Late for Work 3/16: Predicting Which Free Agents Will Stay Or Go

DT Michael Pierce and CB Jimmy Smith during an NFL game.

During a time where the current state of sports seems uncertain, Late for Work is a constant you can continue to count on. With that in mind, we've got plenty of free agency talk to get into.

Who Will Stay and Who Will Go?

The NFL's new league year will start this week as planned, and the Ravens' front office has moves to make (or not make) on impending unrestricted free agents. The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec took a shot at predicting which free agents will stay and who will go.

I highlighted five of the most notable decisions outside of Matthew Judon, who was tagged on Friday.

Michael Pierce

Analysis: Pierce is expected to become a free agent for the first time in this career. He will be one of the top interior defensive linemen available following four seasons in Baltimore and could command 8 to 10 million a year annually in a new contract.

Zrebiec's Prediction: "The bet here is Pierce will get a pretty significant free-agent contract elsewhere. However, the Ravens will monitor his situation and if Pierce doesn't get the offers he is seeking, he could return."

Jimmy Smith

Analysis: Despite only playing nine games last season, Smith was a key piece to one of the league's top secondaries. He's only played a full 16-game season twice in his nine-year career, and Eric DeCosta said at the Combine that he expects the veteran cornerback to test the free-agent market.

Zrebiec's Prediction: "Two months ago, I would have predicted that Smith would be back, largely because of the relationships he has in the building and the ongoing contract talks. But there is a divide with what the Ravens are offering Smith and what he'll get on the open market. If the money is close, Smith will likely stay, but I don't see the money being close. Smith is a top-five free agent corner and he'll get paid as such."

Patrick Onwuasor

Analysis: Onwuasor started six games last season following standout campaigns in 2017 and 2018. The former undrafted linebacker is a versatile defender but fell behind playing time to L.J. Fort and Josh Bynes.

Zrebiec's Prediction: "Onwuasor can help a defense if used correctly. His transformation from an undrafted college safety into a play-making linebacker on a top-ranked defense was a nice story, even if it had a disappointing ending. Both sides seem ready to move on."

Seth Roberts

Analysis: After signing a one-year deal, Roberts totaled 271 yards and two touchdowns last season. He served as a veteran target for Lamar Jackson, but the Ravens have a young core at wide receiver and tight end.

Zrebiec's Prediction: "Roberts did some positive things despite not getting regular opportunities in the passing game. However, the Ravens want to make some changes with their receiving group and that doesn't bode well for a Roberts return."

Chris Moore

Analysis: Moore contributed primarily on special teams last season. He caught just three passes for 21 yards, and never found a consistent role as a receiver in the offense.

Zrebiec's Prediction: "For much of 2019, Moore wore the look of a player who needs a change of scenery. I'm not sure if the Ravens are interested in re-signing him and I suspect Moore will look elsewhere even if they are."

Report: Re-Signing Jihad Ward a 'Sneaky-Good' Move

Along with De'Anthony Thomas, the Ravens have reportedly finalized a deal to retain defensive end Jihad Ward, according to Zrebiec.

Ward was one of Eric DeCosta's mid-season additions in 2019. He totaled seven tackles, four quarterback hits, and one sack in 11 games.

"Much of his value couldn't be measured in the box score, though," Baltimore Beatdown's Frank Platko wrote. "At 6-foot-5 and 287 pounds, Ward has the size and athleticism to play both inside and out, which proved to be valuable on a front seven that lacked many versatile nor dynamic athletes … Regardless, it's a sneaky-good move by DeCosta to retain Ward's services before the start of free agency."

Ward helped a Ravens defense that had more questions than answers four weeks into the season. He was an underrated asset in Wink Martindale's defense and would provide depth and versatility to the front seven.

"After starting last season with just five players on the roster, Baltimore was hit with injuries and saw lackluster play at times, forcing them to bring in Ward, Peko and Ellis in the middle of the season," Ravens Wire's Matthew Stevens wrote. "Currently, the Ravens have just two defensive ends on the roster — Chris Wormley and Ufomba Kamalu — and with Pierce among Baltimore's pending free agents, they'd be a little thin in the trenches if the season were to start right now."

Ravens Reportedly 'Involved' in Talks With Christian Kirksey

One way the Ravens can attack free agency is by targeting players who've been released. These cap casualties don't count against the compensatory pick formula, and former Cleveland Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey could be a target.

According to ESPN's Josina Anderson, the Ravens have been "involved" in communications with Kirksey, but no visit has happened.

Kirksey has reportedly already visited the Las Vegas Raiders, Buffalo Bills, and Green Bay Packers.

"At 27, Kirksey could have some of his best football ahead of him," Sports Illustrated's Todd Karpovich wrote. "The former third-round pick from Iowa was productive over his first six seasons, finishing with 286 tackles and six sacks over the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Kirksey is also effective in pass coverage. He is active in the local community, which is an area of pride for the Ravens."

Kirksey was one of the NFL's top linebackers during those two years, but his health has become a concern. He's played in just nine games over the last two seasons. Those lingering issues could be a red flag for the Ravens, who have a limited amount of cap space to work with.

On the flip side, it may give the Ravens a chance to target Kirksey on a "prove-it" deal, but they could also address the position early in the draft with options like Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray and LSU's Patrick Queen.

"The interest [from others] could also drive up his price," Karpovich wrote. "The Ravens would likely be interested in talking with Kirksey because he would fill an area of need. Still, DeCosta might be wary of the injuries and could go in a different direction."

How the New Collective Bargaining Agreement Affects Lamar Jackson

We've got football for at least another 10 years after NFL players and league owners approved the new collective bargaining agreement on Sunday. The main highlights include a 17-game season and an expanded playoff field, but some wrinkles could affect Jackson's next contract.

Under the new CBA, there's no financial distinction between fifth-year options. Instead, "everyone's fifth-year option will be based on performance and can be as high as the franchise tag number for his position," ESPN's Dan Graziano wrote. 

Players on their rookie deals are eligible for extensions following their third season, but it could benefit Jackson if he were to reach his fifth-year option. The option is also now fully guaranteed.

Here's a look at some other interesting tidbits of the new CBA:

-       Practice squad rosters will increase from 10 to 12 players in 2020 and 2021, and 14 in 2022.

-       Teams can activate two practice-squad players per week.

-       A player activated to the 55-man roster could be sent back to the practice squad twice before having to clear waivers.

-       Second-round draft picks will be eligible for the proven performance escalator pay program. Players picked outside of the first round will be eligible for escalators based on Pro Bowl selections.

Quick Hits

  • "I think he's going to end up in the Hall of Fame," Tony Kornheiser said about a recently retired Marshal Yanda.
  • "That's why franchising Judon, which they officially did Friday, was viewed as a formality," Zrebiec wrote. "The tough decision was always going to be what comes next, because franchising Judon doesn't guarantee that he'll be on the 2020 roster."

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