The path back to the Super Bowl starts now for GM Ozzie Newsome.
An early start to the offseason wasn’t what the Baltimore Ravens were hoping for, but missing the playoffs gives the front office more time to figure out how to rebuild. The 2014 season may be a long way off, but creating a contender starts now. This offseason is critical for general manager Ozzie Newsome, and here are the most important issues the Ravens need to deal with.
It starts with keeping left tackle Eugene Monroe and tight end Dennis Pitta in Baltimore. The Ravens have done an excellent job of not overpaying their own free agents (e.g. Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe), so Monroe and Pitta may not stay if their price tags are too high.
Nevertheless, GM Newsome has to do everything in his power to lock both of them up to protect his biggest investment: Joe Flacco.
After that, there are plenty of needs to address, but the salary cap means that prioritization is the key. Obviously, we start with the offensive line. Baltimore is going nowhere unless it gets drastically better play from its O-line, and the Ravens can turn to free agency or the draft to tackle the issue.
Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda is the only offensive lineman that will definitely be starting on the O-line next season, so there could be plenty of changes coming—which is definitely a good thing.
Lastly, there is salary-cap pruning that needs to be done. Senior vice president of football operations Pat Moriarty is Baltimore’s salary-cap guru, and he’ll have to find some ways to free up cap space, either by restructuring contracts or releasing players outright.
There is plenty to be done, so view this as your offseason primer. This slideshow will touch on the most pressing problems facing the front office and highlight the steps to a perfect offseason.
In Oz We Trust.
This is the first domino that needs to fall. Baltimore has been searching for a franchise left tackle since Jonathan Ogden retired, and Monroe can be that cornerstone on the blind side.
The Ravens invested $120 million in Flacco last summer, and that investment took way too much punishment this season.
The cumulative effect of all the sacks and hits was evident in the last game of the year, as a brace-wearing Flacco hobbled off the field and needed to peel himself off the turf on numerous occasions.
Bryant McKinnie’s play was so abysmal that it forced the franchise to make its first ever midseason trade. Monroe stepped in and became the best offensive lineman on the team—an impressive feat considering that he didn’t have the benefit of training camp or the preseason to learn the scheme.
Monroe may be out of Baltimore’s price range, but he’s still in his prime as a 26-year-old left tackle, so signing him to an extension is the first thing on Newsome’s to-do list.
Newsome would be ecstatic if Baltimore could get him on a five-year, $38 million deal. If the number jumps higher than that, there may not be enough money to go around.
Monroe will physically protect Flacco, but Pitta offers another kind of protection: a safety valve.
Without Anquan Boldin or Pitta for the first 14 weeks of the season, Flacco was sorely missing a go-to target in tough situations. That was a big part of Baltimore’s struggles on third down and in the red zone.
Pitta isn’t a particularly good blocker, but he’s a new breed of “move” tight ends that can be flexed out wide and create mismatches for opposing defenses.
The Ravens didn’t have enough receiving weapons for Flacco this season, and losing Pitta would only exacerbate the problem.
If re-signing Monroe is 1A, keeping Pitta in a Ravens jersey is 1B. A four-year, $26 million contract would be a good deal for both sides.
Keeping Monroe in Baltimore is vital, but that would only be the start of the O-line overhaul. Right tackle Michael Oher’s days in Baltimore are probably over after a disappointing run at both tackle positions, so the Ravens will have to do a better job of drafting his replacement.
The 2014 class of tackles is very deep, so Baltimore may even be able to wait until the second round to draft a starting-caliber tackle.
One positive is that the Ravens have flexibility in the shape of Kelechi Osemele.
He started his career at right tackle before excelling at left guard in last year’s playoffs. If there isn’t an enticing tackle prospect on the board, the Ravens could opt to select a guard instead and give Osemele another shot at tackle.
However they choose to do it, Newsome needs to address the offensive line early in the draft. Some tackles to keep an eye on are: Greg Robinson, Auburn; Antonio Richardson, Tennessee; Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M and Cameron Erving, Florida State.
