The Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2012, but I thought they had a more talented team in 2013 and would have more success, at least in the regular season, after they won 10 games in the regular season in 2012. Defensively, they had purged washed up veterans like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, replacing them with youngsters Matt Elam and Arthur Brown, and they had Lardarius Webb returning from injury and Terrell Suggs returning to full strength. They lost guys like Bernard Pollard, Dannell Ellerbe, and Paul Kruger in free agency, but were able to replace them with Michael Huff, Daryl Smith, and Elvis Dumervil respectively.
Offensively, they lost players like Matt Birk and Anquan Boldin (as well as Dennis Pitta to injury). However, it was reasonable to expect that Joe Flacco would maintain some of his performance gains from the previous off-season, thanks in part to the Ravens’ retooled offensive line (putting Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, Michael Oher at right tackle, and Kelechi Osemele at left guard) and new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, two things that were late season changes in 2012 that really paid off in the post-season.
I was half right. Their defense was better than maybe even I thought it would be, finishing 2nd in opponent’s rate of moving the chains. All of the aforementioned defensive players had big impacts with the exception of Michael Huff, who was cut mid-season, but James Ihedigbo had a big impact in his absence. They didn’t really have any holes defensively. However, as good as their defense was, their offense was equally bad, ranking 30th in rate of moving the chains. The losses of Matt Birk, Anquan Boldin, and Dennis Pitta were too much and it didn’t help at all that Michael Oher struggled mightily and Kelechi Osemele missed most of the season with injury. As a result, they finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs.
Now they go into the off-season with a reasonable amount of cap space, but also needing to re-sign 7 starters, including 5 that are average or better (Daryl Smith, Eugene Monroe, James Ihedigbo, Dennis Pitta, Arthur Jones). They have a very top heavy cap structure with 6 players with cap numbers higher than 7 million for 2014 (Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Marshal Yanda, Lardarius Webb), which is going to make things pretty inflexible for the next few years. There’s still a chance they could bounce back into the playoffs in 2014.
Is there any doubt the Ravens miss Anquan Boldin? Without another receiving threat opposite Torrey Smith, Joe Flacco had the worst season of his career, a year after winning the Super Bowl. He completed 59.0% of his passes for an average of 6.37 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions, all significantly worse than his career averages. Things will only get worse at the position if Jacoby Jones leaves as a free agent. They need to add a new starting wide receiver into the mix.
Tight end is another spot where they could add weapons. Dennis Pitta’s return from injury last season really helped the Ravens’ receiving corps, but he’s a free agent this off-season. Also free agents are Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark, leaving them with literally nothing at the position. Matt Furstenburg is tops on their tight end depth chart right now. He’s a 2013 undrafted free agent who has never played a snap in the NFL.
Another position where the Ravens have a lot of free agents is offensive tackle, as both starting left tackle Eugene Monroe and starting right tackle Michael Oher are free agents this off-season. Re-signing Monroe should be one of their priorities this off-season, even if they have to franchise tag him, as he’s one of the better left tackles in the game and one of the few talented offensive players the Ravens have. Last season, he graded out 16th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and was even better after coming to Baltimore from Jacksonville via trade. However, they really need to upgrade Michael Oher, who has been inconsistent in his career at both left and right tackle and this past season was a big part of the reason why the Ravens struggled offensively. He graded out 68th ranked among 76 eligible offensive tackles.
One of the underrated and undermentioned losses from the Ravens’ Super Bowl team was long-time center and anchor Matt Birk, who retired last off-season. The Ravens attempted to replace him with 2012 4th round pick Gino Gradkowski, but he was awful in his first season as a starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst center and being a big part of the Ravens’ general problems on the offensive line and in the running game. He needs to be upgraded this off-season.
The Ravens lost both of their starting safeties from their Super Bowl team last off-season and the idea was to replace them with 1st round pick Matt Elam and free agent acquisition Michael Huff. Matt Elam definitely flashed as a rookie, but Michael Huff disappointed and was benched and cut mid-season. Fortunately for the Ravens, unheralded 3rd safety James Ihedigbo stepped up as the other starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked safety. However, he’s a free agent this off-season, so if he isn’t re-signed, the Ravens will have to find another starter at safety.
Kelechi Osemele was dominant in the post-season for the Ravens in 2012 and looked poised for a breakout season in 2013, his 2nd year in the NFL, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2012. However, he struggled through a back injury before eventually landing on injured reserve. He was replaced by AQ Shipley, who was awful, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 67th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. Osemele will be back in 2014 presumably healthy, but he’s still not a proven starter and could be moving to tackle depending on what happens with Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher. They need better insurance than Shipley.
Jacoby Jones was their primary kick returner last season and he’s a free agent. They have some internal options to replace him, but they may also choose to go external.
Key Free Agents
OT Eugene Monroe
Re-signing Monroe should be one of the Ravens’ priorities this off-season, even if they have to franchise tag him, as he’s one of the better left tackles in the game and one of the few talented offensive players the Ravens have. He’s graded out 6th, 15th, and 16th among eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively and he was even better last season after arriving in Baltimore from Jacksonville via trade. The 8th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, Monroe deserves upwards of 40+ million over 5 years on his next contract.
