After missing the playoffs for the first time in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era in 2013, the Ravens bounced back in 2014, finishing 10-6 and making the playoffs as the #6 seed. The Ravens would go to Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers in the Wild Card round 30-17. The Ravens then went to New England and lost a heart breaker to the Patriots 35-31. Baltimore overcame a lot of obstacles throughout the entire season, including the Ray Rice debacle and 19 players landing on injured reserve. But in the end, their depleted secondary led to their downfall in New England. The Ravens will now be watching the SuperBowl from home, somewhere they hoped to go for the second time in 3 years. Although this season was a bounce back season and in many’s perspective a success, there are some glaring issues that need to be fixed. One glaring issue is whether or not offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will be back next season. Kubiak stated the other night that he will remain with the Ravens next year, but the next day John Fox was fired as the head coach of the Broncos, and Kubiak has a 20 year history in Denver as a player and coach. Even though Kubiak has stated that he enjoys Baltimore, he is building a house in Owings Mills and he feels great about what the team is “building” on offense, seeing the Denver job open up has to be tempting. I am assuming after his statement that he will still be back, and this post will be written under the assumption that Kubiak will be back. Moving on, we also know that the Ravens will have the draft to build their team (#26 in the first round) and will bring players in through free agency, but some changes are in order. Let’s take a look at what the Ravens need to do to improve their roster and have a successful season next year. Each task is in the order of importance.
#1 – Restructuring Contracts
If the Ravens want to be able to sign free agents, they needs to restructure Haloti Ngata and Lardarius Webb’s contracts, primarily Ngata’s. Ngata signed a 4 year, $48.5 million dollar deal in 2011 and is entering the final year of that contract, which will have a $16 million cap hit on the Ravens this year. If the Ravens can get Ngata to sign to an extension, the cap hit would be far less significant and Ngata would likely be a Raven for life. Ngata is not in a position to be stubborn and not agree to an extension; he was suspended 4 games this season and is going to be 31 at the start of next season. I would be careful if I were him and agree to an extension, because the Ravens would have no problem cutting him and going with Timmy Jernigan as the nose tackle after an impressive rookie season. Ngata has been with the Ravens since his rookie year in 2006 and loves it in Baltimore, so I see him and the Ravens working it out and extending that contract.
Another player the Ravens might need to negotiate with would be Lardarius Webb. Webb signed a 6 year, $50 million dollar deal in 2012 that will have a $12 million cap hit on the Ravens this year. Webb looked like his old self for the last month of the regular season and the playoffs, but he played through a back injury for the first half of the season and tore his ACL back in 2012 right after he signed that contract. Ever since that happened he has not looked like the same player. I do not think the Ravens would extend his contract, but I can see them asking Webb to take a pay cut because of his production on the field and the fact that he now is best suited as the slot corner, not a cornerback on the edges of the field like he had to be last year because of the depleted secondary. I see the Ravens and Webb agreeing to a pay cut and freeing up more cap space to make moves in free agency.
#2 – Which players on the current roster that are pending free agents will come back?
Over 20 players that are currently on the Ravens 53 man roster or the practice squad are set to become free agents. Before I give my thoughts on who I think will be back, let’s look at a list of some of the key players set to become free agents:
Restricted Free Agent (RFA): Subject to qualifying offer from any team, but has to be approved by Ravens, Ravens can also make a qualifying offer, can be franchised
Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA): Free to sign with any team with no draft compensation from Ravens, can be franchised
-S Darian Stewart (UFA)
-WR Torrey Smith (UFA)
-TE Owen Daniels (UFA)
-OLB Pernell McPhee (UFA)
-RB Justin Forsett (UFA)
-QB Tyrod Taylor (UFA)
-K Justin Tucker (RFA)
-WR Kamar Aiken (RFA)
-S Will Hill (RFA)
I think it is safe to say that all restricted free agents on this list will be back. In the restricted free agent period, if a team offers Tucker, Aiken or Hill a contract, the Ravens have to approve first. Of those three, the only player who may not be back would be Kamar Aiken, but that will depend on what happens with Torrey Smith, which I will give my thoughts on below. The Ravens absolutely need Justin Tucker and Will Hill at this point, so keeping both of these two is crucial.
