Ranking the 5 Biggest Free Agent Priorities for the Baltimore Ravens
With less than three weeks remaining till free agency begins, the Baltimore Ravens find themselves needing to make several important decisions. It's always a unenviable task trying to improve the team that just won the championship but this could be an especially difficult year for Ozzie Newsome and company.
Nineteen players currently on the roster will be free agents this offseason. Out of these 19, 13 of them are unrestricted free agents who are free to sign with whichever team they please. The other six are restricted free agents, who will at least have a chance for the Ravens to match any interest they receive on the market.
After the Ravens' last title in 2000, management saw that lots of contracts were restructured so that the team could stay together for a chance to repeat. This resulted in severe roster purging in 2002 and also began a stretch where the Ravens missed the playoffs three times in five seasons.
Newsome understandably doesn't want to take that risk again. This may mean that changes will come for 2013 but it should also result in the Ravens being a place where they are still top contenders in the immediate years to come.
With that being said, some things are better off staying the same. Here are five free agents that the Ravens should try to keep for the 2013 season.
5. Bryant McKinnie
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During the regular season, the Ravens' offensive line was often inconsistent and it often failed to protect Joe Flacco. That was not the case during the postseason though, mostly because of the play of Bryant McKinnie.
McKinnie started all four postseason games at left tackle and he was impressive in all of them. Despite facing players like Aldon Smith and Dwight Freeney, McKinnie stood his ground and gave Flacco time to throw.
Flacco was only sacked six times in the postseason, none of which were directly McKinnie's fault. It's a pretty big turnaround for the veteran offensive lineman, who at the beginning of the season was struggling to pass the Ravens conditioning test.
There's always going to be concerns about weight and athleticism with McKinnie. When healthy though, he's one of the best players on the Ravens' offensive line. Even better than Michael Oher, who has struggled during his time at left tackle.
At 33 years old, McKinnie won't likely command a large payday. The Ravens could take a risk and go with a younger offensive line and mostly people wouldn't fault them for that. Still, it's worth noting that it took a lot of shifting on the line before the Ravens figured out their best lineup so why should they stop doing something that's working out so well for them?
4. Dennis Pitta
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2012 was somewhat of a breakout season for Dennis Pitta, who showed promising signs of becoming an elite NFL tight end. Pitta totaled 669 receiving yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season and he proved this wasn't a fluke by scoring three times in the playoffs.
Pitta's situation is a little different since he is a restricted free agent. The Ravens have great odds of bringing him back, unlike fellow tight end Ed Dickson who has disappointed over the past couple seasons.
It also helps that Joe Flacco and Pitta have clearly developed great chemistry with each other. Flacco will often look to Pitta as a security blanket when plays fall apart and the two men also enjoy a great relationship off the field.
Add all these factors up and it seems likely that Pitta will receive a second-round tender and stay with the Ravens this season.
3. Ed Reed
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The void from Ray Lewis's departure is a difficult one to fill. Now the defense's vocal leader may have to be Terrell Suggs, if he can have a healthy offseason.
Or perhaps Ed Reed can do his best to lead in place of Lewis. Should he return, Reed would be the longest tenured Raven after being drafted back in 2001.
The elder statesman role would be open for the 35-year-old Reed and for once, he would not be overshadowed by the more vocal Lewis.
These are the kind of things that Reed is going to have to want if he decides to return to Baltimore. Because on the other side, teams like the New England Patriots or the Indianapolis Colts might be more willing to throw more money at him, even as he enters the twilight of his career.
The main threat that Reed provides now is still his pass coverage. Though he may whiff on making a tackle or occasionally fumble a punt return, Reed still causes opposing quarterbacks to throw away from him. He also has a nose for coming up with turnovers.
For now Reed's future is uncertain and due to the nostalgia factor, the decision about his future will be a very hard one to make objectively.
Still for whatever it's worth, Reed has been one of the most joyful and visible faces during the Ravens post-Super Bowl celebrations. He's serenaded Baltimore crowds with his singing and proclaimed his love for Baltimore.
Hopefully that love will be enough to keep him here until he retires in the near future.
2. Dannell Ellerbe
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Dannell Ellerbe put together a breakout year after Ray Lewis was lost for the regular season. This season has now sky-rocketed Ellerbe's value to the point where he may be one of the better inside linebackers on the market.
Even with injuries limiting him to thirteen games, Ellerbe finished second on the defense with 89 tackles. This includes a Super Bowl performance where Ellerbe led the team with nine tackles.
Ellerbe has expressed a desire to return to Baltimore. In all likelihood though, the Ravens will keep either him or Paul Kruger out of their free agent linebackers.
Despite Kruger's emergence late in the season, the Ravens have capable outside linebackers in Terrell Suggs and Courtney Upshaw.
Their post-Lewis middle linebacking corp is painfully thin right now so Ellerbe would be by far the best option out of their current inside linebackers. Therefore, it seems that the Ravens will prioritize him over Kruger.
1. Joe Flacco
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This may seem so obvious that it should go without saying: Joe Flacco is the Ravens' top free agent priority this offseason and he's absolutely needed for the team to have future success.
Considering all that he did this postseason, there's almost no conceivable way the Ravens let Flacco walk. Flacco seriously gambled by playing out the final year of his rookie contract without a deal. That gamble worked though, maybe even to the extent where Flacco becomes one of the richest quarterbacks in the league.
A long-term deal is still the optimal result for both sides. If that doesn't happen, the Ravens will either slap Flacco with the exclusive franchise tag or with the non-exclusive franchise tag.
Though it would give him $20 million for the season, the exclusive franchise tag would ensure that Flacco stays in Baltimore next season. The non-exclusive franchise tag could potentially see him walk, as a quarterback-desperate team could pry him away by giving the Ravens two first-round draft picks.
The Ravens can't let it come to that after all that's happened. Either a deal will be reached or they will have to make Flacco one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in 2013. That could have serious ramifications as to which other players return to Baltimore and it could even result in Flacco losing some of his favorite targets.
With contract negotiations set to continue at the combine this week, the Ravens could make progress on finally getting a deal done. For the Ravens it's crucial that this gets done sooner so that Flacco is locked up as the Ravens' starter for the near future and also so the team can afford their other important free agents.