"God's fingerprints are all over this (season) in many, many ways and many many levels," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh about this season's 14-2 record.
The 2012 Ravens did not have long to celebrate their Super Bowl victory before becoming a fundamentally different team.
Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis retired. Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed departed to the Houston Texans after the Ravens made little effort to re-sign him. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, an essential contributor on and off the field, was traded to the San Francisco 49ers. In all, 11 Ravens played their final NFL games in the Super Bowl, and seven others played their final games for the franchise.
Instead of seeking a repeat, the Ravens opted to rebuild their roster around quarterback Joe Flacco, who signed a record free-agent deal that offseason. They made the playoffs just once over the ensuing five seasons.
We don’t yet know if the 2019 team will make it all the way to the final game of the season, but we do know that win or lose, this version of the Ravens is not staring at an epic teardown.
When Eric DeCosta succeeded Ozzie Newsome as the team’s general manager after last season, he emphasized two main points: creating salary-cap flexibility and extending the contracts of key players before they hit free agency.
The Ravens have done both. When they recently signed Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters to a reported three-year, $42 million contract, he became the eighth player DeCosta has extended, following kicker Justin Tucker, tight end Nick Boyle, guard Marshal Yanda, wide receiver Willie Snead IV, nickel cornerback Tavon Young, fullback/defensive tackle Patrick Ricard and linebacker L.J. Fort.
Coach John Harbaugh said he wrapped Peters in a hug in front of the entire team when he heard about the most recent extension.
“But that’s just the beginning,” Harbaugh said. “That will be something that Eric [DeCosta] and Ozzie [Newsome] continue to work on, and there will be more guys we sign, too. We want our players, and our players want to be here. The business side of it has to be taken care of, and that’s just one of a couple first steps we’ve already taken.”
Players have taken notice as well, lauding the front office for its aggression.
“It’s been really good … all the guys we’ve signed are great players,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “Unlike last year, when it was a lot of, ‘Who are we going to sign?’ and this and that, it’s good to know we have a lot of guys already signed.”
Meanwhile, with Flacco’s contract coming off the books after this season, the Ravens will have greater flexibility to sign lucrative extensions for players such as left tackle Ronnie Stanley, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and outside linebacker Matthew Judon. They’ll also have more room to pursue established stars from other teams, though such moves have rarely been their chief focus.
The Ravens have a window to maintain stacked rosters over the next three years while franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson is playing on his modest rookie contract. They have a healthy head start for next season, with almost their entire record-setting offense slated to return (though Yanda could retire and others, such as center Matt Skura and running back Gus Edwards, will be restricted or exclusive-rights free agents).
They face a more complicated set of questions on defense, where key players such as Judon, nose tackle Michael Pierce, middle linebacker Josh Bynes and cornerback Jimmy Smith will become unrestricted free agents.
Judon will pose the most difficult dilemma because of the premium deals edge rushers command on the open market. The Ravens have generally eschewed such bidding. Last offseason, they did not make a competitive offer for Za’Darius Smith, who signed a $66 million deal with the Green Bay Packers and stepped forward to become one of the NFL’s top defenders. Judon has been more productive through his first four seasons than Smith was through his first four. He’s also the Ravens’ best pass rusher by a wide margin. Can they afford to let him walk?
“We have to finish the season,” Judon said after the Ravens’ regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers. “I love this organization; it’s the only organization I’ve played for. I’m comfortable here; I have family here; I already know the house I’m going to get if I sign, but that’s up to upstairs. I’m just so grateful that they gave me an opportunity to play here these last four years, and now we have an opportunity to play for something bigger.”
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The picture is clearer in the secondary, where the Ravens have made their greatest investments. They will return two Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Peters and Humphrey and a Pro Bowl safety in Earl Thomas III. Young is expected to return healthy, and safety Chuck Clark, one of the breakout players from this season, is also under contract for next season. Given Clark’s performance, the Ravens could save $7 million against their salary cap by releasing veteran safety Tony Jefferson, who’s working to rehabilitate a significant knee injury. They could also save $6 million if they don’t exercise a club option on veteran cornerback Brandon Carr. Smith’s $9.5 million salary will come off the board, but the Ravens could try to bring him back at a more modest price.
Defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt described himself as “extremely blessed” by the team’s investments in his position group, projected to be the most expensive in the NFL by almost $15 million, according to the web site Spotrac.com.
“They’ve invested a lot of money in the secondary, and that just goes to show you what we are as an organization,” Hewitt said. “When we have great players, they get rewarded for their work.”
Those players aren’t thinking about the offseason given the urgent business immediately in front of them. But they rave about the spirit of the current team and want it to continue for years to come.
“Ozzie and DeCosta and coach Harbs and all the personnel guys, they’ve just done a great job of bringing in a great group of men,” said second-year right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. “We’ve just got a bunch of hungry dogs, a bunch of humble dogs, guys who really want to win for each other. … The base of the team, hopefully, we can all stick together, but it makes me excited, seeing everyone extended.”