-Owen Daniels: I think Daniels will be back with the Ravens next year. He has played in Gary Kubiak’s system for his entire career and built a great relationship with Joe Flacco on the field last season, catching 56 passes for 638 yards and 5 touchdowns (espn.go.com). The Ravens needed Daniels after Dennis Pitta dislocated his hip for the second time in week 3, and Pitta’s status remains up in the air. I think the Ravens will bring Daniels back on another 1 or 2 year deal and if Pitta also returns, the Ravens do not need to worry about adding any more players to the tight end position.
-Justin Forsett: Forsett had the best year on his career last season after Ray Rice was cut from the team. Forsett rushed for 1,435 yards and 8 touchdowns this season after being signed to the Ravens as a training camp body (espn.go.com). It will be interesting to see what kind of price other teams are willing to pay a 29 year old running back, but I think he will return to the Ravens as well. Forsett has played in Kubiak’s system for numerous years just like Daniels and said he enjoyed his time in Baltimore last season. The Ravens should bring him back because Bernard Pierce has not been effective since his rookie season and Lorenzo Taliaferro was solid as a rookie but has not shown that he is capable for being a #1 back. I think Forsett will return on a 1 or 2 year deal just like Daniels.
-Torrey Smith: Torrey Smith is an interesting case. He grew up in Virginia, went to school at the University of Maryland, and has stated that Baltimore “feels like home.” However, Torrey has also said that he will come back only if he feels that the price is right. Torrey Smith has never been a true #1 wide receiver. This season he scored 11 touchdowns, but only caught 54 balls, the lowest of his career (espn.go.com). With that being said, it will be interesting to see what kind of money teams will be willing to pay him. As of now, the Ravens only have about 9 million dollars of cap room, which is not a lot of money. If Torrey wants to come back, Haloti Ngata will definitely have to restructure his contract and free up some money, making that situation very critical. I can see a team overpaying for him and throwing him #1 wide receiver money. I think there is a 50/50 chance Torrey will be back. Steve Smith has said he will be back next season at the age of 36, so this makes Torrey somewhat less of a priority although I really hope he is back next season. I am not sure what is going to happen, but this is an intriguing situation and I think all Ravens fans are pretty unsure whether Torrey will be back next year or not. If you asked me right now, I’d say no. For this question I am adding in a poll that you can vote on below:
-Pernell McPhee: McPhee had the best season of his career last year, and in the playing time he got (behind Suggs and Dumervil) he notched 31 tackles and 8 sacks (espn.go.com). That is very impressive for a second string outside linebacker, and I am sure there will be plenty of teams willing to give him a big time contract, much like Paul Kruger got with the Browns after the 2012 season. Although Suggs and Dumervil are getting older, there is no immediate need for another outside linebacker now on the Ravens roster, since they have Courtney Upshaw and are likely to pick someone up either in free agency or the draft. I do not think McPhee will be back with the Ravens next year, let’s just hope he lands somewhere outside of the division.
-Darian Stewart: Although Stewart played better down the stretch, I do not think he was the answer at free safety. I do commend him for playing all 16 games and both postseason games this season, something he has never done in his 5 year career. While his play is a factor in why I do not think he will be back, another factor is the safeties already on the roster. The Ravens will most likely have both Will Hill and Matt Elam back at strong safety. I know Elam did not play well this year, but he was the Ravens first round draft pick in 2013, so they will not be getting rid of him. The Ravens will also have 2nd year FS Terrance Brookes, who looked like he was starting to come along before he got injured. I could also see the Ravens drafting another safety in the first 2 rounds, so there really isn’t a huge need for Stewart back if this happens. I think it all comes down to whether or not the Ravens would be willing to use some cap room to give Stewart another 1 year deal.
-Tyrod Taylor: Tyrod Taylor has been the Ravens backup quarterback for 4 seasons and has never started a game because Joe Flacco has never missed a start. With that being said, he has not really had a chance to prove himself. The Ravens used a late round draft pick on QB Keith Wenning last season, so I see them bringing him up from the practice squad to be the #2 backup if they feel he is ready. If not, there will be other backup quarterbacks that they can sign, including Taylor. Like Torrey Smith, I think there is a 50/50 chance he comes back, but if I bet money on it I would say no.
