Zrebiec: Ravens' free-agent losses were expected. Now the pressure is on to make some gains (2024)

As the Baltimore Ravens were readying for their 2023 regular-season opener against the Houston Texans, general manager Eric DeCosta foreshadowed what could happen six months down the road.

He was asked last September about the team’s salary-cap situation. His answer quickly veered from the present into the challenges the Ravens would face in the future.


“The landscape of this team has changed a little bit, because we struck a contract with Lamar (Jackson),” DeCosta said. “The way that we operate will be a little bit different in the future. We’ll continue to try and do early signings as much as possible. The draft will continue to be very, very important as well.”

Nothing about this offseason has revealed a significant departure from how the Ravens have done business in the past. They’ve always been highly selective with their outside signings, particularly early in free agency. Three weeks into the new league year, Baltimore has only made four outside acquisitions: running back Derrick Henry, reserve linebacker/special-teamer Chris Board, offensive lineman Josh Jones and reserve cornerback/special-teamer Ka’dar Hollman.

The Ravens have always focused on taking care of their own. They did that in a big way this offseason by rewarding young defensive lineman Justin Madubuike with a top-of-the-market contract extension and re-signing six other players who were part of last year’s 13-4 team.

Still, you can’t keep everybody, and the Ravens are accustomed to losing several key players via free agency, trades or cap cuts. They chalk up the departures to the price of managing a perennially rigid salary-cap situation and adhering to the draft-and-develop, team-building approach.

This offseason has featured a bigger exodus than normal, as the Ravens have watched 11 of their unrestricted free agents — a list that includes Gus Edwards, Kevin Zeitler, Patrick Queen, Jadeveon Clowney and Geno Stone — sign elsewhere. They also traded right tackle Morgan Moses to the New York Jets and released wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and outside linebacker Tyus Bowser in cost-cutting moves.

The Ravens covet compensatory draft picks more than any organization in football. With this offseason’s free-agent losses, they’re currently in line to add the maximum four comp picks for the 2025 draft.

So, with all that said, this offseason has amounted to little more than business as usual for the Ravens, right? Well, not exactly.


In some cases, it’s what Baltimore hasn’t done over the last month that brings to mind DeCosta’s admission — maybe warning is a more apt description — from last September about the team changing how it operates.

The Ravens haven’t been willing to match or exceed reasonable outside contract offers to keep a few of their own players. Maybe the allure of going back home was the deciding factor for Clowney, but the two-year, $20 million deal he got from the Carolina Panthers was not out of line with expectations following his 9 1/2-sack season with the Ravens. Given the team’s current outside linebacker depth chart and some of the struggles it’s had in trying to get immediate impact from young pass rushers, ponying up a little more to keep Clowney certainly had some merit.

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Baltimore also made no effort this offseason to bring back Queen, even after the open market didn’t yield the type of contract offers that many pundits projected for the 24-year-old inside linebacker. Queen wound up agreeing to a three-year, $41 million deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens’ biggest rivals.

There’s also been no evidence that the Ravens were a major factor in any of the trade talks involving a handful of the high-quality veteran players who were ultimately moved for cap relief and draft picks. Getting a wide receiver like Keenan Allen or a pass rusher like Haason Reddick for a late Day 2 or early Day 3 pick would have addressed voids for the Ravens if they could have made the money work.

They also haven’t addressed many of their prominent roster needs. In many offseasons, there always was a somewhat obvious effort by the front office to plug as many holes as possible before the draft to allow the organization to stick to its tried-and-true drafting philosophy of selecting the best player available. The draft is still three weeks away, so there’s time for DeCosta and company to make some additions.

However, there isn’t much quality left on the free-agent market that would significantly impact the team’s pre-draft needs. And those “needs” are many. The Ravens still need to add two starting-caliber offensive linemen, another wide receiver, an edge rusher and a starting-caliber cornerback. That’s just a conservative list. If you want to get greedy, you can ask for another running back, a No. 3 safety, a backup quarterback upgrade and more depth along the defensive front.

