Even before Lewis and Webb went down, it was apparent that the defense was due toi receive the lion's share of attention next off-season. Sure, defensive coordinator Dean Pees is not making anyone forget Doug Pagano, but the fact is certain defenders for the Ravens just might not be good enough to play at a high level. So regardless of how far the Ravens go this year, the defense will need an overhaul. Below I look in turn at the DL's, LB's, CB's, and safeties to see what exactly the problems are and what options the Ravens might take next off-season.
Before I do that, a couple of things to keep in mind:
1) The Ravens will not have much cap room next year. You got to think that Flacco will be priority #1 this off-season and that he won't come cheap. Ed Reed's contract will have expired, so will Bryant McKinnie's and that helps but not a huge amount. So any free agent spending we do will be judicious and strategic.
2) The offense-even the OL-is in good shape and doesn't need and won't get much attention. QB? Check-we're good after we sign Flaco. RB? We're fine. WR? We could cut Boldin I suppose but right now I'm loving how he just takes over some series and his team first attitude is great. Did you see how he did some quick coaching of Jimmy Smith on Sunday which immediately paid dividends when the Cowboys were threatening in the first half? I say keep him, and the rest of the WR's are good for another year of seasoning.
That leaves the OL and as frustrating as Oher is, there are just more pressing needs than to replace an average LT. In fact after his contract expires the next year I figure that we will resign him to a medium level contract. Hey-we can't spend big everywhere and for the price that we can retain him, that's a good thing. Not saying that we won't draft a project on day 3 and/or get a vet to replace McKinnie (I presume we keep Bobbie Williams who has a 2 year contract with us) but those decisions are minor compared to what the defense needs. Speaking of which...
1) Defensive line. After Ngata there's...no one. Kemoeatu and Cody: two guys who are plain not good enough. Here is a problem that any change of scheme can't solve. We need more quality on the DL. Add in Arthur Jones and McPhee and we got four linemen who are overmatched every week, putting way too much pressure on the LB's and secondary. This is the most needy unit on the team. What to do?
- I figure that Kemo is gone after the year. He is strictly the veteran equivalent of McKinnie and Williams-except he didn't work out at all.
- Terrance Cody. Probably he has an upside but that upside does not include any sort of pass rush. Given that he must become a serious run stopper and nothing that we've seen this year has said that he can do that. He's a major disappointment, maybe the biggest on the team. He's got one more year on his contract but next year we simply can't pencil him in as a starter. Backup, yeah-one last chance to show something but nothing more.
- Arthur Jones is a RFA after this year and I can't imagine us offering him any more than the vet minimum to come back as a sub. He might well not make the team depending on what moves are made.
- Pernell McPhee's got a couple more years on his contract so he'll stay around. Hopefully he can play better than he has been and that his injuries are what's slowing him down. He'll still get his chances, but wouldn't you like another option to help with the pass rush?
- The projects: McAdoo, Tyson, Hall: obviously we'd love for one of them to develop but the odds are long. We can't be thinking that one of them will fill the gaping holes on the line.
What to do: Draft and sign. This is the one unit I think we might try to sign a free agent, a Cory Redding mid-level vet type. We need so much both in plugging the holes for stopping the run and helping out with the pass rush that we need more than a 1st round draft pick. But speaking of draft picks I can easily see us spending a 1st or 2nd rounder on a DL. We won't be able to pick the highest rated DL's (either a DT or a 3-4 DE) because I don't think we will completely collapse this year and get a top 10 pick, but there wil be a good handful of quality players available. Guys like Jesse Williams of Alabama, Sylvester Williams of North Carolina,Will Sutton of Arizona St, Kawann Short of Purdue, Sheldon Richardson of Missouri, Alex Okafor of Texas, Carradine of Florida State, or Simon of Ohio St. Hopefully Ozzie and Co fall in love with a couple of these guys. Several of them appear to have a pass rush in them.
LB. We have a very fluid situation here this offseason. Kruger and Ellerbe are UFA's. McClellan and Kindle RFA's. Suggs wil still be recovering from his ACL, Upshaw will be a sophmore, Ayanbedejo wil be an aging mainly special teams guy.
But you know what? I really hope the team looks long and hard before re-signing these guys. Its like this. You know how over the years we've noticed how we've developed good LB's from free agency or low round draft picks-giys like Hartwell, Thomas, and Scott-only to see them sign for big bucks elsewhere and then start to suck cause they were no longer around Ray Lewis? Well to me that's happening to our team right now. As Lewis fades, his ability to influence and raise the games of the projects LB's that we have has diminished. It says here that if Jameel McClain had joined the Ravens in oh 2005, his play would have been so good in a couple of years that he would have gotten a big contract with another team 3-4 years later because an in the prime Ray Lewis would have helped him that much. As it was when McClain went on the market last year, he basically got no takers and came back to the Ravens with a mid-level contract-and we might have overpaid for him.
