The man replaced by Za’Darius Smith four years ago is returning to the Ravens to try to reclaim that again-vacated spot.
Veteran pass rusher Pernell McPhee will return to the team which which he won a Super Bowl and played the first four seasons of his NFL career. The 30-year-old is expected to sign a one-year deal to add more competition and depth to an inexperienced group of outside linebackers needing to replace Smith and potential future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs, who both departed as free agents.
McPhee played in 13 games for Washington last season, collecting 11 tackles (three for a loss), eight quarterback hits, two passes defensed, and no sacks in 204 defensive snaps. He spent the previous three seasons with Chicago, who signed the 6-foot-3, 265-pound pass rusher to a five-year, $38.75 million contract in 2015. Prior to playing against the Ravens for the first time in 2017, McPhee acknowledged being disappointed then-general manager Ozzie Newsome didn’t try to re-sign him after he recorded 7 1/2 sacks in his career-best 2014 season.
“It was still in my system — being a Raven, playing like a Raven,” said McPhee, who played in eight postseason games with Baltimore. “That’s how I was bred into this NFL world. That was my birth, just playing like a Raven, being a Raven. Not getting an offer from them, it hurt. But I will always salute Ozzie and coach [John] Harbaugh for giving me the opportunity to be a Raven.”
Knee and shoulder injuries prevented McPhee from living up to the expectations of that monster contract with the Bears as he recorded just 14 sacks in 36 games and was released after the 2017 season.
The 2011 fifth-round pick from Mississippi State was at his best with the Ravens as the coaching staff limited his snaps to keep him healthy and productive. He registered a total of 17 sacks as a situational rusher and played all 16 games in three of those four seasons.
With fourth-year veteran Matthew Judon projected to start at one outside linebacker spot, McPhee will compete with 2017 draft picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams and 2019 third-round rookie Jaylon Ferguson for playing time in the pass-rush rotation. The veteran’s ability to rush from inside and outside positions could give him an edge in securing a roster spot.
Even if McPhee isn’t an ironclad lock to make the 53-man roster after the worst statistical season of his career, his arrival should put more pressure on the likes of Bowser and Williams, who have been disappointments through their first two seasons.
With veteran pass rusher and free-agent target Ezekiel Ansah joining Seattle last week, the Ravens defense faces a likely reality with organized team activities set to begin next week.
Barring something completely unforeseen, general manager Eric DeCosta probably isn’t upgrading the current group of pass rushers to a substantial degree. That’s not to say a veteran won’t still be added to the mix as former Los Angeles Ram Matt Longacre reportedly visited the Ravens Monday, but the quality of edge defenders still on the market isn’t dramatically different from the in-house options behind veteran Matt Judon that include third-round rookie Jaylon Ferguson and 2017 Day 2 picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams.
It’s not as though DeCosta hasn’t tried to add a veteran pass rusher after the departures of 2018 sacks leader Za’Darius Smith and the franchise’s all-time sacks leader in Terrell Suggs, but the short-term contracts given to Ansah and Justin Houston — who signed with Indianapolis — were a bit rich for a team trying to maintain an optimal salary-cap situation for 2020 and beyond. Few would argue with the decisions not to pay Smith and Suggs what they ultimately received from their new teams, but the defense is still losing just over 40 percent of its sack production from last year when you include the two combined sacks from fellow departures C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, and Brent Urban.
Of course, DeCosta hasn’t just stood pat defensively after losing those key players as his first major free-agent signing as general manager was six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas to a four-year, $55 million contract. Injuries limited the 30-year-old to just 29 games in his final three seasons with the Seahawks, but Thomas represents a substantial upgrade — at least on paper — from the 34-year-old Weddle, who was using his intellect to overcome his physical limitations more than ever last season.
That upgrade to a secondary already viewed as one of the NFL’s best and the current concerns about the pass rush spark a fascinating question, one the football analytics community has debated at length in recent years.
Which is more valuable: coverage or pass rush?
The phrase “you win in the trenches” being drilled into ours heads for decades may have you laughing at the very notion of pass coverage being more important than pressure, but that’s a growing stance in today’s pass-happy NFL in which quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball more quickly and teams are using more play-action calls to neutralize defensive fronts. To be clear, pressure remains very important as the two feed off each other — you want both in a perfect world — but an edge rusher getting stonewalled by an offensive tackle typically brings less potential consequence than a defensive back faltering for even a fraction of a second in coverage on a given pass play.
Asked about which was more precious earlier this offseason, head coach John Harbaugh offered an answer seemingly agreeing with the analytics community’s position of coverage being more valuable than pass rush. It reflects Baltimore’s greatest defensive strength going into OTAs.
