As the offseason progresses, it would seem the Baltimore Ravens are losing a lot and gaining very little. They lost Ben Grubbs, arguably their best offensive lineman last year, Cory Redding, an underrated defensive end, and Jarret Johnson, an outside linebacker who has been solid at the position opposite Terrell Suggs for quite a few years.
If I could say anything to Ravens fans, I would say this: it’s ok. This has happened before. Following the 2008 season, they lost Bart Scott and Jason Brown, who I would argue were even more important to the 2008 team than the three aforementioned players had on the 2011 squad. More importantly, they are very replaceable. Let’s find out why.
First of all, Cory Redding and Jarret Johnson leaving aren’t even half as devastating as it may seem (if at all) as it might be at first glance. Both were fan favorites, but on the field, their production isn’t unprecedented.
Redding decided to join forces with new Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who was the Ravens defensive coordinator. Johnson signed on with San Diego, which was somewhat unexpected, but San Diego has a greater need for him.
Last year, there was a lot of pressure on Cory Redding, as the Ravens main need was seen as pass rusher, and mock drafts often analyzed “the Ravens need _______, Cory Redding isn’t getting it done at defensive end”. Redding, however, had a workmanlike 2011, with 43 tackles and 4 ½ sacks. It wasn’t a Pro Bowl worthy year, but it was very much an admirable effort. That said, it was inevitable going in that Redding would be gone following the 2011 season, so having guys like Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger to back him up really helps. As a rookie, McPhee won over many Ravens fans; as a situational pass rusher, he recorded six sacks, forced a fumble, and deflected two passes. Kruger, as a third year defensive end, finally made a splash last year. In his first two years, he recorded one sack, one interception, and 12 tackles. In 2011, he had 15 tackles and 5 ½ sacks.
The Ravens made virtually no effort to retain Redding, a proven veteran, which shows (to me, at least) that the organization believes McPhee or Kruger (or both) can take over the reigns at defensive end.
Jarret Johnson will be missed in Baltimore. He was durable and consistent – which is pretty much all you can ask for out of a player, and anything more is icing on the cake. ‘JJ’ hasn’t missed a start since 2006, and like Redding, he doesn’t put up eye-popping numbers, but he’s always been solid. From 2007 to 2011, he had 294 tackles, 17 sacks, and 14 passes deflected. His best year was in 2009, when he had a career high six sacks and two interceptions. JJ has been the ‘other’ outside linebacker opposite 2011 Defensive Player of The Year Terrell Suggs ever since Suggs was drafted in 2003, and he has filled the role admirably.
He will be missed. Not replaceable? Hardly. There are players you can get for a relatively low price to match his performance on the field, and perhaps exceed it. That’s not a shot at JJ, as I do believe he’s one of the more underrated players at his position, but he’s not one of those guys like a DeMarcus Ware, Terrell Suggs, James Harrison, or any of the elite pass rushers whose absence is more transparent.
Who will Jarret be replaced by? That’s a question that will likely be answered in April. Right now, all we know is that the Ravens two linebackers are Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe. Fellow middle linebacker Jameel McClain is a free agent, and it seems unlikely the Ravens will bring him back.
Is it a free agent? Possibly. The Ravens probably aren’t in a hurry to replace a guy who averages three-five sacks a year, but there are plenty of guys who can match (and probably exceed) the production – Stephen Tulloch, Curtis Lofton, Kirk Morrison, Erik Walden, and Barrett Ruud, to name a few. If they don’t pursue a free agent, there are plenty of options in the draft. Dont’a Hightower (LB, Alabama) and Courtney Upshaw (LB, Alabama) are viewed as possible Ravens first round picks, and there are many others who could be second rounders or later who could fill JJ’s void: Bobby Wagner, Mychal Kendricks, Travis Lewis, Zach Brown, Lavonte David, and many others.
Grubbs’ departure is a little more stinging and complicated. Grubbs is one of many Ravens first round picks to pan out, and they did make an effort to keep him, offering him a 5-year, $32.5M deal, but the market was just stronger elsewhere, so he decided to leave. If the Ravens wanted to search within house, they could use Andre Gurode, but it appears unlikely that will happen, strictly because Gurode, naturally a center, would have to adjust to playing left guard – it would be a disaster.
That’s exactly why the Ravens have brought in Evan Mathis for a visit. The 30-year-old is viewed as one of the most underrated players in the NFL. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the best guard in the NFL – better than Grubbs, better than Carl Nicks, better than Jahri Evans. Previously, from 2008 to 2010, with Cincinnati, he did not allow a sack, so it’s clear he’s improved each year.
This is where it gets interesting. The Ravens have also brought in offensive tackle Eric Winston for a visit. Winston, 6’7”, 317, has prototypical size for a left tackle, and while the Ravens have some talent at left tackle, it’s not polished. Both Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher have proven, at one point, to be excellent tackles bordering on elite. In the last two seasons, though, neither have even scratched the surface on that potential, so offensive tackle at this point is not a need but it’s not a strong point, either. If they could get a guy like Winston, it could do wonders for the offensive line.
They could have Winston at left tackle, Oher at right, Yanda at right guard, possibly Mathis at left, and Matt Birk at center. Not to mention the possibility of drafting Wisconsin center Peter Konz in the first round.
In short, the Ravens will be alright despite the losses. They have a quarterback who they trust, an elite running back, in essence they have four wide receivers because they have two traditional wideouts (Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith) and two tight ends who play like receivers (Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta). It looks like most of the offseason is going to be addressing the offensive line, which was at times great, but also at times pitiful, so it looks like GM Ozzie Newsome and Co. are focusing on making it more dependable.
The defense has always been good, and will be for a while. The front four looks great. They’ll of course have Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody stopping the run and rushing the passer occasionally, Pernell McPhee, Paul Kruger, and Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs rushing the passer every down, Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe shoring up the run, and, in my opinion, an underrated group of corners and safeties. Ed Reed is a Hall of Famer, Bernard Pollard is LaRon Landry-lite. He has limited coverage abilities, but he’s a tremendous hitting safety. At corner, the Ravens will have Lardarius Webb (who should have been a Pro Bowler), Cary Williams (tremendously underrated) and an experienced Jimmy Smith, who really came on towards the end of the year.
Ozzie and Co. have dealt with free agent loss for years, this will be like every other. The Ravens are in good position to land two very good offensive lineman, are in a good draft spot, and have a great mix of young talent and veterans. They’ll be fine.
They always are.