Over the last decade, the Baltimore Ravens have been a stable, successful organization largely because of the wise leadership of General Manager Ozzie Newsome. Newsome has built the Ravens into a perennially competitive team through excellent scouting, solid draft classes and shrewd free agent signings.
Newsome is most known for his drafting prowess, but his most underrated talent may be acquiring key free agents. For the 2000 Super Bowl season, Newsome signed several key free agents that helped push the Ravens over the top. This season, many would argue that now is the time to sign as many talented free agents as it takes to win another Super Bowl. Although that may sound good at first, diving deeply into free agency may do more harm than good.
Here are a few reasons why…
1. The Ravens have many young, talented players, and signing more veteran free-agents would only take valuable playing time away from the developing players. The wide receivers, Smith, Doss, Hardy and Reed, are the best example. There are always veteran, free-agent wide receivers available every offseason, but any receiver they could sign would only cut into the playing time of the younger guys. The same can be said about the defensive players. Cody, Kruger, McKinney, Zbikowski, Webb and Kindle are all trying to fight their way into the starting lineup.
One position that many people have been concerned with is inside linebacker since Ray Lewis is assumed to be on the verge of retirement. The Ravens neglected to draft an inside linebacker this offseason because they believe in the young talent already on the team.
“There were some guys we liked [in the draft]. But I think, quite honestly, we like our guys,” said Eric DeCosta, the Ravens director of player personnel. “We’ve got a number of inside linebackers that we think can get better for us. We’ve got some young guys. We’ve taken a few guys these past couple years. We’ve signed a couple undrafted free agents who have gotten a lot better, too. We like our inside backers. We think they’re getting better—they’re young players on the come. We didn’t see that as a big priority for us this year.”
The fact that the team didn’t draft any inside linebackers says that they have no qualms with relying on their young talent. It’s a great example of their commitment to developing their own players.
It would be a different story if the young players were incompetent, but many of the young guys could be starters or potential featured players on other teams. Furthermore, they have the potential and upside to develop into key players on future teams.
2. The Ravens need to focus on re-signing their own players. Many good players on the Ravens are free agents or approaching free agency. Haloti Ngata, maybe the best player on the team, is a free agent. It goes without saying that they will retain him. They have given him the franchise tender with hopes to work out a long-term deal.
On top of Ngata’s contract, which will be as large as he plays on the field, the Ravens will need to re-sign several other key players.
John Harbaugh has already made it clear that resigning Marshall Yanda is a “priority” and that Yanda is one of his “favorite guys.” Yanda will not be cheap, but it is wise to sign him now since he may be on the verge of a Pro Bowl year, which would only increase the size of his contract.
LeRon McClain and Dawan Landry are two other players that the Ravens may try to re-sign. Landry may be easier to replace since Tom Zbikowski has showed promise, but if the Ravens do not re-sign McClain, they would need to sign another veteran free agent to compete with Jason McKie in camp. The running game would also likely suffer because McClain wasn’t only a punishing blocker but a great short-yardage ball carrier as well.
The Ravens’ top two corners from last season are also unrestricted free-agents. Josh Wilson and Chris Carr both need to be re-signed if they’re to be back with the team. Most people seem to believe that the team will let one of them walk, but there hasn’t been any indication from either side. Both players will probably be interested in returning, but after the Ravens drafted Jimmy Smith in the first round, the decision may come down to money versus need.
On top of all that, the Ravens still have Jared Gaither to deal with. He will likely receive a RFA tender if the old CBA rules apply, but if they don’t, the Ravens would probably like to retain him for at least one season. Despite drafting Jah Reid in the third round, the Ravens are desperately thin at tackle without Gaither.
Ngata’s tender is nearly $12.5 million by itself, so after all their re-signings, the Ravens will not have much wiggle room. In all likelihood, they will probably not be able to afford much more than a few veteran-minimum contracts for depth and camp bodies. If they want to sign big-name free agents to big contracts, they will need to let one of their own big-name free agents walk.
3. The Ravens are a team with very few needs, and the risks of signing big names in free agency far outweigh any potential rewards. The Ravens will probably need to sign a few players for depth issues, but assuming they can re-sign their own guys, they are nearly a complete team. Last year showed everyone that signing a bunch of veteran free agents doesn’t make a team great. In fact, some of the best surprises from last season were the young players, Jameel McClain, Terrence Cody in the playoffs and David Reed. As we all saw with T.J. Houshmandzadeh last season, free agents can bring some baggage with them. They can also affect the locker room in a negative way since most veterans, even if they’re new to the team, feel like they’re a leader to some extent.
The Ravens have a very strong locker room, a great team environment and many great up-and-coming players. It would be foolish to risk the locker room with strong, outside personalities and rob the developing players on the roster of their much needed playing time. The most important objectives for the Ravens this offseason should be to retain the key players they’ve already developed and allow the young players on the roster to grow and flourish under the guidance and support of their strong, veteran locker room.