At various points during and between seasons, I like to categorize the value each player is providing relative to the salary cap in 5 broad labels.
These are players on their first contract who are already starting (or should be) and are playing well. A team needs as many of these players as possible to continually outperform the salary cap.
On both a snaps and productivity basis, the most significant contributors are Judon (72% of snaps) and Pierce (63%). Marlon Humphrey makes the list because he’s played well in limited snaps (35%), would start for most teams, and has been key depth with Smith’s nagging Achilles. Young is lost for the season, but figures to be a starter for the 2018 team. Willie Henry did not play a defensive snap in 2016 or the first 2 weeks of 2017, but he has averaged 37 snaps per game for the last 7 weeks in a role similar to that Tim Jernigan had in 2016.
A conspicuous absence is C.J. Mosley, who I put in the “Veterans Playing for Market Value” category (see below).
These players are all still on their rookie deal, but something is holding them back from consistent performance, a starting role, or both. We hope that most, if not all, of these players will emerge to be young producers quickly. In truth, some are running out of time to do so. Since this group is both critical and crowded, let’s take a look individually to see why I have tagged them as I have and what each needs to do to move up:
— Bowser: Since winning Defensive Rookie of the Week in Week 2 versus the Browns, he has played just 52 snaps total in 7 weeks (7.4 per game). The OLB position is crowded, with 5 players competing, but Tim Williams has been sidelined with a thigh injury for 4 weeks, which should have created opportunity for Tyus. Instead, he has made some mistakes, the last of which was an illegal formation penalty versus the Titans that negated Koch’s 56-yard punt. He’s shown the ability to cover, rush the passer, and play the run at times, including a terrific preseason, but he needs to escape Harbaugh’s doghouse.
— Canady: Maurice made his NFL debut at SCB (9 snaps) versus the Titans and played well despite allowing the game-sealing TD to Decker. I don’t believe he’s an ideal fit for SCB, but he’s part of the team’s exceptional depth at corner. He may already have taken the primary SCB role, in which case I would move him to the producer group in just a week or 2. Even if he can’t hold onto the SCB role this season, he could be in a position similar to Humphrey on the outside or inside next season. While I generally dislike moving corners to safety, Canady has some experience there and could fill in due to injury.
— Clark: He’s a long way from a producer role, but he could get there as a core special teams player (he’s there now), who also plays the dime. As of now, that’s Levine’s role, but Clark has played a couple of snaps there this season and as a 6th round pick, he’s priced at the same level as Ozzie Newsome dimes throughout Ravens history.
— Davis: He’s on the border of producer status now. However, despite being active 8 of 9 weeks, he’s only played 2/3 as many snaps as Henry. He needs to play more consistently and generate some pressure.
— Hill: He was effective in an 8-snap debut at SCB in the 2nd half versus the Vikings, but has not since played a defensive snap. He was the Ravens best player during the preseason and has the prototype SCB size to go with impressive ball skills. I expect he’ll back up Tavon Young next season in the slot and continue to provide outstanding depth. As often happens, his chance to excel is most likely to come from injury.
— Kaufusi: He’s been singled out by Harbaugh for a lack of physicality and played just 5 snaps in each of his last 2 activations (Chicago and Minnesota). He should be further along in year 2, but he’s a player for whom the organizational need at 5 tech may force more chances.
— Onwuasor: He finally secured the Will role from Correa in week 5 at Oakland. While a disaster for Correa, that’s hardly a glowing endorsement for Onwuasor. Since taking the starting role, the Ravens had consecutive poor games against the run versus Chicago and Minnesota which have brought back questions about his size. He hasn’t done anything in coverage since his PD in Week 1 was intercepted by Carr and he was the deep backside defender on the game-sealing TD to Decker at Tennessee. While playing regularly, he’ll need to play better to be elevated to the producer group. I will be surprised if the Ravens do not make ILB a priority this offseason via draft or free agency.
— Smith: Za’Darius could be in the producer group by virtue of playing time (267 snaps, 47%), but he hasn’t provided either enough consistent pass rush or played the run well enough. One key for pass rushers is to avoid stupid penalties, which is an area he has yet to master with 4 roughing the passer flags in his last 15 games. Because he’s in year 3, he’s running out of option value as well, since the Ravens have just 1 more year of his production on his rookie deal before he becomes a free agent.
— Williams: He’s generated some pressure when active, but has played just 57 snaps to date and missed the last 5 games with a thigh injury. He needs to be a full-time and effective situational pass rusher to move up to the producer group.
— Wormley: He’s played 111 snaps in the last 5 weeks, including 51 in the game versus Chicago alone. He’s provided a little pressure as a pass rusher, but has yet to do nearly enough to be elevated to the producer group.
Veterans Playing for Market Value
A large chunk of the cap is (or will be) spent here and these players are the ones (generally) who are worth it.
The Ravens may let a couple of these players go next season (Carr, Webb). It is possible Suggs will retire or be cut. Brent Urban will be a UFA coming off a Lisfranc injury which will undoubtedly reduce his market value for 2018, but he’s provided his last snap of below-MV play on his rookie contract. Mosley is in this group because he makes first-round money and will either be signed to a long-term deal or play for 5th-year option money in 2018. Brandon Williams and Jimmy Smith are well-paid cornerstones who aren’t going anywhere in 2018.
Veteran Cap/Value Concerns
Because Webb is playing under a much smaller contract, I left him in the group above, but it’s not positive that effectively every snap at safety is being played by someone who is a cap/value concern. Jefferson is young and his usage may be an issue, but Weddle is clearly nearing the end of a fine career. Since both played well in 2016, I’m inclined to say their expected level of play is somewhere between their 2016 and 2017 levels. Playmaking safeties have become a hot draft commodity, so the Ravens will need to plan whether 2018 or 2019 is the appropriate time to spend a high pick (perhaps #1) on a centerfielder.
I see no obvious future as a contributor for any of these players. Boykin and Johnson are stopgap players. McClellan will be coming off an injury at age 32. Bam Bradley is the best bet. He has the size and shape to play ILB and provide value as a core player on special teams for 3 more seasons of control. Correa may be the saddest healthy case. He’s poised to finish his 2nd season as a core ST player who has failed at his first 2 positions, OLB and ILB. Time is running out and it’s not clear where (or if) his next opportunity will arise.