Keeping this guy was a big deal. Really big.
Free agency in the NFL is a topic of contention among football fans. Many high profile signings occur at the outset despite the fact that most seem to flop, but that doesn’t prevent fans from wanting their team to make a run at the stars of the NFL. The fact is that many of the free agent stars just so happen to have career seasons the year before.
Even with the potential for failure, the big signings are what the fans want and hope for, easily beating out sitting pat, or re-signing your own players, or even waiting to get players after the market cools on a discounted price a few weeks down the road.
One team that handles the start of free agency in the way described above is the Baltimore Ravens. The fans are by and large used to not seeing their team named the “Off Season Champs” except for the occasional Steve McNair in 2006 or Anquan Boldin in 2010. Mostly they see a team time and again going through boring signings or just putting down money on players that have already proved themselves to the Baltimore Ravens organization.
This year, free agency has been kinder to the Ravens as they did not have to deal with the post-Super Bowl purge they underwent in 2013. The Ravens’ only big loss came via Arthur Jones, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts. The move was almost inevitable, as the Ravens are known for developing defensive players into stars who have breakout years and end up with a chance at collecting a huge paycheck.
The methodical Ravens usually do the right thing and let players like that walk, but still manage to keep cornerstones like Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. However, Jones did develop himself into the team’s top defensive lineman, as his 2013 stats have shown. With 53 tackles and four sacks through 13 of 14 games started, he became a coveted player. Now that he is gone, the Ravens are hopeful that DeAngelo Tyson and Brandon Williams will step up to fill his role.
The other notable departure for the Ravens was Corey Graham, now a Buffalo Bill. Graham played a crucial role in the Baltimore Super Bowl run but was relegated to playing nickel last year. He did, however, account for six interceptions in two years as a Raven but the team will likely find another to pick up the slack in that department.
Letting Graham and Jones walk was something the Ravens could afford to do, but there were some free agents that the team had to make a play for. When healthy, Dennis Pitta is arguably the top offensive weapon on the team. Ozzie Newsome thought so highly of him that Pitta never saw the light of free agency as he was signed the week prior to a five-year deal worth $32 million.
The other “must keep” free agent starter that the Ravens had to sign was left tackle Eugene Monroe. It is not often that a team trades a fourth and fifth rounder just before the end of the trade deadline unless there is a big picture in play. The Ravens offensive line was just terrible in 2013, but Monroe should hardly be blamed for that. He had a decent season and showed an impressive work ethic, something that predecessor Bryant McKinnie lacked.
The $37.5 million dollar deal for Monroe is a bargain for one of this seasons’ top free agent tackles. One can say that Newsome did right by the Ravens by saving them the $1 million franchise tag, but some luck played into it as well. At the beginning, the situation looked bleak between Monroe and the Ravens, but everything changed when nearly every other team solidified their needs at left tackle early on.
Even thought the Ravens’ offensive line will see more changes coming before the start of the season, Monroe brings some much needed stability. The only sure things the Ravens have are Monroe and perennial Pro Bowl threat Marshal Yanda, but if Kelechi Osemele can manage to get healthy and stay that way, that would give them three. The only question marks left are at center and right tackle where Michael Oher could leave in free agency, but has garnered little interest thus far.
Rounding off the free agents signings is Jacoby Jones. Jones seemed to have a change of heart despite seriously considering a move to the New York Giants and accepted a pay cut by the Ravens. With a four-year cap friendly deal worth $12 million, at 29, Jones could very well retire as a Raven.
Now even though Jones is forever engrained in Ravens lore mainly due to his epic play during the 2012 playoff run, he is not starter material at wide receiver. He is best used as a deep threat, as he has struggled with consistency when given starting opportunities. More likely than not, Jones will be used by the Ravens as a dangerous special teams weapon and a sparingly offensive contributor in a third or fourth string capacity.
So the question now is: What does Baltimore do next? Retaining critical players for the team was the number one goal for the organization and keeping Jones, Monroe and Pitta achieved just that. The other free agent that can potentially be deemed as critical is Daryl Smith. He was basically the team’s MVP in 2013 as he helped the team adjust after losing Ray Lewis to retirement. At 31, Smith is still a good linebacker, even better than Arthur Brown.
Currently there hasn’t been much movement on Smith as negotiations seem to be at a standstill.* The free spending Broncos also seem to have Smith on their radar. Will John Elway spurn Baltimore yet again and bring in a fourth defensive starter through free agency?
As far as free agent names being linked to the Ravens goes, Steve Smith and Alex Mack keep popping up. Despite spending his whole career as a Panther, Smith is learning that football is a business and loyalty is not often a reward for service. Cut by how team, he is now vocal (as he tends to be) stating he wants to go against his former team. Interestingly enough, the Ravens will be hosting the Panthers in 2014 at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens and Smith seem to have mutual interests and this is a situation for the Ravens fans to watch as the team clearly needs a second wideout on the roster. Having free agents like Edelman, Sanders and Smith in the open market, the Ravens would be wise to go after any one of them, especially with the team’s history of disaster when it comes to drafting receivers.
Alex Mack is probably one of the best free agents in his class that is still available in the NFL. He is arguably the best center in the entire league and comes with the added bonus of durability, having started all 80 games for the Cleveland Browns. Mack would be an incredible upgrade over Gino Gradkowski, even though his price tag will be steep. But don’t hold your breath just yet, Baltimore fans, as the Colts’ front office seems to be making aggressive moves to bring him to Indianapolis. Fortunately, Cleveland will not be able to match every offer he gets and with at least four teams in the running, there might just be hope for ways to get him signed.
Once again, the Ravens move through free agency quietly but as recent Super Bowl winners have shown, the quiet ones frequently build championships. The Ravens are know for building their team through the draft and by signing lower grade free agents later on. This is something that will not come as a surprise this season and come mid-May, the roster will not have as many voids to fill as it does now.
*update – Daryl Smith signed a four-year, $16 million deal since this writing.