With the Baltimore Ravens offseason starting sooner than expected, coaches and front office personnel are working around the clock to improve from their 8-8 record this past season. Many members of the staff are down in Mobile, Ala., scouting this year's crop of college seniors at the Senior Bowl.
While scouting college players is a huge part of the offseason, an almost equally important task is evaluating current NFL players as they enter free agency. The Ravens have a history of finding great value in free agency, and while they don’t often make a splash, they have a knack for acquiring talent.
This article will take a look at the five best free-agent signings from the inception of the club in 1996. The criteria of this list include where players rank in Ravens history to on-the-field performance and leadership.
While Shannon Sharpe’s career with the Ravens was brief, it was incredibly impactful. He played two years for the Ravens after winning two Super Bowl titles with the Denver Broncos. In his two seasons in Baltimore, he caught 140 passes for 1,621 receiving yards.
He was the Ravens' biggest offense threat in their Super Bowl season of 2000. In the AFC Championship Game against the Oakland Raiders, he caught a 96-yard touchdown.
Sharpe was a leader in the locker room during his short time in Baltimore. While the defense at the time got all the recognition, he was as reliable as any tight end in the league.
His legacy in Baltimore will be everlasting with his role in the Ravens winning their first Super Bowl in franchise history.
Matt Birk signed with the Ravens after 10 years in Minnesota. At the time, many people believed that his best days were behind him at 33 years old. But he proved the critics wrong and the Ravens right.
The 2011 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award winner helped solidify the offensive line and was a mainstay in the starting lineup in Baltimore. The Harvard graduate brought an intellect that is required at the center position and built a good relationship with quarterback Joe Flacco.
Birk started all 16 games during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run in 2013. Two weeks after winning the big game, he announced his retirement from the NFL.
He was an excellent signing for a team that was in desperate need of consistency at the center position and was an integral part of the Ravens’ second Super Bowl title in franchise history.
Like Sharpe, Rod Woodson’s stint in Baltimore was brief, but the Hall of Famer was a pivotal component to the statistically best defense in NFL history. He made a name for himself playing in Pittsburgh, but after contract disputes, he ended up in San Francisco and then Baltimore.
In just four seasons in Baltimore, he registered nearly 250 tackles and 20 interceptions. He secured the back line of the Ravens defense, which is considered one of the greatest of all time. Like Sharpe, he was a leader in the locker room.
Woodson was elected to the Pro Bowl 11 times, which is a record for defensive backs. He was also NFL MVP three times and is widely regarded as one of the best safeties in league history.
He signed with the Ravens at the age of 33 with the intention of proving that he was still at the top of his game. Not only did he prove the Ravens right for signing him, for the next four seasons, he played at an extremely high level. Woodson was a crucial part of the team’s first Super Bowl run, and as a result he goes down as one of the best free-agent signings in franchise history.
The former Seattle Seahawk came to the Ravens in the 1997 season, and his career took off. In his first season in Baltimore, he recorded 69 tackles and 9.5 sacks. He bought into the blue-collar tendencies of then-defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis and thrived as a result.
In his second season in Baltimore, he notched a career-high 14.5 sacks and made a name for himself throughout the rest of the league. He was becoming a fan favorite in Baltimore and finished his career with more than 70 sacks in a Ravens uniform.
The Wake Forest alumnus was as well-liked and well-respected as any player in Ravens history. In 2004, McCrary was inducted into the Ravens’ Ring of Honor, and he is the only free agent in franchise history to achieve the honor.
He is a staple in the Ravens' short but storied franchise. By helping them win Super Bowl XXXV, McCrary cemented his legacy in NFL history and in the Baltimore community.
There is little debate that the best free-agent signing in Baltimore Ravens’ history is wide receiver Derrick Mason. He set a franchise record with 86 receptions in his first season in Baltimore. Two years later, he followed up that performance by catching 103 catches for 1,067 yards and five touchdowns to become the first player in franchise history to record a 100-catch season.
Mason was instrumental in the development of Joe Flacco, as he provided a reliable target during the quarterback's rookie year. Mason finished his Ravens career as the team’s all-time leading receiver in receptions and receiving yards with 471 catches and 5,777 yards.
Despite not winning a Super Bowl in Baltimore, he was the first legitimate receiver in franchise history. On a team that was known for its defense for so many years, he helped to establish an offensive presence.
Mason will go down as one of the all-time great players in Ravens history on the offensive side of the ball. He lands as No. 1 on this list of the best free-agent signings in Baltimore Ravens history.