“I think coverage in the back end because I think you can create pressure,” Harbaugh said at the league meetings in March. “Pressure breaks pipes. You don’t have to be a one-dimensional, one pass-rush type guy. But the more good pass rushers you put into a pressure scheme, obviously, the better off you’re going to be. And you have more options. You can rush four, you can rush three. You can rush different people.
“I do believe you have to cover people in this league, but I can go the other way if you really squeeze me on it. But I don’t like not being able to cover people in all honesty. Maybe that’s just my own bias — I played defensive back a little, coached it. I really do believe you have to be able to cover people.”
It’s not as though the Ravens don’t desire good pass rushers, but they’ve made quality and depth in the secondary a priority over these last few years. After enduring draft disappointments Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks and underwhelming “value” signings in the three seasons following Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore has awarded big contracts to safeties in three of the last four offseasons. Last month also marked the fifth consecutive year in which the Ravens drafted a cornerback in the fourth round or earlier, creating a talent pipeline to avoid a repeat of 2014 when street free agent Rashaan Melvin was starting playoff games due to the lack of secondary depth entering that campaign. The recent investment of draft capital in cornerbacks coincided with signing veteran Brandon Carr to a four-year, $24 million contract two years ago and making Tavon Young the highest-paid slot cornerback in the NFL in February.
Perhaps the best indication of their current philosophy is the Ravens retaining cornerback Jimmy Smith despite having two other starting-caliber — and cheaper — cornerbacks in Marlon Humphrey and Carr and talented young options behind them. Smith will turn 31 in July and carries the highest 2019 cap number on the team at $15.85 million, which led many to view him as a likely cap casualty this offseason. Injuries and suspensions have limited him to 12 or fewer games in six of his eight NFL seasons and he was coming off an uneven 2018, but Baltimore has expressed little apparent interest in compromising its deep depth in the secondary, even if the $9.5 million saved by releasing Smith could have helped land a free-agent pass rusher like Houston or Ansah.
It remains to be seen how the pass rush fares without Za’Darius Smith and Suggs, whose combined 150 career sacks are more than twice as many as the 64 career takedowns produced by the entire current roster. Does a secondary potentially better than last year force opposing quarterbacks to hold the ball longer to create more pressure and sack opportunities for young rushers? Does the potential lack of pressure from inexperienced edge defenders cause more coverage breakdowns than we witnessed last year? Or, as Harbaugh suggested, are the Ravens confident in their ability to scheme pressure — as defensive coordinator Wink Martindale did last year — as long as the secondary performs at a high level?
The Ravens are pretty clearly betting on the coverage side of the give-take relationship, which should provide an interesting case study in the overall debate. Baltimore is depending on that philosophy minimizing what some fear could be a substantial drop-off on the defensive side of the ball.
John Harbaugh wasn’t using coach speak when discussing Ravens outside linebackers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams at the league meetings in Arizona this past week.
Sure, this is the time of year NFL coaches tend to talk up even the least deserving of young players with meaningful games still months away. But when a team has lost its 2018 sacks leader (Za’Darius Smith) as well as a potential future Hall of Famer who recorded nearly twice as many quarterback takedowns as anyone else in franchise history (Terrell Suggs) and hasn’t replaced either a few weeks into free agency, the in-house candidates to replace them become more prominent.
A veteran could still fall into Baltimore’s lap and perhaps a high-impact prospect will be sitting on the board when Eric DeCosta makes his first draft pick as general manager next month, but the odds suggest at least one of Bowser and Williams must take a meaningful step forward if the Ravens don’t want their pass rush to fall off a cliff in 2019. You can only ask so much of incumbent starting outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who is also scheduled to become a free agent next winter.
“The two young guys, Tyus and Timmy, need to step up. It’s their job to do that,” Harbaugh said. “They’re very committed to doing it. I’ve talked to both of them. Both are excited about their opportunities. They have it, and let’s roll. Then, whatever young guys we add or if someone gets added as a veteran — there’s a possibility of that still — we’ll just see.”
Bowser and Williams were drafted two years ago for this very scenario with Suggs no longer in the picture, but their development has been a source of disappointment with neither having played more than 162 defensive snaps in a season. The optimist would point to the lack of opportunities behind Suggs, Judon, and Smith — a trio who combined to register 22 1/2 sacks last season — as the reason for Bowser and Williams accomplishing so little to this point. But defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s propensity for rotating players at every level of the defense and the 36-year-old Suggs registering only 1 1/2 sacks after Week 7 make it difficult to believe the Ravens wouldn’t have preferred keeping the seven-time Pro Bowl selection on more of a pitch count if Bowser or Williams were deemed ready.
