The Baltimore Ravens are fresh off of a Super Bowl Championship, but endured a very busy offseason. There were some key departures on both sides of the ball, but namely on the defensive side. Baltimore lost some good players and well-known leaders, that helped surge this defense to one of the better defenses of the decade. Not only were these moves essential for the future of the Ravens defense, but they will make this year’s defense better than last year’s defense.
Let’s start with the key departures. The Ravens wanted to get younger on defense. Ray Lewis’ retirement was probably a blessing in disguise, if not what Ozzie Newsome was secretly hoping for. Ray Lewis’ numbers look the same, but any Ravens fan will tell you they are not indicative of his actual play. Lewis looked much slower in recent years and a lot of the tackles he was credited for were more desperation tackles. By desperation tackle, I mean a tackle in which a linebacker doesn’t meet the running back at the line of scrimmage, but rather meets him four feet by four feet in the back of the box. So while he still gets credit for the tackle, what the stat doesn’t tell you is that the running back still gained four to five yards. Mix in the fact that Ray Lewis only played six regular season games last year, and you have further justification for being content with the future hall of famer’s choice of retirement.
Then there’s Ed Reed, who is trying to out run father time. While Reed played all 16 games last year, he has had a significant drop in production. While he still possesses the ball hawk skills that has made him the league’s best safety for years, I believe age is playing a factor. His solo tackles have dropped progressively, and his interceptions have begun to level off. The major loss in both Ray Lewis’ retirement and Ed Reed’s departure is the football acumen and the leadership. Those are things that take time to replace. Lewis and Reed were instrumental to the development of younger players, and their leadership was unparalleled. Although they will be hard to replace, it was a necessary trade off to keep this defense competitive in 2013 without breaking the bank.
Then you have the other players who left via free agency. Namely Ellerbe, Kruger, Pollard, and Williams. All four played great on defense this year. Cary Williams came in and played great as a starter when Ladarius Webb went down with a torn ACL. He signed a 3 year 17 million dollar deal with the Eagles, a deal that probably could have been done with the Ravens had they not had to pay Flacco the money he so deserved. Obviously, the Ravens paid Flacco, and with Ladarius Webb coming back next season Cary Williams was a necessary roster casualty.
Kruger and Ellerbe were overpaid, plain and simple. Ellerbe filled in great for Ray Lewis last year, but he was in a contract year, and had fortunate situation of being able to receive playing time due to an injury higher up on the depth chart. Give him credit, he made it count at the right time. This was his best year statistically, but this deal reminded me so much of the deal Bart Scott signed in New York. It was worth it for one year, but not the remaining years of his contract. I can see this situation playing out the same way. Kruger also signed a contract that was overvalued for my taste. Statistically he had his best year. However, I truly believe that his production was a credit to the quality of the players on the Ravens defense as a whole, which will likely not be the same over in Cleveland. Finally, Bernard Pollard left and signed a one-year deal with Tennessee. Pollard has proven to be a reliable safety in this league, but is becoming something of a journey-man. He will be playing on his fourth team in just six years and signed only a one-year deal. What does this mean? He’s not a team’s first, second, or even third choice. It tells me that the team that signs him has not made strong safety a priority. Rather teams lock up positions elsewhere and sign Pollard as a serviceable one year rental. Don’t get me wrong, Pollard has had a great career so far. However, it makes more sense to pay a rookie whom you can develop 7 million dollars over four years, than to pay a reliable safety, who is older, a one year rental contract.
With all this turnover, who are the new faces? Let’s start where we left off at strong safety. I really thought picking Matt Elam was outstanding for the Ravens, and it made complete sense. Elam will come in and will try and be the new ball hawk of this Ravens defense. He proved to be a great playmaker at the University of Florida, and has not only the athleticism and physicality, but also has great instincts. A successful jump from college to the pro’s is never a given, but Elam has a chance to be great. Michael Huff was also a nice pick up. While he’s not quite Ed Reed, he is an experienced safety, who is 4 years younger than Ed Reed, and roughly 9 million dollars less expensive. So in the back end of the secondary the Ravens lose a 28 year old and a 34 year old, and gain 21 year old and a 30 year old. Not a bad trade off, especially when you consider the finances.
Then there are the additions of Chris Canty and Marcus Spears. These additions might not appear to be “sexy” additions, but they’ll add some depth and some value. Canty’s arrival will allow Haloti Ngata to play more inside, and allow this team to improve on their 20th ranked rushing defense. Spears will bring some depth, and allow Arthur Jones to get a blow when he gets gassed. Spears’ production has dropped in recent years, but his football IQ should help bring some veteran stability and leadership to what seems like a brand new defense.
Drafting Arthur Brown was also a crucial draft pick. Unfortunately, he’ll be unfairly compared to Ray Lewis, and will likely be thrown into the fire week one. He’ll have the luxury of learning behind Jameel Mclain, who now takes over as one of the longer tenured Ravens. With the addition of Elvis Dumervil, the Ravens replaced Paul Kruger’s pass rush, with a more consistent pass rush, and likely more sacks. In addition to the production Dumervil brings, he also take some pressure off second year linebacker Courtney Upshaw, and allow him to learn behind one of the league’s best. Finally, we can’t forget the fact that Terrell Suggs will be playing a full season, along with the aforementioned Ladarius Webb, both of whom missed a majority of games due to injury.
So let’s put it all together here: Last year the Ravens defense finished 17th in the league, had two older future hall of famers who are not quite what they once were, 2 solid step ups who cashed in solely on a great contract year, one journeyman safety, and a corner who wasn’t a necessity to resign. The 2013 Ravens defense has added a solid defensive end, a pass rusher who has been productive and consistent his entire career, younger and less expensive safeties with high ceilings of potential, a fully healthy Terrell Suggs, a fully healthy Ladarius Webb, experienced veterans to help rookies Arthur Brown, Matt Elam, and second year outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, and most importantly saved the cap money to lock down their Super Bowl MVP and franchise quarterback Joe Flacco. This Ravens defense WILL be better next year because of all this, and for the years to come. Trust me.