Watching the Steelers and Jets reminded me of what a team looks like when they play up to their talent. The Steelers are not the most talented team in the AFC, but when it counts they don’t waste an inch of their ability. It isn’t that they don’t make mistakes, every team does and will. They aren’t fazed by the moment, whether they are down by 14 *ahem* or ahead by 20. Talent will get you to 12 wins in the regular season, but it won’t get you to the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh is the team that Baltimore could be if Baltimore had that same attitude. Right now the Ravens are a lot like Mike Tyson in the early 1990’s. Incredibly fearsome and a great hitter- but the moment someone refuses to be intimidating and hits back, it is an entirely different fight. Ravens fans can’t stand the Steelers, and for good reason (I will let Zach and the others take that one on the next time it’s Steelers Week). The Ravens could learn a lot from their AFC rivals- maybe that’s what gets under their skin most of all.
But before the Ravens can turn their luck around, they will need to take care of what is sure to be a contentious offseason. Not only do they have to negotiate around an uncertain labor future, but they have a host of unrestricted free agents to sign. They won’t be able to sign all of them, so how should they prioritize them? Assuming there is a season next year, here is one perspective:
1) Haloti Ngata– Easy answer. Ngata has already said he wants to remain a Raven and management has said they want him back as their #1 priority. This will happen, no need to dwell on it too much.
2) Marshal Yanda– The very fact that he was mediocre at tackle should showcase what a great guard he is. He struggled with speed rushers, but again, he is a guard. In the right blocking scheme his mobility would be an incredible asset. Baltimore has two quality lineman in the prime of their careers. Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda. They would be wise not to make it one.
3) Sam Koch– Yes, a punter. The next two players are moderately good cornerbacks, almost interchangeable, which gives this elite player an edge. Koch was incredible at nailing opponents deep at a 43.7 yard average with 39 put inside the 20, ranking 2nd in the NFL, and had just 4 touchbacks. Koch was instrumental in giving the Ravens defense a chance to keep the opponent scoreless. There aren’t many like him in the NFL, and he won’t be too pricy to resign.
4) Chris Carr– Honestly, on a team with subpar cover corners all over the field, he was the best of the bunch. He was brought on as an afterthought this year to fill the roster and wound up having a career year, albeit with just two interceptions. The whole group needs an upgrade, but bringing Carr back will give this group some much-needed stability even as Dominique Foxworth returns next season.
5) Le’Ron McClain– McClain, not McGahee, is the perfect complement to Ray Rice. Direct power runner to complement Rice’s darting, quick moves. Put them both in as H-backs and let the defense determine how they want to line up. Fake the handoff to McClain as Rice swings out of the backfield or split Rice out wide to stretch the defense before handing it to McClain. He would be a priority if the offense knew how to use him. I am not sure they do, or they view him as just another fullback. That would be a real shame to waste his talents- more on this later.
6) Josh Wilson– We all like Josh Wilson, being a Maryland grad. Having him and Foxworth as the top two corners would be a Terps’ fan’s dream, but it is unlikely. Wilson is a great nickel corner, and this one could come down to how much Wilson is willing to take. He was a bargain this season, but he doesn’t have the size or consistency to compete with a tall, physical receiver. How much are the Ravens willing to pay for a nickel back? Probably not enough for a corner who could get himself a #2 job on another team.
7) Jared Gaither– On a team that was desperate for offensive line help, Gaither showed why having an inconsistent, malcontented, and lazy tackle was better than having no tackle at all. In his absence Marshal Yanda was forced to play out of position and did his best, but again, he was a guard and not a tackle. The best route would be to bring in a talented tackle through the draft or free agency- but since great left tackles don’t hit the free agent market and this is a weak draft class for tackles, Gaither might be the best bet.
8) Chris Chester– I struggled with where to put Chester, since he is a mediocre guard who will probably want a significant pay raise. Mediocre guards aren’t hard to find, but he is also the lone backup center on a team where Matt Birk is well into the twilight of his career. If the Ravens pick up a competent tackle and can move Yanda back to guard, Chester falls out of the picture. If not, he probably stays at #8. If you have recommendations on this placement let them fly, I am not sure how to place Chester.
9) Willis McGahee– He wants to be a featured back somewhere. Heck, he was tried as a feature back when he first got here, and then Ray Rice took over. Part of McGahee’s problem was being misused. He is not a goal-line back and it was ridiculous to assign him that short yardage role when this team has 260 pound Le’Ron McClain waiting to take the carry. He is a traditional one-cut-and-go running back and would fit in well in a lot of offenses. Just not in Baltimore. My hope? Let McGahee go and give McClain more touches. That won’t happen with this staff. But if the coaches are willing to use McGahee better they should keep him. If that was the plan, then McGahee would be higher than 8th on this list. But it isn’t, so here he is.
Just as an aside, it was criminal to abandon the successful three-headed-monster approach at RB and whittle McClain’s carried from 232 to 28 over three seasons, and McGahee’s from 170 to 100. The running game was less effective because of it.
10) Dawan Landry– This one is low priority. Landry is due to for a big raise simply by virtue of being an unrestricted free agent coming off of a 5th round rookie’s contract, but I am not sure it’s necessary. Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura weren’t great replacing Ed Reed earlier this season… but they were trying to replace Ed Reed. In Landry’s spot either one might wind up being an upgrade. Zbikowski is a hard hitter and Nakamura has shown his ability to come on the blitz. Both need and deserve more playing time. I am not saying that Landry isn’t as good a player as the ones before him on this list- but just that the Ravens have internal options so resigning him isn’t particularly important.
11) Donte’ Stallworth– Two catches for 82 yards, no touchdowns. That was Stallworth’s entire stat line for the 8 games he was active for, hardly the explosive deep threat that the Ravens had hoped for. However, I would remind Ravens fans of a couple things. It took Michael Vick a year to get back into playing shape after his time out of the game, and Stallworth, like Vick, likely can be had for a very low price. If the Ravens cut ties with Houshmanzadeh, Boldin could move into the slot where he is more comfortable and Stallworth could excel. Don’t pencil him into a starting spot, but he is certainly worth a second look.
12) The following guys should probably not return to Baltimore next season unless they wanted to make the Ravens a great bargain:
T.J. Houshmanzadeh– Way too loud for a #3 receiver, this team has too many possession receivers as it is.
Fabian Washington– Deion Sanders could get away with not tackling because he was a spectacular ball hawk. Washington is not. One interception in three seasons says it all.
Mark Bulger– This team will need the cash elsewhere to help resign other players. If Flacco goes down Baltimore may have to roll the dice on a more affordable backup.
Prescott Burgess– This ex-Wolverine has bounced around from one practice squad to another before becoming a special teams contributor. If he can be had for a minimum, then great, but if not he won’t be terribly missed.