The pieces came together for the Ravens’ defense this season, a unit that was ranked No. 1 in the NFL.
However, major pieces could be leaving this offseason.
Linebackers Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, and Za’Darius Smith are free agents, as is defensive end Brent Urban. Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle has raised the possibility of retirement, as has cornerback Brandon Carr. Veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith could be let go in a move to create more salary cap room.
Those are just some who may be elsewhere when the Ravens begin the 2019 season. Despite its success, the Ravens’ penthouse defense could undergo significant renovations.
“I think it’s pretty tough,” Ravens second-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “After my first year, you don’t really realize the changes that are made and the things that really go into an NFL offseason, so I know [there will be] some additions and some losses to this year as far as personnel. I felt like we had a pretty talented bunch, but we couldn’t get it done with this group, so hopefully next year. We’ll see what the offseason unfolds with.”
This year’s defense returned all of its 2017 starters under first-year Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale, and it quickly became a cohesive unit. Martindale already had a close relationship with many of the defensive players, and he knew their strengths and weaknesses from previously being the team’s linebackers coach.
Martindale leaned heavily on the input and leadership of veteran players like Suggs, Weddle and Mosley. Suggs set the tone in the locker room, Weddle and Mosley called the defensive signals and were the quarterbacks of the defense, and the chemistry often worked to perfection.
Suggs is a 16-year veteran and the team’s all-time sack leader, while Mosley and Weddle were Baltimore’s only two defensive players to make the Pro Bowl. It’s not just their talent the Ravens would lose. It’s their intangibles.
“I think the leadership, that’s one thing we’re probably going to miss if we don’t have those guys,” inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor said.
What happens to the Ravens’ defense this offseason is difficult to predict.
Mosley is a four-time Pro Bowler who will command a lucrative salary on the open market, so re-signing him will not be easy. Za’Darius Smith led the Ravens with a career-high 8 ½ sacks, and he is just 26 years old, in perfect position to sign with the highest bidder after his best season.
Weddle is 34 years old and willing to play another season, but if the Ravens desire to go younger and cheaper, he plans to retire. Suggs, who tied Matthew Judon for second on the team in sacks with seven, made it clear following Sunday’s playoff loss that he wants to finish his career with the Ravens. But Suggs said he won’t retire and will play elsewhere next season if he and the Ravens don’t reach an agreement.
For many Ravens, it’s difficult to envision a locker room without Suggs in it.
“Sizz’ is an amazing leader,” defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. “I couldn’t imagine being here without him. I’m a little at a loss for words for that.”
However, change is inevitable in the NFL, even for a defensive unit that played as well as Baltimore’s. The Ravens have a young core group of talented players returning, including Pierce and Brandon Williams at defensive tackle, Onwuasor and rookie Kenny Young at inside linebacker, Judon at outside linebacker, and cornerbacks Humphrey, Tavon Young, and Anthony Averett, who are all under 25.
Kenny Young said he felt ready to assume a larger role next season, after watching the way veterans like Suggs and Mosley approached meetings and film study.
“They were my teammates, but they were my starting mentors in this league, and they did a phenomenal job,” Kenny Young said. “I’m sure they put me a few years ahead of where I should be right now. C.J. [Mosley] is the type of guy that he is one of the most selfless guys that you could imagine with the success he’s having. ‘Sizz’ [Terrell Suggs] was very outspoken. All those guys are great men. It would be tough to lose those guys. Those guys come to work every day, and you can see it on the film. They’re some of our best playmakers.”
The Ravens had a proud defense this season, one that upheld the tradition of the franchise. Two all-time great Ravens defensive players were at Sunday’s game – former safety Ed Reed, who is a finalist for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month, and linebacker Ray Lewis, who went into the Hall of Fame last year. Pierce said seeing them reminded him the Ravens have a defensive standard to uphold.
“We reset the standard,” Pierce said. “Obviously, we saw Ed Reed and those guys at the game, and I think we did them proud. That’s something to move forward and work on and continue to work to be the No. 1 defense again next year.”
Weddle believes the groundwork has been established for the Ravens to continue stellar defensive play. Some of the faces will change, but Weddle said the team’s defensive expectations won’t waver, whether he is part of the package or not.
“Obviously the uncertainty of the future for a lot of us [is tough],” Weddle said. “But the foundation has been set this season with the older guys and the coaches and the young guys learning and understanding that this is what it’s about – being all in, the belief, the trust and playing for each other.
“That’s what made this group so special. So I think no matter what happens, that we’ll be who the Ravens are and continue to be, and that’s exciting. It’s exciting for myself to see how we’ve grown over the last three years and where this team is going to go. It’s a great foundation that we’ve built here.”