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Eisenberg: Three Free Agents That Could Fit Ravens


You had to pay close attention to notice, but when he spoke to the media at the combine last weekend, Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome acknowledged a shift in his approach to adding new players in 2014 – a major shift, potentially.

Last month, at the team's end-of-season press conference, Newsome had said that when it came to signing veterans off the open market, he preferred salary cap casualties to unrestricted free agents. Cap casualties tend to be cheaper, and unlike UFA signings, they don't eat into the number of compensatory draft picks you're awarded.

It's the approach the Ravens have taken for awhile. Right player, right price. Find the deals. Avoid the top of the market.

But at the combine, Newsome said the team "probably" can go after UFAs this year, likely because the league's salary cap is rising from $123 million to $130 million, giving the Ravens more room to maneuver.

"This year, we'll probably use every avenue to make our team better," Newsome said. "If there's a free agent we feel like can come in and impact our team, that is someone we'd be attracted to."

He reiterated: "We'll use every avenue to make our team better."

My thought is his use of the phrase "every avenue" means UFAs are now also possible additions – no small thing. Previously, based on what Newsome had said, you had to dismiss them.

I don't expect the Ravens to start throwing money around like the Washington Redskins or other free-spending teams that tend to land top-of-the-market guys. For starters, the Ravens don't have a lot to throw around; even with the higher ceiling, they don't have as much cap room as some teams. And they have a lot of holes to fill, so every penny counts.

In other words, they're going to be looking for a sensible UFA signing – probably one, with an outside shot at two. With the understanding that no one in the front office has whispered any names in my ear, here are some possibilities:

Alex Mack, C, Cleveland – He's just 28, a two-time Pro Bowl selection. He could step in and provide leadership and ballast along the offensive line, an area where the Ravens really struggled in 2013. Centers, even good ones, generally don't break the bank. The Browns say they want to keep him, but would anyone blame him for leaving the AFC North's basement?

Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants – The Ravens need to upgrade their pass-catching corps. Denver's Eric Decker, Philadelphia's Jeremy Maclin and Nicks are the top UFA wide receivers. Maclin is likely to be retained and Decker could cost $8 million a year, too much. Nicks, 26, could be available for a lot less after a slight falloff in 2013. He's a steady producer, and signing him would not keep the Ravens from also plucking a WR out of a deep draft class.

Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo – Newsome has said one of his top priorities is to add an athletic, playmaking free safety to twin with Matt Elam, who is more of a strong safety. Byrd, 27, wants $8 million a year and won't be available if the Bills put the franchise tag on him for a second straight season, but if he's available, he's what the Ravens are looking for.

Is Dennis Pitta worth the fuss? I'm starting to hear and read "nay" from some fans as the Ravens try to lock up their tight end to a long-term deal and contemplate using the franchise tag to keep him around.

I understand the negative rationale. Unlike other homegrown players the Ravens tagged and eventually signed (Chris McAlister, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata), Pitta has never made the Pro Bowl. Only once in his four years in Baltimore has he caught more than 40 passes in a season. Meanwhile, he'll be 29 in June and coming off a major injury.

If it's going to take an inflated deal to keep him, the Ravens shouldn't indulge. Some mock drafts have them taking a tight end in the first round of the draft, so Plan B exists.

But as for whether Pitta is worth a lot of fuss: Yes, he is.

The Ravens need to focus on making quarterback Joe Flacco's life better, not worse. Losing Pitta would make it worse. He and Flacco have natural chemistry. Pitta isn't a deep threat, but he makes catches that keep drives going and finish them off. His absence for much of 2013 was a key factor in the Ravens' disappointing finish.

Some things can't be quantified. The Ravens learned last season that life without Pitta was pretty rotten. They're right to be going out of their way to keep it from happening again – up to a point.

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