What We've Learned About Baltimore Ravens After the Start of Free Agency
Every Baltimore Ravens fan and analyst had theories and hypotheses about how the Ravens would approach the task of rebuilding a contender this offseason. While we’re still in the early stages, the opening of NFL free agency has given us a glimpse into the mind of general manager Ozzie Newsome and what the front office is focused on and trying to accomplish in the months before the 2014 season.
For example, it is abundantly clear that the Ravens are keenly focused on upgrading the offensive line and the receiving corps—as they should be. The re-signings of Eugene Monroe and Dennis Pitta prove as much, but they also speak to Baltimore’s interest in showing just how committed the organization is to turning last year’s weaknesses into this season’s strengths.
Additionally, how the Ravens have attacked free agency—though there is still plenty of time left on the clock—reveals tidbits of information about potential draft strategies. Given the moves that have been made so far, it would seem as though defense is going to be addressed through the draft much earlier than originally anticipated, and the Ravens could nab a cornerback early to replace Corey Graham.
Those are some of the general revelations, but there are plenty of more specific nuggets of knowledge to be gleaned from the first few days of free agency.
Baltimore Finally Has a Franchise Left Tackle
Jonathan Ogden retired in 2007, and the Ravens have been looking for a long-term solution at left tackle ever since. They finally got their man in Eugene Monroe.
Monroe will be in purple and black for the next five years at least, and that means that the Ravens need not worry about the second-most important position on offense for that span. Ozzie Newsome must be relieved.
It’s been a revolving door at the position since the aforementioned retirement of Ogden, with players like Jared Gaither, Michael Oher and Bryant McKinnie trying their hand on the blind side. All of them have shown flashes, but the flame eventually burned out on all of them.
None were able to hold on to the job for long, but none of them compare to Eugene Monroe.
Monroe was already the best lineman on the roster last year despite adjusting to new teammates and a new playbook in the middle of the season.
With great size, tremendous athleticism and an impeccable work ethic, there are zero concerns about his ability to anchor the offensive line for the duration of his contract.
Throw in the fact that he’s only 26 years old, and he may even develop into one of the best at his position.
In the NFL, consistently solid left tackle play is an absolute must for contenders. Monroe brings that to Baltimore.
Ravens Aren’t Content to Rely on Draft for Receiver Help
With a glaring need for a playmaking wide receiver to go along with the deepest class of receiving prospects in recent memory, it’s a guarantee that the Ravens will spend an early draft pick on a receiver (either WR or TE) to add to Joe Flacco’s weapons.
In fact, given the relatively underwhelming crop of receivers on the open market, it seemed as though the Ravens weren’t going to think about signing a free agent—instead opting to rely on the draft.
Just a couple of days into free agency and that is already far from the truth. Baltimore has been linked to a number of relatively big-name receivers.
The biggest buzz is related to former Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith. Jamison Hensley of ESPN reports that the Ravens are “considered a favorite” to acquire the veteran receiver, and NFL Network’s Albert Breer tweeted that a “deal could materialize fast.”
Furthermore, Emmanuel Sanders has popped up as a name the Ravens are interested in—although no contact has been made yet (per Aaron Wilson).
Ultimately, there’s a chance that none of these players end up in Baltimore, but the level of buzz surrounding each one shows that the Ravens are aggressively pursuing receivers to add to their offense.
Baltimore Has Learned from Its Financial Mistakes
The deals that the Ravens have signed this offseason differ significantly from contracts handed out in previous years. All of this year’s deals are very cap-friendly and give the franchise the option of releasing players early if the need arises.
That hasn’t been the case in the past.
Massive contracts like the ones handed out to Haloti Ngata and Ray Rice accumulate so much dead money that the Ravens can’t cut them—nor have any leverage in extension talks—until the very end of their deals.
Conversely, both the contracts of Dennis Pitta and Eugene Monroe provide the organization enough financial flexibility to part ways with the players in year four or five and save some cap room in the process. In addition, there’s the contract of Jacoby Jones, where only $4.5 million is guaranteed.
The bloated contracts of Ngata and Rice have proven somewhat problematic, but the Ravens have learned their lesson. Don’t expect to see any contracts in the future that could seriously impede the front office’s financial flexibility.
Nobody Is Sold on Gino Gradkowski
Gino Gradkowski was thrown into the fire last season, and he got badly burned unfortunately. In fact, he was so badly torched that Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated him as the worst center in the league.
To be fair to the Delaware product, it was only his second season in the NFL, and he did get noticeably better as the year went on. He also has the full support of his predecessor, Matt Birk, who told Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com that “he is the guy, no question.”
Based on the word out of Baltimore, the front office may not possess the same confidence.
Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack is widely regarded as one of the best centers in the league, and he’s on the open market. Initially, NFL Media’s national insider Ian Rapoport reported that Mack would be a possible backup plan for the Ravens if they didn’t re-sign Eugene Monroe.
Well, Monroe was re-signed, but the Ravens’ interest in the All-Pro center hasn’t wavered according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.
Whether Mack ends up joining the Ravens is irrelevant. The fact that they’re so interested in a player who would not just provide competition for Gradkowski but outright win the starting job is telling. The Ravens clearly have concerns about Gradkowski’s abilities as a starting center, and they are sure to address the position at some point in the offseason.
Continuity Is Key for the Front Office
Last year at this time, Ravens were flying off the shelves and into the shopping carts of other NFL teams. So far this year that hasn’t been a major issue for Baltimore. Yes, the Ravens have lost Arthur Jones and Corey Graham, but they have also re-signed four of their own free agents (and counting).
The difference is relieving, and it reveals Ozzie Newsome’s emphasis on maintaining continuity for this team so that the players can grow together, develop more chemistry and eventually become a close-knit bunch like the Super Bowl-winning roster.
The roster turnover from last year wasn’t terrible from a production standpoint, as Baltimore said farewell to some aging players. But the chemistry—or lack thereof—was blindingly obvious throughout the 2013 season.
There were blown coverages in the secondary, missed assignments on the offensive line and more than one Joe Flacco interception that was the result of quarterback and receiver being on different pages in different books written in different languages.
That kind of communication breakdown won’t be so prevalent next season, with everybody having a season of working together under their belts and a full offseason program to adjust to the new coaching hires.
The theme of last offseason was drastic change. Right now, it’s all about making necessary adjustments while maintaining the status quo.
Shehan Peiris is B/R's Lead Featured Columnist covering the Baltimore Ravens and a co-host of Ravens Central Radio, a weekly podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network that focuses on all things Ravens-related. For breaking news, roster evaluation, draft analysis and links to the latest episodes of Ravens Central Radio, follow me on Twitter:
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