Williams, a 2017 third-round pick from Alabama, was active for just eight games as a rookie, but he showed promise last preseason with 2 1/2 sacks and collected two more over the first four regular-season games before sustaining a minor hamstring injury. The 25-year-old appeared in just three more games before hurting his ankle and being inactive for the final nine contests, which included the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. The ankle injury wasn’t the only problem, however, as the rush specialist struggled to maintain his playing weight and seemingly fell out of favor with the coaching staff as Harbaugh bluntly stated in Week 16 the need for a healthy Williams to be one of the best 46 players in order to be active. Another obstacle has been Williams’ inability to make an impact in other ways as he’s taken part in just 60 plays on special teams in two seasons.
Bowser’s inability to carve out a meaningful role in the rotation is more curious since the 2017 second-round pick from Houston is more versatile than Williams and has been active for all but one game in two seasons, playing extensively on special teams. The 23-year-old seemed on his way to a successful rookie season when he registered a sack and an interception in his second NFL game, a 35-snap performance that earned him the NFL’s rookie of the week award. The problem is Bowser followed that with a poor eight-snap showing the following week in the Ravens’ ugly loss in London, giving up a touchdown pass in coverage and failing to set the edge on several runs. Bowser has been chasing playing time ever since, seeing more than 15 defensive snaps in a game just four times since Week 2 of 2017 and rarely distinguishing himself when he’s been on the field.
The urgency is high with both as they enter their third season in Baltimore, but neither should be written off because of the lackluster start to their careers. Former second-round pick Paul Kruger recorded one sack and appeared in only 20 games — special teams being a substantial reason why — in his first two years before registering 14 1/2 quarterback takedowns over the next two seasons to fetch a $40 million contract with Cleveland after Super Bowl XLVII. Both Smith and Pernell McPhee were inconsistent over their first few seasons before ultimately breaking out in their contrast year and cashing in as free agents.
On the other hand, Baltimore gave up on 2016 Day 2 picks Kamalei Correa and Bronson Kaufusi after two disappointing seasons, meaning Bowser or Williams shouldn’t assume anything despite the current lack of depth at the position.
Yes, DeCosta still has the time and resources to add more competition at outside linebacker, but the Ravens have other needs and there is no guarantee the right veteran will shake free or a rookie pass rusher selected in even the first round will be ready to make an immediate impact. The Ravens’ best chance of keeping their pass rush on the right track in 2019 is getting an appropriate return on the investments made in Bowser and Williams.
Few young players on the roster should be feeling more pressure this spring and summer.
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The Ravens’ roster has undergone massive changes in the last month.
Four of their top seven defensive players in terms of snaps played last season are gone, a group that accounted for nearly 40 percent of their sack total. Two of their top three wide receivers are no longer in the picture, leaving just two wide receivers on the current roster who have caught an NFL pass.
Of course, general manager Eric DeCosta hasn’t just been sitting on his hands, signing six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas to upgrade from highly-respected veteran Eric Weddle and adding two-time Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram to a ground attack that was already the best in the NFL in the second half of 2018. The Ravens also signed veteran cornerback Justin Bethel to enhance the special-teams units that will undoubtedly miss longtime coordinator Jerry Rosburg, whose pending retirement might be the most underrated loss of the offseason.
Understanding the start of the 2019 regular season is still more than five months away, which of the Ravens’ positional groups require the most work and carry the most concern right now? Some value free agents remain and Baltimore has enough cap space to make another notable signing or two, but going into the draft with multiple needs usually leaves an organization in danger of either reaching in lieu of maximizing value or being left out at a key position or two altogether.
Which positions do the Ravens want to upgrade, need to address, or desperately must improve between now and the start of the season?
Backup quarterback – NEED
Starter Lamar Jackson is the only quarterback currently on the roster as the Ravens have yet to strike a deal with Robert Griffin III to return. It’s difficult to feel good about anyone replacing Jackson’s unique skill set for an extended stretch of time in an offense being specifically built for the 22-year-old, but Griffin would certainly fit better than most quarterbacks out there. Perhaps more important than the system fit is Griffin’s presence as a mentor as it was no secret the two hit it off last season. Ultimately, we’re still talking about a very young quarterback here who can benefit from an experienced veteran. Josh Johnson could be a backup to the backup plan, but it’s difficult to find too many logical fits for the job in terms of both playing style and intangibles.
