AFC North: Baltimore Ravens
For the second time in two months, the Ravens stressed the importance for Elam to become a better football player in 2015.
General manager Ozzie Newsome bluntly said this at the end of February at the “State of the Ravens” news conference, and coach John Harbaugh reiterated it at the NFL owners meetings earlier this week.
Last season, Elam lost his starting job and his confidence, or it might have been the other way around. The lowlights included failing to wrap up ball carriers and getting beat deep on pass plays.
Elam ranked 12th among all NFL defensive backs with 16 missed tackles, even though he played only half the snaps as many of the qualifying players, according to Pro Football Focus. He allowed an average of 16.3 yards on 17 catches, which ranked ninth-worst among safeties.
Pro Football Focus rated Elam the ninth-worst safety in the league in 2014.
“He’s got to become a good player,” coach John Harbaugh said at the NFL owners meetings earlier this week. “That’s his burden to bear, along with us as coaches to do everything we can to help him get there. We’re going to do our best to make that happen.”
As a rookie in 2013, Elam had his problems while starting 15 games. The biggest criticism was the lack of impact plays (one interception, three passes broken up and no forced fumbles). But he wasn't considered a major liability like he became last season.
In Week 3, Elam not only allowed Taylor Gabriel to get behind him for a big pass play but he forgot to touch down the Browns receiver after he fell to the ground. In Week 8, he missed five tackles in a loss at Cincinnati, which included him whiffing on wide receiver Mohamed Sanu on a 48-yard catch. In the playoff loss at New England, he missed a tackle on wide receiver Danny Amendola, who ran past him along the sideline for a touchdown.
“I just want to get better and improve my game,” Elam said at the end of the season. “That’s really all I can say.”
The Ravens aren't used to disappointing first-round picks, especially on the defensive side of the ball. With the exception of Elam, the other nine defensive players taken by the Ravens in the first round -- Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Duane Starks, Chris McAlister, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Jimmy Smith and C.J. Mosley -- have either reached the Pro Bowl or played a key role in helping the franchise win a Super Bowl.
The Ravens' lack of confidence in Elam showed this offseason, when they used the little cap room they had on signing Kendrick Lewis to start alongside Will Hill at safety. But the Ravens will give Elam a chance to make an impact this season.
"Matt Elam has to be a better football player for us next year," Newsome said last month. "He has to be."
PHOENIX -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh knows one of the biggest challenges for his defense is replacing five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. He just believes the Ravens already have the players in place to fill that massive void in the middle of the defense.
"There’s no reason we can’t be a great defense and a great defensive front next year," Harbaugh said at the NFL owners meetings.
Harbaugh isn't simply being optimistic. He has watched the Ravens succeed without Ngata in the lineup.
Last season, the Ravens were statistically a better run defense with Ngata on the sideline. Their defense limited teams to 3.8 yards per carry with Ngata on the field and kept them to 3.4 yards per carry with him off the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
When Ngata was suspended for the month of December last year for violating the NFL's policy for performance-enhancing drugs, the Ravens went 3-1 with Jernigan in the starting lineup and allowed an average of 94.2 yards rushing per game (10th-fewest in the NFL during that span).
"I think Timmy Jernigan is a good, young player," Harbaugh said. "Obviously, he has a lot of work to do, and he acknowledges that, which is what I love about him. I have no doubts that he’s going to give it his best shot and he’s going to do well."
The Ravens wanted to keep Ngata because they realize they're a better team with him clogging up running lanes and hitting quarterbacks. The sides just couldn't agree on an extension to lower his salary-cap number, and the Ravens were forced to trade Ngata and a seventh-round pick to the Detroit Lions in exchange for picks in the fourth and fifth rounds.
The last time the Ravens prepared for a season without Ngata was 2005. The Ravens lost double-digit games that season, and Ray Lewis vented this frustration about not having space-eating defensive tackles in front of him that would allow him to roam free.
Since Ngata fell to the Ravens in the first round of 2006, their defense ranked first in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (71) and second in fewest rushing yards per game (92.5). Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta acknowledged that he had a "sickening feeling" when the Ravens struck a deal with the Lions.
"He's an iconic player for the Baltimore Ravens. It's a difficult loss for us," Harbaugh said. "He's been a mainstay for us, as a player and a leader. It's going to be something that we're going to have to deal with and overcome."
