Just a year after they went on a fantastic run to lift the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl Champions, the Baltimore Ravens crashed and burned en route to a disappointing 8-8 record that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time in the John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco era.
Hurt by injuries and one of the highest roster turnovers we’ve seen for a Super Bowl champion, the record felt about right based on the players they were able to field. Things are looking up heading into 2014 though. Armed with a decent amount of cap room and one of the best front offices in football, you’d imagine they’ll be at least contending for the playoffs again.
They do, however, have some needs to address with that cap room to allow them to bridge the gap with the Cincinnati Bengals again so, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the three biggest gaps on the roster right now.
Potential Cap Casualties
– After parting ways with linebacker Jameel McClain and fullback Vonta Leach, the Ravens have roughly $28.2 million in available cap room (per overthecap.com). That doesn’t include Dennis Pitta’s new contract however, with details for that still to be announced at the time of writing.
– McClain and Leach were two of the top three candidates to be cut to create some extra cap room. The small bump to the cap may be enough that they don’t want to release anyone else, but it’s worth wondering if they’ll be content to pay punter Sam Koch $2.8 million in 2014. His release would give them an extra $1.6 million to spend elsewhere.
– Outside of that there aren’t many extra savings to be made, though they may look to restructure Haloti Ngata’s deal, with the defensive tackle set to count for $16 million against the cap. Cutting him would result in $15 million in dead money, and would leave another gap on the roster, so that’s not going to happen.
After Ed Reed left in the spring last year, the Ravens tried to paper over the gap at free safety by slotting rookie first round draft pick Matt Elam into the spot, while James Ihedigbo took over at strong safety for Bernard Pollard. The problem with that however, is that both are very similar players and, as talented as he is, Elam seems much better suited to play closer to the line of scrimmage that he does deep. With Ihedigbo unlikely to return, Elam will slot in where he played as the Ravens search for a true free safety.
Free agent fix: They have enough cap room to make one top signing if they want to. However, with Jarius Byrd a possibility to receive the franchise tag before he can hit the market, and a greater need on the offensive line, it’s unlikely that splash will come at safety. Instead they may look to sign someone like Chris Clemons, who we ranked as the fourth best available safety. Quietly coming off a very good year in coverage, where only eight players had a higher grade, he allowed a league best 0.20 Yards Per Snap in coverage.
If the season was to begin today, the Ravens starting offensive tackles would likely be Ricky Wagner and Kelechi Osemele. That’s not great for a number of reasons, including that it takes Osemele away from a left guard position where he has shown some serious potential. Michael Oher is unlikely to return at right tackle, but you would imagine that the team will do everything they can to bring back Eugene Monroe, even if it means applying the franchise tag to the player who manned the left tackle spot so well in 2013.
Free agent fix: Assuming that Monroe is the player they bring back at left tackle, he’ll likely be the team’s big signing this offseason. That means that the next focus is at the other side of the line, and ideally someone who doesn’t cost too much. Though he didn’t have a great year in 2013, Ryan Harris was pretty good in 2012, as he rotated at right tackle for the Houston Texans. A better pass blocker than he is a run blocker, he also has familiarity with the Ravens new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who was his head coach in Houston.
While Jameel McClain was always likely to be cut, it does leave the Ravens thinner at inside linebacker, with Josh Bynes and Arthur Brown the top two at the position as things stand. They signed Daryl Smith on a one-year deal a year ago, and it would make sense to bring him back into the fold in 2014. Big things are expected of Brown in his second year in the league, while Bynes had a strong start to the 2013 season but is a better run defender than he is in coverage.
Free agent fix: Boring it may be, but the best thing for the Ravens to do would be to re-sign Smith on a sensible contract once again. He struggled against the run and getting off of blocks but was one of the best linebackers in the league in coverage. It may be the case that they use him only as a nickel linebacker going forward, provided he is unable to rebound from last year’s poor showing against the run, but with Bynes in the fold they should be able to rotate them depending on the down and get the best out of both players.
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