Edge defender/outside linebacker – DESPERATE
The short-term and long-term outlooks at this position are very concerning with Matthew Judon being the only proven commodity and scheduled to hit the open market himself next offseason. Expectations were high for 2017 second-round pick Tyus Bowser and 2017 third-round pick Tim Williams when they were drafted, but they’ve been non-factors in their first two seasons. Sure, the presence of Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith cut into potential opportunities, but the Ravens would have loved nothing more than to put the aging Suggs on more of a pitch count these last two seasons, making this a critical year for Bowser and Williams. With Smith receiving a big payday in Green Bay, the Ravens also lost his versatility to rush the passer from the inside, another issue needing to be addressed. Free agents such as Justin Houston and Ezekiel Ansah are still available, but DeCosta very much needs to add a veteran and draft a pass rusher to adequately address the void here.
Interior offensive line – WANT
Make no mistake, the Ravens would benefit greatly from finding at least one upgrade at guard or center, especially with seven-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda entering the final year of his contract and turning 35 in September. However, the Ravens had the NFL’s best running game over the final two months of last season and finished 10th in Pro Football Focus’ end-of-year offensive line rankings and eighth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate. With a full offseason for recovery and improvement, the Ravens finding a solid left guard out of the trio of James Hurst, Alex Lewis, and Bradley Bozeman isn’t unreasonable and Matt Skura improving in his second full season at center isn’t out of the question. Baltimore will have the option to use the same Week 1 starting offensive line in consecutive years for the first time since 2014 and 2015. An upgrade or two would be great, but don’t dismiss the value of continuity along the offensive line.
Inside linebacker – NEED
Regardless of your feelings on C.J. Mosley’s true worth or ability, you don’t lose a four-time Pro Bowl selection in his prime without having significant questions about replacing him. Patrick Onwuasor emerged late last season and Kenny Young flashed in his 369 defensive snaps as a rookie, but the two played in a platoon — along with dime back Anthony Levine — that enhanced their strengths and masked their weaknesses. The Ravens might be able to get by with Onwuasor and Young in starting roles, but it would certainly deviate from the value they’ve put on the inside linebacker position historically. DeCosta could still look to sign a veteran such as Zach Brown or Brandon Marshall, but it’d be surprising if the Ravens aren’t at least aiming to add an inside linebacker in the first three or four rounds of the draft.
Wide receiver – DESPERATE
With apologies to the solid Willie Snead and special-teams standout Chris Moore, you’d have a difficult time arguing against this current group of wide receivers being the worst in the NFL on paper. Yes, I know the Ravens want to run the ball and arguably value tight ends more than anyone in the league, but that won’t help as much when facing a strong run defense, falling behind multiple scores, or trailing late in games. There’s also the question of Jackson’s development and wanting to maximize the return on that investment for the long haul, something that will be easier to do with a standout wide receiver at his disposal. The problem is this wasn’t a particularly good free-agent class of wide receivers to begin with and most of the top names have already come off the board with options like Dontrelle Inman not getting anyone excited. Like at outside linebacker, the best course of action appears to be adding a veteran and using some meaningful draft capital — not late-round fliers — for a receiver or two. No matter what happens, it’s tough envisioning this position not being a concern going into the season, but that’s hardly unfamiliar territory.
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2. Adding 29-year-old Mark Ingram made less sense if 2019 were shaping up to be more of a transition year with an eye toward the future, but he’s a well-rounded upgrade and has lower mileage as a timeshare back. His pass protection is also an upgrade over incumbents. Solid signing.
3. Ingram’s perception suffers from an “Alvin Kamara effect” as well as the infatuation some had with signing Le’Veon Bell, but he ranks first in yards per carry (4.71) and fourth in yards after contact per attempt (2.90) among backs with 550 carries since 2014, per Pro Football Focus. He’ll help.
4. Talent and on-field production are paramount, but I couldn’t help but think Ingram’s reputation in New Orleans and Earl Thomas’ winning pedigree in Seattle carry extra weight with the level of experience and leadership leaving Owings Mills this offseason.
5. The Thomas signing certainly reinforced Baltimore’s philosophy at safety after the organization failed with early draft picks and “value” signings early in the post-Ed Reed era. The Ravens have now given out a safety contract of $26 million or more in three of the last four offseasons.
6. Those with a longer-term viewpoint may not have cared for Eric DeCosta forgoing potential third- and fifth-round compensatory picks to sign Thomas and Ingram, but you can’t hold yourself prisoner to what still amounts to lower-percentage draft choices if the right free agent is available. There’s a middle road.
7. An optimistic outlook would say Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams haven’t had enough snaps to show what they can do, but coaches would have loved to have eased Suggs’ workload last year if either were deemed worthy. Either way, these 2017 draft picks have much to prove.
