The Baltimore Ravens front office has some work to do in order to rebuild a Super Bowl contender, and a big part of that mission will be completed via free agency. General manager Ozzie Newsome rarely makes the big, splashy moves, but he frequently nails the under-the-radar signings that pay off in a big way.
The free agents listed here are all positions of need, but they're also within the Ravens price range and will be bargains for a team with limited cap room.
This list is populated with unheralded players like Eric Winston and Chris Clemons. But this list also aims to give you some potential salary cap casualties that the Ravens may pursue.
Without further ado, here is the Ravens' bargain guide to the 2014 NFL offseason.
The Ravens may have two new offensive tackles next season, depending on what happens with unrestricted free agent Eugene Monroe. It's probable that the front office turns to the draft to acquire some new blood, but there are also some veteran options that would serve as an upgrade.
One of those is right tackle Eric Winston. He is coming off a down year, but he is a few years removed from being one of the best right tackles in league during his tenure with the Houston Texans.
Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) was shocked when the Texans released Winston two years ago:
One of the best right tackles in the league over the past three seasons, Winston has excelled in the Texans’ zone-blocking scheme. Outside of a few muggings, he has dominated the opposition, regardless of who he lined up against. In a league that is truly low on quality tackles, Winston was that rare breed that could be relied upon week-in, week-out.
Despite that top-notch performance, he didn't have many suitors on the open market in 2012, and the market for his services is sure to be even colder this year after his disappointing performance for the Arizona Cardinals.
We know that Winston won't be expensive, but what reason is there to think that he can return to his elite level of play? Gary Kubiak.
Winston's best years came under Kubiak, the Ravens' new offensive coordinator, and he gushed about the Ravens' coaching decision to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun:
He's good at getting guys to be successful. He not only knows the Xs and Os, but he knows how to get the most out of a player like Wade Smith. He was the classic journeyman lineman and the Texans brought the most out of him and made him successful. Personally, I'm a fan of Gary Kubiak. He's a big reason why I've been successful.
Winston thrived in Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme, and he would be a tremendous bargain for the Ravens in free agency.
Let's get this out of the way: Jeremy Maclin is going to have plenty of suitors, so he's not going to be cheap in absolute terms.
For Baltimore to land him, GM Ozzie Newsome will need to make a small dent in the Ravens' available cap space. But for what Maclin can produce, it will still be a terrific value move.
Maclin, a former first-round pick, was just starting to come into his own as a receiver in 2012, but then he tore his ACL during this year's preseason. He's not an elite receiver, but he's very well-rounded and would be a tremendous addition to the Ravens receiving corps.
Because of his injury, teams will be cautious about signing him to a long-term deal, but that's a reality Maclin has already come to grips with. And it doesn't seem like he's too worried about it, at least from his comments to CSN's Derrick Gunn:
For a team that wants to give me a one-year deal, that's cool, I'll just go out there and ball out, do the things I think I can do. Hopefully get that type of deal I'm looking for. If a team wants to give me a long-term deal, I'll go out there and still do the same thing.
This signing would probably be the biggest splash of the offseason, but it would be well worth the money—as long as he's fully recovered.
Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin and Bernard Pollard—those are some of the grizzled veterans that the Ravens lost last summer. But nobody was missed more than center Matt Birk.
His replacement, Gino Gradkowski, was the worst center in the league in 2013, according to the metrics of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Nobody on the offensive line (except for Eugene Monroe) played particularly well, but the entire line looked lost and discombobulated for most of 2013, and some of that should be attributed to the inexperience in the middle of the unit.
Gradkowski improved throughout the season, and he will still get every chance to earn a starting job in 2014. However, it would not be shocking for the Ravens to bring in some competition for the Delaware product.
For all his struggles, Gradkowski is entering just his third year in the league, and the coaching staff also has high hopes for second-year player Ryan Jensen. There is enough youth at the position on the roster, so Baltimore may opt to go after an experienced center like Brian de la Puente.
The New Orleans Saints are facing quite the salary cap pickle this offseason, and with free agent Jimmy Graham sure to command a ton of money and attention, they may not be able to hold onto their center.
ESPN's Mike Triplett broke down what his new team will be getting:
As for de la Puente, I'm not sure what his market value will be as a free agent. He struggled a bit early last season, but he finished strong. And he was excellent in both 2011 and 2012. The 6-3, 306-pounder was part of one of the greatest offenses in NFL history in 2011 when he was first thrust into the starting lineup. And he has been versatile as a pass protector, run blocker and screen-pass blocker in the Saints' multiple offense. It may depend on how many teams have a strong need at the center position.
The center is very important in Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme, so it may be worth the money to invest in an experienced leader who has the confidence to make the right calls on the field.
In the annual "State of the Ravens" press conference, GM Ozzie Newsome specifically mentioned a rangy, athletic safety as a need this offseason (h/t Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com).
