The Baltimore Ravens have had a mostly quiet free agency period, and while the team has added a few pieces, most of the major free agency "noise" has been a byproduct of several long-time Ravens being signed away by other teams.
Between linebacker Jarret Johnson joining the San Diego Chargers, safety Haruki Nakamura signing with the Carolina Panthers, and safety Tom Zbikowski re-uniting with Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis, the Ravens find themselves needing to fill several open vacancies throughout their roster that were held for years by the aforementioned players; easier said than done.
The Ravens have successfully deployed their method of "re-loading" in the past and this off-season, the Ravens aren’t showing any signs of straying from that strategy. Instead of panicking and throwing money around in free agency, the Ravens have amicably parted ways with some of their coveted defensive players and have moved forward accordingly.
Though Johnson’s presence on the field as a leader and astute football player will be missed, the Ravens seem prepared to move into the new season with Paul Kruger as the starting outside linebacker opposite pass-rushing phenom Terrell Suggs. In the defensive backfield, although stars Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard will be with the team for the upcoming season (somewhat disgruntled or not), the departures of Nakamura and Zbikowski leave the Ravens’ depth at safety very depleted, and although the team added safety Sean Considine, his signing is more thought of as a move to bolster a special teams unit which allowed 3 return TDs last season.
So, now the questions become: which is a bigger need for the Ravens, and how do they fill in their roster by maintaining the level of play as one of the NFL’s finest defenses.
(After the "Jump", a bit more on the debate at hand and why one of these positions may be a bigger need than the other.)
The Ravens tend to be a franchise that builds from within instead of spending a ton on over-priced outside talent. In other words: they draft their star players, they don’t buy them. It’s a process that starts as early as scouting a prospect years before they ever step foot on a pro-field. After the draft, the Ravens kind of do some farming. They cultivate and develop their younger players, work them into the lineup slowly behind solid veteran leadership, and then promote them to full time starting positions at precisely the right time. It’s a cycle that turns over from season to season, position to position. A good recent example is defensive tackle Terrence Cody. As a young, somewhat raw 2nd round pick by the Ravens in 2010, Cody saw limited playing time while sitting behind veteran Kelly Gregg during his rookie year. At the conclusion of that season, the Ravens parted ways with the veteran Gregg and promoted Cody into the starting lineup. It was his time.
This "cycle" that the Ravens go through has brought another player through the ranks who will see his first significant playing time this season: outside linebacker Paul Kruger. After being drafted in the 2nd round of the 2009 NFL draft, Kruger had a lot of buzz behind him when first joining the Ravens. Somewhere along the way, he bulked up to try to become a starting defensive end and now, he’s back to being considered an outside backer. The flip-flopping of positions aside, Kruger has become a great situational pass-rusher for the Ravens and now that Johnson is no longer with the team, Kruger is set to become the starter opposite Suggs where he has the potential to wreak havoc in a full-time role. In limited action last season, Kruger notched 5.5 sacks in the regular season, 3 more than Johnson managed in a starting role. Though there may be an initial drop-off in run-stopping production, the upside Kruger brings is more fire power as an edge rusher.
The Ravens also have two promising young players behind Kruger in both Sergio Kindle and Mike McAdoo who will battle it out this off-season for playing time.
At middle linebacker, the Ravens will deploy their usual duo of Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain. Lewis, entering his 17th season and probably off right now riding his bike 100 some miles as this is written and generally just beating the hell out of every day he spends on earth getting ready for football, will enter the season as "the general" of the Ravens defense. The newly signed McClain has proven himself worthy as a starting inside linebacker and looks to become the heir to Lewis after the "Energizer Bunny" hangs ‘em up.
At this time, the safety position seems more dire. After losing two of their primary depth/role players in Nakamura and Zbikowski, the Ravens are pretty much left with no one currently backing up Reed and Pollard, and with Reed’s injury history, the Ravens will need to find someone who can step in if Reed were to go down again. With free agency not bearing much in the way of solid safeties (the Ravens held the top free agent safety prospects), the team will most certainly have to look towards the draft to re-build the depth they once had at that position. Though not loaded with "elite" safety talent, the draft holds a few prospects that could be primary targets for the Ravens later this month to fill in depth that can contribute on special teams but more importantly come in for a few series here and there to spell both Reed and Pollard. Mark Barron (Alabama), Markelle Martin (Oklahoma State), Harrison Smith (Notre Dame), Antonio Allen (South Carolina), and Janzen Jackson (McNeese State University) could all be logical choices for the Ravens in the upcoming draft to re-load their depth at safety.
It’s time for you to decide! Which position is a bigger need for the Ravens: linebacker or safety? And, how do you see the Ravens addressing these needs over the coming months as we look forward to the new season?