8. Adding a pass rusher or two must be a top priority for a front seven that’s endured substantial losses. That said, I think a great secondary carries more value in today’s game with more quick-drop passing and run-pass options that can really neutralize edge pressure.
9. More snaps are in order for the 2018 platoon of Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young, but a Daryl Smith-like stopgap would make me feel better about inside linebacker rather than expecting both to fill a full-time role without a hitch. We’ll found out how much Baltimore will miss C.J. Mosley.
10. Matt Skura received an additional $533,558 — a league high — in 2018 performance-based pay, a collectively-bargained program that compensates players based upon their playing time relative to salary levels. Making a $555,000 salary last year, Skura has provided good value making 28 starts the last two seasons.
11. Wink Martindale deserves much credit for last year’s defensive success, but losing Eric Weddle, Suggs, and Mosley will challenge the coordinator who gave those veterans so much freedom to make modifications before the snap. Thomas’ arrival helps, but there will certainly be an adjustment.
12. How does a Sunday night or Monday matchup of Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., and the Cleveland passing game against Thomas, Marlon Humphrey, and the Baltimore secondary sound? Dismissing Pittsburgh would be very unwise, but Ravens-Browns sounds pretty darn interesting now.
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Following the departures of three former Pro Bowl players and their 2018 sack leader in the last week, the Ravens were looking like a defense in the midst of an unsettling youth movement.
That perception changed dramatically with an agreement to sign six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas to a four-year, $55 million contract with $32 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The former Seattle Seahawk not only replaces veteran Eric Weddle at free safety, but he provides Baltimore a ball-hawking presence for the first time since the days of Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed patrolling the secondary.
After holding out for the entire 2018 preseason over a contract dispute, the 29-year-old Thomas appeared in only four games last year before suffering a season-ending broken lower leg. However, his play-making ability was still evident despite missing all of training camp as he intercepted three passes, which would have led the Ravens defense for the entire season.
Thomas also missed the final five games of the 2016 season with a broken tibia.
Part of the “Legion of Boom” secondary that helped lead the Seahawks to a Super Bowl championship and an appearance in another, Thomas has recorded 28 interceptions and 68 pass breakups in 125 career games. The only seasons in which the 2010 first-round pick from Texas has missed the Pro Bowl since his rookie year were his injury-shortened campaigns in two of the last three years as he’s been regarded as the consensus best free safety in the NFL since the final years of Reed’s brilliant career.
Thomas’ impressive range will afford defensive coordinator Wink Martindale the flexibility to call more single-high safety looks, something the Ravens had to be careful in using with a less athletic Weddle at the position. Such an alignment plays to the strengths of strong safety Tony Jefferson, who is better playing closer to the line of scrimmage where he can stop the run and blitz in certain situations.
Much work remains to be done on the front seven after the departures of four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, seven-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker and potential future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs, and rush specialist Za’Darius Smith. However, the secondary is shaping up to be even better than it was a year ago with Thomas and Jefferson at safety, the trio of Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, and Jimmy Smith at outside cornerback, and slot cornerback Tavon Young.
The reported signings of Thomas and two-time Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram on Wednesday certainly lifted the spirits of Ravens supporters who had seen those four defensive departures — as well as starting wide receiver John Brown — sign elsewhere. The exodus was enough to make many wonder if Baltimore was even entering a rebuilding period to better position itself for future seasons by preserving salary cap space and 2020 compensatory picks, but signing one of the NFL’s best defensive players over the last decade was a clear sign that expectations remain high for the coming season.
The truth is DeCosta made difficult decisions that may still hurt the Ravens in the short term. There’s no losing such a high level of leadership, football intellect, and institutional knowledge from Suggs and Weddle without there being some void, even with the latter being replaced by a better individual player. Mosley and Smith ultimately received more money than Baltimore was willing to pay, but you don’t just brush off losing one of the NFL’s best inside linebackers and the team’s best pass rusher without preparing for potential growing pains. The organization expected to keep Suggs and tried to retain Mosley, so it would be silly to dismiss those departures as no big deal when the Ravens certainly didn’t feel that way.
At the same time, it was no secret the second half of last season brought the awkward juxtaposition of the start of the Lamar Jackson era and the potential last ride for several veterans and players in the final year of their contract. In his first offseason as general manager, DeCosta had the salary cap space to keep both Weddle and Suggs around for one more run, but what were the odds they would even maintain their 2018 level of play at their respective ages? The Ravens certainly could have been more proactive in signing Mosley to a extension — and could have even used the franchise tag — long before the New York Jets made him an $85 million offer on Monday, but DeCosta understood the risks of allowing it to get to that point.
