Many heads people were left scratching their heads during the offseason following the Ravens win in Super Bowl XLVII. The Ravens chose to make an unprecedented move in letting several key players move on after the season. Some of the moves were out of the team’s control, like the retirement of both middle linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk. Other transactions were made because the team could not afford the player, and/or the team was looking for an opportunity to get younger and faster. Whatever the reason (you can believe the “purging the team of outspoken personalities” if you choose), clearly the Ravens chose an unorthodox path in defending their Super Bowl championship.
It is fair, especially with the Ravens not making the postseason, to assess these offseason moves the Ravens brain trust made to determine if they were in fact prudent. The retirements were out of the control (though not necessarily unwanted) of the Ravens, so we will be assessing only what was in their control. The defense had the biggest makeover as there were five significant changes to that side of the ball. The offense, prior to the in-season shakeup of the offensive line and the injury to Dennis Pitta, had only one major change.
In assessing the replacement players against how the replaced players performed on their respective teams, one has to take into to account how players are used. Teams run different schemes, players are placed in different situations, and players may be asked to perform different responsibilities.
In most circumstances, assessing the former Ravens players’ performances on their 2013 team is not an equal comparison to how they would have performed had they been on the 2013 Ravens. However, Part II of the End of the Season Reality Assessment will attempt to assess the changes made.
The Ravens secondary was the biggest revamped part of the team. The Ravens said goodbye to Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, and Cary Williams. Including the returning Laradrius Webb, the Ravens had four new players in starting roles—James Ihedigbo, rookie Matt Elam, Jimmy Smith, and Webb.
As most predicted, it took time for this group to gel. After a rough start to the season, Smith made the biggest improvement and he is on his way in becoming an upper echelon cornerback. Webb’s production evolved as the season evolved. As his confidence grew, so did his ability to defend the pass. Webb is still a fearless tackler. Though prone to give up the big play, the Ravens’ secondary became one of the team’s strengths as the season progressed.
When comparing Cary Williams to his replacements, a returning Webb and the emerging Smith, it is clear that the Ravens made the right move in letting Williams go. While Williams had a strong season with the Philadelphia Eagles, he by no means out-performed Webb and Smith, and he certainly was not worth the price tag it would have cost to retain him. This was a perfect opportunity to allow Smith the space to grow and mature as a NFL cornerback.
The biggest change within the secondary was the fact that both safeties, Reed and Pollard, were replaced with Elam and Ihedigbo, respectively. This was especially true when taking into account the Ravens were essentially starting two strong safeties, as Elam played out of position when he played free safety. Overall, Ihedigbo and Elam had solid seasons, but Elam certainly took his rookie lumps.
According to Pro Football Focus, when passes came into the players’ coverage area, Ihedigbo posted a 66.9 QB rating and Elam posted a 117.5 QB rating. Ihedigbo was stout against the run, but he had too many missed tackles—18 missed tackles. Elam also had his share of missed tackles as he had 11 for the year.
In comparison, Reed and Pollard continued their struggles we witnessed from last year when playing against the pass. Reed posted a 118.3 QB rating and Pollard posted a 100.1 QB rating. Reed, playing for the Texans and Jets, was rarely asked to provide run support as he spent most of his time in deep coverage, thus he was limited in his overall versatility. Pollard continued to excel as sure a tackler and he was above average as a run stopper, but the Titans tried to limit his impact in the passing game. Reed’s coverage skills improved once he landed with the Jets—he was probably right in his assessment that he wasn’t being used correctly when he was with the Texans.
When comparing these four players, what stood out the most was how they were used. Ravens coach John Harbaugh has stated on more than one occasion how the safety position is evolving to keep up with the prolific passing attacks teams use. The day and age of a classic free safety and strong safety is coming to an end, as safeties need to be more versatile.
The Ravens achieved that aspect with Ihedigbo and Elam. Pro Football Focus (PFF) uses a metric that analyzes a player’s time spent as the primary man in coverage relative to the number of receptions he allows. At first glance, the statistics comparing Ihedigbo and Elam to Reed and Pollard look disparaging.
While Ihedigbo’s and Elam’s versatility certainly garnered mixed results—giving up the big, leaving voids in the middle of the field, and having miscommunication problems—I believe that the secondary was an upgrade over last year’s secondary. When taking into consideration the money that was already invested into the secondary ($5.4 million for Webb, $2 million for Smith, and $1.2 for Elam) versus what the Ravens saved in salary cap space by letting Reed, Pollard, and Williams (they signed for a total of $7.1 million of salary cap space) this was even more of a well-timed roster makeover.
