Ravens' Reported Reunion With Za'Darius Smith Earns 'Elite' Grade
After the Ravens made two big moves on Day 2 of free agency by landing safety Marcus Williams and offensive tackle Morgan Moses, those with a glass-half-empty mindset said, "That's nice, but what about a pass rusher?"
Those with a glass-half-full mindset replied, "Stay calm and trust in EDC."
With outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith reportedly agreeing to a four-year deal worth $35 million (a maximum value of $50 million) to return to the team that drafted him in 2015, General Manager Eric DeCosta crossed another item off the Ravens' offseason to-do list and again got significant bang for his buck.
Pro Football Focus placed the move in its "elite" category.
"From 2019 to 2020, Smith put together an elite two-year stretch in Green Bay, recording 144 quarterback pressures (fourth in NFL) and a 90.3 PFF pass-rushing grade," PFF wrote. "The only edge rushers with a higher pass-rushing grade than that over that two-year stretch were T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack.
"If that's the version of Smith that returns from a 2021 season almost entirely lost to injury, this is a steal for Baltimore who won't factor into the compensatory pick formula because he was released by Green Bay. New Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald should be able to find some creative ways to utilize Smith alongside Odafe Oweh and Tyus Bowser."
Here's a sample of what else pundits were saying about Smith returning to the Ravens:
CBS Sports’ Tyler Sullivan: "Grade: A. Baltimore needed some help rushing the passer a year after ranking 20th in pressure, according to PFF. A healthy Smith should provide the unit with the added spark it needs, as he blossomed into a Pro Bowl and All-Pro pass rusher during his three-year stint with the Green Bay Packers, posting double-digit sacks in 2019 and 2020. Smith effectively missed the entire 2021 season due to injury, but now that he's back to full strength, he'll be a big addition to Baltimore's pass rush."
Bleacher Report’s Brent Sobleski: "Grade: A. Odafe Oweh showed a lot of promise as a rookie, finishing second on the team with five sacks. His bookend, Tyus Bowser, managed seven. They're both still young and are learning to harness their physical tools, while Smith can come right in and help blow up the game plans of opposing offenses. As long as the 29-year-old remains healthy, he should help all three levels of a defense that finished among the bottom 10 in yards allowed last season."
The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec: "Grade: B+. The Ravens badly needed an impact pass rusher and there was no expectation that they were going to be involved at the top of the edge rush market, featuring Von Miller and Chandler Jones. Smith was probably the best fit and the Ravens' familiarity with him from his first stint with the team should help. As long as Smith is healthy, his contract should represent very good value, too. Only the uncertainty about Smith's back prevents me from giving this move higher marks."
ESPN’s Kevin Seifert: "Grade: B+. Signing with the Ravens gives Smith a friendly environment to reset his career. He played only 18 snaps last season because of a back injury that ultimately required surgery, and the injury came after he tried and failed to get the Packers to extend his contract following two Pro Bowl seasons in which he compiled 26 sacks. Smith, of course, spent his first four seasons with the Ravens, playing as a part-time pass-rusher. If there is any team that can ease him back into a productive role, it's Baltimore."
ESPN’s Marcus Spears: "This is perfect for that style of defense. To put him opposite [Odafe] Oweh, a young player and a veteran that can play off each other, it's going to be phenomenal."
NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal: "Bringing back Za'Darius Smith, who was drafted in the fifth round by Baltimore in 2015, for his third NFL contract is such a Ravens move. They know how he'll fit in their system, and they let him make huge money for a few years in Green Bay before returning home. Safety Marcus Williams and Smith are impact signings that should — along with better injury luck—help turn the Ravens' defense around."
Baltimore Beatdown’s Dustin Cox: "This is a beautiful reunion. Za'Darius Smith instantly upgrades the Ravens' pass rush. Smith has the versatility to line up inside on passing downs to help provide much-needed interior pressure as well. Paired with Odafe Oweh and Tyus Bowser, Baltimore suddenly has a dangerous group of edge rushers on paper. The Ravens can still add another pass rusher in the first round as well, or go with a defensive lineman or cornerback to continue to bolster Mike Macdonald's defense."
Russell Street Report’s Ronald Toothe: "Eric DeCosta works his magic yet again. Once the news of Chandler Jones signing with the Raiders dropped, it felt like all but a certainty that an edge-needy team would pony up the brinks truck for Z's services. Instead, he returns home on a deal with an $8.75 million AAV (roughly half of what Jones got), and the Ravens have another cornerstone in place to rebuild their feared defense of old."
Ravens Named One of the Winners in Free Agency Thus Far
DeCosta's uncharacteristic aggressiveness in free agency is getting rave reviews.
"The Ravens couldn't afford to just sit on the sideline this week and stick their noses in the air as other teams spent money wildly and significantly bettered their rosters," Zrebiec wrote. "They needed to be active, they needed to be aggressive. In some cases, they needed to break out of their comfort zones.
"It's fair to wait until the team reports to training camp in July to judge the whole body of the front office's offseason work, but it's hard to say anything right now other than so far, so good."
Rosenthal named the Ravens as one of the winners thus far in free agency and was especially high on the signing of Williams.
After it was reported on Tuesday that Williams had agreed to a deal with the Ravens, Rosenthal said on the "Around the NFL" podcast: "This is the No. 1 free-agent signing of anything we talk about. Absolutely it will be. The Ravens don't get these things wrong. I totally respect the way that they operate in free agency, and their secondary is insane right now."
NFL Network’s Marc Ross also praised the Williams signing.
"I love this signing for the Ravens," Ross said. "It's almost the ghost of Ed Reed's past still with the Ravens, who value that safety position a lot more than other teams do."
PFF ranked the Ravens as the sixth-most improved team based on offseason moves — and that was before the news broke about Smith agreeing to a deal.
Ray Lewis Wants Lamar Jackson to Understand the Mantle He Carries in Baltimore
Ray Lewis said he believes Lamar Jackson will sign a long-term deal with the Ravens, and he hopes Jackson will embrace being passed the torch from him as the face of the franchise.
"He's one of the young kids that I purposely pray for a lot, for him to understand the mantle that he now carries in Baltimore," Lewis said on "The Rich Eisen Show." "I think it's way bigger than football. I think he's clear on what he wants to do. You can't fault a person for doing [things] the way that they see it. But I think when it comes down to the contract and the Ravens, I think a deal will get done."
Lewis said Jackson might not fully comprehend the magnitude of what he means to the organization and Baltimore.
"That kid is special," Lewis said. "He has the 'it' factor. People love to play with him and for him. He's one of those people I run home [to watch], because I know something magical is going to happen. I think he has to keep that in his thinking [going forward]. With the right counsel, I think he'll be OK."
Loss of Anthony Averett in Free Agency Shouldn't Be Dismissed
As good as the Ravens' starting secondary figures to be, there is more work to do, especially with cornerback Anthony Averett reportedly signing with the Las Vegas Raiders.
Zrebiec said the loss of Averett shouldn't be dismissed. Averett started 14 games in place of the injured Peters last season and played reasonably well.
Peters and fellow All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey are both expected to be healthy next season, but there isn't much depth at the position.
"The Ravens have to add cornerbacks," Zrebiec wrote. "You need four or five starting-caliber corners to get through a season and the Ravens right now probably have only two. Adding a veteran in free agency would help, but Baltimore is going to have to get a corner relatively early in the draft, if not with the 14th-overall pick. They've watched too many seasons go down the drain because of not having enough quality corners to go light at the position."