Positions of Need
Things were so bad at cornerback for the Ravens that Rashaan Melvin, a 2013 undrafted free agent who was signed mid-season and made his NFL debut week 15, drew the start for them in the playoffs. Jimmy Smith’s injury was a big part of the problem, but the problem has been there since last off-season, when they failed to find a replacement for Corey Graham, their talented #3 cornerback who signed with Buffalo. Their depth was shaky coming into the season (#3 cornerback Asa Jackson had never played a defensive snap in the NFL coming into this season) and this kind of situation was foreseeable. Smith will be back healthy next year, but Lardarius Webb could be an off-season cap casualty. He hasn’t been the same since a 2012 ACL tear and the Ravens would save 2 million on the cap and 8 million in cash by cutting him this off-season. Even if he sticks around, they need a 3rd cornerback.
The Ravens are pretty backed up against the cap so re-signing Torrey Smith is a luxury they probably won’t be able to afford. Steve Smith led the team in receiving with 79 catches for 1065 yards and 6 touchdowns. However, there’s a very good chance that’s his last 1000 yard season and that he’s due for a big dropoff in production soon, as he’s going into his age 36 season. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Marlon Brown could start in Torrey Smith’s absence, but the 2013 undrafted free agent graded out 82nd out 111 eligible wide receivers as a rookie in 2013 and then proceeded to play just 379 snaps in 2014. Depth is definitely needed at the position.
Given how thin the Ravens are at wide receiver, their lack of tight end depth is especially concerning. Dennis Pitta caught 61 passes for 669 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2012, but has played just 7 games since then thanks to a hip injury. He’ll be back as his 5 million dollar salary is fully guaranteed, but there’s no guarantee he can stay healthy, play a big role, or play well, as he’s going into his age 30 season having suffered two hip dislocations. Owen Daniels was the starter in his absence in 2014, but he might not be back, as a free agent going into his age 33 season. Michael Campanero was drafted in the 3rd round in 2014 and could be ready for a bigger role in 2015, after grading out above average on 376 snaps as a rookie, but they should still add at the position this off-season.
Justin Forsett was a godsend at running back for the Ravens after the Ray Rice incident, rushing for 1266 yards and 8 touchdowns on 235 carries, an average of 5.39 YPC. However, he’s a free agent now and might not be back. There’s also debate about whether or not they should even bring him back as offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was largely responsible for his success and now he’s gone. He’s also going into his age 30 season already and has only surpassed 118 carries and 627 yards once in his career. Behind him, Lorenzo Taliaferro is an unproven 2014 4th round pick with 68 career carries, while Bernard Pierce has a mere 3.78 YPC average in his career.
Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty led the Ravens in snaps played by 3-4 defensive ends last season, but they are going into their age 31 and age 33 seasons respectively in 2015, both of which happen to be contract years. Both players are cap casualty candidates because the Ravens are backed up against the cap and can save a significant amount of cap space by letting one or both of these players go.
Key Free Agents
OLB Pernell McPhee
Pernell McPhee graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014 despite playing just 540 snaps. He was 2nd in the NFL behind only JJ Watt with 21 quarterback hits. He’s not a one year wonder as that type of player either as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked defensive tackle as a 5th round rookie in 2011 on just 348 snaps and has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league. Supremely versatile with experience as a 3-4 outside linebacker, a 4-3 defensive end, a 3-4 defensive end, and a 4-3 defensive tackle, McPhee is only going into his age 27 season and could break out as one of the best edge rushers in the game in his next home if he’s given a bigger role. At the same time, he’s still never played more than 540 snaps in a season so he’s still unproven as a full-time starter and he’s still unproven outside of Baltimore, where they have such great supporting talent defensively. He’s a high risk, high reward signing at 8 million dollars per year. The Ravens have good depth at 3-4 outside linebacker with Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Courtney Upshaw so they’re unlikely to bring McPhee back, given how little cap space they have.
WR Torrey Smith
Torrey Smith has played all 64 games since he’s been in the NFL, starting the last 62 of them, and he’s been decently productive with 213 catches for 3591 yards and 30 touchdowns. Only going into his age 26 season, Smith is a fantastic deep threat, but he’s not particularly good at anything else. He’s still an inconsistent route runner and has caught just 117 passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He’s also never graded out higher than 37th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in any of his 4 seasons in the league. He’ll probably be paid around 7 million dollars annually (between what Golden Tate and Eric Decker got last off-season) and that’s probably a little rich for him. He’s probably out of the Ravens’ price range too.
