By Alan Zlotorzynski: Following a day in which the Baltimore Ravens traded a fan favorite in standout veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers for virtually nothing–but something, they lost two of their youngest emerging players on defense less than two hours into free agency.
Gone is pass rush specialist Paul Kruger, who signed with a division rival and LB Dannell Ellerbe, who is joining a player from another division rival– and together are taking their talents to South Beach to play for the Miami Dolphins.
Kruger signed with the Cleveland Browns for a ridiculous amount of money– and Ellerbe, along with Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace, inked similar fiscally irresponsible contracts with the Miami Dolphins. When you factor in the Ray Lewis retirement, the remaining unsigned free agents like Ed Reed and the teams announcement today that they have cut hard hitting safety Bernard Pollard– Ravens fans are in full blown “jump mode”.
Easy does it fellow Ravens fans. Let me take you back to when the Ravens made their first trip to the playoffs during Joe Flacco’s rookie year. In the backfield with Flacco were LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee. His receivers were Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Todd Heap. Blocking up front for the rookie from left to right was—Jared Gaither, Ben Grubbs, Jason Brown, Chris Chester and Willie Anderson.
Writing a “Where Are They Now” article may not be a bad choice for that list but on defense only Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed were on the field in 2012, which started for that 08 squad. Brendon Ayanbadejo and Jameel McClain were listed second on the depth chart but that is it.
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Taking it a step further, compared to just two seasons ago, the Ravens this season started six different players on offense and seven different players on defense.
Yes, players like Kruger, Ellerbe, Terrance Cody, Arthur Jones and Lardarius Webb were on the roster and contributed— but they were not listed as starters and combined to start just two games for the Ravens.
My point is, the Ravens always take their lumps early in free agency, and this year is no different. This happens to the Ravens organization all the time.
Don Banks of Sports Illustrated wrote this morning, “Overreaction to the first day of free agency is, of course, the natural order of things by now. Why only two short years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles signed everyone in sight early in free agency, while the New York Giants sat on their hands and tried to live down the outrage expressed by fans and media demanding to know why they would ever let such a valuable commodity like receiver Steve Smith sign with the rival Eagles. Yep, the same Steve Smith we have not really heard from since.
“How’d that one work out for the Eagles and Giants?”
Adding to what Banks wrote, the Eagles released the biggest prize of that free agent market just prior to the start of this free agency period when they cut cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. The one constant in Baltimore has always been General Manager Ozzie Newsome. NFL front offices have become as much of a revolving door as the rosters these upper management gurus try to better each off-season.
Old timers such as like Bill Polian, Jerry Angelo, A.J. Smith, Marty Hurney, Scott Pioli, Mike Tannenbaum and Billy Devaney are either on the NFL Network, ESPN or playing with grand kids. Either way they are no longer running teams.
While that is the out with the old scenario, the in with the new list is a long one. Chicago’s Phil Emery, Indianapolis’ Ryan Grigson, St. Louis’ Les Snead, Oakland’s Reggie McKenzie, Jacksonville’s David Caldwell, Kansas City’s John Dorsey, Tennessee’s Ruston Webster, the Jets’ John Idzik, San Diego’s Tom Telesco, Carolina’s David Gettleman, and Arizona’s Steve Keim are getting their first crack at being General Managers in the NFL.
Newsome is right where he’s been since the Ravens moved to Baltimore in 1996, sitting in his office in Owings Mills, Maryland making the right decisions for the Ravens.
Let us first examine why the Ravens did not keep Paul Kruger or Danelle Ellerbe. It came down to money with Ellerbe and the fact the Ravens had a price in their mind that they felt he was worth. Five years and $35 million was far more than Newsome was willing to spend.
Ellerbe earned the money he got from Miami. He rescued the Ravens when everyone thought Baltimore’s season was over when Ray Lewis went down with what was thought to be a season-ending injury. Ellerbe used the opportunity to step up and show the Ravens and the rest of the NFL that he was the long-term solution at the position. He was perhaps the most consistent player on a Ravens defense that was mired in inconsistency at that part of the season. Ellerbe helped settle down a rush defense that allowed 184.5 rushing yards per game during a four game stretch from October to November.
According to Pro Football Focus, against the run Ellerbe was solid, with 23 of his 35 solo tackles resulting in a defensive stop. Coming on 223 snaps against the run, that was good enough for a Run Stop Percentage of 10.3, tied for 14th among players at his position.
A look at his stats for the season shows Ellerbe with six missed tackles in the regular season, and five of them came against receivers in coverage. With just one missed tackle from 47 attempted against the run, Ellerbe was PFF’s fifth-most efficient tackler at his position in that regard.
