Ravens Must Cope with High-Profile Departures
Gordon McGuinness looks at the holes left by Baltimore's key free agent losses.
Ravens Must Cope with High-Profile Departures
Two weeks into the new league year and we’ve seen plenty of change around the league. Not least in Baltimore, where the Ravens have seen three high-profile departures create holes in the roster. Interestingly, they haven’t added many, and none at the positions where they’ve lost those players, so they clearly feel that they can find replacements out there either in the draft or later in free agency, or that they have the replacements already on the roster. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at all three departures, and what they mean for the team right now.
Arriving in Baltimore as a first-round pick back in 2006, Ngata was a mainstay on the Ravens’ defensive line throughout his career. The move to trade him came as a shock to some, but his cap figure, and the fact that it was unlikely that the team would extend him, meant it made sense to part ways now. Still, he departs after an impressive season where he finished with a grade of +23.1 on 646 snaps including the playoffs. That’s the highest he has graded since we began grading games back in 2007, but he’s 31 years old now, so the Ravens would appear to be betting that we’ve seen the best we’re going to see out of Ngata.
Another reason why they have been able to part with him is because they have hit on two recent defensive linemen in the draft, giving them a solid young base to build off of despite Ngata leaving. After just two seasons in the league, Brandon Williams has developed into one of the best nose tackles in the game. Stout against the run, he has used his big frame to give opposing offensive lineman nightmares.
The direct replacement for Ngata, though, comes in the form of 2014 second-round draft pick Timmy Jernigan. He only played 330 snaps including the playoffs, but graded out at +11.1. He was impressive both against the run and as a pass rusher, with his Run Stop Percentage of 10.1% the sixth-best at the position, while his Pass Rushing Productivity rating of 9.7 was second to only J.J. Watt. It’s a very small sample size, but the future looks very bright for Jernigan.
You could make the case that McPhee was the best of the Ravens’ 3-4 outside linebackers in 2014, which is a strong statement considering they have three players in the highest six graded players at the position. At +26.0 McPhee was our second-highest graded outside linebacker, while he came in third when looking at pass rush alone. A versatile player, the biggest void comes with how much he allowed the Ravens to move him around and wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
If we’re only looking at the 3-4 outside linebacker spot, the Ravens can survive without McPhee. Terrell Suggs remains the best at the position against the run, and brings enough pass rush to be a very good all-around player. On the opposite side, Elvis Dumervil is purely a pass rusher, but he’s fantastic in that role, and they have Courtney Upshaw who is a good run defender to complement him.
Where McPhee will be missed though is that they currently lack a replacement that they can move around. In his short career we have seen McPhee have a lot of success as a pass rusher both on the edge and with his hand on the ground as an interior rusher and right now someone to fill that role doesn’t appear to be on the roster.
What’s interesting here is that I think Smith is the least talented of the three big departures in Baltimore. That’s not an insult, he’s good in his own right, it’s just that McPhee and Ngata are more talented, but despite this, losing Smith hurts the Ravens more than the other two do.
At this point in his career Smith isn’t the most polished route runner, or the most sure-handed receiver, either. What he is, though, is a fantastic deep threat. His straight-line speed is very difficult for opposing defensive backs to deal with, as shown by his 1,107 yards on passes traveling 20 yards or more through the air over the past three seasons.
The Ravens have some intriguing options at receiver, though, and they’ll be hoping someone like Marlon Brown can step up opposite Steve Smith. A big target at 6-foot-5, Brown has shown flashes in his first two seasons in the league, including seven touchdowns as a rookie in 2013. He wasn’t used as much in 2014, but did improve his hands, finishing the year with no dropped passes.
If not Brown, then perhaps Kamar Aiken can step up and produce consistently what we saw in the Week 14 game against the Miami Dolphins, but the sample size on him is too small to gauge at this point. The sample size for Michael Campanaro is even smaller, with just 85 snaps including the playoffs, but he did impress on those few snaps, though he seems better suited to a role in the slot.
Even if one or more of those three can step up, they are still going to be missing Smith’s deep speed. Going beyond his numbers as a receiver, we often saw Smith drawing pass interference and defensive holding penalties, most notably on big passes downfield, sometimes underthrown, where the defensive back had no choice but to foul him to prevent the catch. If they can’t fill the void with another speedy receiver, Joe Flacco may need to be more accurate with his downfield passes in 2015.
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Gordon McGuinness | Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst
Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.