So what does this mean for the likes of Ellerbe and Kruger and Kindle and McClellan? They could well be crap that has seemed acceptable because of Lewis. It was especially telling that McClain didn't get much of a nibble as a free agent last year. It was like the rest of the league has figure out the Raven's LB's. Even an old Ray Lewis has the smarts to tell his teammates what to look for, where to line up and such. But Ray's gone, at least for this year so we are about to see these guys exposed for what they are. And they have it especially hard because the DL is so weak.
So I don't know how these guys will do the rest of the year. I like McClellan myself. I think he'll be worth keeping long-term. I fear that we re-sign Ellerbe when no one else wants him. Same with Kruger honestly: I don't see much upside with either of them. Kindle? Pfft. Upshaw is the long term starter at ROLB opposite Suggs. That's already apparent.
I can imagine our starting LB unit next year consisting of Suggs-McClain-Lewis-Upshaw with McClellan being the main backup. But what I want is for the Ravens to draft a stud ILB in rounds 1 or 2: I would love Manti Te'o but he should be gone by the time we pick. (If not run, don't walk to turn in our draft card.) But there are a couple other rookies that we should look at: I love Alex Olgetree of Georgia and I would slot him in ahead of McClain and have him learn from Lewis. Right now if I had to pick a player I wanted in round 1 and we are picking after 20, Ogletree is my guy. He could become our rock at ILB for the next decade. Other possibilities could help though not as dramatically as Te'o or Ogletree: Kevin Minter of LSU, Chris Borland of Wisconsin.
I am focusing on ILB because that's where the need is greatest. At OLB we mainly need depth since we have our starters. I wouldn't be opposed to re-signing Kruger at a cheap contract and as a pass rushing specialist but then if we don't, a guy like Dion Jordan of Oregon would probably be an upgrade and available in round 2 or maybe 3. Khaseem Green of Rutgers is another interesting player. Then you got more solid players like Chase Thomas of Stanford, or at a lower round Michael Clay of Oregon. But all things equal, ILB is where our need is greatest.
Safety. Its pretty simple here. Ed Reed is in his contract year and until this week vs the Cowboys it sure looked like he was playing for one final contract. But then he delivered that howler of a game and... I don't know. Even before the Cowboys game I could see us taking a long time re-signing Reed and he might well sign elsewhere if he can get decent $$$. But if we don't bring him back then we have a huge hole to fil and no one on the team ready to fill it. Safety all of a sudden becomes as big a priority as the DL. Yeah we have Pollard but he's a SS. Considine and Ihedigbo and more special teams guys who back up Pollard. Below Reed there nothing really. Christian Thompson is a project. Maybe he's worth developing-I honestly don't know and neither do the rest of us fans, but low round draft picks can't normally be counted on for more than quality backup. What we will need is a starter, which means a high round draft pick probably as any free agent will be too expensive for us and a free agent DL is a higher priority.
The free safety draft market is interesting. A couple of high round graded players (Vaccaro of Texas, Reid of LSU, and McDonald of USC) but a whole lot of mid-round guys like 9 or 10 of 'em.I say pick a high round guy if Reed does not return and a mid-round player if he does.
Cornerback. Bet Chad Williams wishes he would have signed our contract offer, eh? Maybe. As much as he sucked the first few games, he might bounce back at least some now that he's not always being targeted by teams wanting to avoid Webb. But what that means for the Ravens is that they are in a delicate place with him. If he does bounce back, chances are a team in drastic need of a corner wil steal him from us. If he remains sucky then we won't want him. Then there's that middle ground where we keep him. To me that middle ground has a lot to do if Jimmy Smith develops. If Smith does then he'll definitely be starting next year opposite Webb and Williams is the nickel corner. My guess is that he'll leave the team once the Ravens show that they will offer less than they did last summer.
Jimmy Smith: lots riding on him. I say he makes it. If so then CB is the defensive unit with less of a need for an upgrade, especially if Chykie Brown shows promise. But these things are a bunch of ifs. If they fail then I see us dipping into the draft mid-rounds for a CB. Not a high pick because we'll have Webb back and we'll still be hoping for Smith to blossom.
To sum up:
- The unit with the most in need is DL and that's probably the only place we might dip into free agency for.
- We will pick in rounds 1, 2 and 3, defenders: DL, ILB, and maybe safety if Reed leaves. We need to shore up the center of our defense.
- Mid rounds could be safety and more DL help.
- Kruger, Ellerbe, Kemoeatu, Chad Williams will all lose their starting jobs and probably won't be back. Cody will be a sub. McClain might also be a sub if we pick a ILB in rounds 1 or 2.
- I can see us trading for another 2nd or 3rd round pick especially if Reed does not re-sign by the draft.
My defense starting game 1 next year:
----free agent DL---Ngata----draft pick DL subs: McPhee, Cody plus others
Upshaw--draft pick ILB---Lewis---Suggs subs: McClellan, McLain, Ayenbedejo,
Webb--Pollard---draft pick FS----Smith subs: Thompson, whoever