2018 Ravens Roster Construction – what can we learn?
The 2018 NFL season is officially over, so what better time to dissect how the Ravens built a roster that finished with a 10-6 record and their first Division title in 4 years. Before the conference championship games, Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer wrote an article looking at how each of the four championship teams constructed their rosters. It’s a useful exercise that identifies certain trends or approaches that the NFL’s best teams have implemented to get them this far. Now that the Ravens offseason has started, I wanted to take a comparative look at how the team went about constructing its roster.
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The first thing that stands out is the number of homegrown players on the Ravens roster – that is
players whom were drafted or signed as UDFAs. 43 players on the Ravens postseason roster were either drafted or signed as undrafted free agents by the Ravens. That’s a staggeringly high number of players when compared to the Chiefs, Patriots, Saints and Rams who average only 29 homegrown players. The rest of the players can come from one of two sources; trade/waivers or free agency.
Breer noted that the championship teams have significantly increased the number of players acquired by trade in recent seasons. In 2015, only 12 players on the final four contenders were acquired via trade of waivers. In 2018, that number had jumped to 29 with Super Bowl bound teams leading the way with eight and nine players acquired by the Patriots and Rams, respectively. That number for the Ravens? 2. The Ravens have only acquired two players on their current roster by trade or waivers, and those two players, Ty Montgomery and Cyrus Jones would be considered role players at best. Now to be fair, Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens front office is very busy during the draft, pulling off numerous trades and often stockpiling draft picks. This is likely part of the reason why such a large percentage of the team is homegrown; the Ravens last 3 drafts have landed 33 players with 26 of those players still with the team including 4 who finished the season on IR.
If we look at free agency, the Ravens are not utilizing this avenue as frequently as these other 4 teams who average 16.5 players added while the Ravens only acquired 8 players. However, unlike the players the Ravens acquired via trades/waivers, these free agents have been significant contributors and most were starters in 2018 including all three of the Ravens top WRs and three of the starting members of the secondary. Robert Griffin III is the only free agent who had a relatively minor role on the team. I think it is fair to say that the Ravens utilize free agency smartly. They tend to find players that fit team needs on reasonable contracts, and rarely hand out long-term, heavily guaranteed contracts to UFAs.
Two other aspects that Breer looked at are the top 5 highest paid players on each team and who were the teams’ last 5 draft picks. This gives a good sense of what the team is emphasizing in how it spends resources, and also how the team’s largest investments and contributing to the team’s success. For the Ravens, the top five cap hits in 2018 were Joe Flacco ($24,750,000), Jimmy Smith ($13,233,040), Marshal Yanda ($10,125,220), C.J. Mosley ($8,718,000), and Eric Weddle ($8,250,000). The Ravens last five First Round draft picks are Hayden Hurst (2018, 27th overall), Lamar Jackson (2018, 32nd overall), Marlon Humphrey (2017, 16th overall), Ronnie Stanley (2016, 6th overall) and Breshad Perriman (2016, 26th overall).
Overall, the Ravens are getting pretty solid contributions from the players that they have paid money to. Joe Flacco’s contract could be perceived as a problem, but the reality is he was the team’s starting QB for 10+ seasons and was payed at a level that is consistent with that role (more on the QB position later). Jimmy Smith is the Ravens’ next highest paid player and will be their biggest cap hit in 2019 once Flacco is traded/released. He is an above average to very good CB when healthy and on the field, but his lack of availability has been an issue throughout his career. Yanda, Mosley and Weddle are three veterans who are significant contributors and their contracts were far from problematic.
The last five first round picks show two extreme outcomes. Breshad Perriman was a complete bust in Baltimore, while Ronnie Stanley and Marlon Humphrey are two of the team’s top 5 players which is what you hope for from a first round pick. It’s a bit too early to grade Hurst and Jackson, but the fact that Jackson is going to be the team’s starting QB in 2019 is promising. He clearly demonstrated a special skill-set starting 7 games in 2018 and helped the Ravens return to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. Hurst had much less impact as a rookie and was easily out-shined by fellow rookie, 3rd round pick Mark Andrews, but it is still early in his career and hopefully he will have an expanded role in 2019 and beyond.
Finally, this brings us to the QB position which was fairly unique for the Ravens in 2018. The four teams in the championship games either had veteran QBs being paid top dollar (Tom Brady & Drew Brees) or high draft picks on their rookie contracts that their team traded up to acquire (Jared Goff & Patrick Mahomes). Obviously, Brady and Brees are elite talents and future Hall of Famers, while Goff and Mahomes are two very talented young QBs who have bright futures. The Ravens had QBs that fit into both categories in Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson, and both players contributed to the team’s success in 2018. Flacco is not at the same level as Brees or Brady, but because of the demand for QBs he was still paid as much or more than the elite QBs. Whether or not his contract was the catalyst for the Ravens’ lack of recent success has been a talking point for years, and although it is unfair to put all the blame at Flacco’s feet I do think it is fair to say there was much less room for error in front office decision making because of his contract.
Moving forward, Jackson will the team’s QB and the Ravens will have a chance to take advantage of his rookie contract where they will have a window to compete with only a small percentage of the salary cap tied up in the QB position. How the Ravens build the roster around Jackson is going to be pivotal to the team’s success over the next four seasons. Taking a look at how 2018’s top teams made it to the championship games suggests that it may be beneficial to trade for players that can come in and have an immediate impact. The Patriots have often traded for players that were high draft picks but for some reason did not work out with the teams that drafted them. The Rams took a different approach by trading for high level talent that had worn out their welcome like Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. It does make sense to trade for a talented player that fits a need instead of hoping to hit on a player in the draft.
It is certainly going to be interesting to see how the Ravens approach the 2019 season. They will have a decent amount of cap space that can be used to sign some players in free agency and also several veterans that could be released to create even more space. New GM Eric DeCosta recently made it apparent that he wants to emphasize retaining the talented players whom the Ravens have drafted and developed, so it seems likely that the roster composition will remain similar regarding the number of homegrown players. Joe Flacco is going to be on the trade block and it is possible that veterans Brandon Carr, Jimmy Smith and Eric Weddle could also be in a similar position. Will the Ravens look to acquire draft picks or perhaps bring in some players from other teams? Whichever direction DeCosta and the Ravens front office pursues, you can be sure that they have every intention of putting together.