The three-year extension awarded to safety Chuck Clark ensured the Ravens would have their top five defensive backs under team control through at least the 2021 season.
But that doesn’t mean general manager Eric DeCosta can turn all attention toward the defensive line and linebacker groups in need of significant revamping. The numbers suggest Baltimore has at least one more substantial decision to make in its secondary beyond the annual task of adding depth.
A year after using the dime package on 26 percent of defensive snaps, the Ravens had six defensive backs play at least 45 percent of their snaps in each of the eight games following the bye week when Marcus Peters was in the fold and Jimmy Smith was finally back from injury. In other words, the popularity of the dime package only increased while the defense would sometimes go entire games without lining up in a traditional “base” 3-4 alignment. The game is changing with defensive packages and personnel continuing to reflect that.
The Ravens certainly need to address their pass rush and talent level at linebacker, but the overwhelming strength of the defense will remain on the back end, making pending decisions on Smith and Brandon Carr that much more interesting to watch. Though not a dime option himself, Smith is scheduled to become a free agent for the first time in his career. Meanwhile, Carr is scheduled to make $6 million if the Ravens exercise a team option for the 2020 season. Anthony Levine, the man Carr replaced in the dime package midway through the season, is also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.
The only other in-house option for the dime package would appear to be third-year safety DeShon Elliott, who has been limited to just six career games due to injuries despite showing some promise in spring and summer practices.
Baltimore’s preference is maintaining their veteran depth, however.
“We want both those guys back,” said head coach John Harbaugh about Smith and Carr last month. “We’re not going to try to weaken ourselves in the secondary, but we can focus on the front seven. That’s the thing, and we know with our scheme and the way that we get attacked, we know the kind of player that we want.”
Wanting to keep both and actually doing it are different concepts, of course, with other areas to address on both sides of the ball. At face value, many would argue Smith is the better player since he’s two years younger and brings more value as an outside corner whereas Carr is now better suited for the dime safety role he played down the stretch last year. But it’s more complicated than that since we’re no longer talking about an every-down role for either veteran.
Smith will be an unrestricted free agent and is projected by OverTheCap.com to receive a two-year, $16 million deal with $8.5 million guaranteed. That’s substantial money when the Ravens have already awarded Peters and returning slot cornerback Tavon Young with big extensions over the last 12 months and will need to spend lucrative cash to extend No. 1 cornerback Marlon Humphrey in the not-too-distant future. Giving real money to a 32-year-old Smith who’s played all 16 contests just twice in his nine seasons — Carr has never missed a game in his 12-year career — doesn’t sound like the best investment, especially when Smith would be third in the outside corner pecking order and hasn’t shown the positional versatility of Carr over the last couple seasons.
That said, the 2020 price tag for a 34-year-old you’d prefer not to play at outside corner anymore — even in the event of injury — is also expensive. Carr did a respectable job filling in as a nickel corner in parts of the last two seasons, but he found a new fit at safety when the Ravens would slide Clark down to the box in the dime package.
All things equal, Carr could have a more defined role in the dime package while Smith’s real value would come in the event of an injury to one of the top three corners as he could step in for Humphrey or Peters and Humphrey could move to the nickel spot in the event of an injury to Young like we saw last season. Carr’s injury replacement value would likely be limited to safety or the nickel corner position. The Ravens have prioritized secondary depth over the last couple years, but at what cost?
Ultimately, the futures of Smith and Carr will come down to money with the first one to blink having a better chance to return in 2020, but DeCosta will need to add more youth to the secondary in any case. Both veterans have expressed a desire to continue playing for the Ravens, but Smith will probably need to accept a team-friendly deal and Carr might have to take a pay cut to make it happen.
The allure of chasing a Super Bowl could help the Ravens’ efforts with Smith, Carr, or any other veteran option out there.
“I hope my body of work thus far has proven that I can play this game still at a high level, play safety,” Carr said last month. “And I’m still learning. I think I still have some potential left in that position. But I just love to play the game of football, whether it’s safety, nickel, corner, special teams, whatever the case is.
“At this point, I just want to win. It’s been 12 years. I’m just trying to get a ring.”