From the beginning of the offseason last year, the Ravens made clear that upgrading their defensive front was a primary objective. They traded for Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell, they tried to strike a deal with Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Michael Brockers, and when that fell through because of injury concerns, they signed Derek Wolfe.
A year later, the Ravens’ brass seems intent on making the offensive line a priority, and the unsettled situation with tackle Orlando Brown Jr. has only amplified that. The Ravens face major questions at center and right guard, and if play-me-at-left-tackle-or-trade-me Brown is dealt, another hole opens up.
As the Ravens look to upgrade and fortify their offensive line, will that come at a cost to the defensive line? If the Ravens want to create significant cap space to attack the offensive line in free agency, with an aggressive play for someone such as center Corey Linsley or guard Joe Thuney, they might have to look to the defensive line to do it.
Two of the top cap hits on the Ravens belong to defensive linemen — Campbell at $15 million and Brandon Williams at $14.4 million. Releasing either would be the quickest way to find cash should they need it, but would result in significant dead money and an obvious talent drain.
Campbell, who turns 35 in September, is entering the final year of the contract extension he signed with the Ravens after he was acquired via trade from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Releasing Campbell would free up $5 million in cap space but leave $10 million in dead money.
Campbell played in a career-low 12 games for the Ravens — he hadn’t missed a game in the past five seasons — and finished with 28 tackles and four sacks. The former NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year is a locker room leader and mentor to young players such as rookies Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington.
Like Campbell, Williams is entering the final year of his contract, a five-year, $52.5 million deal signed in 2017. The Ravens would free up $7.5 million in cap space if he were released, and would carry about $7 million in dead money, so cutting Williams, while tough for many in the organization to fathom, makes more fiscal sense than releasing Campbell.
But Williams, who turned 32 last month, is three years younger than Campbell, and he has become one of the best run-stuffers in the league since the Ravens made him a third-round pick out of Missouri Southern State in 2013.
His impact in the middle of the defense is apparent. In the past four years, Williams has missed nine games; the Ravens in that time have gone 40-15 when Williams has played, and 4-5 when he has not.
Williams finished this past season with 33 tackles in 13 games.
But with Wolfe also a pending free agent — the Ravens have said they’d like to bring him back — losing either Campbell or Williams would dramatically alter the defensive line in terms of experience, at a time when the Ravens front seven also is expected to lose a couple of its top edge rushers to free agency.
Another option would be to work out a contract extension with Campbell or Williams, which would lower the cap hit for 2021 but would push more money into 2022.
When asked about the Ravens last-rated passing game after the season, DeCosta didn’t first mention quarterback Lamar Jackson’s accuracy or the lack of a true No. 1 receiver. He said that the Ravens “have to get better up front with pass protection.”
True, those other issues are still there, but reading through DeCosta’s tea leaves, expect the Ravens to attack the interior offensive line if they follow last year’s blueprint of identifying a primary need and focusing on it.
As always, though, they will have to find a way to pay for it, via draft capital or cap space.
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