Though the Baltimore Ravens signed one of the league’s best centerfielding safeties in Earl Thomas and made a significant upgrade at the running back position by signing Mark Ingram, their roster has been left gutted by a few major free agent departures.
Last season, the Baltimore Ravens finished first in a competitive AFC North, squeaking by the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 17 to complete their campaign with a 10-6 record. Their late-season surge had everything to do with first-round quarterback Lamar Jackson, who combined with undrafted free agent Gus Edwards to form one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks.
The Ravens real strength, of course, lied on defense, as it usually has for an organization that’s won Super Bowls with a bevy of future Hall of Famers. In 2018, Baltimore finished second in the NFL in points allowed, first in yards allowed, second in net yards per pass attempt allowed, and third in yards per carry allowed.
This was a dominant defense in every sense, capable of shutting down the run, making life miserable for offensive tackles, and suffocating playmaking wide receivers.
When the Ravens take the field next season in a divisions that seems to favor the Cleveland Browns after their splash additions in the free-agent period (Odell Beckham Jr., Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon being the three biggest), they’ll have to do so without several key players from their successful 2018 campaign.
Terrell Suggs, who has been a menace at outside linebacker for the Ravens organization over the past 16 years, is now on the Arizona Cardinals. Even at the age of 36, Suggs was still one of the Ravens most productive players, recording six passes defended, seven sacks, and 15 QB hits while leading the team with 13 tackles for loss.
His partner-in-crime on the edge, Za’Darius Smith, will now star for a Green Bay Packers team that was desperate for the help off the edge. One of the NFL’s most underrated edge defenders, Smith led the Ravens with 25 QB hits and had 10 tackles for loss of his own in a stellar season that should have earned him an even fatter payday from the Packers.
Though the Ravens still have Matt Judon left, this pass rush has been severely gutted by free agency. Baltimore has lost a combined 40 QB hits and 23 tackles for loss between Suggs and Smith, and while they have proven that they are arguably the best team in the league at finding pass rushers in the draft, it’s easy to take players like Smith and Suggs for granted. Replacing that production is possible, but finding 40 QB hits in the draft is not easy task.
Baltimore didn’t replace C.J. Mosley either. The standout inside linebacker led the way with 105 tackles and has been a key starter at the heart of the Ravens defense for years. Just 26 last season, Mosley played like a seasoned veteran, and the New York Jets have stolen away one of the NFL’s best run-stuffing linebackers.
With Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce up front, the Ravens run defense should remain solid, but after allowing 3.7 yards per carry last season, there is nowhere for this unit to trend but “down” after losing Suggs and Mosley to free agency.
The one player the Ravens did replace, however, was Eric Weddle, whom they decided to release in a surprising move. Earl Thomas is more than an ideal “sub” for Weddle and is probably a better player, even after coming off of a season-ending injury in 2018.
Thomas is a more significant financial investment over a longer period of time, and while that should worry Baltimore, the Ravens should be commended for quickly making a move to counter the Browns trade for Odell. In Thomas and Tony Jefferson, the Ravens have an elite safety duo behind one of the league’s deepest cornerback groups, but with all the talent the Ravens lost in the front seven, Thomas’s impact on the defense may not be felt as profoundly due to a downgraded pass rush.
For several seasons, the Ravens have also needed wide receiver help badly, and their solution was to create a trio of John Brown, Michael Crabtree, and Willie Snead for Joe Flacco last season. Though Brown emerged as the clear star of the group, with Crabtree predictably playing so poorly that Baltimore was forced to cut him this offseason, the Ravens seemingly made no attempt to keep him; Brown is now a huge value signing for the Buffalo Bills, joining the team as Josh Allen’s new No. 1 target.
The Ravens should have been more aggressive with pursuing wide receivers in free agency, but, instead, they look even weaker at the position. In addition to needing an inside linebacker and an edge rusher badly, the Ravens are so desperate for wide receiver help now that they would need two options, specifically a true No. 1 guy, to compete in the AFC.
Jackson is a talented quarterback and the future of this franchise, which is why he helped lead Baltimore to the postseason – and why the Ravens opted to trade former Super Bowl hero Joe Flacco to John Elway’s quarterback-needy Denver Broncos. But Jackson, who is still developing as a passer after being a former Heisman winner, needs far more help around him than Snead – an ideal No. receiver – as his only proven option. And no, $6 million man Nick Boyle isn’t going to solve the Ravens pass-catching problems either.
So many teams have set up promising young quarterbacks to fail, and the Ravens cannot afford to do this with Jackson, who looks like a special player and is likely just a good wide receiver corps from becoming regarded as one of the league’s better passers. The Ravens have a great running game in the mix with Ingram, Edwards, and Kenneth Dixon behind Jackson and excellent blocking up front, but it’s just not possible to compete in this league without a passing attack that is better than 23rd in the NFL.
Brown was a potentially great deep threat for Jackson to hook up with, and he’s now left with just Snead as his safety valve. The Ravens not only failed to address one of their biggest needs in free agency with even a bargain-bin, upside signing, but they couldn’t even hold onto their most dynamic receiver. That, of course, pales in comparison to their key losses in the front seven, which could have huge ramifications on a team that needs to rely on its elite defense to keep up with the rising Browns in the AFC North.
While Baltimore still has some great pieces and added two more in Thomas and Ingram, a free safety replacement and a feature back may not be enough to stop the bleeding for a team that lost three true stars on defense and a playmaking wideout.