#3 – Fixing the Secondary
I’m sure that most of you have this #1 on your list of priorities, but lets not forget that Jimmy Smith will be back next year after suffering a season ending foot injury. Starting with corner, the Ravens will have Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, Asa Jackson and Rashaan Melvin as their top corners. Danny Gorrer is another possibility. With that being said, this unit is in serious need of an upgrade at one of the top 3 spots. Aside from Webb and Smith, Asa Jackson is injury-prone and Melvin has not had enough playing time to determine how good he really is. The Ravens could draft a corner in the first few rounds, or they could look into free agency. Some possibilities there are Antonio Cromartie, Brandon Flowers, Tramon Williams, Kareem Jackson, and Chris Culliver. Darelle Revis is going to be a free agent as well, but the Ravens do not have the money for him. I would be disappointed if the Ravens were to free up some cap room with extending some contracts and they did not sign a cornerback after what they went through last year. The new guy does not have to be Richard Sherman, but I expect upgrades after last year.
The Ravens could also look into signing a free safety if Darian Stewart does not come back. Let me put it this way: If they bring in a safety, they will not bring in a cornerback. If they bring in a cornerback, they will not bring in a safety. I said earlier that I think Will Hill will be back to play strong safety, but if they were to bring in a free safety some possibilities are Antrel Rolle, Devin McCourty, Nate Allen or Dawan Landry, a former Raven.
#4 – Adding a Wide Receiver
As we saw in 2013, without weapons, Joe Flacco struggled. In 2014 when the Ravens gave Joe Flacco more weapons to work with, an improved line and a new system, the Ravens had the best offense in team history. With that being said, the Ravens could once again be faced with adding more weapons for Joe Flacco to work with, starting at wide receiver. As I mentioned earlier, there is a very good chance that Torrey Smith will not be back next season. Steve Smith Sr. will be 36 at the start of the season and will probably not be an every down receiver. If this is the case, Marlon Brown, Jacoby Jones and Kamar Aiken (assuming he’s back) are you’re top 3 weapons at the receiver position other than Smith Sr. This is a problem. I like Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown, but they are not top 2 receivers. Jacoby Jones may not even be a top 4 receiver anymore. If Torrey Smith comes back, problem solved. If not, the Ravens need to look into the draft or free agency to bring in another weapon. This becomes crucial if Pitta cannot come back. Some free agent wide receivers that the Ravens could sign are: Jeremy Maclin, Eddie Royal, Michael Crabtree, Demaryius Thomas, Kenny Britt, Miles Austin, and Cecil Shorts. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens wideout situation looks come training camp.
#5 – Can the Ravens get anything of value out of a trade?
From everything I have written in this article, it appears that some positions the Ravens need to address are running back, wide receiver, tight end, and the secondary. With that being said, another way to upgrade these positions is to trade for other players that can help fill those voids. Some players I think the Ravens could give up to help those needs are: Jacoby Jones, Bernard Pierce, Arthur Brown, and their backup secondary players. Trades are not as common as signing free agents, but it is a way to let some guys who have not been very productive go to a new environment with a fresh start. Another thing the Ravens should look into is revamping their special teams units, primarily their kickoff and punt teams. There have been way too many penalties called on these guys for the last few seasons, and there needs to be a way to fix this, either through some changes in the players on special teams or the coaching staff. It is a small problem, but a problem nevertheless.
#6 – STAY OUT OF TROUBLE
I’m just going to leave this as it is. I should not even have to worry about including this, but unfortunately after last offseason I think it is an issue to be aware of.
That about sums up everything I think the Ravens need to do in order to have a successful offseason. This team rebounded from an 8-8 playoff-less 2013 season and is on it’s way to becoming great again. To be great though, they need to fix some of the issues that came up last year. If the Ravens make the right moves at the key positions like they did last offseason, I think we have another trip to the playoffs in store for the 2015 season.
Thanks for reading,