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Late for Work: Pundits Prioritize Key Free Agents

ILB Patrick Queen
ILB Patrick Queen

Pundits Prioritize Ravens Free Agents

When free agency kicks off in little over a month, the Ravens will have, if no re-signings happen before then, 29 players become unrestricted free agents.

But there are some players the Ravens will want to keep, and it's up to the team who they prioritize. The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec gave his insight on which players should be at the top of General Manager Eric DeCosta's list.

  1. DT Justin Madubuike

"If Madubuike hits the open market, he might be looking at a contract in the $25 million per year range," Zrebiec wrote. "It, however, seems highly unlikely the Ravens allow that to happen. The expectation is that they either extend the 2020 third-round pick or use the franchise tag on him."

The Baltimore Sun’s Childs Walker also wrote the Ravens must keep Madubuike.

"But one impending free agent nudged ahead of the others on the indispensability power rankings, and that's Madubuike, who just put together the best interior pass rushing season we've seen from a Raven," Walker wrote. "… Which is why DeCosta cannot let him walk, even if that means using the franchise tag while extension negotiations continue. We've watched the Ravens use this tool with foundational talents. They have not developed and kept a great pass rusher since Terrell Suggs, but Madubuike is that guy."

  1. ILB Patrick Queen

"In four seasons with the Ravens, Queen got better every year and didn't miss a game. They would love to keep Queen, an extremely popular player in the locker room and with the team's decision-makers," Zrebiec wrote. "However, Baltimore is already paying middle linebacker Roquan Smith $20 million per year. Tight against the salary cap, the Ravens likely can't afford to give out another big-money extension to an inside linebacker. Queen has put himself in position to do quite well on the open market."

Walker also noted it's unlikely the Ravens can keep Queen, but he's a player the Ravens would love to keep.

 "Asked about the possibility of using the franchise tag to keep Madubuike off the market, he said, 'Justin had a great year, as did Patrick Queen. … We'll have a good plan in place for those guys,'" Walker wrote. "A few minutes later, he said Queen has "put himself in a great position," the type of comment he'd typically make about a player who will be too expensive to re-sign, much as guard Ben Powers was after last season."

  1. RG Kevin Zeitler

"Zeitler has been one of the best free-agent signings in team history. He was a rock for the Ravens over the past three years, offering strong play and leadership," Zrebiec wrote. "He was finally rewarded this year with the first Pro Bowl berth of his 12-year career. Zeitler has said he wants to continue to play, and DeCosta mentioned last week that the two have already sat down and talked about the potential of the guard returning. Zeitler will turn 34 next month, and when healthy, there hasn't been a significant dropoff in his play. With Baltimore's other starting guard, John Simpson, also a pending free agent, it certainly would make sense for the Ravens to bring Zeitler back on a short-term deal."

Other prioritized free agents among Zrebiec's list were outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (4), cornerback Ronald Darby (6), outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy (7) and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (8).

Things We Learned from Ravens 2023 Season

A week ago, the Ravens saw their 2023 season end and with the emotion (slowly) fading on the AFC Championship loss, Walker gave his takeaways from the Ravens' season. Among them was how the team reacts in times of disappointment.

"Steve Bisciotti, on the rare occasions he speaks publicly, will tell you he reacts to bad losses with fierce dismay, much like any fan of the team he owns," Walker wrote. "He'll add that he does not make major decisions in those hours and days when his emotions are spiking. His tempered style, which he brought to the franchise and was reinforced by longtime general manager Ozzie Newsome, is by now the official mood of the Ravens. They don't rush. They don't reset based on small samples. They aspire to be urgent but never drastic."

The loss stung the Ravens. Head Coach John Harbaugh described himself as "heartbroken" during the season review press conference. But the luxury of frustration and emotion isn't plausible because Harbaugh, DeCosta and others must prepare for an offseason of hiring, scouting, drafting and building a roster to contend once more.

Walker also noted the defense will remain sturdy with inside linebacker Roquan Smith and safety Kyle Hamilton at the helm.

"Smith has overtly taken up Lewis' shield with his fiery pregame speeches — he 'brought the Ray Lewis juice' back to Baltimore, in Jackson's words — and sideline-to-sideline hunting of ball carriers. His play slipped a bit at the end of the year as he nursed a significant pectoral injury, but there's no denying the Ravens' defense took off when he arrived midway through the 2022 season and has never looked back," Walker wrote. "… If Smith is the voice and soul of the defense, Hamilton is its most unique talent. He doesn't much resemble Reed, who could change a game at any moment by out-thinking the quarterback. But his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame makes him such an unusual weapon around the line of scrimmage, where he blitzes, dives in to drop ball carriers and glides laterally to defend screens with equal facility. All that and he can still cover Travis Kelce step for step."

The Ravens will look different in 2024. No team remains the same. But with two of the best defensive players in the NFL, the defense is in sure hands.

Walker's three other points included it being time to build the teams' offensive line of the future, Jackson still having a hump to get over in the playoffs and Madubuike being a player the Ravens must re-sign.

