Ravens Entering One Of Most Crucial Offseasons In Team History
There's pressure to build a winning team every offseason, but the mountain seems especially high this time with a growing list of significant needs after missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
"It's arguably one of the most crucial offseasons in Ravens' history," wrote The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec.
The offseason wish list already included cornerback, pass rusher, wide receiver, offensive line and safety – all of which could see new starters next season – but a starting inside linebacker was added to the list after Zachary Orr's unexpected early retirement.
General Manager Ozzie Newsome and his team have faced uphill battles before, including when the team moved from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996 and had to essentially start from scratch. They also had a major rebuild after the 2001 season, when the Ravens went all-in for a repeat Super Bowl appearance and had to escape salary-cap jail by cutting many stars.
But we're bordering on another rebuild year.
ESPN's Mike Sando put together a list of NFL offseason "overhaul" rankings, putting Baltimore at No. 8, and that was before he knew the team needed to replace Orr.
The stability at quarterback, head coach and GM kept the Ravens from rising up the rebuild list. Those are three important pieces, so why are the Ravens ranked so high?
"Baltimore was one of six teams fitting three criteria: missed the playoffs, ranked among the top 10 for oldest starters and ranked among the top 20 for potential free agents with the most starts last season," wrote Sando. "The Redskins, Colts, Cardinals, Bengals and Saints are all on that list."
Somebody will have to replace the starts from Orr, wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., fullback Kyle Juszczyk, offensive linemen Rick Wagner and Vladimir Ducasse, nose tackle Brandon Williams and defensive end Lawrence Guy, if some or all leave Baltimore. Juszczyk, Wagner, Williams, Guy and Ducasse are all unrestricted free agents.
That doesn't even count the potential salary-cap casualties and depth spots that need to be filled.
"As such, although Baltimore remains a model for stability at head coach and GM, the Ravens should have both the need and the incentive to make personnel changes," wrote Sando.
Let's put the Ravens' long list of needs and recent playoff misses in context of the AFC landscape. My colleague, John Eisenberg, will write later today about how Baltimore, and other conference teams, have a loooot of room to make up if they're going to knock the New England Patriots off their perch.
Past "failed picks [are] hurting" too, says Zrebiec.
"Fans probably get sick of hearing that the Ravens will use their first-round draft pick on the best-player available, but that may never be truer than this April," he wrote. "The Ravens will rank the players as they normally do and it should be pretty easy to stay disciplined to their board, given that they have significant needs now at every level of their defense, along with at several spots on offense."
Correa Can Go From 'Draft Disappointment' To Starter
It's unfair to definitively label any draft pick after his rookie season, but second-round pick Kamalei Correa would probably agree that his NFL career didn't get off to the kind of start he envisioned.
He played in nine games, primarily on special teams, logging the fewest tackles (four) among 20 defenders selected in the second round that played this season, per ESPN. There was a steady decline after Correa started training camp playing next to linebacker C.J. Mosley, but ultimately lost the job to Orr.
With Orr's sudden retirement, Correa has a chance to put all of that behind him.
"[H]e became the biggest disappointment of this year's draft class," wrote ESPN's Jamison Hensley. "Correa should get an unexpected chance to redeem himself this season. … [He] has an opportunity to reclaim a starting inside linebacker job and move past a forgettable rookie season."
Ravens coaches admitted they probably threw too much at Correa last offseason, moving him around to various positions during training camp. He also worked through some minor, but nagging, injuries.
That said, Correa also needs to show he's capable of starting inside.
"For Correa to earn that job, he has to show more physicality and a better feel for the defense," wrote Hensley. "During training camp, linebackers coach Don 'Wink' Martindale said Correa wasn't reacting 100 percent to everything.
"The Ravens see Correa's future as an inside linebacker after projecting him on the outside as an edge rusher when they drafted him. Baltimore is banking on Correa to prove he was worth the No. 42 overall pick, especially when you consider the talent the Ravens passed on."
Hensley named other players the Ravens could have chosen in the second round, including middle linebacker Deion Jones (potential rookie of the year), wide receiver Michael Thomas (second-most catches by a rookie in NFL history), wide receiver Sterling Shepard (65 catches, eight touchdowns) or pass rusher Noah Spence (5.5 sacks).
Correa will see competition for the starting linebacker role, just like he did last year. Albert McClellan could move inside, undrafted rookie Patrick Onwuasor could do it after filling in during Week 17, and the Ravens will likely bring in new blood via the draft or free agency.
"Baltimore will ultimately go with the best player and fit to fill the void left by Orr," Hensley. "But, compared to the other choices, the Ravens have the most invested in Correa and would like to see a higher return than last season."
Ravens Now Have Seven Pro Bowlers With One Surprising Addition
Let's recap the Ravens' Pro Bowl changes since the championship games ended Sunday night:
Safety Eric Weddle and center Jeremy Zuttah are now both in with the Patriots' Devin McCourty heading to the Super Bowl and Steelers' Maurkice Pouncey opting out.
They will join Juszczyk, kicker Justin Tucker and long snapper Morgan Cox, who were already slated to go.
Linebacker C.J. Mosley (calf) joined guard Marshal Yanda (shoulder) in passing on the all-star game due to injury.
"That increases the Ravens' Pro Bowl selections to seven, which nearly matches their win total this past season (eight)," wrote Hensley.
Weddle's invitation was long overdue, while Zuttah's was unexpected.
"Zuttah's inclusion came as a surprise to some after he was criticized for uneven play throughout the season," wrote WNST's Luke Jones. "Pro Football Focus graded the 30-year-old as the 13th-best center in the NFL while Bleacher Report's NFL1000 ranked Zuttah 26th among the league's centers.
"The Ravens are still expected to seek an upgrade at the position this offseason as Zuttah is set to carry a $4.607 million salary cap number for the 2017 season."
Don't Get Your Hopes Up On Wagner
While it seems improbable for the Ravens to keep Williams given the money the defensive tackle could command on the open market, some feel it might be within the Ravens' grasp to keep Wagner.
Zrebiec would like to squash that hope now, so you don't have to feel pain down the road.
"If you were hoping that the Ravens might be able to get [Wagner] back on a relatively modest deal, you're probably setting yourself up for disappointment," Zrebiec wrote.
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal believes Wagner could command something north of $10 million per year. And the veteran tackle is continually ranked high on under-the-radar lists, which is making him not-so-under-the-radar.
"I just can't see them getting in a bidding war for him and going anywhere near $10 million per year," Zrebiec wrote. "They have too many needs at other positions.
"[T]he Ravens do think that De'Ondre Wesley and Stephane Nembot, both of whom spent the 2016 season on injured reserve, have some potential. They are both raw, but they at least look the part. Wesley, who played two years of college ball at Brigham Young, is 6-foot-6 and 326 pounds and Nembot, who [was] an undrafted free agent out of Colorado, is 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds."