Ravens face considerable challenges navigating player market ravaged by franchise tags
In less than a month, NFL free agency opens in earnest, kicking off one of the most exciting periods of the football calendar. Teams across the league will significantly alter their rosters, with some sowing the seeds of an eventual title run. Meanwhile, other organizations will misallocate their resources in free agency, short-circuiting their season before it even begins.
Where a team falls on the divide doesn’t always become clear immediately. The Los Angeles Rams didn’t garner many positive headlines during free agency but smart additions such as left tackle Andrew Whitworth and wideout Robert Woods ultimately helped break a playoff drought over a decade long. On the other end of the spectrum, the Green Bay Packers received plenty of plaudits for landing Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett. However, when Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone took away their most important asset, Bennett quickly disappeared from view while the impact of losing Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang became clear.
For the Baltimore Ravens, a team that barely missed the playoffs last season but has numerous concerns as the new league year approaches, this year’s free-agency period offers considerable challenges.
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The franchise tag has effectively removed most of the top-tier talent from the free-agent market, including Pro Bowl receiver and possible Ravens target Jarvis Landry. The list of big names tied down by the tag also includes top pass rushers Demarcus Lawrence, all-purpose running back Le’Veon Bell, and versatile defensive back Lamarcus Joyner, further depleting the talent pool.
Further compounding matters, several franchises enter the new league year armed with ludicrous amounts of available cap space. The Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and San Francisco 49ers each possess over $70 million to spend in 2018. While they won’t all fight over the same players, that much money in the market tends to push up prices, forcing teams with more modest budgets out of the running.
But while the free-agent class has lost several of its stars, some quality options might sneak onto the open market. The quarterback class, headlined by Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins, and Case Keenum, ranks as one of the most loaded in NFL history. All-Pro Andrew Norwell looks likely to land a record-breaking contract for an interior offensive lineman. Trumaine Johnson and Malcolm Butler could reach the ranks of the highest-paid cornerbacks with Kyle Fuller a possibility to join them despite receiving the transition tag from the Chicago Bears. And in terms of the positions most relevant to the Ravens, the Jacksonville Jaguars surprisingly decided against franchising wideout Allen Robinson.
That Robinson avoided the tag both offers reasons for optimism and concern for the Ravens. Baltimore’s offense has struggled mightily at the receiver position for years, in no doubt contributing to the regression for quarterback Joe Flacco. Adding a premier talent like Robinson could jumpstart the passing game and potentially resurrect Flacco’s career. At the same time, Robinson should command a massive payday as the only premier wideout to reach free agency, and with the Ravens nearly capped out heading into the new league year, the bidding could become too much for them to make a competitive offer.
Still, the Ravens have one of the smartest personnel departments in the league and can attack their weaknesses in other ways. The Miami Dolphins have made no secret of their desire to trade Landry to the highest bidder. While his franchise-tag figure comes in above $16 million, Baltimore could still negotiate a more palatable contract to reduce his impact on the cap this season.
But while Landry looks like one of the few trade options available, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Ravens can’t find another candidate elsewhere. Few expected the Buffalo Bills to part ways with Sammy Watkins last year, especially after seeing multiple receivers depart in free agency. Baltimore’s front office can hit the phone lines and find out which wideouts they can actually pry away and boost their receiving corps in a trade.
Regardless of whether the Ravens acquire a veteran wideout, they will almost certainly dive into the draft’s receiver pool. While bigger names like Alabama’s Calvin Ridley and SMU’s Courtland Sutton garner most of the attention, Maryland product D.J. Moore could make the most sense for Baltimore should he last into the second round. Moore enjoyed a highly productive career at a nearby university, profiled as one of the most athletic wideouts at the NFL Scouting Combine, and plays a style that could open up the Ravens offense. Given the team’s other areas of need (edge rusher, cornerback), saving a deeper position group like receiver for Day 2 seems a more efficient way of building up the roster.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at SB Nation, Sports on Earth, and other outlets. He also serves as the senior writer and editor for Acme Packing Company, a Green Bay Packers blog.