This time last year, the Ravens were fresh off a Super Bowl victory and their front office could do no wrong. But after a poor finish this season had them miss the playoffs for the first time in the John Harbaugh era, Baltimore is clearly in need of some retooling.
General Manager Ozzie Newsome has already extended Terrell Suggs’ contract for some much-needed salary cap space, which he’ll now try to use to bring back some valuable players headed for free agency. Reports already have the Ravens in negotiations with left tackle Eugene Monroe and tight end Dennis Pitta, but who should be the bigger priority?
PFF analysts Pete Damilatis and Gordon McGuinness tackle that question in another edition of our Free Agent Duels.
The Case for Monroe
By Pete Damilatis
The Jaguars have missed on a lot of Top 10 draft picks in recent years, but they got one right when they drafted Monroe eighth overall in 2009. His first two seasons were a mix of effective run blocking and poor pass protection, but he put it all together in 2011, earning our third-highest left tackle grade and a spot on our AFC Pro Bowl roster… and he hasn’t looked back since. He hasn’t finished any of the last three seasons with a grade worse than +20.4, and has just four games “in the red” in that span. At just 26 years old, he’s a top-tier left tackle with a lot of good years ahead of him.
Monroe’s 2013 season got off to an uncharacteristically rough start. He posted a career-low -3.4 run block grade in Week 1, and surrendered 15 quarterback pressures in his first four games with the Jaguars. But that didn’t stop the Ravens, desperate for offensive line help, from dealing fourth- and fifth-round picks for him in Week 5. Once he arrived in Baltimore, Monroe returned to his high level of play. He didn’t earn a single negative grade with the Ravens, and his +24.0 grade in the last 11 weeks of the season was the fourth-best grade of any tackle in that span. Even though they ultimately missed the playoffs, the Ravens couldn’t have asked for a better result from their midseason deal.
The Ravens were able to get such a good player for such a low price because of Monroe’s expiring contract. Now that he’s a free agent, they’ll have to pay a significant price to keep him around. But looking at the rest of their roster, I don’t see how they could let him go. We ranked Baltimore’s offensive line 28th in the NFL this season, and that included Monroe’s contributions. Every spot, save for Marshal Yanda at right guard, is in need of an upgrade. Disappointing right tackle Michael Oher is also hitting free agency, and the Ravens are smart to let him go. But that means the only tackles under contract for Baltimore are 2013 fifth-round pick Ricky Wagner, who allowed three sacks in the season opener versus the Broncos, and David Sims, who has yet to take an offensive snap.
The Ravens could try to replace Monroe, but they won’t find a better option elsewhere. The only left tackle who compares to him is Branden Albert, who isn’t nearly as effective a run blocker. Others like Anthony Collins and Jared Veldheer have promise, but aren’t as proven. And the spotty play of the highly-touted rookie tackles this season showed us how risky it is to rely on a first-round draft pick. A franchise left tackle in his prime, Monroe won’t come cheap. But given the success he’s already had in Baltimore and the lack of alternatives, the Ravens absolutely need to keep him.
The Case Against Monroe
By Gordon McGuinness
In reworking Suggs’ deal last week, along with the report that the cap will rise by about $5 million this year, the Ravens are in position to try and re-sign both if they want to. That doesn’t mean they’ll be successful, but the opportunity will be there. Does that make it the right thing to do, though?
There’s no denying how good Monroe was last year, and the case against re-signing has nothing to do with how he played a year ago. However, I can’t help but feel like the Ravens missed a trick by not getting him signed to a long-term deal when they traded for him. Now, just a few months later he’s set to hit the open market as the best offensive tackle available in a league full of teams looking for an upgrade at the position. That’s not a great position for the Ravens to be in.