PHOENIX -- The Baltimore Ravens are known for signing free agents after the first wave is complete, and the team could follow a similar path this offseason.
At the NFL owners meetings Monday, coach John Harbaugh indicated the Ravens intend to be active in free agency. The biggest positions of need remain wide receiver, tight end, cornerback and backup quarterback.
"We're just staying on top of it every second," Harbaugh said. "It's not like we're sitting back and just relaxing. We're monitoring it and we're talking to guys and agents. We want to be proactive."
Through the first two weeks of free agency, the Ravens have re-signed six of their own free agents, but they've only added one free agent from another team: safety Kendrick Lewis. Their current salary-cap space is $8.3 million after restructuring cornerback Lardarius Webb's contract.
Here are the top available free agents at the Ravens' positions of need:
The Ravens' history is to sign free agents later into free agency because they get the best value that way. They did it last year when they brought in running back Justin Forsett and Daniels on April 3.
"The more that you can add before the draft, it takes pressure off the draft to chase a position," Harbaugh said. "The more we can do that, the better off we'll be."
The Baltimore Ravens were awarded three compensatory picks on Monday, increasing their total to 10 picks for the 2015 NFL draft. The draft will be held April 30 to May 2 in Chicago.
Here is a quick look at how those picks break down:
First round (one pick, No. 26 overall)
Second round (one pick)
Third round (one pick)
Sixth round (one, traded their original sixth-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for a 2014 seventh-rounder which they used to select wide receiver Michael Campanaro, and acquired the Cowboys' sixth-rounder in Rolando McClain trade)
Seventh round (none, traded their seventh-round pick to Cowboys as part of the McClain deal, acquired the Dolphins' seventh-rounder in the Bryant McKinnie trade and gave that Dolphins' seventh-rounder to Lions as part of Ngata trade)
The NFL is expected to hand out 32 compensatory picks at the owners meetings Monday evening, and the Baltimore Ravens will learn if they're going to get an additional three or four picks for the 2015 draft.
It's been long projected that the Ravens will receive at least three compensatory picks for losing defensive lineman Arthur Jones (Indianapolis), offensive tackle Michael Oher (Tennessee) and cornerback Corey Graham (Buffalo) in free agency last offseason. The Ravens will likely get a fourth-round pick for Jones, a fifth-rounder for Oher and a sixth-rounder for Graham, according to overthecap.com.
Whether the Ravens are awarded a maximum fourth compensatory pick for the third straight year depends on tight end Ed Dickson qualifying as one. Compensatory picks are weighted based on salary and playing time. Dickson signed a one-year veteran minimum contract ($795,000) with Carolina Panthers in 2014 and played 47.3 percent of the snaps. As I wrote earlier this month, Dickson is considered to be "on the bubble" and could give the Ravens one of the last seventh-round picks in the draft.
The number of compensatory picks comes from the Ravens' net loss in free agency last offseason. The Ravens lost five significant unrestricted free agents -- Jones, Oher, Graham, safety James Ihedigbo (Detroit) and Dickson -- and they signed only one in safety Darian Stewart from St. Louis. It just depends on whether all of those free agents qualify in the compensatory-pick formula.
Last year, the Ravens used compensatory picks to draft tight end Crockett Gillmore (third round), defensive end Brent Urban (fourth round), running back Lorenzo Taliaferro (fourth round) and guard John Urschel (fifth round). Gilmore, Taliaferro and Urschel all made an impact for the Ravens in 2014, and Urban is expected to compete for a starting job this season.
Compiling compensatory picks has been a strength of the Ravens over the years. They have received 41 compensatory picks since they were first awarded in 1994. That is eight more than any other team in the NFL, and the Ravens didn't exist until 1996.
