The Baltimore Ravens have several impending free agents on both sides of the ball that were either starters or played significant roles last season. No team can retain all of their talented players because they can’t afford to keep them all in the salary cap era.
Successful teams that consistently make the playoffs, as the Ravens have for the last three years, have to make tough decisions in the construction of their rosters each year. They have to prioritize who they should and can keep at the right price and who they are willing to let walk and sign elsewhere or at least test the waters before attempting to re-sign them.
Two players that likely won’t be back for different reasons are veteran slot wide receiver Willie Snead and two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon.
Snead was originally going to be featured in the honorable mentioned section of this article but his tone of voice after the season signaled that he knows that he might have suited up for the Ravens for the last time.
“I just want to say one thing: I really appreciate this organization for the chance they gave me after New Orleans. It’s been an incredible three years,” Snead said. “I don’t know what my future is going to look like after tonight, but I’m very hopeful and thankful for everything Baltimore has given me.”
The team has two young slot receivers that they drafted last year in Devin Duvernay and James Proche that learned under Snead as rookies but are expected to assume larger roles in year two.
In the case of Judon, he played on the franchise tag last season but likely priced himself out of Baltimore even if he doesn’t want the reported $20 million in annual salary. He’s one of the most complete 3-4 outside linebackers in the game and has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons.
Some of his comments from his end of the season press conference had an ominous foreboding undertone that a potential change was on the horizon.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in my future – that’s all out in front of me. But the past five years, man, it’s been a hell of a ride,” Judon said. “I wouldn’t ask for another organization, or coaches, or mentors, or players to play with.”
While he’s a homegrown talent that matured and blossomed from a fifth-round pick that hailed from a small school into the playmaking difference-maker during his five years, General Manager Eric DeCosta will probably only be able to afford to pay one of his Pro Bowl edge defenders.
A list of the Ravens’ top five pending unrestricted free agents that they should prioritize:
1.) EDGE Yannick Ngakoue
The Pro Bowl pass rusher didn’t put up the gaudy eye-popping sack numbers that many were expecting when the Ravens acquired him just before the midseason trade deadline but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t effective or failed to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
While three sacks in 11 games including the playoffs wouldn’t typically warrant a huge payday or at least a lucrative short-term contract, his time spent with the Ravens in 2020 should be put into context before any aspersions are cast on the Ngakoue experiment.
Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale’s scheme is among the most complex in the league and he had to learn it on the fly without an offseason to fully digest it or a training camp to get acclimated to it and his teammates.
The Ravens also went up against several signal callers that got the ball out faster than most and operated quick-strike passing games that didn’t give opposing pass rushers, especially edge players, ample opportunities to get home.
Despite all that, he was still able to finish with 13 pressures, eight hurries, two quarterback hits, two quarterback knockdowns, and came on strong as a run defender down the stretch as well.
The resources that the Ravens gave up in order to trade for Ngakoue should also be taken into consideration. They gave the Minnesota Vikings a pair of their coveted draft picks—a 2021 third-rounder and 2022 fifth-rounder. For a team that values draft capital like the Ravens have historically, parting with two for an 11-game rental seems highly unlikely.
With nearly a dozen games’ worth of experience in the system under his belt and a full offseason program and training camp to get fully acclimated to the team and the scheme, he’d be poised for a much better year in 2021 if he is re-signed.
2.) OLB Tyus Bowser
With Judon expected to walk in free agency, the Ravens will need a new starting SAM outside linebacker. It is a role that Bowser has rotated in at, spelling Judon and others during his first four years in the league, and one that he could assume on a full-time basis if he is retained.
Bowser doesn’t have the same sack numbers as Judon and has never eclipsed more than five in a single season, but he is just as versatile and was the Ravens best coverage linebacker at either outside or inside in 2020.
His three interceptions were a career-high and the second-most on the team. He also broke up a career-high five passes and allowed an opposing passer rating of 42.2 on 15 targets in coverage.
He only recorded two sacks but still made his mark as a pass rusher with 14 quarterback hits and 22 quarterback pressures.
Since he doesn’t have the prototypical pass rush production that commands a hefty salary on the open market, the Ravens could potentially afford both Bowser and Ngakoue if they structure their contracts creatively and don’t get outbid by the Jets or Patriots, who love to poach their defensive talent and have cap space to burn this offseason.
3.) DT Derek Wolfe
If you look at sack numbers alone, the veteran defensive tackle wasn’t a tremendous consolation prize for walking away from the Michael Brockers three-year deal.
Wolfe only recorded one sack in 14 regular-season games and one in the Ravens two playoff games while Brockers recorded five in 15 regular-season games.
Like most of the Ravens’ defensive linemen and outside linebackers, Wolfe’s impact can’t be quantified or judged on just sacks or other typical pass-rushing metrics because that would be lazy analysis.
Wolfe was the iron man in the middle of the Ravens defense for the vast majority of the season while fellow veterans Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams dealt with injuries and COVID-19.
He led all of the Ravens defensive linemen and finished second among all front-seven players in defensive snaps (624). His 51 total tackles were the seventh most on the team.
The Ravens were reportedly already in extension talks with Wolfe towards the end of the regular season and it wouldn’t be surprising if he was the first member of this list to receive a new deal.
4.) OLB Pernell McPhee
The 10-year veteran outside linebacker appears to have found the fountain of youth in his second stint with the team these past two years. He has shined bright and been impactful in a rotational role despite being listed as a starter, it has been hard for the Ravens to keep him off the field.
He doesn’t have gaudy sack stats either with just four in 17 games including the playoffs but he was the best edge setter against the run on the entire team. McPhee is a versatile pass rusher who does a lot of the dirty work in the trenches on early downs as well as in obvious passing situations to set up other players for sacks and pressures.
Despite his spurts of dominance, McPhee likely won’t command anywhere close to top-dollar on the open market given his age and checkered injury history. He has expressed that he’d like to finish his career where it all started and could probably be kept for slightly above the veteran minimum at the onset of free agency or after the draft.
5.) DE Jihad Ward
The fifth-year pro is another defensive end/outside linebacker with a diverse skill set that allows him to be disruptive rushing off the edge as well as in the interior like McPhee. He stood out in a rotational role when he was active.
Jihad appeared in 12 games including the playoffs and recorded three sacks, eight quarterback hits, five tackles for loss, two pass deflections, and 11 quarterback pressures.
Ward also falls into the affordable free agent category that could be brought back for cheap relative to his projected impact and defined role in the Ravens defense. He could help offset the inevitable loss of either Ngakoue or Judon, possibly both in a worst-case scenario.
TE Eric Tomlinson
The fifth-year pro was targeted just once during his eight games with the Ravens including the playoffs and didn’t record a reception. Still, his contributions to the offense as a run blocker following the season-ending knee injury to Nick Boyle made his time with the team impactful and makes him worth consideration of being brought back.
While the team will be looking to add another pass-catching threat at the tight end position this offseason, the fact that Boyle is returning from a major knee injury that he suffered in November might make the need of a backup blocking tight end vital until he is cleared for all football activities.
OL DJ Fluker
The eighth-year veteran entered the season as the swing tackle and while he had his fair share of struggles in pass protection at times, Fluker did a serviceable job at right tackle when Orlando Brown Jr. had to flip over the left side after Ronnie Stanley suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 8.
Quality tackles are a scarcity in the NFL and this year’s draft class is much deeper with interior offensive linemen than it is at either bookend, which doesn’t completely rule out a potential return for Fluker but it might not be until after the draft and initial waves of free agency have subsided.