Now that all of the franchise tags (exclusive and non-exclusive) have been settled, it’s time to look at some potential free agent targets and handicap the field.
The Ravens are more window shoppers the first few days of free agency than compulsive off-the-rack spenders. If they see something they like, they’ll take a hard look, may even try it on, but they aren’t ponying up for a purchase unless it’s an exceptional circumstance.
That being said, this is a different year for Ozzie Newsome‘s right player, right price approach.
The team is in a spot in which they may need to take more chances through free agency because they simply have too many holes to fill through the draft alone.
Typically, Newsome likes to shop for veterans that have been released to avoid losing compensatory picks, but that formula may also need some reconsideration.
At the moment, the team is still bound by a tight cap budget. But if the Joe Flacco contract renegotiation goes according to plan, our very own capologist Brian McFarland anticipates that anywhere between $6-12 million in space could be freed up.
Couple that with the number of cuts that could be made to free up an additional $10-14 million, and the Ravens will have some room to maneuver.
Who are the players that the Ravens could (and really should) target? Let’s take a closer look at the field:
Defensive Linemen and Rush Ends
Malik Jackson (DE, Denver Broncos, UFA) signed 6 years/$90M with Jaguars
Jackson would be a dream acquisition and should be treated as an exception to the Ravens’ conservative approach. At 26-years-old, Jackson is just now coming into his own. The best comparison I can think of is Michael Bennett. Both guys are inside-outside combo rushers that have the length and versatility to be unblockable at times. Bennett was a steal for Seattle when they nabbed him in 2013. That won’t be the case with Jackson – he’s near the top of everyone’s wish list.
Verdict: Jackson has probably priced himself out of the Ravens’ range (he’s reportedly seeking $14 million per year), but that doesn’t mean the team shouldn’t make an attempt. Still, he seems too rich for their blood.
Derrick Shelby (DE, Miami Dolphins, UFA)
Shelby is an intriguing player for a few reasons. Like Jackson, he’s only 26. He’ll come much, much cheaper. His only starting experience came after Cameron Wake tore his Achilles. The stats weren’t eye-popping when Shelby filled in for Wake (he had 3.5 sacks and 2 FFs), but he was a disruptive player on the edge, and there is upside. The Ravens need to find their own version of Jabaal Sheard (someone I advocated signing last offseason) – a medium-priced rush end that can make a dent in third-down situations.
Verdict: By giving Olivier Vernon the transition tag, the Dolphins are probably resigned to losing Shelby. The Ravens may not be willing to part with a future comp pick for someone as unproven. Plus, Shelby would have to convert to a rush end position in the 3-4 scheme (although he has the size and athleticism to make the transition).
Mario Williams (DE, Buffalo Bills, FA) signed 2 years/$17M with Dolphins
Unlike Shelby and Jackson, Williams won’t jeopardize Newsome’s comp strategy because he was released. That makes him an ideal target right off the bat. His last season with Buffalo was a complete and utter disaster. But how much can his fall off in production be attributed to the scheme? Williams wants to exclusively rush the QB, and head coach Rex Ryan had him drop in coverage and play the run.
Verdict: I’d give this signing better odds. Williams would be a good fit on a veteran club that can handle his me-first attitude. But that’s just the problem – he’s a me-first guy. It’s hard to envision John Harbaugh wanting to cater to that type of personality. Plus, if Williams hated being a standup rusher in the 3-4, it’s hard to imagine him wanting to play that role again.
Nick Perry (OLB, Green Bay Packers, UFA)
Perry has been a tease his entire career. He simply hasn’t lived up to his first-round grade. But that doesn’t mean he’s been a complete bust, especially as a pass rusher, totaling 12.5 sacks and 5 FFs over his career. 3.5 of those sacks came during the Packers’ playoff run, when he was given more playing time. If Perry stays in that rush-specialist role, he should be a disruptive force in sub packages. He has the potential to break out with more playing time.
