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Op-Ed: Feathering The Nest | Keeping the 2014 Season From Heading South Too Soon

Updated: Saturday, January 11 2014, 03:14 PM EST

The Ravens are spending January resting, healing and dealing with what might have been. But the front office in Owings Mills hasn't made its reputation by looking backwards.  They are already focused on 2014.

The team currently has 19 players on the roster who are restricted or unrestricted free agents.  Four need to stay.

First, let's prioritize.  The Ravens need help on the offensive line, Flacco needs weapons and the defense needs to get stronger against the run.  The draft is the cheapest way to improve, but as Ozzie Newsome knows too well, even first round picks can be a crap shoot.  Taking free agents from another team brings you proven players but usually at a premium.

The Ravens need to upgrade the O-line and it starts by letting Michael Oher go. According to Oher graded out as having the 5th worst season among free agent OT's in the NFL (yes, former Raven Bryant McKinnie was worse).  Many draft experts think this is an exceptional class of offensive linemen, especially tackles.  The Ravens need to upgrade on the line and now is the perfect time to do it through the draft.  That being said, bringing back Eugene Monroe is a MUST.  He's the third highest rated OT in the 2014 free agent class and among the youngest.  Monroe will be expensive (possibly 4 years and $50 million) but how much do you value protecting Flacco?  According to  "Our 10th highest graded offensive tackle in terms of pass blocking, he allowed just seven quarterback knockdowns (hits and sacks) on Joe Flacco." 

Take the other tackle in the 1st or second round, then pick up some depth late in the draft and the O-line will start looking up.

As for weapons, it's no secret the Ravens lacked explosiveness at running back and couldn't separate on pass routes.  When they did get a decent look at the ball, most of the receivers struggled.  Ed Dickson is a free agent and his teammates should already be helping him load the moving truck.  Dickson dropped five of the 30 catchable balls thrown his way, giving him the worst Drop Rate of any TE in the league (  Add to that Torrey Smith dropping 5 of the 70 catchable balls he saw, and Flacco missing Smith on 57 other throws and it's easy to see why the passing game struggled. 

Dennis Pitta is damaged goods, which is actually good news for the Ravens.  He's a free agent, but the birds may not need to pay top dollar or commit a long term contract to keep him.  Joe and Dennis are best friends.  Their families are friends.  They want to stay together.  Pitta is worth keeping and if he can return to 2012 form, he'll be a bargain.  Look for a 2 year deal in the $12 million range.  The lone bright spot among the new receivers is Marlon Brown.  He too had 5 drops, but he also had 5 TD's from the slot.  With his big body, that's something to build on.  The #2 receiver position will get serious consideration on day one of the draft.  If a big body, sure hands guy like Mike Evans from Texas A&M is still on the board when the Ravens pick, don't be surprised if he's lining up in Baltimore next fall.  That leaves Jacoby Jones out.  Unless he is willing to take a below market offer, Jones will likely return kicks somewhere else next season.

This is not considered a deep running back draft, so it's unlikely the Ravens will spend a high pick on one of the top guys.  They don't have a 4th or 5th round pick because of the Eugene Monroe trade to the Jaguars.  So, if the Ravens want to pick up a young RB, think Terrance West from Towson on the last day.

As for the defense, it's time for the young guys to step up.  The Ravens spent much of last year's draft capital on this side of the ball and it needs to start showing results in 2014.  Matt Elam was slightly above average against the run, but terrible in coverage (76th according to  Hopefully that improves if he moves over to his natural strong safety position.  That means James Ihedigbo will probably be moving on.  He played well this season and will make good money from another team, but Elam needs to play his natural strong safety position and the team will need to sign a legit free safety.

Linebacker Daryl Smith was an inexpensive surprise in '13.  He will not be as cheap next season, but the Ravens may not be able to afford letting him go.  2 years for $4 million total should do it.   Beyond that, the young guys are going to need to step up, because the team can't afford to buy the solution.  That includes Courtney Upshaw and Pernell McPhee preparing to replace Terrell Suggs.  T-Sizzle's run has been great, but unless he's willing to restructure his deal, he's gone.

On the D-line, lots of people are talking about cutting Haloti Ngata, but that doesn't make good cap sense.  This year the Ravens would only save $1 million against the cap by releasing him, but next year it would cost them $15 million in dead money.  No Ngata in the middle and a $15 million dollar hole in the salary cap.  Not smart. 

Keeping Arthur Jones should be a top priority.  He is just reaching his prime and his numbers last season reflect that. graded him the 12th best 3-4 lineman in 2013.  But, can Ozzie find the money?  With his breakout season, the market might be $5 million per year for 4 years.   

Expect the Ravens to restructure some deals (Sam Koch and Joe Flacco, I'm looking at you), and cut some other veterans (Vonta Leach saves $1.75M,Jameel McClain $3.2M) to free up more space.

This will be one of the more interesting teams to watch in the offseason.  Championships are not won in the spring, but they can be lost.

Column by Casey Clark

Op-Ed: Feathering The Nest | Keeping the 2014 Season From Heading South Too Soon

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