finished fourth in the NFL in quarterback hits (33), according to Pro-Football-Reference, and first on the team in sacks (9½). But would DeCosta want to apply the franchise tag, which, if signed, would keep Judon in Baltimore on a one-year deal worth around $16 million? Or would testing his luck on the open market be the more prudent path?

A year ago, the Packers won the bidding war for former Ravens outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, who was coming off a season with fewer quarterback hits and sacks than in Judon’s 2019. Green Bay invested heavily in Smith, signing him to a four-year, $66 million deal, including a $20 million signing bonus, and has been rewarded with career-best production.

Ravens' Matthew Judon celebrates after the Ravens scored a safety against the Steelers in the fourth quarter. The Ravens defeated the Steelers by score of 28 to 10 at M&T Bank Stadium. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam
Ravens' Matthew Judon celebrates after the Ravens scored a safety against the Steelers in the fourth quarter. The Ravens defeated the Steelers by score of 28 to 10 at M&T Bank Stadium. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

The bulk of the Ravens’ defensive spending recently has been on their secondary, but coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale needs proven pass rushers to supercharge the unit. If Judon does not return, the only outside linebackers on the roster are Tyus Bowser, who took a step forward in 2019 (career-high five sacks) but has rarely played starter-level minutes, and Jaylon Ferguson, the former third-round pick who is still developing physically and technically.

Pro Bowl pass rushers aren’t easy to find. The Ravens have to determine whether they want Judon for the short term or the long term — and how he projects in both.

“You never know what the future holds for any of us,” Judon said after the divisional-round loss Saturday to Tennessee.

The well-paid safety

Tony Jefferson came to Baltimore in 2017, a year after Eric Weddle arrived, and signed an even more lucrative four-year deal than his friend and fellow safety. In 2019, the final year of his contract with the Ravens, Weddle was set to make $8.25 million. In 2020, Jefferson’s set to make $11.7 million.

The Ravens ultimately cut Weddle, recouping $6.5 million in savings, and Jefferson has already acknowledged on Instagram that he’ll likely be released this offseason. Jefferson struggled over the season’s first month, and he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. With the emergence of Chuck Clark and the expected return of DeShon Elliott, who was sidelined indefinitely a week after Jefferson, the Ravens have younger, cheaper options at safety.

If the Ravens cut Jefferson, who turns 28 later this month, they would incur $4.7 million in dead money but free up $7 million in cap space. Other than the potential retirement of Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, who also has a $7 million base salary next season, no move would create greater savings for DeCosta.

Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce (97) holds his fumble recovery in front of outside linebacker Tyus Bowser during the second quarter of the final regular game of the season Sun., Dec. 29, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce (97) holds his fumble recovery in front of outside linebacker Tyus Bowser during the second quarter of the final regular game of the season Sun., Dec. 29, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

The run-stopping defensive tackle

A year after a breakthrough 2018, Michael Pierce did not have quite the season he envisioned.

The defensive tackle showed up to mandatory minicamp overweight. Even when he got back in shape, Pierce was less effective: After grading out as the NFL’s fifth-best interior defender last season, according to Pro Football Focus, he rated No. 47 in 2019. In the Ravens’ playoff loss, Pierce and the run defense were powerless at times to stop Titans running back Derrick Henry.

As free agency approaches, his pass rush remains a work in progress. After the end of the 2018 season, he told reporters, "I need to get some more sacks.” He improved in 2019, but only barely, going from none to just a half-sack, and he reiterated Sunday that “I think I can do a better job in pass rush.”

Four years after the Ravens signed Pierce as an undrafted free agent, his career numbers there profile similar to that of teammate Brandon Williams. When the Ravens re-signed Williams to a five-year contract extension in 2017, he had nine quarterback hits and 4½ sacks over 55 games (46 starts). Over 60 games (30 starts) in his own four-year span, Pierce has 13 quarterback hits and 3½ sacks.

Williams, who’s under contract through 2021, is set to make a combined $28.6 million over the next two seasons, a source of frustration for some Ravens fans. With the NFL’s air-it-out philosophy (13 teams passed more than 60% of the time in 2019) and Pierce’s workload (he’s rarely played more than two-thirds of the Ravens’ defensive snaps), he might not strike it quite as rich as Williams. But an eight-figure annual salary is possible.

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#24 CB Brandon Carr during Ravens training camp.
#24 CB Brandon Carr during Ravens training camp. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The aging defensive backs

Cornerback Jimmy Smith, a pending free agent, turns 32 in July. Defensive back Brandon Carr, who has a team option for 2020 worth $7 million, turns 34 in May. For general managers like DeCosta, age is more than just a number in free agency; it’s a data point.

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Smith had the Ravens’ highest salary cap number this season, and the third highest for a cornerback ($15.9 million). With his injury history, teams will be reluctant to pay him like a top cover man. If he leaves Baltimore after nine seasons, it likely will be on a short-term deal.

But even after a knee sprain that limited him to a career-low 405 defensive snaps in 2019, Smith showed he can still be a useful piece in the Ravens secondary. He was mostly solid in pass coverage, using his length and savvy to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage, and even contributed in the Ravens’ blitz schemes.

All-Pro corners Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters rarely got a play off on defense this season, and Anthony Averett and Iman Marshall have yet to distinguish themselves. With the return of nickelback Tavon Young, Smith could be a dependable fourth cornerback, someone capable of defending a team’s top receiver whenever necessary.

But at what cost? DeCosta might look to how Newsome handled the contract of Lardarius Webb, who in March 2015 agreed to a restructured contract that lowered his compensation from $8 million to $6 million. While Smith, unlike Webb, is not under contract beyond this season, he has expressed a desire to remain in Baltimore. For now, that would require a pay cut — and likely a big one.

Carr’s contract situation, meanwhile, is nothing new for him or the front office. If the Ravens decide to part ways by the March 17 deadline, they would recoup $6 million in savings. But if the team exercises his option for the third straight year, Carr would be owed $7 million.

"The ball's in their court,” he said Sunday. “I'm always going to be ready and available.”

He’s not kidding; Carr’s started all 192 games of his career, the NFL’s second-longest active streak. Now, after playing over two months at safety, he’s even more versatile, if a little longer in the tooth. Safety Earl Thomas and Young have struggled to stay healthy in recent years, and Carr has fared well at both positions.

Yes, a $7 million price tag is a little steep for a likely backup. But remember that the Ravens decided against cutting Smith last offseason because they knew his on-field value, while less than Humphrey’s, was still significant. Carr’s situation is similar. When DeCosta and his staff run the numbers, what will ultimately matter more: his new role or his track record?

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