Verdict: Perry would be a great fit for the Ravens. He likely won’t cost more than $3-4 million per year to bring in. I know what you’re thinking – how is Perry any better than Courtney Upshaw for about the same amount of money? He gives the Ravens what they need more, which is a rusher who can put his hand in the dirt and replace the 6-8 sack production they lost when Pernell McPhee left the year before. If the team were to make the swap between Upshaw and Perry, they’d be improving a major need area and provide a pass-rush foil for aging veterans Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
Sean Smith (CB, Kansas City Chiefs, UFA)
Update (10:29 3/9): Market whittled down to Raiders and three other teams
After Janoris Jenkins (who I’m not going to bother writing about because he’ll likely command the most money of any defensive player on the market), Smith is the best CB out there. He’s not a shutdown guy, but he is a solid, physical corner who has the size to body up bigger receivers in man coverage. Smith is only 28.
Verdict: Money remains the problem here. Can the Ravens pay Smith $10-12 million a year while paying Jimmy Smith around the same figure? Let’s not forget the franchise is also paying Lardarius Webb $9 million this year. Smith would have been a good fit as a player, but the price isn’t right.
Casey Hayward (CB, Green Bay Packers, UFA)
A very interesting cornerback who has the versatility to play outside and in the slot, Hayward has some Corey Graham in him. Corners are at a premium, so he’ll still get a lot of attention, but he could fall in the “doable” price range depending on whether he gets lost in the top of the shuffle. Like Graham, Hayward mostly played the slot, but he’s done enough to warrant starter money and consideration.
Verdict: Hayward would be an upgrade over Shareece Wright, who the Ravens may look to re-sign. Unlike Wright, the potential Green Bay defector can line up inside (the Packers held opposing slot receivers to the lowest completion percentage in the league last year). The price may also be right instead of Wright in Hayward’s case.
Tashaun Gipson (S, Cleveland Browns, UFA)
It’s hard to say who the real Gipson is. Is he the 2015 Pro Bowl centerfielder or is he the 2016 invisible man? The answer probably lies in the middle. It’s not as if Gipson was exposed in his deep, single-high responsibilities, he simply didn’t make as many plays as he did the year before when Joe Haden and Buster Skrine were in the lineup.
Verdict: He may be the most intriguing player in free agency. For the right price, Gipson could be the best value of any defensive player out there. Finding a young centerfielder with range and playmaking ability is like finding a unicorn. It’s worth the financial risk to see how he plays with a better supporting cast. The fact that he’s coming off a down year is a big plus for the Ravens.
Travis Benjamin (WR, Cleveland Browns, UFA) signed with Chargers (was seeking between $6-7M)
Another Cleveland Brown worth wooing? Why not. Benjamin is exactly what the Baltimore offense needs. He’s a deep-six vertical target who would look good catching aerial strikes from Joe Flacco. Benjamin would add the speed dimension that the offense certainly needs, even if you factor the return of Breshad Perriman to the lineup. He’d also be a great punt return option and can work the slot.
Verdict: Last year, the Ravens wouldn’t pay Torrey Smith around $8 million per season to stay in Baltimore. And Smith had more of a proven track record than Benjamin. But you could make the argument that Benjamin is a better all-around receiver who could bring a different dimension to an offense in need of fear factor players.
Marvin Jones (WR, Cincinnati Bengals, UFA) signing with Lions
Looking at another AFC North ball snatcher, Jones has some similar attributes to Benjamin. Jones is also a big-play target, and he’s slippery after the catch. The Ravens have seen an up-close viewing of how difficult Jones can be to contain. Unlike Benjamin, Jones is a longer, more acrobatic receiver.
Verdict: On paper, this looks to be a great fit. Jones is part of a crowded group of targets in Cincinnati, but he could be featured more in the Ravens’ offense, especially with question marks surrounding the recovery of Steve Smith and the development of Perriman. Price wise, like Smith, Jones would probably want something in the $8 million average, and that could be the deal breaker.
Rishard Matthews (WR, Miami Dolphins, UFA)
Matthews is a notch below Jones and Benjamin, which could make him the most realistic option. He’s not nearly as explosive as Jones and Benjamin, but he is a more compact player that can make tough catches and has sneaky YAC ability. He’s not a No.1 receiver but can fit in nicely as a No.2/No.3.
Verdict: Matthews was a productive receiver for the Dolphins last season, even though he had to climb the depth chart to get to that point. At 26, he may be on the way to breakout status. But for a Ravens team in need of a go-to guy, Matthews isn’t a definitive upgrade from Kamar Aiken.