The Ravens defense needs some work.
Yes, the unit finished eighth in total defense and surrendered the fewest passing yards in the NFL over the second half of the season, but five of the Ravens’ final eight games came against passing attacks ranked 19th or worse and another came against an AJ McCarron-led Cincinnati attack in the season finale.
The improvement was encouraging, but it wasn’t enough to just assume everything is fine, especially after the defense finished with just 14 takeaways, shattering the worst mark in team history. The hiring of former NFL head coach Leslie Frazier to coach the secondary highlights the Ravens’ desire to improve against the pass.
With free agency set to begin in less than two months — March 9 at 4 p.m. — and the draft set for April 28-30, the Ravens are currently evaluating their biggest needs in all three phases of the game. In the second of a three-part series — we’ve already looked at the offense and special teams will follow — I offer my thoughts on the defensive side of the football and rank the positions of greatest need.
Some will argue that improving the pass rush is a bigger need than cornerback, but with Shareece Wright scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and Lardarius Webb moving to safety, who will start opposite top cornerback Jimmy Smith?
Even if they’re able to re-sign Wright — who shook off a nightmare debut against San Francisco to play quite well the rest of the way — the Ravens would benefit from having another high-end cornerback. In addition to hoping that Smith is finally over the effects of his 2014 foot surgery, they need another playmaker in the secondary.
That’s the biggest reason why the Ravens have been linked to top cornerback prospects such as Jalen Ramsey from Florida State or Vernon Hargreaves from Florida with the sixth overall pick in this spring’s draft.
Baltimore has some internal options such as Will Davis who carry intrigue, but none have a body of work suggesting you could pencil them into the starting lineup with any great level of confidence.
2. Outside linebacker
Owner Steve Bisciotti spoke at length at the season-ending press conference about how much the Ravens missed Terrell Suggs after he was lost for the year in the 2015 opener, but the six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker will be 34 in October and coming off his second Achilles injury in four years.
Further complicating matters is the pending free agency of Courtney Upshaw, who lacks pass-rushing skills but is effective setting the edge against the run. The Ravens saw promising development from 2015 fourth-round pick Za’Darius Smith late in the year, but they’d love to add another outside linebacker to ease the workload of the 32-year-old Elvis Dumervil, who wore down late in the year as a three-down player.
The defense needs a young outside linebacker who can get after the quarterback, but the top options in the draft beyond Ohio State’s Joey Bosa — Myles Jack of UCLA and Leonard Floyd of Georgia — would likely be considered a reach where the Ravens are picking in the first round.
There’s a lot of uncertainty at this position for 2016 and beyond when your top two options are both well over 30.
Since the departure of Ed Reed, the Ravens have pumped so many resources into improving this position with very underwhelming results.
Though not quite as consistent as you’d probably like, Will Hill has emerged as a solid starter at strong safety, but the free safety position remains a different story. Kendrick Lewis just doesn’t show enough ability to make high-impact plays, and Lardarius Webb’s $9.5 million salary cap figure for 2016 will need to be addressed if he’s even to remain on the team.
Terrence Brooks has flashed his athleticism when given opportunities, but the 2014 third-round pick has battled injuries and has yet to earn the trust of the coaching staff from a mental standpoint.
Unless you draft Ramsey and move him to safety, there doesn’t appear to be a safety in this year’s draft who can bring the type of impact the Ravens are seeking. This could mean another year of hoping an internal option such as Brooks finally emerges as more of a ball-hawking threat.
4. Inside linebacker
Daryl Smith will be 34 and is no guarantee to return, meaning the Ravens should be looking for the inside linebacker of the future next to 2014 Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mosley.
Former undrafted free agent Zach Orr showed solid coverage skills while replacing Smith in the nickel package late last season, but it remains to be seen whether he can be a viable three-down linebacker. And 2013 second-round pick Arthur Brown is more likely to be cut then to suddenly become a starter after three disappointing seasons in Baltimore.
Considering Mosley has struggled in pass coverage, the Ravens would benefit greatly from having another inside linebacker who can stick with running backs or tight ends in routes.
Whether it’s for 2016 or beyond, general manager Ozzie Newsome would probably be wise to be on the lookout for an inside backer with upside in the middle rounds of the draft.