As Friday’s free agency-mageddon looms, the Ravens have been linked to several unrestricted free agent players, and have already begun making some post-lockout roster moves. By cutting Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, Willis McGahee, and Kelly Gregg, the team freed up about $18 million of salary cap space to give them a bit of financial flexibility.
Already, Ozzie Newsome and Co. have cut a deal with versatile offensive lineman Marshal Yanda, as they try to retain some of the key pieces of last year’s 12-4 playoff team. While shoring up the rest of the offensive line is a concern, the Ravens must work to bolster what could be considered “trouble” positions; specifically cornerback, strong safety, wide receiver, and running back.
The Ravens’ need for a shutdown cornerback has been obvious ever since Chris McAllister smart-talked his way out of Baltimore. Currently on the roster at the cornerback position, the Ravens have veteran Domonique Foxworth, 3rd-year emerging star Lardarius Webb, 2011 top pick Jimmy Smith out of Colorado, and a plethora of inexperienced players who are mostly practice squad material. With three fairly experienced cornerbacks possibly leaving as unrestricted free agents (Chris Carr, Fabian Washington, Josh Wilson), the team needs to retain at least one of those three, and make a move in free agency to sign another. Of the three, Chris Carr seems least likely to return, as he stated earlier this week that he will only go to a team where he could be a definite starter.
Luckily for the Ravens, the talent pool for free agent cornerbacks this year is deeper than usual. The obvious superstar is Nmandi Asomugha, but he figures to be out of the Ravens’ price range, and more willing to sign with the cash-heavy Dallas Cowboys. Next on the list is former Bengals star Johnathan Joseph, who has terrorized the Ravens’ pass offense since he entered the league in 2006. While he doesn’t have the pants-soiling presence Asomugha has on a quarterback, Joseph is a solid cornerback who can go toe-to-toe with any receiver in the NFL and intercept a few passes over the course of a season. If Joseph is still too expensive of an option for the Ravens, Carlos Rogers could be a viable alternative. Rogers has stated he wants to leave Washington, and as a player who is not known to shy away from the spotlight, the Ravens’ high-profile defense may be the perfect fit for Rogers.
2. Strong Safety
As a long-time Ravens follower, I have a gut feeling that Dawan Landry will not be with the team next season. It’s not that Landry is demanding big money, or that he wants out of Baltimore, but the Ravens tend to let Ed Reed’s safety partners leave the team for free agency after their contract runs out, and then “promote” a backup safety to the starting position. After all, that’s how Landry landed in his starting job, although his “promotion” was given to him directly out of college after Will Demps left the team.
While Tom Zbikowski has played more free safety, he’s certainly versatile and athletic enough to hold his own at strong safety if the Ravens do end up letting Landry move on. Haruki Nakamura is an intriguing prospect, having shone on special teams since he was drafted in 2008, and even picking off a pass in last season’s playoff game in Kansas City. The free agent pool for safeties is also deep this year, but expect a signing more for depth rather than a big splash. C.C. Brown, who’s bounced around with three teams in the past three years, could be a solid pickup to compete for a starting spot or back up Zibby if the Ravens are interested in making a signing.
3. Wide Receiver
The Ravens are short on depth at wide receiver going into free agency. What else is new? With Donte’ Stallworth
headed to Washington, T.J. Houshmandzadeh an unrestricted free agent, and Derrick Mason cut, the team’s top two receivers at this point look like Anquan Boldin and rookie Torrey Smith, with unproven youngsters David Reed, Marcus Smith, and Justin Harper behind them.
The team seems willing to re-sign Mason for a cheaper deal if he agrees to it, which would be a welcome boost to the pass offense. If Mason ends up going to another team, there are a good amount of guys on the free agent market who could be solid #2 or #3 receivers. Braylon Edwards would be a big name to bring in, as a #2 target, although he faces a DWI charge, among other character concerns. Sidney Rice is another name that’s been tossed around, but his price tag may be too high, and injury concerns surround him. I like Early Doucet from the Cardinals as an option, although he is a restricted free agent, meaning the Ravens would have to give up a draft pick to sign him away from Arizona. Mike Sims-Walker could be a good option for the team, and versatile ex-Jet receiver/kick returner Brad Smith could be a scary offensive weapon for the team, similar to what Stallworth was last season.
4. Running Back
With Ray Rice emerging as one of the NFL’s best all-around backs, this position isn’t a huge concern, although the Ravens now lack in depth behind Rice due to the release of Willis McGahee. If the team re-signs Le’Ron McClain, he could see more carries from a tailback position, but it seems that McClain is on his way out, with reports suggesting the Pro Bowl fullack is asking for more money than the Ravens think he’s worth. With that said, the Ravens may need to go after a #2 back who can gain yards consistently, as well as a strong blocking fullback.
Look for the team to go after veteran fullback Lawrence Vickers, who has been considered one of the best lead blockers throughout his NFL career. In terms of tailbacks, Mike Bell could be a cheap pickup after a poor 2010 season, and proven backup Mewelde Moore appears to be leaving the Steelers. A younger, more versatile free agent option could be the former Falcons back Jason Snelling, who has filled in effectively in Atlanta the past two seasons when Michael Turner missed games due to injury.
Follow Edgar Walker on Twitter for updates on the Ravens throughout FreeAgencymageddon.