Ravens 2018 offseason primer
A blown coverage on fourth-and-12 transformed the 2017 Baltimore Ravens from a gritty playoff team into one of the 20 clubs licking their wounds as the postseason kicks off this weekend. That inglorious end to their season, authored by no less than Andy Dalton, threatens to overshadow a strange and surprising year for the hardscrabble franchise.
Any season that ends before the playoffs generates scrutiny, and the Ravens face plenty after the ingloriously sour note that concluded their 2017. The entire organization will endure plenty of questions in the coming months, starting with the coaching staff.
The Ravens finished their third consecutive season without a playoff berth, something which would doom many head coaches around the league. John Harbaugh avoided that fate in part due to his previous success — six trips to the postseason and a Super Bowl win between 2008 and ’14 — and an unfavorable marketplace. With so many teams in the market for a new head coach and few top-end candidates available, Baltimore made the easy call to stick with their current headman.
Though not without flaws, Harbaugh has produced winning teams in all but three of his ten seasons, a mark few others match or exceed over the same stretch. Perhaps the Ravens could have landed the next great NFL head coach and improved their outlook. However, more hires bust than boom, and the more likely outcome would have seen Baltimore regress. Harbaugh might enter next season on a hotter seat than in the past, but he deserved another year.
That doesn’t mean the coaching staff will remain the same in 2018. Already, defensive coordinator Dean Pees has retired, leaving a massive void for Harbaugh’s top defensive deputy. With a considerable amount of talent on that side of the ball, the Ravens shouldn’t have too much trouble attracting one of their top choices to replace Pees.
The list of candidates could include several familiar with the Ravens. Chuck Pagano, the recently fired head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, served as Baltimore assistant from 2008 to ’11. Though he struggled in the top gig, he produced the No. 1 defense by DVOA during his only year as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator. While Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Haloti Ngata no longer reside on the roster, the team has plenty of talent to play well in the future.
Another attractive option most recently coached with the Cincinnati Bengals, a division rival. Paul Guenther has coordinated the Bengals defense since 2014 and garnered some consideration for head-coaching positions. While none of Gunther’s defenses ranked particularly high in terms of efficiency, the lack of top-level defensive talent outside of Geno Atkins underscores how much the longtime assistant can squeeze from his players. In Baltimore, Guenther would have a realistic chance to deliver an elite defense.
The Ravens could also look in-house as they have done after past defections. Of the current defensive assistants, linebackers coach Don Martindale appears the top option. Martindale has coordinator experience — eight between the NFL and college football — and doesn’t have to acquaint himself with the roster. That stability could favor Baltimore which missed the playoffs by the slimmest of margins.
But the Ravens might not only end up replacing their top defensive coach. Marty Mornhinweg has failed to produce a reliable offense in each of his two years as the team’s offensive coordinator, and quarterback Joe Flacco has regressed considerably under his watch. Baltimore doesn’t possess adequate talent on that side of the ball — the receiving corps in particular features no true alpha and only running back Alex Collins has made much of a dent on the ground — but a highly paid signal-caller like Flacco shouldn’t struggle as considerably as he has with Mornhinweg.
As of now, Harbaugh has given no indication that he plans to replace Mornhinweg. For his part, Flacco said he doesn’t expect a change this offseason. Still, if the Ravens hope to improve significantly on offense next season, they need to find a more suitable offensive coordinator. While easier said than done, perhaps they could poach an assistant like the Los Angeles Rams’ Matt LaFleur or the New York Jets’ John Morton.
Free agency and the draft
The Ravens don’t portend to lose many starters this offseason, but the ones heading into free agency could leave sizable holes in the roster. James Hurst, Ryan Jensen, and Matt Skura, the entire starting interior of the offensive line by the end of 2017, all come off contract at the start of the new league year. Skura likely returns given his exclusive-rights status, but the other two could field decent offers given their experience and the league-wide dearth of capable O-linemen. Assuming the soon-to-be 34-year-old Marshal Yanda returns, Baltimore can weather one of those losses, but more would stress the offense.
Likewise, the Ravens must re-sign Collins, another exclusive-rights free agent. The running back served as the focal point of the offense during the second half of the season and looked like a potential building block for the future. He shouldn’t cost much, at least this offseason. Baltimore could also lose wide receivers Mike Wallace and Mike Campanaro. The team could potentially replace either’s contribution without too much difficulty, but their receiving corps would fall even further behind the rest of the league.
Complicating matters, the Ravens possess little cap space with which to re-sign their own players or add talent from outside the organization. Over the Cap estimates them to have the fourth least cap space entering the offseason. Ozzie Newsome and the front office could manufacture more room through restructuring their existing contracts, but that only pushes their problems down the line. Instead, the team needs to finally clean out the books and move out of cap hell.
Outside of the draft, the roster doesn’t look likely to change significantly before next season. That doesn’t mean the Ravens can’t reasonably expect to break their playoff drought, however.
In the division, the Cleveland Browns come off only the second 0-16 season in NFL history. They should improve given their current talent, a bevy of premium draft picks, and the improved front office, but the Ravens should expect to emerge victorious in both head-to-head matchups. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals need to vastly improve their roster in order to do more than play spoiler. And while the Pittsburgh Steelers remain the top dogs of the AFC North, the possible retirement of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the free-agent status of Le’Veon Bell could alter their fortunes in an instant.
The offseason will further shape the Ravens’ outlook and those of their divisional opponents. However, the team looks much better positioned to contend at this moment than it did at this time a year earlier.