The Ravens have operated by these mottos since their arrival in Baltimore in 1996. This year will be no different.
With a healthy amount of salary cap money at their disposal ($24.425 million—closer to $21 million once restricted free agent tenders are made), the conventional wisdom is that the Ravens are going to be active in the free agent market. However, the Ravens will not overspend on a position of need or on a certain player(s). There are just too many holes on the roster.
After a roller coaster offseason (The good: Terrell Suggs and Denis Pitta signings, cuts of Vonta Leach and Jameel McClain. The bad: the onslaught of arrests.), the Ravens may find themselves in a decent position at the onset of free agency. The Ravens main areas of need are offensive tackle, wide receiver, middle linebacker, safety, and center. There is also need at running back, tight end, and along the defensive line. Clearly, the team has needs.
But this is where the good fortune comes into play. The draft is deep in offensive line, wide receiver, tight end, and defensive line talent so the Ravens will not have to overpay for these positions. The draft is a bit shallow at center, tight end, and safety (plus, I think that the Ravens want to pair Matt Elam with a more seasoned player), but the free agent market for these positions of need provides many possibilities.
Between the draft and free agency, the talent pool matches the Ravens' needs. They can be strategic and patent to a certain extent. Wide receiver positin weak in free agnecy? It is strong in the draft. Not many quality centers in the draft? There are options in free agency? For the Ravens, there are not many team need scenarios where there are not many options.
Much of the Ravens’ activity hinges on how they treat signing two of their own: offensive tackle Eugene Monroe and middle linebacker Daryl Smith. I am not in favor of breaking the bank on either of these players, as there are solid alternatives in each of these positions. Of the two, I would more willing to shore up Monroe as the left tackle market is beginning to dwindle (see below).
Regardless of how things play out with Monroe and Smith, the Ravens need to fill holes before the draft. I fully expect them to address offensive tackle (most likely Monroe), center, middle linebacker, and safety. The Ravens need to wisely use their cash and cap space by spreading out the spending on multiple positions.
Here are the areas and players that I think the Ravens should, and will, target during free agency.
Possible targets: Ravens’ Eugene Monroe, Bengals’ Anthony Collins, Raiders’ Jared Veldheer, Rams’ Rodger Saffold
Fringe targets: Saints’ Zach Strief, Jets’ Austin Howard
With both starting tackles scheduled for free agency, the Ravens must fill one of these holes before the draft. Several pieces of good news have emerged over the weekend. It looks like the once robust market for the services of Eugene Monroe has dried up a bit. There are reports linking Branden Albert to the Miami Dolphins, Anthony Collins to the Tampa Bay Bucaneers, Jared Veldheer to the Arizona Cardinals, and Rodger Saffold to the Oakland Raiders. The range of money for these tackles is from $9.5 million to $6.5 million.
Zach Strief and former Ravens’ practice squad member Austin Howard are possible fall back options at the right tackle position, which would not be ideal as that would mean a rookie left tackle might be needed to be drafted and started. Rookie left tackles are no sure thing.
While there could be a surprise entry for the services of Monroe, it looks like the Ravens have a chance of retaining him for something along the lines of $8-8.5 million. Personally, I was hoping that the Ravens would have taken a cheaper risk on Collins, but Monroe could now fall into the category of right player, right price.
Possible targets: Packers’ Evan Dietrich-Smith, Saints’ Brian De La Puente, 49ers’ Jonathan Goodwin
Fringe targets: Cowboys’ Phil Costa, Patriots’ Ryan Wendell
Alex Mack, the consensus top-flight free agent center, is out of the question. His play will not match the price tag he will garner. The Ravens should avoid him, but better alternatives are available.
The Ravens have been linked to both Evan Dietrich-Smith and Brian De La Puente because both are towards the top of the center food chain and they could be had at a relatively manageable price, and the mighty struggles of Ravens’ center Gino Gradkowski. I am not convinced that Gradkowski is not the answer at center, but there needs to be competition at the position at the very least.
If Ravens can afford to make a modest investment in Dietrich-Smith or De La Puente, then I think they should. Both players come with some red flags, as Dietrich-Smith doesn’t have many snaps under his belt, and De La Puente is average, at best, in the run game.
The Ravens have been on record saying that upgrading the offensive line is a major priority. Signing a player like Dietrich-Smith, a player the Pro Football Focus has rated as a top ten center, is a move that will solidify those comments. This would not be a sexy nor splashy signing, but signing Dietrich-Smith could pay major dividends in upgrading the entire offense.