Here is the complete list of the Ravens' 41 compensatory picks:
- 1997: LB Cornell Brown (sixth round), QB Wally Richardson (seventh), S Ralph Staten (seventh) and DT Leland Taylor (seventh)
- 1998: TE Cam Quayle (seventh)
- 1999: G Edwin Mulitalo (fourth)
- 2002: WR Javin Hunter (sixth), RB Chester Taylor (sixth) and S Chad Williams (sixth)
- 2003: FB Ovie Mughelli (fourth), OT Tony Pashos (fifth), C Mike Mabry (seventh) and S Antwoine Sanders (seventh)
- 2004: WR Clarence Moore (sixth), WR Derek Abney (seventh) and G Brian Rimpf (seventh)
- 2005: QB Derek Anderson (sixth)
- 2006: RB P.J. Daniels (fourth), TE Quinn Sypniewski (fifth), P Sam Koch (sixth) and DB Derrick Martin (sixth)
- 2007: LB Antwan Barnes (fourth), FB Le'Ron McClain (fourth), QB Troy Smith (fifth) and LB Prescott Burgess (sixth)
- 2008: OT Oniel Cousins (third), OL David Hale (fourth), S Haruki Nakamura (sixth) and RB Allen Patrick (seventh)
- 2011: CB Chykie Brown (fifth) and DE-LB Pernell McPhee (fifth)
- 2012: S Christian Thompson (fourth) and CB Asa Jackson (fifth)
- 2013: FB Kyle Juszczyk (fourth), OT Rick Wagner (fifth), C Ryan Jensen (sixth) and CB Marc Anthony (seventh)
- 2014: TE Crockett Gillmore (third), DE Brent Urban (fourth) RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (fourth) and G John Urschel (fifth)
Wenning, who spent all of last season on the practice squad, likely won't be handed the No. 2 spot behind Joe Flacco because of his limited experience. He threw 17 passes in the preseason.
In the past, the Ravens added veteran quarterbacks such as Curtis Painter (2012) and Caleb Hanie (2013) in the middle of April. They waited until the end of June to sign Marc Bulger in 2010.
A bad free-agent class for quarterbacks has become even thinner 10 days into free agency. Mark Sanchez (Eagles), Brian Hoyer (Texans), Jake Locker (retired), Josh McCown (Browns) and Christian Ponder (Raiders) have all signed.
There are two quarterbacks who have connections with the Ravens' coaching staff. Michael Vick worked under Ravens quarterbacks coach Marty Mornhinweg with the Eagles and Jets, and Jordan Palmer spent parts of the previous two years with offensive coordinator Marc Trestman in Chicago. Palmer was considered the No. 2 quarterback for the Bears entering last year's training camp before he was beaten out by Jimmy Clausen.
Here are the top five quarterbacks left in the free-agent market:
1. Matt Moore, Dolphins: Moore can get the ball downfield and is capable of winning games in a pinch. He's 11-12 as a starter but has only thrown 10 passes the past two seasons as Ryan Tannehill's backup in Miami. Moore, 30, is too expensive for the Ravens (he made $4 million last year), and he likely doesn't want to go from sitting behind Tannehill to doing the same behind Flacco.
2. Tarvaris Jackson, Seahawks: He's only 31 and he's thrown over 1,000 career passes. Jackson has only attempted 14 throws the last two seasons, but he has looked strong the past two preseasons. He's four years removed from being a starter for Seattle, and he's thrown 39 career touchdowns and 35 interceptions. Jackson has expressed an interest in returning to the Seahawks, and he talked about going back to the Vikings to back up Teddy Bridgewater. He just visited the Dolphins.
3. Jason Campbell, Bengals: He's an underrated backup who has spent the past two seasons in the AFC North (Browns and Bengals). Campbell, 33, still has good arm strength, but he gets himself in trouble with a long release and questionable decision-making. It was only two years ago when he started for the Browns and beat the Ravens.
4. Matt Schaub, Raiders: He flamed out in his seventh season in Houston (five interceptions were returned for touchdowns), and he was easily beaten out by rookie Derek Carr in Oakland last year. The state of Schaub's confidence has to be a concern. But Schaub, 33, has the best track record of the remaining quarterbacks. He won 40 games in a five-year stretch (2008-12) with the Texans, throwing for over 4,000 yards three times.
5. Michael Vick, Jets: The biggest name left among the available quarterbacks, Vick remains a freakish athlete at 34. But he looked ragged in his three starts for the Jets last season (going 1-2), and some observers suggested he was unprepared and mentally checked out. Vick's playing style doesn't appear to be a good fit for Trestman's offense, and Vick might not want to spend one of his last NFL seasons holding a clipboard for 16 games.
