With the start of the new league year and free agency less than 24 hours away, you can already hear the cries if you listen carefully.
And you know exactly what I’m talking about if you pay attention to talk radio, internet message boards, and Twitter over the opening days of free agency every year.
When are the Ravens going to do something?
Why does Ozzie insist on sitting on his hands?
They’re definitely taking a step back this season.
Never were those exclamations louder than last season, an unprecedented period of free agency that coincided with the start of training camp after the 134-day lockout. General manager Ozzie Newsome waved goodbye to veterans Derrick Mason, Todd Heap, Kelly Gregg, and Willis McGahee in a series of cap-saving cuts, and a number of veterans including Chris Chester, Dawan Landry, and Josh Wilson found richer contracts elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ free-agent additions for 2011 were relatively modest over the course of the preseason, adding fullback Vonta Leach, safety Bernard Pollard, left tackle Bryant McKinnie, center Andre Gurode, and running back Ricky Williams in addition to re-signing right guard Marshal Yanda to a long-term contract. The “offseason” timetable was stunted by the lockout, but Newsome operated in the way he typically does — calculated and conservative. In fact, the most dynamic move he made — trading a fourth-round pick to the Buffalo Bills for veteran receiver Lee Evans — turned out to be the biggest failure.
The history lesson is worth repeating as the Ravens embark on free agency for the 17th time in franchise history. Projected to have approximately $14.45 million in salary cap space (before tendering restricted free agents and exclusive rights free agents), Newsome will devote much of that to retaining as many of his own free agents as he can.
Of Baltimore’s 12 unrestricted free agents, five were starters last season, meaning the Ravens could be looking at more significant roster turnover than you’d like from an AFC North championship team that was one touchdown catch from advancing to the Super Bowl.
Expecting a dramatic splash of throwing money at elite free agents such as wide receiver Vincent Jackson or outside linebacker Mario Williams is only setting yourself up for disappointment. Even in the years in which he’s had the most cap room, Newsome rarely targets the players grabbing the headlines in the opening days of free agency, instead focusing on keeping his own and laying plans for value free agents that fulfill a need without eating up precious cap room.
As was the case last season, the Ravens will look for continued growth from within to aid in their quest for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Entering the 2011 season, Terrence Cody, Ed Dickson, and Dennis Pitta were well-known draft picks from the previous season but had yet to emerge as starting-caliber players in the NFL. Even bigger question marks surrounded Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams before they became legitimate starting cornerbacks for one of the league’s top defenses. And fighting serious doubts after a poor preseason, wide receiver Torrey Smith set franchise rookie records for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown catches.
Their contributions were as critical as any free-agent acquisition the Ravens made en route to a 12-4 record and their first division title in five years.
This season, the Ravens will potentially look to younger players such as defensive ends Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee, offensive lineman Jah Reid, and linebackers Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, and Albert McClellan to help fill potential voids left behind by free agents Cory Redding, Ben Grubbs, Matt Birk, Jarret Johnson, and Jameel McClain. Of course, the Ravens will add new pieces via free agency and next month’s draft to fill some of those needs, but it’s almost a guarantee that they’ll need to lean on some combination of the aforementioned players for expanded roles in 2012.
After tendering their restricted free agents and exclusive rights players, the Ravens will be left with somewhere between $6 million and $7 million to address their own unrestricted free agents and shop the open market. It doesn’t take an economics major to realize that money will only go so far.
But, as he usually does, Newsome will make the most of it.
As the frenzy of free agency begins on Tuesday and the big names start coming off the board — possibly even a few from the Ravens’ own backyard leaving for greener pastures — remember many of the biggest factors determining how the Ravens fare in 2012 already reside in Owings Mills.
It may get ugly, with many of their unrestricted free agents not expected to return, but Newsome and the Ravens never strive to “win” the first week of free agency. They’ll look closely for that under-the-radar talent that nobody is talking about right now. And, as always, the Ravens will plan to shine during April’s draft.
By the time July arrives, they’ll address the offensive line and the linebacker position in some form as well as add a few pieces in other areas to optimize a team that was only a few tenths of a second away from going to the Super Bowl back in January.
Just remember that when you or someone else feels the urge to panic and ask if Newsome is asleep at the wheel over the next week or so.
To borrow an expression from another era and another sport here in Baltimore, it’s “The Raven Way” of doing business.
And if history is any indication, it’s worked pretty well.