9 Big Moves Baltimore Ravens Could Make in 2014 NFL Free Agency
The Baltimore Ravens are in the unfamiliar position of watching the playoffs from their couches, so what do Ravens fans have to look forward to? For many teams, this is an exciting time filled with grand visions of tremendous free-agent hauls, but not for Baltimore. A tight salary-cap situation means that the front office doesn’t have the luxury of signing the big names, but instead has to rely on finding bargain deals.
That doesn’t mean general manager Ozzie Newsome won’t be able to add some valuable role players, however. Just look to last season for an idea of how Newsome has a knack for finding the hidden (and, more importantly, cheap) gems on the market.
This is a breakdown of some of the biggest free-agent signings the Ravens can make over the summer. They aren't the big moves that will make headlines in major sports publications, but they all address areas of need on the roster and can help Baltimore bounce back from a disappointing 2013.
There isn’t enough money for Newsome to make all of these moves, and signings will be dictated by which of Baltimore’s own free agents stick around—so that’s where we’ll start.
Lock Up Eugene Monroe as a Franchise Cornerstone
This will probably be the first thing that Newsome attends to this offseason, and if a deal is struck, it will most likely be the biggest (literally and figuratively) move of the summer.
The Ravens offensive line was unwatchable this season, but that had little to do with Eugene Monroe. He excelled at left tackle and was Baltimore’s best offensive lineman despite learning the system and terminology on the fly.
With a draft pick in the middle of the first round, Newsome would probably be able to draft an excellent left tackle prospect, but it would be dangerous to enter 2014 with two new bookends on the O-line (it’s highly unlikely that right tackle Michael Oher is re-signed) and a rookie protecting Joe Flacco’s blind side.
After investing $120 million in Flacco, the front office must have been traumatized to see Flacco thrown around like a rag doll and forced to hobble off the field toward the end of the season. For that reason, Monroe needs to be brought back.
Furthermore, there is plenty of interest from both sides on reaching a deal.
According to Matt Zenitz of the Carroll County Times, head coach John Harbaugh called Monroe a “long-term answer at left tackle”—something the Ravens have been searching for since Jonathan Ogden’s retirement.
On the other side of the negotiating table, Monroe has only had nice things to say about Baltimore and the organization, via Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com:
This is definitely an awesome place, and I definitely would love to be here. I loved my time here, feel like I fit in pretty well. I came in here and played well every game, and I’d like the opportunity to do that here again.
Given his age (26 years old), talent and ability to stonewall elite pass-rushers on an island, locking him up for under $8 million per year would be a win for the Ravens.
Keep Dennis Pitta and Joe Flacco Together
By all accounts, Dennis Pitta shouldn’t have played a snap this season after suffering a fractured and dislocated hip that drew dreaded comparisons to the injury that ended Bo Jackson’s scintillating career.
But Pitta attacked his rehab and returned for the last four games of 2013. While it was nice to have him back on the field, his return (and showing that he was fully recovered) doesn’t help the Ravens when it comes to negotiating a new contract.
He’s more of a receiver than a tight end, since blocking is a foreign language to him, but he is an excellent pass-catcher and a valuable safety valve for Joe Flacco. He runs crisp routes, can box out defenders to create passing lanes and has the ability to make contested catches.
Additionally, he has the surest hands in a receiving corps that is short on talent. Moreover, all of Baltimore’s tight ends are unrestricted free agents, so letting Pitta walk would result in a shortage of TEs on the depth chart.
Perhaps the most important reason to keep Pitta around is because of his chemistry with Joe Flacco. Their connection was perfectly described by Pitta’s backup, Ed Dickson, to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun:
No. 5 [Flacco] and No. 88 [Pitta] have a connection. It’s like that John Stockton and [Karl] Malone connection. I’m not saying that's the only thing you need, but you’ve got to keep that alive. I’m proud of the way he battled back from injury. He’s a great tight end and he will be great for years to come.
It’s still a little unclear what price range Pitta is in given the injury and his complete lack of blocking, but anything under $5.5 million per year would be a great bargain for Baltimore.
Sign a Starting-Caliber Wide Receiver
Upgrading the offensive line is the biggest priority for the Ravens this offseason, but making a move to improve the receiving corps would be the biggest splash.
As has been discussed previously, there isn’t enough money to make a huge move like signing Eric Decker, but there are a number of other options out there that could be had for relatively cheap and have the potential to be starters alongside Torrey Smith.
Here are four players who could be starters in the Ravens offense on relatively cheap deals.
WR Option No. 1: Jeremy Maclin
Jeremy Maclin was poised to have a breakout 2013 season and earn himself quite the payday this summer. In 2012, Maclin led the Philadelphia Eagles in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, and showed the potential—he’s still only 25—to become a No. 1 threat.
But then he tore his ACL before the season even started and missed every game in 2013.
According to ProFootballTalk, Maclin’s rehab is progressing well, and he envisions being ready for the beginning of spring workouts on April 21, but where will those workouts take place?
Most teams would only sign him to a one-year deal to prove that he can perform up to those same standards after the injury (much like what cornerback Brent Grimes did this season), and that opens the door for the Ravens to swoop in and land the wideout.
It would be risky, but it could pay off in a big way.
WR Option No. 2: Danario Alexander
Danario Alexander is in the same boat as Jeremy Maclin, only he hasn’t been a starter on a consistent basis (yet) and can therefore be had for even less money.
To be clear, Alexander isn’t on the same level as Maclin. He’s not a proven route-runner, and his niche is really as a deep threat.
In that role, however, he is excellent.
He has an elite combination of size (6’5”, 217 lbs), speed and leaping ability that makes him a nightmare for defenses to cover down the field. He would work very well opposite Torrey Smith, dragging safeties down the field and clearing the middle of the field for Joe Flacco to work the underneath routes.