There is a cheaper alternative that the Ravens could look to, however, and, while it would be a bit of a gamble, would allow them to have some extra money to spend elsewhere, something that’s needed considering how many holes they have on their roster coming off a disappointing 8-8 season. I’m talking about Anthony Collins, who Pete mentioned earlier. As Pete points out, he isn’t as proven, but he was very good as a pass blocker when he played last year, and might have the most upside of any player available at the position. He lead all offensive tackles who played 25% or more of their team’s passing plays with a Pass Blocking Efficiency rating of 97.2, allowing just 12 quarterback hurries from 317 pass blocking snaps in the regular season. Yes it’s a bigger gamble, but it’s one which is likely to pay off in a big way for the Ravens should they avoid being dragged into a bidding war over Monroe.
The Case For Pitta
By Gordon McGuinness
Joe Flacco is a quarterback that seems to divide analysts and fans around the league, and it’s not surprising with his up-and-down play. At this stage in his career, though, I think we just need to accept him for what he is, and that’s a quarterback who has a very high ceiling and very low floor on every drop-back. The debate about whether or not the Ravens should have brought him back for the contract they did will go on for years, but it’s done now and the Ravens need to make the best of the situation. That means surrounding him with weapons who play to his strengths.
At his best during the Super Bowl run, Flacco was able to throw the ball up and let Anquan Boldin and Pitta use their physical advantage over defensive backs to come down with it. We saw it throughout the playoffs, and the losses of both were clearly felt early last year. Boldin left for San Francisco via trade while Pitta missed most of the year through injury, and the Ravens can’t afford to not have their tight end on the field again in 2014.
A player who can line up at tight end and also split out in the slot, Pitta pulled in 39 receptions for 451 yards and six touchdowns from the slot in the 2012 regular season. The six touchdowns from the slot are tied for the third-most by any tight end in single season since 2008, something that shouldn’t be overlooked. He also has phenomenal hands, dropping just five of the 148 catchable passes thrown his way between 2010 and 2012. Two of his three drops last season came in his first game back, which was played in horrendous conditions in the snow against the Minnesota Vikings, so I think you have to give him the benefit of the doubt there. He’s the target Flacco looks most comfortable throwing to, and someone the Ravens should get tied down long-term as soon as possible.
The Case Against Pitta
By Pete Damilatis
Pitta has always earned high grades from us as a receiver, and his connection with Flacco is undeniable. His reliable hands and efficiency from the slot makes his overall contributions better than his raw receiving numbers would indicate. In that respect he’s similar to Golden Tate, who you might remember I advocated the Seahawks re-signing this offseason.
The difference, however, is that while a receiver like Tate can likely be signed for less than what his true value is, all signs point to Pitta asking for more than he’s worth. There are already hints that if the Ravens franchise tag him, Pitta will argue that he deserves the wide receiver designation. He’ll have a solid case too, as his percentage of snaps in the slot or out wide has steadily increased each of the last three seasons. And despite having just four NFL seasons under his belt, the 28-year-old tight end is likely looking at his last chance for a big contract.
If that leads to Pitta demanding top-tier tight end money, the Ravens should let him walk. Even in his career-best 2012 season, he still gained just 669 receiving yards. With a -12.4 career run block grade, he’s a one-dimensional tight end in a league that’s becoming increasingly populated with them. Graham makes up for his subpar blocking with some stellar receiving numbers, but Pitta doesn’t come close to that level.
Gordon makes a good point about Collins, a player who I like as well. But after A.Q. Shipley had such a rough transition from backup to starter this season for the Ravens, I believe Baltimore will shy away from inexperienced replacements. Both Monroe and Pitta will ask to be paid among the highest salaries at their position, but only one of them deserves to be. Locking up a 26-year-old franchise left tackle won’t be cheap, but it will be money well spent for Baltimore.
If you were the Ravens general manager and could keep only one, would you opt for Monroe or Pitta? Make your case in the comments section.
See the past Free Agent Duels here:
OAK: Veldheer vs. Houston
NE: Edleman vs. Talib
SEA: Bennett vs. Tate
DEN: Decker v. Rodgers-Cromartie
CLE: Ward vs. Mack
PHI: Maclin vs. Cooper
SF: Whitner vs. Boldin