And, as Ravens fans, we are mandated to "Trust In Ozzie." That means a true free safety is on his way to Baltimore; we just don't know who it is yet.
Well, that's not quite true. If it's an unrestricted free agent, there's only one option worth pursuing: Chris Clemons.
Clemons is a former fifth-round pick that has worked his way up into being one of the best cover safeties in the league, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). His elite speed lets him fly all over the field and act as a deterrent to quarterbacks (he was only thrown at 21 times last season).
Clemons would be a nice addition, but unfortunately, he probably won't hit the open market. The Miami Dolphins have $32 million in cap room this offseason, so it would likely take a hefty sum to pry him away from South Beach.
If, for some reason, he is available, he would be a great signing, as he is still an underrated defensive player. Just don't count on it.
It's all but guaranteed that Arthur Jones follows the money and leaves Baltimore this offseason—as he should—so the Ravens will need to add depth along the defensive line.
There are plenty of young players on the roster that can fill in (like DeAngelo Tyson, Brandon Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore), but it would be wise to add a proven commodity.
Enter Antonio Smith.
Smith will not be confused for Arthur Jones on the field, as their strengths differ, but he could be a nice addition to a Ravens defense that struggled to generate pressure on the quarterback toward the end of the season.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Smith was the fifth-best pass-rushing 3-4 defensive end in the game last year, and he can take his talents to M&T Bank Stadium next season in order to be reunited with his former head coach.
RT Zach Strief
Zach Strief will cost more than Eric Winston since he's coming off such a great year, and that makes him less of a bargain. That doesn't mean he'd be a bad signing, though.
Baltimore may have to move fast to land this right tackle, but his consistency and all-around play make him worth the money.
WR Danario Alexander
Like Jeremy Maclin, Danario Alexander is coming off a season-ending torn ACL. Unlike Maclin, Alexander isn't going to be highly sought after on the open market.
That means he'll be cheap, and he could be a nice addition to the Ravens offense if he can stay on the field—a big "if." He hasn't played a full season in his four years in the league.
He won't be a consistent No. 2 option, but he can give the Ravens a red-zone weapon and a deep threat.
C Dominic Raiola
If the Ravens want to offset their youth at the center position, this is the way to go. Dominic Raiola is 35, but he is coming off the best season of his career and insists that he has "a lot of gas left in this tank," according to Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com.
Raiola will be a cheap, short-term option in the middle of the O-line that can get the job done. That makes him worth looking into for the Ravens.
All of the players mentioned to this point have been unrestricted free agents, which means that it's highly unlikely that more than one or two of them will be signed by the Ravens.
Signing unrestricted free agents negatively affects Baltimore's chances of being awarded compensatory picks, and that's a big deal to the front office. In his end-of-year press conference, Ozzie Newsome promised that moves would be made in free agency—with one caveat, per Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com:
We will be active, but let me say something: All of those players that we signed last year were free agents and weren’t UFAs [unrestricted free agents]. They were cap causalities of other teams, which allowed us to be able to maintain our compensatory picks for the guys that we lost. So, there is a rhyme and reason in how we acquire players—to continue to maintain our ability to stay strong going forward. And we will do the same [this year].
If the Ravens probably aren't going to sign many unrestricted free agents, why are we looking at UFAs?
For starters, because they're the only people that we know will be available. But I'm willing to go the extra mile for you folks.
So here are some possible salary cap casualties for other teams that will grab the Ravens' attention.
FS Louis Delmas
According to OverTheCap, releasing Louis Delmas would save the Detroit Lions $6 million. That's enticing given their current lack of cap room, so Delmas could very well find himself looking for work this offseason. His wait shouldn't be too long, however, given that he's still only 26 and is a proven ball-hawk in the league.
Injuries are a concern, but he would form a dynamic safety duo alongside Matt Elam. Delmas' combination of ball skills, range and instincts make him the playmaker the Ravens are looking for on the back end.
C Scott Wells
Based on his performance with the St. Louis Rams, Baltimore may not even want to pursue Scott Wells. But that performance makes him expendable in St. Louis, where his release would save the Rams $10.5 million over the next two years, according to OverTheCap.
Rewind to his days with the Green Bay Packers, and Wells was one of the best centers in the league. He clearly has the intelligence and experience to be a starter for the Ravens. If he can get back to form, he'd be a steal.
RB Mikel Leshoure
The last name on this list is...another Lion.
Cutting Mikel Leshoure would only save Detroit around $840,000, per OverTheCap, but every penny counts, and his services aren't that important for the Lions. With Reggie Bush and Joique Bell ahead of him on the depth chart, the Lions could very well jettison Leshoure, and he would be an excellent pickup for the Ravens.
He would once again be third on the depth chart, but his size (6'0" and 233 lbs.) and power running would help the Ravens in the red zone and in short-yardage situations.