Offseason moves the Ravens should consider
Ultimately, the Baltimore Ravens’ 2017 seasons proved to be a bust. Though they managed to become a playoff contender when few thought it possible, the letdown of the fourth-and-12 play in the final minutes of the season finale erased the goodwill the team had built up over the previous four months.
Still, while the Ravens missed the mark on the final stretch, they also put themselves in strong position for a satisfying 2018. The defense established itself as one of the league’s premier units, finishing just behind the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings in DVOA while developing young playmakers like pass rusher Matthew Judon and linebacker Patrick Onwuasor. Baltimore also found key contributors off the scrap heap such as former free agents Alex Collins and Matt Skura. The team even determined the future of its front office, tabbing the well-respected Eric DeCosta to replace Ozzie Newsome as general manager next offseason.
That foundation doesn’t ensure success by themselves. The offense remains a mess, and many of the team’s best players fall on the wrong side of age 30. Still, the Ravens can build upon it in the coming months and compete for the playoffs — and potentially much more — using lessons from the past season.
Carve out additional cap space before free agency
The Ravens have limited available funds as they enter the 2018 league year. According to Over the Cap’s projections, they have the fifth least cap space to work with, a sizeable amount of which will ultimately go towards signing their draft class. That leaves little money for free agency or extensions.
Unlike with other teams, the Ravens don’t have a ton of fat to trim in order to create more cap space. However, with a few choice cuts, they can add enough wiggle room to make some moves.
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As soon as possible, Baltimore should release wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. Maclin did little during his first year with the team, and he certainly can’t justify his current $7.5 million cap number. Cutting him would immediately create $5 million in cap space. Baltimore could also gain a combined $3.22 million by releasing Albert McClellan, Anthony Levine, and Darren Waller. Those moves would minimally affect their respective units but free the front office to take a more aggressive approach to the open market.
After that, Baltimore has a few other cut candidates but none with as much appeal. Parting with Austin Howard would free up $3 million, but the team would have to feel confident enough in the rest of their offensive line (and comfortable eating nearly as much in dead money) for that to transpire. The Ravens could cut longtime defensive back Lardarius Webb to free up $1.75 million, but he probably has enough value to come back for another year.
Trade for available playmakers and reclamation projects still on rookie contracts
Though NFL teams rarely utilize trading as frequently as their counterparts in other sports leagues, several of playoff teams from this past season did so to great effect. The Philadelphia Eagles picked up key defenders Ronald Darby and Timmy Jernigan prior to Week 1 and added running back Jay Ajayi midway through the year. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots traded for Brandin Cooks, one of the league’s premier deep threats. All remained on their highly affordable rookie contracts, creating little impact on their respective team’s salary caps. More importantly, all ended up playing significant roles for the eventual Super Bowl participants.
The Ravens could bolster their roster by hitting the trade market for undervalued players on rookie contracts. Doing so avoids the large cap hits that generally come with signing big-name free agents while still potentially making an impact on the roster.
A former first-round pick, Shaq Lawson lost much of his rookie season to a shoulder injury and struggled to adjust to the new defense installed by first-year head coach Sean McDermott. While the Buffalo Bills have not publicly declared any intention to deal Lawson, the current regime did not draft him and consequently no loyalty to him or his future. The Ravens might only need to pay a fraction of original price to bring Lawson aboard, putting him into a defense that could better utilize his pass-rushing talents and help prepare for the eventual retirement of 35-year-old Terrell Suggs.
Similarly, the Ravens could also inquire about Robert Nkemdiche’s availability. Since joining the Arizona Cardinals as a first-round pick, Nkemdiche has seen sporadic playing time to develop his immense physical talents. The front office that selected him remains intact, though the departure of head coach Bruce Arians and the subsequent revision of the coaching staff could push the team to trade the once-prized defensive lineman. Baltimore has several talented players along their defensive front, but Nkemdiche could add an interior pass-rush element the unit lacks should he develop.
Target trade backs in 2018 NFL Draft
At least from the outset, the incoming rookie class differs from most of their recent counterparts in several significant ways. The top-end talent this year doesn’t appear significantly separated from the players likely available later on Day 1 and the rounds shortly thereafter, a stark departure from classes such as 2014 and ’16. At the same time, a plethora of players capable of making meaningful Year 1 impact could last well into the third round. That balance of talent incentivizes a team like the Ravens to push as many of their chips as possible into Day 2 to get the best bang for their buck.
While a wideout like Calvin Ridley might seem too much to pass up should he remain available at the Ravens’ top pick (No. 16 overall), they could potentially acquire multiple Day 2 picks and still land a pass catcher such as Oklahoma State’s James Washington or Maryland speedster D.J. Moore while also bolstering the pass rush or adding a cornerback. With the right talent evaluation — an area in which Baltimore generally excels — turning one first-round pick into multiple early selections could realistically yield several starters.
The Ravens could also use this approach to find a promising quarterback after the first round. Barring an Aaron Rodgers-esque fall for a top prospect, the team has too many concerns across the roster to justify taking a signal-caller with their first pick. However, by turning No. 16 into multiple draft choices, Ozzie Newsome and soon-to-be general manager Eric DeCosta could target a passer to develop behind Joe Flacco. The odds of hitting on a QB at any stage of the draft doesn’t look overly promising, but rolling the dice this year gives DeCosta a head start on a possible (if not likely) quarterback hunt he must deal with during his GM tenure.