The Ravens cut Pierce hours after he was arrested for drunken driving, which, strangely enough, might have put him in a better position to make a team.
With the Ravens, Pierce was going to be on the roster bubble all training camp because he was no better than the No. 3 running back behind Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro. He would've become a long shot to survive the final cuts if the Ravens decide to draft a running back.
Now, he joins a Jaguars team that finished No. 21 in the NFL in rushing. Jacksonville's top running backs are Toby Gerhart -- a disappointing free-agent pickup from a year ago -- and Denard Robinson, a converted college quarterback.
You can make an argument that the Ravens did Pierce a favor by releasing him and allowing him to get picked up by a team with a more unsettled running back situation.
Hours before it was announced that he had been picked up by the Jaguars, Pierce posted this on his Twitter account:
God works in mysterious ways =O
— Bernard Pierce (@BPierce_30) March 19, 2015
The re-signing of defensive end Chris Canty to a two-year deal on Wednesday amounts to veteran insurance. The Baltimore Ravens can turn to the nine-year starter if young players such as Brent Urban and Kapron Lewis-Moore don't rebound from injuries or fail to establish themselves.
The Ravens have promising talent on the defensive front, but they found themselves thin at experience a week into free agency. Canty was released for cap reasons (freed up $2.66 million of space), Haloti Ngata was traded to the Detroit Lions and valuable backup Lawrence Guy is a free agent.
That left the Ravens with eight defensive lineman who have 24 career starts and have an average age of 24.3 years:
Brandon Williams (26 years old): 14 career starts
Timmy Jernigan (22 years old): Three career starts
Brent Urban (23 years old): No games played
DeAngelo Tyson (25 years old): Six career starts
Christo Bilukidi (25 years old): No starts
Kapron Lewis-Moore (25 years old): No games played
Casey Walker (25 years old): One career start
Zach Thompson (24 years old): No games played
In comparison, Canty has made 119 career starts and is 32 years old. He was solid against the run last season, and he is a positive influence in the locker room. Canty became one of the strongest voices on the Ravens in just two years with the team.
Canty has something to prove coming off one of his worst seasons. He didn't record a full sack for the first time since 2009, and he was limited to playing 31.6 percent of the defensive snaps because of wrist and ankle injures.
"The opportunity presented itself a couple of days ago, so I thought about things and thought about some of the offers that I had on the open market, and Baltimore really stepped up with a solid offer,” Canty said. “They wanted me back, and I wanted to be back, so it just made sense.”
With everything the Baltimore Ravens have said and done this offseason, their only real option was to cut running back Bernard Pierce after he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence.
The Ravens made it clear they have a lower threshold of tolerance for off-the-field behavior. They backed it up when they swiftly parted ways with nose tackle Terrence Cody and cornerback Victor Hampton over the past two months.
Cutting Pierce was the move the Ravens had to make if they wanted to maintain this strong stance on players who get arrested.
Releasing Pierce doesn't send a strong message. Let's be honest: Pierce plummeted to the bottom of the depth chart by the end of the season and is just a notch above Cody and Hampton in terms of importance.
This is about salvaging reputation. Nine members of the Ravens' organization, including eight players, have been arrested in the past 13 months, from Valentine's Day 2014 to St. Patrick's Day 2015.
Three weeks ago, Ravens officials said the five arrests the past offseason were "an aberration." Since that time, two players have been arrested and charged with drunk driving.
It's an embarrassment for a franchise that had very little off-the-field trouble in coach John Harbaugh's first six seasons. A team should be held accountable for the character of the players it signs or drafts. A team should be held even more accountable when those players get arrested and do so at a disturbing rate.
The Ravens established a precedent of holding players to higher standards when they cut Cody and Hampton this offseason. The team announced the release of Cody when an animal abuse investigation had just begun and parted ways with Hampton a day after team officials learned of his drunken driving arrest.
Continuing this hard-line stance is going to be popular among a fan base that is tiring of these incidents. But it sets the Ravens up for a difficult situation if a star player gets in trouble. That's when the decision might not be as black and white.
Pierce made the decision easier with how he mishandled the situation. According to charging documents, Pierce asked the arresting officer if "the incident could be kept off the books."
