Ravens still paying for past mistakes at start of free agency

March 13, 2018 | Luke Jones

Owner Steve Bisciotti declared last month that the Ravens could “make a splash” to improve one of the NFL’s worst passing attacks, but it was always going to need to come at their price.

Free agency hasn’t yet officially begun, but dreams of a discounted rate for a high-impact wide receiver like Allen Robinson or Sammy Watkins are long gone as both agreed to deals for a combined $55 million in guarantees. Former Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham is going to Green Bay. Even second- and third-tier free-agent receivers such as Paul Richardson and Albert Wilson are fetching deals with an average annual value of $8 million despite underwhelming production in their careers.

If the Ravens wanted to hand out a contract or two along those lines — many of them aren’t exactly looking wise — entering the week with less than $5 million in salary cap space left them in poor position. And as Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer noted, the popular three-year structure being used in many deals this offseason makes it difficult for a cap-strapped team to spread out high guarantees and keep a free agent’s 2018 cap number affordable.

That isn’t an excuse, but it serves as a reminder that the Ravens continue to pay for past mistakes that have piled up since Super Bowl XLVII. And it’s why fixing their passing attack in one offseason isn’t going to be easy. Yes, these free-agent prices have looked outrageous, but Baltimore hasn’t shown the ability — or used the necessary resources — to draft and develop its own receivers over the years, either, meaning something has to give at some point.

To their credit, the Ravens have spent to the salary cap on an annual basis, but how they’ve used it is certainly open to criticism as too many back-loaded deals and veteran restructures have frequently left them in tight spots. It’s a vicious cycle that’s contributed to the current era of mediocrity, leaving one to wonder if some type of reset is needed sooner than later. Of course, try selling that strategy to John Harbaugh and his staff, who are likely coaching for their jobs after missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.

Joe Flacco’s biggest critics will point solely to his $24.75 million cap figure and label the remainder of his lucrative contract as holding the roster hostage. Of course, they’d be overlooking the fact that the Ravens felt compelled to give a box safety (Tony Jefferson) a $34 million contract last offseason when it was clear the offense was what needed more help, just a recent example of that side of the ball being neglected in favor of the defense. Two of the three modest veteran additions (running back Danny Woodhead and right tackle Austin Howard) made to the offense last year have already been jettisoned with the other (wide receiver Jeremy Maclin) possibly going next, illustrating the minimal impact they made.

Only four of Baltimore’s 17 combined picks in the first three rounds of the last five drafts have been used on offensive players with all four of their Day 1 and Day 2 selections last year spent on defense. Exactly one of those four offensive picks — left tackle Ronnie Stanley — has panned out with wide receiver Breshad Perriman and tight end Maxx Williams standing out as major disappointments at positions of great need. Making matters worse, several of those early picks on defense didn’t pan out, either, which compelled general manager Ozzie Newsome to pump even more resources into positions like safety.

The Ravens did re-sign offensive lineman James Hurst on Monday, but it’s difficult selling that move as a positive after the decision to cut Howard, who was solid at right tackle last season. Neither Hurst nor Alex Lewis is a proven starter at the position, creating another question mark on offense to go with the gaping holes at wide receiver and tight end. And should center Ryan Jensen receive the lucrative deal elsewhere that many are predicting, it would mark the third straight offseason in which the Ravens have lost an above-average offensive lineman in free agency.

When you haven’t spent major free-agent money or used meaningful draft capital on your offense, what exactly do you really expect from Flacco, who clearly has his own flaws?

Perhaps this offseason and this draft will be different. A number of marquee free agents have already come off the board, but potential value remains and some cap casualties are still to come with Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson being the latest cut loose on Tuesday. Maybe the organization will actually focus on the offense for this year’s draft and hit on multiple picks in a way similar to how New Orleans reversed its fortunes last year.

It’s only mid-March and much will happen between now and the start of the season, but the Ravens’ needs are too great and their resources too limited to simply trust that everything will be OK.

Too many mistakes in recent years leave them no longer enjoying the benefit of the doubt like they once did.