The Ravens’ cap situation isn’t great. They have approximately $7 million in cap space, which won’t be enough to keep Monroe and Pitta unless they maneuver to create more room. Unfortunately, that means that some other players will need to come off the books.
Vonta Leach was a cap casualty last year, and he came back to Baltimore after he didn’t generate enough interest on the open market. The Ravens certainly envisioned him having a bigger role on the offense, but the inability to run the ball resulted in a shift away from two-back formations, so Leach barely saw any playing time.
He’s still a premier blocker, but there’s no place for him on the depth chart if the Ravens continue to utilize a spread offense.
Another player who should be released is punter Sam Koch. He’s been a very good punter for Baltimore, but he was fairly average this year.
He finished the year ranked 22nd in net punting average and 13th in punt average, and that’s not worth the $2.8 million cap hit he brings to the table.
Likewise, Jameel McClain’s $4.4 million cap hit also doesn’t match his production. To his credit, he came back from a devastating spinal cord injury, but he was fairly mediocre in the middle of the defense.
Releasing all three would free up $6.5 million in cap space, which would go a long way to signing priority free agents.
Along the same lines as the previous slide (releasing Leach, Koch and McClain), the Ravens would free up a lot of cap room by restructuring Terrell Suggs’ deal. They would actually free up close to $8 million in cap room by releasing him completely, but it wouldn’t come to that in an ideal world.
Suggs was dominant to start the year, but his production fell off dramatically to end the year. That decline in production, his high cap figure and the addition of Elvis Dumervil have resulted in many picking Suggs as another salary-cap casualty, but he’s still a great all-around player and leader for Baltimore.
The Ravens hold some leverage in negotiations since the 31-year-old pass-rusher probably wouldn’t be able to secure a big deal on the open market. If Baltimore can convince him to take a pay cut, the additional cap room would allow the Ravens to resolve some of their problems.
Daryl Smith and Corey Graham won’t get high-priced deals, but it’s very important for the Ravens to keep them if possible.
Smith was phenomenal as an inside linebacker, and he provides tremendous all-around skills and leadership that would be hard to replace.
Likewise, Graham will be the nickelback, but the third corner is an important position with so many teams using three wide receivers. Additionally, Graham is a playmaker and is very solid against the run and the pass.
Both would be relatively cheap options that would keep the Ravens defense afloat. It's going to be hard to free up enough cap space to sign both, but it would be well worth it.
The Ravens’ track record of drafting wide receivers isn't great, but there is a serious lack of playmaking ability outside the numbers, which needs to be addressed this summer.
Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown are excellent No. 3 options, but they fall a little short of being reliable No. 2 receivers. Likewise, Torrey Smith is a serviceable No. 1 receiver, but he would be an elite second option or thrive with a legitimate second receiver to draw some attention off him.
To get such an impactful player, the Ravens have to strike early. They can’t afford to wait until late in the draft like they have in the past.
This year’s draft has a deep crop of talented receivers, so Baltimore will be able to nab a starting-caliber receiver in Rounds 1 or 2.
A player like Marqise Lee (shown above) or Mike Evans in Round 1 could eventually be a No. 1 threat, or guys like Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry or Kelvin Benjamin in Round 2 could be enticing options.
However they choose to approach it, the Ravens need to select a receiver early on.
The Baltimore front office knows when to avoid being sentimental and not overpay for players, and that will again be necessary this offseason.
Without much cap room, the Ravens need to be highly efficient in plugging up all their holes. As a result, some fan favorites may have to leave M&T Bank Stadium.
For example, Jacoby Jones has been excellent for the Ravens, but he could easily be overpaid on the open market. His return skills are elite, but Tandon Doss has shown proficiency for returning, and Jones’ returning alone isn’t worth a sizable contract.
He was great as a receiver, but he’s still not a legitimate No. 2 threat, so the Ravens can’t overvalue his services.
Likewise, Arthur Jones was brilliant this season but his stellar play likely lifted him out of the Ravens’ pay grade. There are too many other areas of concern to spend too much money on either Jones, so Newsome has to be prepared to walk away unless they will sign for extremely cap-friendly deals.