He also told the arresting officer, "Do you know what happened the last time a Ravens player got a DUI? I'm getting cut tomorrow -- not like you care."
Pierce knew what was going to happen. Let's see if the players currently on the Ravens' roster will learn from their former teammates' mistakes.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Kendrick Lewis was lured to Baltimore because, as he put it, the Ravens opened their arms to him in free agency. The veteran safety was drawn by the Ravens' impeccable reputation for playing defense.
What convinced Lewis to sign a three-year deal with the Ravens on Tuesday was a persuasive recommendation by a player from their championship past.
"I asked my former [college] teammate Michael Oher about the decision, and he made me feel comfortable in making this decision to come here and be a part of the Baltimore Ravens family," said Lewis, who went to Mississippi at the same time as the Ravens' 2009 first-round pick, "and I'm looking forward to it.”
At Tuesday's introductory news conference, Lewis said he had offers from other teams but declined to name them specifically. When it came to making a decision, he texted Oher to get his take on the Ravens. Oher spent five seasons in Baltimore (2009-13), winning a Super Bowl in 2012, and is now an offensive tackle for the Carolina Panthers.
"He was just upfront," Lewis said. "He poured his heart out in all the great things he had to say about this organization to make my decision. That's what it was.”
The Ravens reached out to Lewis in free agency to stop the revolving door at safety. Since Ed Reed left in 2012, the Ravens have gone through four starting free safeties (Michael Huff, Matt Elam, Darian Stewart and Jeromy Miles). Last season, there were six players who rotated at safety and no one played more than 70 percent of the defensive snaps.
Lewis is expected to provide stability at free safety, based on his track record. He has started every season in his five-year career, and he played more snaps than any Texans defensive player last season (1,027 snaps, or 96.7 percent of Houston's defensive snaps).
"I think he's a guy that's going to come here and solidify our defense, especially on the back end," defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt said. "He's a guy that we'd looked for. We needed a veteran presence back there."
Even though the Ravens haven't announced Lewis as the starter, he is the presumed favorite to line up alongside Will Hill.
“I'm a competitor, a full-time competitor," Lewis said. "No matter what position I'm put in, that's my goal, to come in the starting lineup. I'm going to compete from the moment I step on the field, from the moment I step in the classroom, I'm going to compete. It's up to coaches, it's up to the organization to make that decision, but I'm going to give it my all.”
Lewis has primarily played free safety, lining up as the defensive centerfielder. His priority is to cut down on teams' success throwing deep against the Ravens.
Last season, quarterbacks completed 6 of 8 passes that traveled at least 40 yards in the air against the Ravens. That 75 percent completion rate was tied for the second-worst in the NFL in 2014.
With Lewis in the back of the Texans defense, quarterbacks connected on 29.4 percent on those passes (5-of-17).
"I bring my leadership. I bring knowledge. I bring my talent," Lewis said. "I bring my playmaking abilities to help this team out, even though this is a great team. I'm just an added piece that can help them become greater, and I'm very thankful to be here and be in this position.”
For those who continue to criticize Joe Flacco, you have to consider how much the Baltimore Ravens are investing in his targets. And lately, the Ravens haven't addressed the wide receiver position as much as other areas on the team.
The Ravens have signed three moderately priced free-agent wide receivers (Steve Smith Sr., Jacoby Jones and Brandon Stokley) over the last three offseasons, and they haven't drafted a wide receiver higher than the sixth round in the last three drafts.
As a result, wide receivers account for $7.036 million of the Ravens' 2015 salary cap, which ranks 26th out of 32 teams. Smith's cap number is $4.166 million, and no other receiver on the team has one higher than $660,000.
There are 14 wide receivers who individually have a higher cap number than the entire Ravens' wide receiver group, including Calvin Johnson ($20.558 million), Demaryius Thomas ($12.823 million) and Dez Bryant ($12.823 million).
This has been a trend for the Ravens. In 2012, the Ravens ranked 12th in the NFL in allocating $11.469 million to wide receivers. In the three years since, the Ravens have ranked 22nd (2013), 24th (2014) and 26th (2015).
Spending on receivers doesn't guarantee an electric passing attack. The three teams who've devoted the most cap room to receivers last year -- Miami, Houston and Washington -- didn't crack the top 10 in passing. But four of the NFL's top five passing teams last year -- Indianapolis, New Orleans, Denver and Atlanta -- all ranked in the top half of the league in most cap space allocated to wide receivers. So, you don't have to spend the most cap room on receivers but you can't ignore the position either.
