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Late for Work 3/17: Breaking Down Ravens' Options at Inside Linebacker

ILB Josh Bynes and ILB Los Angeles Rams’ Corey Littleton during an NFL game.
ILB Josh Bynes and ILB Los Angeles Rams’ Corey Littleton during an NFL game.

A quick note before proceeding with today's Late for Work: The official start to NFL free agency begins tomorrow at 4 p.m., so while we are aware of the reports of a "free-agency frenzy," there will be no discussion here on the supposed frenzy until the team makes regarding any transactions official.

Breaking Down the Ravens' Options at Inside Linebacker

Inside linebacker is a position the Ravens need to address this offseason, as L.J. Fort – a midseason acquisition who signed a two-year contract extension in November – is the only returning regular.

There is no shortage of options in free agency, but how much the team can afford to spend on the position remains to be seen. The Ravens entered this week in the bottom third of the league in salary cap space.

The Baltimore Sun’s Jonas Shaffer looked at inside linebackers who are pending free agents, as well as options in-house and in the draft. Here are some excerpts (player's age in parentheses):

Rams' Corey Littleton (26)

Shaffer's analysis: "Littleton is the consensus top free-agent inside linebacker available, an every-down presence with strong coverage skills who was named second-team All-Pro in 2018. According to salary database Spotrac, his projected market value is over $12 million annually, but a bidding war could drive that figure closer to $15 million."

Browns' Joe Schobert (26)

Shaffer's analysis: "Schobert, a Pro Bowl selection in 2017, has averaged nearly 127 tackles over the past three seasons and missed just three games in that span. While he's inconsistent in run defense, he's a good blitzer and strong in pass defense."

Ravens' Josh Bynes (30) and Patrick Onwuasor (27)

Shaffer's analysis: "Of the Ravens' two pending free agents, Bynes is the more likely to re-sign, though Onwuasor has the greater potential and can contribute on special teams."

Falcons' De'Vondre Campbell (26)

Shaffer's analysis: "Campbell is coming off his best season yet (129 tackles, two sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions), but he's been an off-ball outside linebacker in the Falcons' 4-3 scheme and a liability in coverage."


Shaffer's analysis: "Even if Bynes and Onwuasor leave, the team had high hopes for Chris Board (24) entering training camp last year, until a concussion knocked him off course. Otaro Alaka (23), meanwhile, impressed in preseason play; a hamstring injury later ended his rookie year."

Draft Options

Shaffer's analysis: "If the Ravens can't find a fit in free agency — or even if they do — they'll likely add an inside linebacker through the draft. LSU's Patrick Queen, Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray and Wisconsin's Zack Baun have already been linked to the team's No. 28 overall pick. If the Ravens address another position in the first round, they could still find a productive player later. … According to a Pro Football Focus study, the odds of finding a linebacker with 'starter'-level coverage skills in the fourth round (36 percent) aren't much worse than the odds of finding one in the second round (43.4 percent) or even with a top-three pick (47.4 percent).

Potential Landing Spots for Ravens' Free Agents

In yesterday’s Late for Work, we looked at The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec's predictions on which Ravens free agents will stay and who will go.

Ebony Bird’s Richard Bradshaw has identified potential landing spots for free agents Onwuasor, defensive tackle Michael Pierce and cornerback Jimmy Smith if they don't re-sign with the Ravens. He also speculated on what could happen with outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who was franchised by Baltimore. has had the franchise tag placed on him by the team.

Here are some excerpts:

Judon's potential suitors: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets

Bradshaw's analysis: "The Buffalo Bills … need an edge rusher to put it all together. Judon would give them exactly that and that unit would be sick nasty with him. The Miami Dolphins have the draft capital to swing for a proven edge rusher in Judon and the Ravens should be more than willing to comply. Just when the New York Jets thought they got a steal for their pass rush in Jachai Polite, he ends up not even making the team despite being a third-round draft choice. Now the team is once again in need of an edge rusher and they should take an interest in Judon. All in all, Matt Judon should be back in Baltimore for 2020, but a tag-and-trade isn't completely out of the question here."

