The Ravens remain optimistic they may re-sign outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith in free agency after his career-year in 2018.
Smith led the Ravens in sacks (8 ½) and he is just 26 years old. When a productive pass-rusher hits the open market in his prime, it is easy to find lucrative offers.
However, this is a strong year for free agent edge rushers, meaning Smith may not command the contract he would if fewer were available. Other pass rushers set to become free agents include Demarcus Lawrence (10 ½ sacks) of the Dallas Cowboys, Frank Clark (13 sacks) of the Seattle Seahawks, Jadeveon Clowney (nine sacks) of the Houston Texans, Dee Ford (13 sacks) of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Trey Flowers (7 ½ sacks) of the New England Patriots.
With free agency still more than a month away, Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta said it's too early to predict if Smith will be too expensive for Baltimore.
"I think the jury's still out," DeCosta said. We don't know what Za'Darius' market is going to be. We have a lot of different ways that we could go. He had a really nice year. Typically, the market is usually out of control for those guys, initially out of the gate. There are some good pass rushers this year. We're optimistic we may have a chance to bring him back, but in some cases, it's really not up to us. It's up to what the market bears."
DeCosta did not downplay how important it will be to have a consistent pass rush, whether Smith returns or not. The Ravens could also lose the franchise's all-time sack leader, Terrell Suggs, another free agent who had seven sacks last season. Suggs plans to play at least one more season at age 36, whether the Ravens re-sign him or not. Losing Smith and Suggs would mean losing 15 ½ sacks from the 2018 team – a significant number that DeCosta would want to replace.
"You've got to have really good pass-rushers," DeCosta said. "The best teams have them. Particularly if you're going to be a team that's playing with the lead, because now you're making it a one-dimensional game and they're going to be throwing the ball. The best teams can do that, they can really get after you with good pass-rushers."
What happens with Smith and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley during free agency could have a bearing on other Ravens with uncertain futures. Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle still has a year on his contract, but the Ravens could decide to move on from Weddle to create more cap space, or if they acquire a younger safety. Ravens Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda has not ruled out retirement and also carries a large cap hit.
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said last week he expected Weddle and Yanda to return, but added that the moving parts during free agency made personnel moves a fluid situation. DeCosta echoed those thoughts, meaning it will be an interesting offseason for Ravens' players whose status is on the bubble. DeCosta didn't share much insight on his expectation for what will happen with veteran players such as Weddle and Yanda.
"Again, I think we want to have the best players we can, that we can fit in under the parameters of the salary cap," DeCosta said. "We want to have a great mix of young players and veteran leadership and guys that can help us win games. There's a lot of different formulas for that. As of right now, we're not tied to cutting anybody, and we're not tied to playing with anybody. We just want the best team we can field to play in September 2019."