This isn't insinuating that the Ravens are being cheap. In fact, the Ravens spend more than most teams, which is why they don't have much cap space to sign high-priced free agents this year. But, based on how the cap is spread out on the team, the Ravens have placed a lower priority on wide receivers.
The Ravens rank in the top 10 in most cap space for cornerbacks (fifth), offensive line (seventh) and linebackers (eighth). In comparison, Flacco's $14.55 million cap hit is only 15th among quarterbacks, so he's not limiting what the Ravens can do in free agency.
At this point, Flacco is throwing to Smith and a bunch of low-priced targets: Aldrick Robinson ($660,000 cap hit), Marlon Brown ($586,000), Kamar Aiken ($585,000), Michael Campanaro ($526,000) and Jeremy Butler ($511,000). Smith is the only receiver who caught more than 25 passes last season, and he's the only receiver to rank among the top 30 players on the team in terms of cap hits.
A week into free agency, the Ravens can still spend money on a wide receiver. Dwayne Bowe, Michael Crabtree and Greg Jennings remain available. The Ravens are also expected to draft a wide receiver in the first three rounds of this year's draft. Arizona State's Jaelen Strong, Ohio State's Devin Smith, Miami's Phillip Dorsett and Central Florida's Breshad Perriman could all warrant consideration for the Ravens at the No. 26 overall pick.
Two years ago, the Ravens traded Anquan Boldin and regretfully didn't replace him in free agency or the draft. After watching Torrey Smith sign a rich deal in San Francisco, the Ravens can't afford to repeat the same mistake.
Most significant signing: The Ravens have made only a couple of signings -- running back Justin Forsett and safety Kendrick Lewis. Forsett is the easy choice because he was the MVP on the Ravens last season and there were few viable alternatives to replace him. The team would've had to turn to Pierre Thomas or Knowshon Moreno if it failed to keep Forsett. He was a major reason the Ravens got their running game back on track. His vision and explosiveness worked well with the Ravens' stretch zone-blocking scheme. Forsett was the only running back in the league last season to gain more than 1,200 yards rushing and average more than 5 yards per carry. He's not DeMarco Murray, but he's a better value than the NFL's reigning rushing champion because his contract averages only $3 million per season.
Most significant loss: The Ravens are going to miss the big plays downfield by wide receiver Torrey Smith. There is always going to be criticism that Smith never developed into a No. 1 target, and he had shaky hands at times. But Smith stretched the field and defenses always had to account for him. His 44 catches since 2011, his first season in the NFL, ranked seventh in the league. That doesn't take into account the frequent pass-interference penalties that he drew. Smith also scored 10 touchdowns in the last 11 games, which was twice as many scores as any other Ravens player during that stretch. The Ravens will feel the loss of Pernell McPhee in the pass rush and tight end Owen Daniels on intermediate routes. But Smith was the best deep threat in franchise history.
Biggest surprise: Everyone knew there was a good possibility that the Ravens were going to part ways with Haloti Ngata if the sides couldn't agree to a contract extension, but the trading of the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle was unexpected. It was a shrewd move by general manager Ozzie Newsome to get a couple of mid-round picks (a fourth- and a fifth-rounder) for a player they were prepared to cut anyway and get nothing in return.
On a lesser note, the signing of Lewis wasn't on anyone's radar outside the Ravens' facility. They needed to upgrade the safety spot because last season's starter, Darian Stewart, signed with the Denver Broncos, and former first-round pick Matt Elam regressed last season. Lewis is the kind of low-key addition that often makes a solid impact. He is a smart, center-fielder-type safety whose priority is to cut down on big plays. The Ravens allowed 54 passes of 20 or more yards, which tied for 11th in the league.
What's next? Finding someone to catch the ball from quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens have only one wide receiver on the roster who caught more than 25 passes last season, and that's soon-to-be 36-year-old Steve Smith. This offense needs a big wide receiver and an experienced tight end, but the free-agent pool for both positions is dwindling. They also want to improve at cornerback. The challenge there is cornerbacks are often pricey in free agency and the Ravens have limited salary-cap space.
