For the second straight offseason, the Baltimore Ravens have a plethora of free agent decisions to make in their efforts to make the roster a playoff-caliber team once again.
After a 2013 season that was deemed a transitional year, the cap situation for the Ravens has improved, but it still isn’t ideal with key contributors such as Eugene Monroe, Dennis Pitta and Arthur Jones set to be free to sign elsewhere on March 11. Baltimore likely does not have enough financial freedom to keep all three.
One Raven – inside linebacker Daryl Smith – will present the team with one of the toughest offseason decisions on defense.
Is he in the team’s long-term plans?
After an injury-riddled 2012 season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Ravens pounced on Smith in last year’s free agency period, as he was somehow still available in early June. At that point, Smith’s value was nearly non-existent on the open market, and the team brought him in for the bargain price of $1.125 million.
One of Baltimore’s most consistent players last season, Smith notched 123 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions.
He was one snap behind safety James Ihedigbo for the team lead on defense with 1,097. Not bad for a linebacker who played in just two games in 2012.
After his renaissance year, could Smith be too expensive for Baltimore to keep?
One thing’s for sure: he’ll be making much more than $1.125 million in 2014.
In terms of returning to Baltimore, Smith is a priority, but not a necessity. He ranks in the second tier of key unrestricted free agents, behind Monroe and Pitta, but is still a player who would be a positive for Baltimore’s defense in 2014. That said, the team could live with lesser options.
Last season, Smith proved his worth in coverage particularly, where he provided much more value than his predecessors, Dannell Ellerbe and the 17th-year version of Ray Lewis.
His value in run defense was up-and-down, where his hesitation to shoot through the gap held him back; however, he’s a better run defender than most realize.
In Jacksonville, Smith’s main priority on the defense was in coverage, where in his prime he was among the best in the NFL at that role. Adjusting to Baltimore’s 3-4 defense – in which he took on strong side duties – was a new task for him, but overall he proved to be worth the small investment the Ravens put into him.
As a coverage ‘backer, Smith was able to occupy much of the middle of the field, giving defensive coordinator Dean Pees the freedom to leave the 31-year old alone in open space.
His best asset is his side-to-side range in coverage, where he rarely made mistakes.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals in November, the Ravens implemented several Lardarius Webb blitzes, leaving Smith alone in coverage.
On this example, Webb aborts his inside slot man just before the snap to blitz, leaving Smith with the task of taking over Webb’s man from the middle of the field.
As expected, quarterback Andy Dalton reads the hot route, taking a three-step drop and locking in on the freed up receiver, whom Smith keys in on directly off the snap.
For a veteran linebacker coming off an injury-plagued season, his closing speed in the short passing game was top notch.
For a team that hasn’t experienced superb coverage from the inside linebackers in recent years, Smith’s 2013 season was a welcomed change of pace.
In run defense, as mentioned, he wasn’t as reliable, with his one glaring flaw being his inability to have the downhill, “see ball carrier, attack ball carrier” mentality that a strong side linebacker must have in a 3-4 defense.
In the first contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Smith had a one-on-one opportunity with running back Le’Veon Bell in the hole, a play that must be capitalized on by a run defender.
As Bell gets the handoff, Smith has the clear path, and at this point needs to turn on the jets and show off downhill speed.
Instead, Smith breaks down and turns his head toward the oncoming tight end from his right side, taking his momentum and eyes away from Bell.
This allows tight end Heath Miller to get just enough of a hold on Smith in order to let Bell bounce to the right and pick up a few yards on the play.
Had Smith shot through the gap full force, odds are he would have been past Miller in enough time to get a shot at Bell in the backfield.
Seeing Smith in the backfield on run plays was a rarity last season.
Overall, Smith’s run defense wasn’t detrimental to the team, as he was often reliable enough to prevent the big plays, but he rarely (if ever) forced negative plays, which is a requirement of his role.
If he stays in a 3-4 defense, he would benefit from having more reps as a weak side linebacker, where his coverage skills could be utilized more than run-defending duties.
That’s where his future in Baltimore becomes spotty.
Long term, 2013 second round draft pick Arthur Brown projects best as the starting weak side linebacker, and he will likely have that role in 2014. Brown is far from incapable of being a thumper type on the strong side, but all signs point to his coverage skills being the selling point for the Ravens using a 2013 second-round draft pick on him.
Should Smith return to Baltimore, he’d be back in the same role next season. While that’s not a bad situation for either player or team, it isn’t the best utilization of his skill set.
Plenty of linebacker-needy teams will have interest in Smith once free agency starts, as he proved through his consistent 2013 season that his previous injuries didn’t hold him back in any way.
Now healthy, the veteran is primed to cash in, which could lead to a bidding war between Baltimore and other teams for Smith’s services.
For Smith’s sake, a move back to a 4-3 defense would benefit the late stages of his career most.
For Baltimore’s sake, the Ravens can’t allow themselves to get too entrenched in re-signing Smith.
He’ll be an afterthought until Pitta and Monroe’s futures are solved, but if their situations become clearer before free agency starts either through the use of the franchise tag or through a new deal with the Ravens, the front office will be able to shift their attention toward Smith.
With a tight – but not imposing – cap situation, the Ravens can certainly afford to offer Smith more than his minimal 2013 salary.
But just how much more can Baltimore offer him?
In terms of duration, anything more than two years for a linebacker who will be 32 next month would be a risk.
In terms of dollars, the Ravens can afford to do some bidding with other potential suitors, but if the talks get any higher than $3-3.5 million per year, it may be a sign that Smith is out of Baltimore’s reach.
Smith would be a welcomed re-addition to the 2014 roster, but with young linebackers such as Brown and Josh Bynes waiting to take on bigger roles, as well as Baltimore’s ability to find bargains in free agency, there comes a point when realization must set in that the Ravens can’t commit a copious amount of cap space to Smith in 2014 and beyond.
What say you, Ravens fans?
Should Smith be one of Baltimore’s main priorities in free agency?
And how much money can they afford to send his way?