There is plenty to question about the offseason that preceded a disappointing 5-11 campaign for the Ravens in 2015.
But the decision to trade five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata proved to be a good one.
Of course, general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens were never going to allow Ngata to carry a $16 million salary cap figure in the final season of a five-year, $61 million contract, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t try to keep him. The organization attempted to work out an extension like it did with Terrell Suggs a year earlier, but the sides didn’t come to an agreement before the 2006 first-round pick was traded to Detroit in the final moments before free agency began on March 10.
It turns out that the Ravens were probably fortunate not to extend Ngata. As Hall of Fame baseball executive Branch Rickey used to say, “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.”
The trade was praised by many at the time, but the possibility of Ngata producing another Pro Bowl season and the Ravens struggling mightily up front was still there.
Ngata wasn’t awful in Detroit, but he hardly played at a Pro Bowl level as he registered a career-low 24 tackles in 14 games and dealt with hamstring and calf injuries. Pro Football Focus graded him as the league’s 39th-best interior defender in 2015 while Brandon Williams was 21st and Timmy Jernigan 49th. The production certainly didn’t warrant the $8.5 million base salary he was paid by the Lions, who were desperate to fill the void left behind by four-time Pro Bowl selection Ndamukong Suh.
Meanwhile, the Ravens drafted outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith with the fourth-round pick they received from Detroit and used their new fifth-round selection to trade up a few spots in the second round to take tight end Maxx Williams. Time will tell whether these players will make major contributions after mostly-quiet rookie seasons that did finish on high notes, but the potential value alone trumps what Baltimore might have gotten from Ngata in 2015.
If we’re being honest, the Ravens probably missed the 345-pounder to some degree as the run defense ranked 12th in the NFL and allowed 4.0 yards per carry after finishing fourth and surrendering just 3.6 per attempt in 2014. His primary replacement Jernigan shook off a slow start to play well in the second half of 2015, but he was stronger as a pass rusher than as a run-stopping defender at Ngata’s old 3-technique spot.
Ngata would have made the defensive line more stout, but his expensive presence hardly would have transformed the Ravens from a 5-11 team into a 10-6 playoff contender. If the Ravens had signed him to an extension last winter, we’d also be wondering how much football he has left in the way we’re now asking about his longtime teammate Suggs, who will be coming off his second Achilles tendon tear in four years and carries a $7.45 million cap figure for 2016.
The 32-year-old Ngata has expressed desire to re-sign with Detroit, but he is not committed to playing beyond 2016, which should make Ravens fans feel even better about the organization not signing him last winter. Given the issues Baltimore has with its salary cap, the fewer contracts awarded to aging players near the end of their careers, the better.
It became apparent over the course of the 2015 season that the Ravens need to get younger at several key spots, something they’ve done along the defensive line without significant drop-off. Ngata was one of the best players in the 20-year history of the franchise, but parting ways with an aging defensive tackle was the right call with only minimal short-term fallout.
Little went right for the Ravens in one of the most disappointing seasons in team history, but the Ngata trade has already proven to be a winner without even knowing what Smith and Maxx Williams will offer in the future.