The re-signing of Justin Forsett represented the best value for a running back in free agency this year.
Of all the free-agent running backs who signed contracts in the first week of the new league year, Forsett's three-year deal ranks sixth in total money ($9 million), average per year ($3 million) and guaranteed money ($3 million). This is significant because only one free-agent running back -- rushing champion DeMarco Murray -- had gained more yards than Forsett last season.
There are plenty of reasons why the Ravens were able to keep Forsett at such a reasonable price. He's 29 years old (albeit with limited wear and tear), and he has bounced around four teams in four seasons. He has had one season with more than 619 yards rushing, so there can be a perception that his breakout season was more the result of Gary Kubiak's system. And his market thinned out when the Indianapolis Colts signed Frank Gore, the New Orleans Saints re-signed Mark Ingram, and the Philadelphia Eagles landed Murray.
The Ravens, who have limited cap room, were more than happy to retain Forsett at a relative bargain rate. His 1,266 yards rushing are the seventh-most in team history, and his 5.4 yards per-carry average was the best, surpassing Ray Rice's and Jamal Lewis' 5.3-yard average. The Ravens know he's a good fit for their style of running game, and they believe he'll be the right mentor for a young backfield that could include a rookie taken in the first three rounds.
And, by the way the contract is structured, it could become a one-year, $3 million deal if he fails to repeat last season's success or a young running back outproduces him. So, the Ravens either get a good value on a starting running back or an out after one season. Either way, it's a very low-risk deal.
Here is a year-by-year breakdown of Forsett's three-year, $9 million deal:
Cap number: $1.6 million
Base salary: $900,000
Guaranteed money: $3 million ($2.1 million signing bonus and first-year salary)
Not likely to be earned incentives: $500,000 (based on rushing yards and playing time)
Cap number: $3.7 million
Base salary: $3 million
Guaranteed money: $0
Not likely to be earned incentives: $500,000 (based on rushing yards and playing time)
Cap savings if cut prior to June 1: $1.6 million
Cap number: $3.7 million
Base salary: $3 million
Guaranteed money: $0
Not likely to be earned incentives: $500,000 (based on rushing yards and playing time)
Cap savings if cut prior to June 1: $2.3 million
But the Ravens' first free-agent addition was a solid and necessary move.
Lewis, 26, the Houston Texans' leading tackler who reached a three-year agreement with the Ravens on Saturday, is an average starter who will provide a modest upgrade at safety because of his experience and leadership.
What stands out the most about this addition is Lewis' knowledge of defenses. He was known to line up teammates last season with the Texans. This is extremely important for the Ravens after high draft picks Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks have struggled to find a comfort level at that position. Ravens coach John Harbaugh has made the point more than once that safety is one of the toughest positions to transition from college to the NFL.
The Ravens might say the other starting spot next to Will Hill will be an open competition, but the favorite has to be Lewis. After four unsuccessful seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, he established himself in his one season in Houston. He was the 39th-rated safety last season by Pro Football Focus, which puts him in the middle of the league and six spots higher than Darian Stewart, the Ravens' starter last year.
Lewis also flashed playmaking ability last season, which is a big plus for a Ravens secondary that combined for six interceptions and three forced fumbles. He picked off two passes last season, including one he returned 27 yards for a touchdown against Andrew Luck and forced three fumbles.
The Ravens filled the other starting safety spot as best as they could given their limited salary-cap space. The team knew it couldn't rely on Elam, a first-round pick from 2013, to step up after he regressed last season. The other factor was Terrence Brooks, a third-round pick from last year, will miss at least the first six games of the regular season with a knee injury.
Safety had to be addressed in free agency because this is a bad draft for that position and too many young players (Tampa Bay's Mark Barron, New Orleans' Kenny Vaccaro and the New York Jets' Calvin Pryor) struggle.
That's why the Ravens had to find someone like Lewis in free agency. It's a good move as long as the expectations are tempered. He prides himself on being a smart and physical player. The biggest knock on Lewis is his pass coverage, but he was the 13th-best safety in run support, according to Pro Football Focus.
Some will be disappointed because the Ravens haven't signed a target for quarterback Joe Flacco in free agency. But the addition of Lewis makes the Ravens better.