Ravens are in very good hands if Eric DeCosta's early returns as new GM continue
Tavon Young signing, Joe Flacco trade indicative of DeCosta's approach in first few months as Ozzie Newsome's successor
On the surface, at a time when the Ravens have just traded former Super-Bowl MVP quarterback Joe Flacco, and with them trying to get an extension done with franchise-tag candidate C.J. Mosley and facing the potential departure of possible future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs, it would be easy for their signing of young corner Tavon Young to an extension to get overlooked.
For while it did set a record for a slot corner – one that will surely get surpassed once free agency begins in earnest next month – it isn't going to resonate nearly as much as Baltimore's looming decisions with the household names mentioned above, or others (like potential contract restructuring talks with Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle and top corner Jimmy Smith). But, in actuality, the Young signing and the Flacco trade are indicative of a new approach being spearheaded by longtime Ravens exec Eric DeCosta in his first few months taking over as general manager for legendary Ozzie Newsome. And if the Ravens get their way, their recent overtures to linebacker Matt Judon and defensive tackle Michael Pierce will result in contracts as well, with league sources indicating the team is actively trying to extend them as well as Mosley (and Baltimore will be wise to lock up restricted free agent linebacker Patrick Onwuasor).
Give DeCosta high marks for managing, somehow, to get a high-fourth-round pick for Flacco at a time when the quarterback market has more supply than demand, and for getting Young locked up. And you can expect him to continue to press to reshuffle this roster and take money from aging players on the way out and use it to buy relatively low on players who the team still retains rights to. Take from descending players to give to ascending players. Makes perfect sense to me.
The Ravens' aggressive approach with Young, Judon and Pierce following their third season in the NFL – the point at which players are eligible to sign extensions with their clubs – is a portal into a wider approach afoot, and a thorough approach to try to erase some mistakes from the past. For while Young – who has shined in the slot during his two healthy seasons – is the first member of Baltimore's young core on defense to sign, he will not be the last, and DeCosta is focusing considerable energy on trying to extend a handful of players well before the 2019 season begins.
Far too often in recent years, the Ravens have waited too long to identify the best candidates to re-sign, and allowed players to get too close to free agency before making a true push to extend them. Regardless of what you might think of their work once leaving Baltimore, emerging talents like Pernell McPhee, Arthur Jones, Kyle Juszczyk, Ryan Jensen, Ricky Wagner – who all added greatly to the Ravens' cause – departed as free agents. Agents in many of those cases said Baltimore could have extended those players for less than half of what they ended up getting on the open market, had they truly engaged in negotiations with them one year sooner than they did.
DeCosta is taking a smart approach this offseason, emphasizing the importance of Judon, Pierce and Young, sources said, and being open to three-year deals for such players, which allows them to experience free agency in many cases before age 30, but secures them to the Ravens for their prime. The Ravens may have already missed the boat on edge player Za'Darius Smith, a recent fourth-round pick who is going to crush it on the open market after posting over eight sacks with more playing time a year ago, but agents have been impressed with DeCosta's pitch this far, I'm told, and forthright nature.
Trust me, teams around the NFL are keeping a particular eye on Baltimore's tact with its two restricted free agents, Onwausor and Pierce, both of whom entered the NFL as undrafted free agents. There is plenty of work to be done.
Pierce, by many metrics, is already one of the top five defensive tackles in the NFL – and pay for that position group is on the rise, with Aaron Donald's record deal setting the bar high. If the Ravens put anything less than a first-round tender on Pierce, they will be inviting offer sheets from other teams. And if they don't extend him long-term this offseason, then an expensive franchise tag would likely be looming in 2020.
Onwausor's case will be particularly interesting after his breakthrough 2018. The linebacker was one of the best players on the field for the league's top defense in the second half of the season, and if the Ravens fail to put a high-enough RFA tender on him, needy teams with an abundance of cap space may poach with a heavily front-loaded offer. His athleticism and ability to get to the QB earned plenty of attention. Sources said the youngster has already made it clear to the Ravens how much he wants to stay and how open he is to a long-term deal with the team. I wouldn't be pennywise-yet-pound-foolish in this instance.
With pass rushers about to crush it on the open market again next month, I would think Judon would wait until the dust settles on free agency to truly dive in on a long-term deal, and DeCosta, I am sure, will have cash and cap put aside to address it this spring.
The 2019 offseason had long shaped up as one of transition for this franchise, on the roster as well as the front office, and it's time to embrace change. For my two cents, I'd take cap savings by moving on from Weddle and Smith, pick up corner Brandon Carr's option, and trade run-stuffing defensive tackle Brandon Williams for whatever I can get for him to clear his $9M per year salary (similar to the Giants getting a fifth-round pick for Snacks Harrison at the deadline – that money would be earmarked for the far more dynamic Pierce).
If the market for Suggs is somewhat soft, and I can bring him back for one year around $5M – with sack incentives – I do it. And I would let Mosley walk if it's going to cost anything close to $15M a year to keep him, take that 2020 comp pick, and put that $15M/year he'd get towards Onwausor and Judon, who make far more impact in the passing game.
After years of ignoring the receiver position, and never investing in a young free agent, I'd pursue the heck out of Tyrell Williams of the Chargers, whose speed/size/production metrics are unlike anything the Ravens have ever had (I'd walk away from Michael Crabtree and put that $5M to use elsewhere). Lamar Jackson needs a fighting chance and more quick-twitch guys around him. Cordarrelle Patterson would be a natural in this run-pass option approach – and a boost to special teams – and he won't break the bank. Take a flier on Bears draft bust Kevin White as well; his world-class speed made him a top-10 pick and you could buy low after years of injuries. And give me Spencer Ware as my receiving back (he's caught 85 percent of his targets and would thrive in this offense, which borrows concepts from Andy Reid's); he won't cost a ton, either.
Offensive linemen are getting too heavily overpaid in free agency, and Baltimore routinely finds starters in the later rounds there. It's been a while since they took an interior OL high, but center perhaps is addressed there. The Ravens' cap situation is better than it's been in quite some time, and this is the most flexibility they have had in years.
With so many big-name players either already on the move or potentially on the move, following an improbable second-half push to win a division title with a rookie quarterback taking over at midseason, the Ravens enter this offseason as one of the more intriguing teams to watch, with many big decisions to make. If DeCosta's early work holds true, the Ravens will be well-positioned to stay plenty competitive while Jackson is still making peanuts.
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