Last Wednesday, the Baltimore Ravens decided to not pick up the option on L.J. Fort’s contract, according to Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic:
The Ravens had an option on Fort's contract for 2021, so they didn't cut him. They just didn't pick up the option, so he's now officially a free agent.— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiec) March 17, 2021
Since he was not released, Fort can still re-sign with the Ravens, but he is now free to test the market. The move created $2.25 million in cap space, but the move is bizarre for a few reasons. First of all, Fort’s contract was an exceptional value for the Ravens. He was entering the second season of a two-year extension worth a total of $5.5 million and was scheduled to make $3 million next season. His average annual salary of $2.75 million was only 29th among inside linebackers.
In addition, the front office re-signed linebacker Chris Board on a one-year deal worth up to $2.683 just two days prior.
The #Ravens are re-signing LB Chris Board to a one-year deal worth up to $2.683 million, per source said. Board gets over $1.6M guaranteed, plus the chance to earn more than he would’ve gotten if they had tendered him.— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) March 15, 2021
If the front office wanted to free up cap space to pursue free agents, that is understandable. However, the Ravens essentially could have saved a similar amount of cap space by retaining Fort and not re-signing Board. In addition, Fort will now carry a dead money cap hit of $750,000 next season, according to Over The Cap. So if he is re-signed, he will have to accept a deal worth $2.25 million annually for this move to not cost the Ravens additional money.
Most significantly, losing Fort would simply make the Ravens worse. Statistically, Fort was the Ravens’ most reliable inside linebacker last season. He had a missed tackle percentage of 8.6%, while Patrick Queen and Board had percentages of 16.5% and 22.5% respectively. Fort thrived as a run-stopper. In fact, he finished with PFF’s fourth-highest run defense grade among linebackers.
The Ravens have made mistakes at the inside linebacker position before. The group led by Patrick Onwuasor, Kenny Young, and Chris Board struggled in early 2019. This was apparent in their Week 4 loss to the Browns, in which the Ravens defense allowed over 500 yards. Then, Fort and veteran Josh Bynes were signed, and the defense immediately improved. Subsequently, the Ravens went on a 12-game winning streak. Bynes departed in free agency last offseason and signed with the Bengals for only $1.65 million. In Cincinnati, he recorded a career-high 99 combined tackles last season.
Queen and Malik Harrison both have plenty of upside, but the Ravens should not let another good veteran linebacker leave when the cost is so low. The front office was fortunate to find Fort, and he has been integral to their success. Queen definitely could take a leap forward in his development next season, and I would like to see Harrison get more snaps. Still, why not keep Fort for a little over $2 million? And why is Board more valuable?
It is still entirely possible that Fort will re-sign with the Ravens, and my concerns will be alleviated. However, letting him hit the free-agent market is a risk, and he could receive a better offer. I just do not think the upside is worth the risk for the Ravens.