And let’s not forget the Ravens own only one playoff victory in the last six years. Beyond the understandable sentimentality and appreciation fans felt for one of the franchise’s all-time greats in Suggs. DeCosta wasn’t exactly busting up a Super Bowl team in the same way Ozzie Newsome had in 2002 and 2013.
The 2018 defense was greater than the sum of its parts, but duplicating that same degree of on-field success with the status quo would have been difficult, especially with Smith’s departure that was always expected. Thomas’ arrival not only helps fill a leadership void, but he brings greater play-making ability in the secondary.
And while he and Ingram alone do not guarantee improved chances of winning a Super Bowl than a year ago, they are the first additions of an offseason more intriguing than anything we’ve seen from the Ravens in several years.
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With the Ravens preparing and bracing for the start of NFL free agency next week, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. The re-signing of Nick Boyle even after Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews were selected early in last year’s draft signals how important tight ends will remain despite much chatter about the redesign of the Baltimore offense. Expect an abundance of “12” personnel to continue.
2. The Ravens were able to keep Boyle off the market so close to free agency and reports suggested there being much interest in his services, but I’m still not convinced another team would have made him a top-15 tight end in terms of average annual value. He wasn’t cheap.
3. Boyle deserves credit for bouncing back from two performance-enhancing drug suspensions to establish himself as a legitimate NFL player. He was on shaky footing just a couple years ago before maximizing opportunities that might not have been there without injuries to others.
4. Opinions remain split on the lengths to go to keep C.J. Mosley — I’m torn myself — but saying he shouldn’t make as much as Luke Kuechly’s $12.359 million average annual value ignores his deal being nearly four years old and the salary cap increasing by over 31 percent since 2015.
5. I have little doubt Eric DeCosta will find a replacement for Eric Weddle with superior physical tools and the potential to offer better individual play, but accounting for his football intellect and how it impacted the defense will be difficult, especially if there are other veteran departures.
6. I’ll continue to bang the drum about the wide receiver position — shocking, I know — but it’s hard to be encouraged by the list of projected free agents and the salaries they’ll likely command. Hey, Ryan Grant is available again.
7. Terrell Suggs hitting the market wouldn’t be a bad thing for him or the Ravens. Either he’ll gain peace of mind before re-signing or be able to choose between more money and extending his legacy in Baltimore. My guess is this turns out more like Ray Lewis than Ed Reed.
8. With Weddle’s release to save $7.5 million in salary cap space, the Ravens probably have enough room to not be forced to do anything with Jimmy Smith before the market opens. His $15.85 million cap figure remains problematic, but DeCosta has options that could even stretch into the spring.
9. As DeMarcus Lawrence, Frank Clark, Jadeveon Clowney, and Dee Ford all received the franchise tag, I couldn’t help but think of Za’Darius Smith with dollar signs in his eyes.
10. DeCosta lamenting young players lost in recent years gained attention, but who are all these individuals? Kelechi Osemele comes to mind and maybe Rick Wagner, but who else based on the contracts they received elsewhere? I’d contest the shortage of young players warranting a second deal was the bigger problem.
11. There’s plenty of intrigue with the Ravens’ offseason, but I can’t help but be fascinated by Pittsburgh’s current turmoil and Cleveland coming off a seven-win season and sporting over $80 million in cap space. The AFC North could look very different this coming season.
12. Boyle’s new contract was positive news worthy of recognition, but omitting his name in the release announcing the press conference led to negative reaction when fans later learned it wasn’t a bigger name like Mosley. That wasn’t fair to Boyle and could have been avoided by just being direct.
With Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta and head coach John Harbaugh answering questions at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. If you had simply read the transcript, DeCosta sounded very similar to Ozzie Newsome speaking at his first combine as the general manager, which isn’t surprising as few executives and coaches tip their hands with free agency two weeks away.
2. The balance between keeping as much of the defense together as possible and building a stronger offense continues to strike me as a difficult task, especially factoring the age of some key defensive players. This is what happens when trying to rebuild on the fly.
3. DeCosta expressed pride inthe Ravens’ identity being built on defense historically and stated a desire to continue that tradition. It’s understandable, but Baltimore continuing that philosophy has netted one playoff win since Ray Lewis and Ed Reed suited up for the final time.
4. Harbaugh expects Marshal Yanda to continue playing, which is great news for an offensive line that could already stand to improve inside. The seven-time Pro Bowl guard is entering the final year of his contract and probably could play at a high level longer than that if he wants.
5. While dancing around questions about Eric Weddle and Jimmy Smith, DeCosta said he expects Brandon Carr to return, which could be bad news for Smith and his $15.85 million cap number. Carr is older, but he’s cheaper, more durable, and coming off a more consistent season than Smith.
