Start Of Free Agency Brings Clarity — If Not Answers — To Ravens’ Biggest Roster Questions

The first 36 hours of unofficial free agency brought clarity — if not answers — to some of the Ravens’ biggest roster questions.

During that two-day period when pending free agents can negotiate with other teams, the Ravens lost two of their top edge rushers and other role players, but also finalized deals to retain some of their own, trusted talent, a stated goal of general manager Eric DeCosta. They also signed veteran guard Kevin Zeitler, who had been released by the New York Giants.

The Ravens, as expected, watched two of their top edge rushers walk out the door, as Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue agreed to lucrative free-agent deals elsewhere in excess of $13 million per year. But they retained outside linebacker Tyus Bowser for less than half of that, and they also re-signed a couple of veterans who have thrived in this defensive system in Pernell McPhee and Derek Wolfe.

Among the Ravens’ 19 pending free agents entering the offseason (17 unrestricted, two restricted), the Ravens have re-signed eight, while four have agreed to deals elsewhere. The other seven remain unsigned.

Judon’s departure, though expected, creates the largest void, as he led the team in sacks (6) and quarterback hits (21) this past year and was the team’s most consistent outside linebacker.

Judon, who played last year under the franchise tag, has agreed a four-year deal with the New England Patriots worth a reported $56 million, with $32 million guaranteed. That fell short of the four-year, $66 million deal that Za’Darius Smith signed with the Packers two years ago and was often held up as a benchmark, but Judon did earn a significantly larger guarantee than Smith’s $20 million.

Judon thus joins a long list of defensive players who were drafted and developed by the Ravens, then found fortune elsewhere, with a high compensatory draft pick headed back to Baltimore in return.

Judon had 34.5 sacks in five seasons with the Ravens, but his contribution went well beyond sack totals. He was often asked to drop in coverage and was strong against the run, and he also took center stage in the team’s social justice movement. He will go down as one of the best fifth-round picks in franchise history.

Like Judon, Ngakoue’s departure seemed imminent, and he and the Las Vegas Raiders reportedly reached agreement on a two-year, $26 million deal.

The return of the Maryland native and former Terps star was a great midseason story as the Ravens pushed toward the playoffs, but the Ravens didn’t see enough from Ngakoue in the nine games he played for them to justify a hefty new contract.

Losing Judon and Ngakoue created a massive hole at outside linebacker, but the Ravens partially filled that by re-signing Bowser to a four-year deal worth a reported $22 million.

Bowser was always going to be the most economical of the pending edge rusher free agents on the roster. To be sure, Bowser has yet to post numbers like Judon or Ngakoue, with 10.5 sacks in four seasons, but as he showed with his one-handed interception at Cleveland, he’s an athletic player with a lot of versatility. When the Ravens talk about “right player, right price,” Bowser in this edge market was precisely that.

The Ravens also re-signed veteran McPhee and Wolfe, with McPhee signing another one-year deal and Wolfe signing for three years and $12 million.

McPhee, 32, has thrived in his second stint with the Ravens, and his 34 tackles this past year were the second-most of his career. The Ravens need younger talent to emerge on the edge, but McPhee’s versatility and locker-room presence is a big plus.

Wolfe, 31, proved to be a strong fit for the schemes of defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, starting up front alongside Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams. Wolfe recorded just one sack, the lowest total of his career, but his 51 total tackles matched his career high.

Free agency officially begins March 17 at 4 p.m., but the roster building never truly ends. DeCosta said last week that he has had discussions with basically every pending Ravens free agent, so it’s possible that players who have not yet been re-signed could still end up back in Baltimore.

Excluding those mentioned above, here is an update on Ravens who were scheduled to be either restricted or unrestricted free agents this spring:

ILB Chris Board: Re-signed with the Ravens on a one-year deal reported to be worth $1.6 million plus incentives
The Ravens opted against tendering Board, a restricted free agent who would have earned about $2.3 million with the lowest tender. Still, the Ravens view Board as one of their core special teamers and can fill in at inside linebacker when needed as well.

WR Dez Bryant: Unsigned
Bryant noted via Twitter after the season that he never felt completely comfortable after joining the Ravens midseason. His return after a two-year absence was a good story, but if his career continues at age 32, it will be elsewhere.

LS Morgan Cox: Signed to a one-year deal by the Tennessee Titans
DeCosta said it was “very, very difficult to move on from Morgan,” but the Ravens have opted to go younger at long snapper with Nick Moore, who spent last year on the practice squad. An 11-year veteran, Cox was the second-longest tenured member of the team.

RB Gus Edwards: Received second-round tender as restricted free agent
DeCosta said last week that Edwards would be back with the Ravens “one way or the other,” and the team gave the former undrafted back a second-round tender worth $3.38 million. “He is a Raven,” DeCosta said. “He played his butt off this year.” Edwards (144 carries, 723 yards and six touchdowns, all career highs in 2020) and J.K. Dobbins will anchor the backfield for the Ravens’ top-ranked running game once again.

DT Justin Ellis: Re-signed to a one-year deal worth a reported $1.2 million
Ellis, 30, appeared in 13 games, including three starts, last year and had 17 tackles as a rotational player who can spell Brandon Williams at times.

T D.J. Fluker: Unsigned
Fluker made eight starts at right tackle last year after losing out on the right guard job in training camp. Even with the uncertainty surrounding Orlando Brown Jr., the team appears ready to go younger than Fluker, who turned 30 this week.

DB Anthony Levine: Unsigned
The Ravens de facto special teams captain has carved out quite a career after originally going undrafted and then spending 2.5 seasons on practice squads (first Green Bay, then Baltimore). Levine, one of five 2020 Ravens who were on the 2012 Super Bowl team, turns 34 later this month.

WR Chris Moore: Signed to a one-year deal by the Houston Texans
The former fourth-round pick reunites with Ravens receivers coach David Culley in Houston. Moore established himself as a top special teams player but never consistently cracked the receiver rotation and was limited to three regular-season games this year by injury.

S Jordan Richards: Re-signed to a one-year, $1.015 million deal
Richards has a limited defensive role as a backup safety but is a core special teamer, and the Ravens consistently value that. Richards played in all 16 games and finished with four tackles on special teams.

C Matt Skura: Signed to a one-year deal by the Miami Dolphins
Skura gamely battled back from the major knee injury he sustained late in the 2019 season but never quite returned to form, ultimately losing the starting job to Patrick Mekari because of snapping issues. The Ravens haven’t solved the center question for this fall, but Skura doesn’t appear to be in the mix.

WR Willie Snead: Unsigned
Snead had a good three-year run with the Ravens, and his toughness and blocking ability proved to be a great fit for Greg Roman’s run-first offense. He also brought a veteran presence to an extremely young group. But younger slot receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche appear ready to step up.

TE Eric Tomlinson: Re-signed to a one-year, $1.015 million deal
The Ravens are still looking for another pass-catching tight end, but they saw enough of Tomlinson’s blocking to reward him with a one-year deal, essentially insurance as Nick Boyle recovers from his season-ending knee injury.

DE/OLB Jihad Ward: Signed to a one-year deal by the Jacksonville Jaguars
Ward’s playing time dropped after Ngakoue joined the Ravens, but he was a solid role player and a good defensive fit for the past two years. Now he goes to Jacksonville, where he figures to be a good fit for new defensive coordinator Joe Cullen, Ward’s defensive line coach in Baltimore.

WR DeAndrew White: Unsigned
The wide receiver and kick returner was with the Ravens for just a week in training camp before being placed on injured reserve. He’ll be looking for a new team this year.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Bo Smolka

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