With the NFL offseason underway, The Baltimore Sun staff writers answer the biggest Ravens questions, including what happens with one of the brightest young stars and which players the team might prioritize in free agency and the draft.
First, what happens with Orlando Brown Jr.?
Daniel Oyefusi: It appears that, inevitably, Brown will get his wish and the Ravens will trade the young lineman to a team where he can live out his dream of playing left tackle full-time. Brown had already played his way out of Baltimore after he was named to a second Pro Bowl, this time filling in for All-Pro Ronnie Stanley on the left side. But with Brown now drawing his line in the sand and making his intentions public, the Ravens must decide whether to take a disgruntled player into a Super Bowl-or-bust season or risk moving on from a talented, inexpensive lineman that’s part of a unit with other holes to fill. The Ravens still have the leverage, though, and they won’t trade Brown for peanuts given how valuable young, quality offensive linemen are.
Jonas Shaffer: He’s not going to be in Baltimore for long, but that doesn’t mean he’s leaving this offseason. I think the smart money is on Brown staying through the 2021 season, then leaving in free agency. Is that what Brown wants? No, but it’s not an outcome the Ravens desire, either.
Consider the opportunity cost here: If the Ravens trade Brown away, they are gambling that they can bolster their Super Bowl hopes, either this year or in the near future, by replacing one of the NFL’s better right tackles (and maybe offensive tackles overall) with one or more assets. A trade would also undercut two of general manager Eric DeCosta’s organizational goals: building a strong offensive line and retaining homegrown stars.
Which means the Ravens’ trade demands could be especially unpalatable for suitors. What do most teams not have a lot of this year? Salary cap space, and a lucrative deal for Brown will eat into those margins. And what can teams find with the first-round draft picks the Ravens will want in exchange? A handful of potential starting tackles whose salary would be just a fraction of Brown’s. The Ravens need just one willing partner to make a deal, but that team will have to be more desperate to trade for Brown than DeCosta is to trade him away.
Childs Walker: This has quickly become the leading story of the offseason, but Brown still seems more likely to be a Raven come September than not. He’s a beloved, respected player with deep ties to the organization, so DeCosta will listen to offers that might give Brown the left tackle opportunity he wants. But the price will be high, and it’s not clear suitors will value Brown as an elite left tackle, even though he played well in place of Stanley. The Ravens plan to contend for a Super Bowl this year, and they’re already facing uncertainty at center and right guard. Brown is more valuable to them than to many potential trade partners. If we get to August and the Ravens haven’t received a blow-away offer, Brown won’t have much leverage to force their hand, unless he’s willing to sacrifice significant money and put his free-agent clock on hold. The guess here is that DeCosta will never receive the offer he can’t refuse, and Brown will spend one more year in Baltimore before departing in free agency.
What’s most important in the development of the Ravens’ passing game: scheme or personnel?
Oyefusi: You certainly need the right system to maximize your talent, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s schemes were once against criticized at the end of the season, but it’s the players who win games. DeCosta hasn’t neglected building around quarterback Lamar Jackson in recent years, drafting six wide receivers and two tight ends in the past three drafts. But it’d be intriguing to see the front office mirror the Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills in bringing in an established veteran wide receiver for its young quarterback. The growth for Kyler Murray and Josh Allen with DeAndre Hopkins and Stefon Diggs, respectively, was palpable and it’s easy to envision the same thing happening with Jackson.
Shaffer: Personnel. And not just among the receivers. Roman might not have the passing-game know-how of Andy Reid or Kyle Shanahan, but offensive genius rarely reveals itself behind subpar offensive lines. Jackson has also struggled to throw the ball downfield and outside the numbers, which makes certain route combinations hard to respect.
Roman’s offenses in San Francisco and Buffalo never had high-volume passing attacks, but a handful were highly efficient: No. 5 overall in 2012 and No. 4 in 2013 with the 49ers, and No. 9 in 2015 with the Bills, according to Football Outsiders. When Jackson led the NFL in passing touchdowns in 2019, his top two receivers were a second-year Mark Andrews and a rookie-year Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. The Ravens thrived anyway because they had an elite offensive line and an elite running game.
Walker: Personnel, and that starts with Jackson going to work on his throwing mechanics and his recognition of opponents’ tactics. But the Ravens need to fortify their interior offensive line so Jackson will have more time to process than he did in the playoff loss to Buffalo. They need to add pass-catching talent on the outside and at tight end, so he won’t be so reliant on Brown and Andrews. That’s not to say Roman can’t spice up his game plans. But Jackson and Co. had opportunities in their divisional-round loss against the Bills and could not capitalize.