6. DeCosta didn’t completely dismiss the possibility of using the franchise tag on C.J. Mosley, but he made it clear a long-term deal remains the goal with talks “ongoing” and expected to continue with agent Jimmy Sexton in Indianapolis. This figures to be a critical week on that front.
7. The Ravens brass being complimentary of John Brown wasn’t surprising, but I remain skeptical there’s a great fit there — from his perspective — in terms of price tag and offensive philosophy. Either way, he should do well in what appears to be an underwhelming free-agent market for wide receivers.
8. Terrell Suggs stated his intentions months ago to continue playing in 2019, but talks will be delicate in trying to be realistic about the 36-year-old’s current value without insulting someone who’s been so critical to the organization. You hope something can be worked out that makes sense for both sides.
9. Harbaugh praised the inside-outside versatility and intensity of Za’Darius Smith, but the lack of discussion about Baltimore’s 2018 sack leader reflects how few expect him to return. His market should be interesting, especially if a few other free-agent pass rushers indeed receive the franchise tag.
10. DeCosta summed up his thoughts on Lamar Jackson’s rushing ability by saying, “We certainly want to keep him healthy, but we also want to win and … score points.” The keys are his passing development and adding enough talent to diminish the need for him to run 15-plus times per game.
11. Harbaugh acknowledged the organization’s need to draft and develop wide receivers more effectively while DeCosta said, “We’ve got to add playmakers.” Yes.
12. Counting the Joe Flacco trade and the Michael Crabtree release, the Ravens are already dealing with nearly $22 million in dead money on this year’s salary cap. With another big release or two still very possible, that figure is shaping up to be their largest amount since 2015.
The Ravens returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, but where did their players stack up across the NFL in 2018?
Whether it’s discussing the Pro Bowl or determining postseason awards, media and fans spend much time debating where players rank at each position, but few watch every player on every team extensively enough to form any type of an authoritative opinion.
Truthfully, how many times did you watch the offensive line of the Detroit Lions this season? What about the Oakland Raiders linebackers or the San Francisco 49ers cornerbacks?
That’s why I appreciate the grading efforts of Pro Football Focus while acknowledging these rankings shouldn’t be viewed as infallible or the gospel of evaluation. I can respect the exhaustive effort to grade players across the league when most of us watch only one team or one division on any kind of a consistent basis.
Below is a look at where Ravens linebackers ranked at their positions followed by the positional outlook going into 2019:
Terrell Suggs 2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 744 PFF ranking: 36th among edge defenders Skinny: The 36-year-old appeared on his way to another double-digit sack season with 5 1/2 through the first seven games, but he slowed considerably with just 1 1/2 the rest of the way. Suggs remains a solid player, but his price tag as a free agent will likely determine whether he stays a Raven.
C.J. Mosley 2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 875 PFF ranking: 22nd among linebackers Skinny: His PFF grade didn’t align with a fourth trip to the Pro Bowl in five years, but Mosley remains one of the NFL’s top inside linebackers. Eric DeCosta has made it clear retaining him is a top priority, but are the Ravens willing to potentially have to pay Mosley upwards of $14 million per season?
Matthew Judon 2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 674 PFF ranking: 54th among edge defenders Skinny: Judon never seems to grade favorably in PFF’s eyes, but he’s become a well-rounded starter on the Baltimore defense over the last two seasons and played very well late in the season. The Ravens should at least explore a long-term deal this offseason as Judon is scheduled to hit the market after 2019.
Za’Darius Smith 2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 690 PFF ranking: 33rd among edge defenders Skinny: His steady improvement over the last few years resulted in a breakout campaign as he led the Ravens with 8 1/2 sacks and had PFF’s 15th-best pass-rushing grade. Smith is the kind of free agent who has usually departed in the past, but does the lack of an heir apparent for Suggs force Baltimore’s hand?
Patrick Onwuasor 2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 434 PFF ranking: 40th among linebackers Skinny: Most expected Onwuasor to lose his starting job in favor of rookie Kenny Young, but the former was one of the defense’s best players down the stretch. The former undrafted linebacker is a restricted free agent and will likely receive a second-round tender to keep other teams from pursuing his services.
Kenny Young 2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 369 PFF ranking: 67th among linebackers Skinny: The fourth-round pick appeared to hit the rookie wall as the season progressed, but he still contributed and has flashed enough upside to become a legitimate starter in the future. Young needs to improve in coverage and to play faster in general, but much of that will come with more experience.
Tyus Bowser 2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 162 PFF ranking: n/a Skinny: The 2017 second-round pick managed to play only one more defensive snap than he did as a rookie and hasn’t established himself as anything more than a special-teams player. Opportunities will remain in 2019, but time is running out for Bowser to avoid being Baltimore’s latest second-round bust.