Possible targets: Cardinals’ Karlos Dansby, Ravens’ Daryl Smith, Chiefs’ Akeem Jordan, Vincent Ray (restricted free agent)
For the record, I was beating the Karlos Dansby drum quite loudly last year, and he had a phenomenal 2013 season. That being said, Daryl Smith completely outplayed his contract last year, and the Ravens received maximal production out of a minimal investment. But that was 2013, and we are talking 2014.
This year could be different. The ridiculous market set by D’Qwell Jackson’s signing with the Indianapolis Colts (4 years, $22 million with $11 million guaranteed) could seriously alter the plans for the Ravens at middle linebacker, and thus, the resigning of Smith. Jackson and Smith had comparable seasons—both struggled mightily against the run, and both played well in coverage. If Smith is expecting Jackson money, I would let him walk.
Dansby’s play on the field last year could warrant a heftier contract than Jackson’s, so he may be out of play. He is getting older and his return to Arizona was a good fit for player and team.
Akeem Jordan played well last year and he is a solid player that could be had a fairly bargain price based on his limited snap count. He is more of a pass coverage specialist, so his pairing with Arthur Brown could be counterproductive.
Though Dansby would be my pick based on performance, his contract will probably eliminate him from the discussion. The ideal situation would be to bring back Smith at a price that both team and player could live with. Finding that price may take longer than expected.
Possible targets: Dolphins’ Chris Clemons, Colts’ Antoine Bethea, Browns’ T.J. Ward, 49ers’ Donte Whitner, Lions’ Louis Delmas
Fringe targets: Broncos’ Champ Bailey
The Ravens need to come out of free agency with a solid free safety. I do not believe that they want two inexperienced players on the back end, as second-year Matt Elam slides into his more comfortable position of strong safety.
Dismissing the option of signing consensus top free agent safety Jairus Byrd (and his $9 million a year salary ideas), the Ravens have solid alternatives in T.J. Ward, Donte Whitner, Chris Clemons, and Louis Delmas. All three of these players posted solid statistics in coverage and they fit the bill for what the Ravens are looking for in a safety. Ward and Whitner could be in line for hefty contracts, so I think the Ravens may target Clemons and/or Delmas. Clemons could be very nice value, but signing Delmas, a released player, would not cost the Ravens a compensatory pick.
No matter the direction they aim, the Ravens will most surely walk away from free agency with a veteran safety that can start immediately.
The Ravens could certainly look to bolster the receiving and tight end corps. They could also look to add depth along the defensive line, as Arthur Jones is a certain former Raven. Count me as one who thinks he has earned his upcoming large contract, but I am not sure if he will have as much success without strong interior help (e.g. Haloti Ngata) or strong edge rushers (e.g. Suggs and Elvis Dumervil).
Names to watch:
Giants’ Hakeem Nicks: I am not very high on him (injuries have led to 109 receptions, 3 TDs over the last two seasons), but he is willing to sign a one-year deal. That could mean low risk, high reward. I could get onboard with that as he was very productive when he was healthy.
Packers’ James Jones: Keep an eye on him on one of Aaron Rodgers targets. Jones has been very productive, but how would he fare with Joe Flacco?
Chiefs' Dexter McCuster: According to Pro Football Focus, he ran 79.5 percent of his 429 snaps from the slot. His explosiveness and special teams prowess could prove to be an upgrade over Jacoby Jones.
Cardinals' Andre Roberts: A more productive slot upgrade over Tandon Doss, and an intriguing prospect.
*I am not sure if any of these players will fit the right player, right price mantra, but the overwhelming receiving talent in the draft could drive all prices down for pass catchers.
Lions' Brandon Pettigrew: I loved him in the 2009 draft, but he has been inconsistent in production. Intriguing pairing for Pitta?
Texans' Garrett Graham: Houston Texans and Gary Kubiak background could benefit both parties.
Texans' Antonio Smith: Another Houston Texans’ castoff? He is a strong run stopper, but can get to the quarterback as evidenced with his five sacks last year.
Packers' Mike Neal: An under-the-radar-player who could be a nice fit in the Ravens’ 3-4 defense.
Plugging holes along the offensive line, at middle linebacker, and at safety will allow the Ravens to find top value in the draft. The market might come back to them when it comes to other areas of need, but the areas noted have to be the main targets in free agency.