DE Arthur Jones
A 2010 5th round pick, Arthur Jones has developed from a solid reserve to a solid starter to a breakout player in 2013 and now is set to cash in. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013 and could make upwards of 5-6+ million over 4-5 years on his next year. Early reports say the Ravens are unlikely to retain him, opting to focus on other free agents thanks to the Ravens’ large amount of defensive line depth. One concern with Jones, he’s never played more than 536 snaps in a season and he’s never been the key cog on Baltimore’s defensive line, rotating often and playing alongside Haloti Ngata.
TE Dennis Pitta
Dennis Pitta broke out as a talented tertiary receiving option in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked tight end in terms of pass catching grade. He caught 61 passes for 669 yards and 7 touchdowns on 396 pass routes run, an average of 1.69 yards per route run, 7th in the NFL among eligible tight ends. However, he suffered a serious hip injury before the 2013 season, which knocked out most of his season, but he caught 20 passes for 169 yards and 1 touchdown in 4 games upon his return, even though he wasn’t 100%. His presence really helped their passing game. He’s not much of a blocker at all, but he rarely lines up inline so it doesn’t really matter. In 2012, he lined up on the slot on 64.6% of his snaps, 6th in the NFL and in 2013, he lined up there on 79.7%. For that reason, it wouldn’t make sense for the Ravens to franchise tag him because he could easily argue that he’s a wide receiver and win. Besides, the Ravens need that franchise tag for Eugene Monroe over anyone. Still, the Ravens should bring him back on a multi-year deal that pays him 5-6 million annually. He’s too important to their offense.
MLB Daryl Smith
Daryl Smith was an underrated stud in Jacksonville, grading out as a top-10 4-3 outside linebacker from 2009-2011, maxing out at #1 in 2009 and #2 in 2011. He missed most of the 2012 season with injury and took a cheap one-year deal with the Ravens for the 2013 season. Moving to middle linebacker in a 3-4, Smith did a solid job as the starter and has earned himself a multi-year deal, going into his age 32 season. His age is a minor concern, but he’s still a starting caliber player and the Ravens will try to bring him back.
S James Ihedigbo
The Ravens lost both of their starting safeties from their Super Bowl team last off-season and the idea was to replace them with 1st round pick Matt Elam and free agent acquisition Michael Huff. Matt Elam definitely flashed as a rookie, but Michael Huff disappointed and was benched and cut mid-season. Fortunately for the Ravens, unheralded 3rd safety James Ihedigbo stepped up as the other starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked safety. That being said, he’s a career journeyman going into his age 31 season so the Ravens have to be careful how much they pay him. He’s probably a starting caliber player though.
WR Jacoby Jones
Jacoby Jones has gotten a bunch of chances to prove himself as a starting caliber wide receiver, but he’s maxed out at 51 catches for 562 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2010. Now going into his age 30 season, he’s purely a depth receiver whose best attribute is returning kicks. He’s averaged 10.2 yards per punt return in his career on 235 punt returns, scoring 4 times and he’s averaged 26.7 yards per kickoff return in his career on 133 punt returns, scoring another 4 times. However, that’s something that’s going to deteriorate as he ages. He shouldn’t command a big contract.
OT Michael Oher
Michael Oher is well known for being the subject of “The Blindside,” but the 2009 1st round pick has been inconsistent in his career, struggling both on the blindside and at right tackle. He played very well as a rookie and was a solid starter in 2010 and 2011, but he struggled in 2012 and, in 2013, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked among 76 eligible offensive tackles. He probably won’t be back as a starter in 2014. He may have to settle for one year prove it deals on the open market.
TE Ed Dickson
Grossly miscast as an inline tight end over the past two seasons, Ed Dickson’s best attribute is pass catching. He’s struggled mightily with inline run blocking duties over the past 2 seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th worst ranked tight end in run blocking grade in 2012 and worst in 2013. He’s not that great as a pass catcher either though, as the 2010 3rd round pick maxed out with 54 catches for 528 yards and 5 touchdowns. In 2013, he caught just 25 passes for 273 yards and 1 touchdown on 246 pass routes run.
TE Dallas Clark
Dallas Clark caught 100 passes in 2009, going for 1106 yards and 10 touchdowns, but the aging tight end hasn’t been the same without Peyton Manning and since suffering a serious injury in 2010. In 2010, he caught 37 passes for 347 yards and 3 touchdowns in 6 games and then struggled mightily in 11 games with Curtis Painter in 2011, catching 34 passes for 352 yards and 2 touchdowns. He then moved on to Tampa Bay in 2012, where he played all 16 games, but caught just 47 passes for 435 yards and 4 touchdowns. In 2013 with the Ravens, he caught 31 passes for 343 yards and 3 touchdowns in 12 games as a homeless man’s Dennis Pitta. Now going into his age 35 season, he’ll have to wait a while for the phone to ring, if it does at all.
Cap Casualty Candidates
MLB Jameel McClain
The Ravens have Arthur Brown and Josh Bynes at middle linebacker and could also bring back Daryl Smith, so they really have no need for Jameel McClain, a mediocre player who graded out as well below average on Pro Football Focus last season, playing just 376 snaps. Cutting him and saving 3.2 million in cash and cap space in the process seems like a no brainer.
FB Vonta Leach
Vonta Leach was cut last off-season, before eventually being brought back on a cheaper deal, but he could be cut again this off-season. The Ravens can save 1.75 million on the cap and in cash by cutting him, which would be a very reasonable move considering he’s a rapidly declining run blocker going into his age 33 season and played just 230 snaps last season. The Ravens also have a successor on the roster in 2013 4th round pick Kyle Juszczyk, a much more versatile player.