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Defensive Line should be the Ravens free agency focus

NFL: Pro Bowl Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

A month removed from Baltimore’s postseason disappointment and a month before free agency begins, Ravens executives are busy charting their offseason course. General manager Eric DeCosta has important decisions to make across the depth chart.

The apparent positional needs have been identified. The Ravens would benefit from adding another playmaker to their receiving corps. The interior of the offensive line is uncertain with Marshal Yanda contemplating retirement and Matt Skura attempting to recover from a serious injury.

On defense, cornerback depth is questionable with Jimmy Smith scheduled to become a free agent. Edge rusher will easily become the largest positional need if Matthew Judon is allowed to depart. The front office could also decide that adding a three-down inside linebacker is a worthwhile expenditure.

Additionally, one crucial position group has not received much recognition as a primary need. This offseason offers a prime opportunity to strengthen the defensive line, a unit that was subpar in 2019.

Much has been made of the defense’s inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks without blitzing last season. The Ravens blitzed on a higher percentage of plays than any team in the NFL last year, yet their adjusted sack rate was an 18th best 6.9%. The defensive line managed only 26 total pressures on 2,256 combined snaps in 2019.

The run defense was also not up to Baltimore’s standard in 2019. The defense stopped a 16th best 19% of runs at or behind the line of scrimmage, while their second level run defense ranked slightly better. The defensive line contributed just eight tackles for loss last season.

Furthermore, Brandon Williams, Chris Wormley and Daylon Mack are currently the only defensive lineman under contract for 2020. Michael Pierce, Jihad Ward, Domata Peko and Justin Ellis are all pending unrestricted free agents.

Fortunately, DeCosta has the ammunition to flip this defensive line weakness into a strength. Baltimore boasts the cap flexibility to afford one sizable defensive lineman contract while still maintaining enough space to ink a high-end edge rusher.

Defensive line is the greatest strength of the upcoming free agent class. Pro Bowler Chris Jones headlines the group, but he will probably be too expensive at a projected $19.2 million average annual salary. Ascending linemen D.J. Reader, Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead could also prove cost prohibitive at more than $10 million per season.

Former top-50 draft picks Leonard Williams, Emmanuel Ogbah, Jarran Reed and Danny Shelton are expected to fall into the more reasonable $4 to $8 million per season price range. If the front office prefers the flexibility of a short-term contract, established veterans Gerald McCoy, Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers, Mike Daniels or Derek Wolfe might be enticed to come to Baltimore for a relatively affordable salary.

All-Pro Calais Campbell is a potential cap casualty, he would be an ideal addition to the Ravens front. The Vikings could also jettison Linval Joseph for cap relief. Additional veterans will be released from cap strapped teams and many more less than perfect scheme fits are unrestricted. And, DeCosta could double dip into the depth of the free agent group with cost effective reclamation projects such as A’Shawn Robinson or former Raven Timmy Jernigan.

The free agent market will be flooded with defensive linemen who have proven to be more disruptive than the group the Ravens fielded last season. The draft always remains an option. Yet with the top prospects likely to be selected long before the Ravens go on the clock, the team is probably better served picking a mid-round lineman to add to a newly configured rotation of veterans.

As the NFL continues to evolve, interior pressure has become just as valuable, if not more valuable than edge pressure. Coupling interior penetrators with Baltimore’s excellent coverage personnel in coordinator Don Martindale's aggressive and deceptive scheme would make the defense truly formidable once again.

Bolstering the defensive line will not only relieve the burden placed on the Ravens linebackers and help the team dominate the trenches is high leverage games. Interior disruption is the most effective method to combat top tier quarterbacks.

Baltimore’s defensive line situation offers the perfect intersection of need, availability and opportunity. The free agent market presents a wealth of impactful defensive lineman ready to fill this major Ravens need. After ponying up for a dependable edge defender, the best use for the remaining salary cap space is strengthening the defensive line.