The question of whether we can or should retain Pernell McPhee is a tricky one that requires the rest of the 2014 season to fully answer. As a rotational defensive lineman, one would think the Ravens have already drafted potential replacements but McPhee's play in 2014 has been nothing short of superb, reminiscent of his breakout rookie campaign, which earned him high praise.
Unfortunately, the case against keeping him is actually straightforward and if we're being honest, is the more likely one than the case to keep him.
The Ravens have always kept stars but even the most optimistic view of McPhee would struggle to characterize him as such and thus arguably immune to the 80/20 rule. He has been a stellar defender but is not the guy you bring in to be the chief puzzle piece on your defense like, say, Terrell Suggs in his prime would have been, or arguably Jimmy Smith now.
So sure, we could be cynical and chalk up McPhee's productivity these past few years as playing next to elite players (like we unfairly do for every guy who played alongside the Lewis/Ngata/Reed triumvirate) but that would be selling McPhee way short. He has been legitimately good in his own right.
McPhee has the sacks but more importantly he has also applied pressure via quarterback hits and hurries. These aren't tracked as rigorously as sacks but they are nearly as valuable and actually more reflective of a team's pass rush performance. The name of the game is disrupting the passing attack — sacks are just an added bonus.
In any event, because the case against is more compelling, the burden of proof is on the prosecution to argue why he should be kept.
The Case for McPhee is an Economical Argument: Scarcity of Pass Rushers
The Ravens try harder than you think to keep their free agents but they know the score. There really is only one reason the Ravens could really justify paying out to retain above-average talent Pernell McPhee given their adherence to 80/20 rule: the scarcity of pass rushers.
After quarterbacks, no commodity in the NFL is more prized than a pass rusher and you really need only examine past NFL drafts to see that this is so. For instance, the last time the #1 overall draft pick was not either a Quarterback, Left Tackle, or primary Pass Rusher, occurred in 1996 with the selection of WR Keyshawn Johnson. Even in the three years where a Left Tackle went #1 overall, the next non-Tackle position selected was... a pass rusher. The teams know the deal, too.
Forget about the clichés you've heard about running the ball to win or defending the run. Those are all good things to do and important for different reasons they are not the prime driver of winning football games.
In the NFL, you need to pass and defend the pass to win, period. This and this reason alone is why quarterbacks, left tackles, pass rushers, and cornerbacks are the four most premium position groups in the NFL and the players' salaries reflect this. Keeping the best players is still paramount of course. For example, you wouldn't let Marshal Yanda go just so you could keep Mike Oher, but all else being relatively equal, those positions are more valuable and more difficult to fill.
For that reason does Pernell McPhee add so much value to this team and thus would his departure actually be more significant than the usual free agent departure we are accustomed to.
But don't take my word for it — take Ozzie Newsome's. Prior to the 2013 NFL Draft he said "you can never have too many pass rushers" which is a companion to his patented "you can never have too many corners" line. That's no idle cliché from the general manager.
Newsome gets it: the passing game gives you the lead, the run game holds on to it. Not vice versa.
McPhee reliably wins one-on-one battles in passing downs
One indisputable truism of NFL quarterbacks is that they all perform worse to some degree under pressure. Some turn into pumpkins under pressure but have a strong offensive line to mask it, while others have become famous for their ability to mitigate pass rushes regardless of their line seemingly. Yet even those quarterbacks play better without huge men bearing down on them relentlessly.
One thing McPhee does reliably is win his one-on-one battles, especially on the inside, to generate interior pass rush pressure. In the NFL, winning one-on-ones is really the benchmark by which we separate starters from backups. Moreover, interior pressure is a critical component of enabling outside pressure to get home. No pass rush is built on the back of a single player.
Elite players are always going to face more double teams; however, double teams have a cost: they create exploitable one-on-one matchups elsewhere. The best teams are deep enough win those battles more often than they lose them by necessity. McPhee wins them.
Yes, McPhee is probably at best the fourth biggest threat in the front seven after Suggs, Dumervil, and Ngata but let's not sell him short: he reliably wins those battles asked of him and that matters. It mattered a hell of a lot on Sunday when the Ravens offense actually had a disappointing day with two turnovers to go with a muffed punt. The Falcons game was closer than you think. A few less pressures in key moments and our three turnovers might have been enough to let one slip away. Against a better team it would have been.
Forget about McPhee's draft status — that is now irrelevant. Drafting is hard enough that it would be supremely arrogant for us to think Newsome can wave a magic wand and find a highly productive pass rusher whenever necessary, especially so late in the draft. It is a hell of a lot harder than that.
In any case, where a guy was drafted has no bearing on what his value is four years later. Just ask Richard Sherman or Geno Atkins. Yes, those are better players than McPhee but the point stands: where you are drafted has no bearing on what you actually contributed and are worth. It isn't less of a loss to lose McPhee just because he was a fifth rounder and not a first round pick four years after the fact. That is merely the rationalization we would tell ourselves.
Pass rushers are a very scarce commodity. If they weren't, 35 year olds like Julius Peppers and Jared Allen wouldn't still be getting $10 million a year even though no other position in football sees such paydays at that age except quarterbacks. Baltimore is better than most at unearthing late round values but it is hardly a given either.
Verdict: 80/20 is supposed to hurt in the short-term
It is hard to imagine Baltimore finding a way to keep a productive pass rush specialist like McPhee but neither will Baltimore blithely let him go without a second thought either. All teams give tremendous thought to constructing a powerful pass rush because all pass rushes are collective efforts and all championship teams must exhibit one. The question is, as always, what is the opportunity cost of retention? All such decisions involve trade-offs. Maybe we get lucky and we find a way. Maybe not.
Those are the high quality problems that strong, deep teams face each year. For now, McPhee is an integral component of a killer Ravens defense and a lot of fun to watch. He does his job exceptionally well.
As always, all football roster decisions are at their core, a question of economics, not X's and O's. That's what players mean when they say "it's a business". That's why Ozzie Newsome gets the big bucks.