Re-signing good players before they become free agents is the best way to avoid losing them.
That's easier said than done. Some players are determined to test the free-agent market. Others may be open to re-signing, but agreeing to a new contract that the team can comfortably fit within the salary cap is a tricky proposition.
However, Eric DeCosta assumes his role as Ravens general manager during an offseason when veteran quarterback Joe Flacco is about to be traded or released, while new franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson is still playing under his first contract. That gives DeCosta more maneuverability to re-sign players the Ravens want to keep, without putting them in a bind that prevents them from making other moves.
Re-signing some of the team's young players before they reach free agency was a topic of conversation when the team's decision-makers met last month at Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti's home in Jupiter, Fla.
"I think that we would love to keep as much young talent as we can in Baltimore," DeCosta said.
"That's hard to do at times when you have a really, really good quarterback who's making a lot of money, and you have less cap room. It is tougher for you to keep your roster intact. It is a lot easier to do when you don't have those parameters. So, I think that if we can do that, we certainly should investigate that. It's something we've talked about at length. We discussed that in Jupiter [Fla.]. We'll discuss that again. What are the best strategies we can use to keep our football team intact for as long as possible?"
Here are three young players the Ravens could target to re-sign before they reach free agency:
OLB Matt Judon
Judon still has one year remaining on the rookie contract he signed in 2016. However, he is an ascending player with 15 sacks over the last two seasons in a league where pass rushers are at premium. If the Ravens lose both Za'Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs during this year's free agency, Judon will be the team's top returning pass rusher.
Judon plays with an edge and he is durable. He has played in 44 straight games, including the playoffs, and has only missed two games in three seasons. In November, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said he believed Judon could become one of the league's best pass-rushers and a complete three-down linebacker like Suggs.
"I think all-around player, yes. I think he can be a dominant pass-rusher according to his style – a very physical, explosive, leverage-type of a pass-rusher, great quickness – but also, really good run-edge setter, and that's the combination you really want," Harbaugh said. "That's what Terrell Suggs has been over the years. I'm not making that comparison just yet, but I think he's watched 'Sizz' [Suggs] play, and kind of patterned himself a little bit after that, and to me, he's a very similar kind of player."
It's the kind of player the Ravens will consider re-signing before he hits free agency.
DT Michael Pierce
Pierce can become a restricted free agent after next season and has a hunger to become a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle like his teammate, Brandon Williams. Pierce came to training camp in 2016 as an undrafted free agent and made an immediate impression, forcing his way into the defensive tackle rotation.
The run-stopping prowess of Pierce and Williams is part of what makes Baltimore's defense click. One of the Ravens' first priorities is to make any offense they face one-dimensional. Take away the running game. Put the opposing offense in second-and-long, third-and-long. Then punish the quarterback with the pass rush.
After being a 13-game starter in 2017, Pierce started two games last season, but was perhaps more effective. He was graded as the NFL's 13th-best nose/defensive tackle by Pro Football Focus PFF) in 2018.
Pierce is already a vaunted run-stopper, but he said after the season he wanted to improve his pass rushing next season. He's the kind of player the Ravens will want on their defense for years to come.
LT Ronnie Stanley
Stanley is signed through next season and is coming off his best campaign. According to PFF, Stanley graded out as the league's fourth-best pass-blocking tackle., giving up just two sacks and two other quarterback hits over the entire season. Stanley also played through several injuries last season, including a sprained ankle, and missed just one game.
Even though he missed practice time during the season, Stanley adjusted nicely when the Ravens switched gears midseason and became more run-oriented once Jackson became the starter. It's always good to have the left tackle position solidified. Stanley was drafted sixth overall in 2016, with the Ravens hoping he would be their starting left tackle for the next 10 years. He seems headed down that path.