Suggs’ future, free safety among Ravens’ top defensive priorities this offseason

January 08, 2014 | Luke Jones

Suggs’ future, free safety among Ravens’ top defensive priorities this offseason

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Expected to focus most of his offseason attention on revamping the league’s 29th-ranked offense, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome will still be faced with a couple important decisions on the defensive side of the ball.

One of them involves one of the greatest players in franchise history in Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs, who enters the final season of a six-year contract and is scheduled to count for $12.4 million against the Ravens’ 2014 salary cap. If Suggs is to return, it appears he won’t be playing under the original terms of his deal.

Should the 12th-year linebacker not be back, it would mark the second straight year in which the Ravens would let a notable player depart for cap purposes after wide receiver Anquan Boldin refused to take a pay cut and was traded to the San Franchise 49ers for a sixth-round pick last March.

“That’s a decision that we’ll talk about when we get down to Jupiter [at owner Steve Bisciotti's estate],” Newsome said at the Ravens’ season-ending press conference on Wednesday. “Terrell is a really good football player. He not only shows up in the pass game, but he shows up in the run game. That being said, we let a good football player go last year, so we’re not afraid. I’m not a virgin when it comes to letting guys walk out the door. What we’ll do is we’ll look at every aspect of it and see what’s best for the 2014, 2015, and 2016 Ravens and then make that decision once we get to it.”

The Ravens are expected to approach Suggs and his agent Joel Segal about a short-term contract extension that would roll some of his scheduled $7.8 million base salary into a signing bonus that would lower his cap number for the 2014 season and likely afford him the opportunity to play a couple more years and retire as a Raven. How open Suggs would be to a reasonable short-term extension remains to be seen after he was named to his sixth Pro Bowl this past season.

On pace for a career season after collecting nine sacks in the first eight games of 2013, Suggs fell off dramatically in the second half, recording just one sack in the final eight contests. The 2003 first-round pick will be 32 in October, which will give the Ravens plenty to think about in terms of not wanting to pay for past accomplishments over future production and compromise their salary cap beyond the 2014 season.

If the Ravens are unable to work out an extension with Suggs, they could cut the veteran linebacker to save $7.8 million in cap space for 2014.

Baltimore entered the offseason with just 37 players under contract and roughly $14 million in cap space, so the possibility of making a few veteran cuts to save space is likely. Newsome reiterated Wednesday what’s become an organizational philosophy of not reworking deals that have more than one year remaining on them.

“I think we’ll continue with our theme of not restructuring contracts,” Newsome said. “But, there’s a difference between restructuring and offering guys extensions. We have guys that are in the last year of their contract [or] going into the last year of their contract, and we’ve had a history of being able to get good deals done with guys heading into that last year. I don’t think we will embark on doing any more restructuring, but we will probably look at doing some extensions.”

Newsome also expressed his desire for “a more athletic safety” to complement 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam, who is expected to shift to the strong safety position in his second year. Veteran James Ihedigbo will be an unrestricted free agent and played well in his first year as a starter, but the Ravens are looking for a free safety who can force more turnovers, according to Newsome.

Known more for his physicality than his pass coverage as a standout safety with the University of Florida, Elam’s smaller frame is problematic when trying to match up against bigger tight ends and wide receivers. Coach John Harbaugh credited Elam’s “solid” play as a rookie last week, but he acknowledged that the 5-foot-10 safety is at his best playing closer to the line of scrimmage.

Elam recorded just one interception and three pass breakups to go with his 76 tackles while primarily playing the free safety position.

“Matt Elam should be a really, really good safety in this league,” Harbaugh said on Wednesday. “He’s fast, he’s physical, and he’s going to understand the expectations a little more. He’s going to anticipate checks a little better. He’s going to understand what it means to stay deep when you’re supposed to stay deep — not to stop your feet when you’ve got a vertical receiver running up on you and you’re a deep-third or deep-half player. Those are things that sometimes you learn from experience the hard way. He didn’t make too many mistakes for a guy who played that many repetitions as a safety, so it’s a good start for him.”

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