Takeaways From Season Review Press Conference

On Friday, Harbaugh and DeCosta held their season review press conference and pundits shared what they took away from the 42-minute presser.

Gearing Up for 2024

At season's end in 2023, all the NFL's eyes were focused on the Ravens and Jackson, who were in deliberation over a long-term contract. Jackson missed the final games due to a lingering knee injury and talking heads and punditry washed across screens. Now, things are different, Zrebiec wrote.

"Harbaugh, however, said this offseason will be different," Zrebiec wrote. "He already met with Jackson this week to go over ideas for the continued evolution of the offense, and he expects that process to resume."

Confidence in Promotions

The Ravens will be busy this offseason making new hires for those they saw depart in the offseason hiring cycle, but some moves will be made in-house. The first being new Defensive Coordinator Zach Orr.

"Harbaugh took a risk promoting 31-year-old Zach Orr to fill Mike Macdonald's boat-sized shoes at defensive coordinator," Walker wrote. "But he stuck to the same approach that led him to hire Macdonald two years ago, betting on a sharp, charismatic young linebackers coach who grew up in the Ravens' system. Harbaugh acknowledged Orr will have to 'work through' becoming the team's defensive play caller. Macdonald had done it at Michigan the year before he returned to the Ravens as the league's youngest defensive coordinator in 2022. But Orr comes with the credibility of having played linebacker for the Ravens until 2016 and of having learned the art of coaching from Macdonald with some of the same players he'll coordinate next season."

Much like the promotion of Orr, Walker saw confidence in DeCosta's praise for those who will be alongside him when replacing former Director of Player Personnel Joe Hortiz, who was hired as the Los Angeles Chargers General Manager.

"At the same time, DeCosta expressed absolute confidence that the executives coming up behind Hortiz — assistant director of player personnel Mark Azevedo, director of college scouting David Blackburn — will thrive along with veteran director of pro personnel George Kokinas," Walker wrote. "When it comes to home growing coaches and future general managers, the Ravens have not lost their aura, as we saw from the rest of the league's interest in poaching their people over the last few weeks."

Perfect Match: EDGE/DL Darius Robinson

The time for scouting draft prospects has begun and with it comes the first prospect linked to the Ravens in Missouri edge rusher Darius Robinson by way of CBS Sports’ Chris Trapasso.

"Every team says it wants to win the physicality battle in the trenches. The Ravens are proactive about that endeavor, typically acquiring larger, almost oversized defensive linemen at every position up front," Trapasso wrote. "It's been a philosophy dating way back to the early years of the Ozzie Newsome era in Baltimore. As a Newsome disciple, current GM Eric DeCosta has continued that personnel philosophy, and Robinson feels like next in line."

With the uncertainty of retaining both Clowney and Van Noy, adding another edge rusher could be critical for Baltimore. While they still have outside linebackers Odafe Oweh and David Ojabo, the Ravens need more in the modern NFL with passing offenses.

"He measured in at 6-foot-5 and over 280 pounds at the combine. In college, he played end in Missouri's mostly three-man fronts but won plenty of one-on-one matchups," Trapasso wrote. "This is not an imposing block-eater and nothing more. Baltimore made two late-summer adds that paid huge dividends this past season -- Kyle Van Noy and Jadeveon Clowney -- but the future at the defensive end spot must be addressed. Robinson could be available close to when the Ravens pick at No. 30 overall. His game, and most of all, his frame emanates Ravens vibes."

Shrine Bowl Standouts the Ravens Could Eye

The final game opportunities for prospects entering the draft have arrived in the East-West Shrine Bowl and Reese's Senior Bowl, where they hope to put more on film for teams to evaluate. Baltimore Beatdown’s  Joshua Reed put a few names together for Ravens fans to keep an eye on.

Southern Mississippi RB Frank Gore Jr.

"The son of future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Frank Gore Sr. was the brightest star of the evening with the way he put on a show in front of his dad, evaluators, and league executives alike," Reed wrote. "He answered any questions or doubts about his long speed when he ripped off a 49-yard touchdown run for the first points of the game on a play where he found a cutback lane and turned on the afterburners on his way to the end zone."

Colorado State EDGE Mo Kamara

"The lone standout on this list from the East Team was the former Rams edge defender who followed up an impressive week of practice in which he drew rave reviews with a strong showing in the all-star game," Reed wrote.  "He drew an offensive holding penalty going up against the right tackle with a good rush, forced an incompletion by beating a left tackle with an inside move and forcing the quarterback to throw the ball away, and helped collapse the pocket by coming up the middle on a stunt that resulted in a sack for one of his teammates."

South Dakota State OL Mason McCormick

"He was voted one of the West team captains that took the field for the ceremonial coin toss and once the game got underway, he was tossing defenders to the turf as both a run and pass blocker," Reed wrote. "McCormick moved well and was nimble in space as the lead blocker on pulls and screens, dominated at the point of attack, opening up nice holes and cutback lanes in the run game, anchored well in pass protection and looked for work elsewhere when he already made his block or if his tackle needed help."

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