When the Ravens parted ways with Daryl Smith a little over a year ago, I assumed they would spend relatively significant dollars to replace him.
Maybe not big-big money, but Smith, a veteran inside linebacker, was the team's top tackler and defensive signal-caller, a key figure. That sounded like a hole you needed to fill in free agency, with a "name" veteran who possessed a track record.
I offered that opinion with escalating urgency as the offseason proceeded and the front office elected not to replace Smith with a "name," instead giving the job to Zachary Orr. Entering his third season, Orr was a former undrafted free agent who had shown promise, mostly on special teams. Was he far enough along to fill such an important need? I had my doubts.
Well, you know how it worked out. Orr took the job and led the Ravens in tackles, becoming so valuable that they were crushed when he had to retire because of a spinal condition.
As the Ravens go about reconfiguring their lineup for 2017, I'm wondering if another Orr is lurking.
I don't specifically mean another undrafted free-agent inside linebacker who could start, although they do need to replace Orr. I'm wondering more generally: Is there another young player who has simmered on a back burner and might not seem ready for a large role, but is?
Believe me, that's the first question the Ravens ask about any vacancy in their lineup. Is there a viable homegrown option? That's always the preferable alternative because such players are younger and cheaper than free agents. The rise of a Zachary Orr enables the front office to allocate its precious salary-cap space elsewhere.
Despite their active start to free agency, the Ravens still have starting slots to fill for the 2017 season. Here are some possible homegrown options I'm sure they've considered, in hopes of replicating their success with Orr:
1) Right tackle – The Ravens are optimistic about two guys who spent most of 2016 on injured reserve: Stephane Nembot, a massive prospect signed a year ago as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Colorado; and De'Ondre Wesley, a third-year player from BYU who appeared in seven games for the Ravens in 2015. With the free-agent market for offensive linemen thinned, it wouldn't surprise me to see both get long looks.
2) Inside linebacker – As a recent high draft pick, Kamalei Correa should be the "next man up" replacing Orr. And he might be. But the 2016 second-round pick barely saw the field as a rookie before an injury ended his season. When Orr missed the last game, he was replaced by Patrick Unwuasor, a rookie who, like Orr, began as an undrafted free agent before opening eyes with his play. Unwuasor had seven combined tackles in the game. One way or another, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Ravens try to fill Daryl Smith's former position with a young guy for a second year in a row.
3) Outside linebacker – Who replaces Elvis Dumervil? Matthew Judon had four sacks and was in on 27 tackles as a rookie in 2016, so he doesn't qualify as a back-burner guy. The Ravens also looked at Correa in this role in training camp a year ago. But it wouldn't surprise me to see the team use a high 2017 draft pick on an edge rusher.
4) Defensive end – Even though the Ravens rotate a lot of guys on the interior, this under-the-radar starting job is up for grabs after Lawrence Guy's departure. Of the candidates to replace him, Brent Urban has the most experience. But what about Bronson Kaufusi? The 2016 third-round pick didn't play as a rookie because of a broken leg, making him an unknown quantity as a pro. But the Ravens are optimistic about his potential.
5) Center – The Ravens traded Jeremy Zuttah because they want to get bigger and more physical at his position. The logical in-house candidate to replace him is John Urschel, a fourth-year reserve who has played a handful of positions. But he isn't bigger than Zuttah, and neither is Matt Skura, a 2016 undrafted rookie free agent from Duke who spent last season on the practice squad.
Right now, it's hard to imagine any of these players emerging as a key puzzle piece. But if there's any lesson in Orr's ascension, it's that we should be careful with preconceived notions. Sometimes, the answer to a seemingly tough question is right in front of you.