The Ravens agreed to terms with veteran safety Eric Weddle on a 4-year $26 million contract, including $13 million in guaranteed money on Monday. This move represents the Ravens biggest foray into the free agency since the signing of outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil before the 2013 season. Almost a week into the 2016 free agency period, Weddle represented the best player still available on the free agent market and had at least four team actively courting his services.
The imminent signing of Weddle has received mixed reviews from some national pundits. ESPN's Bill Barnwell graded the signing as a C+, noting that the Ravens have been shedding young talent and replacing it with older players in recent years. Barnwell goes on to opine that the Ravens would have been better off releasing Lardarius Webb instead of restructuring the contracts of Jimmy Smith and Marshal Yanda.
Barnwell's first point cannot be denied, the Ravens have gotten older since free agency began by signing the 31-year old Weddle and 35-year old tight end Ben Watson while losing 26-year old stud offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele. The issue of an aging core group of players on the Ravens can be mitigated by adding a few players in the upcoming draft who will comprise, along with the developing young players drafted recently, a new core group for the future.
Barnwell's other point on the way the Ravens went about creating cap space by using the often ill advised restructuring does not make much sense. The Ravens did push bonus money into the future for Jimmy Smith and Marshal Yanda's cap hits, but they were going to make that money anyway and the Ravens can carry over any excess cap space they have from 2016 to 2017, helping to cover the increased cap hits.
Walter Football gave the Weddle signing a B grade. He explains the Ravens were desperate for help in the secondary and the contract value might be a slight overpay but not egregiously so. Walter goes on to state that Weddle did decline a bit in 2015, but he is talented enough to enjoy a couple more Pro-Bowl caliber seasons. This rationale is sound, a B grade seems appropriate.
Signing Weddle and possibly more veteran free agents is a smart decision from Ozzie Newsome. It would be a shame to waste what is expected to be Steve Smith Sr.'s final season on a deeply flawed team. Terrell Suggs could also be nearing the end of his career so it makes sense to push a possibly necessary 'cap reset' rebuilding season down the road.
The Ravens have taken a chance by signing some older players and keeping some other old players who could have been released, but the structures and guarantees within their respective contracts allow the team to move on if necessary.
Strategically, Weddle makes the entire defense better. Weddle is not know as a big time playmaker, he has three interceptions combined over the last three seasons. However, his addition to the team allows the Ravens to put the playmakers they already have, namely Will Hill and Lardarius Webb into positions more conducive to making plays. With Weddle in the defensive backfield, Hill can line up closer to the box, maybe even at inside linebacker in some packages, to allow his physicality and man coverage skills to shine.
If the Ravens keep Webb around, hopefully after a pay cut, he can play limited snaps in passing situations instead of bearing the full workload of a starting safety on his brittle body. Lardarius Webb has 12 career regular season interception with three more in the playoffs, more than any other player on the Ravens roster. C.J. Mosley could also benefit from Weddle if he end up with less pass coverage responsibility against tight ends.
Weddle will give the Ravens a proven starter at every position on the team except two, inside linebacker and left guard. Even at these two relatively inexperienced positions, the Ravens have multiple options who have earned part-time playing duties at least, all before any draft supplementation. Zach Orr, Albert McClellan or Arthur Brown are capable of starting at inside linebacker. Ryan Jensen or John Urschel have both flashed signs of above average guard play. This is a strong position to be in with a roster that does not have any current glaring needs.
A solid roster, top to bottom, will allow the Ravens to focus their draft on the exact difference makers they said they needed at the end of season State of the Ravens press conference. Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush. They may be able to snare one of the two best pass rusher in the draft, DeForest Buckner or Joey Bosa at #6. Or maybe trade down to the middle of the first to pick Emmanuel Ogbah or Shaq Lawson.
Then again, they could possibly trade up into the bottom of the first round to draft Kevin Dodd or Noah Spence. Sitting tight at #36 may net them Shilique Calhoun or Leonard Floyd. Even after the first two rounds, pass rusher should be plentiful between Jordan Jenkins, Joshua Perry, Yannick Ngakoue and Dadi Nicolas. Ideally, the Ravens will add at least two pass rushers in the 2016 draft.
Adding some pass rushers will go along way towards winning tight games in the 4th quarter. The Ravens will not be Super Bowl favorites and probably not the preseason division favorites even if the draft breaks perfectly for them. However, more importantly, the addition of Eric Weddle can make them legitimate Super Bowl contenders if Eugene Monroe, Terrell Suggs, Jimmy Smith, Breshad Perriman and Joe Flacco can overcome their injury issues.
The 2016 season could certainly go either way. But Ozzie Newsome still made the right decision to be aggressive in signing Weddle. You can't win if you don't try.