Ravens must go all in this offseason to catch the Chiefs

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Baltimore Ravens finished last season with a 14-2 record after winning their final 12 regular-season games. Led by eventual NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, they looked like Super Bowl favorites.

Things changed on a dime as heavy home favorites against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. Baltimore relied too much on what was a mistake-prone Jackson, shockingly losing by the score of 28-12.

Heading into the offseason, Baltimore must do certain things to help Jackson if it hopes to knock off the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC next season.

Here’s the gist: Baltimore must find upgrades at wide receiver and would benefit from more reinforcements in the defensive front seven. That’s what general manager Eric DeCosta has to focus on initially.

The salary cap: Baltimore currently finds itself $26.57 million under the cap. It has a few players to think about re-signing, but can create more cap room with the following moves.

  • Release Tony Jefferson. Earlier this week, Baltimore signed young safety Chuck Clark to a three-year, $15.3 million extension. That’s starter money. It means that Jefferson is on his way out. Baltimore can save $6.5 million by releasing the veteran.
  • Teams have been using restructured contracts as a way to save cash over the short term. While that will have an impact over the long haul, Baltimore is in win-now mode.
  • According to Over the Cap, Baltimore can save a combined $18-plus million against the 2020 cap by restructuring the contracts of Marcus Peters, Earl Thomas and Brandon Williams.
  • If the Ravens were to make these four moves mentioned above, they’d be north of $50 million under the cap. That’s a way to add the necessary talent in order to compete with Kansas City.

Internal free agents: As noted above, John Harbaugh and the Ravens have a couple of their own free agents that should be priority re-signs.

  • Matt Judon: This 27-year-old former fifth-round pick recorded 33 quarterback hits and 9.5 sacks en route to earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2019. Re-signing him would likely come at a cost of $16-plus million annually.
  • Matt Skura: Having started 39 games in his first three NFL seasons, this center has proven vital to the Ravens’ offensive line success. He’s a restricted free agent, meaning something could get done to the tune of $8-plus million annually.
  • Patrick Onwuasor and Michael Pierce: These two defenders could be brought back if the market dictates it. Onwuasor has been a solid weak-side linebacker for the squad, while Pierce has done well at defensive tackle. With that said, the Ravens can also look for upgrades here after Derrick Henry ran through their front seven in the playoffs.

Free-agent upgrades: Let’s assume for a second that Judon and Skura are re-signed at a combined annual cap hit of an estimated $24 million, Baltimore will still have room to work with.

  • Teams tend to back load contracts, meaning that the combined cap hit for these two would be closer to $14 million in 2020 than that $24 million total.
  • This would enable the Ravens to exhaust $30-plus million on the 2020 cap on external free agents and the draft.
  • That would be a way for Baltimore to add immediate production to its already talented young roster.

The targets

Cory Littleton, linebacker

This would be a way for Baltimore to get younger at linebacker and upgrade over the above-mentioned Onwuasor. Littleton, 26, is a season removed from earning a Pro Bowl appearance with the Rams. He recorded 134 tackles, nine passes defended, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2019. Los Angeles will have a hard time re-signing him with the team’s cap situation in shambles.

A.J. Green, wide receiver

What better way to stick it to the division rival Bengals than by signing their longtime future Hall of Famer? Despite missing all of last season to injury, the 31-year-old Green would be a major upgrade over the likes of Willie Snead and Seth Roberts behind Marquise Brown. Those two combined for just 52 receptions in 2019. Green could probably be had for about $10-$11 million annually.

The NFL Draft: In order to remain viable over the long haul, teams must find cheap and young talent. The draft is obviously Baltimore’s best avenue to do just that. Here, we check in on what the first few rounds should look like.

1- Laviska Shenault, wide receiver, Colorado: Baltimore needs more talent behind Brown at receiver. Enter into the equation a big-bodied receiver in Shenault who can make the contested catch. He stands at 6-foot-2 and holds down a 220-pound frame. We could not ask for a better fit next to Brown for Jackson and Co. moving forward.

2- Troy Dye, linebacker, Oregon: Veteran Josh Bynes was a stopgap option, at best, last season. Baltimore needs more youth at linebacker. A 6-foot-4, 225-pound backer, Dye has tremendous athleticism and could come in immediately in nickel situations with his already plus-level cover skills.

3- Daryl Williams, guard, Mississippi State: Marshall Yanda is not getting any younger. Bradley Bozeman is serviceable, but not a major talent. Taking a chance on the high-upside Williams, who can also play center, makes sense. At least initially, he’d provide the necessary depth for Baltimore.

4- Denzel Mims, wide receiver, Baylor: Why not triple down at wide receiver this offseason? After adding A.J. Green and Shenault, Baltimore selects a big-bodied 6-foot-3 receiver for Jackson to play catch with. Mims was highly productive at Baylor and could ultimately turn into a good No. 2, if needed.

4- Tony Pride, cornerback, Notre Dame: The Ravens will likely see longtime corner Jimmy Smith depart in free agency. Equally as important, they need a youngster at the slot. Pride was the Irish’ best corner last season and excelled in taking on a larger role after Julian Love departed for the NFL. He’s a great fit.

Bottom line

This offseason should be spent finding more weapons for the electric Lamar Jackson on offense. He has two elite players in that of tight end Mark Andrews and wide receiver Marquise Brown.

However, in order to contend with the high-flying Chiefs, more weapons are needed. In getting A.J. Green and Laviska Shenault, the Ravens would be telling Jackson they are all in for the 2020 season.

Littleton would be a nice upgrade at linebacker. Meanwhile, Dye could come in and start immediately.

This is what we expect Baltimore to do during the 2020 offseason. Go all in. Put the defending champs on notice. Because, if you’re not getting better in the NFL, you are not doing it right. It’s a win-now league. The time is now for John Harbaugh and Co. to continue working under that philosophy like they have done in the recent past.