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. Previously, we addressed pending free agents on offense. Now the defense:

CB Anthony Averett: 15 percent chance of returning

Averett moved into a starting role after Marcus Peters suffered a season-ending injury in September, and while he drew some ire from Ravens fans, Averett held up well and proved he can be a starting cornerback. He finished with 54 tackles and a team-high three interceptions in 14 games.

Averett was targeted 101 times, among the most in the league, and quarterbacks had a passer rating of 77.5 against him according to Pro Football Reference, placing him in the middle of the pack among cornerbacks. (Marlon Humphrey this year allowed a passer rating of 98.6 on 84 targets.)

With Humphrey and Peters expected to return to their starting roles this fall, Averett knows that his best chance to be a starter is elsewhere, and he is likely to have suitors. Cornerbacks get paid in free agency.

ILB Chris Board: 50 percent

The former undrafted linebacker has evolved into one of the Ravens’ top special teams players. He finished with a team-high 11 special teams tackles last year and totaled 30 on defense, primarily as a coverage linebacker.

Board might explore the open market, but the Ravens appreciate core special teams play as much as anyone and it’s possible they will re-sign Board to a one-year deal, as they did last year. New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald worked with Board and might have a say in the Ravens’ approach as well.

Someone needs to take the mantle of de facto special teams captain from recently retired Anthony Levine Sr., and that could be Board.

ILB Josh Bynes: 60 percent

The veteran Bynes was a stabilizing force at middle linebacker, finishing with 76 tackles and two sacks in 14 games. Patrick Queen thrived after Bynes was inserted into the lineup and Queen moved to weak-side linebacker.

Bynes, who turns 33 in August, said after the season that he is “beyond interested” in returning to the Ravens. “I feel like I have a lot of ball left in me,” he said.

The Ravens view Bynes as a coach-in-waiting, and he sounds receptive to a team-friendly deal where he would also mentor a young linebackers group.

DE Calais Campbell: 35 percent

Campbell announced on Super Bowl Sunday that he would be returning for a 15th NFL season. “I’m not retiring,” Campbell said on the Sky Sports telecast in the United Kingdom. “I watched this game. The feeling I have right now, after seeing them celebrate a Super Bowl championship, I have a desire to go out there and play football and to compete, so I’m definitely not retiring. I’m coming back.”

But will that be in Baltimore? DeCosta noted that the Ravens had “a lot of grizzly war horses” along the defensive line, and stressed that, “We need to get younger for sure.” Campbell turns 36 in September, and is coming off a season in which he had 49 tackles and 1.5 sacks, his lowest total since his rookie year.

There’s no doubt that Campbell, a former NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year, would be an outstanding role model for young defensive linemen, and DeCosta said he and Campbell have had preliminary discussions since the season ended. But Campbell is in Super-Bowl-or-bust mode, and he can shop around for an offer with a team he feels is closest to reaching that goal.

S DeShon Elliott: 40 percent

The Ravens love Elliott’s swagger and physicality, but they would love to find a ball-hawking safety to pair with veteran Chuck Clark at the back end of the Ravens’ defense. Elliott is a thumper, pound-for-pound one of the hardest hitters in the league, but he has just one career interception. The Ravens finished this year with 15 takeaways, their second-lowest total in franchise history.

Elliott’s free-agent market might be tempered by the fact that he’s endured three major injuries in four seasons. He missed the last nine games this season with a torn pectoral and biceps muscle. He missed his entire rookie season with a broken arm and missed most of the 2019 season with a knee injury. In four seasons, he has played in 28 of 65 games.

The Ravens also have Brandon Stephens and Geno Stone as young backups, and if they sign or draft a ball-hawk safety, what is Elliott’s role? He might look for the chance to start elsewhere, though teams are sure to look closely at the medicals before any offer.

DL Justin Ellis: 55 percent

The Ravens want to get younger along the defensive line, but if they lose both Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell, they might want a veteran presence in the trenches, and Ellis figures to be the cheapest of the three.

Ellis, 31, finished with 18 tackles this year for the league’s No. 1 run defense, playing about 22 snaps a game. The Ravens signed him to a one-year deal last March, and another short-term deal could be in the works.

ILB L.J. Fort: 40 percent

Fort missed the entire 2021 season with a knee injury sustained in the preseason, but before that, the seven-year veteran had found a home with the Ravens as a starting linebacker and top special teams player. The Ravens are thin at inside linebacker, with Chris Board and Josh Bynes also entering free agency. Will they bring back all three at the expense of developing younger players?

Fort, who turned 32 in January, had 53 tackles during his one full season with the Ravens in 2020.

OLB Justin Houston: 25 percent

Houston reached a milestone this year with his 100th career sack, but he finished with 4.5 sacks, his lowest total in a full season, and had 0.5 sacks over his final six games. The Ravens have a glaring need at edge rusher. Tyus Bowser is coming off an Achilles injury and Odafe Oweh and underperforming Jaylon Ferguson are the only other edge rushers on the 53-man roster who are under contract. Daelin Hayes spent virtually his entire rookie year on injured reserve.

Houston, 33, candidly said in November that he had been disappointed with how his season had gone, and he suggested that he wasn’t ready to retire. But he might find more interest elsewhere as he looks to increase his career sacks total of 102.

S Tony Jefferson: 35 percent

Before Eric Weddle made his remarkable unretirement run to the Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams, his former Ravens secondary mate Jefferson was making his own return to the field in Baltimore. Signed to plug a decimated secondary, Jefferson played four late-season games for the Ravens, with 17 tackles and a sack.

The Ravens have younger options in the secondary and are looking to upgrade with a ball-hawking starter. Jefferson, 30, loves the Ravens organization and could return primarily as a special teams player, a role he embraced in his one month with the team this season.

Update: The Ravens re-signed Tony Jefferson Feb. 24

OLB Pernell McPhee: 20 percent

One of the last vestiges of the Ravens’ 2012 Super Bowl team, McPhee has been with the Ravens for the past three years in his second tour of duty with the team. He finished with 14 tackles and one sack this past year in 10 games, averaging about 23 snaps.

The Ravens have stressed getting younger and faster on defense. McPhee, 33, brings versatility with the ability to play on the edge or inside in certain passing packages, but he also might retire after a solid 11-year career.

CB Jimmy Smith: 25 percent

Limited by injuries again, Smith played in 10 games and finished with 18 tackles, his lowest total since his rookie season. With the secondary decimated by injuries, Smith played every snap of the final two games of the season.

The second-longest tenured member of the team behind Sam Koch, Smith, who turns 34 in July, has said he has no desire to play anywhere else. The Ravens could offer him a team-friendly one-year deal, but it’s also a strong possibility that Smith hangs it up after 11 seasons, all in Baltimore.

DL Brandon Williams: 20 percent

Williams played out his five-year, $52.5 million contract and remains one of the league’s preeminent run stoppers. He finished this year with 35 tackles for a defense that ranked No. 1 in the league against the run.

DeCosta said after the season that the Ravens need to get younger up front on defense, suggesting they will let Williams, 33, explore free agency.

“As long as they want me, I’ll be here,” Williams said after the season ended, “but you never know what they’re thinking upstairs.”

The Ravens’ equation up front is also complicated by the three-year, $12 million deal for defensive end Derek Wolfe, who missed all last season with a hip injury. Cutting Wolfe would create virtually no cap savings, so it’s not as if he could be cut for savings that could be applied elsewhere. And with all contract calculations for DeCosta and the Ravens, the potential extension for quarterback Lamar Jackson looms large.

Photo Credits: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Bo Smolka

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