Ravens officials have made it clear that they weren’t expecting to experience such a grand sweep of change to their defense, which was ranked No. 1 in the NFL in 2018.
Yes, they had control of the decision to part ways with veteran safety Eric Weddle, who quarterbacked the secondary. And they fully expected to lose outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, knowing he would command a higher price in free agency than they wanted to pay.
But they wanted to retain outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, a franchise icon, and were quite surprised when he signed elsewhere.
They also worked hard to strike a deal with inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, a homegrown star, and were disappointed when his price tag, like Smith’s, ultimately soared beyond their range.
The multiple departures definitely weren’t greeted with toasts at the Under Armour Performance Center. General Manager Eric DeCosta, in his first months on the job, already was facing a list of offensive needs and/or holes in the lineup that needed filling. The surprising exodus of defensive stalwarts only made his job of building the 2019 team that much harder.
Inevitably, some decision-making is being altered as a result. After a fair amount of external chatter about whether the Ravens might invest more in their offense, another veteran safety, Earl Thomas, became their biggest free agent expenditure. It’s also quite possible the Ravens will address inside and outside linebacker with high draft picks next week. I’m guessing that wasn’t in their original blueprint for the offseason.
But surveying the Ravens’ overall situation on defense, I find myself conjuring that old axiom about how some of your best decisions can be ones you don’t make. There’s another category of decisions – ones you’re forced to make – and sometimes those are for the best, too, even if they’re difficult in the short term.
That’s certainly an apt description for the changes the Ravens’ defense is facing – difficult, challenging, etc. But they’ve prompted an overhaul that, in the long run, is for the best.
No, I’m not going to suggest it’s for the best that Mosley is gone. He was productive, smart, in his prime, a player around whom you could build a unit. Replacing him will be a chore.
Otherwise, though, the Ravens were overdue to stop relying on Suggs to provide the foundation of their pass rush. He’ll be 37 in the fall and registered 1.5 sacks in the second half of the 2018 season.
The transition to a new normal for the pass rush might be unsettling at times. But Defensive Coordinator Don (Wink) Martindale is adept at scheming up pressure, and momentum is building among the draft punditry for the idea of the Ravens taking Clemson edge rusher Clelin Ferrell at No. 22 overall – a scenario that could certainly breathe new life into the pass rush.
Along the same lines, the knowledge and leadership of Weddle, 34, definitely will be missed in the secondary, but the Ravens hope Thomas, 29, can provide those elements and more playmaking. Baltimore was stingy on defense last season but ranked low (No. 22) in takeaways.
I don’t think the Ravens began this offseason envisioning Thomas as the leader of their drive to create more takeaways in 2019, but again, some decisions you’re forced into can turn out just fine.
Bottom line, there’ll be plenty of new faces in the defensive huddle and plenty of questions about new leadership. But Thomas is already asserting himself in the latter capacity, and my two cents, leadership is largely an organic element, i.e., one that develops naturally during a season. Young players such as Patrick (Peanut) Onwuasor, Matthew Judon and Michael Pierce are already exhibiting the right tendencies.
Yes, the exodus of familiar names was startling. But between their pre-existing depth and the new blood they’re gathering, the Ravens are quite capable of surviving.
Their 2019 defense will be more altered than they originally envisioned, no doubt. But will the unit be diminished as a result? I’m not so sure.