The Ravens’ remaining needs after the first wave of free agency
The Baltimore Ravens entered the 2017 free-agency period with fairly limited resources and many needs to address. The team managed to take care of some of its most glaring issues, but many remain. With the pool of free-agent talent dwindling and the draft still more than a month away, the Ravens have to formulate a plan to tackle their issues, three in particular.
Since Terrell Suggs suffered his second ruptured Achilles during the 2015 season opener, it seemed the future Hall of Fame pass rusher’s career would soon reach its conclusion. Yet incredibly, Suggs returned to from the devastating injury to register 19 sacks over the past two seasons, shattering all expectations for a pass rusher of his age and health background. Suggs’ success under trying circumstances has rendered any projection for him a fool’s errand. Until he proves otherwise, Suggs remains one of the NFL’s most reliable front-seven defenders.
Still, even if Suggs delivers another solid season, the Ravens defense needs more for it to perform at the highest level. In 2017, the Ravens had only one pass rusher with more than 3.5 sacks: second-year linebacker Matthew Judon. Judon should see significant snaps across from Suggs, but Baltimore has little proven depth behind them at this time.
As things stand, the Ravens’ tertiary edge rushers include Za’Darius Smith, Tyus Bowser, and Tim Williams. Smith flashed as a rookie but hasn’t matched that level of play in the two years since. Meanwhile, Bowser and Williams combined for just three sacks and a handful of pressures despite coming off the board in the second and third rounds respectively last offseason. Of the two, Bowser appears the better candidate for a Year 2 jump given his elite athleticism, but Baltimore can’t just assume improved production from either.
Meanwhile, the incoming rookie class doesn’t have many enticing options after the top group. N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb should become the first defender off the board, likely going in well ahead of the Ravens’ first pick. Harold Landry and Marcus Davenport look more likely to stay available when Baltimore comes on the clock, but Landry had an underwhelming and injury-laden final collegiate season while Davenport possesses more straight-line speed than change-of-direction mobility. Given Baltimore’s other needs, perhaps it makes more sense to find additional pass rush elsewhere.
Still, some options remain available in free agency, and none should cost too much. The list of players includes Pernell McPhee, a former Ravens standout released by the Chicago Bears in late February. McPhee’s positional versatility remains intact and, just as importantly, current Baltimore defensive coordinator Don Martindale worked with McPhee as the linebacker’s position coach from 2012-14. McPhee wouldn’t take long to re-acclimate to the defense and give Suggs and Judon some needed support and rest.
Lead pass catcher
The Ravens made a savvy addition when they signed “street” free agent Michael Crabtree to a three-year, $21 million deal following his release from the Oakland Raiders. Crabtree’s production fell off a cliff last season, but so did that of nearly every other member of the Raiders offense, suggesting that his struggles might not follow him to Baltimore. If he reclaims his form from two years ago, Crabtree can slot in as one of the Ravens’ starting receivers in 2018.
Likewise, the acquisition of John Brown should add a vertical dimension to the passing game that Baltimore has lacked since the halcyon days of Torrey Smith. Brown’s one-year, $5 million deal doesn’t break the bank, nor does it irresponsibly commit the Ravens to the wideout as they did last offseason with the since-released Jeremy Maclin.
Still, neither Crabtree nor Brown represent a true go-to target for quarterback Joe Flacco, and none of the remaining free-agent wideouts possess that potential either. The Ravens can either manufacture a trade for a lead pass catcher (unlikely, though stranger things have happened this offseason) or attempt to uncover one in the upcoming NFL draft.
The Ravens could use their top pick (No. 16 overall) on a wide receiver, but their failed first-round investment in Breshad Perriman might scare them off from doing so again in a draft lacking top-end talent at the position. Day 2 could offer some better value propositions, including local product D.J. Moore. Regardless of whom Baltimore selects in the draft, the offense needs someone to take charge of the receiving corps.
Quarterback of the future
The Ravens hope that Flacco can reverse the course of his career after a three-year downturn.
Indeed, many of their moves this offseason appear concocted for that very purpose. Despite limited cap resources, the team managed to re-sign multi-position offensive lineman James Hurst to a four-year deal and bring in the tandem of Crabtree and Brown to help jumpstart the receiving corps. Other than the departure of starting center Ryan Jensen — a foregone conclusion given his play last season and the four-year, $42 million deal he landed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Baltimore’s offense has put as much around Flacco as it realistically could at this point in the offseason.
Still, even if Flacco manages to reclaim his peak form, his age (33 as of January), the wear and tear accumulated over a 10-year career as a starting quarterback, and lack of year-to-year consistency suggest that the Ravens will have to move onto their next franchise signal-caller in the not-too-distant future.
Those players rarely hit free agency, and the Ravens couldn’t have afforded the ones that did this year anyway. That leaves the draft, which offers risk at the top and even more uncertainty in later rounds. Barring a trade, Baltimore will not sniff Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, or Josh Rosen, likely the top three quarterback prospects in some order. Reigning Heisman winner Baker Mayfield could come off the board as well before the No. 16 pick. That leaves Lamar Jackson, Mason Rudolph, and a number of prospects not guaranteed to go on Day 1 from which the Ravens can choose.
Of course, the Ravens could pass on taking a quarterback of the future in the upcoming draft and look again in 2019. Any pick used on a passer could instead go towards a player capable of helping the Ravens immediately, an important consideration given how close the team came to reaching the playoffs last season. Still, that approach would leave the team vulnerable should Flacco’s regression continue unabated. It would also potentially place soon-to-be general manager Eric DeCosta in a better position once he takes over for Ozzie Newsome next year.