The Baltimore Ravens are in an interesting situation entering the 2019 NFL off-season. Baltimore has a number of free agents that could either be moving on to new homes in 2019 or stay a Raven for the foreseeable future. Not just backups either — leaders and very large impact players.
The Ravens defense showed out in 2018 and was once again the stabilizing force of the team. However, Baltimore lacked the ability to both rush the passer and force turnovers. The Ravens finished with a -3 turnover differential forcing the 23rd-most takeaways despite finishing first overall in yards conceded. These elements are perhaps the two most integral parts of building a defense in today’s NFL and both need to be addressed throughout the off-season. This comes just one year after Baltimore led the NFL in takeaways and turnover differential.
With a portion of the Ravens core approaching the ends of their careers, there are a lot of huge decisions to make as the start of free agency approaches. This is the 2019 edition of Walk-Keep-Cup where I predict the fates of the Ravens that could remain with the team for another season or be moving onto new ventures in 2019.
*I’ve left off players that have either never or played an insignificant amount of regular-season games as a member of the Ravens (ie. Stanley Jean-Baptiste)*
Baltimore Ravens Defense Walk-Keep-Cut 2019
C.J. Mosley (MLB) – Verdict: KEEP
Mosley is the Ravens number-one priority this offseason. He’s the best player on Baltimore’s defense and may demand a lot of money as one of the best middle linebackers in football, but he is worth it.
For fear of repeating myself, here is why Mosley needs to be re-signed.
Patrick Onwuasor (ILB) – Verdict: WALK
There’s a good chance that general manager Eric DeCosta is not going to bring back both of the interior linebackers, leaving Onwuasor as a casualty of Mosley’s potential new contract.
Onwuasor started 12 games for Baltimore in 2018 and registered career highs in forced fumbles, pass breakups, and sacks. Though he is not the tackling machine Mosley is, Onwuasor is a serviceable second linebacker in a 3-4 or hybrid defense and always plays with a chip on his shoulder after going undrafted in 2016. He also made his biggest plays in crucial games. In the Ravens two meetings with the Los Angeles Chargers, Onwuasor forced the game-clinching fumble in Week 16 and added another in the Ravens only playoff game as well as recording seven tackles, a sack, two quarterback hits and two tackles for loss in the same game.
The emergence of Kenny Young, the Ravens fourth-round rookie linebacker, is what is working against Onwuasor. Young fell just four tackles short of Onwuasor’s 55 and played just 86 fewer snaps. Onwuasor will be a solid contributor for another team but Young looks like he will fit in fine (probably) besides Mosley for the next three seasons on a rookie contract salary.
Michael Pierce (DT) – Verdict: KEEP
Pierce may not be the best pass rushing nose tackle but he is one heck of a run defender. In 2018, the former undrafted free agent graded out as the Ravens best overall defender and had the fifth highest grade among interior defensive lineman in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. Pierce has been such a force with the Ravens, he even forced Baltimore into trading Timmy Jernigan, an established starter, because of his immediate impact. Being a restricted free agent, Pierce is due for a large pay raise in Baltimore next season.
Brandon Williams has an out in his contract at the end of next season and though it may not be exercised, the Ravens are likely going to want to keep their run defense strong for years to come. The duo of Williams and Pierce have helped the Ravens have a top-five run defense in two of the past three seasons.
Za’Darius Smith (OLB) – Verdict: WALK
Smith balled out in his contract year, leading the Ravens in sacks and finishing 2018 with 60 total quarterback pressures. However, the Ravens have been faced with the decision to extend one-season wonder pass rushers before and usually make the right call by letting them walk. Specifically, this happened with Pernell McPhee in 2015 and Paul Kruger in 2013. Both signed identical five year(s)/$40 million contracts after hitting free agency and were both released by their respective teams before the starts of their fourth season.
The Ravens put a lot of draft capital into their pass rush in the 2017 draft and will likely let one of either Tyus Bowser or Tim Williams attempt to fill Smith’s role in 2019. Baltimore as a team did not rush the passer well in 2018 and may draft a possible successor to Terrell Suggs with their first pick. The draft and free agency are stocked with pure edge defenders and the Ravens will probably look there to find a replacement for Smith.
