Off-season report card: Baltimore Ravens
With the majority of the NFL's transaction action behind us, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar hand out grades for each team's off-season.
There are some NFL general managers who keep the league guessing with unpredictable, even wild moves. That's not the case when it comes to Ozzie Newsome.
The Ravens GM gives his counterparts headaches because they more or less know Newsome's off-season plan of attack but can do little to stymie it. Newsome executes his vision time and again, even when the prudent course of action is to do next to nothing at all.
Take the past few months, for example. Newsome let breakout pass rusher Pernell McPhee walk, just as Paul Kruger did two years ago. He also played it close to the vest with wide receiver Torrey Smith, a trusted target for quarterback Joe Flacco and the team's touchdowns leader with 11 last season. Smith signed a five-year, $40 million deal in San Francisco.
“We have a history of retaining our players, especially players that have been productive,” Newsome said during a late February press conference, via The Baltimore Sun. “But also we have a history of allowing our players to go out and maximize themselves in the market and go and play for other teams.”
The Ravens also declined to budge when it came to Haloti Ngata's bulky contract. When the two sides struggled to reach an agreement on a restructure, Newsome shipped Ngata to Detroit for a pair of draft picks. Again, it was a calculated risk on Newsome's part—the 31-year-old Ngata has remained a dominant run-defender, and Baltimore needs someone (or a combination of someones) like Timmy Jernigan and rookie Carl Davis to fill the void.
Those fill-ins have usually emerged under Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh's watch, which is how the Ravens have qualified for seven of the past nine postseasons and won a Super Bowl in that stretch.
It helps greatly that the NFL's mysterious compensatory pick formula is to Newsome what chalkboard math problems are to Will Hunting. No GM has cracked that code as effectively as Newsome, who this year landed cornerback Tray Walker (a player the Ravens said they had eyed in round 3 before he fell to them in the fourth round), versatile tight end Nick Boyle and guard Robert Myers with his three extra picks.
Also added to the mix, via non-compensatory means: wide receiver Breshad Perriman, the expected deep-ball replacement for Smith, tight end Maxx Williams, Davis and outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith, who is no doubt a challenger to fill McPhee's snap count.
Baltimore's free-agent crop was more limited. Only safety Kendrick Lewis and cornerback Kyle Arrington project as potential starters; Matt Schaub will sit behind Flacco. Elsewhere, Newsome focused on re-signing running back Justin Forsett and reworking the deal of corner Lardarius Webb.
This franchise does continue to have issues off the field—Bernard Pierce, Terrence Cody and Victor Hampton were all cut following arrests, a year after the team's Ray Rice-induced drama. But none of those temporary setbacks figure to slow down any momentum gained from last season's playoff berth and subsequent divisional round near-miss at New England.
Best acquisition: Kyle Arrington, CB
Even though Arrington's contract was a touch rich and he was last seen getting benched during the Super Bowl, the Patriots' decision to release him came as a surprise. Baltimore pounced, snagging an ideal nickelback complement to Webb and Jimmy Smith.
“Kyle is really a great get for us,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees told the team's website. “This guy is a great football player. He’s going to really add a lot to us.”
Arrington's experience alone is worth the $2.8 million guaranteed Newsome forked over to him. He also thrived last season (with a little help) against star Indianapolis receiver T.Y. Hilton, a skill that could come in handy next January, should the Ravens and Colts meet in the playoffs.
Biggest loss: Pernell McPhee, OLB
With all due respect to Torrey Smith, whom the Ravens may miss more than they expect if Perriman disappoints, the competition in this category came down to McPhee and Ngata. And Ngata actually may be the answer come the regular season if Baltimore's fourth-ranked run defense comes undone.
However, McPhee was integral to the pass rush, arguably as much so as Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. Those two veterans return after combining for 29.0 sacks in 2014, but who serves as their sidekick is still to be determined. McPhee handled 540 snaps last regular season (just 88 fewer than Dumervil), led the team in hurries with 35 and recorded 7.5 sacks of his own. He allowed Suggs and Dumervil to stay fresh, and created plenty of havoc in the process.
Za'Darius Smith and Courtney Upshaw will try to be the next impact player at the level of Kruger or McPhee on this defense. Bet against them at your own peril, as this falls right in line with Newsome's willingness to play the next-man-up game.
Underrated draft pick: Carl Davis, DT (pick No. 90)
Not since 2000 had the Ravens waited as long as they did this year to address defense in the draft. Davis was the fifth defensive tackle taken off the board, a distinction that slaps the former Iowa Hawkeye with "steal" potential.
Davis was an on-again, off-again performer in college, hence his drop into round 3 in the first place. But when he is firing on all cylinders, as he did throughout much of Senior Bowl week, Davis can overwhelm blockers at the point of attack. Best suited for the type of rotational work he'll see in Baltimore, Davis should be instrumental in restocking the Ravens' interior line.
Looming question for training camp: Who is going to catch the football?
Well, Steve Smith, for one. The fiery, now 36-year-old veteran led the Ravens with 134 targets, 79 catches and 1,065 yards last season. Expect him to reprise his role as Flacco's most utilized target.
After that, things get a little dicey. Torrey Smith (49 receptions) and tight end Owen Daniels (48) both left this off-season, meaning that the Ravens' top returning receiver after Steve Smith is running back Justin Forsett (44 catches, 263 yards). They did see some flashes of brilliance from young receivers Kamar Aiken, Michael Campanaro, Marlon Brown and tight end Crockett Gillmore. Yet another name to remember: DeAndre Carter. The undrafted rookie has opened eyes during early OTA workouts.
Flacco also has to be holding out hope that Dennis Pitta can shake off two seasons' worth of injuries to reclaim a spot in the passing attack. Baltimore's not exactly counting on Pitta, so it used a second-round pick on downfield threat Maxx Williams out of Minnesota. Williams, Gillmore and Boyle give the Ravens a trio of options at the position—Williams stands out as the guy defenses will have the most trouble covering.
The real key, though, is Perriman. An electrifying athlete with world-class speed, Perriman could be a Rookie of the Year candidate provided he refines his route-running and shakes off his issues with drops.
“We always ask a player, ‘What do you think you need to work on the most?’ And he said the concentration drops,” said Newsome of Perriman during a post-round 1 draft press conference. “Those are just a matter of focusing in on the ball and making sure that’s the No. 1 thing, and there will be a lot of opportunities for [wide receivers coach Bobby Engram] to work with him just on that one thing. But he has all the other elements.”
Perriman's deep speed was no doubt a draw, especially with Torrey Smith bolting for San Francisco. Perriman averaged 20.9 yards per catch last season and 19.5 for his career at UCF. Flacco has a knack for hurting defenses downfield, even if just by lofting one long in search of a pass interference flag. Smith excelled at that aspect of the game, leading the NFL in P.I. flags draw last year.
First and foremost, the Ravens will ask Perriman to take the top off opposing defenses. Step two will be turning him into a well-rounded weapon outside.
“No. 1 we wanted to get a good receiver in the draft, but [we also wanted] to have the vertical element to be added to what we already have,” Newsome said. “We have a good corps of receivers. Now you add that element to it; I think it has gotten that much better.”
Time will tell. The Ravens' passing attack ranked 13th last season, up from 18th in 2014. An offensive coordinator swap of Gary Kubiak (now the head coach in Denver) for Marc Trestman (formerly the head coach in Chicago) could elevate the aerial show further. How explosive Baltimore will be depends on which players can rise to Steve Smith's level as reliable targets.