Where Ellerbe really made his money was rushing the passer and the Dolphins play in the same division with Tom Brady. So paying Ellerbe seven million per season was a necessity for them.
Once again, according to PFF, Ellerbe had five sacks, four hits and nine hurries from just 79 snaps as a pass rusher. His Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) was the best among PFF’s inside linebackers. That number could have been even more impressive if it were not for injuries slowing down the former undrafted Georgia Bulldog. Five of his 18 total pressures did come unblocked, but if you look back at his play as a pass rusher on the season, his quickness at the line of scrimmage from the snap allowed him to put pressure on quarterbacks almost instantly.
His quickness made him appear to be off-sides on almost every play. Like Anquan Boldin, the Ravens would not be Super Bowl Champions without the play of Ellerbe, but he did struggle in pass coverage this season. The Focus says teams targeted Ellerbe for 369 yards and 220 yards after the catch in the regular season.
The Ravens have seen Ellerbe every day for the past four seasons and they have had more than enough of a sampling size to know or feel he was not worth that type of investment. Losing Ellerbe was a shock to the Ravens, they fully expected him to be back but they also had a chance to match the Dolphins offer and did not. That tells me all I need to know after watching this front office conduct business the way it has during the past 17-seasons.
Even more ridiculous was the five year, $40 million contract ($8 million per) the Cleveland Browns paid to Paul Kruger. The Ravens second round pick in 2009, 57th overall from Utah was a part-time player who came in mostly on pass rushing situations. Granted, he led the Ravens with nine sacks this past season but once Terrell Suggs went down with injury before the season started, he was expected to.
Kruger, like Ellerbe earned his deal. He did some nice things for the Ravens while on the field. Aside from leading the team in sacks, Kruger had 55 quarterback pressures in the regular season, while no other Baltimore linebacker had more than 21. His 20 pressures in the playoffs was double the total of any of his teammates. He tortured rookie QB Andrew Luck with five hurries, three hits, and three sacks in the Ravens’ Wild Card victory, and tallied two of their three sacks in the Super Bowl, according to PFF. Like Ellerbe, Kruger capitalized on his chance to start this season. Unlike Ellerbe, Kruger had shown this potential before as a backup.
Pro Football Focus says, “Playing in just 31.1 percent of the Ravens’ snaps last season, Kruger had 8.9 Pass Rushing Productivity and generated 29 quarterback pressures. His two best grades of the season came in games when he played in 48.8% and 55.9% of Baltimore’s defensive snaps. Rather than a small sample size, this is the case of a promising pass rusher turning into one of the leagues best when he was finally given the opportunity.”
With all of that said, it is easier to find more flaws in Kruger’s game and that is why the Ravens publically stated that Ellerbe and not Kruger, would be the priority once the Flacco contract was finished.
Kruger struggled against the run. He repeatedly failed to set the edge in the running game and, if were not for the play of rookie Courtney Upshaw, who was one of the Ravens best run defenders this past season, this defense could have really been trouble. Kruger’s best game against the run this past season came in Kansas City but as a team, Baltimore allowed the Chiefs to rack up 214-rushing yards during the contest, a 9-6 Ravens win.
Kruger tied Adalius Thomas’ club record with at least one sack during five straight games and Ellerbe’s departure leaves the Ravens extremely thin at inside linebacker. With the Lewis retirement, Jameel McClain’s neck injury, Josh Bynes’ inexperience and Brendon Ayanbadejo’s age (36), it is likely the Ravens will look to sign a value-based player and then draft a player for the long run.
Consider this fact when feeling down on the Ravens for allowing both Kruger and Ellerbe to get away. The two combined to make just 21 starts during their time in Baltimore and will now make a combined $75 million over the next five years. I do not think the Ravens would have been considered fiscally responsible if they had done that.
Plus, ask yourself this Ravens fans, would rather have kept Kruger, Ellerbe and Anquan Boldin and let Joe Flacco walk via free agency? That’s what I thought. That would have been considered one of the greatest front office misses in NFL history. While it is true that the Ravens allowed two of their more promising young stars to leave via free agency and it appears one, Ellerbe caught them by surprise; this defense was not dominating or scaring anyone last season.
The Ravens defense got better as the season went along because they got healthier. This was a defense that was described as old, and inexperienced in areas. However, the defense was also a big reason they won the Super Bowl. They held Andrew Luck without a TD, limited Peyton Manning to 21-points in Denver and shutout the best offense in the NFL during the second half of the AFC Championship game.
