Schmuck: The Ravens need to do everything they can to hold together the NFL's stingiest defense

In the wake of Sunday’s sad end to an otherwise successful Ravens season, the conversation about the near-term future of the team turned in two predictable directions.

Obviously, one of them pertained to the care and feeding of the new franchise quarterback after Lamar Jackson struggled so noticeably through the first three quarters of his first playoff game, and that discussion started immediately.

Coach John Harbaugh dismissed any question about his status as the starter going forward and made it clear that Jackson’s learning curve will be the major point of emphasis when the Ravens begin their offseason workouts in a few months.

The other issue might actually be more pressing since it regards the NFL’s top defense, which could look very different when the Ravens open training camp in July.

The Ravens have decisions to make on seven defensive starters, including cornerstone linebackers Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley, who could both be unrestricted free agents when the signing period begins in mid-March.

Za’Darius Smith and Brent Urban also could be unrestricted free agents, while veterans Jimmy Smith, Eric Weddle and Brandon Carr could become salary cap casualties.

Nobody has to tell Harbaugh or new general manager Eric DeCosta how important it will be to maintain some semblance of the defense that gave up the fewest yards of any in the league and the fewest points of any AFC team.

Though the forefront of the offense figures to remain largely intact, 2019 still figures to be a developmental season for Jackson, who clearly has plenty of work to do to become a fully functional NFL quarterback. The Los Angeles Chargers exposed his limitations in their two recent games against the Ravens.

There certainly is reason to believe that Jackson and the Ravens will hit the ground running in September, but there is no room to discount the importance of a defense that proved during the second half of this season that it could gloss over a lot of his rookie mistakes.

The proof of that was on display Sunday, when the defense held things together in the first half in spite of three fumbles (two by Jackson) and a very rocky overall performance by the same offensive unit that was so effective during the Ravens’ late run to the postseason.

There is general agreement that Mosley will be the top free agent priority, and the Ravens will have to dig deep because he’s that good and he’s the player who fits perfectly into the royal lineage of a franchise that owes its prominence to a long and storied defensive tradition. They simply cannot let him go.

No doubt, there are a lot of fans who feel the same way about Suggs, who is a certain Ring of Honor guy, but he’s nearing the end of his great career and he did not have the same impact in the second half of the season as he did early on.

Suggs had 5½ sacks through Week 7, but only registered 1½ over the final 10 games (including Sunday’s playoff loss). He had 17 solo tackles before the Week 10 bye and only nine the rest of the way. He said during his postgame scrum on Sunday that he intends to play next season and hopes that it will be with the Ravens. That likely will depend on just how much it will take to re-sign him.

Za’Darius Smith figures to be a victim of the salary cap. He had a very solid season, starting all 16 games and finishing with 8½ sacks, but he’s 26 and he’s got a chance to make a big score in free agency — likely more the Ravens can afford.

It will be interesting to see how the Ravens handle their three veteran defensive backs. Weddle could decide to retire or he could end up outside the team’s cap room ($6.5 million cap hit). The same goes for Carr, who will be 33 when the Ravens open the 2019 season and has a $5 million cap number. Jimmy Smith will be a tough call, because he’s very talented, very expensive ($16.175 million) and he hasn’t started more than 12 games in any of the past three seasons.

He did, however, finish with a flourish, intercepting two passes in the regular season finale against the Browns and registering seven solo tackles on Sunday.

This is the NFL, so there’s always turnover and the Ravens have shown in the past that they are willing to make the hard choices, even when it means cutting loose popular players.

They are already set to do that with franchise quarterback Joe Flacco and may have to consider cap-related decisions regarding Michael Crabtree and even Marshal Yanda and Sam Koch, but they need to keep enough of their stars on the other side of the ball to make sure this year’s playoff appearance isn’t just a one-time thing.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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