Onwuasor's potential suitors: Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars

Bradshaw's analysis: "Despite just winning a Super Bowl, the defense has some glaring holes. Adding "Peanut" Onwuasor to the Chiefs front-seven makes them much more dangerous upfront. The Raiders pass defense desperately needed help over the middle and covering tight ends were far from their strong suits. The return of safety Jonathan Abram should help, but adding Onwuasor to the middle of that unit is a surefire way to help their leaky defense. [Jacksonville] felt the loss of Telvin Smith to retirement last year and needs a partner in crime next to Myles Jack. Onwuasor can be that partner in crime and will once again give Jacksonville legitimacy to their front seven."

Pierce's potential suitors: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas Cowboys

Bradshaw's analysis: "The Arizona Cardinals were miserably bad against the run in 2019. … Getting Pierce into the middle of their defense would shore up a lot of their problems against the run. The Chargers have been in need of a true nose tackle for quite some time. Pairing Pierce up with Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Jerry Tillery is a helluva front-four for whoever is playing linebacker for them in 2020. Dallas suffered in 2019 without any help from their interior defensive line even after the acquisition of Michael Bennett. Pierce is exactly what the doctor called for."

Smith's potential suitors: Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs

Bradshaw's analysis: "The Vikings have quickly found themselves in dire need of cornerback help. Xavier Rhodes has been cut and Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander are likely to depart from Minneapolis. Smith would be a great get for the team. Smith won't have to be Seattle's ace out-wide but he could easily be their best piece in the secondary. The Chiefs currently only have one legitimate cornerback on the roster in Charvarius Ward and they weren't exactly oozing with talent before. Smith would be their top-guy from the moment they signed him."

2017 Ravens Among Best Teams Who Just Missed Playoffs in Past 30 Years

Now that the players have approved the league's new collective bargaining agreement, it's official that the playoffs will be expanded to seven teams per conference beginning this season.

With that in mind, ESPN’s Aaron Schatz ranked the best teams to just miss the playoffs over the past 30 years. All the teams would have made the postseason as seventh seeds.

The 2017 Ravens came in at No. 5 on the list, which was based on DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). Every Ravens fan remembers the heartbreaking fashion in which that season ended.

Baltimore entered the season finale at home with a 9-6 record and just needing a win over the Cincinnati Bengals, who were 6-9 and had lost to the Ravens in the season opener, 20-0, to secure a wild-card berth.

The Ravens were just 53 seconds away from doing so, and had the Bengals in a fourth-and-12 situation just past midfield. In a moment that still seems surreal, Andy Dalton connected with Tyler Boyd for a 49-yard touchdown pass to beat the Ravens, 31-27, and keep them out of the playoffs.

Even with that disappointing loss, the Ravens still could've made the playoffs if either the Buffalo Bills or Tennessee Titans had lost. Neither did. Football Outsiders gave Baltimore a 97-percent chance of going to the postseason entering Week 17, per ESPN.

Baltimore, Buffalo, Tennessee and the San Diego Chargers all finished 9-7, but the Bills and Titans got the two wild-card berths via tiebreakers.

The Ravens were plus-92 in point differential that season, which was ninth-best in the league (the Bills and Titans were at minus-57 and minus-22, respectively), and ranked seventh in DVOA. A 2-5 record in one-score games proved to be their undoing.

Had there been a seven-team playoff field, the Ravens would have traveled to Pittsburgh to face the second-seeded Steelers in the first round.

"The Steelers swept the season series in 2017, but the second win took a last-minute field goal, 39-38," Schatz wrote. "The two teams just ahead of Baltimore in DVOA, New England (sixth) and Philadelphia (fifth), ended up in the Super Bowl."

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