Baltimore has five of the first 130 selections, and nine picks overall, in what’s viewed as a deep draft class, so it should be able to find plenty of roster help. But depending on Day 2 and 3 draft picks to come in and play a front-line role from the jump is a tough ask for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

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Don’t misunderstand: This isn’t a criticism of DeCosta, coach John Harbaugh or any of the team’s decision-makers. This also isn’t a forecast of pending doom for the Ravens ahead of the 2024 season. They have plenty to feel good about, starting with another year of Jackson, their two-time MVP quarterback, in Todd Monken’s offense and continuing with the presence of some of the top players in the league (Henry, Mark Andrews, Tyler Linderbaum, Roquan Smith, Madubuike, Kyle Hamilton and Justin Tucker) at their respective positions.

This is, however, more of a commentary on the position the Ravens are in and how nobody should be surprised by it. DeCosta is very calculated in everything he says and does. It wasn’t an accident that he brought up the changing landscape of the team last September, a little over four months after its five-year, $260 million agreement with Jackson.

Even with an expected salary-cap increase — and, boy did it ever increase this offseason — DeCosta was acutely aware of the challenges ahead. Some of the cap maneuvering the Ravens did last offseason to protect themselves from an outside offer sheet for the franchise-tagged Jackson had to be accommodated in the future, too.

Over the past month-plus, the Ravens have acted like a team that is very conscious of its cap situation. The four-year, $98 million extension with Madubuike was a biggie but, otherwise, all of their other re-signings (Nelson Agholor, Malik Harrison, Brent Urban, Ar’Darius Washington, Josh Johnson and Arthur Maulet) were modest deals.

Henry’s two-year, $16 million pact was notable, but it essentially could be a one-year deal depending on how things go in 2024. Jones, Board and Hollman all signed one-year deals worth between $1 million and $1.8 million. It’s possible Baltimore’s involvement in trade talks just never became public, as DeCosta keeps things extremely close to the vest. But indications were that the Ravens mostly avoided situations where they would have had to absorb significant money on a contract.

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The NFL Players Association’s Public Salary Cap Report currently lists the Ravens with just under $13 million of space. There are many deals the Ravens could restructure to create more cap breathing room, starting with Jackson’s. Ultimately, they’ll need to do some restructuring to create the necessary flexibility to sign players through the rest of the offseason, pay draft picks and take enough money into the regular season to have room to make roster moves and perhaps even a pre-deadline trade. But the team’s decision-makers appear to be holding off on pushing those buttons until they have to.


So what does it all mean? For one, there is significant pressure on DeCosta and the team’s scouting staff to nail the draft later this month. Team officials are fond of calling the draft “the lifeblood of the organization,” and a ton of energy and resources are put into the three-day affair, plus the undrafted free-agent signing period that follows.

Every team hopes to come out of the draft with a couple of immediate impact starters. For the Ravens, that feels like a must, along with adding some more young and cheap talent who will help the team balance a top-heavy salary-cap situation.

DeCosta will also need to add quality veterans on team-friendly deals in the months ahead. It’s important to note that as long as the Ravens wait a few days after the conclusion of the draft, free-agent signings will no longer count toward the compensatory formula. That’s typically when Baltimore strikes.

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No general manager did it better with the late moves last offseason than DeCosta. He added Maulet and long snapper Tyler Ott on the eve of training camp, Clowney and cornerback Ronald Darby midway through training camp, and then Kyle Van Noy following Week 3 of the regular season. All occupied key roles in helping the Ravens make it to the AFC championship.

Expecting the same impact from last year’s May through September signings would be a bit much. However, the organization’s track record in finding key contributors late in the offseason — and even during the season — is pretty good.

There’s no reason to think the Ravens won’t be able to do it again. They’ll probably need to. That’s their reality, which DeCosta hinted at even before the 2023 season started.

(Top photo of Eric DeCosta: Todd Olszewski / Getty Images)

Zrebiec: Ravens' free-agent losses were expected. Now the pressure is on to make some gains (2024)
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