Nevertheless, signing Alexander would not come without risk.
He’s had a history of knee problems dating back to his days at Missouri, and he has never played a full 16-game season in his NFL career. Additionally, he wouldn’t fix the problems that plagued the Ravens receiving corps last season—an inability to gain separation, run great routes and make tough catches.
Alexander is low on Ozzie Newsome’s list of free agents to pursue and would only be worth the risk on an incredibly cheap deal.
WR Option No. 3: Kenny Britt
Kenny Britt has the body (6’3”, 223 lbs) and athleticism to be a No. 1 receiver, and he’s shown flashes of being a dominant player. The operative word there is “flashes.”
He’s been inconsistent, dealt with numerous off-field incidents and has struggled with drops at various times in his career. To top it all off, he hasn’t played a full season since his rookie year.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it?
But all of those factors mean that Britt is likely to get a one-year, “prove yourself” deal.
The issue with Britt has always been about mental focus, and he’s quickly running out of chances to play in this league. If he screws up this season, it’s going to take an exceptionally receiver-needy team to take a chance on him.
With so much on the line for him, he may just be worth the risk in a veteran locker room with a no-nonsense coach.
He won’t be expensive, and he may even have to settle for a non-guaranteed contract so his new team can protect itself from all of the aforementioned issues and just cut him if he’s a distraction.
Underneath all of those character flaws lies an extremely talented receiver who can make tough catches over the middle and in the red zone.
No risk, no reward.
WR Option No. 4: Julian Edelman
This is probably the least likely signing of the four receivers discussed, but it’s still worth talking about. Julian Edelman would give Joe Flacco a weapon he’s never had as a speedy and elusive receiver who can make devastating plays out of the slot and in the screen game.
He’s worth looking into based on talent alone, but he most likely won’t leave the confines of the New England Patriots—and that’s probably a good thing for Baltimore.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have a tendency to make receivers look better than they actually are, and Flacco’s strong suit has never been short-range accuracy (though he has improved in that regard).
Edelman is a very valuable football player in his current setup, so it is unlikely that the Patriots let him follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Wes Welker, and leave Foxborough.
Moreover, he’s more of a complementary piece, so the Ravens would be better-served spending their limited cap space elsewhere.
Add a Veteran Center to Push and Mentor Gino Gradkowski
The struggles of the offensive line cannot be blamed on just one person (no, not even Juan Castillo), but Gino Gradkowski is a good place to start.
There was always going to be a big drop-off when transitioning from a 14-year vet (Matt Birk) to a second-year player who had only started one game at center.
Nevertheless, nobody was expecting the drop-off to be so substantial. Gradkowski ended the year as Pro Football Focus’ worst-rated center (subscription required) and struggled in the running and passing games.
Despite those struggles, he will still enter next season as the starter until somebody takes that job away from him.
A.Q. Shipley and Ryan Jensen are the other centers currently on the roster, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Baltimore add a veteran center to help Gradkowski with the responsibilities of reading defenses and making calls.
As luck would have it, there are three veteran centers on the market who would fit the bill perfectly (and also still have enough left in the tank to start if need be).
The first is Brian de la Puente of the New Orleans Saints. The Saints are facing serious salary-cap problems, so it’s very possible that they won’t be able to hold on to de la Puente, in which case the Ravens could pounce. He is only 28 years old, however, and would likely get more money somewhere else.
Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press reports that Raiola (35 years old) feels like he has a couple more good years in him, and those remaining seasons could be spent in Baltimore.
At 35, it’s unlikely that he receives a particularly lucrative offer, and he could be a perfect fit to revamp a struggling O-line.
Sign a Starting Right Tackle
If the Ravens do re-sign Eugene Monroe to be their left tackle, they could turn to the draft to add a right tackle to compete with last year’s draft pick, Rick Wagner, for the starting spot.
With a deep class of tackles, that would probably be the best route for Ozzie Newsome to follow, but there are some talented tackles on the market who would give the O-line instant credibility.
One of those tackles is Zach Strief of the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans’ dicey cap situation has already been mentioned, so it’s very possible that Strief is looking for a new job.
He’s not an excellent run-blocker, but he is an exceptional pass-blocker—as evidenced by being Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated pass-blocking right tackle.
If Newsome digs even deeper into the market, he may be able to find better value in the form of Eric Winston. Winston had a disappointing 2013 season as a member of an Arizona Cardinals O-line that was even worse than Baltimore’s.
Winston sat on the market for a long time last year before signing a one-year deal with the Cardinals, and interest in him is going to be even lower than it was last year after his underwhelming season.
Regardless, he has been a quality starter for most of his career and is excellent in pass protection and as a road grader.
If Newsome wants to sign a right tackle, he won’t find a better bargain than Eric Winston.
Sign a Free Safety Instead of James Ihedigbo
James Ihedigbo was one of the Ravens’ best defensive players this season, but he might not be the best fit for the defense moving forward.
While today’s safeties have to be somewhat interchangeable with regard to position, Ihedigbo played 2013 as a “strong safety,” which is also the position that 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam is suited for.
Elam progressed well throughout the year, but had some issues in deep-ball coverage. On the other hand, he was excellent when he played close to the line of scrimmage, where he was able to use his elite closing speed to make plays in the backfield and land ferocious hits.
There aren’t many quality “free safeties” on the market other than Chris Clemons of the Miami Dolphins.
Clemons was the second-best safety in terms of cover snaps per receptions allowed, according to Pro Football Focus, and he graded out as the ninth-best safety in coverage.
If Clemons and Ihedigbo are commanding similar contracts, it would be in Baltimore’s best interests to sign Clemons and let Elam excel as the strong safety.