Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Up today: the Ravens, who face some big decisions after a hard-luck 2015 that fell far short of expectations. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
WR Kamar Aiken (RFA), WR Marlon Brown (RFA), WR Chris Givens, LB Albert McClellan, OT Kelechi Osemele, OLB Courtney Upshaw, CB Shareece Wright
Players that must be re-signed
Aiken, Upshaw, Wright. Noticeably absent from this list is Osemele, who is among the top handful of free agents set to hit the market. The situation would be different if the Ravens had Osemele tabbed as their long-term left tackle—he started there late last season with Eugene Monroe battling injuries. Monroe, in year three of a five-year, $37.5 million contract, is another issue for the Ravens.
While Osemele added to his value by stepping out to tackle, he has established himself as a dominant guard. That’s where his best-case future lies. The Ravens just handed right guard Marshal Yanda a four-year contract extension last October, and they started Ryan Jensen at left guard last December once Osemele kicked out to tackle. They don’t necessarily need Osemele at the price tag he will command, at least not if they still think of him as an interior lineman.
The Ravens have a decision to make on Aiken, too. The safe bet is that they slap a second-round tender on him as a restricted free agent, which would carry a price tag of $2.55 million. Any other team could still engage Aiken in talks, but they would have to hand over a second-rounder to Baltimore if Aiken signed elsewhere. The Ravens could use the original-round tender on Aiken ($1.67 million)—since he was undrafted, that essentially just maintains Baltimore’s right to match any other offer. Aiken definitely would drum up interest in that case.
Upshaw would not have much trouble finding a new home, either. For Baltimore, it’s “better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” The 26-year-old Upshaw never found his pass-rushing chops (5.0 total sacks in four seasons), but he has become a stout run defender. The Ravens already are a bit strapped at OLB, with Terrell Suggs working his way back from a torn Achilles and Elvis Dumervil turning 32 in January. Upshaw is a reliable piece.
Wright, 28, hardly qualifies as a big-ticket free agent. However, the Ravens are not exactly flush with cornerbacks. Lardarius Webb said in January that he plans to stick at free safety permanently, so there is no obvious starter opposite Jimmy Smith. Wright probably should not be that guy, but finding a top-two corner and quality depth in the same off-season is a lofty challenge.
Most important position to improve
Outside linebacker. The all-is-well, rainbows-and-puppy dogs scenario has Suggs bouncing back from his injury (and avoiding any major fallout from his Friday arrest), Dumervil reprising the 17.0-sack performance he put up in 2014, not the 6.0-sack effort he produced last year, and Za’Darius Smith continuing on an upward tract.
Should one or two of those plans go awry, the Ravens again will find themselves struggling to generate a consistent pass rush. They did manage to rack up 37 sacks last season, just shy of league average, despite Suggs’s absence. There still were too many times where opposing quarterbacks were free to survey the field—an issue that put the secondary in some tough spots.
This all goes hand in hand. If the Ravens’ pass rush can get back anywhere close to where it was in 2014, when it ranked second in sacks, the lack of depth at corner would be less of a headache. As is, the Ravens know they have to bulk up at DB in part because they aren’t sure what the pass rush will provide.
Other positions to improve
Cornerback, defensive end, inside linebacker, offensive tackle, wide receiver. Should Webb take to the safety position, the Ravens may find that the most noticeable benefits come in the slot, where Kyle Arrington should inherit the reps. The former Patriot is at his best by far in that role, but Webb blocked him from heavy playing time there in 2015.
A starting back line of Webb and Will Hill at safety, with Smith at corner and Arrington in the slot, should stack up pretty well against most passing games. The mystery is who fills the CB2 job. Perhaps it’s Wright or Will Davis, coming off his second ACL tear in a year. Baltimore may be best served finding some help elsewhere.
The defensive line, in general, is in solid shape. The Ravens chose not to pick up the 2016 contract option on DE Chris Canty, which could leave them hunting for depth. It’s not a massive issue, though—Timmy Jernigan and Brent Urban, among others, return.
Inside linebacker potentially could be more problematic. McClellan can test the market in free agency, and 2013 second-rounder Arthur Brown has been a huge disappointment, meaning Baltimore may have to find a starter to pair with C.J. Mosley.
At tackle ... see above. Osemele is probably gone, and Monroe is far from reliable on Joe Flacco’s (or Ryan Mallett’s) blind side. Flacco has options in the passing game, if Aiken returns and Steve Smith is healthy. There just are not any players there right now that scare opposing secondaries. Perhaps 2015 draft pick Breshad Perriman can answer the bell after a lost rookie campaign.
Overall priority this off-season
Solve the left side of the O-line. To help get their salary cap in order, the Ravens just inked Flacco to a contract extension through the 2021 season. Now, they need to figure out how to protect him when he gets back from the torn ACL and MCL that ended his 2015 season.
The Baltimore Sun’s Jeff Zriebec reported last month that the possibility of Monroe being cut has “an inevitable feel to it.” Osemele is about to strike it rich as a free agent. So, even if the Ravens feel comfortable with Jensen at guard, they’re still shy a starting left tackle.
Historically, this has not been a franchise that breaks the bank in free agency. But the Ravens may not have to stray from precedent to land a left tackle, if the market is a little icy. Most of the prospective starting LTs available—Russell Okung, Andre Smith, Donald Penn—come with question marks.
Baltimore quarterbacks actually were sacked at the lowest rate in the entire league—just 3.4% of dropbacks. The run game faltered badly, though, and left tackle emerged as a clear weak spot on a relatively strong line.