Nearly a week into the signing period and with Peyton Manning finally choosing his next football home — ending our long-suffering national nightmare — it’s safe to say we’ve reached the conclusion of the first wave of NFL free agency.
As expected, it’s been anything but an exhilarating splash for the Ravens as they’ve witnessed five unrestricted free agents depart while only re-signing veteran center Matt Birk to a three-year contract on Friday. Baltimore has six remaining unrestricted free agents to potentially address, with inside linebacker Jameel McClain at the top of the list.
Unlike veteran defensive starters Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding, McClain represents a more difficult decision as he’ll only turn 27 in July and has plenty of good football in front of him. He also represents a known commodity at a position where the Ravens lack depth behind Ray Lewis. Though he doesn’t bring the skills in pass coverage the Ravens would like to see improved among their linebackers, McClain proved valuable when Lewis was sidelined with a toe injury for four games last season, leading the huddle while Baltimore barely missed a beat without its future Hall of Fame linebacker.
The problem is general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens are having a difficult time gauging McClain’s value with the market for inside linebackers developing at a snail’s pace so far in free agency. Most top names at the position remain unsigned, including Detroit’s Stephen Tulloch, Seattle’s David Hawthorne, and Atlanta’s Curtis Lofton.
McClain visited the Broncos on Friday and took a physical, but Denver ultimately decided to re-sign Joe Mays, who will presumably be the guy at middle linebacker after making 12 starts last season. With such a deep group of inside backers still available and most having the same limitations in pass coverage beyond the top names on the list, McClain may not find the payday he’s looking for.
Of course, the Ravens have a limited amount of salary cap space and a number of other positions to address. They also placed a second-round tender on restricted free agent linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, which would pay him roughly $1.92 million in 2012, as a likely insurance policy to losing McClain.
Whether they can ultimately re-sign McClain or not, the Ravens are likely to address the inside linebacker position in the first few rounds of April’s draft. And unless the market remains very cool on McClain, Baltimore will likely roll the dice with the combination of Ellerbe and a drafted rookie to fill the void next to Lewis in defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ 3-4 scheme.
Changing of the guard
With the Ravens missing out on free-agent guard Evan Mathis when the veteran elected to re-sign with the Eagles over the weekend, the remaining options on the open market are underwhelming in trying to replace former Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs.
A few veterans such as Jake Scott and Vernon Carey are still out there but represent a noticeable step back from Grubbs at the position. That’s led many to speculate about the possibility of second-year tackle Jah Reid being moved to guard.
The thought of Reid playing guard has intrigued me since he began working there late last season and was a sleeper candidate to replace the injured Marshal Yanda in the regular-season finale against Cincinnati. You typically don’t see 6-foot-7 guards, but having the tallest starting quarterback in the league eliminates the need for shorter interior linemen.
Evan so, it’s difficult to view Reid as anything more than a project for the position, meaning the Ravens’ best bet might be to select a guard in the first or second round of the draft. While many have cooled on the idea of drafting Wisconsin center Peter Konz in the first round after Birk’s re-signing, another intriguing name that might be available at the 29th pick is Georgia guard Cordy Glenn.
With massive size at 345 pounds and impressive athleticism, Glenn has seen his stock rise substantially since the Senior Bowl. Despite playing left tackle as a senior after playing inside prior to that, Glenn is considered to be best suited for guard by most. However, some still flirt with the idea of him eventually becoming a left tackle at the next level.
It’s far from certain that Glenn will be there when the Ravens pick late in the first round, but he would be the ideal candidate to start at left guard compared to the underwhelming veteran options remaining in free agency. And with veteran left tackle Bryant McKinnie entering the final year of his contract, the Ravens could also evaluate whether Glenn could move to left tackle in his second season.