With NFL free agency now less than a month away, the clock is ticking for general manager Eric DeCosta if he intends to retain any Ravens before they hit the open market.

That has long been a central tenet of DeCosta’s roster-building philosophy, and at his season-ending news conference, he noted that he has signed 22 players to extensions of $2 million or more in his three-year tenure as GM.

The Ravens own exclusive negotiating rights with players under contract until March 14, when their agents can begin talking to other teams. Free agency officially begins March 16.

Head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that with the lure of free agency looming, players are likely to shop around to gauge their value.

“At this point in time, guys go to the market,” Harbaugh said earlier this month. “That’s what happens. So we’re just going to have to see how that plays out.”

The Ravens entered the offseason with 21 unrestricted free agents, and that list was reduced by one when veteran safety Anthony Levine announced his retirement. He has since moved into a scouting/coaching role with the team.

Calais Campbell was contemplating retirement, but he announced on Super Bowl Sunday that he intends to return for a 15th NFL season. It’s unclear, though, whether it will be in Baltimore.

The Ravens have several other players who could retire this offseason, but with so many players hitting free agency, it’s clear that there will be significant roster upheaval after an injury-marred season that ended at 8-9, just the second losing season in Harbaugh’s 14-year tenure.

The Ravens ended with a six-game losing streak and missed the playoffs for the first time in four years.

In this two-part series, we will look at each pending unrestricted free agent, and offer an educated guess as to whether he will be back with the team. First, the offense:

C Bradley Bozeman: 15 percent chance of returning

Bozeman was one of the Ravens’ most consistent players on an offensive line that struggled this past season, and the contributions of this two-time Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee go well beyond the field.

Pro Football Focus ranked Bozeman No. 11 overall and No. 5 in pass blocking among centers this past year, while ESPN listed Bozeman No. 2 among centers in pass block win rate, which measures whether a lineman can sustain his block for 2.5 seconds or longer.

Ten centers have contracts worth at least $10 million in average annual value, according to spotrac.com, which tracks player salaries. Whether Bozeman can command that remains to be seen, but the Ravens and Bozeman have remained far apart in negotiations, and at this point, Bozeman is more likely to find his asking price elsewhere.

RB Devonta Freeman: 40 percent

Freeman emerged as the leader of the Ravens’ makeshift running back group, with 133 carries for 576 yards and five touchdowns. He ranked second on the team in rushing behind Lamar Jackson (767 yards). Freeman also ranked fourth on the team with 34 receptions, for 190 yards.

Freeman, who turns 30 in March, would give the Ravens some insurance in case J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards aren’t ready for the regular season, and DeCosta said the team would operate conservatively in the recovery of the injured backs.

“There’s always uncertainty with those guys,” DeCosta said, “due to the nature of their injuries. … But we’re confident that, at some point this year, those guys will be playing football for us.”

The Ravens could also look to a later-round draft pick or a younger free agent to fill the gap, and Freeman, knowing Dobbins and Edwards jump him on the depth chart if healthy, might look for an opportunity elsewhere.

QB Josh Johnson: 5 percent

Of all the unlikely scenes this year, Josh Johnson suiting up and starting a game for the Ravens had to top the list, but there he was facing the Cincinnati Bengals Dec. 26 with both Lamar Jackson (ankle) and Tyler Huntley (reserve/COVID-19 list) sidelined. It was the ninth start in a journeyman 14-year NFL career for Johnson, who had been on the Ravens’ roster for less than two weeks. He performed better than anyone could have expected, going 28-for-40 for 304 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-21 loss.

With Jackson and Huntley back healthy, the Ravens figure to add at least one young arm to the practice squad. Johnson, 35, who has been with 13 teams, has another jersey for the family room.

RB Latavius Murray: 20 percent

Like Devonta Freeman, Murray proved to be a capable fill-in for the Ravens’ decimated running back room, and he finished the season with 119 carries for 501 yards and a team-high six rushing touchdowns.

The Ravens might look to re-sign one of their 2021 backs as insurance against complications for J.K. Dobbins or Gus Edwards, but the bet here is that Freeman would be the preference. Freeman had a larger role in the passing game and at age 32, Freeman is two years younger than Murray. The Ravens are probably in the market for young, cheaper backs via Day 3 of the draft or the rookie free agent route.

FB Patrick Ricard: 30 percent

Ricard has been a tremendous story, morphing from undrafted defensive lineman out of Maine, to old-school, two-way player, to three-time Pro Bowl fullback. He has played a vital role in the Ravens’ record-setting rushing offense as a road-grading blocker. The 300-pounder also has 29 career catches, five of them for touchdowns.

Ricard received a two-year extension two years ago worth $7.3 million, and he has added two more Pro Bowl appearance since then. He could be seeking to become the league’s highest paid fullback.

How brisk will the market be for a fullback in a pass-happy league? Ricard is about to find out, and if the price gets too high, the Ravens will let him walk and begin to groom Ben Mason, their fifth-round draft pick who was cut, signed by New England but returned to the Ravens this winter on a reserve/future deal.

T David Sharpe: 50 percent

Sharpe was one of the Ravens’ emergency solutions at tackle, joining the team as a member of the practice squad and then ultimately being promoted to the 53-man roster. He appeared in five games.

With Ronnie Stanley’s health still a question and Alejandro Villanueva a potential cap casualty, the Ravens have major depth concerns at tackle. Sharpe, 26, has appeared in 38 career games in five seasons and could fill a depth role as he did this year. The Ravens wouldn’t need to break the bank to bring him back.

TE Eric Tomlinson: 60 percent

The 6-foot-6, 263-pound Tomlinson did thankless work as a blocking tight end, but that position plays a huge role in the Ravens’ offense, especially when the running game is operating on all cylinders. Tomlinson had just one catch all season, playing about 19 snaps a game. Nick Boyle was never quite right after his major 2020 knee injury, and the Ravens will want a backup plan if Boyle continues to have complications.

Tomlinson knows as well as anyone that Greg Roman operates a tight-end-friendly offense, so running it back in 2022 might be desirable for both sides.

WR Sammy Watkins: 15 percent

Watkins became the latest veteran receiver the Ravens took a flyer on, but he finished with career lows in catches (27) and yards (394) in 13 games on a one-year, $5 million deal. Watkins had two of the biggest catches of the season, setting up game-winning scores at Detroit and Chicago, but he had no catches and just three targets throughout his final four games.

It’s clear that Marquise Brown, Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay and tight end Mark Andrews represent the core of the pass-catching offense, and after the season, DeCosta said, “At this time, I think we’re very comfortable with where we are with that group.” DeCosta was replying to a question about whether the team had any interest in Antonio Brown, but it wasn’t exactly an endorsement of Watkins, either.

Photo Credits: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Bo Smolka

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