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Ravens Insider: Mike Preston: Pay Justin Madubuike? Draft a tackle? What Ravens need to do to keep Super Bowl window open. | COMMENTARY


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NFL free agency doesn’t officially begin until March 11, but the backroom channels from ownership to agents are always open.

It’s a league that never sleeps, and there are always private negotiations regarding future deals. On Feb. 2, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said he didn’t subscribe to the idea of windows opening and closing in regard to the development of players and creating championship teams.

To an extent, he is correct, and few would disagree that the Ravens had the best team during the 2023 season. But they were outplayed, outcoached and lacked discipline in a 17-10 home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game.

“I’d like to believe that with careful roster building and good drafting and development of players, the window is going to always be open,” DeCosta said.

For the Ravens to remain in contention and finally reach the Super Bowl, here are some suggestions for the 2024 season.

The NFL draft is April 25-27 in Detroit, and the Ravens need to select a quality offensive tackle and a good outside wide receiver.

Does it make a difference in what order? No, because the Ravens should be able to find a receiver even with the No. 30 overall pick in the first round, and teams can usually select a solid offensive lineman in the second or middle rounds.

The Ravens already have two good tight ends in Isaiah Likely and Mark Andrews and a versatile slot receiver in Zay Flowers. Rashod Bateman can provide depth inside or outside, but the Ravens need a big, fast receiver on the outside. That weakness showed up against Kansas City when the Chiefs stacked the line of scrimmage to shut down the run and dared the Ravens to beat them on the outside.

They couldn’t.

“I love the guys we have coming back,” DeCosta said of the receivers. “I think ‘Bate’ is going to have a great season, and we have Zay. We’ll talk to guys and look at potentially bringing guys back, but I feel really good about where we are. We also saw the emergence of Isaiah this year, and we know, of course, what Mark can do.

“We’ve also got the draft, and like I said, we’ll have conversations with our free agents, as well, and we’ve already started those conversations in some cases. So, I would expect the receiver room to be very strong next year and very productive.”

Kansas City Chiefs Trent McDuffie breaks up a pass intended for Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in the 4th quarter. The Baltimore Ravens lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 17-10 in the AFC championship at M&T Bank Stadium. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)
Chiefs cornerback Trent McDuffie breaks up a pass intended for Ravens wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in the fourth quarter of the AFC championship game at M&T Bank Stadium. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

The Ravens don’t need to re-sign wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. He’s a nice guy and worked well with young players, but he didn’t deliver enough big plays (35 catches, 565 yards, three touchdowns during the regular season) to warrant the $15 million he made in 2023. The same can be said for veteran Nelson Agholor (35 catches, 381 yards, 4 TDs), who was a good leader and a solid performer as well.

An emphasis should be on rebuilding the offensive line. The unit performed well running the ball (No. 1 in the NFL), but the Ravens allowed 41 sacks, and that’s with a quarterback as elusive as Lamar Jackson. Their starting guards, John Simpson and Kevin Zeitler, are both free agents. Zeitler is a tough guy who can run and pass block and should be offered a new deal, but Simpson is expendable, and the Ravens might consider waiving right tackle Morgan Moses for a cheaper, younger player.

The other problem is left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who’s projected to have a salary cap hit of $26 million in 2024. Because of a series of injuries over the past few seasons, the Ravens should renegotiate Stanley’s deal and point out that a starter making that much money shouldn’t be sharing the position with reserve Patrick Mekari like he did at the end of the season.

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens just need to ante up and pay defensive lineman Justin Madubuike, who could command $20 million per year. He was sixth on the team in tackles (56) and led the Ravens in sacks (13) and quarterback hits (33). He has done everything asked of him since being drafted four years ago, and yes, he is worth that kind of money.

Both inside linebacker Patrick Queen and outside linebacker-defensive end Jadeveon Clowney might be out of the Ravens’ price range, especially since the team signed Jackson and middle linebacker Roquan Smith to lucrative contract extensions last offseason.

Queen’s development was slowed by the team asking him to play in the middle instead of the weak side, but the 2020 first-round pick has played well since Smith joined the Ravens last November. Clowney, 30, had 9 1/2 sacks this past season. Both should command big contracts on the free agent market, putting pressure on young outside linebackers Odafe Oweh and David Ojabo.

The situations might be the same with both running back Gus Edwards and safety Geno Stone. With Edwards, the concern is whether the Ravens are truly committed to the run after he and Justice Hill received a combined six carries against Kansas City. Stone, though, is a smart player and other teams will be interested in him because of his production and strong work ethic. He finished fifth on the team in tackles with 66 and had an AFC-leading seven interceptions.

“We’ll know what’s best for us to do. It’s something that we haven’t just started thinking about, obviously,” DeCosta said. “Justin had a great year, as did Patrick Queen. Those two guys obviously are Pro Bowlers who had great seasons, and we’ll have a good plan in place for those guys.”

Is there any panic about potentially losing so many key players? Hardly.

“We’ve started talking to agents [and] looking at the crop of free agents that are out there, but mostly [looking] at our guys, and who can we bring back, and what’s that contract going to look like, and what will those long-term ramifications be, as well. At some point, you get to the point where you have to play with who you have, and you have to draft well, and you have to hit on players, and we’ve done that the last couple of years. We’ve seen the emergence of a lot of younger players, and that’s going to continue. We’ve got a great process.”

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