The linebacking corps was another area of the roster makeover. The two big decisions the Ravens had to make in the offseason were whether or not they wanted to retain middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and pass rushing specialist Paul Kruger. The Ravens were able to replace these two players with middle linebacker Daryl Smith and outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil.
The Ravens scored big with the Dumervil signing, and I do not believe anyone can argue otherwise. The simple statistics are overwhelming in Dumervil’s favor. The Ravens used Dumervil mainly as a pass rusher as he rushed the passer on 49 percent of all plays in which he participated (263 pass rush plays of 574 total plays). Dumervil had 61 total pressures (QB sacks, hurries, and hits) and 9.5 sacks, according to Pro Football Focus. This means Dumervil applied pressure on the quarterback on 23 percent of the plays he was designated as a pass rusher.
In comparison, the Browns tried to turn Kruger into an every down player and the results were not favorable—he compiled 37 tackles, and he whiffed on 14 tackles. Kruger participated in a total of 887 plays, and he was a pass rusher on 339 plays (38 percent). He only managed 51 total pressures (15 percent of all pass rush plays) and 4.5 sacks.
It is not a clear comparison when comparing Smith and Ellerbe as Smith played in the Ravens 3-4 base defense and Ellerbe played in the Dolphins’ 4-3 base defense. However, their overall statistics are very comparable. Ellerbe was a bit more solid against the run and he played a hair better in coverage, but Smith was a far stronger pass rusher, according to Pro Football Focus.
In the end, the Ravens invested $3.6 million of cap space ($2.5 for Dumervil and $1.125 for Smith) versus the $10.6 million of cap space ($8.2 million for Kruger and $2.4 for Ellerbe) it would have taken to re-sign Kruger and Ellerbe. Taking into consideration the production garnered from Dumervil and Smith, the Ravens spent their money wisely.
Obviously, replacing Anquan Boldin was the Ravens’ biggest challenge of the season, and one they were never adequately able to do. Though I didn’t think that Boldin would be able to keep up the incredible production he produced in week one against the Packers, he had a tremendous season. He actually outperformed Torrey Smith, and he outperformed every option the Ravens tried to trot out at the number two receiver position--combined.
Roster Busts, Cap Space, and Dead Money
As I outlined above, the Ravens made some very strong personnel moves. However, it was not all roses when constructing the 2013 Ravens’ roster.
They made two major mistakes that they quickly corrected during the bye week. Marcus Spears and Michael Huff were two “bargain” priced players that wound up to be poor decisions. Those two moves cost the Ravens $2.55 million of salary cap space.
Another real head scratcher was the song and dance the team played with Vonta Leach. His offseason cut resulted in the team paying $1.33 million in dead money against the salary cap. Yet when they resigned Leach following Dennis Pitta’s injury, his salary cap hit for the 2013 season was $1.47 million. Including his dead money and his new salary cap hit, Leach cost the team $2.8 million of cap space. Add in the fact that he rarely saw the field (19.5 percent of snaps played) and this equals up to a poor management of cap space and use of personnel for what he cost.
Much has been made of the Ravens cutting Boldin and his $6 million salary. However, the Ravens were stuck with $1.5 million of dead money against the salary cap, so they really only saved $4.5 million. At the time, the Ravens used the money saved on Boldin, along with the money saved in cutting Leach, to sign Dumervil, Huff, Spears, and Chris Canty. Later in free agency the Ravens were able to add Daryl Smith.
Did the Ravens make the right decision? Did the money saved on Boldin allow the Ravens to add impactful players to the roster? Did they have to cut Boldin, or was there a way to keep him and add the players above?
Well, it is easy to sit here now (nine months later and after the season played out) and suggest how the Ravens could have constructed the roster. But in the spirit of playing fantasy GM, let’s play along. There was a scenario where the Ravens could have cut Jacoby Jones ($4.9 million in salary, but $1.9 in dead cap space—a total of $3 million in salary cap savings) and Leach, while keeping Boldin, and signing Dumervil, Smith, and Canty (these three signings cost the Ravens $5.1 million). Ah, what could have been!
By and large the Ravens made the right moves. The results were not always pretty, but many of the changes were upgrades to what was already on the roster. The Ravens were in a very difficult salary cap bind at the end of their Super Bowl run, but they were able to find new players that cost less money and whom performed at a higher level.