Baltimore Ravens Free Agency: Who Should They Target?
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NFL free agency is like Christmas, so today feels a little like Christmas Eve. Ozzie Newsome has some shopping to do, but he will be looking for those Black Friday kind of deals and not for high-end items.
The Ravens are a reported $14.45 million under the salary cap, which has been set at $126 million. This puts Baltimore in the middle of the pack as far as the rest of the league is concerned.
The Ravens have a variety of needs which are, or could be, at guard, wide receiver, center, linebacker and defensive end. Depth may be needed at running back, safety and possibly quarterback.
As usual, the Ravens' strategy will be trying to re-sign their own players and let the market settle down before adding new players. Once roster questions are settled in free agency, Newsome will be able to draft the best players available.
The guard position would appear to be the most interesting position of need. Baltimore has allegedly made a lucrative offer to Ben Grubbs, which has been acknowledged by his agent. As a point of reference, last year the Ravens retained fellow guard Marshal Yanda for five years at $32.5 million.
Perhaps the Ravens have made a similar offer, especially if a large chunk of it is up front in the form of a signing bonus. It would seem that Grubbs is priority No. 1 in the Ravens' free-agency plan. If another team trumps Baltimore's offer, the Ravens will likely move on and address it through the draft or internally. Moving Jah Reid over to the guard position is a possibility.
Ozzie Newsome has made it known that one of his goals is to upgrade the wide receiver position. They have recently cut Lee Evans, for whom they traded a fourth-round draft pick. It is possible that Evans could come back, and that would be the Ravens' best move.
Evans is much better than what his numbers from last year suggest. He was hurt last season and had no offseason because of a lockout. Forget the drop against the Patriots, or at least try to. Lee Evans is fast, has good size and hands, and he is a good locker room guy. He also knows the offense already, which should lead to a rebound next season.
Should the Ravens move in another direction, they will probably focus on the "second tier" of the free-agent market. Pierre Garcon and Brandon Lloyd have been mentioned as possibilities. But Garcon turned down a contract offer from Indianapolis, reportedly for five years at $35 million. Lloyd may have found a home in St. Louis, who is trying hard to keep him there.
One name the Ravens should consider is Eddie Royal. The Virginia Tech product did not produce stellar numbers in 2011, but who could in the Broncos offense anyways? Royal would provide depth at the receiver position as a No. 3 or No. 4 wide out. His value as a return man would be more than welcomed.
There was a great amount of instability at the returner position and Royal could provide a much needed spark in special teams, a spark that was lacking last season. The Ravens kickoff returners averaged a respectable 24.9 yards a kick. That was while Baltimore endured David Reed's fumble problems and had a total of 10 different kickoff returners.
Punt returners averaged 9.6 yards a return. It would be a more comfortable situation if their best cornerback, Ladarius Webb, was not the best punt returner as well.
The center position got a big boost after Matt Birk decided not to retire. The Ravens are meeting his agent (who happens to also be Joe Flacco's agent) later this week.
Former pro bowl center Andre Gurode is also a free agent after spending one season in Baltimore. He is slightly younger than Birk, and could be another option for Baltimore. His versatility is a valuable asset. The Ravens could put an offer out to both players and see who takes it.
If neither of them returns, look for Baltimore to address this need early in the draft.
There could be some openings in Baltimore's linebacker corp. Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis are returning next year, and are shoe-ins to start. Jameel McClain, Jarrett Johnson and Brendon Ayanbedejo are unrestricted free agents. Dannell Ellerbe is a restricted free agent, but he is expected to be given a tender.
The Ravens will try hard to re-sign McClain and Johnson, both of whom were starters last season. They will likely get competition for both players from Indianapolis, whose new head coach happens to be Chuck Pagano.
The New York Jets could also come in to play. Rex Ryan is known to be a big fan of Johnson. And McClain could also be attractive to the former Ravens defensive coordinator, particularly with Bart Scott the subject of trade rumors. Ray Lewis' heir will most likely come through the draft.
Ayanbedejo is expected to come back, who is known more as a special teams ace than a starting linebacker. If the Ravens are not successful in re-signing McClain, Ellerbe will likely step in. Should Johnson leave, Paul Kruger and Parnell McPhee will likely take over.
Defensive end Cory Redding is also an unrestricted free agent the Ravens will try to retain. It is unclear who, if anyone the Ravens will pursue should Redding leave for "greener pastures" (Dallas perhaps?). Art Jones seems like a logical promotion.
Ricky Williams' retirement left a hole in the running back depth chart. As of now, after Ray Rice, next on the depth chart is last year's seventh-round draft pick Anthony Allen, who saw very limited action last season. Damien Berry follows as the third back who has even less playing time...as in zero.
In order to solve the running back situation, the Ravens could stand pat and promote Allen, or hope for Williams to un-retire. One solution would be for the Ravens to bring back Le'Ron McClain. McClain would be a great compliment to Rice and could be brought over fairly inexpensively.
A "heavy package" with McClain and fullback Vonta Leach would be lethal. He could also provide a solid backup for Vonta Leach.
Michael Bush could be an option, but his price may be high and he may prefer to finally get a starting role. Another running back to keep an eye on is Peyton Hillis. Hillis is another bruiser, whose stock dropped after a disappointing 2011 season. If his price is low enough, Hillis could be a major steal.
The Baltimore Ravens are set at the safety position as far as starters are concerned. Top reserves Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski are set to leave via free agency and are unlikely to return. Jim Leonhard could be another reunion opportunity for the Ravens and he also has value as a return man. The more likely scenario has the Ravens drafting a safety in the later rounds.
Tyrod Taylor flashed some impressive skills during the 2011 preseason. But is he ready to be a starting quarterback next season should Joe Flacco go down with an injury?
The Ravens could consider bringing back John Beck to at least compete with Taylor and have a more veteran presence. Beck is also familiar with Cam Cameron's system. Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn and David Garrard are some other options.
Although it may be nice to see the Ravens make a big splash and bring in the likes of Vincent Jackson, Mario Williams and Peyton Manning, but it probably will not happen.
The Ravens' top targets this year will be their own players and some players in the "second tier" that could help in a major way. The big splashes will come via the 2012 NFL Draft.
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