Coming off their recent Super Bowl victory, the Baltimore Ravens begin the wave of difficult front-office decisions that need to be made in the upcoming weeks. Joe Flacco's record-breaking deal will result in many contributors to their championship run being shown the door before the start of free agency.
Two of those players are Dannell Ellerbe and Ed Reed, who are both in different situations in terms of who is a bigger priority for the Ravens.
Reed has been the heart and soul of one of the league's elite defenses for the past decade, and a plaque with his name awaits in Canton, Ohio. Meanwhile, Ellerbe produced his best season in a contract year, and showed he can become a quality piece to a defense.
From the market standpoint, Ellerbe is going to have more interest overall. The Cleveland Browns (via Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer) have spoken with Ellerbe's agent. The Indianapolis Colts could join the Ravens in pursuit of the inside linebacker too. Meanwhile, the Colts and the New England Patriots appear to be the most likely destinations for Reed this late in his career.
As the Ravens have plenty of free agents who are due for new contracts, the reality is that the majority of these players will not return next season. The defense will deal with the loss of some key contributors, but who is the most important target for Baltimore this offseason?
The answer is Ellerbe, and it's not too close. His performance this season showed that he is capable of becoming a consistent linebacker who performs very well against the run and is improving as both a pass-rusher and pass-defender.
Is he worth anywhere near a max contract?
His accomplishments to date don't warrant that. He's a quality linebacker in the National Football League, but doesn't display the ability to become a player who can anchor a defense. In Baltimore, Ellerbe fits in with a defense that has a combination of quality veterans and plenty of emerging young stars.
The retirement of Ray Lewis only further produced a need for a linebacker to anchor the middle of the defense. Based on his play throughout the season, Ellerbe was the most valuable linebacker on the field for Baltimore. With the uncertainty regarding the healthy of return of Jameel McClain from a spinal injury, the Ravens' best option is to sign the young Ellerbe, despite the hefty price tag he might command.
From the standpoint of Reed, the Ravens would hope to see the future Hall of Famer end his career with one team. They are content with allowing him to test the market and see if any team offers him a more significant amount than Baltimore.
Though, it's tough to see a team making any enticing offer.
There is no denying that Reed puts fear into the minds of quarterbacks, but his production to force turnovers dropped significantly in 2012. His regressing play against the run is also a major concern, as his worn down body has begun to take a toll.
In a perfect world, the Ravens can re-sign Ellerbe and manage to fit Reed into the salary cap. Unfortunately, the task is not that easy. For the sake of staying a contender in the AFC, it's a no-brainer for the Ravens to pursue Ellerbe as the primary defensive target in free agency.