Terrell Suggs (OLB) – Verdict: KEEP
There will be a day in the not so distant future where Suggs joins Ed Reed and Ray Lewis in the Pro Football Hall of Fame but for now, it makes sense for Baltimore to retain Suggs for one more season. He’s past his prime but is still productive for a 36-year-old veteran. Suggs put up a respectable 7.0 sacks but what the Ravens can’t afford to lose is his leadership. With the assumed departure of Joe Flacco, Suggs is one of just three Ravens that remain from their victory in Super Bowl XLVII. Factor that in with Eric Weddle being cut and the Ravens could be walking into 2019 missing a lot of key leaders on their teams from years past.
Suggs has already stated he’s coming back for a 17th season. It’s just a matter if DeCosta believes that his leadership qualities and on-field production can be replaced. It’s a big spot to fill and it would make sense for the Ravens to try and bring him back.
Brent Urban (DE) – Verdict: WALK
Urban is known for one thing and one thing only. The 2015 kick-six against the Cleveland Browns in his first NFL game. Since then, he hasn’t offered the Ravens much from a production standpoint. Urban started every game in 2018 (so he’s not really a backup) and registered 27 total tackles. What’s more frightening is his measly 0.5 sacks on the season. He’s only recorded 3.5 for his whole career as well.
Considering he played over half the of the Ravens defensive snaps (50.4 percent), Urban made little impact on the field. The Ravens D-line failed to get pressure up the middle all year and Urban is probably on the way out as one of the culprits. The former fourth-rounder signed a one-year deal at the beginning of 2018 to stay in Baltimore another year but looks as good as gone in 2019.
Brandon Carr (CB) – Verdict: KEEP
It came as a surprise (to me) when DeCosta announced “I expect (Carr) to be back” in 2019. Carr has a $7 million option on his contract for 2019 and the Ravens could save $5 million if they choose to let him walk. His consecutive start streak continued in 2018 but as Jimmy Smith began to regain his form, Smith reclaimed his spot as the team’s second-best corner. Tavon Young also just signed a new three-year deal that will see him become the highest paid slot corner in the NFL.
Keeping Carr around is a big risk by DeCosta and it likely means someone else is getting cut in the secondary. It hasn’t been long enough for Ravens fans to forget the torching Antonio Brown put on Carr Week 14 of 2017 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and he is now two years older. I’m going to take DeCosta’s word for this one and if it remains, is a perplexing decision.
Jimmy Smith (CB) – Verdict: CUT
It took a while for Smith to regain his form in 2018 after a four-game suspension held him out for the first quarter of the season, but like he always does, found his game and formed a great duo in the secondary with Marlon Humphrey. Smith stabilized his footing and had his biggest game against the Browns in Week 17 when he grabbed two picks and helped the Ravens banish their three-year postseason drought. He also out snapped Carr in every game after Baltimore’s bye week, besides to week 17.
However, if Carr is coming back, it likely means Smith is not. Smith’s contract would carry the highest cap hit on the team at $15,850,685 and the Ravens could save $9.5 million if he were to be cut this offseason. Smith has been a Raven his entire eight-year career but would be entering the final year of his contract and turns 31 before the start of next season. He had debatably the best season of his career in 2017.
If it were up to me, I would be moving on from Carr and keeping Smith moving into 2019 but DeCosta may have other plans.
Eric Weddle (FS) – Verdict: KEEP
Weddle’s status is probably the most unpredictable of the defensive group this year. He had a decent but not great season in 2018 and showed a noticeable decline from 2017. His stats took a hit as Weddle failed to record an interception for his first time as a Raven. He totaled 10 over his first two seasons. Weddle also missed a number of key tackles on the season though Pro Football Focus has him only missing five of his 78 attempts — finishing 2018 with a grade of 80.7, good for 10th among safeties. Decline or not, his season was good enough to get him his sixth Pro-Bowl nod.
What is potentially pushing Weddle out the door is how Baltimore would benefit if he were to be cut. Weddle is now 34 years old and the Baltimore coaching staff have shown praise for both second-year player Chuck Clark and rookie DeShon Elliott. They would also save $7.5 million in cap room. It’s not that Weddle isn’t a capable starting safety but there is certainly incentive to cut him if the Ravens are trying to get younger and save money for other players. Couple that with the safety depth coming out of college and it’s hard to believe Ravens management won’t think long and hard about moving on from Weddle.
In regards to Weddle and Jimmy Smith, DeCosta has already said: “We’ve got to be as responsible as we can with the salary cap, trying to free up as much money as we can to make moves moving forward.” In my opinion, I would bring Weddle back and address other needs in the draft but it looks like DeCosta is leaning the other way.