Tim Williams 2018 defensive snap count (including postseason): 119 PFF ranking: n/a Skinny: The 2017 third-round pick appeared to be establishing himself as a situational pass rusher with two sacks over the first four games before he hurt his ankle and fell out of favor in the second half of the season. Like with Bowser, the clock is ticking on Williams, who wasn’t active again after Week 8.
Chris Board 2018 offensive snap count (including postseason): 14 PFF ranking: n/a Skinny: The rookie free agent from North Dakota State was one of the feel-good stories of the preseason and essentially replaced former special-teams pillar Albert McClellan. Board will now try to develop into a versatile depth option at linebacker in addition to maintaining his prominent role on special teams.
2019 positional outlook
No position group holds as much potential volatility right now as you can envision plausible scenarios for the Ravens keeping or losing any of Mosley, Suggs, and Smith. How DeCosta proceeds at this position will be fascinating when considering the other needs on each side of the ball, but you wouldn’t expect Baltimore to allow all three free agents to exit with so many unproven options waiting in the wings. Regardless of what happens with Suggs or Smith, the Ravens need to be looking for another edge rusher in this year’s draft because of the lack of progress from Bowser and Williams. Of course, Mosley accepting a lucrative payday elsewhere would instantly move inside linebacker up the list of positional needs.
With John Harbaugh meeting with the media on Friday after signing his new four-year contract, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. Harbaugh confirmed his role hasn’t changed in terms of roster input, noting how the organization’s brass works together and has never operated with a silo mentality. The thought of Steve Bisciotti suddenly moving the goalposts as Eric DeCosta finally gets his chance as general manager never made much sense.
2. Lamar Jackson plans to throw with his receivers, but Harbaugh avoided specifics when asked if Jackson planned to work with a quarterback guru or coach before the offseason program. He does expect Jackson to work hard and “come back a better quarterback, skill-wise, than he was when he left.”
3. The possibility remains of adding an outside assistant to specialize in the passing game, but Harbaugh made clear not to shortchange Greg Roman’s knowledge in that area. One difference with his time as San Francisco’s coordinator, however, was the presence of Jim Harbaugh, who spent 15 years as an NFL quarterback.
4. Asked which position groups he’d like to improve, Harbaugh said what the Ravens “don’t want to do is take any steps back” and have to play catch-up. With tough roster decisions on the defensive side, however, they may need to give a little there to grow this offense meaningfully.
5. Any discussion about Marshal Yanda’s future should only relate to the possibility of him retiring. His $7 million salary and $10.125 million cap figure for 2019 remain more than reasonable for someone who’s still one of the best guards in football going into his 13th season.
6. Harbaugh didn’t want to entertain the possibility of C.J. Mosley departing while noting “there are limitations with the money.” Both sides are interested in a long-term deal, but at what cost? Deals for Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner are four years old, so Mosley will — and should — be aiming higher.
7. It’s only logical that Baltimore would want a backup quarterback with a similar skill set to Jackson with Harbaugh calling Robert Griffin III “a great option” and also alluding to the media speculation about Tyrod Taylor, whose current contract voids a few days after the Super Bowl.
8. Harbaugh said he expects Eric Weddle to return, but the safety backpedaling this week from his previous comments about not playing for any other team but the Ravens in 2019 leads you to believe his $6.5 million salary and $9.25 million cap figure are possible sticking points for DeCosta.
9. I can’t imagine Za’Darius Smith was thrilled about his sports hernia surgery coming to light, but that shouldn’t impact his free-agent market anyway. Tavon Young (sports hernia) and Tony Jefferson (ankle) also had minor procedures. Alex Lewis undergoing another shoulder surgery isn’t encouraging, however.
10. Jimmy Smith wasn’t mentioned during Friday’s press conference, but Harbaugh has long been a strong advocate for the veteran cornerback. Even so, he’ll be 31 in July and is scheduled to make $9.5 million with a $15.85 million cap figure. That’s not tenable with the many other areas to address.
11. The playoff loss wasn’t a big topic of conversation after the long delay with Harbaugh’s season-ending press conference, but the coach reiterated the Ravens were “outplayed” and “outcoached” before vowing next year’s offense will be “very diverse” and built “from the ground up.” It’ll definitely be interesting.
12. Asked about Joe Flacco’s value, Harbaugh said his former quarterback just needs some weapons and pass protection to be “one of the best quarterbacks in the league.” Harbaugh was being complimentary and hasn’t been the general manager, of course, but the irony of those words couldn’t have been thicker.
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