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Opinion: Ravens should keep 2019 in mind as they build their 2018 roster

John Harbaugh News Conference
Eric DeCosta and Pat Moriarty

A logical case can be made that the Baltimore Ravens should commit themselves to a comprehensive roster rebuilding project this year. After all, they have missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons and enter the offseason with a highly leveraged salary cap situation. While it would be foolish to discount their chances of making the postseason next year after winning nine games last season, the Ravens have a relatively thin margin for error this offseason in constructing a roster that is capable of winning the Super Bowl.

Nonetheless, team owner Steve Bisciotti seems determined to remain in ‘win now’ mode. He even admitted the front office will continue the questionable practice of restructuring the contracts of players already on the roster. In fairness, the idea that a team should not willfully enter into a rebuilding period when they have a franchise quarterback in place has merit.

There is a middle ground to be found. A compromise to be made that could allow the club to contend in 2018 while also giving Ravens a better opportunity in 2019 and beyond. This strategy would be centered on keeping the 2019 season in mind when making each 2018 personnel decision.

From Joe Flacco’s ill advised post Super Bowl MVP contract structure, to the rollercoaster of releases, re-signings and restructures for injury plagued veterans such as Lardarius Webb, Chris Canty and Dennis Pitta, the Ravens have a troubling recent history of taking a shortsighted approach when filling out their annual depth chart. Valuing past production more than potential upside worked well when Baltimore was making regular appearances in the conference championship game early in John Harbaugh’s tenure. Not so much now that they have become a mediocre team with perennial salary cap issues, who often loses as much talent as they bring in during the offseason.

Clearly, the Ravens want to create some additional salary cap space so they can afford to ink a couple playmakers in free agency. Backloading long term contracts for foundational players Brandon Williams and C.J. Mosley is fine if the Ravens are planning a full rebuild in a couple seasons when Joe Flacco is releasable. Mortgaging the future for players who have a realistic chance of being one year stopgaps is not.

The front office should take the 2019 season into account as they go about their business this offseason. Unrestricted free agents and players under short term contracts, including Mike Wallace, Ben Watson, Jeremy Maclin, Danny Woodhead and Webb, may still be able to contribute in 2018. But the Ravens should not retain them at fair market value due to the unlikelihood of these aging and injury prone players maintaining their production in 2019. Filling roster holes with players who have just a little gas left in the tank is a recipe for dead money on future salary caps, a problem that has greatly harmed the Ravens ability to retain their best homegrown players and shop for top players in free agency.

Instead, Baltimore should reserve their offseason spending for players who can be long term solutions at their positions. Center Ryan Jensen will be expensive, but he would be worth the large investment if he can bring above average play to his position for four more seasons. There is an abundance of impending free agent wide receivers, both top shelf and mid tier, that should be expected to continue their production levels through the 2020 season because they are still in the prime of their careers. Pursuing young free agents coming off their rookie deals is much preferable to signing Jimmy Graham, Danny Amendola or other aging cap casualties to serve as short term stopgaps.

Many have questioned the Ravens reliance on older free agents in recent offseasons. Despite giving them the benefit of the doubt in the past, some have run out of patience with this strategy because of the on field results over the last five seasons. This offseason, the Ravens should ask not if a player can help them earn a wildcard berth in 2018, they should ask if they can help Baltimore win the Super Bowl in 2019.