Baltimore Ravens' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
A free agency firestorm is about to hit, and millions of dollars will be spent in a hurry. The Baltimore Ravens won't be too involved in that expensive flurry of money, but they'll have their own priorities to take care of as the market opens.
Re-signing their own players will undoubtedly take top priority. Dannell Ellerbe, Ed Reed, Bryant McKinnie, Dennis Pitta and Paul Kruger highlight the Ravens with expiring contracts, with multiple other role players also hitting the market.
The Ravens won't be able to re-sign all of these players, or even most of them. Their salary cap situation is tight, as they sit at $12.663 million under the cap at the moment. Restructuring contracts or even terminating them should help alleviate some of the pressure.
Once that's all taken care of, the Ravens will look at filling their remaining needs with affordable veterans low on name recognition but high on value. Don't expect the Ravens to go after stars like Jake Long, but they'll be sure to add a few pieces as they always do.
With this outline in mind, let's take a more specific look at the Ravens' blueprint for succeeding in free agency.
The Ravens had one priority entering the offseason. They had to re-sign Joe Flacco at any cost.
Flacco didn't make it easy on the Ravens, but they finally were able to settle on a contract suitable for both sides.
Now, the Ravens need to decide what their strategy is for the rest of free agency.
The common-sense approach would have been to focus on rebuilding, focusing on cutting salary and signing young players with upside. To that end, the Ravens are trying restructure Anquan Boldin's contract or let him go.
The problem with that move is that the rest of the Ravens' thought-process goes against a rebuilding strategy. Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun estimates that Dannell Ellerbe will be getting a contract in the $25-30 million range, and the Ravens seem willing to pay that much.
Cutting Boldin while signing Ellerbe to a contract that ridiculously expensive would make no sense and would be completely inconsistent. Either go into rebuilding mode or don't. There is no in-between.
My recommendation is to focus spending efforts on giving their wealthy quarterback every chance to succeed. That means focusing on the offensive line and not getting rid of his weapons, like Boldin.
As for the defensive free agents, they must abide by a right player, right price system. Ellerbe is not worth $30 million, and Paul Kruger is not worth the $10 million a year he's rumored to be worth.
In sum, rebuild the defense that struggled so badly last year, and keep the more successful offense in place, with perhaps a few supplements.
Re-Sign Top Priorities
The Ravens will have trouble re-signing their top priorities, but I'll try to put them in order and the maximum the Ravens should offer to re-sign them.
Dannell Ellerbe (5 year, $20 million)
I'm hard on Ellerbe, who is a bit of a one-year wonder and struggles badly in pass coverage. He isn't worth the hype he's received, and he's not going to be worth the massive contract he gets.
That having been said, Ellerbe is a good run defender with solid athleticism. The Ravens have a massive need at the position, and Ellerbe is a good player. Re-signing him would be great, but they can't buy in to the hype if they want to get their money's worth.
Bryant McKinnie (2 year, $8 million)
The Ravens just gave Joe Flacco $52 million in guaranteed money according to Spotrac.com. They can't let Michael Oher defend his blind-side for another season if they want to protect that investment.
Re-signing McKinnie and starting him in 2013 would protect Flacco for the foreseeable future while buying time to develop a future starter at the position. McKinnie has to be a priority.
Ed Reed (2 year, $10 million)
The Ravens are going to have a hard time re-signing Ed Reed, but they should try. The only alternative on the roster is Christian Thompson, a fourth-round pick in 2012 who played sparingly.
The Ravens don't like having big needs going into the draft, and re-signing Reed would eliminated one need right off the bat. That would be ideal, but only if the price is right.
Dennis Pitta (Second-Round Tender for $2.023 million)
When helping your quarterback is a priority, keeping around his favorite third-down target is a smart move. The Ravens are fortunate that Pitta is a restricted free agent, so he'll be easy to retain. They'll need to sign him long term soon, but at the very least, Pitta will be in purple and black in 2013.
The Ravens, usually prudent spenders, have numerous bad contracts on their roster, plus a few that aren't terrible, but could be restructured. Here is a look at who the Ravens could and should look at restructuring or terminating.
According to Spotrac.com, Anquan Boldin has the third-highest cap hit for the Ravens in 2013. Boldin may be worth it, but the Ravens don't seem to think so. They're asking him to take a pay cut or be cut.
This is a developing situation, but cutting Boldin would be a mistake. The Ravens have enough needs without cutting one of their best players. They would be better served extending his deal another year or two to save some funds in the short-term. That would kick the can down the road, but it would at least give Flacco another year with his best target.
Despite being a role player, Jacoby Jones has the 10th-highest cap hit for the Ravens, but like Boldin, he has just one year left on his deal.
There is no reason for the Ravens not to be talking extension with Jones. They could save some money in the short-term while locking in one of their most exciting playmakers. It would be win-win.
The Ravens' worst contract belongs to Terrell Suggs, who is on the hook for over $13 million in 2013. At that level of pay, the Ravens should expect a Defensive Player of the Year contender, and Suggs just won't ever play at that level again.
As good as Suggs has been over the years, the Ravens have to do something about his massive contract. An extension that would allow him to retire a Raven would be great if Suggs is open to a pay cut, but more likely, approaching Suggs would get ugly.
Going into the draft with glaring needs is a bad idea, so the Ravens will want to fill these needs with affordable options before the draft.
The Ravens will not be able to afford Paul Kruger, and they don't have a single player on the roster capable of making up for his pass rush.
Courtney Upshaw had a substantial role in 2012, and he's prepared to see it expand after a strong showing against the run. Unfortunately, he offers nothing in terms of a pass rush. He doesn't have any moves, and his burst is below average. Upshaw can be a good player, but he's not the answer in passing situations.
Terrell Suggs offered minimal rush last season as well, though he should be better with a full offseason to rehab his Achilles' injury.
Outside of these two, who will be the starters, the Ravens have next to nothing. The Ravens need to find some role players who can step in on passing situations.
Of all the Ravens' needs, this is the one to focus on in the draft. Terrence Cody and Ma'ake Kemoeatu were awful up the middle in 2012, so the Ravens need to find a replacement. The Ravens could look for a role player in free agency, but I expect them to find a starter in the draft.
If Dannell Ellerbe proves too expensive, the Ravens will need to find an impact linebacker. There isn't much out there in free agency, but again, the draft could prove fruitful.
Even with Ellerbe, the Ravens could use some depth at the position. Jameel McClain is hardly a guarantee after missing the end of the season with a back injury.
James Harrison, OLB
Signing James Harrison would work on so many levels for the Ravens.
First of all, they'd be hurting their bitter rival and getting some insider information on them.
Second, they'd be getting a pass rusher who exceeds any player the Ravens currently have, and quite likely at a very affordable price too.
Harrison is probably not an every-down player anymore, but he is still an impact defender. He'd be an excellent, valuable addition to the Ravens defense.
Chris Gamble, CB
Multiple starting-caliber defensive backs were cut recently, with Chris Gamble being the jewel of that group.
The Ravens don't have a huge need at corner, with Corey Graham and Lardarius Webb the likely starters in 2013. That having been said, Chris Gamble is a top-tier corner at his best, and he could probably be had at a nice value. If the price is right, the Ravens could really upgrade their secondary by signing him.
Ricky Jean-Francois, DT-DE
The Ravens need some defensive line help, especially in terms of stopping the run. Ricky Jean-Francois is an excellent rotational defender with ideal run-stopping ability. He would make a big impact in helping the Ravens fix their 20th-ranked run defense.