Usually, the Baltimore Ravens take a passive approach to free agency. They typically prefer to let the market settle down from the early frenzy before testing the waters. This allows them to make optimal use of their cap space and maximize their future compensatory draft picks. The strategy of shopping for bargain priced players later in the offseason has worked out well for the team in the past. It is also utilized by most of the perennial contenders in the league, including New England, Pittsburgh and Green Bay.
Nevertheless, the Ravens broke from tradition last offseason. They made multiple early forays into free agency - inking Benjamin Watson to a 2-year $7 million deal on March 9th, Eric Weddle to a 4-year, $26 million contract on March 14th and Mike Wallace to a 2-year $11.5 million deal on March 15th. Following their five-win 2015 season, the team decided to be more aggressive last March.
Ozzie Newsome realized they needed a talent infusion on the roster, so they paid fair market value for a few sought after free agents. The timing of the Weddle and Watson signings produced a sharp decline from their league-leading compensatory pick average. But it is hard to argue their approach in the early portion of free agency was a detrimental to the Ravens in 2016, Weddle and Wallace played a large part in securing the team's eight wins last season.
This offseason, the Ravens find themselves in a similar situation. Their roster does not currently stack up against the best teams in the league. After the retirements of a couple key players and the expectation they will lose two or three major contributors from their 2013 draft class, the Ravens enter March with as many as eight starting positions unclaimed. In order to compete for a championship in 2017, the Ravens must find a way to acquire more playmakers.
The other part of the equation is salary cap space. Despite the fact that most of the teams in the NFL have a massive surplus of disposable cap space this year, the Ravens also have more flexibility than customary. The Ravens currently possess more than $14 million in cap room and have the ability to create another $19 million through relatively painless player releases.
More than $30 million of space is plenty of room to make a splash in free agency. Hypothetically, the Ravens could consolidate their resources to chase an elite level player, or land a couple notable contributors. Potential acquisitions include DE Calais Campbell, SS Tony Jefferson, OLB Jabaal Sheard, WR Pierre Garcon, OLB DeMarcus Ware, DT Jonathan Hankins and CB Dre Kirkpatrick. The Ravens willingness to meet these players asking price in a hyper inflated market will ultimately determine if they will be serious players in the early free agency period.
The window to sign free agents begins on March 9th. If the team is aggressive in March once again, it will indicate they believe the Ravens are close to becoming legitimate championship contenders in 2017. If not, a lack of action would be a signal they consider their rebuilding project to be more of a two-year job, and value 2018 compensatory draft picks accordingly. We should know which way they are leaning by the end of the month.