Ravens pre-draft offseason retrospective
For a team with viable playoff aspirations, the Baltimore Ravens have endured a multitude of blows during the pre-draft phase of the offseason.
Hampered by a lack of salary-cap space, the Ravens saw far more talent depart than arrive thus far in 2017. That holds particularly true along the offensive line, which lost starters Ricky Wagner (Detroit Lions) and Jeremy Zuttah (San Francisco 49ers) as well as part-time starter Vladimir Ducasse (Buffalo Bills). The team can realistically locate a center of Zuttah’s quality in the draft or push John Urschel into that role, and 2016 fourth-round pick Alex Lewis should resume his work at left guard, but the loss of Wagner could hit hard.
Wagner improved significantly as a pass protector in his final year in Baltimore, rounding out a skillset that labeled him as a run mauler earlier in his career. Wagner might have already peaked as a player, but he rates as one of the best right tackles in the league. The Ravens could use another early draft choice on their offensive line to fill his void. However, they cannot reasonably expect that player to perform at Wagner’s level, at least in the short term.
But the talent drain was not limited to just one side of the trenches. In one of the more eyebrow-raising moves across the entire league, the Ravens traded away defensive stalwart Timmy Jernigan to move up 25 spots in the third round of the upcoming draft. Jernigan joins a loaded Philadelphia Eagles defensive front that includes Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Chris Long while Baltimore finds itself with no obvious successor for the departed defensive tackle.
The swap seems curious on a number of levels. While Jernigan had just one year remaining on his rookie contract and the Ravens appeared unlikely to re-sign him, he leaves a significant void on the roster. Jernigan had become one of the team’s best run defenders, helping the defense finish third among AFC teams in run defense by DVOA. Even if general manager Ozzie Newsome felt certain that Jernigan would not return after 2017, such a young, valuable defensive lineman generally fetches more than an upgraded third-round selection. At least on the surface, the trade looks like a net negative for Baltimore.
Those losses came on the back of some the Ravens couldn’t avoid. Steve Smith Sr., the de facto No. 1 receiver since his arrival in 2014, hung up the cleats after a 16-year, Hall of Fame-caliber career. On the other side of the retirement spectrum, linebacker Zachary Orr had to stop playing football after doctors diagnosed him with a congenital back condition. While Smith’s departure came as little surprise, Orr’s left the team without its leading tackler from a year ago and one of the game’s rising stars at linebacker.
Though much less ballyhooed, the Ravens also severed ties with pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil due to cap restraints and saw All-Pro fullback Kyle Juszczyk accept a market-setting offer with the 49ers. The departure of Dumervil, now 33 and coming off an injury-shortened campaign, seemed a fait accompli. However, Baltimore had hoped to retain Juszczyk, who had developed into a versatile offensive threat and sturdy blocker during his four-year career.
Not everything went wrong for the Ravens this offseason, however. They did manage to retain Brandon Williams, their top defensive free agent and arguably the best 3-4 nose tackle in the league. Despite fielding numerous offers, Williams returned on a five-year, $52.5 million deal that makes him the highest paid at his position. No one player contributed more to the team’s run defense over the past three seasons, making Williams a nearly irreplaceable piece.
The Ravens also signed away Tony Jefferson from the Arizona Cardinals, a tremendous boon for the secondary. Jefferson entered the offseason and the consensus top safety scheduled to hit the open market, and his four-year, $34 million contract loaded with $19 million in full guarantees reflects as much. At 25, his best football lies ahead of him, giving Baltimore a solid chance at a quality return on its investment.
The move further cements the Ravens’ dedication to rebuilding their secondary, a process that began in earnest in 2016. That offseason, the team acquired All-Pro safety Eric Weddle to reinforce pass defense and moved long-time cornerback Lardarius Webb to safety. Weddle remains a starter heading into this season while Webb has moved into a reserve role better fitting his current abilities. Regardless, the unit looks improved again, helping to offset some of the defensive losses elsewhere.
The Ravens still have plenty of holes to fill, roughly as many in total as the amount at the end of last season. However, given the restrictions under which the front office had to operate, that represents a fair showing. With the draft kicking off next week — and Baltimore armed with four selections within the top three rounds — the team should have plenty of opportunities to shore up its roster before training camp begins in July.
If the Ravens address those needs and get a few breaks along the way, playoff contention becomes a realistic goal again.