Ranking best veteran bargain signings for 2020 Ravens

June 01, 2020 | Luke Jones

Expectations for the 2020 Ravens couldn’t be higher, but even the best seasons don’t go exactly as planned.

A longtime starter begins to decline more rapidly than anticipated. Promising young players expected to fill prominent roles don’t always take the proverbial step forward. And, of course, some injuries are inevitable. That’s why it’s important to identify some veteran bargains — especially when you’re tight against the salary cap as the Ravens often are — to fill rotational roles and to serve as insurance behind higher-priced starters or unproven youngsters.

Prior to the 2012 Super Bowl season, Baltimore signed former Chicago Bears cornerback Corey Graham to a two-year, $3.95 million contract primarily for his special-teams prowess after the relative unknown had started just 10 games in his first five NFL seasons. Beginning the year fourth on the cornerback depth chart, Graham played only seven defensive snaps over the first five games before a season-ending injury to Lardarius Webb and the multi-week absence of Jimmy Smith propelled him to the starting lineup for the second half of the season. The 27-year-old was Baltimore’s top cornerback down the stretch and intercepted two Peyton Manning passes — returning one for a touchdown — in the epic divisional-round double-overtime win at Denver.

You just never know.

Considering positional value and the depth at different spots on either side of the ball, I’ve ranked the veteran bargains (making less than $2 million in 2020 and not on a rookie contract) signed or re-signed by general manager Eric DeCosta this offseason:

1. G D.J. Fluker
2020 base salary/cap number: $1.05 million/$775,000 (veteran salary benefit)
Outlook: Ideally, one of several first- or second-year candidates with long-term upside would emphatically move to the front of the line to replace retired eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, but offensive line development is tricky even without a pandemic wiping out the normal spring workout program. That’s why the addition of the 29-year-old Fluker and his 88 career starts was a smart investment to raise the position’s floor at just 0.4 percent of the total salary cap for 2020. Pro Football Focus graded him just 51st among qualified guards last season, but his past experience working with offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris in San Diego made this signing even more logical.

2. OLB Pernell McPhee
2020 base salary/cap number: $1.05 million/$887,500 (veteran salary benefit)
Outlook: A triceps tear in Week 7 derailed what had been a renaissance for the 31-year-old, who still finished tied for third on the team with three sacks and tied for fifth in quarterback hits with six in just seven games. Even better than his pass-rush contributions was his ability to set the edge as PFF graded him the best run defender among the Ravens’ edge players. Averaging a career-high number of snaps per game prior to the injury, McPhee should be in more of a situational role at this point in his career, but that could hinge on the development of second-year outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson.

3. OLB Jihad Ward
2020 base salary/cap number: $910,000/$887,500 (veteran salary benefit)
Outlook: Much like McPhee, Ward showed the ability to effectively set the edge and line up at multiple spots along the defensive front, earning praise from coaches and teammates after his October arrival. Those comments prompted some to expect the 26-year-old to see more interest in free agency, but the Ravens were able to keep him around at outside linebacker and as a situational inside rusher. McPhee is the more proven player, but youth is on Ward’s side to fill a bigger role if necessary.

4. DB Anthony Levine
2020 base salary/cap number: $1.675 million/$1.1875 million (four-year qualifying player)
Outlook: The 33-year-old saw his role diminish in the second half of 2019, but the longtime dime back has the versatility coaches like in this age of increasing “positionless” defense. He may no longer play 250-plus defensive snaps per season like he did from 2017-18, but Levine’s leadership and ability on special teams alone justify the signing for a team that struggled some in that area down the stretch last year. How he still might fit into Wink Martindale’s various packages remains to be seen.

5. DT Justin Ellis
2020 base salary/cap number: $910,000/$887,500 (veteran salary benefit)
Outlook: The selections of Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington in April’s draft added young depth to the defensive line, but the unproven Daylon Mack is the only other notable backup to starting nose tackle Brandon Williams, making the Ellis re-signing more important with the free-agent departure of Michael Pierce. Upon arriving last November, Ellis, 29, didn’t play much, but he graded out favorably when he saw action in the defensive line rotation.

Other veteran value signings this offseason: WR Chris Moore, WR De’Anthony Thomas, OT Andre Smith, ILB Jake Ryan
Outlook: 
Moore remains one of the better special-teams players on the team while Thomas will compete for the return specialist role he held late last season. Smith’s career has been in a steady decline for a few years now, but the lack of depth behind Pro Bowl offensive tackles Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. makes him someone to monitor this summer. Ryan’s roster chances looked promising until the selections of inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison in April’s draft.