Eisenberg: Why The Ravens Are Trying to Lock Up Young Talent 

051119_Eisenberg

The Ravens didn’t want to lose linebacker C.J. Mosley, the cornerstone of their defense for the past few years. Before he signed with the New York Jets in March, Mosley indicated that he felt similarly about wanting to stay in Baltimore.

So … what happened?

If they were on the same page, why isn’t Mosley still playing for the Ravens, who drafted him and helped him develop into a four-time Pro Bowl selection by age 26?

Quite simply, the two sides couldn’t reach a deal in the years before Mosley was due to hit free agency.

I don’t know why, or how close they came, but I do know this: If a stalemate lasts long enough for a quality player to become a free agent, enabling anyone to bid for him, anything can happen. It certainly did with Mosley. Despite both sides wanting a deal, his price soared beyond the Ravens’ limit and now he plays elsewhere.

The moral of the story is obvious. If you want to hold onto a quality player, don’t let him hit free agency. Be proactive. Get him signed early, before his countdown to freedom begins. Otherwise, you’re living dangerously.

It’s easier said than done. Free agency is where the biggest of the big bucks reside. Any player is going to want to get paid handsomely to forfeit his opportunity to experience that process.

When the Ravens reached a deal with Tavon Young to keep him from becoming a free agent after the 2019 season, Young, 25, became the NFL’s highest-paid slot cornerback. Justin Tucker, 29, became the highest-paid kicker in NFL history when he signed a contract extension last month; he could have become a free agent in 2020.

As long as a team identifies the right players to retain and is able to handle the costs, the advantages of being proactive easily offset any negatives. You get to keep your best players instead of losing them. Your front office’s list of tough down-the-line decisions gets shorter. There’s more continuity and certainty, which beats turnover and uncertainty any day.

That’s why it makes sense for the Ravens to continue pursuing their stated goal of trying to sign more young players to extensions.

They haven’t named names, but I will. Michael Pierce, Peanut Onwuasor and Matthew Judon are all due to become free agents in 2020. Ronnie Stanley would do so in 2021. They’re all good players, potentially cornerstones of their units, and as Mosley’s case illustrates, they could easily be gone if they reach free agency.

I’m sure some will question whether they’re worth the major investment it would take to keep them; none have received Pro Bowl recognition. (Stanley was an alternate in 2018.) My suggestion? Trust your eyes. They all looked like ascending players last season. They were important. It’s a career arc we’ve seen many times.

And remember, it always costs less to pay for what you think a player is going to do, as opposed to what he’s already done.

Still not convinced? Here’s another suggestion: Imagine what the Ravens’ depth chart would look like without those players. Who would play if they weren’t here? That should convince you they’re deserving of extensions.

Now that the draft is in the rear-view mirror, we’re entering the prime months of what I’ll call the “extension season.” From a team perspective, it’s a great time to try to lock up young players, i.e., before the final year of their contract begins. Once they cross that threshold, the clock starts ticking and the potential for a bad outcome increases.

Every case is different. The price for quality pass rushers is only rising in free agency, and if you think Judon didn’t notice, think again. Quality left tackles such as Stanley also are highly valued as free agents. Can the Ravens concoct deals that convince them to stay in Baltimore for the long term?

Mosley is among the most talented Ravens ever to depart in free agency, but others of real quality preceded him out the door. You know the names. Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta is trying to curb that outbound flow. It’s a tough challenge, but well worth pursuing.

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