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Examining the Baltimore Ravens 'bargain' veteran free agent signings in the Harbaugh era

With the start of free agency less than three weeks away, Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta and the Ravens front office are busy evaluating the upcoming free agents. In the pivotal 2016 offseason, adding a few bargain veteran free agents to the Ravens will be an important part of the roster building puzzle.

Joe Mahoney/AP

Throughout the Ravens storied history, the organization has always been among the best at signing bargain veteran free agent contributors.  Going all the way back to Brian Billick's 'scrap heap' wide receiver tryouts, the Ravens have been able to find solid players such as Qadry Ismail who originally signed with the Ravens for the veteran minimum before becoming an integral part of a championship team.  Early Ravens teams featured plenty of above average veteran players who singed on with the team for below market deals, including DE Michael McCrary who inked a 3-year $6 million contract, OT Orlando Brown for 1-year at $1 million and CB Deion Sanders at 2-years for $3 million.

When John Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2008, the Ravens improved upon this roster building strategy and signed even more contributing veteran free agents for bargain prices.  The 2008 team included S Jim Leonhard, signed for 1-year at $520K.  The Ravens front office then obtained WR Kelly Washington for 1-year $620K, CB Chris Carr at 2-years $5M and C Matt Birk who signed for a relative bargain 3-year $12M contract before the 2009 season.

The 2010 offseason brought the addition of WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh on a 1-year $855K deal, DL Cory Redding for 2-years $6M and CB Cary Williams who earned $514K in 2010 before a raise to $525K in 2011.  The Ravens also brought in RB Ricky Williams for 2-years $2.6M and SS Bernard Pollard at a 2-years $2.7M contract to round out the 2011 roster.  And in 2012, the Ravens inked WR/KR Jacoby Jones at 2-year $6.5M with CB Corey Graham for 2-years $3.7M.

The Ravens were able to sign more than a few productive complimentary players and a couple like Birk, who were much more than complimentary pieces, all to bargain contracts during the first five years of Harbaugh's tenure.  It is no surprise that the Ravens were able to win playoff games in five consecutive season culminating in a Super Bowl championship after the 2012 season.

Since the Ravens second championship, results have been mixed for bargain type veteran free agent signings.  The front office had some success in signing this type of player when attempting to rebuild the roster for the 2013 season, most notably SS James Ihedigbo who signed on for 1-year $780K and ILB Daryl Smith who has provided good return on his 4-year $13.6M investment.  But DE Chris Canty has returned modest value on his 3-year $8M contract, and 2013 also brought some misses with S Michael Huff at 3-years $6M, DL Marcus Spears for 2-years $2.75M and TE Dallas Clark for 1-year $1M.

The front office rebounded from 2013 during the 2014 offseason, making valuable investments to bring WR Steve Smith to the team for 3-years $10.5M, TE Owen Daniels at 1-year $1M. RB Justin Forsett for 1-year $700K and to a lesser extent S Darian Stewart for 1-year at $1.3M.  These additions, along with C Jeremy Zuttah for 3-years $12.3M assisted the Ravens return to the playoffs.

Then last offseason, the Ravens brass made some questionable decisions when signing QB Matt Schaub to a 1-year $2M contract, CB Kyle Arrington for 3-years $7M and S Kendrick Lewis for 3-years $5.4M.  In fairness, the decision to bring back a mid year find, DL Lawrence Guy on a 2-year $2.3M deal during the 2015 offseason looks like a good investment so far.

Clearly, the Ravens have not had as much success in signing cost effective veteran free agents since the 2012 Super Bowl as they did before.  A variety of reasons could explain this downturn.  Could it be that the Ravens coaches, specifically DC Dean Pees are not doing a good enough job putting these free agent acquisitions in position to succeed?  Or maybe the other organizations across the league have caught up to Ozzie and Co. in the scouting department?  Did the loss of legendary players Ray Lewis and Ed Reed result in a tangible loss of on-field leadership that makes the incoming players' jobs harder on game day?  Or worse, did the Ravens decision to play hardball with Anquan Boldin and Haloti Ngata during contract restructure negotiations cause the franchise to lose some luster in the minds of some free agents?  It is likely that the answer is some combination of all these potential issues.

With the fourth least available cap space in the NFL and more than a few positional needs on the roster, the Ravens must find some valuable bargain free agents this offseason. Under utilized, under recognized free agents and players desperate to play for a true contender, such as RB Matt Forte, WR Jermaine Kearse, OLB Tamba Hali, CB Leon Hall and S David Bruton, may be willing to sign for bargain contracts.  The Ravens front office has proven many times their skill in identifying valuable free agents and capability in negotiating below market contracts with them.  In what is likely to be probable Hall Of Fame players Terrell Suggs and Steve Smith's final season, the front office will have to mine for value when shopping for free agents in order to reach their championship aspirations.