With a week into free agency, most surmise that the Ravens have gotten off to a good start. Is this true? Have the Ravens truly upgraded last year’s disappointing 8-8 team? They have lost three key players in defensive end Arthur Jones, cornerback Corey Graham, offensive tackle Michael Oher, and safety James Ihedigbo will almost certainly not be resigned.
So what have the Ravens actually accomplished? The start to free agency saw the team focus on retaining its own free agents: offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, middle linebacker Daryl Smith, and wide receiver Jacoby Jones. The good news is that these players address what would have been key needs had these players left for other opportunities. In addition, each of these players was considered to be top-tiered free agent at his position (well, Jones was more of a second tier).
However, one could argue that each of these players was also a key part of last year’s disappointing 8-8 season, for better or worse. What upgrades have the Ravens made to change the outlook of 2014?
Enter Friday’s signing of wide receiver Steve Smith. The Ravens made a “splash” on Friday by signing Smith, who was cut by the Carolina Panthers. Smith is the first new addition to the team, and it is debatable if this is a top-notch signing (read below).
So, if you bring key members back into the fold, lose key members, and only add a soon-to-be 35 year old wide receiver, have you really improved as a team?
Work still needs to be done in free agency before this team can comfortably enter the draft embracing its mantra of “selecting the best player available.”
The Ravens still need to find a veteran free safety, potentially upgrade the center position, add depth at cornerback and the defensive line, and determine whether or not Kelechi Osemele is going to settle in at guard or right tackle.
The resigning of the left tackle was a major coup for general manager Ozzie Newsome and his staff. There was initial fear that Monroe was going to test the free agent market and receive a better offer. As the Dolphins, Cardinals, Buccaneers, and Raiders (before the bungled Rodger Saffold deal) started to commit to other free agents, there seemed to be an opening for Newsome to strike. Monroe’s finesse style didn’t really fit the remaining smash-mouth-style teams looking for tackles, but he did fit the Ravens’ finesse-styled zone blocking scheme. This meant that Monroe’s market was becoming more and more explicitly tailored to the Ravens. The fact that the Ravens signed him for an annual salary of $7.5 million is proof that Newsome understood the market. Monroe brings stability, continuity, and leadership to the team. Monroe was the first domino—without this signing, the Ravens would have been littered with holes along the offensive line.
At the onslaught of free agency, bringing back Daryl Smith seemed like a no-brainer for both player and team. However, the market went askew with the Colts’ signing of D’Qwell Jackson. After back and forth negotiations, the Ravens and Smith settled on a contract that, I think, is slightly higher than the team expected to pay. Yet this was another strong signing in light of what was available on the open market. Smith brings solid knowledge, leadership, and continuity to the defense. His coverage skills are superior, and there is hope that he can regain his run stopping abilities, circa 2011, now that he is a full year removed from hernia injury.
The most curious resigning was bringing back Jacoby Jones; however, the 4-year $14.5 million contract that includes $4.5 million in guaranteed money did not break the bank. Jones brings speed and playmaking abilities on both the outside and on special teams. Reuniting with former coach and now Ravens’ offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak, is a major positive.
Much has been said and written about the signing of wide receiver Steve Smith. To be honest, I have swung back and forth on this signing. There is a lot to like—his toughness, competiveness, leadership (read this if you question Smith’s leadership), and character. But there are things that are puzzling about this signing.
For starters, Smith doesn’t not solve the glaring hole at the slot receiver position. I say that because Smith is not a slot receiver—he usually lines up on the outside. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Smith has averaged only 11 percent of his overall routes from the slot receiver position over the last three seasons. According to PFF, Smith ran 45.5 percent of his routes from the slot in 2010 but had mixed results—his yards per reception were low, and his drop rate was high. Three of the Ravens’ top receivers—Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, and Steve Smith—are most effective when they operate outside the numbers. Does this mean that Smith cannot thrive in the slot? Not necessarily, but let's not miscast him or misrepresent him.
Another troubling thing about this signing is that Smith’s yards after the catch statistics are less than stellar. He YAC totals have dropped from 474 yards (on 79 receptions) in 2011 to 183 yards (on 64 receptions) in 2013.
If Ravens draft a wide receiver, and they should absolutely still target one in the first two rounds, will Smith’s presence help or stunt the development of the wide receiving corps? This is a valid question with the possible glut of receiving options once the draft is completed.
The Ravens still need to focus on another receiving threat in the 2014 draft. Smith’s signing should not delay efforts to fill that need. In addition, if they do draft a receiver, you have to hope that he does not get lost in the glut of receiving options.
Smith will be a nice complementary part on the Ravens’ offense, but he will not solve all of the issues on the offense. Even Smith recognizes his role on the offense. However, he will beat press coverage, make the tough catch, patrol the intermediate territory alongside Dennis Pitta, and bring a much-needed swagger to the offense.
Work Left to Do Before the Draft
The most befuddling lack of urgency has been the Ravens’ handling of the free safety this offseason. Outside of Matt Elam, the current roster contains four other safeties, and I am not comfortable with any one of them starting alongside Elam, nor am I comfortable with the team filling this need with another young player in the draft. Compounding the issue is that options are dwindling in free agency. There are reports that the Ravens are interested in Ryan Clark, and he has held up when in coverage. Chris Clemons is still the target I prefer, as he is younger and he is coming off a strong season. The team should stay away from Thomas DeCoud. Other than Clemons or Clark, I am not sure how the Ravens are going to handle this glaring need.
Guard or Right Tackle
How the Ravens handle this situation may tip their hand on how they handle the draft, and what the outlook of Osemele will be for next year. I have my reservations on moving Osemele to right tackle based on his physical makeup and prior performance at the tackle position. I think he is much better suited for playing guard. If the Ravens keep him at guard, the draft target in rounds one or two could be at tackle where the draft class is deep with talent. There is really not much left on the market at guard or tackle.
Incumbent center Gino Gradkowski may still develop into a better player than he showed last year, but I am not sure I want to gamble on this risk. There are still two free agents that would upgrade the interior line. Though he is not a great run blocker, former Saint Brian De La Puente would be a decent fit for the zone blocking scheme. Ex-49er Jonathan Goodwin is an intriguing option. Though he played in a more smash-mouth style with San Francisco, he may be able to adapt to the zone scheme the Ravens plan to employ. Goodwin struggled in pass protection, and he is a bit older, but he could be a nice insurance policy. Regardless, the Ravens need to bring in a veteran at this position to provide depth and competition for Gradkowski.