Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about the decision to keep defensive lineman Brandon Williams and not right tackle Rick Wagner. (Baltimore Sun video)
PHOENIX — Ravens coach John Harbaugh admits he ponders a reunion with free agent wide receiver Anquan Boldin every day. The organization's search for another reliable target for quarterback Joe Flacco is not dominating Harbaugh's thoughts, though, because there's much more to consider.
"I'm thinking about the offensive line spots. We still have two defensive back spots in my mind. We have a [weak-side] linebacker spot. We've got a pass-rusher spot," Harbaugh said Tuesday from the league meetings. "We talked about our young guys, sure. But that's up to [general manager Ozzie Newsome]. That's up to all of us, but in the final accounting, we have to see what all the options are."
In a perfect world for the Ravens, they'd go into next month's draft without any significant holes on their roster. They'd have positions that they needed to augment and areas that demanded more depth. Every team, including the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, faces those challenges.
However, concerns would ideally be limited to precious few positions. That's not currently the Ravens' reality.
After an early free-agent splurge that primarily addressed their defense, Ravens officials aren't hiding from the fact that they still have much more work to do. During the AFC coaches breakfast at the posh Arizona Biltmore Hotel, Harbaugh reiterated the importance of strengthening the supporting cast around Flacco, who is coming off arguably the worst season of his nine-year career.
"We have time between now and the draft, and we're working at it very hard," Harbaugh said during a question-and-answer session with reporters that lasted more than an hour. "We're picking our brains and trying to figure out how to bring guys in that can start for us and make a difference."
Therein lies the challenge. Team president Dick Cass told The Sun Monday that the team is hoping to hold off on signing any true unrestricted free agents over the next nine weeks to keep the Ravens in line to get at least one compensatory pick or two for 2018.
As it is, there isn't much left on the free-agent market, and the Ravens have less than $8 million of salary cap space. Complicating matters, the team will have only seven selections in the three-day draft, which gets underway March 27. That's their fewest since 2010.
Asked if the team will be aggressive in the draft to make sure certain needs are filled, Harbaugh said: "I think we'll try to be. It just depends how the draft falls. You just can't predict that."
Current needs aside, Ravens officials seem pleased with what they've been able to accomplish at this point of the offseason. It was considered almost a formality in some circles that the Ravens would lose free agent nose tackle Brandon Williams, but they were able to re-sign him, keeping a key cog of their run defense in place.
They signed Tony Jefferson, arguably the top safety on the free-agent market, despite him getting more lucrative offers elsewhere. The Ravens also added a potential safety valve for Flacco in pass-catching back Danny Woodhead, and a durable starting cornerback in Brandon Carr.
Harbaugh said he's confident that several holes will be filled internally with young players flourishing in new roles. He mentioned defensive end Bronson Kaufusi, a third-round pick last year who missed his entire rookie season after breaking his ankle in training camp, as a potential successor for the departed Lawrence Guy. He conceded the Ravens needed another pass rusher, but he also said the team is counting on improvements from young outside linebackers Za'Darius Smith and Matthew Judon. He expressed confidence in 2016 second-round pick Kamalei Correa's ability to step in for retired weak-side linebacker Zachary Orr despite Correa making little impact as a rookie.
"We develop players, I'd say, as good, or, better than anybody in the history of the National Football League," Harbaugh said. "We work at it, we care about it. It's important to us. Our guys have played really well for us. They haven't always gone on to play real great elsewhere. We're real proud in how we do that. It's huge for us. That's why I'm very confident in our young guys."
The concerns, though, on the offensive side are seemingly more glaring. Even Harbaugh acknowledged Tuesday that it's a "fair point" to suggest the Ravens may need to focus on offensive additions over the next couple of months.
Earlier this offseason, Ravens officials spoke of building one of the game's best offensive lines and mimicking what the Dallas Cowboys did in spurring their offensive resurgence. However, after losing starting right tackle Rick Wagner in free agency and trading center Jeremy Zuttah to the San Francisco 49ers, the Ravens now have two major questions in front of Flacco.
Harbaugh said that the top internal options at right tackle are De'Ondre Wesley and Stephane Nembot, two developmental players that spent all last season on injured reserve, He also said veteran reserves John Urschel and Ryan Jensen will compete for the starting center spot. But the offensive line picture remains murky enough that the Ravens are considering using 2016 fourth-round pick Alex Lewis, who they believe will develop into a Pro Bowl guard, at either right tackle or center.
That means only left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right guard Marshal Yanda, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, are currently set in their spots.
"We'll just have to see," Harbaugh said. "That's what these offseason practices will be for. We'll have to determine that, because we have some question marks obviously. Jensen, Nembot, Wesley, [James] Hurst, who is going to step up for us?"
There is a less uncertainty at wide receiver, but the search for that one complementary piece to join deep threats Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Chris Moore, along with potential slot option Michael Campanaro (River Hill) remains necessary and ongoing.
Harbaugh said the Ravens need "one guy, the right guy in the right spot that fills the right role for us. I think that makes the whole group even better."
Could Boldin, who played for the Ravens from 2010 to 2012 and starred during their run to the Super Bowl XLVII, be that guy? Harbaugh has certainly given that some thought.
"I don't know if Anquan wants to come back," Harbaugh said. "That would be another thing we'd have to look into, but I will say this: I do believe he can still play at the highest level. His ability and his skills are such that he's not going to drop off the edge just because of how he plays. I know he loved it in Baltimore and I loved him in Baltimore. I didn't want him to have to leave when it happened. That's just the way things worked out. I'd be for it."
Rules and regulations: The league meetings unofficially ended early Tuesday afternoon with the league adopting several rule changes. Those changes include prohibiting players from leaping over the line of scrimmage to block field goals or extra-point tries and modifying instant replay by replacing sideline devices with hand-held monitors for referees and allowing the final decisions on reviews to be made in a centralized location.
The league will also now call unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for teams that commit multiple fouls during the same down as a way to "manipulate the game clock." That change came after the Ravens had their punt coverage team hold every Cincinnati Bengal on the field in allowing punter Sam Koch to run out the final 11 seconds and take a game-ending safety in their 19-14 victory on Nov. 27.
Other proposals, such as reducing the length of regular-season overtime periods to 10 minutes and moving the line of scrimmage to the 20-yard line for any kickoff that travels through the uprights, were either tabled or voted down.
Harbaugh and Ravens kicker Justin Tucker were in favor of the latter rule. Perhaps, they’ll take solace in the ban of players leaping over the line of scrimmage to block kicks. Tucker’s lone miss on 66 total field goal or extra-point attempts in 2016 came when the New England Patriots’ Shea McClellin timed the snap and jumped over Ravens long snapper Morgan Cox to stuff Tucker’s kick.
Supporting Kaepernick: Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who coached Colin Kaepernickwith the San Francisco 49ers, has been vocal in his support and praise of the free agent quarterback who is looking for another NFL job. It’s no surprise that John Harbaugh followed suit. He predicted that Kaepernick will start for an NFL team during the 2017 season and shot down the theory that the quarterback is being “blackballed” by the league because of his political beliefs and activism.
“I would never use just a generic and stupid term like that to describe a more complicated type of situation,” Harbaugh said. “It’s just too easy. It’s intellectually lazy. To me, it’s more nuanced. I absolutely think he’s going to get signed.”