By the time it was all said and done, this was a defense that ranked out of the top 10 for the first time in nine seasons by finishing 17th in the NFL, 20th versus the run. Those are not Baltimore like numbers. Numbers Ozzie Newsome will aim to improve upon whether in the draft or throughout the rest of free agency.
With five consecutive playoff appearances, the current Super Bowl Champions currently own the longest active postseason streak in the NFL. They have done so by almost completely turning over the roster it began the streak with back in 2008.
Even more impressive is that the Ravens have won at least playoff game during every year their current run. Ozzie Newsome has had the same blueprint for success every season since the team arrived from Cleveland and he is not going to ignore it now.
Every Ravens fan said the number one priority this off-season was signing Joe Flacco to a contract without having to franchise him. Mission accomplished.
Don Banks from SI points out that, “Ozzie Newsome is capable of providing the Ravens with the type of versatility and adaptability every franchise covets for it roster.”
They won with defense in 2000, as the Ravens offense chipped in when necessary. In 2012, they won the Super Bowl on the arm of Joe Flacco, as the defense chipped in when necessary. Banks pointed out this morning that the Ravens are not a sentimental organization. He is right, the trading of Anquan Boldin, who wouldn’t help the team with the salary cap and the fact that they were willing to let Ray Lewis walk four years ago when they told him to go and test the market is proof of that.
Lewis of course returned to finish his career as a Raven Ironically, Ed Reed is experiencing that type of tough love as I write this. Newsome has never allowed his emotions to interfere with his decision making process. The Ravens watched homegrown talent get rich yesterday, as Ellerbe and Kruger left for big contracts. Today, they cut Bernard Pollard. They could still lose Reed, Bryant McKinnie and Carey Williams. Just another offseason in Baltimore, maybe not but it is one that the Ravens will find a way to overcome.
The Ravens have lost good starting players in the past. Ben Grubbs and outside linebacker Jarret Johnson bolted last season, and of course you know the list, which includes Bart Scott, Willis McGahee and many-many others. Baltimore fans were angry when Jets head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was standing in Scott’s back yard the minute free agency started at midnight back in 2009. How ironic that while he was off in New York watching Tim, Tebowing on the sidelines, Scott may be back in Baltimore watching the very team he left for greener pastures get their second Super Bowl ring.
Newsome will not allow this team to enter into salary cap hell, he has a vision and operates off a firm blueprint.. It is almost surprising he was not a Hall of Fame running back in his career with all the vision Newsome has. He’s been the architect of two Super Bowls in 12 seasons and he intends to leave the blue print to his already handpicked successor, the highly sought after Eric DeCosta, the team’s assistant GM.
The Ravens have three playoff appearances, two division titles, two conference championship berths, and one Super Bowl win since the 2010 season kicked off.
Newsome did not sit idle yesterday and immediately went to work on improving the middle of the Ravens defense, which the Ravens GM said was a major concern during the team’s end of the year press conference. The Ravens signed New York Giants defensive tackle Chris Canty to a three-year $8 million contract, with $2.8 million guaranteed. Canty is huge at 6-foot-7 and 320-pounds. His long arms, quickness and high-speed motor have made him a presence in opponent’s backfields at times. He was slowed last year because of a knee injury but started nine games for the Giants in 2012 and recorded three sacks.
What will be fun to watch is Canty and Ray Rice posing. Each player raises their arms showing their big guns after making a good play. Rice usually after a touchdown.
I ended an article the other day by quoting the Bob Marley song, “Everything’s Gonna Be All right”. After the first day of free agency and the with second day starting by cutting Pollard, Ravens fans are in full panic mode.
So today, I end with the help of Third Eye Blind in saying, “Wish you would step back from that ledge my friend”. And I’ll use Mr. Marley for a chorus today and say once again, “Everything is gonna be alright”.
Let the Ravens front office do their job. A job that since 2000 has resulted in winning 60.5 percent of their games, 68 Pro Bowl appearances from it players, eight playoff appearances, three division titles, and two Super Bowl Championships. Have faith, Ozzie and company deserve it and have earned it.
Be sure to join Stephen Shoup and myself on Thursday for a special edition of the Friday Night Football Frenzy on the FANSPEAK RADIO NETWORK. We will recap free agency and what needs to happen going forward with remaining free agents. We will break down the deals that have been done and, which team over paid for what player.
We will continue to break down the NFL Draft and preview the college football offseason.
Showtime is 8:30—And remember the show is tomorrow night instead of Friday. There will be no show on Friday this week.