Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has successfully remade the wide receiver room in his final offseason before handing the reins to Eric DeCosta. At the same time, the roster has lost two powerful starters on the offensive line. Facts and opinions on the Ravens free agency activity after the first two weeks of the 2018 league year:
FACT: The Ravens signed Michael Crabtree for three years at $7 million annual average value
OPINION: In an inflated wide receiver market, these contract terms represent excellent value
Crabtree is a durable possession receiver and potent red zone target. In three years with the Raiders, he averaged 848 yards and more than eight touchdowns per season. While injury prone players Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson received contracts twice as large, and role players Donte Moncrief, Marqise Lee and Albert Wilson also earned inflated annual salaries, the Ravens inked Crabtree at a value price point.
Certainly the younger ages of the aforementioned receivers played a part in their contract demands, but as a 30 year old player who wins with physicality and size, Crabtree should have several more seasons left before his abilities diminish. Considering every factor that developed in the wide receiver market this offseason, the opportunity to sign Crabtree for a reasonable salary was the Ravens best case scenario.
FACT: The Ravens chose to pay James Hurst a $4.4 million average salary for four years instead of retaining Austin Howard at $5 million for 2018
OPINION: Prioritizing the interior lineman above the right tackle was a mistake
The NFL does not possess 64 starting caliber offensive tackles. Conversely, the Ravens and other teams have been able to find adequate offensive guard play, Hurst included. Furthermore, the upcoming NFL draft class features one of the best interior lineman groups in recent memory, with perhaps eight probable Week 1 starters. However, the offensive tackle crop is populated with flawed players and developmental prospects.
Regardless of personal opinions on Austin Howard, James Hurst and Alex Lewis, the Ravens now have four capable interior blockers on their roster yet only one proven tackle. This issue could force the team to reach for a tackle in the draft, or limit the offensive possibilities due to a vulnerability at right tackle.
FACT: Baltimore currently has more than $9 million in dead money counting against their 2018 salary cap
OPINION: This illuminates the downside to signing veteran stopgaps to backloaded contracts
The breakdown of dead money includes Jeremy Maclin ($2.5 million) Dennis Pitta ($2.2 million), Austin Howard ($2 million), Danny Woodhead ($1.5 million) and Lardarius Webb ($800 thousand). Year after year, the Ravens hamstring themselves in free agency by swallowing dead money. Per Over The Cap, the Ravens carried $23.5 million in dead money in 2017, $15 million in 2016 and $24 million in 2015.
The team should be commended for spending to the cap every year, but these dead money figures are not insignificant. They directly reduce the Ravens ability to pay fair market value for their own talent or to acquire the top players available on the market. Baltimore must break the vicious cycle they have fallen into of signing stopgaps to backloaded contracts and restructuring players already under contract. Successful salary cap management requires long term planning.
FACT: Ryan Jensen’s new contract makes him the highest paid center in the NFL
OPINION: The Ravens three year streak of losing offensive lineman to record setting contracts is due more to their cap mismanagement than player development
Developing Kelechi Osemele into an All Pro lineman and Day 3 picks Ricky Wagner as well as Ryan Jensen into prized free agents is certainly impressive. Nonetheless, the reason the trio was compensated so handsomely is primarily because above average blockers are rarely available in free agency.
Top offensive lines such as the Eagles, Cowboys, and Steelers routinely extend the contracts of their best homegrown lineman before other teams can bid up their prices on the open market. Yet the Ravens constant cap constraints do not allow them to extend many of their best young players early. The front office should do everything in their power to reach a long term extension with left tackle Ronnie Stanley after the 2018 season.
FACT: Baltimore picked up Brandon Carr’s $6 million option for 2018
OPINION: This was a wise decision considering the Ravens injury history at cornerback
After starting 160 consecutive games, Carr’s reliability is a valuable asset. He is not the most talented cornerback on the roster at this point of his career, but he provides crucial depth at perhaps the most important defensive position. A defensive gameplan can be obliterated if a subpar corner is forced into action.
After Marlon Humphrey and Maurice Canady’s strong showings in 2017, cornerback is the best position on the roster. However, Jimmy Smith will be returning from a ruptured Achilles, Tavon Young from a torn ACL and Jaylen Hill from a serious knee injury. Paying the physical, opportunistic veteran the 29th largest salary at this premium position is a worthwhile investment.