What position should the Ravens prioritize upgrading?
Oyefusi: A lot of people probably rolled their eyes when DeCosta was asked about the passing game at his season-ending news conference and immediately pointed out upgrading the offensive line, not adding a veteran wide receiver. However, DeCosta’s right. The Ravens were able to get their offense back on track after shoring up some issues along the interior offensive line. And while there was plenty of blame to go around for the season-ending loss to the Bills, the offensive line and its inability to win assignments was at the top of the list. A sound offensive line is paramount to the Ravens’ success, whether that be run blocking or in pass protection, and with the team needing to add up to three new starters, it should be the priority.
Shaffer: If Brown leaves, it’s offensive line. If he stays, it’s edge rusher, if only because of what’s leaving Baltimore. The Ravens can’t keep Yannick Ngakoue, Matthew Judon and Tyus Bowser. They probably can’t keep two of them. Depending on where the salary cap is established and how the free-agent market develops, they might even lose all three, given their willingness to play the compensatory-pick game.
At this point, the Ravens’ most realistic hope isn’t to upgrade what was a good (but not great) edge rusher position; it’s simply to fortify it. It’s tough to win in the playoffs without an above-average pass rush, and the Ravens could head into the 2021 season with Jaylon Ferguson and a rookie as their top outside linebackers. Maybe Pernell McPhee returns, too, but whatever defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink” Martindale has in his secondary, that won’t be enough.
Walker: Guard and center. No part of the roster faltered more drastically in the playoff loss than the right side of the offensive line. Fans still covet a No. 1 wide receiver and a high-end pass rusher, but those are among the most expensive luxuries on the market. The Ravens could add a veteran center and draft several linemen from a deep class for a fraction of the cost and do more to increase their Super Bowl chances. They can’t keep losing battles along the line of scrimmage if they hope to make a deeper postseason run.
Will the Ravens prioritize retaining pending free agents or signing players on the open market?
Oyefusi: The Ravens normally prioritize retaining their own free agents and have already started doing so, re-signing role players such as safety Jordan Richards and tight end Eric Tomlinson. But with their limited cap room and the likelihood of losing key players such as Judon and Ngakoue, this is an offseason in which the Ravens will need to look on the open market and hit on some bargain deals to find adequate replacements for some expected departures.
Shaffer: The Ravens’ highest-profile targets will probably be open-market free agents, players like wide receiver Corey Davis and guard Joe Thuney. But the front office normally fills out its roster with players it knows and appreciates, the Jihad Wards and Jordan Richardses of the world. If recent history is any indication, DeCosta will spend more this offseason on 2020 Ravens than on 2020 non-Ravens.
Walker: DeCosta has made it clear he’s always working on extensions with the team’s core players, which include Jackson, Andrews and less glamorous starters such as guard Bradley Bozeman and safety DeShon Elliott. But he’ll have to look outside to find help on the offensive line and at wide receiver, and he has the cap room to go shopping in a market that will be packed with modestly priced starters. That doesn’t mean the Ravens will sign wide receiver Allen Robinson to a $100 million deal; such moves aren’t in their DNA.
What position should the Ravens target in the first round of the draft?
Oyefusi: This depends on how the Orlando Brown Jr. situation unfolds. If he is traded before the draft, the Ravens might be forced into drafting an offensive lineman, more specifically a new right tackle, with their first pick. If Brown is still on the roster by then, they could still take an interior lineman but could also use an edge rusher — five of their own are slated to hit free agency — or even a wide receiver if a prospect they like falls to No. 27.
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Shaffer: If the Ravens get another first-round pick for Brown, they must come out of the first or second round with an offensive tackle. That goes without saying.
But if they can’t find a worthwhile trade offer, there’s maybe no better value than in this year’s wide receiver class. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout, has seven wide receivers among his top 43 prospects, including potential Ravens targets like Florida’s Kadarius Toney, Louisville’s Tutu Atwell, LSU’s Terrace Marshall Jr. and Mississippi’s Elijah Moore. (One notable omission is Purdue’s Rondale Moore, another possible Day 1 pick.)
Walker: They won’t zero in on a given position. They really can’t given all the activity that will unfold in front of them. But this draft is rich at their positions of need — offensive line, wide receiver and edge rusher. So they will have a good chance to fill a hole.