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Ravens should make Za’Darius Smith their top priority in free agency

After a career-best season, Za’Darius Smith is now a free agent. Here’s why the Ravens need to bring him back.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

With 19 players set to hit the free agent market, the Ravens could have a different look to their roster next season. Out of these 19 free agents, nine of them are unrestricted, including linebackers Za’Darius Smith, C.J. Mosley, and Terrell Suggs.

These three players were key to the Ravens defensive success this past season, and have been for quite some time now. The same goes for Michael Pierce and Patrick Onwuasor, who are both restricted free agents.

In an ideal world, the Ravens would retain all of these players, or at least most of them. However, given their needs on offense and cap space, it’s unlikely the Ravens could retain more than three of the five, depending on who they prioritize.

Nevertheless, Eric DeCosta and the Ravens leadership will be forced to make some difficult decisions as it relates to keeping some free agents and letting others walk. While the likes of Suggs and Mosley have been the faces of Baltimore’s defense for several years now, it’s Za’Darius Smith who should be Baltimore’s top priority.

After middling production in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Smith’s future in Baltimore appeared bleak despite an impressive rookie campaign a few seasons ago. However, in a contract year, Smith did his best to earn a pay raise.

Smith’s performance this past season was one the biggest surprises on the Ravens roster. Throughout the year, Smith made timely and disruptive plays, and was also the team’s most consistent pass rusher. His 12 tackles for loss ranked second on the team behind only Terrell Suggs.

Smith, 26, has only four seasons worth of mileage on his body and is entering the prime of his career. After putting up career-highs in tackles and sacks last year, it’s fair to assume that he’s yet to reach his full potential.

He showcased the ability to make impact plays on special teams, as well, by a blocking a field goal attempt in the Ravens wildcard matchup against the Chargers.

The importance of having multiple pass rushers and being able to consistently get to the quarterback in today’s NFL cannot be understated. Even if Baltimore retains Terrell Suggs, it’s fair to question how much he has left in the tank at age 36. Smith is simply a better overall player at this stages in their career, which is in no way a slight towards Suggs.

If Baltimore has to choose between the two, which hopefully will not happen, it will be difficult to let Suggs walk given his place in franchise history. However, the Ravens must focus on building the best football team possible going forward.

Smith’s exact market value this offseason is unknown, but his price tag will likely fall somewhere between $8-12 million per season. No, he won’t come cheap, but that’s the price paid for young, talented pass rushers in free agency.

Should the Ravens opt to let him walk, Smith will join Pernell McPhee, and other defensive players who priced themselves out of Baltimore’s range after career-best seasons in contract years.

While they’ll likely receive a third or fourth-round compensatory draft pick in that scenario, the Ravens should do all they can to bring Smith back. It won’t be easy given he’ll likely be coveted by other teams, but when Baltimore makes a concerted effort to bring back one of their own, it usually works out in their favor.

With a talented skill set and untapped potential, Smith not only has a good chance to replicate last year’s production, but to build on it and be a fixture on the Ravens defense going forward.