6 Free Agents the Baltimore Ravens Must Target This Offseason
The Baltimore Ravens finished the season on a down note with an 8-8 record and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
The reigning Super Bowl champions had an opportunity to make the postseason with a win in their final game of the season (with the Miami Dolphins losing), but fell to the Cincinnati Bengals, 34-17.
As deflating as this year has been for the Ravens, you don't have to look far for the last team to miss the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl. The New York Giants failed to reach postseason play last season with a 9-7 record after winning it all in 2011.
With that said, Baltimore now must look ahead to 2014. Rather than prepare each week for upcoming games, the Ravens front office will begin to fully assess their own team and the external market for free agency.
Head coach John Harbaugh made this clear in a news conference on Tuesday earlier this week, via Matt Zenitz of the Carroll County Times:
“This is when you build a team,” Harbaugh said. “This is when you build a foundation of your team. The better job we do right now scheme-wise and personnel-wise, the better we’ll be next year, so it’s like a sense of urgency right now to go to work.”
The following six players are a combination of in-house free agents the Ravens should prioritize in keeping and players from other teams who will test the external market.
Both team needs and salary cap space were taken into consideration. Baltimore currently projects to have $16.6 million in cap room heading into 2014, via Over the Cap.
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.
OT Eugene Monroe
First and foremost, the Ravens must focus on their own slew of free agents, 13 of which are unrestricted.
At the top of the list of players to sign should be offensive tackle Eugene Monroe. While Baltimore's offensive line was the team's weakest link this season, Monroe was a solid fixture at left tackle.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Monroe ranked 12th among all tackles in the NFL. He only allowed four sacks and three quarterback hits on 801 snaps.
This move requires the exit of Michael Oher, who played exclusively at right tackle this season. The player remembered so fondly from the movie "The Blind Side" has struggled the past two seasons and will be too expensive to keep alongside Monroe.
Monroe won't come cheap, as the former Virginia Cavalier is coming off a five-year, $26.25 million contract after being traded from the Jacksonville Jaguars to Baltimore in October of 2013.
Regardless, given Monroe's talent and the Ravens' needs, this should be one of the earliest moves for general manager Ozzie Newsome in free agency.
TE Dennis Pitta
Dennis Pitta is another player the Ravens will look to lock up in free agency.
After suffering a dislocated hip in practice prior to the regular season, the four-year veteran was able to lace up his cleats sooner than expected in Week 14 against the Minnesota Vikings.
In four games, Pitta soon struck up the chemistry he and Joe Flacco enjoyed from their Super Bowl run in 2012. He recorded 20 receptions for 169 yards and one touchdown during that span.
Baltimore should be saying goodbye to both tight ends Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark, so that leaves Pitta a must for the Ravens to keep. After signing a one-year, $2.023 million contract, he should expect a longer term offer this go around.
Look for Newsome to also target a tight end in the 2014 NFL draft as an insurance policy and development project.
ILB Daryl Smith
With the departure of Ray Lewis, 10-year veteran Daryl Smith stepped in nicely for the Ravens on defense. He helped hold the squad together, as the team finished 12th in the NFL in total yards allowed with 335.5.
Similar to Eugene Monroe, Smith came over from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Rather than through trade, he signed a one-year, $1.125 million contract and has lived up to every penny.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Smith ranked 16th among all 3-4 inside linebackers who saw 25 percent of their team's snaps in 2013.
While his run defense could see improvement, Smith's strengths are best displayed in pass coverage. He recorded 19 pass deflections and three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Out of 13 unrestricted free agents, Smith rounds out the top three of priority for the Ravens.
OT Zach Strief
Moving on to the external market, Baltimore must continue to focus on the offensive line.
As mentioned, the signing of Monroe spells the exodus for Oher, and the Ravens will need to find a solid right tackle at a reasonable price.
Zach Strief of the New Orleans Saints played exceptionally well in 2013 and has concluded a three-year, $5.75 million contract.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he was the seventh-best offensive tackle in all of football and third in pass blocking.
Given the Ravens' limited cap room at $16.6 million and the aforementioned signings of in-house players, Strief may be available for a reasonably aggressive offer.
The Saints actually head into 2014 in the red for cap room, having nearly $10 million more in liabilities than the salary cap. Considering the moves they will need to make, Strief could be a casualty for New Orleans.
G Geoff Schwartz
Another player the Ravens must target currently sits over in Kansas City. Geoff Schwartz is a versatile lineman who has played both left and right guard this season.
The fifth-year veteran would fit in nicely ahead of left guard A.Q. Shipley to help round out the offensive line. Schwartz has played his best football over the second half of the season and will be concluding a one-year, $700,000 contract.
After starting all 16 games for the Carolina Panthers in 2010, Schwartz was sidelined for the season with an injured hip in 2011. He played a reserve role in Minnesota in 2012 before landing with Kansas City for extended play this season.
The Ravens could also target left guard Travelle Wharton from the Carolina Panthers, who helped the NFC South champions finish 11th in rushing yards with 126.6 per game. He signed a one-year, $1.1 million contract for 2013.
WR Domenik Hixon
The Ravens will have No. 1 wide receiver Torrey Smith under contract for 2014, but may have to part ways with receiver and return specialist Jacoby Jones.
If that happens, Baltimore will be in the market for another target for Flacco and Domenik Hixon would provide a solid option at a reasonable price.
Most people remember Hixon from his six seasons with the New York Giants, although he was overshadowed by teammates Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.
Injuries to his right ACL forced Hixon to miss the entire 2010 season and most of 2011. He recorded 39 receptions for 567 yards and two touchdowns in his final season with the Giants in 2012.
Hixon signed a one-year, $1.163 million contract with the Carolina Panthers, but has had limited success recording only seven receptions for 55 yards and one touchdown. That should keep the price tag relatively low for a high character player with something still left in the tank.
The Ravens could also explore upcoming free agent Ted Ginn, Jr., the player Flacco encouraged teammates to tackle at the end of last year's Super Bowl.
Ginn has performed well in 2013, recording 36 receptions for 556 yards and five touchdowns. After signing a one-year, $1.1 million contract, he will be looking for a much richer offer than Hixon, which the Ravens may not be able to afford.
Matthew Stensrud is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.
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