RB Justin Forsett
Coming into 2014, Justin Forsett was a 2008 7th round pick who had never played more than 118 carries in a season in 6 seasons in the league and had 6 carries the prior season in Jacksonville. However, Forsett took advantage of the Ray Rice situation and rushed for 1266 yards and 8 touchdowns on 235 carries (5.39 YPC), grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back. His 5.08 career average is very nice, but he’s already going into his age 30 season and he’s a one-year wonder. After breaking out in Gary Kubiak’s offensive scheme in 2014, a union with the Atlanta Falcons makes sense for both sides. The Falcons have a running back need after cutting Steven Jackson and Kubiak disciple Kyle Shanahan is the offensive coordinator there.
TE Owen Daniels
Owen Daniels hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since 2008 and has missed 27 games over the past 6 seasons combined. He’s also going into his age 33 season. However, he had a decent season in 2014, catching 48 passes for 527 yards and 4 touchdowns on 72 attempts (66.7%) and 410 routes run (1.29 yards per route run) in 15 games. He’s graded out above average as a pass catcher in each of the last 4 seasons and he’s a decent run blocker too. He’s a borderline starter with little long-term upside and should be paid like one, but he could still be a solid veteran addition for a team. He’s played his whole career for Gary Kubiak, first in Houston where he was head coach and then Baltimore where he was offensive coordinator, and could follow Kubiak to Denver, where the Broncos are in need of a tight end with Julius Thomas likely to leave in free agency.
S Darian Stewart
Stewart is a 2010 undrafted free agent who impressed on 196 snaps as a rookie, grading out above average, but was forced into a starting role too early in 2011, as he graded out 82nd out of 87 eligible safeties that season. As a result, he played just 82 snaps in 2012, but he’s rehabbed his value in the last two seasons. In 2013, he graded out only slightly below average on 583 snaps and then in 2014 he graded out above average for the first time since his rookie season on 782 snaps (14 starts). Stewart is an unspectacular player, but he hits the open market as a fringe starter in a league with lack of depth at the safety position and could make a decent amount of money on the open market. With Will Hill, Matt Elam, and Terrence Brooks under contract for 2015, the cap strapped Ravens will likely not be bringing him back this off-season.
Cap Casualty Candidates
DE Chris Canty
Chris Canty was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked defensive tackle as recently as 2012 and graded out above average as recently as 2013, but he graded out below average on just 360 snaps in 2014. That’s especially concerning considering he’s entering his age 33 season. Also concerning is the fact that he missed 5 games with injury. The last season he played all 16 games was 2011 and he’s missed 13 games over the past 3 seasons combined. The Ravens would save 2.66 million by cutting him. They wouldn’t miss him much and need to cut unnecessary players with significant cap numbers.
CB Lardarius Webb
Lardarius Webb was given a 6-year, 52.742 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago after he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked cornerback in 2011. However, Webb tore his ACL in 2012, seemed to bounce back in 2013, grading out 19th, but regressed mightily in 2014, grading out 78th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks. He missed 3 games with injury and was limited in countless others with back problems. Webb has missed 16 games in 6 seasons and has injury issues that date back to his collegiate days so he’s an injury risk going forward. He could bounce back next year, but the Ravens are backed up against the cap and might opt to let him go. The Ravens can only save 2 million on the cap by letting him go this off-season, but they’d save 8 million in cash and have him off their cap completely for 2016. Designating him as a June 1st cut another option. That would free up more cap space this year, but he’d still be on their cap for 2016.
DE Haloti Ngata
Haloti Ngata’s name has been mentioned as someone who could be cut. The Ravens are backed up against the cap and can save 8.5 million on the cap and in cash by cutting Ngata ahead of his contract year. A better solution would be to give him an extension that immediately lowers his contract number and keeps him under contract for 2016 and beyond, as they did with Terrell Suggs last off-season. Ngata is going into his age 31 season, but he’s still a very valuable player. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014 and he’s graded out as a top-18 player at his position in every season since Pro Football Focus’ inception in 2007.