With only a few days away from the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, and the start of free-agency set to begin on March 13th, franchises around the NFL will undergo the inevitable changes that the off-season brings. Veterans will come and go, and rookies and young stars-in-the-making will step up to prove themselves.
The Baltimore Ravens have always remained a dominant defensive force within the league, setting the standard for hard nosed, big hitting, in your face style of play. The Ravens’ defense is able to remain among the NFL’s best in large part due to their central core of defensive stars that each year are among the leagues best at their respective positions. These essential core players would be: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata. Though these four defensive cornerstones remain, several Ravens defensive players have come and gone throughout the years, and this off-season should be no different.
The Ravens have several key defensive players set to become free-agents in a matter of weeks, and while I’m sure most fans and coaches alike would love to keep all of them in Baltimore, surely some of these players will be moving on to different franchises: Jarrett Johnson (un-restricted), Jameel McCLain (unrestricted), Brendon Ayenbadejo (unrestricted), Tom Zbikowski (unrestricted), Haruki Nakamura (unrestricted), and Cory Redding (unrestricted), are all due to hit the open market, just to name a few.
(After the "Jump", see which position could see the most change this off-season.)
Defensive Line: While defensive tackle Brandon McKinney, and defensive end Edgar Jones, are both set to become un-restricted free agents, the most notable free-agent-to-be on the defensive line would have to be defensive end, Cory Redding. While Redding may not be the Ravens’ biggest defensive star, he has proved to be a solid defender that excels at stuffing an offense’s rushing game with a moderate amount of pass rush ability. Through the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Redding has tallied: 85 tackles and 7.5 sacks. At 31 years old, the Ravens may find themselves in a predicament when it comes time to asses Redding’s future as a Raven. While he has proved to be a solid contributor to the Ravens’ defense, the team may decide to get younger at the defensive end position and award the starting job to last years 5th round pick, Pernell McPhee, who notched a solid 6 sacks in extremely limited playing time. In the end, it will come down to whether or not the team can get Redding for the right price and if they wish to boost their pass rush by perhaps rolling the dice on the young up-and-comer, McPhee.
Defensive Backs: Once thought to be the Ravens’ biggest defensive weakness, the secondary has suddenly become a major strength. While both cornerbacks, Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams, are set to become restricted free agents, it seems as though the Ravens are prepared to keep both in Baltimore for the future. General Manager, Ozzie Newsome, has even already said that he would start looking into a new deal for Webb. On the flip side of things however, both cornerbacks, Dominique Foxworth’s and Chris Carr’s future with the Ravens are uncertain. Foxworth, plagued by injuries for almost two years now, will have to prove that he healthy and perhaps take a big pay cut from the roughly $6.0 million he is due in 2012, if he is not just cut altogether. Carr, as one of the best cornerbacks for the Ravens in 2010 in which he posted: 54 tackles, 8 pass deflections, and 2 interceptions, signed a new contract last off-season. After being buried on the depth chart by the likes of: Lardarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, Cary Williams, and Danny Gorrer, the team could ask Carr to take a pay cut, or even perhaps cut him out-right. Simply put, the Ravens have extraordinary depth at the cornerback position and could look to free up crucial cap space by parting ways with some of those hefty contracts.
As far as the safeties go, unfortunately it is unlikely that the Ravens will be able to hang on to both Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura. While both players have served mostly in back-up roles, each player is versatile in their own right and contributes to the team in several key areas. Zbikowski has been able to step into starting roles when Ed Reed has been injured as well as becoming a kick returner down the stretch when the Ravens needed it most. Nakamura has become a solid special teams contributor and has also done a very good job coming in on certain defensive packages as an extra defensive back with the ability to play at both cornerback and safety. With a less than stellar free-agent safety class this year, look for the Ravens to try and retain these safeties at a reasonable price and address the position through the draft.
Linebackers: Perhaps the most coveted Ravens defensive free agent will be unheralded outside linebacker: Jarrett Johnson. While not a prominent pass-rusher, Johnson is acknowledged for his ability to be a great run stuffer and a solid tackler. Known for doing the "dirty work" and setting and holding the edges, Johnson will be an attractive target for teams with room to spend that need a solid, good all-around football player. With contracts being mulled over for several other Ravens, Johnson could be the odd man out and command too much money on the open-market for the Ravens to afford. Many experts and fans have speculated whether or not former Ravens defensive coordinator turned Indianapolis head coach, Chuck Pagano, could make a strong run at Johnson. While his absence would be felt, the Ravens have several outside line backers waiting in the wings to show themselves off, such as: Paul Kruger, Sergio Kindle, and Mike McAdoo. Inside linebacker, Jameel McClain, is also going to become an unrestricted free-agent. During the 2011 season McClain’s stats were as follows: 50 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 interception. While not outstanding, McClain has been a solid defender working behind all-time great, Ray Lewis. With shaky depth at the inside linebacker position, the Ravens should try to re-sign McClain for a decent price before a linebacker needy team like the Philadelphia Eagles snatch him up. But, if the team decides to let him walk, there will be several promising prospects in this year’s draft, such as: Vontaze Burfict, Dont’a Hightower, and Luke Kuechly.
Hopefully the Ravens can work some magic and look to bring back most of their free-agents-to-be. Luckily, the Ravens have done a good job throughout the years building great depth through the draft, and should some Ravens move on to different teams this off-season, there are many talented players waiting in the wings that should be ready to step into starting roles.