With More Money, Could Eric DeCosta Be Aggressive in Free Agency?
Eric DeCosta will hold his first press conference as the Ravens' general manager this morning, and it's naturally assumed that he'll operate in the same mold as Ozzie Newsome. After all, DeCosta has spent his entire NFL career learning from Newsome.
But could DeCosta, given more ammunition to work with this offseason and with a rookie quarterback (contract) under center, be more aggressive than his predecessor?
First, let's look at what DeCosta is working with this offseason. Russell Street Report's Brian McFarland laid out an in-depth look at the Ravens’ salary cap situation. This is McFarland's specialty, and I encourage you to give it a read.
There are a ton of moving parts here, but McFarland's conclusion is this:
"It appears that, for the first time is many years, the Ravens will have a lot more Cap flexibility to address their needs and will likely have ample Cap space when free agency begins in mid-March," he wrote.
As opposed to in past years, the Ravens have a number of players they could release or trade to create cap space this offseason. Some of the top candidates are quarterback Joe Flacco, cornerback Jimmy Smith, wide receiver Michael Crabtree and safety Eric Weddle.
Who knows what will happen to all of them, but releasing or trading them would clear $31 million, per McFarland. That's a lot of money.
Yesterday, in his first interview as general manager, DeCosta said he wants to keep the Ravens' nucleus for as long as he can, but he's also going to be conscious to keep Baltimore in position to strike in the open market.
"[It's] putting together an idea where we can have money every year available if we want to make a trade, if we want to sign a young player, if we want to sign a veteran free agent, we have the flexibility to do that," DeCosta said.
The Ravens have in recent years been so tight against the salary cap that they've had to restructure contracts and push the burden down the road. This year, McFarland doesn't anticipate any of that will be needed.
"Estimates of their available salary cap space are in the $25 million range and there are ways they can create more," The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec wrote. "The Ravens aren't historically big spenders in free agency, but the money should be there if they need it."
Earlier this month, The Ringer’s Kevin Clark wrote a lengthy article breaking down the difficulty of winning with a salary-eating veteran quarterback and the advantage teams have with a rookie starter.
Just look at the Los Angeles Rams, who will play Sunday in Super Bowl LIII. With Jared Goff in his third year, he's still a bargain, and the Rams were able to be aggressive in free agency last offseason, adding wide receiver Brandin Cooks, cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and more.
Could the Ravens do the same this offseason in building around their young quarterback?
In Zrebiec's offseason outlook a few weeks ago, the dream player he envisioned for Baltimore was young edge rusher, and former No. 1-overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. That would be a massive move.
Some other free agent possibilities Zrebiec named are Broncos center Matt Paradis, Redskins safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Broncos outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett. Those would be additions more in line with what Baltimore has done in the past.
One Scribe Thinks Za'Darius Smith Should Be Ravens' Top Free-Agent Priority
I always enjoy highlighting when media members go out on a limb and make some bold statements, and this one is interesting.
The overwhelming outlook around Baltimore is that keeping C.J. Mosley should be at the top of the Ravens' offseason free-agency pecking order. Mosley has gone to four Pro Bowls in five years and is a centerpiece in the Ravens defense.
However, Baltimore Beatdown's Frank J. Platko is going against the grain and believes outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith should be the Ravens’ top priority.
"With a talented skill set and untapped potential, Smith not only has a good chance to replicate last year's production, but to build on it and be a fixture on the Ravens defense going forward," Platko wrote.
Smith led the Ravens with 8 ½ sacks last year. He displayed the size, power and burst to be a major impact player.
The question is whether Smith's 2018 season was a flash in the pan. There's evidence that it wasn't. A late bloomer to football, Smith is a player who steadily improved throughout his career.
Even though he didn't always get the sack stats to prove it, he was among the NFL's best in creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks the past two seasons.
What's impacting pundits and fans' view of Smith is the comparison to other successful free-agent pass rushers in years past. Paul Kruger (2013) and Pernell McPhee (2015) are two prime examples of players who had breakout contract years, priced themselves out of Baltimore, signed big deals elsewhere and didn't continue the same success.
But just because they didn't play up to the money doesn't mean Smith will do the same.
"The importance of having multiple pass rushers and being able to consistently get to the quarterback in today's NFL cannot be understated," Platko wrote. "Even if Baltimore retains Terrell Suggs, it's fair to question how much he has left in the tank at age 36. Smith is simply a better overall player at this stage in their careers, which is in no way a slight towards Suggs."
This will, as it always does, likely come down to money. Pundits expect Smith to get a large payday (Platko predicts $8-12 million), but with a lot of free agent pass rushers set to hit the market, Smith's offers could end up a bit more depressed.
In his reasons why Smith could stay, Zrebiec wrote, "the Ravens feel that Smith is an ascending player and a guy that they have to find a way to keep. They think that life after Suggs includes keeping Smith long term. Smith's versatility and ability to move inside adds to his value with the team. Smith feels a comfort level with the Ravens and prioritizes staying."
However, Zrebiec ultimately predicted that Smith will get a lucrative long-term deal elsewhere, which would mean the Ravens would (likely) get a third-round compensatory pick in 2020. Zrebiec also wrote that Baltimore could put a higher priority on locking up Matthew Judon to a long-term deal.
"Smith absolutely deserves a lucrative long-term contract after the way he played throughout this past season, and he'll get one," Zrebiec wrote. "However, history tells you it likely won't be from the Ravens."
Ed Reed's Brilliance Through the Eyes of Top Quarterbacks
With Ed Reed expected to be voted into the Hall of Fame Saturday, ESPN looked at what made him so dangerous through the eyes of three top quarterbacks of his era.
The Patriots' Tom Brady, Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger and Chargers' Philip Rivers all responded to ESPN's request to discuss Reed and had this to say:
Brady: "The thing that most impressed me about Ed Reed was not only his physical ability, because he has every trait — ball skills, range, speed, quickness, but I think what set him apart was his instincts. You knew there were plays where he had deep-field responsibility and he would make a play in front of a linebacker. On the next play, you say, 'Let's throw it deep' and you drop back and he was 40 yards deep."
"I think everything he did was impressive and instinctive. You never knew what he saw, but he saw everything. You were never going to fool him. He was just on some incredible defenses. He's one of the greatest safeties I've ever seen. If he gets into the Hall of Fame, it would be very well deserved. He's one of the toughest players I've ever faced."
Rivers: "He's obviously one of the all-time greats. He wasn't just your free safety that didn't let anything get behind him, he was a playmaker. I know as a quarterback, for me he was so unpredictable, you know, where was he going to be? He would do unconventional things, that's why he was so dangerous."
"It wasn't just like 'OK, good. They're in three-deep zone and there's Ed in the middle. We're good.' No, he's in three-deep zone, but if he sees something, he's coming to get it. You had to always be aware of him. He had great instincts, he was a great athlete – I mean his interception numbers are crazy, and then what he did with it when he did get them -- he scored with it a lot."
Roethlisberger: "You couldn't get a tendency on him. You think you knew what he was going to do. You thought you knew where he was going to be. Then, the next thing you know, he wasn't there and he wasn't doing it."
"Ed was one of those guys who was so incredibly special. He was smart, athletic. Sometimes you get a guy who is either really athletic or really smart. It's not too often you meet a guy who has both. Ed was one of those guys who literally had it all."