One could make the argument that the Ravens were just one foot short of making the playoffs for the 7th time in John Harbaugh’s nine seasons as the team’s skipper. One desperate extension of the ball at the goal line by Steelers’ wide receiver Antonio Brown proved to be the difference between a No. 3 seed in the AFC and the 16th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
On one hand, the play is a reminder of how close the Ravens are to being a playoff participant in a very mediocre league. On the other, it’s a reminder of how far they really need to go. There’s a lot of work ahead for the entire organization – so much so that it’s doubtful that they can repair all of the holes in their roster in just one offseason.
Perhaps the Ravens don’t need to plug all the roster leaks over the next 7 months. Maybe they can knock off a few and that could be enough to push the team over the hump – prevent them from being one foot short the next time around. And whether it’s the Ravens or any team in the league, that first hump, the first hurdle, THE primary goal, is to win their division. And in the Ravens case, that means they need to figure out how to knock the Steelers from atop their AFC North perch.
When comparing and contrasting the two clubs, on whole they seem like relative equals, cut from similar cloths. Where they differ is in the department of playmakers. The Steelers have them and the Ravens don’t. It’s that simple. The Ravens have no answer for Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell or the author of the Immaculate Extension, the aforementioned Brown.
However hard they try, the Ravens aren’t going to match the playmaking ability of the Steelers’ Killer B’s in one offseason. But they do need to close the gap and find players on either side of the ball, that can impact the outcome of games late in the fourth quarter.
Such players can surface in one of three ways, developmentally, via free agency or through the draft. Offensively, the Ravens will look for Breshad Perriman and Kenneth Dixon to take that next step towards becoming bonafide playmakers. Both possess the prerequisite skill sets yet it’s incumbent upon them to put in the offseason work to polish up their respective games and the coaching staff to place them in positions to succeed.
If Perriman and Dixon take that next step, it opens things up for the offense and paves the way for Joe Flacco to take a step up, play to the level of his pay, and close the gap between him and Roethlisberger.
Free agency will be a challenge for the Ravens. Ozzie Newsome has made it clear that the Ravens will pursue a veteran who will serve as a “complementary receiver”. But the list of available pass catchers is thin while the cap dollars available in the market to spend is vast, unless that checkbook belongs to the Ravens whose cap situation is better than only 4 other NFL teams.
And then of course there is the draft…
The Ravens had a very solid draft in 2016 and if their second and third round picks can be productive in 2017, we might be sitting here a year from today declaring it an excellent draft. The coaching staff tied Kamalei Correa in knots by force-feeding him too much, too soon. They asked him to play out of position and when you combine the information overload with the challenges of adjusting to the speed of the NFL, the result can be paralysis by analysis. Consequently, Correa played too slow and his rookie season was a wash – a wasted opportunity to get productivity from a relatively average wage.
Bronson Kaufusi’s rookie campaign was washed out by a broken ankle suffered during training camp. Injuries happen, as the Ravens have painstakingly experienced over the past few seasons.
In 2017, the Ravens need to seek those young playmakers. They need to land that receiver, edge rusher, corner and safety in the draft. They need those guys to perform to the level of their draft status and in doing so, the Ravens won’t feel compelled to make poor investments in players like Kendrick Lewis and Kyle Arrington. There was a day when such defensive players arrived on the scene in Baltimore and stepped up their level of play. Those days left with Ray Lewis, who like Tom Brady, made those around him better.
Of course, retaining your own free agents is critical to building, to moving forward. Losing players like Brandon Williams, Rick Wagner and Kyle Juszczyk represent a step or three back. At this point, there’s little reason to believe that any of them will return, the most likely of which is Juszczyk. Williams and Wagner will command cap dollars that the Ravens really don’t have, particularly in a cash flush market. 2017 is clearly a seller’s market and Ozzie’s checkbook is a little light left of the decimal place.
The team could create some cap space by parting ways with a few veterans.
* Pre-June 1 release
** Includes a $1M roster bonus
Some have suggested that the Ravens blow up the roster and initiate a cap purge to create a youth-laden team with the potential of sustained success for years. Of course, if the Ravens cut any from the list they’ll have to replace those players via the draft or free agency, all the while keeping in mind that it is a seller’s market. Should they try and negotiate lower wages with some of the players above, they may refuse such overtures and take their chances in a market that favors the players.
Looking to the draft the Ravens have 8 picks at the moment, including two third-round picks, one of which is a compensatory pick for Kelechi Osemele. But you have to wonder if Harbaugh’s staff, one skating on thin ice, is willing to invest the playing time and perhaps their respective careers in a youth movement. The Ravens need to improve in 2017 and even before he stepped into hot water, Harbaugh was relatively youth-movement averse.
Might Harbaugh’s tenuous employment status influence the team’s offseason approach? Could they take a win at all costs philosophy into the season and push all of their chips to the middle of the table and steal precious playing time from their younger players?
The Ravens face an organizational conundrum. There are no easy solutions.
But they better think long and hard about taking a win-now mentality into 2017. It could cost them down the road and result in more salary cap issues and players not performing to the level of their pay. Again, and again we could be having the same discussions that we’re having today.
The team’s goal should be to establish long-term success like they did from 2008-2014.
They must take positive steps that they can build upon.
Starting with that one foot short.